Do you have to be a virtuoso?

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A virtuoso is normally defined as a person who demonstrates exceptional technical ability with their musical instrument.  Through the last several hundred years, there have been many great piano virtuosos including names such as Liszt and Rachmaninoff and in the last century, many jazz pianists such as Art Tatum were also considered virtuosos.

It is interesting to note that debate has raged over the concept as well.  Some musicians see virtuosity as indensible to good music and others see it as trivial and almost like a cheap novelty.

There is little doubt that in the Western music teaching tradition, virtuosity is emphasized over all other aspects of music.  Contests are primarily judged based on a student’s virtuosity rather than other factors such as expressiveness.

If you listen to students perform, you will almost always detect that they also believe that virtuosity is the highest goal in their music.  They normally play pieces that are as technically advanced as they can possibly manage.  Normally, they end up compromising other factors of music in the process.

In the church, you hear musicians also chasing virtuosity.  They play ornate, complicated arrangements that are impressive but do not communicate.

In my limited influence, I am trying to get pianists to look at this issue from a slightly different angle.  Virtuosity is not the highest goal of a musician.  There are more important factors that many virtuosos ignore.  In fact, the knock on virtuosos has long been that they tend to exchange technical ability for expressiveness.

To be fair, there are definitely virtuosos who are complete musicians in every way.  That is why they are great.  But there are also few of them.  I do not put myself in that category (I am not even a virtuoso) and if you are reading this, you probably are not in that category either.

In today’s world, it is clear that people value other aspects of music over virtuosity.  And that is a good thing.  If you listen to popular pianists, you will not hear many if any virtuosos.  Instead, you hear pianists who know how to communicate through their music.

So, if you are like me and know in your heart that you do not have the technical ability to be a virtuoso, you still have the opportunity to be a great pianist.  You just need to figure out your niche and be comfortable there.

And if you are a virtuoso, that is great, but understand that there is more to music than technical ability.  That is especially true in church music.

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Latest Comments

  • Peter Blake

    Greg, I have been reading your blog for a while. I have to admit that you are very unorthodox. In fact, you seem to be a maverick of sorts. May I ask where your philosophy about music comes from? I don’t always agree but it is very interesting.

  • David Hathaway

    Thanks for discussing this topic. It reminded me of the classic “Pavane for a Dead Princess” written by Maurice Ravel early in his career. The piece evokes a level of pathos which I have never heard matched in Ravel’s later works, despite their technical fireworks.

  • Greg

    Peter,

    I am not really unorthodox or a maverick. The side I take on issues like this is not unique. It is just relatively new to those who grow up taking traditional (classical) music lessons. My philosophy is shaped by key musicians that I have been blessed to be influenced by.

  • Christina Pruett

    Greg, I think you are right on with this Virtuoso idea. I would much rather be able for my listeners to “hear the words” than be impressed by so many notes, etc that the message is lost. The entire idea of playing church music is for all of us to be blessed and drawn closer to our wonderful Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ…HE is to receive the glory. Thank you for presenting this “new”? idea! God bless you…Love your take on music.

  • Jason

    Greg,

    I don’t disagree with you – but I do think your point is just another example of how music reveals how infinite our God is.

    Expressiveness may be more important than virtuosity to you, but it may not be to others. Some may be most impressed (moved, encouraged, appreciative, etc.) by technical accuracy and may not have an ear for expressiveness. Some may be able to more easily hear errors in specific notes than hear the subtlety of a melody line being marked out with a single finger of two-handed, arpeggiated phrase. And then some people despised Alfred Cortot’s playing while others appreciated his depth of expression.

    I’ve been fascinated to have people reply with a relative blank stare when I ask them what they thought of so-an-so’s exceptional piano playing. When I am with friends at some special event where there is an untypical pianist, I’ll ask them what they think. Many times the response is either “I didn’t notice” or “it didn’t sound any better to me than our own pianist”. My wife and I talk later and wonder why they couldn’t hear the difference.

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