Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Gift of Music

How should a piece of music be performed?  The answer is as varied as the number of performers.  American Idol demonstrates from time to time how disappointing a performance can be when the performer fails to put his or her signature on a piece.  A judge might say something like, "I wish you would have made the song your own instead of trying to imitate X."  Otherwise, the performer is a mimic, not an artist.  Variety is the spice of music.  Geniuses like Adam Lambert know this.  If we want to hear Elvis, we'll play an Elvis recording.

I attended a fascinating concert this afternoon, of three pianists.  I bet many, if not most, of the audience could now name who was playing if there were a screen separating us:  Pianist number one, the composer-pianist, who takes each piece and plays it the way he might have written it, leaning on the soft pedal, occasionally even saying blast the written rhythms, which I found liberating;  Pianist number two, the modest virtuoso, who isn't afraid to hold onto the sustaining pedal; and Pianist number three, the "young" crisp virtuoso, who lays it on the table like silverware, leaving you to wonder if he's working at all.  I liked each of them for treating me to a vision I had not seen before.

I hope that last night my version of the Schumann concerto, with its warts, wrong notes and missed measures, suggested a new perspective to audience members, especially those who were familiar with the piece, if only that offering someone like me the opportunity to play with an orchestra is a special kind of gift.

I think I've mentioned this before, but so what -- before the invention of television, radios, and recordings, most people relied on local talent for musical events (only occasionally did stars visit from somewhere else).  An upright piano played an important part in many parlors, where folks gathered to listen or sing or play with the family's piano players.  Today we know how "perfect" a piece can be played.  This certainly has its benefits and beauty, but it also spoils us and inhibits our appreciation of music, by raising the bar very high.  An unfortunate side effect has been, I think, a reluctance on our part to support the arts (not just music).  Even though most of us, unless we are tone deaf, consider music essential to our quality of life (we listen to it wherever we go -- in commercials, in movies, on the radio or television, on CDs and IPods, on telephones, in elevators and shopping centers, etc.), we're reluctant to invest tax dollars or personal wealth in the development of local talent, including children who might or might not become the next Pavorotti or Adam Lambert but who will, I guarantee, listen to music and might or might not enjoy a lifetime of satisfaction playing music.  How sad!

Virginia says, "Invest in music.  Almost no matter what, learning math, reading and science will happen, you can bet on it."

And those who choose to learn music will automatically learn quite a bit of math, reading and science.


  1. For those of you who missed James' piano playing last night, you missed something truly incredible. He did more than just "tickle" the ivories, he caressed and brought them to life. I couldn't be more proud of you James.

  2. I will invest personal wealth as soon a I see where to do so.