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perfectly unmusical

What makes for a perfect performance?

If an answer does in fact exist, a notion which of which I remain unconvinced, one must consider the criteria for perfection. First, let's compare recordings of three dead guys playing the same piece: etude op. 8 no. 12 in D# minor by Alexander Scriabin

recording no. 1: Vladimir Horowitz

recording no. 2: Vladimir Sofronitsky

recording no. 3: Alexander Scriabin

1. Did you have a favorite out of the three recordings? Can you explain your choice?

2. Did you dislike or perhaps simply not prefer one over the other two?

Now, to deviate for a moment.

As a musician and as a pianist, my ambition to master the instrument and my desire to express and relay the emotional contours of any given piece of music are perhaps the two most necessary components of my daily life. Intentions personified, they work together to inspire and enable my most profound musical moments; yet, more often than not, they conflict. They quarrel. As plaintiff and defendant, like Zeus versus Typhon, they create what seems an endless duality within and between technique and music, often inspiring the poetic & prolific proclamation of many a curse word from the piano bench.

Is there any reason why making music and enjoying music can not be a simultaneous and shared experience between musician and audience (if there is one)?


In my experience and in conversations with my peers, I have come to realize that performance anxiety is created and perpetuated by the drive towards our individual perceptions of musical perfection. Of all institutions and art forms, music is perhaps the least opaque lens through which one might examine & experience humanity in its most fundamental form; after all, vision is actually not part of the process (or I believe, at least, it should not be... topic for another post).

*side note: I had several lessons in Miami last month with Douglas Humphreys, a wonderful pianist and a gracious guy, also chair of piano at the Eastman School of Music. In my last lesson, I played three preludes (15, 8, 17 in that order) by Chopin.

At the end of the lesson, Mr. Humphreys asked me, "did I ask you to change any major part of your technical or musical approach to these works or the piano in general?"

I responded with something along the lines of, "well, not really."

He agreed and ended the lesson with "the only instruction [he] could offer me: listen."

In my lesson, my nerves and, more specifically, my desire to 'impress' Mr. Humphreys placed a mental roadblock between my awareness and emotional self, my fingers and my ears. Perhaps if I had focused simply on shaping the emotional contours of each of the preludes, I would have played the three preludes I know so well more musically- more effectively. When we strive towards perfection in music, towards 'making sure that all of the notes are there,' our nerves more often than not preclude us to a performance that might impress or dazzle some listeners, but is this the goal or the intention? Does our intention in pursuing any artistic endeavor not define the outcome?


...or at least I have come to believe so. Let's revisit the three recordings now. What was Scriabin's intention in writing this dark & poignant etude? It is the last of his twelve opus 8 etudes, and is made perhaps most dark & poignant simply by the key signature of the work: D# minor. His message is one of despair, angst/anger, tumult, a pinch of rage.

In returning to the questions I posed earlier in this post, I will provide a summation of my response. I enjoy each of the recordings, but only one moves me: Sofronitsky. This particular recording impresses upon me something the gravity of which I can only begin to divulge. There is a profound moment at the end of the recording, just before the final chords... Sofronitsky makes a very small (but to any pianist, considerably noticeable) mistake. Before he plays or finishes the final chords, the audience bursts into an uproar, as if saying with their cheering and applause, "forget a wrong note; that was extraordinary and you moved me!" Listen to that 2nd recording again; I doubt you'll regret it. As Hans Christian Anderson tells us, "where words fail, music speaks."

For now, I will close with a familiar adage from one of the composer-gods-among-men whose music speaks with a profoundly unique and human clarity.

"To make a mistake is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable." -Beethoven

Thanks for reading!


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