I turn 30 next week, and I was lucky enough to close off my 20s by performing my all-Beethoven solo recital at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, surrounded by great friends from my Eastman days (incidentally, meeting these friends at Eastman kicked off my 20s, so I'm really going back full circle here).
I struggle and obsess all the time to form coherent thoughts about why classical music matters in 2017. I decided that this last concert as a 20-something was the time to make myself address this question in front of an audience. And so despite how nervous it made me feel, I did. I'm on the fence about giving such a soliloquy in the middle of a recital - I half feel that it's too self-indulgent, and unnecessary if the music performance can/should speak for itself, but anyway, I'm proud I did it. Here's a rough transcript of the speech, which I gave after I performed the first piece of the program:
Being a professional classical pianist in 2017 is a peculiar choice. So many things in the world seem to be crumbling around us, especially this year, and every day I ask myself what good I'm doing in the world by being a pianist. I have to clarify - I don't doubt the positive effect of playing concerts - I think that the power of classical music is self-evident in live performances. But you have to remember that out of all the hours I spend at the piano, only 5%, maybe even less, of that time is spent actually performing for people in public. You can imagine that leaves countless hours where it's just me and my piano at home, with occasionally my poor roommate as witness.
While I'm spending all that time practicing by myself, I can't help but wonder if there are more constructive ways for me to contribute to the world's problems. But I realize more as I get older that the most important life experiences, I've learned sitting right here at the seat in front of this beast of an instrument. I'd like to share the two most powerful lessons that have made me a better citizen of the world we live in today:
1. I learned - am continuously learning - how to listen, I mean really listen, to the sounds that are being produced and the meaning behind those sounds. It's a never-ending cycle of thinking that I'm listening very well, getting cocky and overconfident about it, and sorely being proven otherwise. At that point I recalibrate my ears and mind to get rid of preconceived notions, and start over. It's a humbling process, and a reminder that truly listening, whether to music or to other people, is a process that takes constant effort and humility.
2. I have to admit here that I'm not really a people person. Given the choice of spending time by myself in nature or among people in a community, I will for sure pick nature 10 out of 10 times. I think by way of my personality, it would be easy for me to be fed up with people and just be disengaged with society at large. But by facing works of art intimately all the time, I've constantly been amazed and moved by the positive things that humans are capable of accomplishing and creating. Art - and it doesn't just have to be music - has given me optimism regarding humanity, and in turn it's actually made me a passionate and engaged member of society who cares about social justice.
So then the question is, why am I presenting to you an all-Beethoven recital today, in 2017? Beethoven has been played so much in past decades so I'm not doing anything new or radical, and is it even relevant today? I think to answer this question, I'd like to draw a parallel between your experiencing an all-Beethoven recital and my experience doggedly pursuing the practice of piano playing. Both are examples of immersing yourself in one specific artistic experience. I hope that by spending the next hour here and bathing in Beethoven's music, you will experience the two points I mentioned before on why I continue to play piano.That is -
1. The experience of really listening. If at any point you think "I thought I knew Beethoven, but I'm hearing his music in a different way tonight," then I will have done my job.
2. To feel optimistic and empowered that one human created such powerful pieces of work. I hope this thought will give you renewed love for humanity, and renewed energy for fighting for the causes you care about.
I heard some sounds of agreement from the audience upon making that statement, and the end of the recital was met with a lot of enthusiasm, so I hope that the speech added to the performance rather than detracted from it...again, I'm on the fence about this. But I do feel like given the political climate, we can't waste time or opportunities with artistic acts that aren't unabashedly backed up by a conviction that "I have to do this, and I have to do this NOW" and so I thought this speech was one way of clarifying my intentions.