Musical Performance, a Craft

I never developed a philosophy for jazz music and related genres. Regarding classical music, this was different, for I had from the start the intuition that classical music has some sort of philosophical basis. This intuition of mine was fully confirmed by the play of Svjatoslav Richter that I discovered in my early 20s.

—See my site, Svjatoslav Richter: A Retrospective, where I try to convey details about Richter’s musical genius and provide many Youtube links to his immensely convincing recordings.

Now, it was only in the interview with Johannes Schaaf in Tours, in German language, that Richter conveyed details about his own musical philosophy. He said he considered musical performance as a craft and the performer as a craftsman. This, he explained, was an important attitude that reflected itself in the way a pianist would practice the piano on a daily basis.

Let us inquire more deeply into this for I found this view really uncanny in the beginning and now have made it to my own musical philosophy and guidance for piano practice. To begin with, a craftsman differs from the virtuoso in that the public performance as well as fame and glory are largely secondary for him or her. What counts is the firm attitude that invites to a stoic handling of performance difficulties as well as a steady track record of daily piano practice. Richter emphasized that there should be at least 3 hours per day reserved for piano practice which consisted primarily in repeating the pieces over and over again to learn them. This repetition, he urged, is the basis of perfection, the perfection needed for playing any classical piano piece convincingly for any audience.

Contrary to pianists who emphasized the emotional impact of the music offered in public performances by the pianist—such as Arthur Rubinstein and Claudio Arrau—Richter’s view is by and large unemotional and rational, as well as analytical and philosophical.. Through my own accidented pianistic development, I found that indeed repetition is fundamental in learning the pieces and in handling them pianistically in the best mode possible. For when you see things that way, you become largely unafraid to play mistakes over and over again for you know that with the repetition this will reduce by and by, being replaced by ‘valid code’ so to speak, and beautiful lines of expression.

Richter has expressed himself often times about the uselessness of piano etudes and I have to give here an additional argument. Next to being useless, what the regular practice of playing etudes does is to induce feelings of inferiority, as there are no limits to the mechanical mastering of those, and anxiety. Emotional satisfaction and reward, on the other hand, is gained from playing ‘real music’ instead of fooling around, hacking around and trying around music that was composed ‘for a purpose.’ In other words, playing etudes is a waste of time; instead playing real music brings progress, but proper repetition has to be built-in the daily practice.

You can compare it with learning a foreign language. Everybody agrees that for learning languages lots of repetition is needed. Now, the practice of a musical instrument is also a language: the language of the music herself, and the language of the piano, with its mechanical details. How does the human body relate to the playing mechanism, for example, is one of those questions. Some piano teachers emphasize these technical aspects quite a lot but it is the wrong attitude, in my opinion, for one gets too much on the technical side of matters, while the focus should always be the music herself.

With this attitude of a craftsman, as a craftsman-pianist, so to speak, you will master every difficulty in piano performance, for the difficulty is no more difficult when you repeat the passage over and over again. This is a good thing, for you stop dissecting musical wholeness through judging musical pieces are ‘easy’ or ‘difficult.’ As this is constantly the habit of most students at music conservatories, they thereby inhibit their free learning and expression of piano music for they focus on the negative instead of being positive-minded overall. And it’s all arbitrary after all. For example, is Schumann’s Carnaval easy or difficult to play? Is Album for the Youth or Kinderszenen easier, or more difficult?

Well, this depends entirely on your attitude. The simple-looking pieces for beginners by Schumann and other composers are really not simple to play, most of them are difficult to perform in their childlike expressiveness, for you need to get down to this level of purity, which is not easy today, in our society of mass consumption and gadget-addiction! Carnaval is easy to play for the dedicated pianist, who practices stoically on a daily basis, and with a consistent framework of commitment: 3 hours! Or 2 hours only, but consistently and persistently and regularly!