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Difficult (but not hopeless) love

Updated: Dec 25, 2018

How many classical pianists do you know?

Ten? Twenty? Maybe fifty?

Now, let's try to estimate how many piano students graduate with a higher education degree  around the world each year. An average European country has anywhere between 5 and 10 music universities with an exception of high-scoring Germany - 40 and Italy - 20; we'll find a similar number in bigger Asian countries and Australia, around 50 schools in Canada, over 170 in the US and a few in South America and Africa. All of them 'produce' approximately 1 to 10 piano graduates each year.

Music, art in general, has a stamp of an activity undertaken for pure ideals and a higher purpose. It is believed to be almost driven by supernatural powers, waves of mysterious inspiration and effortless talent. The word 'money' feels somehow inapropriate and offensive from this perspecitve. The truth is less appealing, though.

First, if you want to go pro, let's say, as a pianist, you have to perform music on a certain level of technical and artistic proficiency. This, in contrast to common belief, isn't achieved without effort. It's not enough to learn how to read the music and find the notes on the keyboard to be able to perform Prokofiev Sonata or Chopin Ballad. Playing any instrument is very complex, piano especially, since it involves an independent action of two hands. Most of the time they're playing different melodies in different dynamics and with different articulation (the way of touch). A pianist has to think in two dimensions only in order to press the right keys. When we add a necessity to control an overall result in terms of tempo, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, building up a climax, quality of sound.... the brain turns to a machine. It works faster and multitasks more efficiently in a fraction of a second than during any other activity.

Now, all of this has to be learnt. It doesn't come with the wave of inspiration, it's not coded in bodies of a few chosen genius prodigies. Even the most talented person, predisposed to play the piano in every way, needs to train his mind and through it, his body. It's like becoming a dancer, teaching your muscles to perform a series of complex movements precisely in time. But being a pianist means more. You're not only a dancer at the piano, you're also a writer, a story teller or a conductor who grabs and shapes the whole narration behind the music. And you are also a painter, for the more convincing pictures you can evoke in your imagination while you're pracitisng and performing, the more captivating, almost mystical, your rendition will become.

All in all, this means years of practise. Hours and hours spent every day at the piano, alone in one room, only you, your ears and your criticizing mind. This marathon starts for most pianists when we are five or six years old. The majority of us grow up with a conviction, carefully enforced by adults, that we are special, exceptionally talented and that we have a great future ahead. This is usually enough to convince us that it's a good idea to go to two schools or one with an extended program with music classes (depending on an educational system) and to spend our free time practising the piano instead of resting and hanging out with friends.

From my experience and observations, real problems start when we go to university. All of a sudden, we begin to realize that, first, there's a disturbing possibility that we're not as special as we used to think, second, the educational ladder is soon getting to an end and for some inexplicable reason we haven't been noticed by the serious musical world yet. Most of us find ourselves facing the following truth: we have been trained to be soloists, we've been tought how to play in the best way we could but noone instructed us how to make a living out of this. Here's where the high ideals meet unsentimental reality.

Now is the time to come back to the numbers. Using my extremely simplified and hugely underestimated calculation we can assume that there are about 500 music univerisites in the world, let's say we consider only the most decent ones. Taking an average number of 5 piano graduates annualy we get a total of 2 500 new young pianists ready to fill the market every year. Even if we estimate that about 4/5 of them realize at some point that a soloist career is not for them and they voluntarily look for jobs in schools or in operas and ballets, we are still left with a number of 500 young people ready and willing to work as concert pianists.

And remind me, please- how many pianists were you able to name...?

So here begins a struggle. There are a few most common ways we follow: many of us engage in a competition marathon, which often starts very early, in school and during studies. The purpose is dual: to get noticed and to earn money. Big competitions are broadcast online and on TV nowadays, commented by musical critics and observed by managers. First prize winners are often offered concert tournees, professional artistic management, sometimes a contract with a record label. Plus, depending on sponsors, quite considerable amounts of money, at times even a grand piano. But to win a big international piano competition is a highly tricky challenge and the whole procedure has its advocates and opponents. I write more about this in the blog 'Greek tragedy with a piano?'.

Festivals are a notch less competitive alternative. Most of them also pick participants based on recordings they submit but the chosen ones do not compete with each other to win, they're just given an opportunity to play concerts in public and hope to be spotted by managers or other concert organizers. Some of piano graduates try to form chamber ensembles with other fellow students, reffering to the 'safety in numbers' motto. Other ones invest their savings in renting a studio and recording CDs that they later sell after their concerts or sneak into CD shops using complex nets of connections. Some look for support from various foundations, apply for extra money to EU or other organizations. A few of us try on their own to get in touch with managers or cultural insitutions hoping for some cooperation. All these efforts turn out more or less successful, depending on personal luck.

Is there any easier, more predictable way to develop a career as a pianist? Honestly, I haven't heard of it. Most of young graduates aren't even aware of all the options I've mentioned. This is one of the biggest gaps in educational programs of music univerisites- a complete lack of practical advice what to do once we graduate. That's why I believe we need spaces like this blog, where we can share our ideas, discuss and handle various obstacles, maybe even get together in some musical undertaking!

I've participated in hundreds of conversations among my fellow-musician friends during which we were looking for something to blame after a musical failure or a career crisis. The poor quality of cultural life in our countries or the malfunctioning system which decides who gets the opportunities to play in public and who doesn't were the most common villains. Current political situation, bad luck or insufficient talent also appeared on stage. The truth is, though, that most of us, when we get down to earth from the world of our high ideals and artistic exultations, just have no idea what to do. The overwhelming majority of young musicians don't know that there are many ways to operate within the system and to use the current political situation in our favor; that nowadays we can actually take things in our hands and turn the luck to our advantage. What if we tried and did it right now, right here- through this blog?

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