The A-grade Musician
I started playing piano at the age of 7. Like many of my colleagues, I do not really know what got me into it. I do remember though that I really wanted to learn how to play an instrument, and that I pestered my mother for what seemed to be months (it was actually just weeks) so that she signed me up for music lessons. And on one good day she finally did, changing my life forever.
I remember that on my first lesson, my music teacher asked what instrument I was interested in learning. A renaissance man, my music teacher at that time was a grumpy chain-smoker (when I started learning piano, teachers were allowed to smoke in class - kill me now!) with the ability to play all sorts of instruments, from bagpipes, to piano, from accordion to oboe. He was also really good, by back-in-the-day standards, or really bad, by nowadays standards, at using discipline as a way to motivate students to give their best, and of course: trained in the classical tradition.
Years went by, and many times I struggled to keep up with his demands. My parents cried for I would come home crying. They told me: ‘quit’ and I’d say, to their despair, “no, I want to do this”.
I wasn’t really sure why I carried on, but despite my mum’s attempts to turn me into an engineer of sorts and her passive aggressive comments towards my choice of vocation, music became the backbone of my life. I joined a high school that allowed me to attend the night shift, so that I could go to the Conservatory in the morning, when most practice rooms were empty. It was busy, busy busy bliss.
And then it was the time when I got into university. So far, my life had been devoted to playing and mastering the classics: Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninov... a love and appreciation for these historical mammoths we call the classics was, as I would find after 4 years there, the main thing that brought the 120-some different majors at the University together. We shared a love for ‘the good Music’, and we all somehow shared a common hatred towards any other music that was deemed ‘just not good’ by the canon. We were a bunch of purists. We felt as if the god of music, Apollo himself, had bestowed us with the cyclopean task of preserving the art form pure and intact for the generations to come. How couldn’t you like Mozart? Probably, because you were some sort of tasteless degenerate who enjoyed massed sports like soccer and spent most of your time chugging cheetos straight off the bag whilst watching countless hours reality TV. Ugh.
We were the A-grade musicians.
As I would find out later in my career, we were also the biggest snobs on earth.
DON'T BE A SNOB
Fast forward to 2018, I am now living in Australia, making a living as a collaborative pianist doing music of all sorts. Time does indeed fly, and you change and adapt to the circumstances and so does your craft. A pianist friend of mine from my years as a student in Spain came to visit Sydney, and I, as a good wog, love playing host, so we spent most of his time here in Sydney together. Because musicians will be musicians, we also spent most of our time together talking about the art form: the present, the future, the past, the opportunities and our personal careers. He is now devoted to arts management, mainly through high profile agencies, representing the biggest of the biggest across some of the most famous concert houses in the world. I am now a somehow overworked young and enthusiastic musician that’s developing a passion for theatre. We are not who we were, but we still cherish those times.
One day he came to my apartment. I live in a modest suburb next to the city, so my house is also modest, reflective of my lifestyle. Amongst the few pieces of furniture I own, there is an upright piano. A good old Yamaha, which I like to call my battle piano. I snatched it at the lowest of prices from an old Chinese family whose son had decided to take Law as a career, and were now in the process of relocating back to their motherland. It is not a great piano. However, due to the ever changing nature of my work, I find myself playing new repertoire every second week, moving from new work to new work, and my piano suffices at helping me maintain my technique sharp whilst being good enough to drill a few passages here and there before rehearsals and performances.
It was when I asked my friend to play a bit for me that everything kind of went to shit, and I realised the pit of darkness and ignorance I had been living until then.
His choice of repertoire was, of course, some Chopin. Then he moved onto some more Chopin. And then, because we are Spanish, he played some Albeniz.
When he asked me to play something, I told him that I probably wouldn’t be able to play anything off the top of my head, but that I could play a couple of scenes from La Boheme, or maybe a few numbers out of the few musicals I was involved at the moment: namely In The Heights (A Lin-Manuel Miranda latin jazz stravaganza) or Merrily We Roll Along (a piece of theatre sitting very much at the centre of the Sondheim canon) - I consciously decide to leave the Little Mermaid out, afraid of his reaction.
What do you mean? You don’t play any good music any more?
Here we go.
Aren’t you afraid of going back to Spain and letting people know you are some sort of B-grade musician?
What do you mean?
Well, everybody knows musicals are kind of B-grade. Don’t you miss working on your sound?
I said, let me show you something. So I grabbed my iPad - he was surprised I use an iPad to read music - and went straight to one of the many tumbao style passages from In The Heights; more specifically those in the pivotal number 'It Won’t be Long Now'. Now, if you are a pianist in the industry you probably know this is difficult to play. So I play it, and to his/my delight, I nail it. He says: How long does it normally take you practice this? My reply: Mate, I was sight reading it.
And then everything clicked. I am not an A-grade musician anymore, if I ever dared to consider myself one. I am a professional musician. Not that I am comparing myself to them, but Mozart, Haydn, even Liszt, were musicians of their time who knew how to reach their audiences and keep them entertained. So what happened to us, A-grade people?
For the delight of the A-grade musicians of the world, I have decided to compile a list of traits and customs that will hopefully help you stay there. Or maybe, get out?
1) The A-grade musician only likes one type of music.
Yes, mainly Romantic music. There’s a few nerds out there who like baroque a lot, and even fewer who swear by renaissance music. Most of them think of classical as “necessary” and most appreciate Beethoven.
All the composers they love have a few things in common: they are all white, male and dead.
2) The A-grade musician does not care if you listen.
Trying to defend myself from this heinous attack on my craft and capabilities as a musician, I said: well, the educational opera I worked on last year was seen by about 30,000 kids across the state, and both In the Heights and Merrilly We Roll Along have been amazing box office successes. No one talks about a struggling industry where I work. However, I see you had to stop giving concerts because no one was attending and that’s how you became an agent?
Of course, being tone-deaf towards a struggling art form and a dying audience, mainly because both concert and format stink of better (or worst?) years past, is one of the main traits of the A-grade musician.
Because a good musician has a duty towards the music, not toward their audience. This is, exclusively.
3) The A-grade musician hates anything that’s different.
If you want to be a good musician, you have to be a purist. This means: no more Moana sing along for you, you little punks! If you want to be a good musician, the Goldberg variations is what you must hear on repeat. Ignore the fact that they were originally composed to make a patient suffering from imsomnia fall asleep. Do not fall asleep! Instead, grab a glass of a spirit you hate but looks classy in an old-fashioned glass (like cognac, which is what your grandfather used to drink) and wave it around whilst you claim that Glenn Gould’s version is not your favourite but that you appreciate it, and that by far, his late years were the best.
Jazz? Blergh, you really don’t have to practice that. Pop? Don’t even care about how difficult it is to get into producing. Philip Glass? You can like it, but you can’t say that it is because it is easy to listen, and it belongs to that weird thing called the present. Come up with some snobbish excuse instead: I can hear Schumann’s love for Clara in every motif (so you are basing your life around some dead crazy person’s emotions, you mean?).
3) The A-grade musician thrives when they are alone.
Why make music with others when all you need to delight everyone around you is a piano and a good Polonaise. Dress black, put the piano at the center of the stage, and dim the lights to a comfortable level that denotes the important stuff is what’s happening on stage. Let your program bio be an extensive list of competitions and awards you almost won (honorary mention, anyone?), throw in a couple Russian names to indicate you had good teachers and we’ve got a concert. I am sure people will appreciate it. Specially the 8 music students that came to see your concert and the remaining twelve 80 year olds that came because there was nothing else on on the day, because your concert was free and because you promised free wine with the entrance.
I don’t care about you, I care about Schubert you ignorants!
4) The A-grade musicians know a lot about one art form.
Who’s got time for anything other than music when it is so vast? Everybody knows that music is the highest and purests of art forms. We are in demand! Aren’t we? (*cue the crickets). Dance, theatre, opera, musicals... all those are things that have nothing or very little to do with Music RIGHT? Not that anyone should care about the intersection between artforms, right there where the magic actually happens, where you can be truly creative. No, no. Replicating other people's music is entirely my job. That's why they call it "interpreting".
Lest not forget about lateral skills, an art form in disguise. Marketing? Business Skills? Social Media presence? Nobody got time for that! I will be booked by an agent, it will be grand.
5) The A-grade musician believes that if the music is good, people will come.
They also expect this to be true fresh out of uni. Those were the best years, when one did not have to worry about making money, paying rent or any of those extra unnecessary luxuries like eating.
Why, do you think you have been playing at the same church, at the same library, at the same community centre for the last 6 years? "it's because people don't know better" I say, "It is because you don't know people at all".
My teacher said: it would take you a couple of lifetimes to be able to play this music properly.
I say: Music is so broad, it would probably take you a couple of lifetimes to learn to appreciate it in its entirety. Do not waste the one life you get by only focusing on one little aspect of this incredible art form. We are lucky to have it, and we owe everything it is to the tradition that came before us. Do not forget, however, that we are making the new tradition. If Apollo gave us something, is the duty to maintain an art form that is ever evolving and that is relevant to the times we are living. Nurture it, use your refined A-grade taste to always bring the best out of anything you play. You have a duty. Don't just be A-grade. Be a pro.