Problems Playing the Piano?
I was recently asked to talk about a difficult or discouraging time in my life as a pianist so far. As I first considered this question it seemed that I couldn't recall a specific example. But then as I started thinking more about the issue I came up with three categories which might be relevant to possible situations of difficulty: circumstantial - for instance a bad manager, or sheer bad luck in various ways; physical - a hand injury or another ailment; and psychological - perhaps excessive nerves or a loss of confidence.
Circumstantial problems can rarely be anticipated and come in a variety of categories. A bad manager might eventually be changed for a good one, but a strike by an orchestra in the very week when you were due to make your debut could be a real setback. Similarly a delayed visa which prevents you stepping in at the last minute to replace a physically sick artist on a major recital series could turn out to be the break you never had.
Physical problems might be avoidable before they happen, for instance through correct technique or muscular relaxation; but after the injury all we can do is to seek treatment. In a way there's something comforting in the clarity of such physical debility, but there’s also the frustrating possibility that there is no solution to it.
Psychological problems probably account for the vast majority of difficulties or discouragements for a musician at every stage of their careers, and most of these should be avoidable. So often it boils down to inflated or distorted egos: the excessive desire to be admired, successful, or praised. There's a sense in which these desires contain perfectly natural reflexes for us as human beings, both sheer survival techniques and also a matter of common sense and mental stability. But there's also the potential here for enormous strain and self-destruction. If we walk on to the stage, or into a lesson, with an excessive hunger for approval or adulation we stifle something inside us. Aside from any moral or cultural distaste one might have for boastful, egotistical people, such self-absorption rarely makes sense from a purely practical standpoint. It's like driving on the highway and looking too closely at the car in the next lane – the lack of perspective is dizzying and dangerous. Or like seeing reality in a mirror – observing ourselves only through the eyes of others and their approval or lack of it. The great pianist, Egon Petri, once said that we would never be nervous if we were humble. It's not a matter of not caring, or of being a shrinking violet, but of practical mental health.
This is a battle with the self which is never completely won, and each defeat can be a further source of discouragement! I’m certainly far from victory and constantly have to remind myself again and again of these issues. But that bad masterclass, that failed audition, that vicious review, that memory lapse can pass us by unscathed if we can try to transcend the debris of our wounded egos. Whatever musical talent we have, whether great or modest, will flourish better in the larger garden of ultimate reality than in the cramped plant-pots of our own small worlds. To reach beyond ourselves in achievement is an ambition which can best be achieved by looking beyond our ‘selves’. That is after all what ‘ecstasy’ means, to stand outside: not as an ‘outsider’ but as one passionately involved, with a perspective that’s as large as the reality it aims to contemplate.