Do you have to be a virtuoso?
on May 14, 2009
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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.