Tuesday, March 3, 2009

if only I didn't need to earn a living...

Recently I was discussing with some students the fact that the word "amateur" did not always have such a negative connotation. It refers to someone who does something for love, as opposed to a "professional" who does it as, well, a profession - a job to earn a living. Needless to say, it is a great attainment to be a pianist who is so good that he or she would be paid money by the public. But I am, from time to time, reminded that truly great music making is sometimes hampered by the need to make money. We have all been witness to the "dumbing-down" of concert programs, which, in theory, are meant to appeal to as wide an audience as possible by including Celine Dion arrangements alongside the Pachelbel Canon and, if we are lucky, a well-known Beethoven Symphony. It also has influenced what Artur Schnabel long-ago referred to as "the cult of the celebrity", where the public only gets to hear the same old established names - the tired, bored performers of 150 concerts per year, who can sell tickets on the strength of reputation alone. Concert presenters are reluctant to take risks - they may know that a performer is fantastic, but is not well-known to the general public, and hence they are afraid of not being able to sell enough tickets.

A saying I heard once went something like this: when bankers get together they talk about music; when musicians get together they talk about money. I think this is a result of not quite being able to forget about money (of course these days bankers are in more trouble than musicians) - if we were independently wealthy we could focus on "art for art's sake" without a care in the world. On the other hand, a life of ease doesn't seem to *inspire* in the same way that struggle, economic or otherwise, does. Mendelssohn was fortunate to be born in to a well-to-do family and never needed to worry about money. His music, for all its beauty (and I would say that he is somewhat undervalued as a composer) does tend to lack in, well, urgency. Schubert, on the other hand, was more or less destitute despite his genius, and the music from his last few years in particular forms one of the most deeply profound, moving, even overwhelming expressions of emotion I can think of (though this perhaps was motivated not only by poverty, but also by failing health - he died at age 31). I know that one of the most productive 12-month periods in my own life was when I was in graduate school at the New England Conservatory, where I lived in a very very cold apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts and couldn't afford to eat meat. (I ate a lot of rice). My coat had holes in it and things seemed pretty hopeless. I spent between 8 and 11 hours a day practicing on the pianos at New England Conservatory in part because NEC is a very very warm place (temperature-wise) and also because at the piano my ears, heart, and mind inhabited a wonderful world full of beauty and color, unlike the gray, frozen world that I actually lived in. By the end of that difficult year, I was getting quite a lot of recognition for my playing and was being offered many concerts. It is hard to know if I would have worked just as hard if I had not been a starving artist.

Last night I had the opportunity to play in a concert featuring my students at the Boston Conservatory. One of my students was suddenly unable to participate, and I took his place, since the concert was to include all 24 Rachmaninov Preludes, and without this student 2 of the Preludes would have been missing. It was wonderful to play not for money but simply to be part of a wonderful project, a collaboration among 12 pianists to share great music with our community (it was attended mostly by other students, and by a handful of others). I have to say I prefer this - playing a concert for the sake of playing instead of thinking about my fee, whether I will be invited back to the same concert series, if the critic will give me a good review, etc. I was just as concerned with playing my best and doing justice to Rachmaninov, but without any thoughts of my career.

In fact I can say that the most meaningful experiences I have had at the instrument have not been on the stage of great concert halls. About 10 years ago I was at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and some of my dear friends (who were not professional musicians) asked me a favor. One of their friends, someone I never met, was dying of cancer, and they knew she loved music. They arranged to have a piano around the corner of her bedroom, where she was resting (I never even saw the woman) and I played for an hour or so, playing some late Brahms pieces, some Schubert, and I can't remember what else. I think she only lived a few more weeks after this visit. I knew that this performance meant more than my New York or London debuts did, more than the concertos I have played with great orchestras and great conductors. Great music making is not about crowds and standing ovations and quotable reviews - it is about a personal connection, about moving and touching someone, communicating something that cannot be communicated any other way.

If only I didn't need to earn a living playing the piano... Of course, if anyone out there has a few million in extra cash I'd take it and start living my dream...


Stan said...

There are a few interesting themes here. But as for "art for art's sake", on the one hand, one can always play whatever one wants for one's own private pleasure. However, in playing for a public -- any public -- it's not unreasonable for the public to have certain expectations, and then if communication with the public is important (it's important to the public -- they showed up), then there has to be a response to the public's desire.
This is always a problem of actually earning one's living doing what one loves, especially if that love is some kind of art to be displayed somehow in public. I mean, if you are going to try to sell novels, then you'd better write novels which will sell, hopefully without selling out your principles.
I think that as soon as well make our 'art' public, be it musical performance, fine arts exhibition, sports match partcipation, publishing a writing, one immediately has a repsonsibility to a public that is taking int hat art voluntarily. :)

ckoh71 said...

I remember those Somerville days of poverty (during which I was a long term visitor) with affection - but am glad that we're all past that point now. Specifically, I remember being so cold that we huddled around that stove sometimes still wrapping our bodies with sleeping bags. And I recall sharing one beer bottle with you, Ariane, and maybe Won and John Moore? I think that my current job allows me to be a bit too complacent so that I am not really directing my creative energy these days. But being well fed and stable does have its benefits.