On Performance: Taking Life and Career Cues from Piano Rectials

My colleague and I have a few interests in common, one of which happens to be playing the piano.

On the walk to the bus stop today, we got talking about plans to practice and play more piano this summer.

At one point in the conversation, my colleague noted that one of the best performances he’s enjoyed during a recital was given by someone who didn’t follow the conventional way in which the selected piece was played.

Anyone who plays any musical instruments knows there are three components to performance: technical knowledge of the piece, correct rhythm (or tempo) and emotional interpretation. Some composers meticulously write every line with the desired speed, feel and tone to each note. Others provide the desired tempo vaguely at the beginning, and the performer is left to carry it through with a little more leeway.

When I studied piano, I was exposed to two different schools of thought on the art of performance and how to properly and adequately reflect the “story” of the piece. The English (or rather, Royal British Academy) was a strong advocate of playing the pieces technically well, and following the composer’s annotation for “emotional” input. After all, the piece is written by someone who felt a particular sentiment whilst creating his masterpiece. What gives one the right to change its essence?

The Eastern European (read: Russian/Soviet taught) method required technical proficiency as well from its student: you had to play the correct notes without any hesitation. But you also had to express yourself and display sentiments strongly while playing. You were required to take a piece of music and transform it into a very personal auditory experience for those around you. The ability to decompose any segment and project your personality onto it was of paramount importance to the Russian school. Not an easy thing for students to accomplish either. It’s a much harder task to find your voice in every piece and clearly express it than to learn a complex set of arrangements spanning over four or five octaves.

I went into this explanation because I kept thinking about music, or specifically the different approach to performing (English, verbatim. Russian, passion). Some performers are required to perform the pieces exactly as originally created. Others need to personalize the performance and turn it into a unique adaptation not to be repeated by anyone.

I’ve always preferred the Russian method of emotion infused with technical aptitude. It doesn’t feel right to replay the infamous MoonLight Sonata in the exact same manner 10,000 other performs do. Beethoven may have been “in the zone” when he demanded an adagio sostenuto, but I may not have the same reaction, take or story to tell through the spefici piece. I always believed the highest sense of honour you can bestow upon someone’s creation is to invest your heart and soul into the work. And I’m very comfortable in applying my philosophy to all of the pieces I play, inappopriate as they may be (my mum still won’t get over my joyful interpretation of Chopin’s marche funèbre).

I got stuck on this thought for most of the evening today because I realized the same concepts of performance in music halls can be applied to my personal life or career. But I’m not at all comfortable personally adapting many aspects in my career -for example- to a more personal style. There are precedences that were set long before I’ve arrived, and will continue to exist long after I leave. And I think there is something genuinely wrong with this particular way of thinking, resulting in misalignment between my actual philosophy and my conduct in some areas.

Linking back to my music/performance analogy, if my current behaviour (or performance) is somehow interpreted into a recital, I doubt it would be anything other than a technically good but emotionally lacking performance. I wouldn’t set off any alarms or scare any instructors, but I also won’t leave a lasting impression.

That was never the way I performed -musically – and it shouldn’t be the way I conduct myself on a personal and professional level. I think it’s high time some things get a personal touch and have a bit of heart and soul invested into them. It’s all fine and well to adapt to circumstances once in a while and do exactly as told, it’s a very different matter to lose passion altogether.

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