Piano Baggage

Suitcase, by Mamboman1 on Flickr

Photo by Mamboman1 on Flickr

For many composers, one of the most challenging instruments to write for is piano. Not only because of the enormous wealth of repertoire already in existence for the instrument, but also because a lot of us grew up playing and studying it. The irony of this statement is obvious, and the next question is, of course, “but if you actually play the piano, doesn’t that make it easier to write for it?” In some cases, yes, absolutely. But in a surprising number of others, not at all. Composing for piano can be wildly intimidating because of how much we know, both in terms of what and how much piano music came before this moment and in terms of our own “muscle memory.” That is, through practicing and studying those Bach preludes, those Chopin etudes, or those (oy!) Hanon exercises—somehow we have a sense of, whether consciously or not, the inner workings of the music and of what is required to make piano music that truly works.

Worrying about such things can stop you in your tracks—it’s a clear-cut piano baggage situation. I got a bad case of piano baggage the first time I had to include a piano in a chamber ensemble work. I did everything I could to avoid looking at my baggage, which was extensive (I was never a good piano student or a very good packer), but I dealt with it by reminding myself that the piano is a percussion instrument. When I started college, in my zeal to totally reinvent my entire life (the result of going to the same school from kindergarten through 12th grade), I stopped taking piano lessons and started studying percussion because I thought that hitting things seemed like a really good idea at the time. That began my deep love of all things percussion, and it helped reframe a lot of my piano angst. It’s percussion! You can hit it! Well, not really, but pretending that it’s a marimba for your fingers makes a world of difference for me. That, and thinking about John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, which I find to be some of the most amazing and wonderful piano music in existence.

What I want to know now is if this is a phenomenon particular to the piano, or does it translate to other instruments? I could see this being the case for violin, perhaps, but does a composer who grew up playing French horn or trombone have a similar reaction when it’s time to write for those instruments? What about the oboe? Contrabass? Accordion?

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4 thoughts on “Piano Baggage

  1. David MacDonald

    I didn’t grow up playing piano (I play trumpet.), but I did pass all of my piano classes in college. I can honestly say that I am completely terrified of writing for piano. First, everything I’ve ever been able to play on a piano is oversimplified preschool gibberish. As you might imagine, I’m not particularly interested in writing anything I would describe as preschool gibberish. Second, whenever I use the piano in my day-to-day life, it is as a tool for composing, teaching, or learning. I think I have a mental block that’s keeping me from allowing the piano in my head to transcend to the lofty heights of musical instrumenthood.

    I still write for piano, but only when it’s unavoidable. When I do, it’s always a struggle, but I’m ok with that. What I write for piano is very different from what a pianist would write for piano, and that’s probably how it should be.

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  2. Joseph Eidson

    I have the exact same response when writing for horn (my primary instrument). While using horn in an ensemble setting does not usually contain the same level of inherent panic, writing solo music or works for homogenous horn ensemble is terribly cloying for me. I start to over-analyze every single passage to the point of paralysis:
    Hmmm these two notes use the same fingering – is it too fast?
    I dunno about this tonguing – maybe the tempo is wrong?
    What if the player absolutely hates this measure? Should I make it easier? Harder?
    Well crap, this sounds exactly like Strauss 1 – guess I’ll start over!

    While I do take the player into consideration for other instruments, it does seem to be possible to be too close to an instrument which can lead to paralysis by analysis, at least in my case with horn music.

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  3. Mark Winges

    Personally, there’s another aspect to writing for one’s own instrument: that it’s so familiar as a player makes it less interesting to me as a composer. There’s a sense that I’ll make fewer discoveries – which may just mean my habits as a player and my acquaintance with its literature has blinded me to possibilities that might occur to me as a composer. It’s a hard thing to get past – as Joseph said, it’s easy to get preoccupied with the minutiae and mechanical aspects of playing.

    Conversely, one of the reasons I enjoy writing for the voice is that I’m such a terrible singer. The grass is always greener on the other side of one’s own instrument, I guess.

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  4. Alexandra Gardner Post author

    Thank you for your comments, guys! And Joseph, thanks also for sharing your experience with writing for horn – somehow it is comforting to know that this isn’t only about one instrument! Good point that we know the technicalities of our instruments well enough to do some serious second-guessing as we write for them.

    David, good luck freeing up the piano in your head! Really great piano music doesn’t necessarily need to sound like a pianist wrote it, so rock on…

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