We pianists don’t realize how much we limit ourselves

If you ask most pianists when they play their best, you’ll get a variety of answers such as:

I need an in-tune piano to play my best

I play better on a 9-foot concert grand than on an upright

I can’t play well if I have a headache

I play better in front of an audience

I play my best at home

I need plenty of rest in order to play my best

I don’t play well when my kids are running around the room

These statements are based on people’s experience and in that sense they are true. But are they the whole story? What about Keith Jarrett’s legendary Köln concert, during which he played some of his best music ever despite having severe back pain?

Many pianists can relate experiences like this. I myself vividly remember playing a college jazz concert while I had chicken pox and a fever. All I remember from the performance is the feeling that I might pass out at any moment. So I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks later when I heard the recording; my improvisations were much better than usual for my playing at that time! I’ve also found that sometimes I play best while on stage, and sometimes best in a noisy club, and sometimes best at home. It’s unpredictable.

What’s going on here? Although no one, myself included, would ever willingly choose to perform while sick, tired, or in pain, there’s no denying that we sometimes play better in these conditions. Or what about musicians who don’t like one another? Music history is full of examples of famous musicians who’ve made their best music with bandmates they could barely stand to share the stage with.

I think the answer is related to our “comfort level” vs. what actually comes out of our instrument. My experience is that when I don’t feel well or am tired, something in me tends to relax and I’m not as self-judgmental or concerned with what the audience thinks. So even though we’re less comfortable, we relax a little bit and the music flows better.

This doesn’t happen all the time, of course, and we can’t magically push a button to be relaxed, but it’s true that we don’t always know what conditions we need in order to play our best. What we can do, though, is to become interested in studying when we play well and when we don’t. And can we always tell the difference?

When it comes to music and performing, my advice is to try everything and see what happens. And what’s true for you this year may be entirely different in 12 months. You may surprise yourself!

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