piano playing anyone?

December 4, 2006 at 01:22 AM · http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/11/30/60minutes/main2220358.shtml?CMP=ILC-SearchStories

Replies (22)

December 4, 2006 at 05:25 AM · Journalese, unoriginal and underinformed. How she plays, by any respected and respectable measure and in the admittedly subjective opinion of an authoritative peer, is overlooked for the first two pages in search of effect and hyperbole. Is it any wonder that whenever mainstream tries on classical, they get it wrong? Is it any wonder that when they get it wrong it's due to trying to make bats swim and sharks fly? Why not be amazed at a shark's ability to swim, by a pianist's ability to inject originality into an oft-played work, making us see it in a new way, through subtlety, without resorting to the musical equivalent of a club on the head?

And is it any wonder that I read no further than page 2? After all, the breathless ditzoid style has been done to death so often and so universally that it, more than any career success or failing, has come closer than anything else to making me want to quit music altogether.

December 4, 2006 at 05:52 AM · Interesting. I know some people with natural ability, but I'm not sure on that scale... But I also don't know anything about her 'real' training.

December 4, 2006 at 01:46 PM · thanks emil for that provocative post.

forget about media treatment of classic music. it may never get it or always get it wrong anyway.

since i do not know the inner works of classical music, violin or piano for that matter, i suppose there are parallels in the classical violin world as well, when gifted violinists are met with resistance within the classical circle itself for wanting to break new ground. are you classical or not? make a stand. well, some can't because they want to be themselves.

stern helped lang lang. argerich helped her. let's hope more elders in the violin world are eager to lend a helping hand to the next generation, as co-contributors to art.

peace and love!

December 4, 2006 at 03:01 PM · Weird article--I have heard her on the radio and she is an excellent pianist with a talent for improvisation. Fine, that's cool. But it bothered me how that article was talking like "the rest of the classical world" (us) is all stodgy, puritanical uptight killjoys, and only these "free spirits" are REALLY special. Typical journalese, like Emil said, and also unfortunately typical 21st-century american anti-intellectualism... :)

December 4, 2006 at 04:34 PM · Al, it's not that she's trying or not trying to break new ground. It's that in order to get any attention from mainstream media one must do something radical like

1) be a blind and incompetent singer, or

2) be a photogenic and incompetent violinist who dresses in 19th century costumes with a similarly garbed backup orchestra composed entirely of women and with a repertoire exclusively of Strauss trivia, or

3) be a tarty and incompetent violinist, the first to use blatant, vulgar, Hilton-esque cheap sex appeal to sell alleged classical music. With a rock beat added to occlude your incompetence. Or

4) dress grunge, talk like a British football hooligan (regardless of how that is not where you came from), or

5) improvise in concert and let the media say it's a novelty, regardless of the fact that people like John Bayless have been doing it for decades. Make sure articles about you fail to opine on whether you do this better than others doing the same thing, or even to note that there ARE others doing the same thing. Ensure that the articles about you stress every tired stereotype about the classical world and rant breathlessly about how you don't fit those stereotypes. Under no circumstances mention that NO ONE fits them, as they are false to the marrow of the bone.

In short, have a STORY to sell. Because heaven knows that the media can't - nor care to - sell merely excellent playing. That's stodgy.

The same article about which I blogged in September, where the journalist wrote about my previous blogs, made me out to seem some sort of revolutionary, or somehow unusual in being approachable. That was the article's "hook": that classical musicians don't get enough credit for being accessible (almost a direct quote). And how I'm somehow emblematic of those seeking to shuck standoffish convention, how in this rebelliousness I'm bucking parental authority which, in my case, is identical to Classical Authorities (my mom being a well-known violinist) etc. etc. etc.

The journalist had a job to do. And I can't very well call the papers when I see such articles and burst out laughing. But it's part of the same disease: looking for a story or hook beyond the interest of someone playing well, full stop. And if the media says "well, there's LOTS of people who play well" my response is "EXACTLY!" In fact, THAT should be the story - that lots of people do play well, that here's some outstanding people you, the reader, may want to go and hear, and that in order to derive pleasure from that hearing you don't need to have a background story, sob-story or otherwise, for the performer. The music is what you're going to hear, not your morbid or hyperromantic superimpositions upon it. And the music is more than enough to give the pleasure that justifies buying the ticket, because it's the music that you're presented with - and not the pre-existing notions which you try to impose upon it - that takes you beyond the emotional scope of everyday living.

December 4, 2006 at 04:41 PM · I'd like to check her out.... I thought American media and journalism were brass too Maura, until I started reading papers from around the world--it's a jungle out there... And those pushing the images!.

December 4, 2006 at 06:03 PM · I feel much the same anger that Emil suggests, over statemensts such as this:

"Making it up as you go along, for classical musicians, can be suicidal in that extremely uptight world.

"For in the starchy world of classical music, she is something of a misfit, right down to the tips of her remarkable fingers."

Starchy? Uptight?

And how is classical the only uptight art world? Ever been to a gallery? Or a fashion show? Or a television commercial production shoot? Talk about up tight! You can cut the tension with a knife!

Starchy? I am so sick and tired of that crap. It is journalistic "hook" for sure. And so full of sheisze. Just because people get dressed up to go to a symphony recital doesn't mean they are starchy--even when they are wearing starch! Heck, some of the most wonderful, relaxed and enjoyable evenings with friends old an new have happened to me while wearing full dress. And some of the most awful self-conscious starchy experiences have happened in a bathing suit. Come to think of it, I've never had a bad time wearing full dress.

Now there is most certainly some truth to this:

"In their days, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart did it too. But in the classical world, the practice died out a century ago. And today, improvisation is still largely frowned upon.

"'I think they felt it was their responsibility to provide everything they could for me to develop. And that’s what they did,' Gabriela says. "

But I wonder if this is "classical music" that is a problem, or rather "musical instrument instruction" that has the problem. Certainly audiences may have expectations. But provided you don't trick them, there is an open door to improvisation. Time For Three and other classically trained and still classically active musicians are out there, touring, improving etc with big orchestras.

"But privately, there was doubt and frustration. Gabriela’s teacher questioned her talent, and belittled her improvising."

Well, that's just plain stupid teaching.

My own son's teacher encourages him to write, to improvise, etc, though she also asks that he learn to play as written--so that he has that skill--as differentiated from free improv. Both talents are essential.

"'I was told that there was nothing special about it. In a way, almost making it sound like it was embarrassing. And in classical music, there was no space for this. So I didn't. And I started to feel ashamed,' she recalls."

Well, great quote, and she's right that there is "no space for it" if you try to do it in a way that tricks your audience.

December 4, 2006 at 07:15 PM · I'm confused. Does she just improvise on well-known themes? That's a perfectly respectable thing to sprinkle into a recital--one of Liszt's favorite encores was to have people name their favorite opera arias, and then he'd improvise a brilliant fantasia on those themes, on the spot! :)

But from what little I read of the article (I stopped about two paragraphs in after all that "starchy" "uptight" nonsense), it sounds almost like she takes a Beethoven sonata or something like that and messes with it. That would be quite tacky....so I am confused.

PS Al, I agree that news media is sensationalist crap pretty much everywhere now. :) But it seems to me that many countries in Europe generally have a greater understanding of and appreciation for classical music--I can't imagine a Prague journalist calling classical music "starchy".

December 4, 2006 at 10:10 PM · Let's hope not Maura.... al

December 4, 2006 at 10:47 PM · I trust our Czech brothers... :)

December 4, 2006 at 10:47 PM · Greetings,

I staggered through the first page and just thought `so what?` She plays the piano well. That`s not news. She improvises well, sort of er, Jazz. That`s not news.

My composer friend Daniel Forro can sit down and instantly dream up great music based on anything from Monteverdi to Bartok. So what?

Did I miss something on page three?

Bet she`s a great snogger.



December 5, 2006 at 01:20 AM · buri, that guy is your friend and you did not read page 3?:)

emil, you will make one spirited music critic if you decide to retire from performing one day:)

we all have our own biases and opinions. the mention of french bow, old italian violin, russian trained violinist, chinese made violin, suzuki student, etc bring different images and meanings to different people even on this board.

we cannot control others' opinions, nor can we legislate how others should think of us.

if the media thinks of classical music as stiff and aloof, there are reasons, albeit not necessarily reasonable ones.

further, as far as media is concerned, there should be lines dividing prof music critics/authorities, general journalists and average concert goers. imo, if music critics/authorities have a tough time with you, the average concert goers may not have an easy chance to hear you. a bit like communist central planning.

general journalists are trained to take a stand and hide it to be slick. how can they possibly see eye to eye with you when the job is to make you lose control? Hi, this is mike wallace, i really have nothing to ask, just want to say: good job.

December 5, 2006 at 07:35 AM · I have a cd where she does improvisation. She does take themes from well known pieces, as well as lesser known pieces, and improvises on them. She also takes pieces and improvises within them, leaving the structure of the piece intact.

She plays just as much straight repertoire with no improvisation, and does a fine job with it- as good or better than any other pianist around. That's why they are saying she is special, I believe. If they didn't, then yes, that is what they should have said. It's the fact that not only could she make a name for herself as a great concert pianist, which she has done, but that she can also improvise better than a great majority of people, or maybe anybody, in her field and isn't afraid to do so in public performance. Maybe we should encourage this sort of thing instead of ripping on it as a gimmick?

Emil, you said yourself that you couldn't control what an article said about you and how it may have promoted you. Why should anybody expect she can do this?

Where is the line drawn? What if Vanessa Mae is happy playing the music she plays and content with the person she has become? I would bet she is. Though it's not really classical music and she's clearly not a virtuoso violinist, I don't think she sells it as such either. And there is some classical music in it, which exposes more people to Vivaldi, Bach, or whatever she puts in there, than any soloist. I said that on another thread and someone replied that she is the very reason their young daughter began to play the violin and later came to fully appreciate classical music. I think that young girl is one of many. Also, I'm not sure that Vanessa Mae ever proclaimed or portrayed herself as a violin virtuoso, and she is competent in what she does. Whether a person appreciates what she does is up to them.

If people overcome a disability (I don't know what vocalist you are talking about there, nor could they read the comment and reveal who they are) and still play well, then why not let them share this even though there might be people who are better. We know there are violinists as great as Itzhak Perlman that we have never heard of. But he is even more of an inspiration and perhaps the most inspirational figure in classical music because of what he has overcome.

Obviously much of what Emil said is agreeable. It upsets me to see what I may consider an incredible or the best recording of Bach S&P passed up for the lesser S&P recording with a practically naked, young girl on the front. Or what may be a superior concerto recording passed up for the one with the cute blond boy or the punk with the mohawk on the cover. Or the fact that any of these three continue to charge outrageous fees while more and more orchestras go bankrupt.

I don't think this is anything new though, nor will it be changed. In fact I think that, unfortunately, it's the "American Dream" to do just such a thing. Paganini was a great performer, but used any rumors or whatever he could get to his advantage in order to sell tickets and make his place in history. Child prodigies have been around for hundreds of years and will be exploited for hundreds more. Woman were largely excluded from the classical music world for hundreds of years, and as soon as they could get away with it in our society, why not use their power over men to make a place for themselves? So where is the line? As classical musicians we have to take pretty much any break we can get.

Understand I'm not arguing with anybody. I'm just asking for further reasoning and explaining. I'm glad the participants in this thread so far happen to be exceedingly good at providing articulate and sound explanations.

December 5, 2006 at 09:01 AM · Just imagine all that ability composing.... al

December 5, 2006 at 12:22 PM · brian, that is a very sensible and even tempered post.

i find emil's posts similar to his playing, very colorful and convincing (although he has experiences that i may not be able to identify with because i have not been there).

i did see that tv broadcast and in a nutshell, brian, you got it right.

we all know people who improvise very well, but the key point in this story is that she probably "overdid" it in people's eyes early in her career and music critics and teachers alike suggested otherwise.

so, she enjoyed improvisation, and she was told to stop and stick to original scores. she was not happy, then lost...sure it sounds like a plot seen often and rather trite. we just have to take whatever we see fit from her experiences.

bottomline,,,if you stick to your guns, you may get lucky and succeed.

December 5, 2006 at 02:43 PM · Following on from the above:

Is music performance ART, or is it PROLETARIAN CRAFT ?

If all performers are expected to perform music just a certain way, then they are not artists. Rather, they are merely skilled craftsmen.

Of course we need lots of skilled craftsmen, and even the artists need to do craftwork, but sometimes there is an undercurrent that is quite subversive to the idea of perfromer as artist.

December 5, 2006 at 03:14 PM · Brian - Lara St John's CD is not so provocative as it sounds, naked young girl. The light is filtered through a venetian blind obscuring the view of a violin covered body. The cover is really quite modest and romantic. My middle schooler, image conscious and socially savvy, had refused to own CD's of old men with wigs or ladies in puffedup dresses. She's starting on S&P. When I gave her Lara St John's CD, she smiled broadly and said, "Why not? Bach is romantic." She likes S&P and would have played them anyway, but was glad to see someone she could better identify.

Whether the classical music community is uptight or not, I did notice a puzzling aspect in my area schools. Where we live, we have 5 or 6 outstanding private schools in short driving distances, each with its own distinctive culture. The best school orchestra is in the school most consider quite exclusive culturally. My middle schooler goes to a quaker school that's more diverse than a public school around here. They have the strongest Jazz band. It may just be an accident depending on who the music teachers are.


December 5, 2006 at 06:10 PM · bilbo, is this art or craft?:)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OejWDAPZvg8

when i have a chance to ask burgess or MD about the tools they use, i will remember to be more specific.

December 5, 2006 at 08:28 PM · Not to mention--are all crafts proletarian? :)

December 5, 2006 at 09:14 PM · Hahaha Maura. Somehow I knew that would get a reaction from you :-)

I say the chainsaw guy's work, like all artwork, is mostly craft and technique (as far as the time and effort if you will), though he is no mere hack and seems to be artistic to my eye.

I've seen quite a few people do that kind of chainsaw stuff, and he's pretty good.

Note that he is not a mere copyist, or if he is, he's done it many times and can do so right out of his head.

To look at the visual arts from an




standpoint is a worthy exercise at least to a point.

Is a Monet so captivating due to technique, or to the artist's artistic sense? What is artistry? How is it different from craft?

In visual arts as in music, there are two sometimes disparate disciplines:

Work from Life


Work from Imagination.

I was primarily of the second kind. But I found the first kind stimulating, when I first attempted it. It uses different thinking. To draw what you see *now* as opposed to drawing what you see in your mind, requires you to flatten your 3-D vision into 2-D. This is no mere automatic action. It requires some thought.

My wife is of the 2nd kind to an extreme degree. She can paint from life, but will never rest until she has filled the canvas with the whimiscal ideas in her mind. In other words a nude in the middle will look mostly like the model, but she may be thin instead of fat, or vice versa, and there will be serpents and patterns and spaceships or whathaveyou all around.

To paraphrase a famous artist, 'art is what the artist makes.'

December 8, 2006 at 02:33 PM · Al, Brian, please understand: I wasn't attacking the pianist. I disagree with what she does and think it out of place to improvise on Beethoven. I do not think it out of place to present a program - or portion of a program - of improvised works, however. But by the same token, I do not think the ability to improvise is miraculous, nor worthy of the amazed praise the media heaped on it. Laudable, certainly. Just not unique, or some coelacanth of a musical ability.

After all, there is a reason improvisation as a performance standard has faded: specialization. With the rise of the virtuosos, the notion of improvised cadenzas, let alone works improvised in their entirety, became a separate niche from virtuosic display. For one thing, Paganini-esque or Lisztian display became too complex to lend itself to improv. And yes, of course there are exceptions. Always have been. But the Dante sonata wasn't an impromptu bit of improvising. And maybe that's one reason it's stood the test of time - it was Crafted. Ditto for, say, the least of Paganini's compositions. And though Bach was reputed to have improvised a six-voice fugue, we don't know that the notation of it in the Musical Offering is precisely what he played for Frederick off-the-cuff. And even if it was, I highly doubt that 60 Minutes is likely to discover the next Bach. I'm not even sure there ever was or will be a "next Bach" to be discovered, any more than there ever was a "next Gandhi". Finally, I might point out that - as far as the media is concerned, certainly - improvising something technically simple is all too often indistinguishable in the ears of the general public from improvising something complex. The public is left impressed by the NOTION of improvisation, and is all too often incapable of assessing the QUALITY of the improvisation.

None of these points, however, address my main gripe. Namely, that it's not the pianist but the MEDIA with which I had a problem in this article. The media which makes her improvising into some unprecedented and unparalleled act of rebellion. It is neither. As I pointed out earlier (and in previous posts on this thread), there have always been improvisers. There still are today. They are not roasted in effigy by some classical cabal. There IS no classical cabal. The only twist is that no one improvises at the same level of technical pyrotechnics as they play pre-written stuff.

Instead of reinforcing stereotypes, instead of reaching for ready-made adjectives and images, I would love to see the media do the same minimal research about something to which professional musicians devote their ENTIRE LIVES as they do for a simple stock market story. I'm sure that in the interview, she said all sorts of things which were meant to prevent precisely the sort of outdated, cliche, sweeping generalizations that filled this piece. It's not her fault, nor her PR person's, that the piece was edited the way it was. Which is why I disagree with her, but respect her, while I excoriate and am contemptuous of the journalists involved here.

(One footnote: PLEASE let's discard this notion that cheap acts like Mae, Rieu, Helfgott, Church, Boccelli, and a whole host of other classical-lite characters bring new audiences to classical music. Someone who thinks Rieu is the apex of classical music isn't likely to look elsewhere for something even better. And is even less likely to recognize something even better should they ever stumble onto it. No, the fans of the crossover gang stay with their idols. They don't buy Strauss waltzes. We can consider it a victory if the neophyte knows that the familiar, sweet tunes Rieu plays ARE Strauss. The audience, by and large, buy that pretty music the tall guy plays while smiling and swaying. Isn't that sweet? Doesn't he look like he's enjoying himself? Isn't that what music is supposed to be all about? the anguished grimace on a rock star's face or the opiated grimace of someone who's sold themselves for a very nice price, indeed?)

December 10, 2006 at 07:33 AM · I have thoroughly enjoyed reading these posts. I am glad to see that so many have good ideas about these issues. I think music performance is one of the most difficult things to describe in words, which is perhaps why journalists look for human interest "hooks" and oversimplify (and even distort) details in order to try to tell a story.

I have a longstanding interest in journalism and in classical music. I have NEVER been interested in combining the two. I'm not sure why.

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