Many years ago, I remember sitting in the concert hall watching and listening to the greatest performance of anything I had ever heard, or have heard since. The performer had just won the top prize at the world’s most prestigious piano competition, and just happened to be a fellow student at the university I was attending. I had never seen such playing in which all of the elements of the performance were completely in the artist’s control. Every moment was choreographed; every gesture was masterfully executed to create the desired effect. The result was perfection. The piece was Stravinsky’s Three Movements From Petrushka.
This spring, after a successful recital, and with concerts lined up for the next season, I decided to spend my summer working on an entirely new program. The Stravinsky pieces had always been in the back of my mind as something that I might like to tackle. Now, for the non-piano nerds out there, Stravinsky’s Petrushka transcription is one of those famously difficult works; like Balakirev’s Islamei, or Messaien’s Vingt Regards, there is a reverence among pianists regarding the sheer difficulty of pulling off a performance of this piece. And so went my summer.
I’m at a point in my career where, for better or worse, I’m not too afraid of much when it comes to learning piano music. I also pride myself, as a teacher, with my attention to assigning level-appropriate repertoire to my students; often, to their dismay, they receive my recommendations for pieces that are “way too easy”, but, of course, prove otherwise. However, for some reason, when it comes to myself, I am far less discriminating–“Bring it on!” might be the motto for some of the repertoire choices I’ve made.
So, this summer, the Beethoven Sonata (Op. 26! What a great piece! Go listen now!) and Chopin Ballade (No. 4–how have I waited this long!) have been moving right along. And so had the Stravinsky, or so I thought. Then suddenly I realized that it is now August, and that I’m not even through the initial phase of my learning process, a process that I’ve been telling myself to trust all summer. Now, with the prospect of two additional programs (some chamber music, a concerto) that need heavy practicing, and having given myself a deadline of August 1st to have the solo program done so that I could start devoting serious time to the other programs, even the idea of practicing has become stressful. The task of learning this music seems overwhelming. I’ve been losing sleep. (Ask my wife–I never lose sleep.) I’ve had thoughts of quitting the piano entirely, cancelling every performance, or just getting through them and never taking on another performance again. Until now, I had never considered the obvious–drop the Stravinsky. I mean, this is the piece that I’m truly excited about practicing! It’s been the real focus of my work for the past few months. As an artist, the idea of letting go, unfinished, something that occupied my time for months is horrifying. As musicians, we give up so much of our time–family time, social time, personal time to just think–for the art of a performance that doesn’t last that long. As a university professor, the situation is even more unbalanced; while a performing artist that makes their living playing a program over and over can justify the amount of work that goes into it, for most teaching musicians, the likelihood is that you might get a few performances out of a piece in a year. Yes, I could set up concerts all over the place, but I’m just not that interested in playing all the time and being away from my family. On the flip side, the thought of not learning new music is something that I can’t seriously consider; I’m not sure I could face my students and try to encourage them to practice if I’m not doing it myself.
Learning a new program is a process that is truly unknowable until you do it. Practicing is the one thing in my life that I approach with total organization–I believe in my process, and I know that, most of the time, it works for me. However, I can never truly tell how quickly a piece is going to “take” until I get in there and start doing the work. Some days, the learning happens so quickly–pages memorized effortlessly. Other times, I’ll spend days and days on a measure and get nowhere. My realization with the Stravinsky is that I rarely have the good days with this piece. It is a constant struggle. Now, I can learn this piece, but judging by how it’s been going, it might take a year or more. And it’s important for me to ask–without resignation, but with pragmatism–“is this worth it?” Overall (by which I mean playing the piano in general, giving concerts, traveling to perform in new cities and seeing old friends who’ve invited me to play), yes, I think it’s worth it. However, the hard choice to give up (set aside?) a piece that I’ve worked on for months does force me to question the value of this work. I’m glad I’ve come to this decision. I’m going to give some concerts this year that I can be proud of. I know I’m making the right choice. I only wish I would have discovered it sooner.