Trombonist James Markey holds the bass trombone chair at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, after stints in Philadelphia and NYC. He is a fine player in all respects, as you might expect for someone who has played in not one but three of our country’s leading orchestras. In 2003, he released an album titled “Offroad”, on the tenor trombone. It was recommended to me by my trombone teacher as an example of near perfect playing and articulation. I have been listening to the album regularly and using it to hone my expectation for what comes out the bell of my horn. His playing is lyrical, expressive, and highlights the best parts of trombone tone from soft and mellow to biting fortissimo. His legato is particularly excellent, and he seems able to phrase anything to perfection. His recordings are a clinic on beautiful and excellent trombone playing. Highly recommended.
In 2009, he released an album specifically for the bass trombone entitled “on base”. Both are on Spotify, or available online through the usual channels.
Here’s a recent interview where he discusses his background and history with the instrument.
I was struck recently by the reaction provoked on an online forum recently when an amateur (i.e. non-degreed) organist posted a rather extensively researched set of his findings on historical organ registration practices. One highly-learned member took him to task for errors, omissions, and other original sources that might have been considered. A document that was mostly correct, and tremendously educational to most people, was being derided as insufficient, and not of scholarly standards. While no doubt accurate at some level, the critique devastated the author, who had put years of effort into trying to improve his own and others understanding – purely for the love of the art. This author ran into a Curator, but was not one himself, and felt demeaned by the exchange.
As I considered what had happened, I realized that there are two active ways to actively participate in a Museum of Art: be a curator, or be the creative whose work hangs in the museum.
The reality is that curators serve a very valuable purpose, and I’m not seeking to take anything from their earned positions of expertise. There are people in the world, who by training, expertise, and demonstrated accomplishment function as the “keepers of Western Civilization”. Extensively educated, formally certificated, and institutionally placed, they assemble concerts, installations, exhibits, and performances of the core masterworks of Western Civilization – their collected opinion even defines these masterworks as such. They ensure that performance, criticism, and scholarship align with everything that we know and have studied in the past. The bar for excellence is exceptionally high, as it should be – they have chosen to document and represent the pinnacle of 400 years of human artistic endeavor. Their opinion is by no means monolithic, and spirited debates range throughout the community of experts, but the discourse is at a very high level of learning and background. Casual opinions hold no sway in this court of opinion.
In the world of fine-art music, it is this way. If you don’t have a Ph.D or at least a Master’s degree from a reputable institution, it is difficult to amass the background and depth to have one’s opinions taken seriously by the curator-class. There is simply too much material that must be mastered – it really does take several years of dedicated study under master teachers. And, without proper credentials, certain source texts and resources are not readily available or even accessible (and may reside on another continent, or be held in private collections). On the performance side, only a handful of performers tour the globe performing the great masterworks. Of the tens of thousands of conservatory graduates world-wide every year, only a small fraction will ever work in a professional orchestra or as a full-time performing musician, where the chosen few provide museum exhibitions of the great masterworks. The major orchestra’s core audience are museum-goers at heart, people who wish to see the great works of the past, and maybe be introduced to something new, but not in too great measure, or in too extreme a way. So the curators design and perform programs to that end. Mostly “canon” works, with a dash of something new.
And yet, in visual and musical art, the curators typically never create the art that they display. Curators study, catalog, and discuss the work of others, but not their own. In music, classical performers are curators in the main. Yes, they perform at exceptional levels of expressive artistry, but most classical music performers never write anything, except perhaps a cadenza. They do not add to the canon – they merely display it in its best light, much as an art historian might study the best lighting and display techniques for a painting. The issue is relationship to the canon of Western civilization. Curators don’t add to it. Creatives do. In any age, it seems the creative artists, while aware of such things, and perhaps even knowledgeable in them choose instead to make something new, rather than perfect the display of the old. Eventually, the curators recognize this and the artist may be asked to “exhibit” in the Museum of Western Civilization as a “new artist’. This is beauty pageant at its finest – and fraught with all the attendant subjectivities. Given enough time and enough popularity, or significant enough communal acknowledgment, new artists are admitted to the Canon of Western Civilization.
There is no morality attached to either choice – both are vital roles for the continued exploration of what we know as Western Civilization. Those who wish to master the great existing works of Western Civilization may well be best suited by pursuing the formal education and path that leads to the established expertise of a curator. It is likely the only way to be “heard” – there is no international career opportunity for amateur classical performers. For anyone who doesn’t desire, or can’t pursue the formal path to artistic orthodoxy, it makes more sense to directly follow one’s artistic passion early and often – striving to do something different, unique and truly creative. On this path, adherence to Orthodoxy is one choice among many, and not a primary concern.
The creative path is non-linear, disjoint, and has many different milestones than the clear and well-worn path to curatorship in the arts. But it is the way to make it into the history books (even if you don’t write them). Which path makes the most sense for you? Are you chasing it? Would you rather write a history book, or be the person written about?
When I was semi-adjusted to the timezone last week, I had the presence of mind to check the LSO schedule to see if they were playing. As it turns out, they had a strong program of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. The LSO plays in Barbican Centre, not Royal Albert Hall. This is a concrete building from the 60’s that really isn’t that special to look at compared to the rest of London. I think they played in the smaller performance space at the venue, and pretty much every seat in the lower levels was taken. I couldn’t see much of the upper balconies from where I was sitting. Here’s what the orchestra looked like from where I was sitting:
I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, as the musicanship was impeccable throughout. The London audience was also noticeably better behaved than any in the States I’ve been a part of. People sat still during the music, and didn’t move around in their chairs the way that so many people seem to want to do, making noise throughout. No one clapped in between movements, but gave great applause to Bronfman and the orchestra (five times they called back the conductor after the Tchaikovsky). I was particularly impressed with how tight the orchestra was – their rhythmic accuracy never wavered. They played with commendable precision, and each of the string sections played as one player. It was amazing how well they tracked the micro-dynamics and phrasing of each line. I’m sure there are a lot of very nice (and expensive) Strads, Amatis, etc in that orchestra, and the sound was fantastic. I could forever give up synthesized strings. The woodwinds, particularly the bassoon player and the oboe player played very expressively and really made a strong effort. Interestingly, the strings were laid out from left to right: 1st violins, cellos (with basses behind), then on the right side of the stage: violas and the 2nd violins. It was different hearing the bass on the left.
Bronfman played very well, and the crowd was quite enthusiastic about Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. He plays the No. 1 over the weekend after I leave. There are lots of flashy pyrotechnics throughout the 1st and 3rd movements (the scored tempos are 160 and 176 respectively), but I particularly enjoy the beautiful Andante placed between the fireworks. Bronfman played a Steinway. As an encore, he played a showy Liszt piece.
A quick subway ride and I was back at the hotel, thoroughly satisfied, and with snatches of orchestral music running through my head. The level of musicianship was astonishing, and quite inspirational. This is certainly a world-class orchestra, and it was a pleasure to experience it first-hand.
There is a reason that all cultures use music in their worship and that often top musicians honed their craft in either churches, bars, or both. At first this might seem contradictory: what could be more opposite than a church/temple/synagogue and a seedy bar? But, humans go to church or to bars when they wish to alter the condition of their inner self. Whether the goal is to relax, forget, remember, celebrate, or reflect, seeking the Divine or seeking chemical remedy scratch the same itch. Music is typically present at both, and both venues try to have high quality musical performers since there is a link directly to the financial health of these orgnizations. Why is this?
In his excellent book, Thou Shall Prosper, Rabbi Daniel Lapin explores the difference between spiritual and physical characteristics of our task performance. Applied to the pursuit of musical excellence, there is much for us to understand and implement, for the act of making music involves both the spirit and the body. But before exploring this interconnection too deeply, it is significant to understand his use of terms.
The Rabbi begins by explaining that he does not use the word “spiritual” to convey any religious connotation – it merely conveys reality outside the physical tangible world. That such a world exists is easy to demonstrate. Our feelings may have an outward visibility at times, but they exist for us apart from any external reality. Similarly, we can destroy a book, but we have not in any way invalidated any truth it contains. The ideas are still available for others – the truth is transcendent and can be re-discovered, or rewritten by another. Hence “truth” is a spiritual reality. The physical is similarly easy to understand – it is that which is externally observable. We can measure, quantify, or observe it. For the musician, our instruments are physical, and the movement of our limbs and digits to produce music are all physical in nature. A “C-scale” is a spiritual concept; we can physically express it, but the number and arrangement of pitches are not material substance.
The Rabbi Lapin expounds three rules governing the interplay between the spiritual and physical:
- Physical things can be destroyed, whereas spiritual things cannot.
- Physical things can tolerate imperfection; spiritual things need to be precise
- The spiritual element of an event must precede its physical actualization
We will consider each of these in turn and also consider their applicability for the musician and add a few observations of our own.
First, physical things can be destroyed, whereas spiritual things cannot. Spiritual things operate on a higher plane. For example, if I am playing music on my guitar, destroying my guitar would remove its usefulness as an instrument. Destroying the guitar would not have any impact on the existence of the music itself. I could hum the tune, perform it on a different guitar, or even transpose it to the piano or a harmonica. Even if I am not present, another musician can play it, or it could be on the radio. The music itself is of a spiritual essence, not a physical essence. Whether I live or die, music I compose can continue to exist without me. The music of Bach, Mozart, John Coltrane and thousands of other musicians still exists today, unchanged by the passage of time. Classical musicians often perform, study and are emotionally (spiritually) touched by music that is hundreds of years old. As an aside, this is why all totalitarian regimes fail – they mistake killing the bodies of dissenters with eliminating the ideas of freedom. The ideas live on and the truth of human freedom and power of spirit ultimately prevails in the physical realm as well. It is also why it is so hard to keep anything a secret – the spiritual facts related to the event cannot be destroyed.
Practically speaking, this is why artistic judgment is so important. What ideas and concepts are so worthy that they should be permanently exposed? By giving birth to a spiritual product of music, art, dance, etc what are we giving life to? Do the concepts improve the human condition, elevate the understanding of the mind or spirit? Does our art hold hope or hopelessness? Truth or lies? Just as there are positive spiritual elements (joy, gratitude, and dozens of others), there are negative spiritual elements (hate, greed, anger, and so on). When we create our art, what are we setting eternally in motion? What vibrations do we pick up and amplify to a wider audience? To the extent that our music represents a spiritual truth, it will contribute forever, for good or evil. The issue of artistic intent and execution are not merely something for critics to write about after we are dead, but an important extension of this rule. We are responsible as artists not just to artistically document what the prevailing culture gives us, but to rise above it and breathe life into spiritual concepts that improve the world around us.
Second, the Rabbi states that physical things can tolerate imperfection; spiritual things need to be precise. This can be understood from looking around your home. Consider the most used pot in your kitchen. How many scratches does it have inside and out? Do the scratches seriously affect your ability to use the pot? Not at all. In fact, for cast iron pots and pans, years of use “season” the pot and help it deliver better results. Now consider how often a technical or performance glitch ruins a movie or a recorded piece of music you are enjoying. Not very often. The standard for recorded performance is very high. Conversely, how much do people pay to watch first band concerts? Not much, if anything. No one wants to hear missed notes, botched lines, or see poorly filmed movies. If we want to listen to something repeatedly on an iPod, any imperfections become highly annoying. Why? The content is spiritual. Our spirits (i.e. – that non-physical part of us) are sensitive to even the slightest spiritual imperfections. If imperfections cloud a perfect spiritual concept, they compromise the whole experience to an extent that renders the art unappreciated.
This explains why it takes so long to perform confidently and competently in public, and why we place so much value on exceptional musical performances. The content of the musical performance is spiritual in nature, but must be expressed and apprehended physically. This means that before anything spiritual can occur, all the physical must be in alignment. This includes the performance space, the amplification or lack there of, the tuning of the instruments, etc. It extends to all the physical training the musician has performed to be able to move freely and naturally around the instrument. Technical facility takes years of effort. But even with the physical concerns adequately addressed, there is still the matter that the content is spiritual. As spiritual beings (i.e. there is a non-material component to our existence), we are capable of understanding and expressing spiritual concepts. In practice, the condition, sensitivity, and training we have performed spiritually influences to what extent we will be able to express the concepts in the physical. Lining up the physical and spiritual together is what brings power and credibility to an artistic performance. When they are disjointed, the impact of the work is lost or muted. Knowing how to manipulate an instrument, the music, and our physical and spiritual selves to produce the desired effect is what mastery means for the musician.
This leads directly to his third postulate: The spiritual element of an event must precede its physical actualization. For the musician and artist, this is almost self-evident. Before any muscles move, the brain must know what sound or effect it is after. It then calls the muscles into motion. Whether this is by reading from sheet music, or free improvisation, we translate some spiritual understanding of music into physical reality. Even flailing randomly about one’s instrument is still first an expression of an inner condition or decision to flail about. The physical follows the immaterial and spiritual.
It turns out that this has massive implications for the artist. If spiritual things require higher precision and must precede physical things, then should not a great emphasis be placed on development of spiritual characteristics? Could we actually expect that the spiritual content of our art might predict its success or failure? It is perhaps unsurprising that whether in India or in Germany, the most enduring music of each culture comes from religious roots. Both cultures have music that is hundreds of years old still being actively performed, even if it is now divorced from its religious roots.
It makes sense that people engaged in the pursuit of spiritual development through religious activities could expect to become more spiritually sensitive and refined. Translating this understanding into music should result in a stronger, more accurate spiritual expression. It ultimately will not work to try and express great spiritual ideals of love, truth, healing, hope, etc. while fuming with anger, impatience, laziness, etc. They are incompatible ideals. So, the greater spiritual development that occurs through religious studies translates into more durable and resonant art. Finding a place of artistic power is actually linked to understanding the role of spiritual development upon one’s art and synthesizing both spiritual and physical excellence into a consistent communication.
Spiritual things can be graded both in intrinsic excellence and execution. It is a mistake to think that because spiritual truths transcend physical reality that they are all equally valuable and useful. Just as we can observe the difference in physical execution between the finger-painting of a child and the mature work of the “Old Masters”, some spiritual truths are so powerfully expressed that they resonate for hundreds or thousands of years. Why is Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Bmin Mass performed hundreds to thousands of times each year when other music from the period lies virtually unknown? Some works contain more spiritual content, of higher quality, and of greater development, and therefore offer a more precise illumination of spiritual truth. For these reasons, we as a human race are drawn to some spiritual expressions more than others. This is exactly why some works still have emotional and spiritual impact hundreds of years later.
Practically speaking, this is why there is so much music dealing with faith, hope and love. Listen to the radio. How many songs espouse a hope for a better future or for redemption of past mistakes? How many love songs are there in recorded history? Love is the greatest spiritual concept in the Christian Bible (I Cor 13:13), and so it is not surprising to find the most songs about it. This explains why the introspective, navel-gazing kind of whining that immature songwriters sometimes produce never achieves any great impact. The spiritual content is weak, even if the playing meets expectations. My own spiritual angst is not interesting compared to contemplating the greatest spiritual virtues and exploits of mankind. If we wish to improve the impact of our art, we need to improve the quality of the ideas it rests on, as well as our ability to convey those ideas.
Consider Handel’s Messiah, a great masterwork of western civilization – it is faith-based music about redemption from human failure, hope for the future, and the love God has for humans. It is drenched in the three most powerful spiritual concepts, and then executed with precision, propriety, and complete artistic mastery. The music perfectly matches the mood, grandeur, and themes of the chosen content. Its performance requires dozens of skilled musicians to even get the Overture expressed let alone the whole piece. The soloists are most often professional musicians with years of vocal experience in this style of music. The choirs rehearse for months. So it is natural that it powerfully resonates its spiritual content across cultural differences and time. High spiritual content meets extensive physical preparation and a masterwork unfolds. It is little wonder that it is has been continuously popular since its debut performance!
For the musician, the potential consequences of these ideas loom large. When the spiritual content increases in value, purity, and weight, we must correspondingly increase our spiritual capacity, sensitivity, and physical preparation in order to attempt to convey our experience. The more transcendent the revelation, the more transcendent our own spiritual capacity and physical technique must be to translate the revelation into musical art. Making music is, therefore, first an inside job – overall spiritual development is equally as important as musical training.
Ironically, anyone could point out that highly effective musicians are not always instrumental virtuosos. Their effectiveness comes instead from spiritual power, channeled through merely adequate musical channels. The depth of their spiritual understanding can be conveyed outside of the music itself through non-verbal (or audible) signals. All musicians that aspire to greatness must posses spiritual sensitivity in the non-religious sense. Spiritual truths resonate wherever they find agreement. If you wish to amplify the spirit present in a work, you will have to resonate with it, and express it from the core of your being – spirit-to-spirit. This demands great internal consistency between music and musician so that the message is pure and delivered with maximum potency. If the music and the musician not aligned, the spiritual impact of the music will be degraded to the degree this is true. This resonance effect can be so strong that it can elevate our perception of musical skillfulness.
But if we are truthful, this requirement for internal spiritual consistency and the transcendent nature of the content demands a transcendent delivery. The more exquisite the truth, the more care and attention we ought to pay to its delivery. In some sense, an offering of the performance arts are an exquisitely lavish gift. The effort of a lifetime, or some significant portion of it is poured out in a few minutes. We can record the experience to capture some of the magic, but nothing matches the one performance. It is a unique and precious thing. For some, it may be the only experience they ever have with you or with that particular experience. Performance art is often a “once-a-lifetime” event. For these reasons, our handling of the matter deserves our best in physical preparation. A few botched notes, or a poorly timed entrance can snap someone out of spiritual revery to focus on the merely mechanical aspects of the service. Long hours of practice, and dedication to craft are a correct response to understanding this need for transcendent delivery.
Ultimately, this interplay between physical preparation and spiritual discernment becomes the primary work of the musical artist. Both must meet together in disciplined harmony. When the two are fused, the power of music to directly influence the soul combines with the innate spiritual capability of all humans to engage in spiritual activity, and transcendent spiritual experiences become normal. When this becomes the normal response to our art, we can be confident that we have reached a significant level of mastery.
At the beginning of this trip to the UK, you may recall that I was a bit provoked internally when someone implied that I had “fun” practicing for an hour, when that was the furthest thing from my mind. I mentioned at that time that I might write about my beliefs on art, particularly music. A pianist acquaintance shared a fantastic article with me today that bears directly on this subject, and it is worth sharing. You will want to read it carefully as in a short space, Mr. Paulnack makes several key points. The piece is so well-written that really it doesn’t need help in making his points.
Here are a few key points that resonated and were particularly well-said:
Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.
Later he says:
Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.
I especially agree with his conclusion on why it is so important to master the issues surrounding craft:
“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
The whole piece resonates deeply for me because I share his belief that art matters deeply and is inherently worthwhile. It needs no functional purpose beyond its own existence. A Beethoven piano sonata is not important because it paid Beethoven’s rent for a month or two. It is important because it speaks to the human spirit directly about matters that don’t fit into words. It speaks and directly impacts our emotions and the beauty and pathos speak directly to the core of our being.
But content this strong deserves more than a mere restatement, so the next post will extend the conversation with some of the reasons why I believe his thesis is correct.
My father-in-law is a master woodworker. He has a special relationship with his tools, and is always looking at new and better ones, maintaining his existing tools, or devising new ways to use them. As a musician, I’m not particularly interested in woodworking tools, but have a ongoing passion for the instruments I play. When you spend hundreds and thousands of hours using the same instrument, you become very, very familiar with it. Its strengths and limitations become very well known. As with tools, the lowest quality instruments are not really suitable for fine work – they can be good for one time, or disposable use, but generally are not useful for artist-grade efforts. Then, there is the level of “professional” tools. These are well-made, well-designed tools that will last a lifetime if well-cared for. They aren’t cheap, but represent solid value, and a worthwhile investment. At the very highest end, though, are fine, generally hand-made tools, put out in small quantities by passionate people. In the tool trade, these items are often exquisitely finished, and yet they retain all the usefulness and durability of standard tools. They are a pleasure to use, and for the woodworker, give pleasure each time they are used.
The parallels to instruments fall pretty neatly to hand. The very lowest quality instruments at local music stores are more of a frustration than a help to diligent study, but there is a wide range of well-made instruments that offer excellent value and long-term playability. This post, however, concerns the high-end, and the very high-est end, at that. Most musicians retain a certain pragmatism about instruments – good professional quality instruments are expensive: good guitars are $2-5k, and pianos are $20-50k for quality grands. Concert-grade instruments are far more expensive, but any of these instruments will support advanced work, and represent a substantial investment. Most people will sacrifice to purchase an instrument at the “professional” level and then use it for a lifetime. Concert instruments are generally reserved for day-dreaming. In fact, if one is thinking “rationally”, it would be hard to justify buying a better instrument as it isn’t necessary to keep improving one’s own abilities.
The piano in my office certainly falls into this category. It is a delightful instrument. When playing it, I have no sense of lack (except that I need to have the action regulated at present, which is no reflection on the overall quality of the instrument). Truthfully, I could work on the most advanced pieces in the canon of piano music and not find the instrument holding me back. But, that said, there are still nicer pianos….much, much nicer pianos. This piano is my second, and a big upgrade from the piano I inherited from my grandfather. But I have played many high-end pianos, so I know that it is possible to upgrade yet again.
This past weekend, we were on the Oakland side of the Bay, and i remembered that there was a high-end piano dealer there. It turns out it was only 2 miles from where we were, so off to Piedmont Piano, we went! Piedmont is the San Francisco area dealer for Fazioli and C. Bechstein, both “Tier One” piano’s in Larry Fine’s ranking system. Both are handmade in small quantities to an absolutely exceptional standard of quality. They are as expensive as exotic sports cars like Porsche, or Ferrari. You could buy a house or apartment for the cost of these pianos in most areas of the country. But the sound, the touch, the finish – everything is magnificent. There are different pianos, but not better at this level. These are among the finest pianos in the world.
Previously, when living in the New York City area, I have played Steiways, Mason & Hamlin, Bosendorfer and Fazioli, among others. The Bosendorfer and Fazioli were both amazing instruments, and left a lasting impression. When looking at pianos in this league, I prefer instruments 7′ (200cm) and larger as the tonal quality shifts dramatically to the upside around this length. After all, who wants a 4 cylinder Ferrari? The real choices are V8 vs. V12 for enthusiasts of the marque! Instruments at 7’6″ (228cm) and above are my main interest in a high-end piano. These are considered “semi-concert grands”, since the full-sized versions are 9′ (278cm) or longer. The extra length improves the bass substantially vs. smaller grands, and the much larger soundboards increase resonance across the range of the instrument.
I sat down first at a C. Bechstein C 234, a roughly 7’6″ grand, second in their line only to the 9′ instrument. It was exceptional in every way. The sound was rich and full, the action was magnificent (pointing out that I really do need to get my piano regulated). It was effortless to play quietly, and evenly – the action was delightful. The piano had a strong singing treble, and seemed particularly resonant in the 5th and 6th octaves, though there may have been something going on with the piano’s position in the room that made it seem that way. I doubt there is any actual resonance difference from top to bottom in an instrument of this quality. While having no complaints about my piano, the C234 was ample proof that much better instruments are available. Taking the Bechstein C234 home would cost $135,000 USD at the sticker price.
Next, I sat down at the Fazioli F278 (9′) concert grand which was placed on a small raised stage in the showroom. I believe this to be the finest piano that I have ever played. At a list price of $180,000 USD, it is also the most expensive I have played. This instrument was simply stunning in every regard. The action was light, but fully controllable, it was effortless to play. No matter how slowly I depressed the key, I could never feel the knuckle of the action. The sound ranged from gentle to thunderous, with a deep, rich, toneful bass. Harmonies two octaves below middle C were rich and sonorous, not boomy and muddy. The treble sparkled and resonance extended to the very highest notes.
At the suggestion of Ross Gualco, the friendly and professional salesman assisting me, I then went to the Fazioli F228, their 7’6″ instrument. He indicated that for his money, it was just as good in a home environment and possessed a more intimate sound. I had played a F228 in NYC probably 10 years ago, and enjoyed an almost trancendental experience on it, matched only by a Bosendorfer of the same length in Philadelphia, so I happily sat down at the bench. The piano was tremendous, superlative, and over-the-top excellent in every way. Action and tone were identical to the F278 except in the very lowest octaves. But just as when Ferrari aficionados debate V8 vs V12 engine configurations, there are differences beyond the size and price. The larger soundboard and string length do provide an audible difference. In fairness, this is a subtle difference. The F228 has a lovely, rich bass, and would not disappoint in any way, and is far superior to my 6′ Steinway. But where the F228 is excellent in every way, the F278 possessed magical properties in the lower register. Playing soft 10ths in the bass of the F278 is something that I don’t think would ever grow old. The additional price of exercising this level of discrimination? $50,000 USD. The F228 lists for $130,000 USD vs. the $180k of the F278.
Overall, on this day, with these instruments, in the particular location in the showroom they were placed, I preferred both Fazioli instruments to the C. Bechstein. This is in no way a slight to the Bechstein. At this level there are no bad pianos – this is the choice between having a day at the racetrack with a brand new Ferrari or a Lamborghini – there is no bad choice, but individuals will have preferences based on largely personal factors. The Fazioli action felt faster and more controllable to me, but I can easily see where another pianist would prefer the Bechstein. I suspect that if both were weighed off, the touch-weight might well be identical, but I preferred the Fazioli to a significant degree as it seemed lighter, yet with the same control. Another pianist might well prefer what felt like an ever-so-slightly heavier action on the Bechstein. Understand that we are discussing very small differences, so small that adjustment by a qualified technician might equalize the difference, making a final determination tricky indeed. Between the Fazioli’s, I choose the V12 – make mine a F278, gloss black will do nicely! I have always bought instruments for how they sound, and apparently my ear has little interest in commercial matters (not a new discovery).
The reality is that all these pianos are well past the point of diminishing returns. They are constructed to a standard of excellence, not to meet some cost-benefit ratio in an accounting department. The piano I currently own is an exceptional value. It is worth as much or more than I paid for it because of the deal I obtained on it. But the Fazioli and the Bechstein don’t have to be measured on a value scale, they are good enough to measure on the scale of absolute excellence. Shopping at this level must not be about price, but about refinement, personal preference, and superlative execution.
Given that the median income in the United States is currently about $50,000, why even discuss this? These pianos cost several years of income for all but our wealthiest citizens, and that doesn’t count living expenses or a big enough room. If practicality and affordability are the primary concerns, this is indeed a moot discussion. The reality is though, that if it was important enough many could eventually afford an instrument in this range. Compound interest is an amazing thing, but for me, the primary benefit of looking at the “ne plus ultra” of instruments is a personal matter.
Bechsteins, Fazioli’s, Bosendorfers, and other top brands are for me, aspirational instruments. You see, I aspire to play as well as these instruments are made. I want to play so well that these instruments are the logical instruments to play on. In every human endeavor, the finest artisans use the finest tools. While anyone with the money can purchase the instruments, they still won’t deliver their ultimate potential outside of matching skill. Just like a $60,000 medium-format digital camera will take bad snapshots just as easily as a cell-phone, it is capable of the highest quality photographic artistry in skilled hands. If you know how to to use them, there can be a lot of joy in working with the finest tools. That is the experience I want – to be the artist able to exercise such a tool. Though my present instrument can “say” all the things written in the score with proper training and practice, a better instrument will allow it to be “said” better at every level of technical development.
Ultimately, however, there is not some magical level of development where one “deserves” a Fazioli, or a Bosendorfer. One simply affords them. As magnificent as they are, they are still just pianos, sold in dealerships like many other goods. They will wear out and need rebuilding under heavy use just like all other pianos. If the money is available, it is only a decision as to whether or not to buy and enjoy one. There is no artistic merit committee that hands these out to “deserving” artists. If there were, it is unlikely I’d receive a phone call, but that is not the point. The dealership auditions bank accounts, not musicianship. In fact, truly deserving artists often buy their own simply because it is the right tool for their personal practice and expression and they don’t want to be beholden to a marketing department where their art is concerned. Certainly, some wealthy people buy them as status symbols or as interior decorations, which is perfectly acceptable, and takes nothing from their musical value. From my view, this keeps these fine manufacturers in business producing the finest instruments in the world, so that I can aspire to own and play one.
Some musicians will find this to be just absurd, like a teenage boy fantasizing about the hard choice between buying a Ferrari or a Lamborghini while surviving a shift at the local fast-food restaurant. But just like the boy can develop a career or business and someday buy that Lamborghini, so a musician can aspire to play and ultimately purchase a Fazioli F278, or a $180,000 violin. Whether that is worth it for any particular person, I can’t say, but for me, I aspire to the big, black, V-12 Fazioli. It is an instrument to enjoy for a lifetime, not only for what it is, but also for the world-class excellence it represents. I fully understand that having the piano won’t make me a world-class player, but I’m quite sure it won’t hurt my enthusiasm for practicing!
Of course, Fazioli does make an F308 (10’2″)…. And there is the Bosendorfer 290 to consider…. What instrument do you aspire to? What tools do you want to work with? As a craftsman, what gives you pleasure in addition to the work itself? Do you have an aspirational instrument? Do you aspire to own the finest tools and learn how to wield them as befits their manufacture?
it is not clear that there are many true limits innate to our physical bodies, but there are many external factors that play a significant role in how good we can get. Some factors include:
– Daily/weekly/yearly deliberate practice volume – consistency and duration matter
– Availability of suitable instruments
– Availability of suitable instructors and coaches – often expensive and in particular locations
– Internal motivation to obtain results
– and so on
For a child, the answers to these questions are almost all determined by the parents. Developing an elite young musician is really no less effort or commitment than developing a young athlete like Tiger Woods. It involves a near-total commitment to the child on the part of one or both parents, and significant expense, relocation, and other factors.
For an adult, the entire picture is far more complicated. Typical work-related and family responsibilities limit total practice time, and even the ability to practice at optimal times of day. High-end musical training is conducted very similarly to high-end athletic training and precludes a normal “job” since “workouts” are scheduled several times a day with rest in-between. Even assuming that similar time can be spent on practice (~20-24 hrs), it is unlikely that working adults can spend the roughly 25-30 additional hours a week a top conservatory student spends on other music related activities (performing, accompanying, classes, music theory, history, etc).
The diagram above comes from K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely in a seminal paper exploring the development of expertise. We referenced this paper last week, and continue to mine it for insights. The diagram and the accompanying insights offer useful insight into the question, “How good Can I Get?” in several ways.
The first observation concerns the middle line – the line formed by someone engaging in substantial practice, but starting at a later time in life. Notice that the line forms the same shape as that of those who started as childen, it is just time-shifted to the right. This indicates that the learning path remains open to older students. The hill is the same, no matter who is climbing it, for the most part. It is also evident that this middle line will intersect the top line at some point. This indicates that it is possible to reach a level of expertise, even as a later student. Certainly this should be very encouraging for any serious adult student. As with most things in life, results are closely tied to level of effort. This is shown also by the bottom line, which says that a lower level of practice, and a later start will result in an overall lower level of mastery, which is hardly surprising.
Yet, even with a matching 10 year period of effort, the graph also tells a second story. If we were to imagine that the area under each line was shaded a different color, it would be easy to see that there is more volume under the top line than the middle or bottom line. The volume underneath these lines never equals what occurs with an earlier start. If an international star has a 25 year head-start, that is a lot of practice volume that can’t be made up. If everyone can train 4-5 hours a day maximally, and one person has been doing that since 10 or 11 years of age, and a second person born the same year starts 10 or 20 years later, there is no way for the second student to catch up. He may gain equivalent skills, but will never achieve the same practice volume and overall experience at performing. It turns out that this has several interesting consequences.
First, there is an socio-economic consequence. In our modern specialized society, people identify strongly with how they earn money. If you ask someone at a party, “What do you do?”, it is understood that you are asking about how they make a living, not what they do in their leisure time. So is it possible to get good enough to say, “I’m a concert pianist” or “I’m a recording artist.”? As it turns out, making fine art is something that society only pays for a small number of people to do. We may write about this at length in the future, but the reality is that the whole conservatory system functions extremely well to train a small number of performers, in fact more than enough, to fill the major orchestras and international soloist positions. Due to the limited spaces in top orchestras, limited number of concerts, etc, there are only so many who will ever fill those seats, particularly in the most desirable cities. These positions are filled by a complex series of auditions and placements that typically happen starting at 18 years of age on entrance to conservatory, college, or university. Of course there are exceptions for particularly precocious youngsters who study at conservatory even earlier. The graduates of these schools are groomed for certain positions in the “industry” of making fine art music. This industry has its own standards, expectations and grading scales to assess talent, assign jobs, and issue monetary and social rewards. Like many things in life, those late to the party, don’t get the same opportunity as those who arrived early. Most, if not all, students who begin after childhood, will find these “professional” roles closed to them. There is simply no way to make back the practice volume under the curve, and there is more demand for a young person’s professional debut than for a middle-aged person from a selling tickets perspective.
Of course, outside of desiring a Carnegie Hall debut, there is a world of economic opportunity connected to music. Few conservatory-trained musicians are “professionals” in the Carnegie Hall sense, and a only small fraction play with top orchestras or “go on tour”. Below the level of institutional music, success is largely what you make it. Teaching, concertizing, accompanying, writing, really anything that people value enough to exchange their money for is fair game. In the world outside of curating classical music tastes for a generation, anyone can be a “professional musician”. If you can earn enough money from it, you too can be a professional. Whether or not this a goal is a highly personal decision. Many adults will find that they can earn more money in other career fields.
So if “goodness” is equated with economic and social “prestige”, then there are definite limits on what one can attain even with extraordinary practice. But the second consequence of our observations from Ericsson’s work is that a very high level of artistry can be obtained. If art is the goal, than adult amateurs can expect rich rewards for putting in the effort. Freed from delusions of grandeur and the peculiar repertoire expected of a concert artist, the amateur can expect to play any of the great masterworks if the time is invested to do so. The middle line of “Figure 16” merges with the top line. It is possible to become very, very good – even excellent. True, there will be few amateurs who put in the 3-5 hours a day required to reach the top of the mountain, but those who do will be richly rewarded in their art. This should be encouragement of the best sort to dedicated amateurs everywhere. Where art is concerned, the adult amateur can be assured that investments made in practice will translate directly into artistic results, and that there is little real limit on the level of artistry achieved.
Given the extended lifespans we enjoy in the modern era, it is conceivable to start decades late and still reach a high level of artistic expression. In fact, even someone starting in their thirties could have as long an experience with music as some of the composers who died relatively young! As long as expectations around certain career paths are understood, the advanced amateur is in the position of being limited only by his or her work habits at the instrument. Instead of asking “How good can I get?”, it is unsurprisingly more accurate to ask: “How hard am I willing to work, and for how long?”. Is making high art worth the sacrifice? Those who believe so will make the effort and receive the rich personal rewards that art offers.
If performance ability is closely linked to practice volume, then it would make sense to put practice in the highest position when allocating time, and spend as much time as possible practicing. It turns out, however that there are limits to how much practice on an instrument actually produces improvement. In studies that range across elite athletes, musicians, chess players, scientists and writers, a common upper limit exists because our bodies and minds can only sustain extreme effort for a limited period of time. It doesn’t seem to matter if the exercise is mental, or physical, or both.
“Across many domains of expertise, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges: The best individuals start practice at earlier ages and maintain a higher level of daily practice. Moreover, estimates indicate that at any given age the best individuals in quite different domains, such as sports and music, spend similar amounts of time on deliberate practice. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity— practice, thinking,or writing—requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 h a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.” (Ericsson, et. al, p.30)
Ericsson’s study is particularly interesting because the research team carefully selected participants who could practice as much of their day as they desired (elite conservatory students). These are all musicians who have worked hard for years and years, and it appears that no one is able to sustain more than this volume for a long period of time. Even more interestingly, it is not even necessary. All elite performers spend similar time in the most difficult part of their day – that part spent on intentional improvement (practice).
Of course elite performers in all disciplines spend many other hours on music related activities (around 50 hours total per week in Ericsson’s study). But these other activities (playing with others, performing, listening to music, going to classes, talking with colleagues) do not share the same direct impact on performance, although they are related and correlate to a lesser degree.
Interestingly, the elite violinists in the study averaged practice sessions of 80 minutes for a total volume of 3.5 hours per day as recorded in their practice diaries. This correlated well between pianists and violinists at an elite level, leading to the conclusion that this finding is not instrument specific. Furthermore, benefits for practicing in longer sessions are reduced:
A number of training studies in real life have compared the efficiency of practice durations ranging from 1-8 hr per day.These studies show essentially no benefit from durations exceeding 4 hr per day and reduced benefits from practice exceeding 2 hr (Welford, 1968; Woodworth & Schlosberg, 1954).
The musicians in this study practiced at this level consistently throughout the week. There was no difference in practice between weekend and weekday, though they had more leisure time on the weekend due to a reduction of other music-related activity. The study clearly indicates that there is a sustained level of activity over the many years needed to develop expertise as a musician, and that a certain part of the result is related to the sustained volume over time. This makes developing musical expertise an endurance event, and not a sprint.
The most elite musicians all had dedicated morning practice times, correlating extremely well with elite scientists, authors, and other cognitive disciplines. It was also apparent that the most elite musicians also took short afternoon naps, just like elite athletes to recover from morning training, and then continued to practice more in the afternoon and early evening. Late night practice was not observed to any extent, and a full eight hours of sleep was normative.
So, an ambitious student, who intends to make the most of his or her ability should seek a training volume of 3-4 hours a day, spread across several 70-90 minute sessions with rest and other activities in between. Keeping definite dedicated practice times with specific goals and objectives for each session is a must. Spending three continuous hours pounding at an instrument well after concentration is lost at the 90 minute mark, is not beneficial compared to purposeful training sessions of limited duration and purpose.
The goal of deliberate practice is not “doing more of the same.” Rather, it involves engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve.
It would also follow that for adult students who have extremely demanding jobs, or “hard days” to go easy on themselves during these times. Spending precious practice time mindfully is more important than dutifully running some set of exercises mechanically. Find the training volume that you can sustain with full engagement and work from there.
Note that warm-ups, playing for enjoyment, playing concerts, etc. do not count into this figure, so the actual time spent at the instrument and in musical activities will of necessity be higher. Obviously, these training volumes do not apply to very young children, and must not exceed the muscular development and endurance level of the musician. Pain in practice is NOT normal and is an indication of improper technique, overwork, or injury.
In a word, no, at least not when stated that simplistically. There is no “one-size-fits-all” recipe that will guarantee success. The moment that I finish 10,000 of focused, intelligent practice, I will not be interrupted by the world press at my doorstep and a cotillion of lawyers looking for me to sign recording and performance contracts. It is perhaps more useful to see it as a mile-marker. Given that many top international players took 20-25 years to ascend to the international stage, it is more useful to see it as a metaphor for working on one’s craft every day, constantly striving for more.
In Linchpin, Seth Godin explains that a main task of the artist is to make a map. Map making is a metaphor for figuring out what it is going to take to succeed, what is the destination, and how one should move forward. If attempted honestly, this will result in many different pathways, and many different outcomes. Our job as artists and students of our craft is to make the map – to plan out our practice to reach our goals, and then to execute with full emotional commitment.
Equally important to the time-in-grade is to be truly honest about our desired outcomes, and to be internally aligned in our expectations. This is the only way to sustain the effort over the kind of time-frame that it takes to develop real proficiency. Of course discipline and internal motivation must be present to an extraordinary degree, but it is much easier to be motivated by true personal goals than by accomplishments absorbed from others. Finding internal clarity is always a precondition for success, and spending the personal time to distill down goals and motivations is well spent.
There is no arbitrary amount of effort that will guarantee success. Ultimately we must chase goals and standards of excellence, and the time takes care of itself, if we mean to be a success. We have to constantly evaluate our progress and re-make the map. The daily discipline and commitment to practicing eventually builds into a solid technique, means of expression and body of bio-mechanical skill. Taken over a lifetime, tremendous improvement can be realized, and we move daily closer to our ultimate aim. As noted elsewhere on this site, it is the journey that is significant, and our full engagement is as necessary as doing the work. This is no place for mindless repetition.
Continuing the thoughts explored in the last post, a serious student must ask, “Is it even possible for me to get where I want to go?”. The answer depends very much on where it is one desires to end up. All the self-help books would have us believe that anything we believe and work for is possible. But is it? If I put in 10 years of hard work, will I really be able to play like Valentina Lisitsa?
If the desire is to play at the level of an international recording artist, the truthful answer is: probably not. Achieving an international level of expertise is different than becoming a competent, or even expert musician. The reality is that the current standard expected of international performing artists is of exceptionally high standards – so high that only a small fraction of players will ever achieve it – despite starting as small children. Here is what K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely have to say:
Our research shows that even the most gifted performers need a minimum of ten years (or 10,000 hours) of intense training before they win international competitions. In some fields the apprenticeship is longer: It now takes most elite musicians 15 to 25 years of steady practice, on average, before they succeed at the international level.
Though there are historical examples of people who attained an international level of expertise at an early age, it’s also true that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people could reach world-class levels more quickly. In most fields, the bar of performance has risen steadily since that time. For instance, amateur marathon runners and high school swimmers today frequently better the times of Olympic gold medalists from the early twentieth century. Increasingly stiff competition now makes it almost impossible to beat the ten-year rule.
They also note:
Not only do you have to be prepared to invest time in becoming an expert, but you have to start early—at least in some fields. Your ability to attain expert performance is clearly constrained if you have fewer opportunities to engage in deliberate practice, and this is far from a trivial constraint. Once, after giving a talk, K. Anders Ericsson was asked by a member of the audience whether he or any other person could win an Olympic medal if he began training at a mature age. Nowadays, Ericsson replied, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to win an individual medal without a training history comparable with that of today’s elite performers, nearly all of whom started very early. Many children simply do not get the opportunity, for whatever reason, to work with the best teachers and to engage in the sort of deliberate practice that they need to reach the Olympic level in a sport.
Ouch! That seems to put quite a crimp on dreaming of playing like Murray Perahia. Despite my own immensely strong desire to believe that it just isn’t so, and that I will certainly be the exception that proves the rule, the simple fact is that is is extremely unlikely that I will play at this level in ten years. So unlikely, in fact, as to be virtually impossible even given an “all-day, every day effort”. In fact, even competing at the level of the major amateur piano competitions indicates that the 10 years of solid effort will likely put me in contention, and not even guarantee winning results! Peruse the biographies for the performers at last year’s competition in Chicago, and it is evident that most studied from childhood, have performance degrees (some even Master’s degrees), and have continued to play while pursuing other careers. It goes without saying that amateur competitions are not the same level as the Van Cliburn, Tchaikovsky, or Chopin competitions that the finest young pianists in the world use to launch their concert careers.
So where does this leave us? Is it, therefore not worth the effort of even starting? Should I just invest in a good CD player or MP3 player and let others do the playing for me? Why even bother with all the practice when Reference Recordings isn’t ever going to call for me to make the definitive recordings of Chopin’s most difficult work? At some point, any of us who start into classical music late (after 6-9 years of age) are going to have to look this in the face and make a decision to either give up or to press forward. Are there ideas that would support a decision to move forward in the face of overwhelming evidence against achieving a world-class level of achievement?
1. There is a LOT of great artistry below the level of the international concert stars! Think about it – there are thousands of students graduating from top conservatories every year. Every one of them is capable of playing professionally – and many do on a local, regional, or national level. We would be happy to listen to any of them play, but almost none of them will grace international stages. It is much like the cut-off that happens in professional sports. College football or soccer teams perform at an elite level and so good that many sports fans prefer to watch them play than professional teams! Yet most of the players in college sports are not able to make the leap to professional or international status. Just because Sony Classical won’t contract me to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, doesn’t mean that I can’t perform at a very high level, learn all those sonatas, and play for many happy people! Amateur athletes now regularly best what would be world-class times in days gone by. Excellence is still available below the rarefied air of the international concert scene!
2. “Best in the World” is relative for most of us. Outside the dozen or so players who actually are “the best in the world” right now, most of us are able to be “best in the world” for some other audience. Seth Godin explores this in an interesting way by noting that being “best in the world” is related to what one’s customers expect. If I am performing with the New York Philharmonic in front of the one of the most demanding audiences in the world, being the “best” means the incredibly high standard of the hundreds of world-class artists that have passed across the stage in the last 10, 20 or 50 years. Being one of the dozen top current performing artists is necessary, but insufficient in this setting. What about playing a benefit concert in your hometown for a new hospital wing? Or competing in an International amateur competition? Or becoming a composer, a teacher or You Tube star? “Best in the world” takes on a different meaning, and it is entirely possible to satisfy those audiences without being an international super-star. A better question might be, “In what ‘world’ can I operate at my highest potential and bless people with my gift?”. That is a question that opens discussion, rather than shutting it down.
3. While inspiring, watching others play doesn’t scratch the itch I have to play. This is perhaps the strongest reason of all. Even if I never play the hardest pieces in the literature to the highest international critical standard, I still want to play play major swaths of the literature myself! I want to play it on my piano to express and experience the emotion and content of the great masterworks of western civilization. I know how satisfying it is to play music for myself from the studies I’ve done so far, and I can’t deny or suppress the need to continue. It is baked into the core of my being. The challenge of satisfying the demands of the greatest musical accomplishments in western history is deeply satisfying to me. I can truthfully say that the work is its own reward. If that is true, than it matters little whether or not I have access to the several dozen leading concert halls in the world.
4. I can only work to my potential anyway. Life is a forward-facing adventure. Re-doing the past is not possible. Starting from today, I have potential. There is work I can do, and achievements that I can make from where I am right now. I don’t have to deal with the baggage of being a “child prodigy” or wondering if I am one. I’m not, and won’t ever become one. But it doesn’t matter – I can become all the musician I am capable of being in the life I have left. Whether or not I perform at Royal Albert Hall in London, I can chase my personal artistic potential. Even if I started as a small child, I could do no more, and there still would have been very long odds on becoming an international superstar. The value is the journey, not the result, and the journey is as open as it ever was. My musical adventures to date make it clear that I can expect to perform at a very high level. Provided that I maintain good health, I should have every expectation of playing advanced repertoire well. I can be happy and fulfilled without performing Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with an internationally famous orchestra. (Truthfully, unless I was already a national-level musician, this wouldn’t even be a valid goal -just an idle dream). My goal is to explore, master and perform the pieces that challenge and invigorate me, and that lead me forward in my artistic journey. Succeeding at becoming the best musical me is a different journey than setting Alice Tulley Hall as the only acceptable measure of success. I can honestly look at the pieces that define musical success on my list and plan to achieve them. This is likely true for you as well.
Ultimately, the choice is to chase personal potential, not a particular concert stage.