Is the Quality of a Piano Performance Subjective?

Is the Quality of a Piano Performance Subjective?

What do you think….? *with a snobbish expression on my fat face*

Is the quality of the performance of a piano piece subjective? Indeed, is the cooking calibre of the female partner in a newly established couple less than great? Of course, not. It’s fantastic. Only after a few years of marriage, the now husband could possibly attempt to question his wife’s culinary expertise. 

When we criticise anything and everything in life, there is always the subject of subjectivity lurking around — except, of course, if we could define mathematically all the elements that constitute the subject; which, in our case in music, it is close to impossible to achieve. Even if we ask someone how much is one plus one, for instance, they might get it wrong because there is still the element of the spontaneous erroneous judgement. Just go online to see with your own eyes the existence of the multitude of hilarious answers found online. 

There is no certain answer to any question, so how do we expect a piano performance to be no less than subjective? And, don’t forget, no amount of proof will change the mind of someone who are wrong in their judgements, when they are determined to stand by their own principles, logic, or simply, false reckonings — for example, no matter how many people set foot on the moon, or how many interstellar missions send back to earth images of Jupiter in close proximity, there are always going to be the people who profess that the earth is flat. That’s why — I digress — I always maintain that when you go to a friend’s concert, find the performance of your friend absolutely great. Because, nobody can really persuade your friend concretely that it wasn’t. But I’ve written about this subject a lot in my years as a crass writer on Piano Practising. 

What determines the quality of a piano performance, and why it is subjective. 

The quality of a performance is always subjective because of the following factors:

  1. The pianistic capacities of the body judging the performance: For instance, your student’s performance in your annual studio’s concert in the local pub (yes, I’ve heard that choice of venue) could be less than “amazing”, if your student was judged not by your own mediocre pianistic brain or your student’s gullible parents, but by an YCA competition panel. 
  2. The venue of the performance: An adjudicator won’t judge the same on every venue/competition. For instance, in a most hypothetical scenario, if a panel constituting of the same judges judged the same performers and their performances but on different venues or circumstances, the performers would undoubtedly get different treatment. In most cases, they would be judged more strictly on harder competitions. 
  3. The pianistic conventions of the era: For example, it’s customary to play Chopin’s Opus 10 No.1 in today’s rigid and fast-paced piano at a frantic tempo that pianos from Chopin’s era arguably could not handle. 

So, do not worry too much about whether your playing is ghastly or amateurish; in another era you could have been the “magician of the village”. Do not worry about your snail-paced speeds, either; a few hundred years ago, by playing like that, you would have been the most desired bride of your municipality. Just keep playing and learning, and just let yourself depart from thoughts of inferiority, no matter how true they may be. Just plough on regardless and leave your utter incompetence behind. 

Now, what are you still doing over here? Go and do some practising, please?   

Copyright © 31th of August 2022, by Nikos Kokkinis


 Photo by Zach Key on Unsplash Many thanks to artist for this amasing image used in this article! Visit his work for more images. 

Is the Quality of a Piano Performance Subjective?

Will a Better Piano Make Us Better Pianists?

What an imbecilic question! Will a better piano make us better pianists? Really? What a preposterous notion to even ask this question. However, needless to say, that thousands of piano teachers believe, at least subconsciously, that a better piano doesn’t make better pianists. Well, in my opinion, definitely an electric piano won’t make us better at the piano. Wouldn’t you agree? 

Apparently for some people, a classical, an acoustic, a proper, square piano is unnecessary in our quest to mastering the piano. For them an acoustic piano is, lo-and-behold, a luxury; something that only the well-offs could afford. Meanwhile, you can see those very people sporting a Mercedes in their weekend outings and then complaining that they cannot afford a piano for their child. Priorities, heh? For some people, we do not need an acoustic piano when taking up the piano – a digital keyboard would suffice to start you off, the say – but I guess you’re not one of them, are you? Of course, you are. 

You are preaching too this extraordinary hocus-pocus philosophy that to play Wimbledon you should practice on a toy racket from Toys “R” Us. And you know why you do that? Because, you are not meant to be a great teacher—only just a few can. If all the piano teachers in the world were competent and not mediocre ignoramuses like you and me, then the notion of “great teacher” would have been too vague to grasp. The world simply needs incompetent, ludicrous teachers, with laughable guru-like ideations, like you and me. We are necessary in the musical world for many reasons; for example, to make sure that great professors get more money than us when they actually teach? Also, we are needed in order to solidify the notion that if you’re not a adequate musician, you will endlessly suffer in the piano arena—who could have been a better example than us? 

So, from the very first time we meet our pupils, somehow, we must at all costs cement our frightful stature in the music world by proclaiming that they can learn the piano with a digital simulator. It’s impossible for some people to escape from their Darwinian instincts, and you can’t escape from your mediocrity either. Well, Darwin was right: the fittest will survive—but he forgot to say that the non-fittest will also survive but they will unfortunately make the lives of some pianists miserable in the process. 

So, no, you cannot study the “piano” using a piano-like “toy” from Tesco or Walmart. No, you may not talk technique and nuances of sound if you practise Satie’s tired Gymnopédie No.1 on a plasticky, plastic “instrument”. No, you are not allowed to ask juvenile questions on piano groups on Facebook, and at the same time splashing 400 dollars on a swimsuit for you upcoming visit to Playa de Palma. 

We need a classical piano at all costs my dear, save gullible friends. I’m not saying you should ask your student to buy the Steinway concert D in their first week of lessons, but you owe it to yourself and to your standing as a pedagogue to explain from day one that “your child won’t be able to learn the piano properly with an electric keyboard”. 

I say those very same words on the first meeting with parents, and I have to admit that I have received in return some peculiar facial expressions and exclamations over the years. Well, hey-ho, who cares if they don’t come to study with me? Another, gullible, loutish and philistine parent will surely come my way. 

Copyright © 31th of July 2022, by Nikos Kokkinis


Rushing the Music

Rushing the Music

What Does It Mean To Be Rushing On A Piece Of Music

Who hasn’t rushed the music before? I, for one, have rushed the tempo one too many times, especially on sticky occasions, such as on auditions, on unprepared rehearsals (on my part) and often, on culturally pretentious venues.

Even the greats have rushed their musical performances, inside the concert halls and on recordings! Especially the live ones. I mean, they didn’t rush their pieces from the beginning to the end—they are not complete amateurs like me—but by their standards, there are places that the music felt it was rushing a bit. And I don’t mean they did rubato and the likes—those pianists flatly rushed the tempo.

But, what is rushing the music? Is it just getting faster? Like you would you start a piece on 40 BPM and end up at 110 BPM? Is this even possible? Would you start the Op.10 No.1 study by Chopin Allegro and be at a Vivace pace in its finale; I suppose, it depends on what allegro means to you, but still “rushing” is not getting faster. It’s not accelerating your piece.

But before I go any further, I would like to clarify what is accelerando (and not… rushing). Accelerando simply means that you gradually and in an equable manner increase the tempo of a passage. Remember that you have to increase the tempo in an “equable manner”, otherwise you might fall into the stretto sphere (figure 1), where the tempo has a more radical ascent. By the way, we usually use stretto towards the finale of a piece or phrase.

Farewell Samba - FinaleExample 1: From the finale of the Farewell Samba by Nikos Kokkinis

Rushing, also, should not be confused with the stringendo (figure 2) that you find in places where the composer wants to supercharge the excitement of the piece and urges the performer to play as if something eminent is about to happen; here, the performer often increases the tempo ever so slightly and puts some mustard on their expressivity.

Example From Liszt's B Minor SonataExample 2: From Liszt’s B Minor Sonata

Rushing, on the other hand, has none of the above characteristics. Rushing has the following three characteristics that performers, without knowing it, follow to the letter in their rushed musical iterations.

  1. They cut off a tiny bit from the very last part of a bar, then
  2. They continue with the correct tempo afterwards, and
  3. They repeat 1 & 2 to the end of the piece.

This feels as if the piece keeps going faster because the next bar starts sooner, but somehow, the tempo remains always the same. It is so paradoxical, in essence. This has a very unsettling effect on the audience, where they do not know where to hold on to musically and they subconsciously think that something agitated the performer.

Rushing the music happens to all of us, for one reason or another, but mostly to developing pianists who hurry to complete the piece with an as perfect as possible rendition, and put themselves out of their misery.

We, teachers, should pay special attention to the end of every bar, and explain to our students the perils of starting the succeeding bar too early. Some ways to achieve this is by tapping or clapping on the beat, and let our students know that our tap at the beginning of the following bar started after they played the first beat.

Copyright © 29th of June 2022, by Nikos Kokkinis


The Neighbours Syndrome | Freedom of Playing

The Neighbours Syndrome | Freedom of Playing

Censored art is everywhere. You cannot see it in galleries (or at least it is kept from public access until for some politically correct excuse it becomes acceptable) and you cannot savour it in its natural habitats, like the gallery, the cinema theatre or wherever the artist wished it to be presented. There are tones of examples of works of creativity that have been censored through the centuries around the world, and some are more or less established in our minds as unfairly censored, such as “The Last Judgement” by Michelangelo, or the Film adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” that enraged censors in many countries because, apparently, animals couldn’t talk and should not be treated equal to human beings! Go figure.

Equally in music, previously censored music is flooding our radios nowadays. Still, now and then, musical censors decide that music is so powerful that it can destabilise empires. From controlling the Soviet music, to Hitler’s ban on Jewish composers, the insanity of censors has been none but infinite.

But, let’s think for a second: should we censor the artistic freedom and thirst for creativity of the noble artist?

Yes, of course we should! We must!

I strongly believe that we shouldn’t allow any self-proclaimed “artist” to present us their creations, when those “creations” depict acts of violence, racism, child molestation or any other contemptible acts. What do you think? Should we allow artistic freedom to someone who wants to make a photo collage depicting acts of violence towards your child? Do you think we should? Well, I think I will refrain from becoming voguish and “open minded” and say “no, we shouldn’t”. We should CENSOR them and we censor them good. Okay?

Outcomes of Censorship

However, artistic censorship, be it right or wrong, moral or immoral, has tantalised artists for many a century. Artists felt intimidated – again, for the right or wrong reasons. They started expressing their own artistic views subtly, but not boldly. They became so intimidated that their mind looked faded in their paintings, in their films and in their musical interpretations.

But Nikos, what does all this have to do with the “Neighbours Syndrome” you so unashamedly wrote above? Well, read on!

The “Neighbours Syndrome” is a disadvantageous artistic condition that happens upon us artists, in our effort to not disturb the existence of our neighbours. We are so afraid of our neighbors’ reaction that we self-censor our performances by playing with a guilty-ridden sound.

Social imperatives dictate our behaviours, of course, and in the case of piano we basically have to respect our neighbours by often playing “acceptable” repertoire, or softer, especially in common times of silence (e.g., read the UK noise act of 1996). This syndrome has very serious repercussions for our playing.

The more we play softer (especially when nearing the quiet hours of the night) the more our overall musical sound stays apologetic and timid. This happens because softer sound allows (although wrongly) for less energy on our fingers when practising. Often, young students by not knowing better, and not knowing how to practise softly with keeping the intensity going, they resort in pressing the keys weakly, resulting in an unprojected sound.

Through the years, many of my students had this “Neighbours Syndrome” with their neighbouring ears. Some of them lived with capricious siblings who preferred (understandably) other kinds of musics, others lived in apartment buildings surrounded by elderly neighbours, and others were made by their parents to just “shut the door”. The list of cases is long, but there was one single end-result in their piano playing: lack of contrasting dynamics. Their playing sounded soft and timid in all the dynamic levels they were trying to produce. And this, my dear readers, is a form of censorship. It is a kind of censorship that happens in real time, and we inflict it on ourselves. It is our own self-censorship. Is there anything worse than that?

So we should stay strong, play freely, and drop any trace of intimidation from our fingers. At the end of the day, let’s create the right environment for our art to thrive, even if that means changing our current circumstances, such as our place of residence. We must educate our siblings, parents and neighbours that what we do is of extreme importance and that we promise to stop practising in the specified times we have previously set and promised.

Because we can educate the uneducable and we can improve the aesthetics of our future audiences. And all this by stopping censoring ourselves.

Copyright © 29st of May 2022, by Nikos Kokkinis


Which Is the Perfect Repertoire to Teach Your Pupils

Which Is the Perfect Repertoire to Teach Your Pupils

Few have been the unresolved mysteries of this world; mysteries that have tantalised humanity for centuries on end:

“Where’s the Loch Ness monster located exactly?” “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” “Whatever happened to the illustrious composer Jacques du Prassi?” And of course, “Am I teaching the right repertoire to my gullible students?”

Some amazing minds have answered some of those questions. However, most of them died before they monetised their findings, letting the world know of the answers. It is said, for instance, that a Scandinavian man found the greatest piano website on the internet, and when asked by his wife which was it he just uttered “pianoprac…” before accidentally being crashed to his death by the lead of his Bösendorfer Imperial Grand. Who knows? He might have been into something… But it could have been just a tale. 

I, myself, have a few thoughts of who could own the greatest piano website on earth, and what an amazing mind he could be, but who am I to even talk about that genius of the piano? I might have some clues, but am I allowed to speak out? Who would believe me? Not me, for one. 

But before veering off too much from the purpose of this article, let me start by reassuring you about your own musical choices and the repertoire you choose to teach to your own pupils:

  • No, you are not an utterly incompetent piano teacher!
  • No, you are not another clueless “pedagogue” asking juvenile music questions on social media!
  • No, you are not a horrible manager of your piano business!
  • No, your choice to become a piano teacher instead of having an important job was not the wrong one.
  • No, you are not driving mad your audiences with your artless “performances”.
  • No, you are not just another drop in the vast bucket of pianistic mediocrity. 

You are a good musician! I promise you. Not kidding at all. Cross my heart. 

Your choice of repertoire is just great! No need to worry too much about it. You know why? Because every single piano teacher in the history of piano teachers had this issue going on forever; from the greatest piano teachers to the least capable of us, we all have had the predisposition of questioning ourselves and our abilities. And guess what? Like bullying, affectation and human savagery, the questioning of ourselves will never end. It is always going to be there, and we will always claim new remedies and magical solutions to treat it for good. This questioning of our abilities, and, therefore, of our inner self, is like a Lernaean Hydra — is going to appear again and again until the next guru claims a cure. 

So, just plough on regardless. Explore new repertoire, try out new things, and by all means, question yourself and keep improving your own pedagogical potion. There is no right or wrong repertoire to teach your students. There is only the notion of improving our current choices.

You will eventually get there. And yes, maybe by burning a few talents on the way. But who cares? You can’t win them all. And don’t forget that it’s always the “talent’s” fault that you burned it. Not yours. Not all “talents” will become the next Christian Zimmerman. Some of them deserve to be burned, so the other talents shine even more.

Look at me, for instance! I managed to forge a career on the piano (of all professions) and I am not half decent musician. Go figure. I was perhaps burned as a pupil, but who cares? I deserved it! If I wasn’t burned together with countless other pianists and instead we all realized our full potential as musicians, there would have been far too many great musicians around, so it would have been harder to challenge our esthetics and improve our musical understanding. Everyone would have been a great musician — how horrible is that?

So, trust yourself and your own little piano modus operandi. 

And, tell you what — Do you know for sure which is the bestest piano method? Does it exist? And if it exists, will it render the rest obsolete? Well, you know the answer. There is no perfect repertoire or method to teach a student. There is only the current in-vogue method that will undoubtedly fall prey to a trendier future one. 

The perfect repertoire is the one you are already working on and manifest to your students — just keep improving it.

And all this drivel above because every student is unique. Hm. Now, go and just teach some piano.

Copyright © 1st of May 2022, by Nikos Kokkinis