Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On the building and deterioration of piano technique

I was never a great pianist. I wanted to be, but I started too late. I took my first piano lessons at thirteen years old and didn’t get serious until high school. There are very few great pianists who started lessons later than six. Paderewski, who started seriously at twelve, comes to mind – and in terms of technique he was never in the top echelon.

Piano technique is mostly in the brain: It’s the neurons which transmit signals to the nerves that fire the muscles in the fingers, arms, and feet – the reading center of the brain is also engaged when site reading. (Disclosure: I have never been a particularly good sight reader – I always study the score laboriously in advance before I sound it out on the piano.) Thus, with the proper training, anyone can become a competent pianist unless there is a disabling physical condition. Getting beyond the level of competence is another matter. If I had started lessons earlier, I might have been a great pianist. But there are many pianists who are technically and musically wonderful yet have difficulty eking out a living – let alone going on to a noteworthy career.

What is technique? The casual listener might think of technique as the ability to put the right finger on the right note at the right time. But there is oh so much more: Pedaling, dynamics, tone production, playing off a hall’s acoustics. Really, technique is the ability to physically project one’s musical thoughts through the instrument – whether that be the piano, violin, vocal chords, or conductor’s baton. Of course, that presupposes that the performer actually has his/her own thoughts about the music, rather than the recycled thinking of their teacher or the recordings they’ve listened to.

History is filled with pianists with remarkable technique. Relatively few of the great pianists, such as Schnabel, experienced frequent technical lapses. The list of octogenarian classical pianists is impressive as well. But while pianists are luckier than singers – as fingers hold up longer than vocal chords – very few, such as Earl Wild and Vladimir Horowitz, retained a large percentage of their technique into old age (and no one with ears and objectivity would pretend that either played on the same level in their 80s as they did in their 40s – whatever the increase in musical perception). Too many have had careers limited by occupational injuries, such as Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher – the latter has made a recent recovery. Some, such as Josef Hofmann and Ervin Nyiregyhazi had a hand in destroying their own abilities. Others, like William Kapell and Glenn Gould, died relatively young and did not face the ravages of age or physical breakdown. There is also the question of mental deterioration, including Alzheimer’s.

Then there is my own case. From the mid-1980s to the end of the 20th Century, I worked intermittently at the piano. Life often got in the way: For a time, I didn’t have access to an instrument, so I had to use practice rooms. In 1987, I had a household accident that required surgery on my right arm and it was in a sling for a while.

Technically, I peaked around 1998-99. At the time, I was working in a piano store which had very little traffic and a generous selection of printed music, and I had a lot of time on my hands. I also had a piano in my apartment: first a console I inherited from my mother, then a small grand I refurbished. My technique was never super-human, but I could play the opening measures of Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise honestly, without using the pedal to cover insufficient fingerwork – even some famous pianists have been known to bluff this passage. I could also give a passable rendition of Scriabin’s Etude in D-sharp minor. But my life outside music was empty, I had few real friends and no one to love, and I would lay awake at night in despair. So, the piano was really all I had.

My departure from the piano business in 2004 marked a precipitous decline in my technique – particularly until 2007, when I purchased a decent Yamaha digital. Even then, my practice time was but a fraction of what it was in the late ‘90s. With that in mind, do I regret leaving the piano business? No. Most of the time there I was broke. Without leaving for greener pastures, I would never have been able to afford the life I have now: the home, the travel, the very pampered dog.

Despite having a digital piano and a home of my own, there are limitations on my practice time. I have a house to clean and improve, meals to cook, a dog to care for, and a life that includes a wonderful spouse. There is also my continuing quest to put the rest of my body into shape. These days, I’m at the piano a maximum of a few hours a week – and there can be weeks that pass without my touching the keys. Do I regret any of these choices, given the reduced quality of my playing? Not for a moment. To be blunt, the piano is a part of my life, but it is not my life.

The above was confirmed to me Sunday morning, when Daniel and I spotted a piano showroom at Eton Collection in Woodmere. I didn’t have the slightest desire to go in and try the instruments.

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