What makes a musician “great?”

What makes a “great” musician? In other words, what characteristic do they have that the rest of the field doesn’t have?

Is it talent? No – I’ve met unbelievably talented musicians who have never fully developed their talent?

Is it ability? No – We’ve all heard virtuosos whose playing is lifeless.

Is it their depth and passion? Maybe – and at last we’re getting a little closer to zeroing in on musical “greatness.”

So what IS it? What characteristic do Mitsuko Uchida, Bruce Springsteen, Ravi Shankar, Adele, and Duke Ellington have in common?

While it may be counterproductive to our own musical development to define this too closely, a starting point is in the direction of “They play each song like it’s the first time.”

Yep, that’s it. They play each song like it’s the first time.

While the technical demands of playing Chopin are so extreme that most classical pianists merely recreate what their fingers have practiced, we can watch videos of Vladimir Horowitz sit down at his home piano and, having internalized Chopin’s notes so completely, play a piece with total freshness, as if discovering it anew. For the first time.

While the repetition of playing a simple rock song thousands of times can wear down most performers, Bruce Springsteen can find something fresh in it each and every time, whether he’s in front of a stadium of screaming fans or giving an unannounced, informal solo performance on a boardwalk at the Jersey Shore (as my friend Jeff once witnessed.)

Yes, it can get weary playing for an audience of 5 listeners on a snowy night when most people have stayed home. But I know a guy who witnessed Louis Armstrong give the performance of his life to such an audience in Fargo, North Dakota on just such a night.
His reasoning? “If they came out here through the snow to hear us, we’d better give them something to listen to!”

The Rolling Stones do this too. Here they are, playing Start Me Up during their recent tour:

Start Me Up – 2019

Sure, they’re getting paid loads of money to be enthusiastic while they play, but we sometimes forget that they were this enthusiastic before they became rich and famous. Actually, this quality is probably what made them become rich and famous to begin with, not the other way around. (It certainly wasn’t their technical ability.)

So the next time you sit down at a piano, whether it’s in your living room or on a gig, treat it as an opportunity to find the freshness in the music. As if you’re playing it for the first time.

This is the path to musical greatness, and you have it in you!

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

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