As in everything we do in life, ethics can make or break our plight.
We constantly make decisions in our own everyday lives — from the smallest, trivial matters, such as which carton of milk to buy from the supermarket, to the more important ones, such as which is the best nail salon for our friend’s wedding. We take simple decisions, like when is the best time to call our friend without waking them up, and more serious decisions, such as whether it is wiser to buy an $1K mobile phone or an $1K second-hand upright.
Every decision has its merits, and, arguably, its importance is a fully subjective matter. For example, I would gladly spend five grand to buy a secondhand grand piano, but I equally understand the individual who would spend the same amount of money to go on holidays in the Bahamas. I completely understand and respect their needs.
Just kidding! No, I DO NOT understand their needs! What? And then they would complain to me that they cannot afford the finer things in life, such as a piano. Holidays in the Bahamas? What? Crossed out! Buy a second hand grand, instead!
But you knew I was kidding, of course — Don’t forget that this is a piano practising website, that wants to instill as much guilt as possible to its readers in order to ensure they culture themselves.
I have no sympathy when people park outside my studio in a BMW, come inside wearing Prada, to tell me they are in serious thoughts about buying a better electric piano for their son, but they cannot afford it at the moment. If you look at my face when I encounter them, you would think that I am Fats Waller in his most elaborate of stone-faced grimaces. But I have to make money and I nod to them with fake compassion.
“Yes, yes, I perfectly understand,” I would say.
“And you know Nikos, we are trying our best here.”
“Of course! I know!”
“The everyday expenses are enormous.”
“I know, poor parents… how can they do it.”
“Let’s see how it goes, Nikos. We might buy that piano by Christmas. Music is such a wonderful thing!”
“Ba-hah. Yes, say that again.”
“Ok, will see you next lesson then, Nikos.”
“Oh, I forgot we’re going to be away to Malia for the weekend. We’re going Go-Karting with Makis’s brand new Go-Kart!”
“Excellent! Will see you in a couple of weeks!”
Too many questions and too many decisions to be taken. And behind those decisions, lurking, is always the ethicality of the whole thing.
Similarly, in music, we have straightforward questions to answer, we have harder ones, we have pivotal decisions to make, and some not so tough decisions.
And, of course, the importance of those musical decisions lays upon us (or our teacher) and they can be subjectively approached.
“Is my playing too soft right now?” “Is my current tempo leading me smoothly to the climax?” “Is this trill appropriate on Cimarosa?” “Am I ready to tackle this ètude or shall I give my technique a bit more time?” “What my friend is going to think of my playing at tomorrow’s concert?” This and that — Too many questions, and who knows the answers? Certainly not me.
The good news is that the more you’re in the game, the more you simplify things and get to find appropriate solutions. Because music questions, and especially questions that challenge our ethics, are never-ending. Nobody has all the answers — least of all me, who sport a pompous and pretentious website on piano practising, of all things, ludicrously telling you what to do on pianism. The audacity of me having a platform like this is, to say the least, monumental. You see? Anybody can have an opinion on serious and non-serious subjects, no matter how capable they are, and anybody can decide at some point in their lives to tell you what and what not to do! Unbelievable, isn’t it?
But, the final decision (be it ethical, practical or musical) is always yours to make. You are your own performer and you really have to spell out your plight to your audience; you have to show with conviction why you play the way you play, and you should feel no guilt about it.
The ethics of our performance should come from within and we should never feel intimidated. Every performer has their own ethics, per se, and they see composers, pieces and individual notes through their own perception. This perception is created through their own musical provenance and has nothing to do with our own. Right or wrong, it doesn’t matter — Everybody has their own performing ethics and cannot force them upon you.
The performers who succeed (as with the prominent world leaders who took their people on their own journeys) are the ones that have an eloquent or even eccentric musical plan and they serve it to you, expecting you to accept it. I’m not fond of any type of dictatorship but in musical performance we should play like dictators; we know what is right for us, and we show it to our audiences with conviction, without caring if it is right or wrong, or whether they are going to embrace it — we simply do not cave in. We listen to ourselves, to our own ethics, and we plough on regardless.
My interview with Vladimir Horowitz
On the 6th of November 1982, I had an audience with Vladimir Horowitz. I entered his room reluctantly, feeling the gravity of the situation in the air. I was to meet one of the greats. He stood up, shook my hand, and asked me to sit in the golden chair.
He sat on his piano (yes, that one), placed his flappy hands on the keys and pressed a chord. The chord felt unfamiliar, but not the complexion of his instrument – I knew that piano, I have heard it countless times. Then, he played one more chord followed by a final one before turning to me with a smile on his face.
“So, Nikos, did you like those chords?”, he said.
The question came out of the blue, felt important and I thought I somehow had to give a correct answer.
“Yes, very much.” I answered, immediately regretting my reply.
“Why? Is it because I am Vladimir Horowitz?” He said calmly.
“No. Well, yes, but also because they actually sounded nice.”
“Really? Three chords?”
“I mean, in the right context they would sound good.” I said.
“Were they not in the right context?”
“Um, forgive me maestro, I… I do not know.”
“In the right context… such a tired expression, don’t you think, Nikos?”
He looked at me in contempt. I felt his inner condemnation for my musical incapacity. He knew immediately I was an amateur musician, that all I wanted was to brag to my friends about my meeting with “Horowitz” later on in the cafeteria. He’s had enough with people like me — People that couldn’t appreciate his art, but just craved for a photo or a word with him, just for the sake of it. I was, once again, one with the masses. I wouldn’t be able to hide my well-deserved obscurity, no matter how hard I would have tried.
Was I there to learn from him? Was I to feast upon his musical knowledge? I wasn’t sure. What I knew, though, was that I was definitely there to make myself important in the eyes of my peers. I knew the time would come that I would hold a glass of wine at a party, sneakily mentioning my meeting with Vladimir Horowitz to an amazed group of partygoers.
He looked at me once again and said:
“Nikos, do you know why people like my piano playing?”
“Well, yes, because you play amazingly,” I said obsequiously.
“No, it is not as simple as that. Many people dislike my tone or my pianistic imperfections, but still they keep coming to my concerts and talk fondly about my career.”
“Audiences like my playing because they know I have ethics — they may disagree with them, but they now for sure that I am fully behind them on my every pressing of the keys. They know I couldn’t care less about their feelings and the way they perceive my playing. I play for myself, and I demand my audience to get my gist. I once said to a reporter who asked me about the brilliance of my octaves, that…”
“… I’ve read it.”
“So what are you doing here, Nikos?”
“I came here to learn.”
“Okay. It was nice meeting you. Off you go now, and be an ethical pianist, okay?”
“Sure I will. Thank you, Mr. Horowitz.”
My meeting with Horowitz taught me so much… I’ve learned that sometimes in life you should stand for your musical ideals and perhaps advocate them to the world.
What shall I do now that this article is over?
Well, since I’m starving and I haven’t yet read any books on human nutrition, I suppose I’m off to MacDonalds.
Copyright © 29 July, 2021 by Nikos Kokkinis