Am I a good musician?

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Am I a good musician? From the most humble and sincere to the most pompous and egotistical of us, we all asked this dreaded question at some point in our lives.

Even when we had a horribly snobby expression next to our fellow musicians or laughed ironically about an inferior performer to us, deep inside us we all had the doubt that we might not have been good enough. In-between sarcastic remarks about “bad” teachers and caustic comments behind the backs of our, otherwise, great friends, we all felt that maybe we could have been better equipped as artists. Does this remind you of something?

So, do you expect from me to state whether you are a good musician or not? Well, yes, you are a good musician. You are not not only a good musician, but you are an excellent musician. You are a phenomenal musician.

Do you think I am being sarcastic? No, I’m not in the least sarcastic. I’m writing the truth. And here’s how I know the truth.

First, it’s imperative to understand that there is no such thing as a “bad” musician. Good or bad in music doesn’t exist. In music there is only currently-acceptable and currently-unacceptable. And I’m not talking about wrong notes, memory lapses, inadequate technique and the rest of musical things the inexperienced musician anticipates and longs for. In order to declare that someone is playing or singing acceptably, you must compare them with someone or something that you think is acceptable. But how do you know the other person is acceptable? What gives you this conviction. How do you know how baroque music should sound, for instance? You know that the other person is better by comparing them with the musical zeitgeist*.

The musical zeitgeist dictates what is right or wrong at any given time. But the thing is that this musical zeitgeist is constantly changing. So whatever you pompously advocate is “right” now, it will keep changing slowly to the point of even becoming “wrong” in the future. For example, your playing the first study by chopin like a frantic train might not be “right” in a few decades. Or, your absolute certainty that this passage should be played in a particular way will undoubtably change in the grand scheme of things.  However, as a rule, the musical zeitgeist changes music performance to the better.

All musicians are good (Sorry to all the self-important “virtuosos”). We must try to understand this. All musicians have something beautiful to say because they all have something different to say. That’s the beauty of music. What might sound wrong to an “expert”, might sound interesting to a “semi-expert” and even nice to a “non-expert”.

If all musicians followed a specific interpretational path then music would have been boring. If all played or sung or composed in a similar way then there wouldn’t be anyone to express their musical judgement either. That also means that the critics wouldn’t have a job. You need to understand that all types of “critics”, from the established ones to the everyday listeners, thrive inside the very system of non musical equality.

So, am I saying that there are not better and worse pianists? Am I saying that you are not better than your friend who is also a pianist in the conservatoire? Am I saying that your performance on Youtube is not better that someone else’s or your final recital wasn’t better than your pianist-nemesis? No, no at all. I’m only trying to express that even the musician who you think needs improvement has something nice to show as well. I’m also trying to advocate that even a teacher needs to know that their student may not have the desired technical artistry just yet, but what they can play right now has its merits too; because, as I said before, the consensus of what is right or wrong keeps changing.

In a way, “bad musicians” are too the predecessors of the future musical zeitgeist.

A good teacher would know that there is no bad musician and that there is no bad student. Yes, a student might not listen to the teacher and might do his own thing which might be wrong. But, a student will become the future teacher and musician too, and through his own past mistakes and personal eccentricities will too sculpt the musical zeitgeist.

So, do believe it; You are a good musician.

*Zeitgeist: Definition from Google here.

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(c) Nikos Kokkinis, 24/11/2012.

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Is being a musician worth it?

Hello! This is one of our most read articles that has helped a lot of pianists. You could help this website grow a bit more by liking us on Facebook on the right. Many thanks.

 
For pianists and other musicians!

I have been asked this question many times from students, from friends and from people that hear me play the piano.

In my opinion being a musician is great! I’m a pianist; I love music and I love the piano.

I love instruments. I love the violin for its wonderful, piggy sound,  I love the oboe, I adore the clarinet I admire the artistry of the music technology people. I like music. I love it.

I just can’t imagine myself doing something different. When you are a pianist and a piano teacher like me, you get to see lovely faces, happy faces all the time and they come to you when they are ready to create. How good is that? Compared to a doctor, of course, that only sees sad faces; except when he is giving the news of the death of someone’s mother-in-law.

But being a pianist or any other type of musician is not for all.

If you want a straightforward job, a square job, then don’t become a musician. It’s not an easy profession; it’s hard. Music is for those who want to “suffer” all their lives; but suffer in a good way. I know music is hard, but somehow I like it. It’s strange, isn’t it?

When you are about to decide what to do in your life or you are making a career choice, you must think carefully. You need to tackle a few important questions if you choose to become a musician, such as: Is music for you? Do you really like your instrument that much that you are willing to play it in the longer term? Do you like playing with others, especially with difficult cases such as singers  for instance, that like to pull stunts before concerts? Do you like traveling? Do you like traveling in not so nice places (usually)? Would you mind not having a regular income (in many cases)? Would you mind chasing people to give you your payment for the lessons that you taught weeks or even months ago?

Because, let’s face it. If you are not a top, top virtuoso, chances are that you might have to answer some of the questions above.

I never try to persuade my students to become musicians. I leave it to them; I never advocate it. I might ask what they would like to do after school, when they are 17 or 18 years old, but I never try to talk them into becoming musicians. If they say to me that they want to become pianists or work in the music industry, fine. I will help them, as much as I can, to realize their potential; but only if they express the desire.

As you may understand, pushing someone to do something is never nice, especially when it comes to important decisions in life.   If someone is eager to become a musician, I know it. I can sense it like the eagle senses its pray, I can see it in the eyes, I can hear it the voice and I can feel it in their performances. I just know. The reason is because I used to be one of those eager people.

I remember that I was dying to become a musician since I first started keyboard lessons and I constantly did things to achieve it. My teachers knew it too, not because I was the best of students when it came down to musical performance, but they knew it because I always tried my best. And I NEVER missed a lesson in all my years as a student. Does it sound impossible? Well, it’s the truth. You can ask my piano teachers. Even when I had the flu, or suffering with ear aches, severe stomach pains or high fever, I would still go to my piano lesson.

At the same time I would not accept when people tried to discourage me; even when they were realistic and right I would ignore them. I would pretend I listened to them but somehow I would think that they didn’t “know” me. I would say to myself   that they didn’t “understand” my potential. I was naive, yes, but I only listened to the ones that believed in me. I only appreciated the ones that even though they may have known I wasn’t a fine musician they would still encourage me. The rest?   They were history.

Of course, I was also blessed to have studied with amazing teachers and pedagogues, but that’s another story. To cut to the chase, I have been lucky.

Because luck plays a very important role in our lives; especially when taking decisions. When you are about to make a career choice , luck can play an important role. Because if I didn’t go to a pivotal concert many years ago and instead went to the theatre to see a friend playing a “tree”, maybe my life would have been completely different today. At the time I didn’t know what was the right thing to do. Go to a piano recital, or go see my friend play a tree? I couldn’t decide. I felt guilty for not going to watch my friend’s role, but I knew that I just had to go to that recital. It was fate. By sheer luck I chose to go and this changed my life. I got inspired and that night I made some serious decisions about what I wanted to do in my life; just in a couple of hours. Funny, isn’t it?

It was pure luck too when my father traveled to Athens for his work when I was 7 years old and was urged by my mother to buy me a tiny keyboard for a Christmas present. This gave me the opportunity to start learning some tunes by ear before I went on to start my first keyboard lessons. Moreover, luck it was when a well respected pianist and teacher heard me playing the keyboard in an exam when I was 12 and suggested I should   pick up piano instead, because I had “talent”. This and that and the other thing; the list of luckiness is long.

So you need to be lucky. But remember! In order to be lucky, you have to “call” the goddess of fortune and luck; you have to put yourself in the situation to be lucky. Since, if I didn’t like playing the keyboard at all, and wasn’t playing well   on that particular exam, that teacher wouldn’t have appreciated my keyboard playing.

But with luck, comes failure. I have failed countless times in my quest of becoming a musician. And because of those important failures – that are many more than the successes – I appreciate even more the fact that I can play the piano today and teach my wonderful students.

Failure is an essential part of living fully and successfully. So when deciding if you want to become a musician you need to welcome failure as much as being ready to greet success.

Be prepared to experience sleepless nights thinking that you didn’t deserve to be rejected on that audition. Be prepared to “swallow” that your friend played worst than you in that piano competition, but he got through to the next round and you didn’t. Be ready, to be let down by many years of friendship that went astray when your friend didn’t tell you about that orchestral audition and you didn’t get the place as a violinist. (You remember that Stelio? That’s for you). Yes… be ready to be let down… a lot.

But after the dust settles, and the “night” has finally departed, you may call yourself   a musician. You deserve it.

So yes:   failure, success, luck, are all part of being a musician . And all those things should be welcomed by you. As for me, somehow I like failing. I know it sounds strange but I like failing and I like failing a lot; I like it because I can say to myself that at least I tried; and because when I succeed it feels even better. I become wiser and stronger.

I might run out of cliché expressions to paraphrase in this article, but if you are not ready to go to war, don’t even start.

So, to recap:

Music is great as it is. If you want to do it, do it. I love it. If in any doubt, then think twice about it. It’s a lovely thing to be a musician but it’s also nice to just listen to it and not getting involved professionally. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t forget of course that a musician is anybody who is involved with music in one way or another, but they don’t necessarily do it as a profession; well, my friend has a different opinion and thinks that music graduates who stopped doing music after college they have “chickened out”, but I disagree.

And more importantly, please, do some practising and stop reading pointless articles! 😀

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Nikos Kokkinis

The two-step great pianist (AKA Can I become a great pianist?)

Great pianists have been the awe of audiences for millions of years. One of the first things the first primates that walked the earth asked themselves was : “can I become a great pianist?”.

The answer was obvious from the start. No. Because in life there is nothing that is really great when compared to something greater.

Greatness in one person , unfortunately for some, has to be recognized by other people. I could say, for instance, that I am a great pianist, and it could be true, but until other primates have confirmed it, then I’m not really. I have to wait for other people to assert that I am great. That was always the norm in everything we did in life.

So, in order to achieve greatness in whatever you set your mind to, you must employ different tactics and techniques. In our case – playing the piano –   you are to master two things. And if you master both then you are a great pianist.

First and foremost: You need to play fast.

Please, don’t laugh and don’t stop reading. That’s a fact. The faster you play the better. If you can’t play fast then it’s better to employ your hands to something more constructive; like making cakes or mixing concrete. Not that those two suggestions are inferior occupations for your fingers to playing the piano, but because they could be more suitable.

If you can’t move your fingers quickly, then, you are out of the greatness  game. You’re not going to become a great pianist. Period. The reason is that most people can’t move their fingers fast on the piano, so when they see someone who does that they become excited. It’s like in the circus. You get excited by the acrobatics other people can do and you can’t. So you can’t be considered an acrobat if you only walk, for instance.

Of course, fastness can be combined with a variety of things to spice up a piece, such as correct articulations, proper sound, correct note lengths, specified dynamics, successful gradations of tone etc. Yet, even if you do all of that correctly it doesn’t matter at all. You are not going to be considered great if you apply them exclusively to slow pieces. However, never mix virtuosity with accurate portrayal of the score; virtuosity with faithful representation of the composer’s instructions is vastly different.


Second and last: You need to play without mistakes.

The above sentence sums it up really clearly. Yes, the less mistakes you make the greater you will become in the ears of your lovely and gullible audiences. Again, the vast majority of pianists in the world are amateurs, and fortunately they cannot play a piece to the end without massacring it, so here is your chance to shine. The minute you stop playing with wrong notes, voila! Greatness all the way again in the ears of the amateur listener!

However, in order to achieve the things above you must do one final thing: You need to practice them hard. Start by playing virtuoso pieces without mistakes and you are done. Everybody is going to consider you great. Please, by all means, avoid slow pieces like the plaque.

What about musicality, what about style and interpretation I hear you ask with angst!

Pfffff, forget them. In my minute studies of recordings and artists I have come to realize that interpretation and all this riff-raff doesn’t really count. Everybody does their own thing when they perform   – there is no real consensus. You can see pianists play fast passages slowly and slow fast, pianissimo passages forte, legato lines wrongly and so on and so forth. You can see interpreters completely disregard the composer’s intentions and they are still considered great.

You can hear with disbelief many “great” pianists doing discrepancies but you are afraid to admit they are bad pianists, because they simply play frantically and because they play the notes correctly.

Moreover, the most paradoxical thing is that you can caught yourself thinking: “They must know what they are doing! Because they play fast and without mistakes! This surely is an interpretational choice. Who am I to judge that? I cannot even play Chopin’s first Ballad without stopping at least three hundred and forty two times.”

Yes, those pianists know exactly what they are doing, but what they are doing is wrong and often you are even less musically-equipped than them to judge that. Remember what I said before: Somebody else has to assert greatness, not the individual who is great.

So:

Frantic playing + Correct notes + Your musical-incapacity to judge= Greatness.

Some people, perhaps music critics and academics can identify the “wrongdoings” of a pianist, but who cares? They themselves are usually mediocre pianists and they are not the ones filling the concert halls. The concert halls are 95% filled with the amateurs.

I want to ask you something: Do you know any pianist that is considered great who only plays slow pieces with no mistakes? Could you imagine your favorite pianist being famous by mostly playing second movements of sonatas and not banging the piano whenever he had the chance?

Now, do you know a pianist that is considered great by mostly playing technically hard and furious pieces with the occasional wrong note? I think you can remember one or fifteen of them.

Do I sound bold, do I over-simplify things? I think yes. But that’s piano for you. So, stop over-analyze and please start simplifying things. For one, stop reading pointless articles and go back to your piano-practising!

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