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.
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!