Am I a Good Musician?

Am I a Good Musician?

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.

Why My Piece Improves No More?

Why My Piece Improves No More?

So, you’ve managed to play the piece that you always wanted to learn. You indulged in it’s harmonic sequences and you grasped it’s inner world. You loved everything about this piece, even trivial details, such as, who played it the right speed, which famous pianist messed up it’s recapitulation or in which part of a recital it should be played.

Still, somehow you reached a point where you felt that you didn’t play it how it should be played, and that you actually couldn’t improve it. “How is that possible?” you said to yourself. “Why this piece doesn’t get any better?”, you asked your fellow musicians with angst. However, could it be possible that you can’t improve a piece? Well, yes, it can.

Here’s a few reasons for why your piece has become stale:

A) You compare your playing. You think that your interpretation doesn’t hold a candle to a performance from a favourite pianist. Well, if you compare your playing with an admired pianist’s performance you will always feel that it falls short. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that it may well be the case that your favourite pianist is vastly better that you; otherwise you wouldn’t like him, would you? It’s only natural. Every pianist has had this problem at some point in his pianistic journey. You Just need to withdraw yourself from such comparisons and accept that every pianist is unique and everyone has their own limits and positive things to add to music. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your performance is inferior to that of a favourite pianist but it may well mean that it’s just different. Remember, that every pianist has strengths and weaknesses. So, take heart and embrace your own strengths and if possible advocate them to the world. Your eccentric ritenuto, for instance, or your vastly broad climactic approach to a recapitulation, maybe give you the edge over other pianists and it could even catapult you to fame. Who knows? So, stop comparing.

B) You have reached a pianist’s “block”. Borrowed from the expression “writer’s block”, it means that you currently don’t possess the necessary technical or musical ability to improve the piece. If you feel, for example, that in that passage you can’t play fast enough the scale to reach with “dignity” the next bar, then perhaps it means that you are inadequately technically prepared. Maybe you need to go back and practise a few scales or studies to strengthen your technique before coming back to tackle the problem. At the same time, if you think that the piece just doesn’t sound “right”, even though the technical ability is there, then perhaps it’s time to give the piece a fresh look or improve your musical understanding of the composer. As a suggestion, you can find papers written for the piece or ask a teacher that you admire to show you his views on the piece. You can even play to your grandma after lunch. Even she might have some interesting points to make; you never know.

C) You are bored of it. You are already practising that piece for six months for an exam or an audition and now you can’t make yourself sit down and practise. Again, no wonder why it doesn’t improve. A piece is not like an ice cream that you would always have an appetite for, (hopefully), A piece needs “pacing” and it needs nurturing before it reaches it’s maturity. So, take a break from it. Play some other repertoire. Find something contrasting repertoire to practise. For instance, if you play too much baroque music then perhaps it’s time to play a little Richard Clayderman or if you concentrated too much in romantic composers, then why don’t you have a look at this piece from Cliff Richard that you always wanted to play? You can always explore repertoire that offers different technical and musical challenges. This way you will come back afresh to rediscover your piece. If necessary have a break from the piano for a few days. I promise you that when you return to your practising routine that piece will sound much better.

D) You don’t practise it properly. Yes, believe it or not this may well happen; sometimes, pianists practise wrongly too. Perhaps your “whole” ten minutes a day of practising the Hammerclavier are not enough for that important concert or playing Rachmaninov’s second piano sonata with the right hand where the left hand is and vice versa is not a sensible thing to do. However, fun aside, if we don’t approach a piece correctly from the beginning then it’s really difficult to get on with and finish it. But, take heart. Your teacher will be able to see your “shenanigans” and try to correct them. The reason to practise properly from the start is that it’s very difficult to shake off bad technical habits later on. (You may read more on that on my articles “starting a new piece”,  “which pieces to practise daily?” and  “which passages to practise daily?”). So, do ask yourself if you are practising the piece correctly before asking why it doesn’t improve.

E) A last reason I would add (for now), is that your piece doesn’t improve because you haven’t set any targets for it. Setting targets will miraculously improve a piece. Sometimes, playing just for our enjoyment in our living room (albeit not wrong), may not help us in our quest of “perfecting” a piece and, dare I say, of becoming fine pianists. You may argue that you always practise a piece to the best of your capacities even when you practise it for yourself, however, you will find that somehow your performance of a piece gets vastly better when you target it on an event, such as an exam or a concert or even a friends’ gathering. Yes, your piece will improve this three to five per cent if you had to play it at Carnegie hall the next evening, for instance. So, try, as much as possible, to have targets when you start a piece. Say to yourself: This piece is going to be for a recital, or an exam or just for my enjoyment. However, even though I like when people play just for leisure, I would have to admit that “enjoyment” alone is not enough to make us great pianists.

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© Nikolaos Kokkinis 21/10/2012.

Playing vs… Talking

Playing vs… Talking

By reading this article you agree and accept that this article contains fiction and some exaggerated expressions and opinions in order to create suspense. Please read at your discretion. For pianists and other musicians.

It was August of 2000. The cicadas were filling the summer night with dissonant reminiscences of Beethoven’s third Symphony and the aroma of grilled souvlaki was melancholically floating over the Rethymnon Marina.

It was a typical summer-night in Greece’s historic southern city and I was calmly sitting with great company in a low-lighted cafeteria indulging in my aperitif. There was a light, though sensational breeze in the air and we all were anything but in low spirits.

We had just came out from a fantastic, yet virtuosic piano recital by the renowned pianist and teacher Manolis Katahtipidis at the Odeon.

Everybody was saying how much they enjoyed the sheer technical accomplishment and of course the unquestionable musicality (as if musicality and technique come from a different place) of the performer.

Sitting next to me was a fellow pianist by the name of Vara Osothelis. Suddenly, she looked at me with an overdramatically pretentiously-cultured face and said,

Did you enjoy the performance Nikos?”
“Yes, I did”, I answered swiftly.
“Are you sure you did”, she said suspiciously.
“Well, yes, I mean, this pianist is very, very fast”, I said back with a child’s innocence in my smile.
“Well, I’m not sure…” she muttered.
“What do you mean if I may ask? Wasn’t he frantically fast and loud?”, I said Socratically.
“Well, it’s difficult to be fast but also musical in Haydn, isn’t it true?” she said emphatically.
“Oh yes, say that again! But please tell me more!” I said.

…And then she started talking. I was listening with my mouth wide-open for a whole two hours and forty-five minutes. Her speech was immense. Her theoretical knowledge? Unmatched. I thought I was listening to a combination of Chomsky, Evgeny Kissin and at times Liberace.

She knew everything; a true academic. Every time I dared to utter something she would come back with such monumental responses that my cases sounded like they came out from a nursery school. I felt that I couldn’t make a comprehensive point. I repeatedly felt guilty to even express an opinion next this colossal and analytical mind. My opinions were so incoherent and unsupported that I ended up thinking to myself to remain silent and just listen.

I was dumfounded. I was amazed.

Unfortunately, by the time she finished her rhetoric, the night and the cafeteria were “drawing to a close” and we had to say goodbye. It was a long and tantalizing “goodbye”, but in the last second I managed to clinch the deal and made her promise that she would see me again the following afternoon. We were to meet again in the same venue, so I could listen to her playing. Needless to say that I couldn’t wait.

Early the next morning I managed to bribe the caretaker of the Odeon to secretly hand me the keys to the concert hall, in exchange for one and a half kilo of pork chops from the adjacent butchery.

We met in the “Hora” Café for an initial coffee that felt never-ending and then I impatiently paid the bill before proceeding to the Odeon.

I sat in the front stalls of the hall. Her white dress was sparkling in the glowing sun that came down from the glassy roof while I was eagerly awaiting for her notes to commence.

She announced that she was to play for me Haydn’s last sonata in E flat major. The first chord had a wrong note in it, but I thought that it didn’t really matter since she had to grab the attention of the audience with the first swing of the hands; so even if the chord was wrong it would only add to the drama of the Sonata. I thought that it wasn’t uncommon for pianists to even play a short improvised interlude to sonatas, so surely she must have been filled with dramatic inspiration. However,   what followed was a display for the ages; not a nice display though, but a shocking one.

To cut to the chase and not bore you, the performance was horrific. The phrasing? Non-existing. Clearly some of the passages were much more practised than others and what scared me the most was that her general technique was undeveloped to a suspicious standard. Not only didn’t she show any previous indulgence in serious practising but her potential of becoming a strong pianist was quickly hitting rock bottom.

What is this?” I kept asking myself during the performance.  Why her technique wasn’t in line with her rhetoric of yesterday’s night? Why wasn’t she doing what she advocated on her charade of a speech under last night’s candlelight?

The answer, of course, I knew.

Because my dear readers, music is not to be talked about, but to be played; As simple as that. Benjamin Britten said (I’m paraphrasing), “I cannot express myself with words because music is my medium of expression”; that means sometimes is impossible to express yourself with words, since musical expression in itself is enough to convey what you want to say.  Most of the time people want to hear a musician play, rather than  someone talking about music. Don’t get me wrong, musical analysis is fantastic and has helped thousands of “actual” performers to improve their playing; yes, by doing research, and studying the thousands of working hours the academics have put into music, makes you appreciate a different side of music and can also make you perform better.

However, music at the end of the day, is to entertain and to inspire. That’s why I don’t particularly enjoy someone talking music; I prefer someone who performs music, because with talking and writing you are never going to feel the pragmatic essence of music, which is the communication through the sound.   Music doesn’t need words to be justified; it doesn’t need explanation, but it requires from you to just sit down and just play or listen. No book or piano website is going to teach you how to play Brahms or can “explain” the sound of Beethoven, for example. This doesn’t mean that academics, or music critics are not musicians.  Un contraire, they are because they understand music. However, you can never fully apprehend their musical opinions, because they don’t use sound to communicate them.

Analysis, musical provenance and theoretical justification are all very useful, and I can’t stress enough how those things have helped musical performance through the centuries, however what happens when you put down your fingers to play the Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” with a brilliant bass? ( Vassili are you there? ). Who is going to salvage your theoretical views? “Blah-Blah” is not going to be there to play for you.

So: Instead of talking that much, just play. Please, by all means, make musical conversations in order to express your thoughts to people. But you should be able to show your musical views by playing too.

Popular media, like video websites and radio shows, are full of people who are quick to judge and pass sentence to a performer. However, they never seem to explain in great precision how a performer should play because most of the time they are not capable of physically showing their views on an instrument. Maybe their opinions are correct but then again talking is always readily available, whereas performing thus “explaining” requires thousands of hours of practising.

However, please read writings in music as much as you can, because one day you might be able to help a student play the right way or you might understand why a performer performs in a certain way.

But please, practise even more than reading, because practical understanding is much more important in music that theoretical rationalization.

 

© Nikolaos Kokkinis 3rd June 2012.

Is Being a Musician Worth It?

Is Being a Musician Worth It?

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! 😀

The Two-Step Great Pianist (aka Can I Become a Great Pianist?)

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!