10 Commandments for Professional Pianists
October 17, 2019
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This is a reprint of an article by Daniel Vnukowski in the Canadian Musician Magazine.

If you were to ask me about my strongest childhood memories, two things immediately come to mind: the piano and my school lunchbox with a blue penguin painted on its cover. All I can remember about the lunchbox was that it accompanied me everywhere I went and was made of tough tin metal, as were most lunchboxes back in the day. I distinctly remember it making quite the clangy sound when dropped inadvertently. The piano, however, has continued to dominate the core of my identity to this day. It is a unique instrument with a dynamic range like no other, capable of producing vulgar sounds of rage to heavenly whispers from an outer-worldly dimension. It is my ally and partner in crime for a couple hours each day and then again during a quick tryst at an evening concert.

Bring in a piano and in an instant, I’m possessed! I want to learn more about what makes it tick, its everyday emotional needs and understand why I’m so drawn to its magnetic charms, like bass fish to grub bait.

Yes, I could survive in the Antarctic with only a piano in sight and a few penguins roaming about. After all, pianists and penguins are both an endangered species: Penguins are dealing with the threat of global warming and melting sea ice, whereas we are battling with an unscrupulous, mass entertainment industry and the greatest foe of humanity: equal temperament tuning (at least according to Timothy Leary).

Here are the 10 commandments for surviving a career in music. They’ve been crafted with the professional pianist in mind, but can be of benefit to just about anyone studying the instrument.

1) Always remain faithful to the score.

Think of the score as a complex design, similar to the visual splendour of a butterfly’s wings. Every masterwork is filled with with a vibrant panoply of patterns, designs and colours. New patterns emerge out of familiar ones, creating a fragile interplay of wondrous beauty. Oftentimes, the underside patterns are entirely different, a feature of natural selection that has allowed the species to survive the attacks of predators over millennia.

Powerful microscopes have now revealed a butterfly’s wings to be nothing more than millions of colourless, translucent scales that work in sync to create the illusion of colour. We pianists are faced with a similar phenomenon, having to read between the hundreds of thousands of two-dimensional black dots, lines, shapes and multitude of symbols that underlie our music scores. Musicologists continue to disprove each other’s musical theories, bringing us closer and closer to the true intentions of a composer’s musical thoughts. However, it is still the responsibility of the concert pianist to ultimately bring the music to life. “But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the art resides.” Arthur Schnabel once remarked.

Approach: Take a score with you during a walk in the park and gaze at it for a couple of minutes at a time each day. You never know what mysteries you may unravel there.

2) When all else fails, read the manual.

Chamber music rehearsals are especially notorious for bouts of endless bickering and badgering, but sometimes it’s useful to simply ask what the composer had intended in the first place. “What would Beethoven have said in this situation?” Sometimes the answer to the question is blatantly obvious, especially if you are using a quality, urtext edition with a well-researched commentary. Other times, the message is less readily decrypted and it can help to demonstrate what you are after by singing out the text. Wagner’s book “On Conducting” goes into this in much more detail, providing specific examples of how entire orchestras can benefit from singing and its corresponding affect on melody and rhythm.

For example, the Moonlight sonata continues to be one of the most misinterpreted works of all piano literature, yet Beethoven provided specific instructions right from the start: to be performed delicately, pianissimo and without changing the pedal.

[Music example: L. van Beethoven, Piano Sonata “Moonlight”, Op. 27, No. 2]

Approach: When all else fails, read the manual and when the manual is not clear – sing it!

3) Don’t covet another pianist’s interpretation.

The bane of a music teacher’s existence: “But Horowitz pedals here…but Zimmerman did this…but Gould…!” In a fast-paced world such as ours, it’s easy to forget the very essence of what brought us to music in the first place: a childlike curiosity that was naturally instilled onto us during our youth. With the advent of YouTube, it’s become far too easy to snatch a few ideas from another pianist’s recording and claim them as our own. Many young pianists today have become expert imitators, which has essentially corrupted the cultural fabric and glutted the recording industry with cookie-cutter recordings.

Let’s not confuse being inspired by a recording with blatantly copying another musician’s interpretation. For example, Glenn Gould once remarked just how inspired he was by Arthur Schnabel’s 1933 recording of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, listening to it again and again in his youth. Yet, his own album of the work together with Leonard Bernstein in 1962 reveals a vastly different approach, honed by years of maturity and guarded by a distinctly “Gouldian” approach.

Approach: Work on constructing your own unique musical language and vocabulary in lieu of short-term gains.

4) Avoid excessive mannerisms.

Economical movements that employ a wide range of muscle groups are fine, so long as they serve the music. However, exaggerated physical expressions are not only counterproductive to your interpretation, but are actually warnings of a greater underlying problem. It’s actually easy to understand: we compensate whatever is missing in our interpretation with excessive movements of the body. Wailing back and forth? Check your rhythm. Kissing the keyboard? Learn to exhale. Flailing arms? Let’s talk about tone production.

Approach: Spare the facial expressions of orgasmic yearning, unless you are performing Scriabin.

5) Don’t kill the music through over-practicing, over-indulging or binging on Liszt.

C.P.E. Bach certainly had a few words of novel advice in his “Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments” when he remarked “Play from the soul, not like a trained bird!” – and that was after using over 50,000 words to explain how to play the instrument! Over-practicing is just as harmful as not practicing at all. Experts have often remarked that four daily hours of practice is considered the optimum amount, but take this with a grain of salt. Listening to your body and the quality of your interpretations is a far better way to gauge musical fatigue.

Practicing the piano requires three elements in three equal proportions in order to be most rewarding and successful: research, practice and play. “Research” involves everything from active listening to staying abreast of the latest discoveries in musicology; “Practice” is self-explanatory; “Play” is probably the most underrated, yet ironically the most widely spoken of – after all, we call it “playing piano”! The “Play” factor involves letting go of yourself entirely and immersing in less fastidious pursuits, such as improvisation, jam sessions, book readings, poetry, film, etc.

As for Liszt…Well, a few “consolations” are fine after a mojito-laden party that involves your ex, but too much Liszt is simply detrimental to maintaining a kosher relationship with the core of piano literature.

Approach: Add the following three B’s in equal proportions to your daily practice regimen: C.P.E. Bach for research, J.S. Bach for realtime-practice, P.D.Q. Bach for recreation. Respect the Sabbath day!

6) Honour your music teachers.

…but then do your own thing!

Finding a wonderful music teacher that you can truly connect with is only half the battle; working through years of misunderstandings commonly makes up the other half. In a field as complex as mastering the piano, it requires a great deal of courage to truly let go and honour your teacher’s pedagogical methods and artistic insights. Letting go entirely and trusting their approach can sometimes be the only way to fully understand it. However, understanding an approach – as much as it can add intellectual depth to the learning process – is not the same as accepting it later on in your career. Ultimately, each pianist develops his/her own approach to music interpretation over time, while developing a third eye on what to take in and what to leave out from the past.

Leon Fleisher once remarked in an interview that he had to do everything the opposite of what Arthur Schnabel had taught him, in order to reach a new level of interpretative insight.

Approach: Honour your mother and father. If they disapprove of your interpretation, that music will be jinxed for life. Otherwise, your music teacher can become a healthy alternative.

7) Don’t engage in sloppy or muddy pedalling – ever!

It begins seemingly innocuous: a touch of pedal here, a touch of pedal there and before you know it, the whole piece is swimming with pedal. There is a rigorous science behind optimal pedalling that can take years to master and it has very little to do with the variety of piano available. A well-trained pianist can get used to a foreign instrument’s pedal within minutes, but fine-tuning the precise proportions can take decades! To complicate things further, some composers, such as Debussy, rarely indicated pedal markings, while others, such as Chopin, painstakingly marked every pedal action in some works, often playing with our expectations of how one would instinctively pedal the music.
[Music example: Fr. Chopin, Prelude Op. 28, No. 5]

Approach: Use a calendar to master the fine art of pedalling: Set one day of the week, where you can reset your pedalling back to an absolute minimum; then set one day of the month where you can gush out to the extreme!

8) Record yourself – a lot!

Kristian Zimmerman does it obsessively and so does Mischa Maisky. There are simply no excuses today. Even an iPad can make a decent sound recording – enough to find any potential deficiencies inherent in one’s interpretive approach. Invest in a quality microphone if budget permits. Before the advent of such portable recording technology, even the greats yearned for feedback before important recitals: Sviatoslav Richter allegedly had to play everything through for a trusted friend before each public performance.

Music interpretation can be so complex, it is literally impossible to be able to hear every layer of sound structure reaching our ear drums while performing at the same time. We never truly know what we sound like until we stop performing and give the resultant recording an honest listen.

Approach: If you are an intellectual egghead, your recordings might help you to relax and learn to simply enjoy the music from time to time. On the other hand, if you are an egotistical eccentric, your recordings may get you into counselling quicker.

9) Take good care of your neck.

Not only for health reasons. A bad neck can thwart the natural flow of vital energy, also known as “chi” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, throughout your entire system. These blockages are detrimental to achieving that natural flow and sense of spontaneity that we musicians strive for.

Every practice session is like visiting a lab and coming up with creative solutions to complex problems at the moment. Yet, one often needs to alter brain states in order to solve certain problems. That explains why the answer to a problem often comes during the least expected moment – in the middle of the night or while putting on your pants in the morning.

Approach: Just take a break every now and then. For example, immerse your hands in ice-cold and warm water alternately, while reciting your favourite Tibetan mantra.

10) Don’t be afraid to look outside the box.

One of the greatest tragedies of Youtube, the Internet and Social Media is an urge to find the “best” interpretation of a particular work.

Don’t ever lose sight of that curiosity that got you hooked on piano in the first place. What was “best” in the 1950s can remain legendary, but a modern public is always yearning for ravishing, new interpretations of the same work.

Approach: Go vinyl! Carve out your own niche! Perform every concert like it will be your last!

BIO: Aside from touring internationally as a concert pianist, Daniel Vnukowski is also founder and artistic director of Piano Six, a pan-Canadian outreach program to bring music to remote, rural communities (www.pianosix.com), the Collingwood Summer Music Festival (www.collingwoodfestival.com) and runs a blog that follows his trials and tribulations as a musician.

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