“Stepping back” and playing the piano

I’m still thinking of being a pianist versus my curiosity about other instruments. I still have my violas, but I feel myself coming closer to the end of the road on them due to my gradual awareness that, as I’ve said before, I just can’t get behind a device that only makes one noise at a time. But there’s something else there, and I don’t think it means that pianos are inherently the best instrument on Earth, just that they suit my own mind best.

I love pianos most of all because I feel like I’m making music as opposed to just learning how to produce a pleasant noise of a very specific character on one given device.

It’s sort of the difference between arithmetic and algebra. Arithmetic is adding and subtracting specific numbers. Algebra is when you remove the numbers (replaced with x and y and whatnot) and examine instead addition and subtraction themselves. Instead of asking how particular numbers behave, you ask how the underlying structure beneath them behaves, and how that behavior itself behaves, as a real thing. And all the beauty, taste, color, and scent of mathematics descends from that. It’s like turning aside from the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave and looking right at the thing that is casting them. All of the paralyzing beauty of wave equations, spherical harmonics and Bessel functions, contour integration, quantum mechanics, Green’s functions … it all opens up before you once you take that first step back and say, “Okay, forget about the actual numbers. What’s really going on here?”

That’s how I feel when I play piano versus learning the individual ins and outs of a device that is simply meant to make one noise of a particular arbitrary character.

I’ve always been like this, much more into the abstract than the real even as a child. Not only did the piano set all the notes out in front of me where I could build whatever structure I wanted out of them, like dumping a bucket of Lego blocks on the floor, but it enables me to step back from the sound production. Individual pianos can have individual characters most definitely, but as a whole, you’re removed from that. The device takes care of that for you, leaving you free to float around many miles above it where the air is clear and fresh and the entire landscape opens up beneath you. You’re not chained to the quirks and annoyances of a very specific device and the very specific and very arbitrarily chosen noise that it’s “meant” to make.

(Seriously, why would a violin that sounds like an erhu be considered a poor quality violin, but an erhu that sounds exactly the same be considered glorious? Why do Western orchestras play oboes and not duduks?)

In a way, it’s also like a spiral-bound amateur-published book printed in Arial versus hand-drawn and gilded calligraphy. I’d much rather have a cheapie, crappy-but-legible Xerox of a brilliant book, spiral-bound with a plastic cover, than the most perfectly calligraphed rendering of a so-so book. Sure, there is wondrous art in calligraphy; look at the Book of Kells. But if you actually read the thing … it’s just a bible, you know? I want and value the ideas more than the execution, because the beauty that a good idea will create in my mind will outstrip even the Book of Kells.

Now of course, it’s nice to have both, which is what I think an orchestra does. I love listening to the whole, but I wouldn’t want to participate in it myself. I don’t want to hold up one pixel of a giant image like the Rose Bowl halftime show, and in many instances, if the ideas are good enough, I don’t even want the book to be too fussily rendered because it’s distracting.

The piano was the instrument I fell in love with the most as a kid. I need to just admit that I found exactly the right fit for me very young. I don’t want to say that I play the X. I want to say that I play and write music, and the piano is perfection for that, in my mind. But I still remain fascinated by these people who play things that make one noise, and who sweat bullets over making that one noise sound exactly a certain way, since it seems to be a way of being a musician — or an instrumentalist, or a something — that I’m entirely disconnected from.

It’s also wonderful how music welcomes so many different kinds of minds: people like me whose brains want to live on the Perfect Plane, and people who find joy, pleasure, and satisfaction in the fine structure of one single note on one single device. People who render, people who write, people who solo, people who are happy accompanying from the background. No matter what your personality is or who you are, there is a way to excel in this and a way to find real joy. There is no “wrong sort of person” to do music.