Mar 9th 2024

Secrets from today’s brutal piano world By Michael Johnson and Frances Wilson


As we all know, startling levels of commitment and energy are required to learn, memorise and perform complex piano music. It can be a satisfying life but it’s not for everybody. The profession today is crowded, overly competitive and often lonely. And yet as the 26 conversations in our new book “Lifting the Lid: Interviews with Concert Pianists” reveal, the piano still exerts a strong attraction, seducing would-be professionals and continuing to bewitch, delight and excite players over long careers.

Some of our interviewees give sage advice on how to function in today’s piano world. Christine Croshaw, the British pianist and performance coach, put it best: “Be curious. Allow yourself to experiment. Be kind to yourself. Embrace uncertainty... Follow your dreams... Enjoy the journey.”

The book, just published on Amazon, offers surprisingly honest insights into the life of a professional, providing a glimpse beyond the notes and the concert stage – ranging from years of intense study to practicing and performing, to choosing repertoire and recording. Some interviewees share their reflections on the nature of success as a musician, and advice for young musicians considering a professional career.

Despite the wave of young talent arriving from China, Japan and South Korea, our selection is Russia-heavy. These pianists grapple with the controversial definition of the Russian School of playing. Is it all about fast and loud? Not at all, says Irina Lankova, a Russian now settled in Belgium, in our interview. “The secret of Russian pianism is probably in the singing and depth of sound, in the rich scale of colors and nuances, and a special expressiveness. We avoid making it overly sugary.”

What does a true artist hope to achieve? Russian virtuoso Boris Giltburg feels he is successful if he helps the audience “forget their troubles and be transported to wherever the music can take them.”

The Serbian pianist Ivo Pogorelich, trained in Moscow in the Russian School, has attracted the extremes of praise and criticism during his long career. He calls piano life a “struggle” and he should know. He has been there. So how does he defind perfect happiness? “Not seeking it on purpose,” he says.

Some key insights from the interviews:

MARC-ANDRE HAMELI N: I must bore some people because I don’t move around when I play. Some people take this as emotional detachment but my contention is that one should come to concerts to listen, not to watch... Reproducing my gestures just wouldn’t work. (My plain) always looks effortless, like I’m just brushing the keys, but there is force at work, a lot of force.

RUDOLPH BUCHBINDER: I have no problem with criticism if the critic declares what is right and what is wrong. What I don’t like is the critic who says, for no reason, “It was too fast.”

KYLE GANN: Mozart is wonderful, but I would far rather live in a new creative world analogous to his than live as a tourist endlessly visiting a preserved simulacrum of his world every day.

IVAN ILIC: I increasingly felt the need to find my own way, and I subsequently lost touch with all my teachers over the years. Ultimately I’m a loner and feel one is better off learning the most important musical lessons alone.

MELINDA BARGREEN: Usually there are two ways to steer a (critical) review: the pianist was having an intermittently off night, or the pianist should go out and shoot himself/herself. I mainly prefer the former.

FRANCOIS DUMONT: I firmly believe that the music you play forms you as a musician. For example, Chopin teaches you the art of cantabile. Bach develops your polyphonic abilities, which is for me a fundamental task in the art of piano playing.

PHILIPPE BIANCONI : Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there.

BORIS BERGMANN: (In my recorded improvisations) certain passages revealed a style or a musical language that I could not identify as deliberate or pre-existing in my works. It just happened. My conscious mind was not involved.

FRANCOIS-FREDERIC GUY: Music fills my life, my existence. Even when I am not at the instrument, even when I am speaking of other subjects... Through music, one can express things that words cannot.

ALESSANDRO DELJEVAN: Why is a young student with talent studying more than eight hours a day? To win a competition, not to become a real musician, not live life with intensity and using heart and head with honesty. In a world where everybody is talking about a sexy dress, or even quantity of notes I am different.

LYDIA JARDON: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness. Any artist who stops creating simply dies. It seems to me essential to keep learning and recording new repertoire.

JEAN-FRANCOIS DICHAMP: I remember as a student that when I wanted a particular recording I would go to a record shop, order it specially and wait several weeks for it to arrive. But this waiting period was also part of the pleasure, and when the record arrived it was a big event! Today there is no waiting. Everything is just a click away. Is the pleasure the same? I don’t think so.

REED TETZLOFF: As I worked on the (Charles Ives) piece, I felt it was drawing expressive reserves out of me that I didn’t know I possessed. I had no choice but to let loose and fling the music out into the atmosphere, come what may.

IRINA LANKOVA: At age of 13, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. This persisted until the day I pushed the door open to the Gnessin Musical College (in Moscow). From that moment there was no second option for me. That’s where I wanted to belong.

IVO POGORELICH: Art is my profession, career is my occupation. There are two types of challenges and threats. The external ones should sometimes be ignored, at other times confronted. What comes from oneself however is different. The general principle I followed was not to bite off more than I can swallow. In other words “less is more”!

STEPHEN HOUGH: (The greatest challenge is) just doing it -- day after day. Specifically, the extreme contrast between being as tough as a old boot offstage, travel, hotels, paperwork, and as sensitive as a bejewelled ballet shoe when at the piano. It requires a unique kind of schizophrenia.

BENJAMIN GROSVENOR: I am increasingly drawn to chamber music. Playing with a handful of colleagues and finding during the performance that we seemed all to be firing off one another’s imagination and involvement is a wonderful feeling.

JOANNA MACGREGOR: The piano is like a universe. You can use it to compose and to perform - it represents so many different styles of music from early French keyboard music and Bach, to Beethoven and John Cage, jazz and blues. I’ve always loved the piano.

BORIS GILTBURG: In a way, every experience you have, every book you read, every movie you watch, every place you visit, every encounter you have, every moment you spend with friends or family, they leave a mark on you and direct you indirectly and therefore leave their mark on your playing.

VIKINGUR OLAFSSON: I came to the piano quite early -- when still in my mother’s womb. She’s a piano teacher and when five months pregnant she played her diploma recital at Berlin University, so I was quite close to the keys from the beginning. I started playing the piano before being able to speak and there are pictures of me at the piano as soon as I was tall enough to reach for the keys, high above my head.

TAMARA STEFNOVICH: Think about what the role of a musician is today and how you can be at best useful for today’s society -- for me certainly not playing only older repertoire, but thinking how to link music of all times to extraordinary creations of today. Challenge yourself by not copying someone else’s path ...In short, less image, more substance

PAVEL KOLESNIKOV: It is a bit embarrassing. I was about 6 years old and I went to a symphonic concert to hear a violinist. She was wearing a velvet dress, in an unbelievable hue of purple. I thought I’d never seen a colour more sumptuous... and I decided I wanted to play violin. That’s how my path in music started.

JEREMY DENK: One of the things that bothers me most about young musicians today is the sense of the metronome working behind everything with no sense of rubato. Without it the music just begins to sound like a diagram.

CHRISTINE CROSHAW: When the time came for my entrance onstage, the most extraordinary thing happened. I found myself following the figure of a woman, another version of myself. I suddenly felt quite confident, knowing that she would lead me safely to the piano. As I sat down on the stool, I sensed her sitting down by my side, and I felt entirely at ease. As I played the opening bars I felt her gradually drift away. I had a sense that all was well, and the music seemed to play itself.

MARGARET FINGERHUT: If we are still going to persuade people to come and hear live music, we have to find ways to make that experience more meaningful and relevant, be it collaborating with other genres such as dance, the visual arts or theatre, working with living composers, or simply being able to talk to your audiences in an engaging manner.


Link to the book on Amazon:

Lifting the Lid: Interviews with Concert Pianists Paperback – February 26, 2024

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Jun 17th 2024
EXTRACT: "Question: Isn’t piano study a big problem in the USA, with all the electronic games and distractions from music lessons? ---- Answer: The problem is also in Europe. We have lost a lot of quality, in terms of knowledge behind the music. The schools do not make the transmission from the composers to us. We owe that to the composers. And it’s very sad because now we focus on goals and competition, and competition does not go well with art.
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Question: Isn’t it true, as the musicologist Kyle Gann says, that one cannot judge immediately what’s good or bad in contemporary music? We must wait 20 years. Answer: Yes, look at Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. It caused a scandal. It was booed and rejected by everyone. Now it’s standard in the concert hall. In jazz, I think it’s not 20 years, but more like 50 years before we know what has worked or not. One has to step back and reflect on whether we have brought something new."
Mar 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "In a way, every experience you have, every book you read, every movie you watch, every place you visit, every encounter you have, every moment you spend with friends or family, they leave a mark on you and direct you indirectly and therefore leave their mark on your playing.", says Boris Giltburg in Michael Johnson's and Frances Wilson's new book 'Lifting the Lid: Interviews with Concert Pianists', now available on Amazon.
Feb 27th 2024
EXTRACT: "Question: Some pianophiles say the CD could be useful for meditation, therapy or even healing. ---- Answer: Indeed, that is the kind of feedback I am getting. But this music doesn’t belong to me any more, therefore I cannot label it with any purpose. It has taken on a life of its own. I can’t say how it affects the life of other people. Will it be therapeutic or will it have another effect? Time will tell."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACT: "Seated in a quiet corner of a Bordeaux hotel last week, we had an interview – more a casual chat – about her life, her Soviet Russian origins, her career, her future."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Schiff creates an atmosphere that we 'seniors' remember from the old days. No clowning, no bouncing on the bench, no outlandish clothing. He dresses in a black smock, black trousers, black shoes, topped off with a mane of pure white hair. His manners, his grateful bowing, are très Old Europe. ---- Schiff keeps control of his two hours onstage. He believes that dignity goes with the great music on the program and he scarcely moves as he plays."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "  Boston-based guitarist, band leader and composer Phil Sargent is not about churning out endless CDs. In fact his ten-year recording gap, just ended, had his fans wondering where he was. But in New York and Boston, he tells me, he has never stopped working with other groups while composing and actively teaching young and mature talent. Although not always visible, he seems to be a confirmed workaholic, even practicing five hours a day. Yes, virtuosos also need to practice. ---- And now he is back. His new CD, 'Sons'....."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "There is a renewed fascination with the memory-stimulating and healing powers of music. This resurgence can primarily be attributed to recent breakthroughs in neuroscientific research, which have substantiated music’s therapeutic properties such as emotional regulation and brain re-engagement. This has led to a growing integration of music therapy with conventional mental health treatments."
Sep 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "British psychotherapist, Michael Lawson, who has worked with several prodigies and former prodigies, calculates there may be as many as 200,000 piano prodigies active in the world today. “In a sense, they are not that rare,” he says in our interview below. Lawson is author of International Acclaim: The Steinfeld Legacy a new novel of the great pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries in which the prodigy phenomenon is described in some detail."
Sep 17th 2023
EXTRACT: "Like so many stories about relationships told over an extended time, Past Lives uncovers the twists and turns, the “what ifs” and the manifold choices that lead to two people wondering whether they were meant to be together."
Sep 12th 2023
EXTRACT: " OrpheusPDX, a new company founded by Christopher Mattaliano in Portland, Oregon, concluded its second season with a brilliant and thought-provoking production of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters,” at Lincoln Hall (August 24), exploring and exposing relationships in a polygamous sect and the courage of one sister-wife to leave it. With Stephen Karam’s libretto inspired by memoirs of women who have left the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) and the 2008 raid of the YFZ Ranch by the FBI, “Dark Sisters” was delivered with spot-on directing by Kristine McIntyre and riveting performances by an exceptional cast."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Wagner’s operas are well known to be budget busters, and lack of funds is probably one of the main reasons that Seattle Opera has not mounted the Ring Cycle in since 2013. After Speight Jenkins retired from his post as General Director in 2014, the company delivered The Flying Dutchman (2016) and Tristan und Isolde (2022), the latter under its current General Director, Christina Scheppelmann. Now starting its 60th season, Seattle Opera celebrated with Das Rheingold, but that can be seen as a bittersweet moment since Scheppelmann is moving on to take over La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels at the end of the 2023-2024 season."
Jul 6th 2023
EXTRACT: " More than a hundred recordings have been made of his suite of 14 light pieces he called “The Carnival of the Animals”, and a range of his other works remain in the standard repertoire."
Jun 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "Conservatories and university music departments are filling up with fee-paying Asians as their parents pressure them to succeed in the West. Piano competitions around the world, now numbering about 800, are open to this new wave of Asian players. They are winning top prizes and they are building careers in Europe and the U.S.  Too often, according to some teachers, young Americans prefer computer games, the latest movies, rock bands, sports, or other less-demanding activities. The Asians are happy to fill the vacuum."
May 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Three of Europe’s longtime leaders in contemporary jazz, now in their senior years, have just launched a CD of twelve  pieces that shows what a lifetime of sharing ideas in music can really produce." “New Stories” (Frémeaux et Associés) by the French trio of pianist and composer Hervé Sellin, bassist Jean-Paul Celea and drummer Daniel Humair is remarkable for improvisations so synchronized that the listener can feel the music come together from three angles in real time. The tracks were mostly composed or improvised by Sellin."
Mar 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "The young ex-dancer from Italy first burst upon the piano scene three years ago with 20 of her hand-picked Scarlatti sonatas. Now comes her second CD (Academy Classical Music) even more original and powerful, performing six of Baldassare Galuppi’s 18th century sonatas. Margherita Torretta‘s early training as a dancer gives her playing a swaying, graceful air while she maintains Alberti bass for control of the rhythm, momentum and especially continuity. Her ornamentation is boosted with some of her own improvisations, producing a fresher feel. It’s a magic combination."
Mar 24th 2023
EXTRACT: "Driven by a sense of mission and determination over several years, French pianist Lydia Jardon has completed a rare cycle of nine piano sonatas by Nikolai Miaskovsky. Her new CD  of numbers 6, 7 and 8 completes the task and offers a particularly rich sample of Russian experience in the worst of times. Miaskovsky may be only vaguely remembered today but he was a leader in the Soviet music world until the end of World War II. He left a wide range of engaging sonatas that have been brought back to life by Mme. Jardon on her own label AR Ré-Sé (AR 2022-1)."
Mar 16th 2023
EXTRACTS: "The most ambitious application yet of Steinway’s new digital piano, Spirio r, delivers stunning levels of sound and color in the new CD release of The Richter Scale, an hour-long keyboard drama written by well-known German composer and pianist Boris Bergmann." ----- "For the first time, the Spirio has been configured on a Steinway D grand to enable four-hand pieces to be played by two hands. The secondo score is first recorded in playback mode then combined with the live primo part. Liu is the live player who has to coordinate and fuse the two."---- "I took Bergmann’s advice and listened to the full composition from start to finish to best feel the gathering emotional turbulence. I was gripped by the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and percussive explosions along the way."
Feb 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The piano music of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen is rapidly emerging from obscurity where it has reposed since his death in 1953. One of the champions of this rebirth is the Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilic who acknowledges he discovered Jongen only by accident. Researching early 20th century music, he recalls, “somehow Jongen appeared on my radar.” He quickly dived into archives in Belgium and became immersed in Jongen’s prolific output."
Jan 5th 2023
EXTRACTS: "One duo of special interest today is the pairing of brother-and-sister pianists of Slovenian origin,  Zala and Val Kravos. Both are veterans of solo performances and joint four-hand playing internationally. Their new CD offers....... The musicality and the technical perfection achieved by this team sets it apart from others in the same category."