Piano, My Clunky, Clumsy, Brash Inelegant Cousin

A funny thing happened to me this summer. When I made the switch to harpsichord, I was positive that I would never play piano seriously again. I had fallen head over heels in love with the harpsichord. It was more enticing, more alluring, more satisfying to play. I felt more of a physical connection with the harpsichord than I ever felt with the piano. I loved feeling the pluck, that little bit of resistance before the plectrum plucks the string. I loved exploring the different ways I could manipulate the sound with my touch and delighted in hearing how only a subtle change in physical movement (playing with the tips of my fingers versus playing with the pad of my fingers, getting a fast pluck versus getting a slow pluck) could create a difference in sound so vast that the color palette of the harpsichord seemed full of endless possibilities. I still love all these things about harpsichord playing. Of course I do. I’m a harpsichordist, god damnit!


But my first instrument was the piano, and it was my gateway instrument, the instrument that introduced me to everything that I love about music. Not to mention that I have two degrees in playing the damn thing. And although, if I’m completely honest with myself, I never loved playing piano, I did love the music. That’s probably why I played it for as long as I did–well that, and I didn’t even know harpsichord was an option until I realized that harpsichord was an option.
The piano and me were finished. I still had to play it on occasion, mostly to make money (nothing pays the bills like accompanying), but playing it was never fun. Compared to the harpsichord, the piano felt clunky, clumsy, brash, and inelegant. I still loved the music, but I was happy to be a listener of that music, I felt no urge to be a performer of that music. I had enough music I wanted to perform on the harpsichord.


Then this summer I had a sudden urge, like how you crave a greasy slice of dollar pizza after drinking too much. The urge was to play Beethoven. I don’t know why, but it suddenly wasn’t enough just to listen to Beethoven, I had to play Beethoven. It’s one thing to listen to a piece, but you get to know a piece differently when you play it. You live with it longer, you get to know every detail, you have to figure out what it’s trying to say. And once that work is done, it feels like the piece is in some way yours; that you’re trying to convey to your listeners what you love about the piece. You’ve created an intimate relationship with the piece and that relationship shows when you play it.


I guess that you can gain the same kind of intimate knowledge of a piece by analyzing it. But that wasn’t enough for me. I’m a performer and what I like to do is show people all the interesting facets of a piece through performance rather than telling people about it in the abstract (though that’s not to say I don’t value the work of theorists and musicologists. I think the opposite. I have theorists and musicologists to thank for the way I look at, listen to, and perform music, and in many ways these scholars have been more influential teachers to me than my private teachers. But that’s a subject for another blog post). And after all the time I spent wanting to perform only harpsichord music, I had to play Beethoven. Really, I missed him and wanted to get reacquainted.
When I felt the initial urge to play Beethoven, part of me wanted to be a little subversive and play him on the harpsichord. After all, many of his early sonatas say that it can be played on either harpsichord or piano–Moonlight is one designated for both instruments, the Pathetique is another. And though playing those sonatas designated for both instruments on the harpsichord is still a project I have in mind, I really wanted to play Beethoven on the piano.


It didn’t feel right, though. It felt like I was cheating on the harpsichord. So, I found a good compromise. I decided to learn the Beethoven sonata on fortepiano. The simplest way of describing the technique of playing fortepiano is that it’s halfway between harpsichord playing and modern piano playing. You’re still using a lot of harpsichord techniques with some additional fingerings that are more quote-unquote modern. Also, knee pedals are a lot of fun.


So, I played a Beethoven sonata, op. 28, the Pastoral, on the fortepiano. And it was fun. Part of the fun was learning how to play a damn fortepiano (not easy, let me tell you), but most of the fun came from hanging out with Beethoven again. As much as I love the composers of the baroque, they don’t write like Beethoven. That’s not a value judgment, it’s just a statement of fact. The styles are completely different and it was fun to be back in the world of Beethoven. It felt familiar, like stepping into your grandma’s place, but it also felt new. New because the years of playing earlier music helped me recognize how much early music is still in Beethoven. I saw opportunities for ornamentation, different places for rubato that I would never have taken before, and recognized certain stock progressions that composers since the beginning of tonality have always found uses for (there’s a great Pachabel canon progression in the fourth movement of op. 28, used as an effective transition to a new key in the exposition then altered in the recap in a way that makes it sound like a cheesy pop tune from the 1950s).  


I had an opportunity to play op. 28 in a masterclass and also perform two movements of the sonata. It was a great way of having my cake and eating it too. Not only did I get to play Beethoven again, playing it on the fortepiano still kept me in the field of early music. It wasn’t as huge a transgression on the harpsichord as playing the modern piano would have been. After that experience, I thought my desire to play piano was done. I was wrong.


Every summer for the past eight years, I have this music camp job. The job requires me to play piano as an accompanist to the campers and also collaborations with the other faculty. I love that job, but playing piano is not my favorite part of it. Many years I just brought a harpsichord with me and performed on it in faculty recitals. This year, I wasn’t bringing a harpsichord with me (even though, I eventually ended up bringing one with me because I happened to buy one just before camp started…but again that’s another blog post) and as I thought about what I might want to perform on faculty recitals, I suddenly thought of Liszt.
Well not Liszt exactly. Really I thought of Wagner. I had heard the NY Phil give a concert performance of Das Rheingold and afterwards, I had all this Wagner envy. I love Wagner and I resented the fact that I chose an instrument that would never allow me to play Wagner. Except, there was one way I could play Wagner: the Liszt transcriptions. And there was that transcription of the Liebestod I had always wanted to play and it was just the right length to keep the attention of a group of teenagers and it was about dying for love, a stupid romantic concept that I knew the kids would eat up.


I began working on the Liszt-Wagner Liebestod. This time there was no question of instrument. It would be the modern piano. Practicing felt weird. The instrument never felt natural to me, but after years away, I felt like my piano muscles had atrophied. Long stretches of tremolos, extended arpeggios, and thick chords, all things that I remember being not difficult, were giving me trouble. I almost gave up many times. But I couldn’t give up. The piece was so beautiful and I was learning so much about it, the way it keeps delaying resolution until that magic moment when it lets loose (the Liszt transcription of that moment is pianistically outrageous, yet also somehow appropriate, and greatly satisfying).


Suddenly, I was practicing piano more than I was practicing harpsichord. And I was enjoying it. After tackling all the technical hurdles of the Liszt, I found myself getting lost in making the thing sound good. I was experimenting with my approach to the keys, trying to get a sound I thought was as close to the orchestral sound of Wagner as I could. I was intrigued by the challenge of bringing out inner voices, making them sound like they were independent instrumental lines. I was enamored with creating a performance that builds to that orgasmic climax.


Yet, at the same time I was having an existential crisis. What was wrong with me? Why was I playing the piano so much? I’m a harpsichordist, damn it. Why waste time not playing your instrument?  And why are you enjoying it so much? But then the Liebestod would call and I couldn’t ignore it. That’s when I recognized what was happening.
I’ve always compared being in music to being addicted to drugs. You want to stop, you know there are other things you can do, but you just can’t help but do it. You just can’t do anything else no matter how hard you try. I feel the same with my nicotine addiction. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to kick cigarettes.


In regards to my new found enjoyment of playing piano, I realized that it wasn’t the piano calling me at all. The fix I needed was the music. It wasn’t the piano I was compelled to play. It was Beethoven and it was Liszt that I felt compelled to play. I loved these pieces and I had been away from these pieces for a long time. I needed to get to know these pieces again. It was this reunion of sorts that I was enjoying, not the piano playing. Playing the piano was my only method of experiencing these composers again. That was why I was playing piano again. I knew that the enjoyment would disappear once I had to play a piece that I didn’t want to play, as happens when you play piano professionally (Hindemith Tuba Sonata, anyone?). I wasn’t playing piano for the sake of playing piano. I was playing piano because I loved the pieces I was playing on it. It was the music, not the instrument.
The opposite is true for harpsichord. I love playing harpsichord for the sake of playing harpsichord. I can spend hours playing just one note, experimenting with the different ways I can play that note and be satisfied. Don’t get me wrong. I love the repertoire for the harpsichord too and I feel just as compelled to play that music as much as I wanted to play Beethoven, but playing the harpsichord brings me joy the way playing the piano does not. I’m happy to play anything on the harpsichord, even (shudder) Elliot Carter (that’s also not a value judgment on Carter, I’m just commenting on how freaking difficult he is to play). Harpsichord is my vocation. Piano is now my avocation.
My summer playing piano only confirmed for me that I’m a harpsichordist, but it also confirmed for me that I’m a musician first. The harpsichord is my instrument without a doubt, but I now see no reason to limit myself if I have the desire to play a piece I love that happens to be for piano. What’s the point of denying myself, especially when I have the means and (somewhat) the ability to play?
The piano was the beginning of my musical journey and though our relationship was somewhat rocky, somewhat contentious, I can’t deny that it’s still a part of me. It will probably always be a part of me. You can never forget where you come from, no matter how hard you try. I guess now the piano and I have come to some form of reconciliation; it’s now part of my musical family again, sort of like a distant cousin you see only once in a while at weddings or funerals. I still think it’s clunky, clumsy, brash, and inelegant, but those clunky, clumsy, brash, inelegant cousins can be fun to hang out with, and, whether you like it or not, they’re your clunky, clumsy, brash, inelegant cousins. You might as well embrace them.

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