My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

My slightly unconventional path to a career as a pianist

Image from Wikimedia Commons
It's amazing how early on we get ideas in our head about how something is supposed to go.  In the classical music world, it seems to start with the familiar old joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"  Answer: "Practice, practice, practice."  And yes, practicing is definitely important but is the Carnegie Hall part?  As a kid, I believed that the infamous hall in New York City was indeed a necessary benchmark for any aspiring musician but pretty quickly the reality (or rather unreality) of that goal made itself pretty clear.  

This was one of the first changes in my path to becoming a musician.  I crossed Carnegie Hall off my list and frankly, sighed a sigh of relief. 

Next question I was told I needed to answer was what do I want to be?  A cellist or a pianist?  I struggled with this one for years and received plenty of bruises along the way from going back and forth, trying to make up my mind.  Before going to college I spent several years doing both but then quit piano in a very dramatic fashion, led mostly by the extremely stubborn side of myself - more about that in another post, perhaps.  I went to college as a cellist and it wasn't until the end of the first year that my cello teacher heard me play piano.  He inquired why I had quit and upon hearing my thoroughly asinine answer, signed me up for a piano audition to become a double major the next month.  With that audition, however, I hit upon a convention that at the time wasn't supposed to be broken.  The general consensus in the piano faculty was that they wouldn't teach me unless I quit the cello first.  Apparently it wasn't appropriate for anyone to double major in two performance areas.  Thanks to my stubborn side, however, I stated my argument for the president of the school who decided to compromise with me.  He said I could try it for one year.  After that, a decision had to be made.  After only a semester and a half of trying to practice two instruments at a music-school level, it became pretty obvious to me that I couldn't keep up both.  So making the decision early, I dropped cello and switched to piano. 

So there was the second change in direction.  

Once I was fully committed to being a pianist again, I found myself with the question of where did I went to end up as a pianist.  I didn't have to think very hard about this one.  I had always been addicted to chamber music and to accompanying others from the piano and because of my shyness, I knew that I didn't want to have a solo piano career.  So piano collaborating it was.  My new career choice.

For the rest of my undergraduate years as a piano performance major, I studied my solo repertoire half-heartedly but dove right into accompanying and collaborating.  I took Italian, I took French, I ate up the piano accompanying course, I took extra coachings from a fabulous collaborator, I went to summer festivals as an accompanist, worked in San Francisco and Switzerland as a vocal pianist at a restaurant, accompanied a church choir...I was so ready to be done with performance and move right into my graduate degrees in accompanying.

But wait! Not so fast.  Detour ahead.

In my senior year I contacted both of the accompanying mentors to initiate the obvious next step to me becoming a professional collaborator.  They both, individually, told me that they would not accept me into their program.  Jaw-dropping.  Crushing. I'm even feeling choked up thinking about it.  And this was coming from two completely separate people that I admired and worshipped with my whole being.  What was going on?  What did I do wrong?  They both expressed their belief that I should continue on as a piano performance major which further confused, upset, and intimidated me because in all honesty, solo piano freaked me out.  It took everything I had in me to get through my first performance degree and what did get me through was the carrot at the end of the stick - a chance to move on to an accompanying program.

Although I didn't understand any of it at the time, what choice did I have?  I couldn't even think straight enough to make another move so I opted to do what they suggested - I stayed in the piano performance program for the next two years.  I don't know how I made it through.  It was terrifying for me in so many ways because I was in a fairly competitive studio that was filled with solo pianists that knew that's what they wanted to do - I truly felt like an ugly duckling the entire time.  They ate up memorizing music, I got sick at the thought of it.  Their fingers flew up and down the keys in endless technical gymnastics, I struggled to get through the basics.  They entered competitions, I just wanted to go play chamber music.  In spite of this, my teacher stuck by my side, often making some exceptions for me to alleviate some of the pressure, and I did my best to buck up and to play the part of the solo pianist.  I barely made it, but I did.  And by then I had met my future husband, had gotten engaged, and decided that was the perfect excuse not to be rejected by accompanying programs yet again.

Looking back on it all, I still feel slightly sad about the whole thing.  And I can't say I understand what happened.  But I can honestly say that I am incredibly grateful now that I was pushed in that horribly uncomfortable direction.  Since becoming a wife and a mom and rediscovering my musical self, I am now able, thanks to my performance background and training to embrace the fourth change in perception that has come to me as a musician - I realize I don't have to be "an accompanist," "a collaborator," "a teacher," "a chamber musician," "a soloist."  I can be all those things and more with pride and skill and enjoy them all.  And I do.  I even enjoy the solo piano stuff now, with the exception of memorizing.

So back to that old joke..."How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

My answer?  "Practice, practice, practice, then catch a cab and be ready for what might be a completely unexpected path to something or someplace even better!  And forget Carnegie Hall!!"



  1. I really enjoyed reading that- thanks so much for taking the time to post it. I love reading about others' piano dreams.

    I, too, have had some piano dreams dashed, but only to realize other dreams I didn't even know I had. I am also terrified at the thought of solo piano, but I love to accompany others. However, I am working on my Grade 10 with RCM and eventually my pedagogy master's, and both of those involve solo piano exams. Memorizing does not come easily for me, but I am plodding away. I realize it will take me longer since I am a wife and mother now and have less free time, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. It keeps me motivated to keep thinking about the rewards at the end...and then the end will just be the beginning of opportunities!

  2. Leah,
    It is so wonderful to meet another mom-wife-pianist! Thank you for taking the time to comment on the blog. I so love your attitude about life - I keep trying to head down that same path. It's amazing how much more we can accomplish it seems when we stop looking at roadblocks as just that - roadblocks. And I find life so much more enjoyable when I look at it as a constant "beginning of opportunities" as you so appropriately said.

    Here's to optimism, to courage, and to a constant embracing of our journey.

    Thank you again for your comment, happy practicing, and best wishes in your RCM pursuits.

    I look forward to more conversation with you,

  3. Forgot to mention that I blog over at
    I clearly haven't been doing it as long as you have, but it's an outlet for my musical musings and teaching experiences. There is a wonderful community of pianists/teachers out there that I have so enjoyed gleaning ideas from! Glad to have found yours, and I'm looking forward to browsing some of your topics as I have time to. :)

  4. Excellent post!!!

    Congratulations for your "stubbornness".

  5. Thank you, Leah for mentioning your blog. I actually took a look at both of your blogs and plan on spending a little more time with them :-)

    And Antonio, it's very nice to meet you. Thank you for checking out this blog post and more importantly, for encouraging my stubborness. Sometimes it can come in handy, lol!

    Many thanks to both of you for commenting,

  6. I am another pianist/cellist hybrid, though really more of a cellist. My feeling about it is the cello is a lot of fun to play, but it is so much easier than the piano that if you concentrate on the piano, the cello will benefit more than the other way around. The piano teaches you to be a more complete musician; the cello teaches you how to create a beautiful singing line, a solid bass, an atmospheric texture. I find the two instruments complementary.

    The other thing about being a musician in general: It's very, very tough to make a living out there. I decided at 35 that if I wanted to be self-supporting, I had to do something else. It's been difficult at times, but overall I think my musicianship has improved because I'm not using it to earn money; I'm playing music because I want to. I can play the kinds of things I want to play, and I can turn down jobs if they aren't appealing. Working in the real (business) world has also taught me better people skills that have served me well in my musical endeavors.

    So good luck! Life is always a work in progress.

    (BTW, the new look for your blog is a big improvement! Much easier to read than white on black.)

  7. Thank you for your comments, Harriet. So glad you like the blog's new look.Only makes me wonder why it took me so long to make the change in the first place, sigh. Oh well.

    It sounds like you have come to terms with who you are as a musician. You're right, it can be so hard to make it as a self-supporting musician. I am fortunate in that we don't rely on just my income to support our family. I'm sure I would have a very tough time "making it" in the traditional sense as well if our situation was different. But I'm glad that you didn't give up music and that it is obviously makes up a big part of who you are. I know many that have given it up all together for various reasons and now find a part of themselves missing.

    There is much joy in playing music on any level, I believe and the amount of satisfaction one gets from it mostly depends on the individual, not the circumstances or situations we have to play in.

    I'm curious to find out more about what you've learned in the "real" world. I need to check out your blog to see if there's more about that there.

    Thank you, as always, for your comments. It's great to hear from you again.

    Happy music-making,

  8. Erica - I enjoyed reading this post of yours (as usual). I for one am impressed with your breadth of musicianship. I am not a fan of a system that forces musicians to only play one instrument, and to even further specialize to only one kind of performing (e.g., accompanying vs. solo performance). I'm of the mindset that a versatile musician is a powerful musician...and often consequently an employed musician!. Your post here really reinforces my latest post about "blurring the lines" traditionally drawn in music. Thanks for sharing!


  9. Bob,
    I'm so glad you mentioned your latest post - I almost missed it in the mayhem of celebrating a birthday in our family!

    Thank you for reading this post and for your comments. I am sensing more and more that there are really a lot of us out there that are feeling the same way about perfection, performing, rules, etc...It is so very encouraging to be finding and talking with others seem headed down this same path.

    Here's to continued discussion!

    With thanks,

  10. Hi Erica,
    What a wonderful new post about your journey in music - thank you! You inspire so many people now in your several roles as musician and writer, and I love keeping up with you as much as possible.
    You're one of the musicians of the future, one who will bring music to the people who really love and need it!

  11. Your most welcome, Harold - thank you for reading. I'm sure you hear about many interesting stories that pianists have about getting where they are. This is yet another, I suppose. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

    And thank you for your kind, kind words. I get so much inspiration from you all - I'm thankful for that!

    With warm regards,

  12. Hi Erica,
    I find myself drawn into your writing, and today discovered a connection in our shared double instrument dilemma and love of collaboration. A creative dean permitted performance/ed and double instrument majors back in the late 70s, and still I found myself collaborating more than anything. And in my pedagogy grad school time, I was busy freelancing with musician friends.

    Your perseverance and love of it all show through, and the roles of wife/mother/pianist do really work. . . after all, our life imbues our playing and vice versa.

    Sounds like we caught the same "taxi" company, and I'm happy to say that when a new "taxi" came along in the form of my now cellist partner, we became DuoWest. All the while being wife/mother/daughter/teacher/collaborator And now the oboist son is in grad school.

    Thanks for your thoughts and encouraging everyone.

  13. Sherry,
    It is so very good to meet you! I've been looking at your website for DuoWest and am fascinated! I partner with my husband, a singer, frequently and we've been wondering if a small ensemble could function as a non-profit mini organization. I see that you are making it work! :-) And I also notice that you're doing house concerts - another interest of ours!

    Thank you for your kind words - I really do appreciate the feedback and am grateful that there are folks out there that find my words encouraging.

    I look forward to learning more about you as I peruse your website and I hope to hear from you again soon :-)

    Best wishes on all you are doing,