An interesting article over on the Cross-Eyed Pianist blog (sparked by a heated debate amongst some fellow pianists on Facebook!) has got me thinking about whether certain repertoire should be off-limits to amateurs? Are there pieces that are simply too challenging for non-professionals to even attempt?
There are those who believe that, yes, there are indeed pieces that amateurs should leave well alone. Hugely technically challenging pieces – of which there are many in the piano repertoire – should be respected by those who cannot hope to do them justice. We should all be aware of our limits, and leave the tough stuff to those who can handle it!
I think most musicians probably disagree with this position. Personally I don’t think any repertoire should be off-limits, to anyone. We all need to be aware of our level and personal limitations, but that’s true of professionals and amateurs alike. Many individuals have physical limitations that mean they will never be able to play certain pieces, but that has no effect on their ability to play other repertoire – for example, having small hands is a curse for pianists who wish to play Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, but may actually bean asset in Bach, Scarlatti and Mozart. Finding and expressing the beauty of a piece of music can be both a challenge and a joy for anyone, irrespective of it’s technical demands.
I cannot think of a better way of respecting the music of great composers than by dedicating many hours to playing and memorising it. Listening to recordings and live concerts given by great performers is wonderful too, of course, but undoubtedly a more passive way to experience music than playing it and internalising it yourself. Learning the music, to such a level that you can see the score in the mind’s eye and listen along without the need for external sound, is surely a greater mark of respect than playing it note-perfect in every performance?
In reality, the boundary between amateurs and professional musicians is blurred. Many amateurs are highly skilled, qualified musicians, and many professionals rarely perform in public. At the end of the day, any musician (particularly soloists!) must decide what repertoire they are happy to play in concert in front of strangers, versus that which they prefer to play for their own enjoyment, in the safety of their own home. And here, I believe, is where the most stark difference occurs between amateurs – literally ‘lovers’ of music – and professional performers who must make a living from music. Those of us who have the (dubious!) ‘luxury’ of earning a living outside of performing can afford never to play to a fee-paying public, if we so desire. We may play to friends and family, students and colleagues, or simply to ourselves, without having to conquer performance anxiety and the very real possibility of making fools of ourselves on stage. This choice should certainly not act as a barrier to playing particular repertoire. Professional performers, on the other hand, must make a living from performing and accept that anything less than a polished performance is unlikely to help their career progression or recording sales.
As an amateur pianist, there is no doubt that there are many pieces that I will never be able to play well enough even for my own satisfaction (and wouldn’t dare inflict on anyone else!), and others that I believe I play well enough both for myself and others to enjoy. There’s a balance that I find hard to strike between painstakingly learning more challenging repertoire and playing technically easier repertoire to a higher musical level. The guidance of a teacher to steer any unwary students towards repertoire that will they will find challenging yet satisfying is crucial. But no music should be off-limits and, regardless of one’s ability, it is a privilege to be able to study some of the greatest works that have ever been created by the human mind.