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“ATHLETES WITH SMALL MUSCLES”


On the making of the virtuoso pianist:


Leon Fleisher, brilliant and celebrated pianist and mentor-teacher of the last century, said of pianists: “We are athletes, but we’re athletes with small muscles.”


To be a virtuoso pianist means spending many many hours from a very young age training muscles and reflexes such that the fingers move across the keyboard with astounding speed and accuracy.


But that is not all. Fleisher famously added “You get kids who can do things with such extraordinary brilliance on the keyboard that they belong in the circus. But it ain’t got nothing to do with music-making.”

What he meant was, even if an athlete can run faster and jump higher than anyone else on the planet, their real gift lies in how they play the game, whatever the game is. The same is true in music making.


“Virtuoso” is an Italian word with a Latin root: “virtuosus / virtus”, that is, virtue, excellent, or skill. It refers to someone who demonstrates exceptional talent and technical ability in a given field. Talent and technical ability: the two go together, but what do they mean?


Technical ability refers to how the hands move, but if your hands move meaninglessly, mechanically, what is the value? Talent is a much less precise term: in music making it generally conjures the image of someone who naturally, intuitively makes music in a way that affects the listener significantly, powerfully, profoundly.


How that happens defies definition, but that elusiveness does not be mean we cannot talk about how one becomes a virtuoso pianist. It begins with hard work, the training, many years of exercises and focussed effort. To be a great classical pianist involves athletic practice for the hands for sure, hours of building small muscles and fostering the connection between mind and body, intention and reflex, control and release. It also means a commitment to academic study, learning what a composer, someone who might live in the next block, but equally possible someone who lived 30 years ago in a different place, a different time, or a different culture, learning what the creator of the composition intended when she penned those notes on the page, black dots on a staff and text indications referring to the tempo (the speed at which one note follows the next), learning, discovering the experience the music was meant to convey. Being a virtuoso entails years of intense study and practice, but the commitment does not end there.

For at its essence, to be a great artist requires a lived commitment to intellectual profundity, emotional honesty, and the fearless confrontation of human possibility in all its aspects. Technical brilliance can be achieved by technical drill. But meaningful musicianship is predicated on life experience and the courage to face the implications of all one learns, loves, hates, and comes to comprehend honestly, fearlessly. Being a virtuoso means pushing oneself to master oneself physically and therefore one’s instrument, such that one’s hands become the voice of that life experience, both one’s own and that of the composer. And then it requires finding both courage and physical means to speak that truth with utmost intensity.


Intensity: this is the word that best defines the purpose and meaning of virtuosity. Virtuosity in art compels the audience to experience the artist’s vision- and all that implies. Thus we are brought together in understanding all that we are, have been and might be. Becoming a virtuoso musician entails committing one’s life to the ability to share all that great music was meant to convey.


That can be anything, from the quiet melancholy of Rachmaninoff’s Prélude in g sharp minor, Opus 32 #12, to the profound dignity of the Adagio (Slow, graceful) in Beethoven’s Sonata No.2, Op. 31 or the brilliant, heart racing excitement of the Vivace (Lively!) in Prokofiev’s Sonata op. 84 in B flat Major.

Both of these works can be heard, along with other examples of virtuoso pianistic writing, in The PIANO Concert, QSCM’s June 17 event at St. Mary Magdalene, * as performed by pianist Todd Yaniw.

Todd is indeed a virtuoso. The difference between the sheer athleticism that makes the keys go up and down, and the musicianship of a true virtuoso can only really be understood in listening to the playing of one such deeply gifted, profoundly committed musician. Upon listening, if we are not only excited, but moved, we know we are experiencing “Virtuoso.”


*For Details of “The PIANO Concert” event, June 17 at St. Mary Magdalene in Picton, ON and QSCM’s Outreach Activity, “Meet the Musician”, June 16 at 2gallery, Picton, ON please see QSCM’s Event Page, www.qscmusic.com





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