Expressionism and individuality in the Pianist


We all have it and we all use it:  Expressionism.  But how does it apply to the (good) pianist?  I'd like to introduce this novel concept and share a few feelings on the notion in an attempt, as always, to improve one's playing and performance style.  Secondly, a similar concept, that of individuality and how it is possible to take your skills even further just be realising a few things about yourself.


Franz Liszt (Liszt Ferenc as he should be known), was the most prolific pianist the world has ever and most likely will ever see and hear.  Before I write anything else, I do suggest you go to Google Books and search for simply Franz Liszt.  This will provide you with an endless selection of reading material ranging from his life (which was unbelievably rich in many ways), diaries and advice to student's diaries of his lessons and articles written by those who attended his performances.  It must be read and imagined to be believed.

Liszt is the Mecca of piano technique and sheer brilliance.  This is not biased.  It is merely a logical conclusion from months of studying.  I have no personal reason to be in awe of this man, of whom Chopin wrote "...If only I could find a way to steal the way in which Liszt plays my works".  I simply arrived at this logical and educated place just like everyone else did who studied him extensively.  I suggest you do, too.  It will enrich your life and piano playing forever.

How does Liszt relate to expressionism?  I will explain.  He taught that energy must be used wisely when playing; it must be channeled to the right place at the right time, it must be stored for longevity and used sparingly.  Energy must not be wasted on over-expressing yourself during a piece of music for theatrical purposes or else the power you hold within for actually playing the piano as well as possible is lost or at least reduced severely.  Why hamper your skills just because you want to sway and lean back to show the audience you are feeling the music?  The audience will know that you feel the music even if you don't move another muscle on your body apart from your fingers because they will be overwhelmed by its deep and powerful emotions striking them at the core of their being.  That is, after all, why they want to come and see you and experience your musical magic, right?

Being completely unexpressive is not what I am encouraging.  Being expressive requires an understanding of what you are trying to achieve with your music so you know how to be expressive.  Jamie Cullum jumps around all over the stage, climbs on the piano and stamps his foot on the keyboard whilst singing; this makes me quiver but audiences enjoy it.  They enjoy it not for the (lack of) piano skill, but because his expression is genuine and understood from within.  If we take Cziffra (the greatest Liszt interpreter of all time, also Hungarian), we see how the piano can also be played with even more passion and expressionism yet without physical movement (theatrical expressionism) and thus a complete loss of pianistic expression (because energy was wasted on entertaining by jumping and not playing).

If you learn to balance physical expressionism with pianist and musical expressionism, you will find a natural balance for you which will make your own playing sound so much more genuine, no matter what song yu play, to whom and with what chords.

Personally, I enjoy sitting still with a straight back and hands stretched over the keys as per Liszt's instructions.  I also try not to look so much because, as Chopin said and having encouraged students to practice in the dark, looking at the fingers wastes focus on the music at hand ('scuse the pun).

This may all sound very heavy, but you have two choices:  be a piano player like millions and millions of others, or be an inspiring, brilliant pianist like very, very few.

Over to you,

Dan.