The Weird Pianos Club

If you’re a pianist that likes to work, you’ve probably played on some weird pianos. Which is a nice way of saying that you’ve probably played on some teeerrrrible pianos. And if you’ve been doing this for awhile now, you’ve probably been in some really bizarre staging situations. Like, piano under the stage, piano behind a wall, piano elevated in a corner…

Those last examples were in reference to some delightful surprises my group and I have had upon showing up to perform. I say delightful only HALF sarcastically, because challenges are fun, and life would be super boring if you only played on super excellent pianos with acoustically perfect halls. Then you’d have only yourself to blame if you sounded bad (just kidding, don’t ever do that. Pianists who blame the piano all the time can make your teeth hurt. Myself included). I mean, no Superhero ever got his powers without some sort of freak trauma. After getting through a performance where none of the string players could see me and I could see only one of their backs, I realized that we didn’t really need to see each other to stay together. I feel like Matt Murdock would have approved.

Here are a few things I’ve gathered from over the years:

  • Baseline = Anything is possible
    • It’s sort of a necessary experience for any touring group to play in situation where your stage plot seems impossible to deal with. It shows you that yes, actually, it can be done. My group has been in more than a few situations where we can’t see or hear each other well, and some where we can’t see each other at all. And yet, remarkably, we’ve not had any casualties. You gain invaluable trust and confidence as an ensemble when you realize that there are other methods for staying together than just visual cues. Impossible is a knee jerk reaction.
  • Don’t make an ass out of u and me.
    • What we performers assume is obvious and common sense when booking a classical chamber group is really not. You cannot just assume people know that the stage has to accommodate both the piano AND the string players when they hire a piano quartet. A lot of people naturally think that means 4 pianists, which it also can. How could they know? Wouldn’t we be just as ignorant in booking say, a comedian, or a magician? It’s not like we would know the exact staging for a punk rock band. And even if they’ve seen us play at home at Herter Hall, the piano quartet set up can be confusing. It’s not a simple triangulation of violin, piano, cello. Somehow, the poor violist has to fit, and often the pianist will only be partially seen by the audience in the best of circumstances. So send a stage plot and –
  • check your indigence
    • It’s kind of a default for us. You arrive somewhere, and they don’t have what you expect. Like maybe the piano hasn’t been tuned, or its been offstage doing double duty of holding a lovely flower arrangement. And you’re all “did they NOT know that the piano was going to be used for the concert?” And it isn’t until you get home that you realize you never sent them a rider. And then you’re all like “Oh man, I hope I didn’t act like too much of a jerk”. Things like this often get passed through a chain of command, and whoever was helping you was just trying to follow orders. Always be gracious, because people only remember the ones who acted like a dick, not who was right or wrong.
  • It’s good for you!
    • Learning to adjust constantly to wildly different instruments in our reality. You really can’t say to every single person in the audience that “I swear I’m a good pianist! But this piano you heard me on is a piece of *&#*! It really makes me sound soooo much worse than I am!” A bad instrument is not going to make you a lesser musician. Don’t give it more credit than it deserves. Pianos are like people – the less critical you are of them, the more you’ll find them working with you instead of against you.

This list was really a (selfish) endeavor in order to prevent more diva pianism from cropping up, either in myself or in others. But I’m sure there’s much more to add to it! Are you in the Weird Piano Club? What do you think should be kept in mind in these situations?

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