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The lonesome pianist

Okay, stop me if I’m being crazy here, but: is it lonely playing the piano?

No, no, I have a thought process. See, the thing that every once in a great while I almost miss enough to start playing an instrument again is the feeling you get, as part of an orchestra, of being inside the music. Surrounded on all sides by fellow musicians, together creating this great swelling sound, and you live there together. Certainly you don’t get this feeling as a soloist or practicing, but at least as kids growing up playing music in school, most of us had that experience – part of the musical group.

Except pianists.

Look, I’m not saying that we’ve purposefully ostracized the pianists, or that anyone’s tried to keep them out. And of course they have their own parts in full orchestra pieces, piano concertos and the like. But they’re not integrated much, are they? You call on the pianist as an accompanist or for a bit part in a random piece that calls for a couple chords and then they go away for the rest of the concert. Meanwhile the piano kid is handed piano scores and etudes to handle alone.

It’s not the same as the Great Schism of Band and Orchestra – once you get out into the big, scary world, the two come together again in the Symphonic Orchestra of Healing. It seems the pianist always inhabits a world of solos and backups, like an understudy in the Justice League. “You’re definitely important here, Devil’s Triad, but we really don’t need your particular skills right now. We’ll call you when we’ve got something that requires both hands.” (Devil’s Triad is my superhero name, in case you were wondering.)

I’m not speaking as an insider here – I switched from piano to violin in the fourth grade – but this is my perception of things. Pianists, you can give it to me straight: is it lonely playing the piano?

About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


16 thoughts on “The lonesome pianist

  1. Hi Jenn! I play the piano and never ever ever found it lonely. Then again, I do I’m not a professional, its just my passion..

    Posted by Sofia | April 2, 2013, 8:27 am
  2. Good question… Kind of yes and no springs to mind. Here are some thoughts.

    Chamber music/playing with others is/should be a big part of every musician’s life in every field. There is of course the soloist/competition mentality that infects a lot of pianists who never see the light of day or indeed know of the existence of other instruments. They are pale, withered creatures who wi…

    Also, a lot of piano teacher mentality views chamber music as ‘not-piano-music’ – that’s it’s fine as an on-the-side thing but it’s not wholesome enough.(To be fair though, the pianist is at a disadvantage because chamber music often crosses the line into ‘accompaniment.’) In fact we’re kind of indoctrinated to believe that the only way to be a proper pianist is to practice the mainstream repertoire…alone, enter competitions and give recitals…alone, and ultimately attempt to make a name for ones-self… alone. Other collaborators don’t enter into it and ironically it creates a culture of best-to-worst pianism, where pianists subordinate themselves to better pianists and often prefer to remain in obscurity. It thus stops becoming an artistic endeavour and becomes a sport

    Anyway all good concerto-pianists (and indeed good concertos) treat the genre like ‘large chamber music’ rather than soloist and expendable, bored-looking minions.

    Oh yes. Orchestral piano. There are some works involving piano as an substantial orchestral instrument (Grainger, Colin Mcphee , Heiner Goebbels etc) out there but you’re completely right in saying it’s often a token part… particularly if there’s a celeste involved. I once spent more time moving between piano and celeste than actually playing.

    So I guess for many pianists (and according to the correct pianist pathway) it is very heavily biased towards a lonely solo career. But this is probably neither healthy nor the only way to go about it. Variety, spice, life et al.

    Thanks for the rant opportunity!

    Posted by semanticmarmot | April 2, 2013, 8:52 am
  3. Sorry that should have read “pale withered creatures who will stop at nothing for another hour in a practice room.”

    Posted by semanticmarmot | April 2, 2013, 8:53 am
  4. For me (an amateur) Mostly piano playing is alone, but never lonely. I think the two are quite different and relate more to a state of mind. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Posted by pianolearner | April 2, 2013, 11:09 am
  5. I agree that we don’t have that much orchestral experience, and when we do, (playing the piano, organ or celesta in the orchestra) we can be the “rara avis” of the group.. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But I have never felt lonely as a pianist (I’m a professional, btw). Plenty of fantastic chamber music repertoire, not to mention vocal accompaniment! Also being a repetiteur, working in the opera is another non-soloistic (if the word exists!) option.

    It is also to our great privilege as pianists that our repertoire is vast, diverse, and entirely independent, we don’t need and “accompanist” for instance (apart from concerti, of course) which makes us “self-sufficient” musicians, probably the origin of us being viewed as lonely people. However, I think most of us love sharing and performing music with other players too! Back in my old study years, we used to think of organists as the “lonely” (maybe also.. nerdy? ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) ones- !!!! Any organists there? ๐Ÿ™‚ hehe

    Posted by Maite | April 2, 2013, 1:29 pm
  6. I sang in a choir so I totally get the concept of feeling part of something larger and being part of the music by playing in an orchestra. But as a pianist I think that I experience something vaguely similar, but in a different way: I tend to find the same kind of wonder as a result of creating the music by myself with nobody else, single(double?)-handedly. I never find it lonely.

    Posted by Alex | April 2, 2013, 6:49 pm
  7. I actually chose violin over piano in ninth grade for that exact reason: I couldn’t keep practicing both instruments and it was lonely playing the piano. As a violinist, I love playing string quartets and being in a symphony is amazing. It’s the best thing ever being part of something that powerful and magnificent. I picked up the piano again recently, though mainly because I wanted to learn some chamber music and accompaniment parts to violin sonatas! But I think my philosophy on all this is just because I highly prefer playing with other musicians over playing solos in any instrument.

    Posted by yarnscientist | April 2, 2013, 8:58 pm
  8. Once the music starts to fill the air, you are taken off into another dimension. Time and space as you know it stands still. A euphoria comes over you, bringing every nerve ending to life allowing you to be one a part of the music you are playing. You don’t feel isolated or alone; you feel like you are a part of setting more…

    Posted by Christine Petrolati | April 3, 2013, 2:37 am

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