I have a new video up on YouTube: “Pagodes” from Debussy’s Estampes.
That’s not my best performance of Pagodes, I think, but it’s hard to get everything right in a video.
There’s been a few months delay in getting another video out, and there are various reasons for that. One is that the piano went way out of tune after the heat came on and it just sounded dreadful. But also I was trying to sort out my thoughts and feelings about doing these kinds of performances.
One thing I’ve noted is that I tend to play pieces quite differently from day to day, more variation than I recall doing when I was younger. I think that this is part of the difference between playing and performing. For me, when I prepare a performance, I’m designing the experience. I have a plan for each piece, how it should proceed, how this effect will come across, how I’ll amaze my audience with this fast section, how I’ll surprise them with this subito piano. I then have to practice to build up the skill to actually execute this plan. In a live performance, I have to take my chances that it will actually come off.
But playing is another matter. There, I’m just investigating the music by feeling my way through it. Sure, I have ideas about parts of pieces, and I always play them the same way. And sure, I’m practicing to be able to execute the piece effectively and accurately. But there’s not some ideal version of it in my mind that I’m trying to realize, some blueprint for the experience. As a result, I’ll play the piece faster today than yesterday, or I’ll try engaging the melody a different way, or just feel differently about the piece in some vague, undefined way. This is what I’ve been doing for the past few months and loving it.
I read an article in the newspaper not long ago about a young pianist coming to perform in New Jersey. He said a typical thing—that every time he performs it’s different, it’s all about creativity in the moment. In the past I’ve always dismissed that kind of talk because my experience was that you planned a performance carefully. But now I’m seeing that perhaps what I call “playing” is really what some pianists do in performance. Perhaps one becomes so fluid with it that a performance really is just getting up there and playing. For me it never was that way. That’s probably one reason I didn’t become a concert pianist!
So much of the joy I’m finding in playing now was hidden to me in the past because I was focused on performing. As a piano major, of course, it was natural to make impressive performances my priority. And youth had a lot to do with it, too: the urge to impress and outdo my peers, or just plain showing off. But now that I’m older and free from the burden of making a living from the piano, I’m discovering new ways that it fits into my life, and playing is one of them.
After I did the Chopin videos in the fall I became very aware of how dangerous performing can be, especially on the Internet. It can so feed my ego in an unskillful way. That’s what I was feeling when I first did the videos, logging into YouTube every day to see how many people had seen me and if they had left comments. Pay attention to me! I want to impress you! These are natural desires, but it is not skillful to indulge them. So I avoided doing another one for awhile. I’d been enjoying playing so much that I was concerned that I’d break something of the magic by doing performance videos.
Last month our friend Elizabeth Brown came to visit, and I played Palais de mari for her and Frances. Because of the setting, the piece, and the company, it felt different than a “real” performance. It was another new experience for me: just sharing something I that could do without as much pressure to impress, be perfect, etc. It was truly playing for others. It was very sociable, another throwback to an earlier time when the home piano was the center of one’s musical life.
So I’ve changed and relaxed my attitude towards videos. I’ve realized that these aren’t formal performances, really. Instead, I think of them as playing for friends. You’re in my living room (well, dining room, actually) and I’m entertaining you by playing something that I know. I’ve got a few more that I’d like to do before the piano wanders too far out of tune again.