|Image by Cristian Bortes, from Wikimedia Commons|
When people ask me why I chose piano over cello I often reply, "Because with piano I can always blame the piano for a bad performance." Having made the choice that I did, I have to deal with one of the biggest issues that we pianists have to face - being ready to play on the best and worst of pianos and sometimes even facing a myriad of piano-shaped objects (from here on out, referred to as PSOs). I can hear the groans now and I know there must be tons of stories out there about what we've all had to deal with. But before we proceed into the depths of pianistic wallowing, I'd like to throw out some thoughts about how I tend to view this challenge that is somewhat unique to our instrument.
Personally, I love the challenge. Give me a piano or a PSO and I will do my best to make some good music with it. I figure it gives me something to keep me focused during a performance too which often comes in handy. Forget the lady out in the audience wearing a dress with the most peculiar print or the student that seems more focused on texting than on listening - I need to figure out how to make this piano sing! A note sticking? Great, it's kind of entertaining to time everything right so that I have extra time to pull the key back up before having to play it again. Sustaining pedal not working well? A perfect time to try the old finger-legato technique and to shoot for extra flexible, pliable fingers. A note severely out of tune? Let's see how many times I can effectively displace that particular note to a different octave to avoid the unpleasant twang. Piano missing some black keys here and there? That's a supreme challenge and one that I've actually dealt with in a prison. (Long story...and no, I wasn't in prison, just visiting.)
I'm not being sarcastic - truly I'm not! I find it all kind of entertaining, except for the prison episode. When people apologize to me about the piano I am to perform on, my response is always, "No worries. As long as it has black and white keys, all in the right places, I'm a happy pianist."
Because I am. To be playing music always makes me happy.
As a pianist, I think it's important keep in mind that pianos to perform on are getting harder and harder to find. They have all but disappeared in churches, being replaced by Clavinovas or electric keyboards since they don't have to be tuned or given a climate-controlled environment. Same thing goes for schools. It's just too challenging and expensive to keep a piano going in that kind of setting. And you know what? I get all that. I don't blame people for making those decisions. So in my mind, if the choice is between having an electric PSO or nothing at all, if the choice is between making music or not making music, I say, "Find me an electric outlet. We're gonna make this keyboard work!"
Now does this mean I don't like performing on a fine piano? No, of course not! When I have the opportunity to play on a well-maintained, well-built instrument, it's like playing in a dream. But for me it's a gift, a blessing, and no longer an expectation.
And my last thought is this - I've performed on a lot of "bad" pianos and on a lot of electric PSOs but in none of those situations have I had anyone come up to me afterwards to complain about the performance, even my audience in the jail way back when. Those in the know will sometimes commiserate with me but those folks in the audience who may not have much experience with classical music and grand pianos (and I play for a lot of those folks) never say a negative word because they don't necessarily know the difference. I don't mean that in a disrespectful way. They are there to take in the whole experience and to listen to music - they don't have the expectation of hearing a concert grand, perfectly maintained and in-tune.
Music is music. Good music is good music. But good music doesn't need the ideal instrument, at least not in my mind. I choose to make magic with whatever musical wand I've been given.
Pianists - if you have any stories you'd like to share about experiences you've had dealing with unusual or particularly challenging pianos or PSOs, please feel free to share them here and to talk about how you dealt with it. We can all learn from one another!