JT's Scribblings

a.k.a. a blog of some description.

What Makes a True Pianist?

Saturday July 11th 2015, at 9:12 pm

Let me start this post by saying that I'm fairly good at playing the piano. I can't tell you exactly how good because I stopped taking the Associated Board exams very early — I didn't like the pieces and wanted to focus on playing what I loved. I did play the Grieg Piano Concerto in my final concert at school though, so that gives you an idea. It doesn't really matter. Point is I'm fairly good. I certainly wouldn't describe myself as anything more, like “really good” or “virtuoso” or anything like that, though. I certainly wouldn't call myself a pianist. Yes, I play the piano, but I'm not a Pianist. And that's the point of what I want to explore.

I recently had a fairly long and protracted conversation with my family about Things I Can Do With My Life. Most of the conversation is irrelevant, but one part really got me thinking. My mother was adamant that, if I put my mind to it and practise hard enough, I could be a Really Great Pianist if I wanted to. I, on the other hand, was staunchly of the opinion that, no matter how much I practised or how hard I tried, I simply don't have what it takes to be a Proper Pianist. But that got me thinking: if there really is a particular quality that makes a pianist great, and I'm so sure I don't possess it, what actually is it?

When someone sits down and starts playing the piano, you can usually tell pretty much instantly whether they're a Pianist with a capital P, or just someone playing the piano. Sorry, that's the best way I can think to describe it. When you see and hear a Pianist play, there's a certain quality, a certain je ne sais quoi about them and the way that they play that makes you think “yes, this is right. They're a Pianist”. And, if you're someone like me, “yeah, I really don't play at all like that do I?”. It probably varies quite subjectively, like I guess some people may look at me playing and think I have this magical something while simultaneously I'm thinking to myself that I don't.

I've been thinking a lot about what this something might be, and the best conclusion I can come to is that the more you think about it, the harder it becomes to identify.

Perhaps it's technical ability. Surely if someone has the ability to play a piece note-perfect then that's got to count for something, right? Well yeah, it counts for something, but that's definitely not it. You can possess all the technical ability in the world and still not be playing pianistically, likewise I've seen people I'd certainly regard as Proper Pianists bungle notes from beginning to end of a piece and I'd still say they play better than me.

Maybe it's the ability to make it look easy. This is basically the same as technical ability — if I practised day and night I could certainly make anything I play look easy. I still firmly believe that wouldn't give me that Something that'd make me a Pianist though.

Maybe, then, it's the ability to “feel” the music, to be able to pour that emotion into one's playing? This is definitely getting closer to it, although again I'll defer to my own example. I doubt that anyone who knew me in the weeks leading up to my playing the Grieg all those years ago would dispute that I felt all the emotions of that piece. Boy, did I feel that piece. But still, even with that, and even though I gave a technically good performance, I still believe it lacked Something.

At the end of the day I can't put my finger on what it is that means one is a Pianist. I think the best I can come up with is that it's to do with how thought actually goes into moving the fingers and pressing the keys. A True Pianist doesn't think at all (or gives the illusion that he doesn't) about where his hands go and what notes he plays. Everything just flows. The je ne sais quoi I'm searching for boils down to a certain degree of naturalness. When a Pianist puts his hands to the keyboard, it's just Right. It's Proper and Natural that his hands belong on the keyboard and the notes flow from there.

I'm over-thinking it I know. I have a bit too technical a mind to think about something like this, I think. And I think that's the reason I don't consider myself a True Pianist. When I play, I have to think about what I'm doing. Yes, I can feel the emotion of a piece, and I can let it flow to a certain extent, but for the large part I always have to concentrate quite hard to make that happen. And I think this is something wired in my brain that won't change with any amount of practice or dedication.

So that's the answer. What makes a True Pianist? I don't know. Some kind of natural rightness about their playing.

All through this I've been talking about pianists and playing the piano. But in reality it applies to pretty much everything. Like elsewhere in the arts — I'm not all that great at drawing. I could probably practise and teach myself and learn how to be much better at drawing, but that wouldn't make me an Artist. In other performing arts as well — what makes a great actor or a great comedian? You can certainly pick out those who have it and those who don't, but as soon as you try to nail down what actually constitutes being great at any of these things, you're in for a hard time. Sure there's plenty of qualities you need in order to be great, but I'm fairly convinced that you can be in possession of all of these qualities you care to write down and still be missing that unquantifiable Something Else.

It's not just arty things though. The same occurs in academia too, although perhaps more on a sliding scale. I'm in the fun position of being able to see both sides of the “wow, they really have that Something. I certainly don't”. Back in school, I was a Proper Nerd. Maths was my thing. I was great at it. Could do pretty much everything you chucked my way. I had that Something. I was a True Mathematician. The word “genius” was definitely used, I won't deny it. If anything it helps prove my point. That's how I was seen back then. And various people still seem to hold me in that regard, despite my protestations. Anyway, then I went to Cambridge and discovered a whole load of people for whom I have that regard of “woah, you really are something else. I'm nothing in comparison to that”. And, try as I might, I will never be That Good. It's one of the reasons I didn't continue to do a Master's or PhD or anything like that.

Just as often I see people who really don't have that Something Or Other and sometimes it's heartbreaking. There're few things worse than enduring a performance from a “comedian” who Just Isn't Funny, or trying to teach or tutor someone who you just know that, despite a huge amount of dedication and determination, will never have What It Takes. It's the worst thing in the world when you have to tell someone that, especially if they don't realise it themselves.

Well, that turned into a bit of a brain-dump towards the end there. I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make here. In so many fields there's a certain undefinable Something that constitutes someone's ability to be Great at it. And more often that not, you either have it or you don't. Just don't try to define it, because you'll end up writing a thousand-word blog post about it.