Pianos and the classical music revolution

Just thinking some more about this in light of Zoe Keating’s presentation at MIDEM, wherein she talks about the constraints of the classical world and how many players are racing outward to find new methods of expression.

I thought about that in the context of my own instrument, and couldn’t get the same feeling. I think it’s because each instrument has its own cultural “baggage” in some ways, and pianos come with a different type.

It’s never been a surprise to hear a piano supporting non-classical music, for well over a hundred years. They were the means of home music making, and often found in secular settings like taverns, so they were going to be played in support of popular music, including patriotic songs about “the war” (there’s always a war someplace) like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” drinking songs, or popular tunes like “Silver Threads Among the Gold.” They were the Victorian home stereo, so everything was played on them.

Strings have always been much more constrained — especially cellos. Violins and violas had folk and bluegrass, and basses could often support jazz or blues in the popular imagination. Cellos, though? Like double reeds, they were very constrained, in a gilded cage of classical music. A beautiful cage, but still a cage.

Now, they are racing outward to discover new kinds of music to play — and of course, they are classically trained since they have been classical-only for so long, and they are bringing all of that technique to bear on music that hasn’t been approached in that way before.

Pianos, not so much. The idea of rock on a piano surprises no one — Jerry Lee Lewis’s music is about 60 years old nowdays. Classically trained musicians playing pop or rock? Billy Joel, Elton John. Shredder riffs on a piano? Rachmaninoff.

The issue with pianos is that we’ve always been able to play anything on them … but if we did, we were rapidly shown the door and ushered out of the classical world. An example: 50s pop machine Neil Sedaka was trained at Juilliard, and when he opted as an established pop star to take part in the Tchaikovsky competition in the old Soviet Union, he was disqualified and not allowed to perform; as a pop star, he was considered illegitimate. And that attitude prevailed globally in the world of classical music, even in my childhood when my request to my teacher to learn “My Life” was acceded to, while she made quite clear that she wasn’t crazy about this.

So, we could play rock, pop, blues, jazz, church music … anything, really.

But we could not call ourselves classical musicians if we did. There was an exclusion principle at work whereby rock and classical could both exist on a piano, but not at the same time. It’s going away, but it was there for a long, long time, and people my age (and Keating’s age) recall it very clearly.

So while string players are racing out the door to explore the world outside classical music, pianists are used to being shown the door when we investigate those other forms, even though they were widely recognized as having a home on our instrument.

Our revolution lies in bolting ourselves to the floor and not being shown the door, insisting that we will improv, write our own music, make “covers” of classical favorites, and also insisting that we are known as classical musicians in the meantime. Instead of running out the door to explore what’s outside, we are bringing the outside in; many other instrumentalists are doing the same certainly. But it seems to be the majority of a pianist’s revolution.

At least, in this one pianist’s view. 🙂

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