Thoughts on Piano Performers

First of all, I had planned to write a review of sorts based on my experiences of three concerts at the Liszt Museum to celebrate the Maestro's birthday on October 22 (concerts were on 18th), but after not much pondering, I have decided to talk about what bothered me the most which is an indirect way to show my disappointment.  Despite this, some things bother me beyond just the performances I witnessed, but stretch into the piano world in general (thanks to so many performances being online now to witness).

Pianists seem to forget the fact that audiences pay to come and see them as well as hear them and they have a duty, in my opinion, to create some kind of connection between themselves and the audience.  Concert pianists seem to be so unable to connect with their audiences that they may as well not even be present; just pop in a CD into a CD player and set it upon the piano with its lid closed shut.  To some extent, it would be absolutely no different in terms of stage presence.

Eye-contact is so valuable but it is completely ignored and undervalued.  A solid eye-to-eye contact with as many people in the audience for an extended period of time as possible (during on-stage arrival applause) I believe is pivotal in encouraging your audience to take a liking to you before you even play.  So many subconscious processes, beliefs and opinions are being formed in those first moments that if they are not warmed up and used to the performer's advantage, they are doing themselves no favours and actually making the room that little more sour, bored and dormant... no matter how well the piano is played.

During performance, occasional eye-contact, perhaps a little smile in the direction of someone who appears to be listening very attentively, is so beneficial that others in the room will pick up on this and feel touched that the performer is connecting.  As I said already, so many things happen in the human mind on a subconscious level that to not tap into them as a performer with your private, intimate audience is just as good as shooting yourself in the foot.

Having performed a piece which requires applause rather than silence before moving on to the next piece as part of a 'set', stand up confidently, eye your audience and show great appreciation.  You will be amazed how much people will like something more just by liking the person more than just 'another performer'... They begin to like the person so they hear the music performed and appreciate it in a different (more beneficial for the performer) way.

There is also nothing wrong with engaging your audience.  There is a difference between becoming a stand-up comedian and being a professional concert pianist on stage, but sharing your thoughts on a piece, or hoping everybody enjoyed a piece for just 5-10 seconds occasionally, in a mature, elegant way (rather than cheesy jokes) goes a long way to enduring the audience to you.

Finally, DO AN ENCORE.  If you're such a great pianist, use some of that ability and energy to become a better performer!  In my experience, an encore is usually a boring piece.  Why?  And that's if the performer even bothers to show his appreciation and thanks and actually come back to do an encore.  I find it incredibly rude and frustrating when a pianist, who has already shown himself utterly incapable at managing and entertaining an audience, comes back two or three times to take a lazy bow with mediocre eye-contact (if any) and does not perform one more piece.  With such a large repertoire, performing concert pianists have enough tricks up their sleeves to bash out one more number with a big of enthusiasm... perhaps in this way, they actually earn the flowers given to them at the end, and the people don't feel robbed of money.

If you're a piano teacher reading this, I strongly urge you to encourage your students to think about how they would engage with an audience before, during and after (plus encore) their performance set.  There are enough videos online to show them what not to do, but not many to show them what do to do.

Recommended Reading on this Topic: Audience Involvement, an article by The New York Times (discusses Liszt).

Liszt, for example, gave gracious bows, turned pianos in 180 degrees during the interval to give both halves of the concert hall a view of his face and fingers alternately.  He would excitedly provide an encore and remained in the audiences' debt until the last moment... for example:

"...When the last chords die away or boldly conclude the work, this outstanding genius suddenly steps out of the magic circle of his poetic vision and is delight, like a good and modest companion, that the public has listened to him attentively and without interruption".

Or:

"Liszt was graciousness itself.  Visibly pleased by the glowing reception accorded his second concert, he declared himself prepared to give a third (of his takings) for the benefit of any appropriate charity, ..."

Or:

"... But instead of using the steps, Liszt he leaped onto the platform.  He tore off his white gloves and tossed them on the floor, under the piano.  Then, after bowing low in all direction to a tumult of applause, ..., he seated himself at the piano.  Instantly, the hall became deadly silent [...].  As soon as he finished, and while the hall was still rocking with applause, he moved swiftly to a second piano facing in the opposite direction..."

To conclude this little article, I will say that the level of piano playing by the two students of the Liszt Academy were extraordinarily brilliant and I felt at ease in their mercy as they played Liszt very well indeed.  Let's hope they become great composers too, instead of spending their lives only playing what has been written by others; that which had it not been written, they would not be able to become pianists at all for their would be no music!

I believe that musical genius lies in writing music for the smaller men to play.  Try to go beyond only what has been written, and produce something new for future generations to enjoy.  This is progress.