Friday, September 14, 2018

Too many cooks

I end up playing father-confessor after concerts a lot.

"You know, I used to play the piano, but I quit. I wish I were still playing."

I don't happen to think this is actually true; much of this is just a polite attempt to have something to say, to forge a connection. Which, I suppose, is revealing.

It isn't that the speaker doesn't occasionally wish they could play the piano; probably they don't think about it that often, except in moments like these, but there is probably some genuine regret in not being able to play.  The idea of just being able to sit down and toss something off after a long day probably holds a grass-is-greener romanticism, but if a magic diva descended from Altissimus and instantly granted the ability to play like Horowitz, many of these folks would probably still only touch the piano once a year. Or so. I know because I've heard stories like that (without the magic diva).

Being able to play the piano is different from actually playing the piano. Being able to play is basically to display your credentials. This is what drives human beings. Showing your stuff.

The other week after a wedding when that young man came up to us and mentioned that he played the piano (self-taught) and the pastor said he could use the piano, I knew exactly what he was going to play, because it is the same as 11-year old self-taught boys everywhere. The first nine notes of Beethoven's Fur Elise and the first four measures of the Moonlight Sonata. Somehow it has become known in the pipeline that being able to play those pieces shows a high level of accomplishment. And they are conveniently possible to learn without reading music. And short. You leave off before the piece gets hard. Nobody wants to hear the rest anyway. You've made your point. You can play. That's the logic as I understand it.

The point being that you are important because look what you can do! Because everybody goes gaga over the pianist with the fast fingers and the playing from memory and don't we all want to be the center of attention?

This harsh analysis of human motives would explain why few people are likely to take up my challenge.

When people express regret at not being able to play I tell them that musicians like myself need people like them to come to concerts because otherwise we'd all be playing to empty rooms. Listeners are important. They support us. And music is about more than executing it anyhow. It needs to be understood, and enjoyed, and encouraged. It is a skill to be cultivated by listening and supporting. And it is important. It is vital.

This is an uphill battle. You can't sit down and prove to everybody in the room in a few seconds that you know how to listen to sonata form. Or that you can appreciate national dance forms in the music of Bach. Those things will make you a better listener, which will make your own experiences more enjoyable, and cause you to patronize artists who are setting the bar higher. But they don't, apparently, give you the power to command attention. Not the obvious kind.

Power is a strange thing. I recently came across my essay on Mendelssohn, which I'm going to post on next month. Mendelssohn's dilemma, according to one biographer, was that he needed to please his father by overtaxing himself as a conductor and neglecting his own needs as a composer. His father didn't think much of composing, but waving a stick around and getting people to do what you say every moment, now, that is impressive! It is true that, in the main, people regard performers much more highly than composers. When persons like Mozart did both, they got much more respect for their performances than for their compositions.

But if you think about it, you realize that an entire symphony orchestra may be watching one person's stick change direction, but everybody, including the conductor, is following the marks on the page, and doing what the composer said to do. The composer may not be visible or in the room at all. They may have been dead for centuries. But they are the one causing everybody to do what they are doing. Even the conductor. The one front and center getting all the attention. Odd, isn't it?

Everybody has a role to play. Some of those roles are quite visible. But they shouldn't be confused with being the most significant roles, necessarily, and certainly not the only ones. Patrons of the arts come to mind. People who fund the symphony and the arts organizations. People who will not only tolerate Schubert, they will be moved by him. In a small audience after a lot of preparation and a great performance by a hard working pianist, that person who is able to ask an eager question, show appreciation for the music itself and not just the flying digits, let the performer know that they did more than impress the audience with pretty sounds for a few minutes and then overstay their welcome, but forged a real connection through art.

So if you used to play the piano and quit, you can feel like a failure if you want to. I can't control that. But not everybody was made to play the piano. I played T-ball one year and stopped after that, and I don't go up to major league ballplayers and tell them that I used to play and I quit and I'm really sorry I did. I don't feel it necessary. It takes all kinds. And the folks who don't play the piano any more can still do something that many people who do play aren't able to do. Really get into the music. Really understand the music. Realize it isn't just about showing off your fingers or your resume, or playing fast and loud in order to impress. Go to concerts. Support musicians. Love what you are hearing. Probe, be curious. Learn.

Be alive!

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