The Pianist's ABC


Analysis, Schenkerian. Structurally important tonic? Urlinje? Drawing complicated graphs? Love it. Don't understand half of it, but love it.

Bench, wrist-friendly. Know the ones where you can just turn a handle and the bench automatically goes up and down? Magic. (Very expensive magic.) Then how about the ones with which you kill your wrists trying to roll, roll, roll away and the bench refuses to get any higher or lower? Especially delightful in a recital where pianists alternate.

Collaborative pianist, the term. Much cooler than "accompanist". Means exactly the same thing, but in a politically correct way.

Damp chaser, otherwise known as the piano life saver. These are the weird blinking lights under the keys that fool people into thinking you've got an electric piano. The damp chaser helps the piano stay in tune for much longer, and keeps piano tuners from earning the money that used to be rightfully theirs. Also I amuse myself by telling young students I'm watering the piano to make it grow into a grand and they buy it, dear hearts.

Earplugs. Working with singers in practicing venues that are always just a little bit smaller than their voice? Good quality earplugs are indispensable to keeping your ears intact and thus keeping your career going. Yes, I know Beethoven was deaf. He wasn't a collaborative pianist anyway.

Franz Schubert. I've never met a pianist who didn't like Schubert. There are people who don't like Mozart (too cheerful), Chopin (too cheesy), Liszt (too many notes), or Bach (who remembers fugues by heart anyway), but Schubert? Loved by everyone. If you don't like him, please say so - I'd love to get to know you.

Grants. Money rich people and societies give to poor musicians who have a knack for making their artistic aspirations sound convincing on paper.

Harpsichord. Basically an electric piano from hundreds of years ago. When I was a child I loved electric pianos because you could change the sounds (sadly I never had one), and now I love harpsichords for the same reason. You can change the sounds by pulling and twisting things, even mid-piece. How exciting is that?! Also many of the sounds are much nicer than what a modern piano makes. But then, alas, you'll have to...

Improvise. Playing harpsichord means making a lot of stuff up based on numbers you were supposed to learn during theory lessons. 476+? 529-8? Then add a million trills and things, and do it differently every time. It's soooooooooooooooooooooooooo hard.

Jovial. That's what you need to be in order to make it in today's work environment - no suffering artists needed anymore. Unless you are a cursed genius who is so superbly superb that you'll be celebrated and revered wherever you condescend to go - then you probably can be as much of a twat as you like. The rest of us must remain friendly and cheery to keep our jobs.

Knitting. Literally the only interesting thing I could think of starting with K.

Legato, the concept of. An endless source of frustration for pianists, since our instrument is all about pressing buttons. "Imagine you're playing the cello", yes yes, but I'm not, am I? I'm pressing these damn buttons and trying to trick you all into believing they create a continuous melodic line.

Metronome, device or app. When I was a child I had a metronome that had an actual stick-thingy swaying from one side to the other. It was so cool. These days I have an app on my phone that blip, blip, blips away mercilessly. Still helps me practice whenever I bother to use it, though.

Nerves. The ones that make you sweat and tremble before a concert.

Opera. The king of artforms, claimed Kierkegaard. Dozens and dozens of people coming together to create a spectacle of a piece with flashy clothes, hours of singing, orchestra playing their souls away in a black pit where no-one can see them, and stories about love conquering all and about whores dying. It's quite awesome.

Piano, the instrument. Grand, upright, electric, they're all frenemies of sorts. Every time you perform somewhere new it's a voyage of discovery - one piano is soft and gentle, one has a menacing metallic sound, one has pedals so low you break your ankle trying to press them when in heels, one is missing three keys, one is an electric piano that cannot do a glissando but rather stops sounding completely, one has a pedal that is supersensitive and reacts to the slightest foot movement, another has the pedal completely broken or missing... Such adventures!

Question, is "pianist" really your profession? Love it. Yes, yes it is. I live in this elitist cultural bubble where my biggest problems are whether Brahms intended the crescendo to begin from the middle or the end of the bar, and am I going to die of poverty and malnutrition this year or the next.

Rehearse, aka. practice. Something you should do quite a lot if you ever want to do anything well. You know this, at least in theory, because your parents told you so years ago.

Singers. Pianists love them. We also loooove to complain about them, much as old married couples love to complain about each other. Honestly our musical lives would be miserable and meaningless without singers, but we mustn't let them find out we need them! Never!

Tape. A pianist's best friends are (after singers, of course) scotch tape and a pair of scissors. Finding the perfect brand of tape takes time and effot, but it's worth it.

Una corda, the pedal. You press it to make the piano sound a tad softer and quieter. In some pianos it works only for some of the keys, which is awkward to notice mid-concert, let me tell you... Personally I have a very distant relationship with this pedal. I rarely use it and find its existence slightly baffling. So I'd be happy to hear your views on this.

Vivace, meaning of. When I was a child I was told it means I need to play super fast, but later I found it means "lively". So basically whatever tempo I'd like. Thinking about it further I realised it applies to all tempo markings ever written, whether they include the metronome numbers or not - I could choose for myself, and the dead folks could not stop me. What freedom I felt, what joy.

Wagner, Richard. Everyone has an opinion about HIM - unless you're a pianist and you don't actually have to have one since he didn't really write anything to piano anyway.

Xylophone. I've literally got nothing more to add.