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The Epiphany of the Pianist


The last two years have seen an almost complete stagnation in my piano skills. Partly this is because my time to practice has been almost non-existent – with work all night and class all day, I am left with about three hours free, which I use to sleep. Also, my interest in classical music has been on the wane lately, so even on those rare occasions when I play the piano I become very easily distracted by improvising and composing, things that make me much happier. I have submitted my materials to become a composition major, and I really hope I get in, because I am seriously becoming sick of being a piano major. I never thought I’d see the day when I would feel this way about it. I still adore the instrument, but more as a tool to realize the music inside me, to express myself directly, rather than to learn and replicate what someone else has composed, and that hundreds of others before me have already learned and replicated hundreds of times. I really can’t even bring myself to touch my assigned pieces just now.

A friend on the Facebook page adds, “That is the artist in you crying out for creativity.” Why in our civilization, when training in the art is more widely accessible than ever before, should the artist within be crying to be heard? A possible answer may lie in the efficiency of the structure of curriculum requirements, degree descriptions, and credit hours that enables schools of music to communicate with other schools of music. Add to this the agreed upon repertoire requirements, “juries,” approval auditions, and standards of performance within applied music divisions, all with the laudable intent to graduate competent, well-rounded musicians, and in large numbers. However, there are potential side effects. It is difficult to separate grades from comparisons, and comparisons from uniformity. Uniformity requires replicating, to use the writer’s term; all in all, efficiency is not always a friend of creativity.

The thought awakens the memory of Alexander Ringer – internationally recognized musicologist and Holocaust survivor – accusing the piano division in the U of I School of Music of teaching skills but not what makes the music tick. Intellectual curiosity about what makes the music tick keeps interpretation always in flux, as opposed to performance in which every choice has been decided and rehearsed to be reproduced under stress. Of course, there is replication of patterns in improvisation, as also there can be both replicating and creativity in the applied studio, adjusted student to student.

The writer of the soul-searching lines that inspired this article will be a fortunate survivor. The artist within will not be silenced. For this reason, he might be receptive to considering the human dimension of “applied music.” We teach how, and very well, but less often why, referring not only to the composer’s reason for choosing this or that note, but to the deepest reason for investing one’s life in being a musician.

After living among peers who share one’s values, an aloneness attaches to the diploma that one takes into the world off campus of fellow human beings who don’t understand the meaning of one’s language. Why cannot the society in which I live appreciate the depth of soul in Op. 111? Why can’t they hear what is missing in Renowned Pianist X who plays all over the world but remains strangely unmoved by musical thought?

It is a human predicament treated by Thomas Mann in his Tonio Kröger. The character Tonio is the son of a stern German businessman and his sensual Latin wife, a marriage of opposites within which Tonio is drawn to his mother’s culture. As a teenager his preoccupation with literature and music (he plays the violin) cannot be shared with his schoolmates. As an adult and a writer of fiction, Tonio’s severe self-discipline of craft prevents acceptance by the artistic elite who consider his work lacking in fantasy. In a letter to his painter friend Lisaweta, Tonio writes that he stands between two worlds and is at home in neither. The artist circle see him as a bourgeois who has strayed into art, while the social class from which he came have no understanding of what it means to be a writer. Tonio realizes that if he, a literary person, is to become a poet, it will be through the love of the everyday in which he grew up. Without this love, he tells Lisaweta, he will be only a “sounding brass and a tinkling bell.” Listening to the roaring of the sea, he closes his eyes and sees “a throng of shadows of human figures who beckon me to entrance and redeem them.”

One’s work as a musician can entrance, but how can it be redemptive? The late Lili Kraus had obviously thought long about this before she was interviewed in the New York Times many years ago. She said that the listener who has been moved by a Beethoven sonata has experienced grace. The pianist who is swept up by the untamed spirit in the music risks the shame of falling apart… Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach’s remark that the player who does not risk shame will never move anyone is pertinent here. The listener, moved that one should lay aside professional pride for the boundlessness of the music, forgives the player for shortcomings, and between them is exchanged a sense of grace.

It is here being submitted that this redemptive exchange of grace is the purpose, the ultimate answer to the unmentioned “why” of one’s schooling, the hours of practice replicating the mechanical to free the creative, and the idealism that sustains one’s calling.


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