Looking beyond the concert pianist to diversify classical piano education
My housemate thinks I’m going to be a concert pianist. I discovered this only recently, while dicing onions during an absent-minded conversation about the murky futures that exist beyond our Bachelor degrees.
I suppose it’s a fair assumption. The day-to-day paraphernalia of my life suggests an aspiration for such a lifestyle: concert pianist memoirs and biographies clutter up a chunk of our shared bookshelf, my bedroom houses a steadily growing collection of scores, trips to the op shop are preoccupied with finding ‘concert blacks’. And fingernails; what are they? My soundtrack is often Rachmaninov and I leave the house every day to practice a program of Mendelssohn and Brahms, at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, no less.
But for me, and the overwhelming majority of my pianist peers, the jet-setting life of the concert pianist is not a reality, nor our ambition. This came as a surprise to my housemate – what else was I going to do?
As this exchange in my kitchen demonstrates, society’s understanding of ‘pianist’ is still dominated by the Lisztian image of solo performance. Franz Liszt was the first musical ‘superstar’. He took 19th century concert halls by storm, turning the piano side-on to best display his dramatic profile, and swept audiences away with his spectacular virtuosity and stunning charisma. It is to Liszt we owe the glamorous world of encores and stardom that has lodged itself in the public imagination ever since.
But today, the true nature of work for most professional pianists is more diverse than this. And wonderfully so. While an exclusively solo career may only be viable for the chosen few, pianists relish an instrument that is at home in most musical contexts and central to dozens of genres. It occupies a special place in the musical imagination; no other instrument has achieved an iconicity for beauty, communication, fantasy, and camaraderie quite like the piano. It is capable of otherworldly expression with all the simplicity of depressing a key, and is flattered by a wealth of poetic discourse. A quote from James Rhodes opens the latest AMEB series: ‘There are 88 keys on a piano and within that, an entire universe’.
Coming back to earth, the piano is incredibly useful. In fact, I would argue, the most useful of instruments. In The Concert Pianist Myth: Diversifying Undergraduate Piano Education in Australia, Helen Mather remarks:
‘As classically-trained pianists we are in the unique position among musicians of having many employment opportunities in performance areas. In an industry where so many talented musicians are struggling to find work, pianists are regularly being offered performing work.’
Pianists are the musical directors and choir accompanists, play for ballet and dance schools, opera companies, deliver countless music lessons, are the first to be brought in when a one-man-soundtrack is required (remember the pianist on Playschool?), and are regularly engaged for weddings, parties, and other social events. Pianists really play a fundamental role in the everyday musical happenings of our society. A bassoonist could only dream of such variety.
So our longstanding romanticisation of the concert pianist is largely obsolete. Why then, when I cycle to uni to spend the day at my piano studies, does it feel like our conservatoriums still subscribe to this image too?
Solo performance continues to be the overwhelming focus of the conservatorium piano curriculum. Skills that are crucial to the types of work mentioned above, such as sight-reading, ensemble playing, and accompanying, have fallen by the wayside in favour of an almost singular pursuit of technical perfection in the form of solo recitals. Conservatoires are too conservative, Chris Lloyd, a piano graduate from the Royal College of Music, observes that ‘now we have completely specialised solo pianists, who are unable to make a specialised solo career.’
I find this discrepancy between what piano students are taught and what pianists actually do perplexing. It props up some of classical music’s most uncomfortable problems: the public misperception of ‘the concert pianist’ is symptomatic of a wider issue regarding accessibility and elitism. As long as our conservatoriums continue to teach to an extinct breed of musician, they risk a reputation of irrelevance amongst the wider community. Classical music will continue to be regarded as ‘other’, and not recognised for all the ways in which it is embedded into our culture.
We should be seeking to change this perception. People have a connection to classical music. Countless anecdotal experiences tell me there is an untapped excitement towards it in nearly everyone. A little while ago, as I lay in the waiting room of a Melbourne hospital waiting to go under anaesthetic, my anaesthetist pulled up a clip he had found of Pirates of the Caribbean performed on electric violin under epic rock concert lighting. He had shown it to his young children to inspire them in their violin lessons. ‘How do people play like that?’ he exclaimed in awe as the violins wailed away, reverb to the max. ‘Amazing.’ The other day in an Uber, my driver, excited to learn I played piano, insisted that I check out a brilliant piece of music he had found on YouTube. It was by Mozart, he thought, featured a piano and was called something like the ‘Emperor Symphony’. ‘Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto?’ Yes, that was the one.
There are many people who are evidently enthralled by the creations of classical music, yet probably aren’t active in attending the hundreds of performances, projects, and gigs that make up the lives of its artists. As classical musicians, we are selling ourselves to a community who, while interested if given the chance, are sabotaged by diminished funding, ignorant policy, and this pervasive notion that classical music happens ‘somewhere else’ (or perhaps, ‘for someone else’). Dwindling audiences mean that for musicians, versatility is more important than ever, and I believe this should be recognised in our training.
Conservatoriums have moved away from the rigorous and holistic approach as conceived in 19thth century conservatoires of Paris and Vienna. So we must ask, what is their role in the musical landscape of today? This issue inevitably cuts to that fraught question and darling of the culture wars: the purpose of tertiary education. Pianists I spoke with offered varied opinions. ‘Building connections’, ‘navel-gazing’, ‘discipline’, and frequently ‘it depends on the student’. Some referred to the more traditional notion of the university as a sanctuary for the pursuit of higher thought. Most stressed the importance of a dedicated environment in which to practice one’s craft, or put in the ‘10,000 hours’.
When asked if their own conservatorium education prepared them for the work they are doing now their answer was more united: No.
To determine whether this is a problem, we can examine the tertiary education debate in ideological terms. Or we can just look at what our conservatoriums are saying for themselves.
‘Be challenged, inspired and engaged as a 21st century musician’ commands the Sydney Conservatorium. In a similar vein Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium invites you to ‘unleash your musical passion and embark on a classical performance career’. ‘Prepare for life as a professional musician’, the Melbourne Conservatorium says, keeping things straightforward, while the Queensland Conservatorium claims it is ‘dedicated to producing polished music professionals of the highest calibre’. The spin towards employability is conspicuous. Only the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music remains non-committal, promising absolutely the bare minimum with: ‘Make music where music is being made’.
Based on their marketing campaigns, the expectation that a degree from these institutions should prepare students for a career in their chosen field is not unreasonable. Evidently, conservatoriums are unabashed in advertising their role in producing career-ready professionals. To then not provide such an education seems disingenuous.
A quick snapshot of the profiles of some of Australia’s most highly regarded pianists reveals the breadth of work they do. Leigh Harrold, one of Australia’s busiest pianists with a reputation for ‘rare talent and intelligence’, estimates collaborative piano work to occupy 80 percent of his professional life. Anna Goldsworthy’s biography lists her as ‘an award-winning pianist and writer, and festival director’. Winner of the 2011 Australian International Chopin Competition, Peter de Jager, works regularly as a collaborative pianist and has a diverse repertoire which encompasses ‘all periods of western classical music as well as musical theatre and cabaret’. Bernadette Harvey is a performer, recording artist, and pedagogue at the Sydney Conservatorium. Kristian Chong is ‘equally at home as a concerto soloist, chamber musician and recitalist’ and holds a teaching position at the Conservatorium in Melbourne.
Evidently, accompanying, teaching, and playing alongside others forms a considerable part of these pianists’ professional identities. Yet, there is a curious attitude that devalues the skills of collaborative pianism. Speaking to Leigh Harrold, he recounted an experience: ‘I needed to find a pianist to play for the MSO Chorus in their rehearsal of Bach’s B Minor mass. It was two calls, paid work, and no preparation required – just turn up and read the score. I thought it would be a great opportunity for a piano student, so I approached an undergraduate at the MCM. But it was like he thought it was beneath him. He was not at all interested, he said “that’s not really my thing”’.
It is not uncommon to encounter pianists who have a similarly single-minded view of a career as a soloist. Anything less is looked upon as a back-up plan, which becomes a problem when the back-up plan must inevitably be used. The skills needed to be a good accompanist or ensemble player are very different from those needed to perform a concert program proficiently, so the would-be soloist finds themselves ill-equipped. In comparison, Harrold describes his own experience: ‘Before I started at the Con, I had done everything from playing classical sonatas on stage, jazz piano in bars, pit-band work, accompanying singers, to working as a church organist. I never found one aspect of music-making more difficult than another, although they certainly required different skills.’
Considering the activities of their professional counterparts, perpetuating a hierarchy for piano students that values solo skills over any others is unhelpful, to say the least. It makes sense to expand piano education’s focus beyond that of preparing a recital program. Piano students need training that encourages them to develop into musicians who are, among other things, comfortable in collaborative environments and familiar with the central repertoire of other instruments. An education that enforces the pressure of accompanying and sight-reading, and prioritises exposure to various types of performing experiences, would prepare pianists for a future that clearly flourishes on well-rounded musicianship.
This is in no way at odds with maintaining the highest standards for solo performance. I am not suggesting that the technical and musical demands set by solo training be diluted at all. In conversation with pianist and pedagogue Anna Goldsworthy, she emphasised the invaluable nature of an environment in which to develop a solid foundation of repertoire and technique: ‘By addressing oneself to the Beethoven sonatas or Chopin etudes or Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, one is in a great position to tackle almost anything musically.’The first requisite for being a musician is the ability to play your instrument – and play it well. To thrive as a pianist in the industry today, however, it is not enough.
It should be acknowledged that Australian conservatoriums are not at total liberty to deliver the ideal model of musical training. Each exists as part of a larger tertiary institution, a structure that has been widely condemned as a ‘straitjacket’ on the teaching of music. Back in 2014, musician and academic Peter Tregear wrote ‘[conservatoriums] now cannot rely on their host universities to provide as a matter of course the high level of subsidy needed to maintain the level or styles of teaching that once characterised the traditional conservatoire.’ Based on conversations with current conservatorium staff, this continues to be a problem today. A recent example of conservatorium/university tensions arose in the merging of the Victorian College of the Arts with the University of Melbourne in 2007. The transition prompted scathing critiques from across the arts community, to the concern that university modelling posed a risk to the quality of performing arts education.
For musicians entering the profession there is an additional skill set that exists beyond playing and performing. Brydie Leigh-Bartlett’s study Preparing for Portfolio Careers in Music identified that ‘financial viability depends for many musicians not only on talent, but also on their own “portfolio” skills such as in advertising, social media, merchandising, venue management and ticketing arrangements.’ Survey responses collated by Dawn Bennett in Portfolio Careers and the Conservatoire found career education and industry experience, instrumental pedagogy, and business skills to be the three main areas that active professional musicians prioritised for inclusion in a conservatorium curriculum. Pianists I spoke to echoed this, commonly citing business management as essential to their work, yet also a skill they had largely learnt ‘on the job’.
As I write this, amidst the online slog of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, several of my classes just this week have been devoted to career skills, repertoire expansion, and pedagogy. Although undisguised about the fact that they have only been pulled together to fill the hours left by cancelled rehearsals and practical activities, these lectures have been refreshing and pertinent, and the first of their kind in my undergraduate experience. Perhaps, as the pandemic has prompted a collective rethink of the way music-making occurs and the sustainability of the industry into the future, we will see these presentations evolve from emergency stand-ins to something more consistently valued in the curriculum.
It is also important to consider what happens even before the piano student sets foot inside a conservatorium. After all, there is no incoming cohort without the very many years of lessons and teachers that shape musical journeys from their earliest days. An immersion in ensemble commonly accompanies the learning of non-piano instruments, and it reveals much of how the ‘concert pianist myth’ is seeded that the typical progression of piano lessons is so isolated in comparison. Simply through ensemble playing, students of other instruments enjoy a range of benefits, such as sight-reading skills and exposure to a broader range of musical and pedagogical influences, but the scarcity of collaborative opportunities for younger pianists means that piano students miss out on these experiences. On entering a conservatorium, the average string/wind/brass player likely has a far richer musical background than any pianist.
My own piano journey of preparing yearly AMEB programs to perfection was certainly in stark contrast to the varied world offered to me by the cello. Even though cello was always my ‘second’ instrument and practise was admittedly negligible, I was flung into ensembles, accompanied choirs, musical productions, gigged at functions, and was sightreading constantly. Through workshops run by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra Victoria, opportunities to work with top musicians, even in my regional town, were frequent, accessible and – I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say – life-changing. I think it remarkable that the opportunity exists for a school student (however reluctantly they have been signed up for co-curricular music lessons) to potentially rub shoulders with the likes of Richard Tognetti.
The obstacles to this being an identical experience for piano students are obvious. Not only would a 50-odd member piano ensemble be highly impractical, it would also sound horrible. Luckily, chamber music, and four-hand repertoire, exists in abundance at every playing level. It is just often overlooked in early piano lessons. Pianists like to boast that you could spend your whole life at the piano learning repertoire and still never run out of things to play. Indeed, Harrold mused that the incomparable size of the piano literature perhaps fuels a pressure to wade through as much of it as possible from Day One, at the expense of a broader musicianship.
So we get the tired joke: ‘Pianists can’t count!’ And it’s not a surprising outcome. To the young student (and even the less-young student), counting seems a superfluous effort when the only time lord to answer to is themselves. But, by excusing piano students from the same standards of musical awareness expected of their non-piano peers, we end up with musicians who, except as soloists, are functionally useless. Piano teaching can help avoid the repercussions at the conservatorium level that see pianists out of their depth when asked to accompany or participate in any other useful activity by including four-hand repertoire, sight-reading, and ensemble playing from an early stage. Aside from anything, we would probably all benefit from pianists escaping the solitude of the practice room. As Goldsworthy says: ‘We get a bit weird’.
Opportunities for collaborative study and diverse performing experience for piano students are out there. In 2019, the AMEB released a new syllabus and assessment model in collaborative piano. Organisations such as Musica Viva, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, and Australian Youth Orchestra run chamber music education workshops with space for piano students. Accompanist guilds exist in most States, offering awards and mentoring, and eisteddfods are expanding to include prizes in accompaniment.
These opportunities quietly exist on the fringe of a community that favours the hothouse of solo competition and hours alone in the practice room. But if pianists are to be prepared for the demands of the industry we need to unravel the concert pianist mentality. ‘Versatility has never been more necessary,’ said Goldsworthy. From the beginning, piano students should be sightreading, playing in ensembles, and accompanying their peers, all while developing their solo playing. In our conservatoriums, a model of training that supports this diversity would be game-changing.
Pianists have a peculiar habit, which is to create further labels for ourselves: ‘Concert pianist’, ‘collaborative pianist’, ‘accompanist’, the recently trendy ‘associate artist’. But piano is always a multifaceted craft. I suggest we embrace the term ‘pianist’, which can refer to all the diverse types of playing pianists do.
‘Producing useful pianists’ is the catchphrase of the Australian National Academy of Music’s head of piano, Timothy Young. I think it captures the mission perfectly.
Lily Begg is an alumnus of the Words About Music program, AYO National Music Camp 2021.