If you gave an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, would they eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare?

This favourite question of barstool philosophers seems relevant to us pianists when it comes to why we do what we do as we practise. Eavesdropping outside practice rooms (as I have been known to do), it seems that after countless repetitions an interpretation, or a solution to a problem, is supposed to emerge fully formed out of thin air. If I hack away at it for long enough, I’m bound to get there eventually…

This week I was directed to a short video clip of Leon Fleisher. He is coaching a group of students, and quotes from his teacher, Artur Schnabel:

“Hear before you play. If you play before you hear what you’re going for, it’s an accident, and everything is built then on an accident.” Leon Fleisher, Carnegie Hall YouTube Channel

Liszt had a similar maxim: Think Ten Times, Play Once. The problem with embracing this in our practising is the mistaken belief that unless we are moving our fingers, training muscles and making sounds, we are not really practising. In reality, thinking ten times and playing once would mean pausing regularly in our practising, awakening our imagination, inwardly hearing how we want the phrase to sound, rehearsing this in our mind until it is vivid, and only then playing. Extremely challenging, enough to try the patience of a saint, surely?

As a student, I recall lessons where my teacher would talk about a passage in my piece with such incredible insight, making the character and the meaning so vivid and real to me that the penny dropped and I would replay with full conviction. I had the sense that the way I was doing it was the only right way! A moment ago, what I thought was a technical issue preventing me from managing something was not that at all – the key was to fully imagine how I wanted the music to sound. It had to come from within me first, my fingers being but the servants of my imagination.

So unless we begin with a clear idea of the big picture or overall musical shape of the piece, fingerings and other basic motor skills are going to need relearning once the interpretative decisions have been made. It is like going on a journey without having looked at the map, not knowing the route, the distance between one place and the next or how you are going to get from A to B. What’s the terrain? What clothes should I pack? You get the idea. You can’t really begin serious work on the first movement of a sonata until you know the last movement, at least how it sounds.

The obvious thing is to listen to a recording. Listen to several different ones rather than the same recording many times. If you are playing Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, listen to the other two sonatas from op. 31. While you’re about it, listen to as many of the Beethoven Sonatas from that period as you can, while following the score. Go to the piano and play some of the main themes from the other works, be inquisitive and explore a little.

There is a particularly excellent and inspiring book I would like to suggest to anyone playing music from the mainstream classical period, and that is Schnabel’s Interpretation of Piano Music by Konrad Wolff. This shortish book offers a detailed treatment of Schnabel’s “system”, and describes the pianist’s interpretative concerns. There are lots of examples from the repertoire, and you will find that you refer to it again and again.

When all is said and done, there is no such thing as the one ideal interpretation. There will be as many different interpretations as there are pianists playing the work. Let’s celebrate this fact – vive la difference!

Oh, and you might want to check this out…