I recently heard the tail end of a radio interview with actor Simon Russell Beale. The discussion was about a new theatre production he’s doing which involves him actually playing the piano – yes, actually playing. Debussy, I think it was.
It emerged that he is one of those actors who has grade whatever piano on his resumé (usually alongside horse riding, fluent Elvish, three years of tap and clean driving licence). It was also apparent that, unlike many actors who claim Grade 8, he can actually play more than a stuttering Für Elise. Fair dos.
Furthermore, he made an observation that had me cheering at the radio for once – instead of furiously spraying cornflakes at it, as so often happens. It’s a point I’ve made a few times over the years and what follows is my version.
If you’re ever in a house or venue with a piano, especially a nice grand, watch the reactions of people who can play. Some have to be dragged to it, some have to be dragged off it…
Now it’s true that some genuinely great pianists just can’t resist an opportunity to rip in on any occasion. It’s also true that a lot of people of varying ability are quite shy. But the good players generally don’t seem to have the same sort of need to play all the time as those who are less experienced. They’re probably more interested in the garden or the wine list.
Why? Well Russell Beale put it down to them somehow conserving their creative energy, and that might have something to do with it, but I think it’s simpler. I think there’s a sense that they’re rather off-duty. After all, you don’t meet a plumber at a drinks party and ask them to flush out your central heating right there and then, do you?
There’s an old gag about a pianist being asked what he does and then the other guy says: “hey that’s great, sit down and play something”. At which point he asks what the other guy does, and he replies that he’s an accountant. So the pianist says: “hey, that’s great, sit down and do my tax return”.
Perhaps it’s ultimately to do with not having anything to prove. Or maybe that some musicians view music through the prism of life, rather than the other way round. If you get me.
Sometimes when I’ve politely declined an invitation to play I’ve been accused of shyness, obstinacy, snobbery, greed (ie not playing for fun) or even outright lying that I can play at all. My stock reply is: “Tonight I’m a civilian.”
PS If you come down to my Monday jam session, do feel free to play. Please. Otherwise, I’d be up there for about four hours non-stop. Which is the equivalent of nine concertos, six Beethoven symphonies, two Toscas or nearly an entire Meistersinger...
See also The Daftest Job I’ve Ever Done.