The pianist and the piano

Think of the pianist and the piano…..

I never thought I could be too sympathetic to instrumentalists who never have to worry about intonation.:) Deep down, most string players think pianists have it pretty easy in life, even if they do play a lot more notes than we do.  However, I’ve learned some valuable and humbling lessons in the last few years. From 1991-2002, every single concert, recital and gig I did as a cellist, I played on the same cello- my rather tasty Italian instrument made in the 1630’s.

Since I moved to the UK and since travel with a cello has become more difficult, sometimes even impossible, I’ve only done a small percentage of my playing work on my proper cello. It’s not easy switching axes, and it’s not easy going to a gig and not knowing what you’re going to be playing three days later in public.

Think of the pianist and the piano….

Think of the frustration of constantly having to adjust to pianos with uneven action, sticky keys, a harsh sound, a dead high end or a muddy bass. One week you may have the perfect instrument, the next week you’re playing on something that is barely useable. You might play the same program three days in a row on three vastly different instruments. How do you cope? Does the audience for the concert with the worst piano get nothing out of the event? In this problem is a lesson for the conductor

I’ve always tried to separate my job as conductor into two parts-  the pianist and piano technician. Part of my job is to tune the piano- to raise the standard of playing of the orchestra, but when I go onstage as the “pianist,” I’ve got to make the performance, and my performance transcend the limitations of the instrument if limitations there be. In the concert, I’m no longer the piano technician.

There are many facets of performance for which difficult performance conditions are no excuse. Rhythmic precision, dynamics, care with phrasing, balance, articulation and intensity are things that we should always expect to be as good as possible no matter what the situation. Whether it’s me choosing the right tempo, or a violinist really playing every accent on the page, these are things that we can get right no matter where we are or who we’re working with. I think of this whole aspect of performance preparation as “getting the picture right.” This is the work of the pianist.

However, it’s one thing to say, “this is the best I can do with this piano today,” and another to say that this piano is acceptable, lets not worry about it. If you’re not constantly pushing the technical envelope, you’re failing in your job. Let me clear- the Oregon East Symphony is not a place where we accept the various standards of technical ability among the musicians, it’s a place where we try as hard as possible to transcend them.

David Stabler’s piece in the Oregonian pointed out that part of what makes the Oregon East Symphony unusual and challenging is the huge range of levels of ability. It’s a piano that plays very well in some registers, for instance, with the exception of maybe one player who was in for the first time and didn’t seem to know what to expect, we had a really first-class brass section for the Mahler, but is less secure in others- we had one guest principal for a concert this year who came very highly recommended but was a disaster. For the Mahler, our string count suffered from the logistical difficulties caused by the fire and a number of conflicts with other orchestras- think of a piano where one whole register is underpowered, but another is quite nice.

It’s not been unusual in the last couple of years to go straight from the OES to the BBC here in Cardiff to an orchestra that is capable of sight-reading at or near CD quality. My very first gig with them was a recording of La Mer 24 hours after getting home from Pendleton- we were rolling tape fifteen minutes after I shook the concertmaster’s hand for the first time. It’s easy to be seduced by the shear beauty of the sound of a great orchestra, so much so that you may forget to listen to the picture. I’ve heard many a concert by great orchestras where the picture was, well, awful- not together, no dynamic range, no attention to detail, so sweep. Because the musicians are so marvelous, they continue making agreeable sounds even when the picture is far from agreeable. Perverse as it sounds, a great piano can sometimes lull one into painting a rather dull picture in the concert.

So, getting the picture right, whether it’s a youth orchestra or a major orchestra or a weird hybrid like the OES is never a given.

I rehearse basically the same way everywhere I go, regardless of the technical standard- I try to get the picture right, and I try to get the piano working as perfectly as I can in the time I’ve got.

However, my role in this is only part of the equation, because in this metaphor, the piano is not the orchestra, but the whole performing situation including the hall, the rehearsal schedule, the budget and me, and the pianist is not just me, but every musician on stage.

When orchestras really work well, whether it’s the Berlin Phil or the Island City Municipal High Modernist Sight-Reading Orchestra for Retired Roto-Rooter Operators, it’s because everyone is focused on getting the picture right and on tuning the piano. Even in the greatest orchestras, there are technical frustrations (sometimes, perhaps even often, perhaps even most of the time, the sticky key on the keyboard of life is the conductor), which we work on, day in, day out, with bloody-minded tenacity, but we’ve got to remember the picture as well. Orchestra musicians can do a lot to make up for a conductor who doesn’t get it , and a good conductor can do a lot to take an orchestra beyond their previous understanding of a piece, but when both sides are working on both issues, and nobody is making excuses, things work pretty well.

When you’re the pianist, play the damn piano. When you’re the technician, sort it out.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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