What makes playing piano an art is in the name itself. Piano is actually short for pianoforte—soft and loud. The piano was the first keyboard instrument since the pipe organ that gave the performer complete control over the dynamics of the instrument’s sound. A system of springs controlled the action of hammers hitting the strings. When the keys were pressed lightly, a dark, bell-like quality in tone was the result. When struck heavily, the sound brightened, becoming at once angry and majestic.
I can point to three distinct composer/performers who defined the art of playing piano for me, and who defined the way I see the piano today.
He’s the one who really started it all. Before Liszt, playing piano was a rigid process. The performer commanded as stoic a posture as he or she could muster, and therefore could only play as rigorously as the length of the arms would allow. That all changed with Liszt. Strolling onto the stage, he was a remarkable sight: dressed to the nines, his shoulder-length hair swept back, long gloves stretched over his arms. The girls would swoon and cry out. Slowly, Liszt peeled off his gloves, and casually tossing each to the edge of the stage, pretended to be disinterested as women fought each other to snatch them up. That’s when the real performance would start, with Liszt, taking his seat at the piano, shaking his long locks, and diving into a truly athletic performance. His body swayed and gyrated on the bench, as he employed his entire torso in the act of playing the piano.
Suddenly, it was OK to be a performer as well as a musician. It became glamorous, and it paved the way for others.
Nothing demonstrates a performer’s popularity quite like having his hands casted after death. That is precisely what they did to dear Chopin. The hands are muscular, with long fingers, and a particularly wide gap between the thumb and first finger. It certainly helps to have hands like that when you perform what Chopin composed. Dark and moody, his music speaks of a romantic longing of the soul.
Chopin’s piano works demonstrate the art of playing piano like no other. When they are soft, they tease the air with tiny, flickering vibrations. When they are loud—fortissimo, as we say—they are meant to compete with thunderstorms.
Fact: Chopin was pale and often sickly. He was also somewhat effeminate, but that didn’t stop him from having a fairly scandalous affair with the controversial French female writer George Sand, the cigar-smoking woman who wore—gasp—trousers!
Rachmaninoff had a composer’s block. So depressed he was about his block that he saw a therapist. Day after day, he would just lie there and not speak at all. Eventually his therapist began a kind of mantra, or autosuggestive therapy. “You will write a Concerto…,” the therapist said, “you will work with great facility… it will be excellent.” Repeating this day after day for a month or two did the trick. Rachmaninoff composed the Concerto Number Two in C minor, a haunting, virtuoso work with long, meandering melodies, gargantuan, two-handed chords, and a prodigious amount of piano playing throughout the entire piece. When he finished, he had enough material left over to work into his Concerto Number Three in D minor.
Fact: Rachmaninoff holds the Guinness record for the largest hand span. It is said that, spreading his left hand across the keyboard, he could reach almost two octaves – over a foot long. Many of his pieces are extremely difficult to play.
I could go on. There was Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. In jazz, there was Oscar Peterson, Marian McPartland, Erroll Garner, and Bill Evans. In rock, I had Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Emerson, and Elton John. All of these people have inspired me.
Who inspires you to play?