The things new music pianists know

Those pianists who play a lot of new music will recognise certain things experienced during the course of their careers. Some also apply to other instrumentalists/vocalists and other types of musicians. Here are some of them……

(Caution: this list should not be read by composers as a statement of intent never to do such things! 🙂 )

  • What it is like to sit on your stool, having played something marked ‘verklingen lassen’, for what seems like an eternity, while there are still some vibrations going, and wanting to tell the piano ‘get on with it’.
  • Playing something very quiet at one end of the piano, then having to move to the other end to play something equally quiet, and trying in vain not to shift your weight on the seat such as will cause the stool to creak very obviously.
  • Middle pedals which like to pick and choose from the notes you have depressed, in terms of which ones they will sustain, but then like to pick some more up as you proceed.
  • The hardest passages of a piece have to be left to the very end of a recording session, when you are completely knackered, because they might put the piano out of tune.
  • Pencils which continuously gravitate to the top of the raised keyboard lid, dying to fall down inside the instrument.
  • That sinking feeling when you get a score which includes lots of stopped harmonics inside the instrument.
  • Accidentals before grace notes, for which the difference between a natural and a sharp can only be distinguished with the aid of a microscope.
  • That terrible feeling of guilt when playing an atonal/serial piece and one wrong note produces an unwanted consonance.
  • A3 scores placed in a carrier bag (because they are too big for other cases), sticking out of the top a bit, then you have to walk somewhere with the bag, and it’s raining.
  • The composers on account of whose handwriting you want to pay yourself for a copy of Sibelius for them.
  • Trying to lower the pedal very slowly and carefully for a rounded damping of the strings, then the result sounds more like they are being touched by razor blades.
  •  If the performance goes down well, all praise will be upon the composer. If not, likely the performer will be held responsible.
  • Annoying people saying to you, ‘what does it matter if you play the right notes or not? Just make it up as you go along, no-one will know the difference.’ Then free improvisers dismissing what you do because you are not making it up as you go along.
  • Playing a long passage for both hands in the bass from the right hand page of an A3 landscape score. (contributed by Karl Lutchmayer)
  • Explaining why it is pointless to put down the middle pedal when you already have the right one depressed.
  • Seeing pp and thinking ‘am I allowed to use the una corda for that, or does it have to be ppp at least?’
  • Conservative owners of venues who are convinced that if you play music with many dissonant harmonies, it will do more damage to their instrument.
  • That slightly smug expression on the face of a friend you see before a concert, or during the interval, as they hold a drink in their hand.
  • That terror at the prospect of not having brought one of the scores with you.
  • Keeping a very large repertoire on the go, always changing and expanding, while knowing some non-new-music ‘great players’ get the chance to play the same programme 50 times before they have to work on more.
  • When another non-new-music ‘great player’ plays a short work of Stockhausen, Berio or Ligeti every once in a while, and receive immense praise for their commitment to the music of our time.
  • Pretending to look for the composer in the audience to bring to the stage, when all you can see is a sea of indistinguishable faces and a bright light above them dazzling you.
  • Exchanging stories with other new music pianists about just how late before the first performance you got that score.
  • The other extreme, the composers who expect you to be able to play their piece to them six weeks or more before the concert.
  • Performing a work using electronics, for which hours are used up during the rehearsal because something doesn’t work. When it does work, it produces a few faint ambient sounds at occasional places in the work.
  • Pieces with electronics in which you play something and it is repeated and looped back at you, and you feel violated as a result.
  •  In order to do some things on the strings, having to place the music stand some way back under the piano lid, so that an A3 score will never stay up (it catches the lid), the page turner cannot reach it, there is little light shining on it (and the lights cannot be adjusted), and the score was too small anyhow, even on an A3 page, let alone for distance viewing.
  • Practising stuff involving stopping, damping, plucking strings, then having one hour to practise that music for a performance on a piano with beams in wholly different places, and where the places you need to stop strings lie underneath other cross strings.
  • The absolute total impossibility of playing inside the instrument, on a new piano, and being able to look at any other musician or a conductor at the same time.
  • Composers telling you ‘It’s all done, I just need to write it down.’
  • How pianists’ first gift is not singing, acting, playing percussion instruments, kazoos, etc.
  • Getting to a page like this, playing the ppp note fff, then hating yourself for the rest of the piece. (contributed by Ben Smith)LIE
  • Just as it is easy to push a door which says PULL on it in large letters, it is easy to play a note marked ppp as fff.
  • That yearning for a dynamic which lies somewhere between ppp/pppp and fff/ffff.
  • When you have to play a piece for prepared piano and mallets on the strings and you end up using the mallets upside down to pick up the preparation from under the strings (during the performance, of course!) (contributed by Lorenda Ramou)
  • There is no document you would guard more from prying eyes than the edit list on one of your recordings.

6 Comments on “The things new music pianists know”

  1. Alistair Hinton says:

    “Explaining why it is pointless to put down the middle pedal when you already have the right one depressed”. I love this one especially! It’s a very important one but does have some other aspects, though, in so saying, although I’m not a pianist, the original sostenuto pedal mechanism on my 1896 Steinway C piano did not allow properly for legato pedalling and I asked the technician who went through the entire instrument to restore it to its former glory to make that work as it does on a modern instrument and, mercifully, he did, although the procedure was onerous and tiresome! The interaction between the middle and right pedal is an important one and has to be properly understood by any piano composer who wants to make the most of what’s available; I recall having extensive discussions with Ronald Stevenson about this very subject.

  2. Lenio Liatsou says:

    Really enjoyed this article – finally someone spoke!!!
    also I would add these to the points:
    – experiencing serious backache, although you consider yourself  to be physically fit, after practicing a piece where you have to stand up and sit down every 5 seconds to play inside and then back on the keys of the instrument.
    – carrying your little but heavy bag of those strange unrelated objects that you got from a hardware shop for the sake of preparation, and worrying that they might stop you from entering your plane because they look suspicious.

  3. I would add that my work involves me as pianist and composer therefore a new series of elements come into play

  4. I would add that my work involves me as pianist and composer therefore a new series of elements come into play there is no duplicate comment on this

  5. it could also be a list of things to do… and record

  6. Sasha Valeri Millwood says:

    An excellent list, to which I beg leave to offer a few additional items:

    + composers who are determined to write *everything* in 4/4, regardless of the pulse and meter implicit in the music itself, and regardless of irregularities therein (I just rebar their music without asking permission… but this strategy becomes less practical if there is a conductor involved);

    + composers who are determined to eschew key signatures, even for passages that are manifestly diatonic;

    + composers who are obsessed with *exact* conformance to a computer-generated MIDI recording with absolutely no artistic nuance (if they think such a MIDI recording is so perfect, why engage a human performer at all?) [NB: this is *not* intended in any way as a criticism of Nancarrow, whose music for player-pianoforte I admire enormously, or of any other composer who writes music that actually sounds compelling when performed by a machine];

    + composers/editors who are overzealous in their deployment of ottava signs and clef changes (if it is only for a couple of notes in the middle of a phrase, it is usually *easier* for us to read the ledger-lines instead — that way, we have an immediate sense of the *shape* of a phrase and the intervals between notes).


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