The examples are endless. “The Check is in the mail.” “No, those pants do not make your butt look big.” “I never got your message.” “Your table will be ready in just a minute, ma’am.” “It’s not the money, it’s the principle.” “This won’t hurt a bit.” “I just need just five minutes of your time.” “Hey, I was kidding.” “It’s not your fault.” “No, really, really I’m fine.”
Let’s add to this inglorious list one of my favorites: “So and so is a concert pianist.”
A “concert pianist”. There are two possible applications of the phrase “concert pianist”. One of them is correct and one of them is not correct.
Let’s start with the correct one.
A “concert pianist” is a professional pianist who makes his or her living playing concerts. (A “concert” is a live performance during which people pay good cash money to hear a professional pianist play.)
That definition of “concert pianist” does not, unfortunately, include the locally known “music major” who teaches piano to the neighborhood kids, plays at church on Sundays and performs Beethoven’s Für Elise at Rotary Club meetings.
Neither does the correct definition of “concert pianist” include my own paternal grandmother, who graduated from the New York Institute of Musical Art (later renamed the Juilliard School) in 1916 before starting her family, who gave piano lessons in the borough of Queens for fifty years and who played Mozart piano sonatas at Hadassah meetings.
In fact, a genuine “concert pianist” is as different from your aunt and my grandmother as an Olympic gymnast is from you or I.
Let’s run with this Olympic analogy for a moment. When the American swimmer Michael Phelps won his 22nd Olympic medal in August of 2012, he became – far and away – the most decorated Olympian ever.
Phelps’ success is a function of strength, conditioning, technique, commitment, precision, mental toughness and a fiercely competitive spirit, sustained over a period of twenty years, from the age of seven – when he started swimming – to the age of 27, when he presumably retired from competitive swimming.
That sounds like a concert pianist, only not as impressive.
Like a champion swimmer, a professional pianist also needs strength, conditioning, technique, commitment, precision, mental toughness and a fiercely competitive spirit. But more than any swimmer, a concert pianist requires, in addition, artistry, memory, the finest nuance of motor control, deep theoretical understanding and historical knowledge, superior intellect and the fearlessness of a Nepalese Gurkha. (Yes: fearlessness. Try sitting down at a piano in front of 1000 people and playing from memory for 90 minutes, without error, without lapse, and with total emotional, intellectual, and physical control. You must be fearless.)
Michael Phelps’ career – brilliant though it was – spanned just 20 years. Longish for an athlete, but a mere beginning for a professional pianist. You see, professional pianists are expected to keep getting better: they are expected to become ever more technically accomplished; they are expected to learn and memorize ever more music; they are expected to become ever better interpreters of the music they perform. Professional pianists are expected to mature, whereas professional athletes are expected to retire. Barring arthritis or dementia, pianists can continue to concertize into their seventies and beyond: Claude Frank continued to concertize into his early 80’s; Vladimir Horowitz made his triumphant return to the Russian stage in 1986, at the age of 83; Artur Rubinstein retired at the age of 89. By comparison, these pianists make my favorite living pianist – Maurizio Pollini – look like a kid at age 70.
May we all live so smart and so well for so long!