Pianists – do you ever play ‘for the sheer joy of it’ ?

I am interested in whether professional pianists regularly play the piano for their own enjoyment and satisfaction, for relaxation and fulfilment, rather than as a work-related activity, preparing a small number of works intensively for future public performance.  Most will have spent many happy hours in their youth playing through Mozart and Beethoven sonatas etc, and learning many works by Schumann, Chopin and Liszt, for the sheer pleasure of recreating great masterpieces for themselves.  This is why we all want to become pianists in the first place, and is why we teach and encourage the army of amateur pianists out there.  After all, if the sole purpose of learning the piano were to give public recitals, most piano teachers would be out of work tomorrow !

Yet there is a risk that this love of the piano is lost later on, as pianists become young professionals, and have to put in all those endless hours of hard practice, and begin performing in public.   They may adopt the necessary routine of polishing up a small number of pieces, over and over again – perhaps many thousands of times –  for a big recital or competition, and the innate joy of music-making for its own  sake may be lost.   Some pianists work exclusively on a single recital programme for an entire season, to be taken round prestigious venues, often with repertoire which has been learned many years ago.   Their daily practice consists of making these over-familiar works even ‘safer’ and ‘safer’, to guard against mistakes and the dreaded memory lapses.     This may indeed be necessary to give satisfactory performances under immensely stressful conditions, but this ‘treadmill’ may be extremely stultifying and may be nothing less than mental torture, far removed from the pleasures of playing the piano for its own sake.   I am reminded of Andre Agassi, who has stated that he absolutely hated tennis throughout his career, having practised so intensively in his early life, and I suspect that some famous pianists have the same ‘love-hate’ relationship with their instrument.

It is interesting that so many prominent piano pedagogues stop performing in public in middle-age, while concentrating on developing the  careers of their younger colleagues, after successful careers earlier on.  Obviously they have less time to keep their playing to the necessary standard, but I wonder whether ever they play ‘for fun’, on their own at home, for relaxation and self-fulfillment, after a hard day’s teaching ?  I rather doubt it.  Perhaps they still associate the piano with all that ‘work’ they undertook years ago, rather than ‘pleasure’.    However, I have known some musicians who have managed to keep their initial love of the piano and its literature, throughout long careers.  I met the celebrated pianist Nikita Magaloff at his home in Switzerland, shortly before his death in 1992.  He was actively learning some unfamiliar Schumann piano works for the first time, aged 80, and was totally enthralled by the beauty of the music.  Similarly my old teacher, Jimmy Gibb, was learning new repertoire in his late eighties, when his faculties were failing, and his sheer love of the music shone through everything.   I hope today’s pianists may emulate this, and that the huge pressures of giving public recitals don’t put them off the sheer joy of making music for their own private fulfilment.  To summarize, I hope they continue to love the  piano rather than end up hating it….

Author: hmather@btopenworld.com

Organizer of classical concerts at St Mary’s Perivale and St Barnabas Ealing. Pianist, organist and retired physician

4 thoughts on “Pianists – do you ever play ‘for the sheer joy of it’ ?”

  1. Good article Hugh. I’m mostly retired from Birmingham Conservatoire and have a limited number of recitals but I’m learning new repertoire – indeed I’m probably practising more than ever. Partly because there is a distinct sense of ‘tempus fugit, memento mori’ (I’m 71) and I feel it not only a privilege but a duty so to do. Do I play for pleasure? Sadly, not really – I need the stimulus of a concert, no matter how far off to concentrate the mind and fingers. There is the very real sense that we never stop learning HOW to play the piano – constantly refining our practice strategies and in perpetual pursuit of an ideal: ‘minimum work, maximum results’. I have, in all honesty to apply to myself and put to the test the decades of advice I’ve administered to students. My father had a strong work ethic and believed that continuing working (so long as one was useful) was essential. It, for him was as much a moral as practical duty never to allow ‘retirement’ to encourage a lazy existence As an enthusiastic amateur (he was a distinguished civil servant) he DID play the violin purely for pleasure but generally with miserable results. The day would begin religiously with unaccompanied Bach in the kitchen at about 6.00am (the Chaconne featured prominently in these early morning musical excursions). The cats would leave the scene of battle at the first screechingly out of tune chord. I arose very early one morning and went in to the kitchen at the very moment he was removing his violin from its case. The cats, with unerring (unpurring?) percipience fled even before the first note had emerged. Pavlov would have been fascinated….

    1. Dear John – sorry I have been slow in responding to this excellent response. I think we agree on the thrust of the article. I need the stimulus to do any practice, and since I have stopped giving recitals, at the moment I use the stimulus of trying to produce a passable recording of works. But it would be criminal to stop playing altogether at this stage – I agree it’s a duty and privilege. Great minds think alike ! Best wishes.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you say – though perhaps not with the expression “playing for fun” – I think that “playing for joy” or “playing for love” might be better in that the wonderful piano repertoire puts you in touch with many great works many of which are anything but “fun” in the trivial sense … I suppose also that “playing for money” as all professional artists have to do does not exclude – far from it – the possibility of “playing for joy” and “for the love of it”.

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