String Envy

When I started college my closest friends were a cellist and a violinist. Come to think of it, they were my only friends…but whatever, they were GOOD friends. The type of friends that you walk 120 blocks with because you’re an undergrad in NYC and you have all the time in the world to enjoy rambling conversation before rehearsal. The type of friends who introduced me to things I should have known (the Beatles, Monty Python, Family Guy – I was really oblivious), who wanted my company when they had anxiety, who taught me that it was ok to not go to parties and sightread instead.

Anyway, the important thing here is that they were string players. And playing with them (the violinist and I were in a “serious trio”, we even had a name, woohoo – a portmanteau of all of our surnames squished into something that sounded like a nervous disease) taught me for the first time how to really listen and be positive and affectionate towards other musicians. They demonstrated a joy in togetherness that must have come from growing up playing in youth orchestra or quartets. In that way, they were ahead of many of us pianists, who grew up plinking by ourselves, door closed, our minds yawning because no one else was here to stimulate or challenge it. We rarely had the chance to verbalize our process to others, never getting to that marvelous point of solidifying our ideas through talking it through with another musical mind.

I’ve had wonderful pianist friends since then, and really treasure the ones I got to geek out with on troubleshooting fingerings and hand arrangements. But those pianist friends are rather few and far between, because most often it seemed that pianists wanted to be left alone to their own practice, viewing anyone who popped in as a intrusion. As a contrast, string players always seemed to be playing for each other and solving problems together. Almost as if their peers were their allies! Imagine that.

Lest you think I am a crazy paranoid pianist, I bring up a warning one of my teachers once gave me.

I mean, I AM a crazy paranoid pianist, but not, I think, in this context

I had been getting ready for a competition, and had mentioned during my lesson that I was playing parts of my program through for a fellow studiomate as a way of preparing. My teacher’s eyes got wide and he said something to the tone of “Well, ok. But just be careful. Just take their comments with a grain of salt. When you play through for other pianists, they may not always have your best interest in mind”.

To be honest, I have always found it more helpful to run things through for instrumentalists that do not play what I play. Maybe its because pianists sometimes get bogged down with minute details like how to get around a certain passage, or how Richter does this passage this one way and that’s the gospel, or they’re just so sick of this one piece becuase EVERYONE plays it and its ruined forever. But I’ve had such enlightening comments from string players, whose lack of familiarity with the hang-ups or rhetoric of piano technique gives them a clearer perspective. They would ask for a certain sound which most pianists would immediately pooh-pooh as impossible on the instrument, but you know what? Why don’t I try?

Because the concept of the instant decay of our sound wasn’t intuitive to them, they would listen with ears unhampered by our shortcomings. Their suggestions often got me to try things no one else had asked me to try, and made me realize that there was a lot more color and line at my disposal that I had originally thought.

More importantly, I owe my love for chamber music to all the string players I got close to, for the brilliance and understanding they demonstrated on how to communicate music as a team rather than as an individual. I’ll never forget how blown my mind was when my violinist suggested “why don’t we cue this all together?” and I was like…wait….this can work? Or when I was prompted to listen outside of myself first, instead of as an afterthought. I couldn’t believe how unaware I was before that, busily plinking along with the hope that everything would just sort of line up. (Like magic! The magic being an exasperated violinist who was sick of having to follow me all the time).

Ultimately, I was friends with string players because they were, well, really good friends. They were always willing to drop what they were doing and offer genuine musical feedback. They were always there when you wanted to coalesce a thought with conversation, and their time was not too precious to them because they understood the value of connection in making music.

So here’s to string players, or rather, to making friends with those outside your instrument clique. I don’t mean to spin the tired cliche that all pianists are cray-cray (because we’re not, cray-cray is definitely an equal opportunist), I just mean to say that sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to always have friends with different perspectives. Even if its initially frustrating that they don’t understand your world. Just get over it. It’s just so much more fun to try to “get” other people, than to demand that people “get you”.

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