On Second Rate Pianists


How it seems in the Sibelius Academy (and probably any other school of extremely high and super awesome musical ecudation) is that there is one true career path for a pianist, and that is the solitary road to greatness. When I was young and had my bright future still ahead of me, I thought the options were to be a Simple Soloist or a Second Rate Pianist. Guess who I wanted to be... The orchestral instruments have it a bit easier: they can go and play in an orchestra. (Duh.) Pianists can too, of course, but how many Mozart Symphonies have a piano part? There's not so much to do if you have an instrument mainly created for bored romantic era housewifes to amuse themselves with while their husbands run the country. It's a great instrument, piano is, but you rarely need twenty of them at once - they're rather on their own.

I should explain my terminology here:

A Simple Soloist tours the world, performing with orchestras large and small, getting huge bouquets of flowers and playing encores like Träumerei, but in an inventive way that makes the audience faint in admiration. Sometimes a Simple Soloist does chamber music concerts or solo programs that include Serious Pieces by Serious Composers. And obviously the Simple Soloist has won a gazillion competitions and regularly attends master classes in Lugano and New York. They live in hotels, have trophy wives (or partners), and they spend their Christmas holidays with the Barenboims.

A Second Rate Pianist performs on a less regular basis in more near-by places that don't require hotels or flights. They choose programs that are pleasing to the audience or to themselves, depending on do they want money or self-fulfilment out of the process. Usually Second Rate Pianists make their own posters. (- at least I do, and I use Word. I've been told by several people that this is unacceptable, because one can't make posters with Word, but it's real and it's happening. Sorry.) Performing on a less regular basis means less income and fewer trophy wives, so Second Rate Pianists often sustain themselves by doing other music-related things such as teaching or being a rehearsal pianist in opera or ballet for example, or have a completely different job on the side. Second Rate Pianists might have won a competition or two when they were younger, or they might have not. They might have aimed to be a Simple Soloist and failed, or they might have never wanted that in the first place. (Their parents usually wanted them to appear on a magazine cover or two.)

As every pianist knows, there are 0,0001 Simple Soloists to every 1000 Second Rate Pianists out there. So a Second Rate Pianist is really a Normal Pianist with a Normal Career in Music. I wish someone had sat me down in the beginning of my studies and told me this, and helped me find my own path - instead of letting me think that anything less than a Stellar International Career is a disappointment to the holy institution of classical music. As it is, I've tried out different stuff, ended up in situations by accident, and formed a career from the bits and pieces that I've found interesting and loveable along the way. What my career looks like now is a combination of teaching, vocal coaching, lied recitals, independent opera productions and an occasional chamber music fling. Sometimes there's more gigs and sometimes fewer. Sometimes I write this blog, sometimes I knit, and sometimes I binge on Netflix.

It wasn't obvious to me from the beginning, but I think that being a Second Rate Pianist is actually awesome, and there would be a point to spreading this message to young students and helping them find whatever kind of pianist they would love to be. Because the options out there - there are plenty, and they sound pretty first rate to me.