That’s what artists are supposed to do— with every performance, with every new challenge they try to raise the bar. Perhaps that is why true artists are never completely satisfied with their work—it could always be better! And they keep striving and working for the next time so they can get a little closer to the ideal.
Who sets the standard? It is the artists themselves who set their own standard of excellence. The written words of a critic should not be necessary to tell the performing artist whether he has played well or not. Critics offer their educated opinion, but the real artist knows deep down in their gut if they are in “the zone” or off center. He is the one who has to answer to a higher master to judge whether he managed to come a little closer to the composer’s intentions. Ultimately, the artist competes with himself and wrestles with the level of his own talent with every performance and every recording.
What is important to remember is that there is more than one pathway to interpreting a piece of music. I am not talking about the quest for perfection here; note-perfect, correct performances can be saved for competitions. We are seeking a personal relationship with the music. Isn’t that why we keep going to concerts to hear the same repertoire performed many times by different pianists and listen to recordings of great artists from the past— all were individuals who brought a unique character to their interpretations. What we are searching for is the magic and the power inherent within the music. Our responsibility as performers is to bring out that sensibility so the music can soar and directly reach deep inside the souls of listeners.
The older I get, the more I am amazed by this exciting process: digging under the notes to go as deeply as possible into the music, keeping our focus and getting rid of all outside interference, and allowing the music to come to you. Ultimately, we are raising the bar every time. It comes down to the unwritten agreement that the artist makes with the composer—the pact to get as close as possible to what their conception might have been at that very moment of creation. That’s the ideal, and it is the responsibility of the performer to try and communicate this to the listener.
What a joy to watch something grow and take shape and flower! I have been preparing works for a series of recitals and recordings that I studied as a young student, but never truly performed in concert. The process has been a revelation. It gives me a good idea of where I had been so many years ago and how much I knew and didn’t know. I am not talking only about technical mastery here—I am talking more about the search for musical meaning. That process of extracting what is meaningful and then making it your own— owning it in order to convincingly convey its meaning to others.
And that is the real addiction. The artist is never satisfied so he keeps going, keeps working with an unreachable goal in mind. What a joy and a blessing to have this purpose and mission in life and also to embrace the responsibility that comes with it!
My favorite quote from one of my favorite composers says it all.
“Music is enough for a lifetime but a lifetime is not enough for music.”
Wise words from Sergei Rachmaninoff.
And so we go forward!