The agony and ecstasy of the amateur pianist

Why piano students cry

6 minute read
Meunier, 'First Piano Lesson': Why so unhappy?
Meunier, 'First Piano Lesson': Why so unhappy?
Like the clichéd image of the frustrated golfer throwing clubs into a water hazard, the picture of the ruler-wielding piano teacher and the tearful student is iconic in our culture. In fact, my own private research has shown that somewhere in the world a student cries at a piano lesson every 21 seconds.

You don't have to be a child to feel this sort of frustrated yearning. After a recent performance, the concert pianist Maria Thompson Corley confessed in BSR that although her audience was thrilled, "I failed in the sense that I know that if I'd pushed myself a little harder, I could have been thrilled rather than merely satisfied."

Why all this anguish? Why do piano students cry more than, say, clarinet students? Why do classical musicians cry more than pop musicians?

I believe that the emotional power of the classical piano literature itself is a powerful contributing factor. The world's greatest composer-pianists"“Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, et. al."“ created all those wonderful pieces that move us so deeply. They also left behind explicit detailed instructions for recreating those works at the keyboard.

Alas, only a tiny percentage of the aspiring pianists who know and love this music possess the ability, no matter how hard they strive, to follow those instructions satisfactorily. Getting a piano to do one's bidding is for most of us, and certainly for me, a tantalizingly unattainable goal.

"It's the students who care deeply about the music who might cry," suggests Barbara Rottenberg, a Center City piano teacher (as well as the wife of BSR editor Dan Rottenberg). "I think what upsets them is that they're hearing a certain quality of sound in their heads, and they're frustrated because they can't yet get their fingers to make that sound."

My suffering audience

As an amateur pianist who practices at most an hour or two a day, I know what Maria Corley and Barbara Rottenberg mean. My audience these days consists solely of Peter Simpkins, my wonderful teacher these past 17 years; my wife, who grew up with a trumpet-practicing brother and can thus, luckily for our marriage, filter me out; and our long-suffering cat, who seems to really hate Mozart, at least when I'm playing it.

Nevertheless, the piano keyboard is where I've battled most with my musical demons— with the voices that say, "How dare you attempt that piece! You call yourself a musician?" Only in the past few years, thanks to Peter and also because age apparently does actually impart a certain measure of perspective, have I found enough peace to fully enjoy the repertory that's accessible to me and to refrain from beating myself up too much about the rest.

Which brings me back to the question I raised earlier this year (April 27): Does analytical thought add value to my own musical experience?

A fairly simple piece?

You may ask: Can Coren play at all? So I'll let you judge for yourself. Here I am playing the opening of a piece I've been revisiting lately, Brahms's B-flat minor Intermezzo, Op. 117, #2.

Sounds like a fairly simple piece, doesn't it? There's a clear melody on top, a nice solid bass line, and a continuously flowing accompaniment in the background.

On the page, though, the music looks anything but simple: its key signature has five flats; that beautiful melody is buried in a welter of ink; the left hand has to keep jumping between the low bass notes and the flowing middle voice.

Brahms's instructions

And then there are Brahms's directions. Where Bach would probably say nothing at all, and where Schubert might simply say Andante, Brahms directs Andante non troppo e con molto espressione— that is, moving along, but not too much, and with great expressiveness.

If this were Chopin, every use of the pedal would be explicit; Brahms simply says, "With pedal"— and, except for a few explicit pedalings, leaves it at that. Throughout the score, he makes numerous exhortations: dolce (sweetly), play softly, get even softer, slow down, slow waaay down!, and so on.

In short: Give your musical emotions plenty of range, use the pedal as you see fit, but above all, keep it down!

This work is also a music theorist's paradise; it would be a good basis for a graduate seminar in advanced harmonic theory. It contains modulations that put Wagner to shame and chords that would be at home in modern jazz; formally, it's something like an exquisite miniature sonata-form; it even could be argued (as Arnold Schoenberg himself in fact did) that Brahms's rigorous working out of little medodic cells foreshadows Schoenberg's serialism.

Sensuous or theoretical?

But playing the piano is, above all, an athletic activity. The job at hand is to assimilate abstract information into the sensual world of intuitive physicality. Despite my love of harmonic studies, this work's theoretical richness is of virtually no use to me in realizing Brahms's musical intentions.

Thirty or 40 years ago, when I first encountered this Intermezzo, I had the sensuous experience of feeling that melody emerge through the fourth and fifth fingers of my right hand. Today, although part of me is aware of musical form when I play, and although the harmonic structure helps me mnemonically when I'm playing from memory, it feels as if I have a separate brain tending to the melody— one that's entirely detached from my analytical self. It's a heavenly feeling.

Striving for perfection

In the end, the Brahms Opus 117 #2 isn't really all that difficult. It's nowhere near as challenging as, say, the Chopin Etudes or the big Beethoven sonatas, works I simply cannot play.

But keeping the piece under control without wrong notes from beginning to end is indeed a formidable challenge. I can get it about 90% right about 90% of the time; and 99% right about 1% of the time. I've never played it perfectly, and I never will.

And suppose I did? Suppose one afternoon at 3 o'clock, with nobody listening, I nailed it? What would Maria Thompson Corley do if she finally played the perfect concert? It's the sensual pleasure of the quest for musical perfection that nourishes us. Thank goodness perfection is unattainable.&diams

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