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?