Don’t Shoot the Piano Player; She’s Doing As Well As She Cares To

Valentina Lisitsa plays the piano. So do I.

That’s a lot like saying both the sun and my kitchen stove produce heat. The difference in degree (roughly 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit for the surface of the sun vs. a maximum of perhaps 500 degrees for the oven) makes the common factor of heat almost irrelevant.

The difference in piano playing between Valentina Lisitsa and me is far greater than the difference in heat between the sun and my stove. She is one of the most outstanding pianists in the world. We’ve been fortunate enough to have her present several concerts in Rapid City, including one this past week that I was privileged to attend.

Ms. Lisitsa came out on stage, sat down on the piano bench, and promptly let the Steinway concert grand know who was in charge. Her fingers didn’t dance over the keys—they ran marathons in double-time. One moment she was producing thunder from the bass keys, and the next she was lulling us with quiet, clear notes that hung in the air so sweetly we could almost see them. At times she bent closer and closer to the keys with such concentration that it appeared she was going to strike middle C with her nose. Other times she addressed the keyboard with such vigor that she bounced herself completely clear of the bench. As one man in the audience said after the concert, “The things she does are impossible!”

Not impossible, obviously, since she did them. Amazing, yes. Also incredible, awe-inspiring, marvelous, and (insert superlative of your choice here). She was born with genius, she has a passion for music, and she has clearly worked hard to develop and perfect her gift. I don’t even want to think about the number of hours she has spent and still spends at the keyboard. She plays in elegant concert halls all over the world on the finest of grand pianos and can probably tell the difference between a Steinway and a Baldwin by hearing one note from each one.

In contrast, I have no particular gift for music and my interest in the piano is slight to moderate. I play in my living room on my 100-year-old upright with its restored quarter-sawn oak and its stained ivory keys. It’s fun to sit down for half an hour and browse through a couple of songbooks, playing show tunes or folk songs or country standards. I don’t play perfectly or even excellently. I tend to omit an embarrassing number of notes for the left hand. If a chord spans more than an octave, I just leave off the lower ones my fingers can’t reach. I’m more than a little vague about the difference between major and minor keys. All I know is that, if a piece has four or more sharps or flats, forget it. I play the piano at a level that, on a good day, approaches mediocrity.

Presumably, after listening to the artistry of someone like Valentina Lisitsa, I should be inspired to make one of two choices. Either I could vow to practice for five hours a day to develop my skills, or I could close the lid of my piano forever. Either one would be silly.

I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to take piano lessons when I was a kid. I value my lovely old instrument. I don’t have to be a great or even competent musician to enjoy the time I spend at it. As long as it’s fun, it’s worth doing—at my level of skill as well as hers.

We do, after all, call it “playing” the piano. And how much music would there be in the world if no one played an instrument except the very best of the best?

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