Piano players are a special breed of musician, and they know it.
What other musician starts their day at 6 A.M. playing their Hanon exercises (the left hand playing reverse scales in triplet to eighths in the right hand), practices a half a dozen hours a day, and considers themselves a pure failure if they bat only 98% of the notes in performance? What other performer can hear a song a few times and then given a commanding and perfectly executed performance of it five minutes later? What other music-maker can dream up eccentric and incredible new ways to play their instrument?
No other musician can keep a sloshed drummer in time at a rock concert, manage to pull together a high school choir to sing harmoniously despite only two rehearsals, lead an entire congregation of non-singers in hymns centuries old, and bring a bride to tears on the most important day in her life… all in one weekend!
So here is our wonderful tribute to the most astute and multitalented musicians of us all (or at least, we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking so!): the piano players. Here are the 10 things that set them apart from the rest:
1. When you hear vocalists complaining about practicing an hour a day, you laugh. You haven’t practiced that little since preschool!
It’s true. Pianists are expected to practice several hours a day… every day. Because they don’t have to worry about air support or blowing out their lips or vocal chords, pianists often practice four to six hours a day, especially before a concert. Add to that hours spent practicing as an accompanist for choirs, orchestra, church, high school band, a string quartet, and with Uncle Frank who can barely sing but really wants to make a good impression at next week’s wedding.
This pressure starts almost from the womb, with cute little boys and girls who can’t reach the piano pedals spending time perfectly curving their fingers over the keys while their friends are drooling over the latest kid’s cartoon craze. If you want dedication, discipline, and perfectionism, look no further than a pianist!
Here’s that dedication and perfectionism on full display:
Here, pianist and comedian Victor Borge demonstrates the frustration every pianist feels when they are interrupted by their less dedicated musical friends. Borge spent his life making people laugh through classical music and his slapstick comedy antics.
And now, for a personal and very true piano story from Yours Truly:
“My sister is a pianist and vocalist. Every morning she would wake up before sunrise to practice her scales and exercises. Being her amazingly wonderful (and annoying) big sister, I would loudly pound on the lower keys of the piano as she tried to concentrate on playing various scales in complex polyrhythms. I know that I annoyed her when I did this, but I like to think that maybe, just maybe, I helped her develop the concentration and skills that make her such a great musician today.”
2. Your fingers subconsciously air-play harmonies when you hear the radio
Much like drummers who can’t seem to stop beating on everything that has a flat surface, pianists are unconsciously tearing apart the harmonic structure of every song they hear, from radio jingles to film music to Disney musicals. Sitting next to someone in the theater whose fingers seem to fly erratically in time to the music? Probably sitting next to a piano player!
Christina Sidaras, Nationally Certified Teacher of Music (NTCM), Dayton, Ohio, explains the phenomenon this way:
“Any music I hear or perform I always end up relating back to the keyboard. When I hear something and am trying to figure out the intervals, I visualize a keyboard. My hand air-plays the notes, associating fingering and hand-breadth with the sound of the interval. A second – finger one and two, closed hand. A seventh – finger one and five, hand open. A ninth – finger one and five, fully-stretched hand, edge of key to make the sound clear… I’ve been trying to learn guitar, and it feels so random. I play a C chord on a guitar, and in my mind, I imagine that perfectly balanced C Major root chord, evenly spaced on white keys that I would much rather be playing.”
Here’s one man’s genius take on invisible piano-playing:
Maybe your air-playing isn’t as expressionist as comedian Rowan Atkinson’s classical rendition, but I am sure that you often find yourself just as inspired when no one is looking.
3. Your foot constantly taps to the beat
The piano is both a percussive and string instrument, capable of harmonies, melody, and rhythm. As such, pianists, like percussionists, find themselves tapping away to the beat when listening to the radio, at a dance club, at church, or even when listening to the beeping of their alarm clock. The pulse is an innate part of their existence. Pianists are often the living metronome of the orchestra, band, or choir. As a living metronome, you can’t help tapping your toe or nodding your head to every song you hear. It’s only natural.
Watch Steve Martin’s tapping feet take him away in the film “The Jerk”:
4. You have ever fallen asleep under a Steinway
Blame it on booking the middle school choir concert, your cousin’s wedding, and jazz night at the coffeehouse for the same weekend, but almost every tried-and-true piano player has found themselves falling asleep at least once while practicing. And a few have probably found a piano a great place to hide and snooze in between rehearsals!
5. You bite your nails to avoid that clack-clack-clacking on the keys
You see musicians with purple diamond-studded talons and you don’t understand how they can even function, let alone play the keys without that truly annoying clack-clickity-clack-clacking on the piano keys. And since you don’t always have a nail clipper handy, you find your teeth do just as fine a job. Gross? Perhaps. Necessary? Absolutely.
6. You loathe the entire “Got Talent” franchise.
If one more 13-year-old astounds the judges with their semi-mediocre hip hop glow-in-the-dark rendition of “Für Elise”, you are literally going to take your plasma television and toss it out the window! Ditto for the Justin Biebers of this world. It’s not that you don’t appreciate great talent; you see it every day in your students and colleagues. It’s just that it seems that the “Got Talent” franchise is more interested in classical music if it somehow involves clowns, acrobatics, throwing knives, or dancing robots (this isn’t to say that pianists don’t have a sense of humour – quite the opposite!).
For example, take “child genius” Adrian Romoff, who jams out to “Flight of the Bumblebee” to canned MIDI synths and drums while shaking his head back and forth in a way to make any 80s hair metal band proud:
Did the performance need all of this extra showmanship? Um, probably not, but the nonmusical judges and audience loved it!
To add insult to injury…
Not only are you competing with cute kids and tweens that play Beethoven, but it seems that even felines have a step up on trained concert pianists. And why is it that this cat playing piano is more popular than probably any human piano player ever born?
7. You quit sports to protect your fingers
Admittedly, this is not necessarily a point that is unique to pianists, but the truth of the matter is that you have to protect each of those precious digits so you can breathe your soul into your instrument. So soccer, basketball, volleyball, and anything involving your fingers having to catch or throw a large object is out. The same goes for bowling. Your fingers are precious… precious. Like the Ring of Power, minus the Ring.
“I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.” – James Baldwin
8. You harmonize with your air conditioner or computer
You know you do it. Whenever you hear a hum, whether it’s from your air conditioner, blender, or computer, you find yourself trying to harmonize with it. A fifth with your vacuum cleaner? Divine. Singing in fourths with the hair dryer, why not? What chord progression works best with your washing machine?
It’s the musical force within you that pushes you to be musical with anything in your environment, even the microwave oven.
9. You mentally transcribe the soundtrack to every film you see
Here you might have something in common with the composers among us. Every time you watch a movie, you can’t help dissecting the music score underneath. Not only are you transcribing the harmonies in your head, your fingers wiggling the melodies and chords silently as you watch, but you are also comparing the film motifs with all of the thousands of musical notes that you have absorbed over your life of piano playing. You snicker at the use of a familiar harmonic progression, or you find intrigue in a classical musical quote in the sci-fi thriller at the theater.
To your non-musical friends you might seem a bit annoying, more enthralled with the soundtrack than the actual film, but don’t worry, you are part of a very special group of musicians: a fellowship of piano players.
10. You are frequently roped into playing everything from the xylophone to the banjo
For some reason, pianists often find themselves playing instruments entirely unrelated to their primary instrument. Because a piano player can read multiple clefs, understands rhythm, harmony, and melody, and often has great pitch, they can find themselves filling in for missing instruments in the percussion or rhythm section.
Even choir directors are known to pull pianists away from their instrument to sing in the choir or serve as conductor. Pianists are so multi-talented that they are the ultimate gurus of the musical world, expected to play their instrument (and other people’s!) with perfection.
You might not have to play as much as Juzzie Smith in this live performance, but you certainly are asked to go above and beyond:
Thankfully, you are musical and professional enough to get the job done!
Perfection in performance makes it all worth it!
Even when faced with an out-of-tune piano missing twelve keys at the local retirement home community center, the talented pianist’s thousands of hours of practice and rehearsal pull through.
Because despite the downsides of having no life outside of classical music and having to deal with the rest of us musicians and non-musicians, piano players have a dedication to their craft unmatched by any other performer. And they know it.
In conclusion, you might be a little quirky, and perhaps sometimes very annoying and a tad elitist, but in the end your perfection, discipline, expansive musical knowledge, and professionalism results in a nearly flawless performance every time.
Your amazing ability to play alongside everything from a symphony orchestra to a ska band to an avant-garde world fusion jazz ensemble makes you incredibly unique in the pyramid of musical prowess.
So next time you find yourself humming along with your computer printer, “air-playing” to the latest Top 40 hit, or falling asleep after practicing well past midnight, know that this means that you are part of an elite group of talented musicians – the incredibly talented and perhaps slightly underappreciated piano players of the world!
Looking to become a pro at tickling the ivories? Go beyond the classical grind and learn the inner musical skills – like hearing chord progressions, playing by ear, and improvising – that will feed your desire for true mastery. Musical U is a great place for pianists of all levels, with fun educational modules on these and more – like music theory, ear training, rhythm, a dedicated Piano Instrument Pack, and more!