The idea of motivation to practice and perform is outwardly a simple question, but actually a very interesting question to answer. The ‘obvious’ answer would be because I love music immensely, I fell in love with the piano early on, and I cannot separate myself from music and performance. While this is all true, it is not the whole story and I’m going to focus on other things that may not be as obvious.
I am motivated by many things in regards to performing piano, and some are related to the above and some are more practical. Starting with the easiest: professional piano performance has become my primary life focus, where all of my energies are devoted, and also is my principal form of income; clearly, in order to survive I need to make a living and doing what I’m best at is of chief importance. Therefore keeping in top shape (ie practicing!) is mandatory, and is one motivation to play. As someone said to me a while back, “you are replaceable,” and in this cutthroat business it is vital to be the best you can possibly be.
But this involves the practical. Now for the deeper answers to your question. At this point in my life, having played professionally since I was 18, I cannot see myself in another career and do not wish to do anything but perform onstage. Obviously there are smaller things within the music business I enjoy doing, but there is an unquenchable desire within me to continue forward and nothing else can replace that. When I am in top technical shape there is no feeling quite like that and I feel like I can do anything and express everything.
I love achievement and ambition, and this career is filled with very tangible ways to gauge accomplishment and growth. Not to mention that the piano literature is so vast and amazing; it’s like exploring new worlds every time one selects new repertoire!
There are many reasons why I continue performing, but many are hidden impulses and desires that cannot be satisfied with any other career. Maybe I was born to play the piano?
My teachers occupy the most important influences in their own ways: Bettye Ware, Lydia Artymiw, and Jon Kimura Parker. But other musicians and individuals have inspired me to climb higher and reach for a greater level of artistry.
My first teacher, Bettye Ware, quickly recognized that I wanted to achieve great things even when I couldn’t do them at the time. She was able to balance my ambitions (ie wanting to play Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Concerto a few months after starting up piano again) with fundamentals, in order for me to stay interested but also gaining necessary theory and technique. Concert pianist Lydia Artymiw was my teacher and mentor from 2002-2008, and it was with her that I learned what it took to become a concert pianist: hard work, ceaseless ambition, core conviction, large repertoire, and everything else one assumes a concert pianist possesses. She was very tough on me at times, and I needed it, but she was and continues to be supportive of me and is one of my most cherished mentors. Her example as a top pianist also helped inspire me; I wanted to be like her and worked hard to try and do what she could do onstage.
Jon Kimura Parker has been my teacher at Rice University since 2008, and I learned a lot from his example as a concert pianist. He has a slightly different pedagogical approach from Lydia, but both are equally gifted as performers and teachers and I gained a lot from both. Since I was older and more experienced while studying with him, he inspired me to search for my own personal expressions and gave me the necessary breathing room to develop independently as a maturing artist.
There are many, many people that have inspired me: my girlfriend and amazing cellist Caroline Nicolas, Robert Neu (Vice President, Minnesota Orchestra) has supported me immensely through my career, my brilliant friend and professional colleague Lindsay Brown, the composers Christopher Walczak and Christopher Goddard, and so many others. The music world is small and completely connected, so everyone can and does influence me.
Earliest memory …
There aren’t that many, since I started much later than most concert pianists.
I used to take private lessons at the Nativity of Our Lord school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, from a nun in a convent near the school.
I remember sitting in the basement waiting room for my brother to finish his lesson, and begin myself. I was nervous to say the least, because she was quite strict! Soon after this, I gave up piano for a number of years before I started up again with newfound dedication.
There are many career moments that are particularly memorable, and I can’t single out just one. I think of a music career like a mountain range: many peaks and many valleys. Some peaks are higher and more majestic than others, but they’re all vital and important. Recently, some major ‘peaks’ have been my solo debut at Carnegie Hall, performing with major symphony orchestras (Minnesota, San Diego, Houston), my Amsterdam Concertgebouw debut, and performing with top artists (Martin Chalifour, Desmond Hoebig, Chee-Yun) in concert. But there is not one single ‘Mount Everest’ so to speak!
Pro Musicis is a wonderful organization that sponsors top artists in major concert venues such as Carnegie Hall. But it’s more than that: the founder, Fr. Merlet, recognizes the transformative power of music as a means for good. All Pro Musicis artists play additional concerts for the poor, for the sick, and for the imprisoned. Many major concert artists number among the alumni of this wonderful organization, and I’m very proud to be a member myself. I hope that Pro Musicis continues it’s wonderful mission for many more years!
Tips for aspiring pianists
Some of the most important qualities of a concert pianist I can think of:
a. mental and physical stamina
To be a concert pianist means testing one’s own stamina to the limits. It is not a 9-to-5 job, and enormous stress almost always accompanies the task of performing onstage.
Mental stamina involves dealing with performance anxiety, playing large or new works in front of an audience from memory, and trying to maintain an artistic ‘vitality’ or freshness after repeated performances. Physical stamina is obvious: it is extremely taxing to perform onstage, period. Fatigue, pain, and chronic pain can result from too much work. People often say that correct technique means one can play Rachmaninoff as much as they like, but clearly they were not a touring pianist. I rebut that statement by stating “if one has perfect walking technique, and walks 70 miles in one day, they’re absolutely going to be fatigued tomorrow.” I stress the importance of physical fitness in performing for a living, much like a professional athlete. Active rest, massage, managing fatigue, and listening to one’s body in practice are all extremely important.
b. unwavering dedication and ambition
The music business is ridiculously competitive, and many people are trying to gain those few spots onstage. It involves many successes, but many more disappointments too. Unless one can deal with rejection, do not try this career. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been contacted for amazing performing opportunities, only to have them give the concert to someone else without notifying me. This gets difficult, and you have to maintain a positive outlook or cynicism is right around the corner. Also, you need to have very real goals in order to stay in the lonely practice room day after day!
c. people skills
I can’t stress this enough! Music is people oriented, and if you can’t get along with your audience, your conductor, your chamber music group, your interviewer, you are in for trouble. No one will want to hire you, play with you, or hear you.
You need to be yourself of course, but getting along with people in this business is a huge deal.
d. music business/marketing skills
Even if you have a manager, this is a starting line. Keeping a website in top form, contacting orchestras, networking, and creating new performance opportunities are necessary aspects of a professional career. I’ve personally contacted hundreds of orchestras, professional organizations, and kept in touch with countless people in the business. Practicing is only one small facet of creating and sustaining a real music career.
These are basic requirements in the varied arsenal of a concert pianist. The majority of pieces one performs in public as a pianist have to be memorized, and a smart pianist will create ways to memorize faster and more securely. I’ve used my knowledge of music theory and structure to aid in solid memorization, but each artist is different and needs to devise personal solutions.
Having a solid technique is absolutely basic, enough said. Much of it is developed through proper training, but top artists seem to possess a fluidity and naturalism that is either there or not. Imagine the greatest athletes, and compare their form and abilities to the millions more that play these sports. Everyone trains in the same way, and yet only the most advanced achieve legendary things. While performing at the highest level challenges even the toughest pianists, that extra natural talent and technique can make all the difference.
f. unquenchable love of music/sharing it
One needs to have an unquenchable love of music to carry through the multitude of challenges, stresses, and disappointments that a music career can throw at you. Furthermore, the intrinsic desire to share music with others is what a performer is all about. An artist finds his/her voice through music, no matter what setbacks occur. Nothing can replace this in an artist, and a ceaseless drive to communicate is the fuel one needs.
g. artistic imagination
Music is more than technique, and it is usually the imagination of an artist that is the most memorable thing to audiences.
One needs solid technique in order to express every possible emotion, but it is essentially the words and grammar that allows a Shakespeare to create masterpieces. A concert pianist needs a huge imagination, fueled by an intellectual understanding of the music performed, to create memorable and touching performances.
There are so many challenges that face an aspiring concert pianist, and piano playing in general. Off the top of my head:
1. Physical requirements: The piano is a very physical instrument, and it is quite a workout when performing a major concerto with orchestra. The sheer amount of notes, as compared with other instruments, makes it extremely difficult to perform onstage. Additionally, the large dynamic range possible on the piano makes for difficulties in stamina; the loudest fortissimos of Rachmaninoff can quickly tire the muscles of the forearm and shoulder.
2. Mental requirements: memorization of nearly everything, the stress of performing a solo recital without anyone onstage, and many other factors take a toll on the mind. Without resolve and ambition, it can be too much for even the toughest artists.
3. Musical limitations: The sound of the piano dies quickly, so maintaining a melodic line is quite difficult indeed. Unlike a singer or wind players, a pianist’s playing mechanism is not immediately connected to breath so it is a little more challenging to create a more ‘natural’ singing line. Finally, while the piano can possess nearly limitless tonal possibilities, it can also be tonally banal.
4. Amount of pianists today:
Today, millions of people study piano at an advanced level, and yet there are fewer and fewer performance opportunities. Competition for these select spots is at an all-time high. It is often the extra things mentioned (ie marketing skills, other talents, networking abilities, etc) that can make all the difference.
‘Staupe is a nonhistrionic performer, and this observation is meant as a compliment. A lean young man, he performs upright, with focused concentration. Unmistakable, however, was the sense of seeing a real musician at the starting gate. Judging by the shining moments displayed in Thursday’s performance, this is a career on the rise and a performer to watch.’ – David Hawley