This week, I had the privilege of meeting a pianist who had a few issues with nerves associated with performing. She said she felt that the audience would be critical of her if she made a mistake. That was quite the wrong place to be coming from as a performer. If you are clear about what you are playing or saying and your message is clear and your interpretation is one you feel in your heart, then mistakes are less likely and the audience dont even notice them. Have ever heard somebody speaking passionately about their subject? Do we feel annoyed when they stumble or repeat a word? That is another story altogether! However the focus on this day was simplicity. We talked about some of the issues that held her back from performing and one of the main ones was the assumption that the music we perform in public must always be complex and have a level of difficulty we find challenging. This is an interesting notion and maybe comes from our experiences and values system we learned through childhood. I learned that anything good required a lot of effort. This did not serve me well in later life! Not everything needs to be difficult!
With my interviewee, we talked about different performances in our lives that we viewed as being successful and the audience loving them and many of these performances were NOT particularly difficult at all. She recalled a piano duet with great excitement that she played which was quite simple and she performed it with great energy and gusto, wowing the audience in the process. How different was that to the energy taken from a current grade 8 piece? Quite different. I pointed out that the audience are never going to say, “Well – I was so emotionally moved by her playing and the piece was so beautiful and played with such passion and we loved it BUT it was too simple…” In my experience, quite often the simpler pieces are the ones the audience love and if you engage with the music and the audience then the whole experience is a musically hypnotic experience free from ego or fear. I remember performing Bach prelude no1 in a concert once and I felt it might be a bit simple and not show off my skills as a pianist. What does that emotion have to do with the music? NOTHING. In fact, audiences are often offended when you will not play the simple piece they requested.
There is no doubt that one should aim to push ourselves in terms of difficulty to get better at all aspects of music but playing a whole set of pieces, whole programmes which push us for a whole hour is not going to be something any audience wants to see or sit through! It is nice to have those moments in a performance where you show your “Chops” but people get tired of “too many notes” (to quote the emperor in Amadeus) and a balanced programme of music which is in some places, simple, expressive, occasionally pushing the performer, seeking to challenge the audience, furthering the journey of musical discovery is all a good starting point for a programme. If your programme fills you with fear, it is NOT the right programme! Our job as musicians is to communicate music and to entertain and hopefully move our audience.
Do we get bored by playing simple pieces again? Well – it was interesting that the other day whilst out walking with my cousin and her three children, we walked through a grotto 5 times. It was a simple thing to do but why did they want to go through it so many times? They wanted to experience it in different ways. First time they went through with one person holding the torch and then another person then they wanted to go through the grotto the other way. So, we need to remember that simple experiences just need to be viewed in different ways and experienced from different perspectives. It is hard to play a very difficult piece in different ways but a simple piece has so many options and needs for making it exciting. Make the normal exciting and you have conquered the way forward in music and indeed life.
Does the music need to be difficult for us to play in order to do this well? What pieces do you love? What pieces do your audience love to hear?
Making it simple, keeps it beautiful.