Am I, Too, Not a Pianist?

(April 2019)

Dedicated to AZ, BL, XB, and PM

Am I not a pianist because I grew up on the dead end of a dirt road and there was nobody around for miles — much less a piano teacher? Or because my parents were broke and couldn’t afford something as “frivolous” as music lessons from the first place?

No. A real pianist must begin lessons from early childhood.

Am I, though, who walked to the piano as soon as it was possible to walk, not a pianist? Leafing through Ravel’s Miroirs before I could read even words, gazing at the mystery held in those arpeggiated falls on Une Barque Sur L’Ocean, graceful like a centipede on the pages of that vintage Schirmer’s edition score?

No. A real pianist is introduced to the canon by formal means. 

So, am I not a pianist because I didn’t go to music school? Because where I come from, that kinda thing is considered the stupidest thing you could do with your life– and no one’s going to bail you out when you mess it all up?

No. A real pianist must invest in proper training. 

But what about those two and a half years of piano studio lessons I took as a graduate student — the first lessons of my life — surrounded by all undergrads, some of whom were my students in other classes?

No. A real pianist must make sacrifices and be vulnerable in pursuit of the craft.  

But really, am I not a pianist, even though I wrote music throughout childhood? What about Butterfly of the Sun, which I wrote out with crayon on a piece of scrap paper when I was four years old?

No. A real pianist — and a real composer — must learn from a skilled teacher.

And am I not a pianist because I don’t particularly like a lot of piano works that are regularly performed? It’s just that the German stuff is so heavy… and why doesn’t anyone talk about Liberace’s playing? Or any of the jazz pianists, for that matter?

No. A real pianist must appreciate the proper repertoire. That includes jazz, which must bebop- or modal-derived to be of canonical significance. 

But seriously, am I not a pianist? Even with those summer vacations as a kid, driving my sister crazy because I’d wake her up every morning hittin’ the keys? And what about that musical we wrote about Vincent Van Gogh together? Or how about all those Beatles songs we used to play and sing, like Martha My Dear, and “Eleanor Rigby Major Key?”

No. A real pianist only plays the Western canonical classics, or music derived from this tradition.

So am I not a pianist because my keyboard, a Yamaha P-140 with weighted keys, is where I work out new harmonies, sounds, and concepts? Am I not a pianist because I haul out to the public piano at the Port Authority Bus Terminal a few times a week when I just need to touch the real thing?

No. real pianist must play a proper instrument.

So then, am I not a pianist because I didn’t grow up playing a Steinway grand? Am I not a pianist because I learned on a janky, 100-year old out-of-tune upright with chipped ivory keys? Am I not a pianist, despite learning how to access the B the octave below middle C that sticks, learning that it can be released if and only if you “unlock” it by pushing in the middle soft pedal? And discovering that the E an octave above middle C sticks to the F and only releases with a specific, magic touch that only works sometimes? And that the middle octave was the only octave relatively in tune, with pitches getting progressively flat as you go higher and muddy, murky, and sustained even if you don’t press the sustain pedal in the lower octaves?

No. A real pianist must have the delicate touch required for proper pianism.

But the thing is, these experience not only make me a pianist, but a real pianist.

I AM a pianist. And so was Monk, Liberace, Sun Ra, and everyone else these rules — steeped in white privilege — deem otherwise.


After all, a real pianist would never exclude anyone who feels that inexplicable draw to the 88 black-and-whites. A real pianist knows that you must heed if you are called to the keys. A real pianist knows, in her heart, what pianism — what music — is really all about.

And by the way: the piano I grew up playing is not only a proper piano, but the most beautiful one I have ever played.

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