On Being a Pianist

Pianist’s hand by August Rodin

Pianist’s hand by August Rodin

What does it mean to be “a pianist”?

Pianists do not devote their lives to their instrument simply because they like music….there has to be a genuine love simply of the mechanics and difficulties of playing, a physical need for the contact with the keyboard….inexplicable and almost fetishistic…– Charles Rosen

The members of my piano Meetup group, my students, the people who play street pianos – they are all “pianists” to me.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata” – II. Andante con moto
Yet in researching this article, I discovered that many people believe the title “pianist” assumes a certain level of capability and should only be conferred upon a select few – professional concert pianists or those who have achieved an extremely high level of musical attainment.

 Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich

“Oh I’m not a proper pianist!” is a common refrain from the amateur pianists I meet regularly, some of whom are very advanced players. But what is a “proper” pianist? Is it someone who can perform complex repertoire from memory, with confidence, poise and flair, who has undergone a rigorous professional training, who has 50-plus concertos “in the fingers”….? Or is it simply a person who self-identifies with playing the piano?

Google isn’t much help either. Type in “Being a pianist” and the search throws up any number of “How to be a better pianist” sites, “top 10 worse things about being a pianist” or “15 steps to become an amazing piano player” (if only it were that easy!).

A confession: although I have played the piano for nearly two-thirds of my life, it wasn’t until I had secured my first professional qualification (a performance diploma, taken in my late 40s), that I felt I could justifiably describe myself as “a pianist”, rather than someone who “plays the piano”. When I started to give public concerts, sometimes for real money, I stopped feeling like I was playing at being a pianist, a fraudulent concert pianist.

Amateur pianists at La Balie, France

Amateur pianists at La Balie, France

Being a pianist implies an intensity of connection, commitment, passion and focus. For those who play professionally, it can be all-embracing, sometimes overwhelmingly so, for one must live and breathe the instrument and its literature. Work shapes every hour of the day, the cadence by which one sets one’s life, always feeding the artistic temperament, the pressure to achieve matched only by the pressure to sustain, and always the uncomfortable knowledge that one is only as good as one’s last performance. In addition, the competitive nature of the profession coupled with its job insecurity leads many professional pianists to pursue, by necessity, what is fashionably called a “portfolio career” which may include teaching and lecturing, running summer schools, arts administration or even roles outside the music industry. “Being a pianist” can feel distinctly unglamorous, restrictive, sometimes lonely, often badly paid…

Stravinsky: Petrushka – I. Danse russe
“I play the piano” suggests a more casual relationship with the instrument, something one does occasionally, at weekends, on Sundays….Yet many of the amateur pianists I encounter display a passionate commitment to the instrument which borders on obsession, regardless of the level at which they play. These people are not dreaming of the stage at Wigmore or Carnegie Hall; no, they play and practise for a personal challenge and fulfillment, a sense of one’s own accomplishment, to be better than one was yesterday while working towards tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…..It’s addictive, constant and consistent, sometimes therapeutic, often frustrating, but always, always compelling….It’s founded on love, of the instrument and its literature, and it is this love which drives these people to practise, to take lessons, and to strive to improve their playing, cherishing precious moments in their busy lives to find time to spend at the piano.

It’s a state of madness. Unless you’re any good. Even then, you drive yourself half mad and waste precious time proving yourself to idiots who haven’t a clue – David, professional pianist

There’s a frustration with which many of us who play at an advanced level are familiar – that people don’t really understand or appreciate what we do, or how hard it is (“does it get easier as you get better?” a friend of mine asked me recently. “No“, I replied. “You just get more efficient at working out how to do it!“). I remember the parent of one of my students commenting admiringly that it was “amazing” how the music just “came out” of my fingers. “How do you do it?” she asked. I felt like asking her whether she had ever considered why her daughter, my student, was required to practise regularly…. Yet for audiences and onlookers the magic, the mystique, of the pianist is very potent, and to reveal too much about our craft and art would dispel that.

Frustration, physical pain and constant setbacks. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be a mantle I can take off though – it’s just what I am – Dave

It’s my passion, frustrating, challenging and rewarding every day – Teresa

It is the most important thing in my life, it makes me profoundly happy to play and teach this beautiful instrument and its wonderful repertoire. I never take it for granted. When I play, I am transported somewhere else beyond my music studio… – Caroline

It means I can be pro-active with the world of music, and not just a bystander – Terry

Being a pianist puts us in touch with a vast repertoire, a rich seam of creativity, and some of the finest music ever written, and still being written. By engaging with it, we bring these works to life, like a conservator or gardener, every time we play. It puts us in touch with emotions and sentiments which are common to us all; it reminds us of our humanity, yet also transcends the pedestrian, the every day. In this way, for many of us being a pianist is an escape: as a child, I regarded the piano as a playmate, a place where I could go to weave stories and set my imagination free. Why should that be any different when one reaches adulthood?

For all of us who play the piano – amateur or professional – being a pianist offers limitless possibilities in what we can create and experience.

The real question is – what would you be without the piano?

More Opinion


  1. I have always loved the piano. My dad was pretty accomplished. I am not. I think of it as another way of interacting with the music, the repertoire, besides just listening. Like many other things in my life, I have developed an aloof relationship with it, not really practicing, or even playing for long stretches, but then coming back to it for the love of the pieces. Of course, it is frustrating to confront myself with my lack of dedication and ability, but I get what I deserve, and have learned to be content with it.

  2. Thank you for a lovely blog. I don’t take the viewpoint that we need to rank judgment or place labels on whether we are a true pianist or simply play the piano, though. That reeks of intellectual elitism and snobbery to me. That kind of judgmental tone is all too prevalent in academia (for those who studied piano at advanced levels). I see no point in that.

    This is why I especially appreciated your take on approaching piano with passion and love. Approaching piano and playing it as an expression of/for those qualities are to me the essence of playing any musical instrument.

    Of course we always want to improve.

    But I’ve been to plenty of concerts where I heard technically flawless, virtuosic performances that didn’t moved me. Often I consider those kinds of experiences a waste of my time.

    Alternatively, I’ve heard quite simplistic, amateur performances that moved me to tears because of the passion and authentic expression.

    I like your point —which seems to resonate with mine— that the point of playing a musical instrument is to communicate heart to heart. It doesn’t matter what label we give it.

    1. Jenny. I love your comment. Music is an art and can be appreciated at any level. Some technical and flawless performances can be uninteresting while so simple performances can be elevating. No art form level should be looked down on

  3. My mother was a pianist and organist and taught me to play the piano and taught me theory. I also play trombone and have a doctorate in composition. When I was just starting my teens, I didn’t like to practice and would rather
    be outside playing with my friends. My mother said I would be sorry I didn’t keep up my piano. Now I still play the piano and often
    Play for song songs at seniors residences. But I can’t play Beethoven sonatas or concertos. I am sorry I didn’t keep up my piano practising. However this is a matter of degree. I am now a composer , trombonist, and conductor. But O still consider myself a pianist to a limited degree and I can use my limited piano ability to bring joy to other people.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful blog!
    I would have a difficult time adjusting to a world without piano or music. I have loved piano from the first time I heard one played, and have studied music most of my life, first as a very young little dancer and singer, and then as an 8 year old beginner in piano. I was enthralled at the Army and Marine Band concerts my parents took me to as a child!!
    I teach piano and occasionally beginning voice and I’ve been a church pianist since the age of 13, as well as a choir director for the last 15 years. I play most days, even if it is just a small passage to demonstrate for a student. I will probably die teaching and that would make me happy!
    My piano is my go-to when I am overjoyed with excitement or overwhelmed by grief or the weariness of trials. I tend to be more creative then, experimenting and composing. When life is on an even keel, I simply play through old favorites and explore new pieces.

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