The Piano Audience

Where two or more are gathered

Pause • Reflect • Sundays on Pianodao

The acclaimed upper strings improviser, philosopher and writer Stephen Nachmanovitch writes, in his seminal book Free Play (1990):

I would say that, just as this is true when improvising in front of an audience (which I have done many hundreds of times in various contexts over the years) so it equally applies when performing the masterpieces of the classical repertoire, recreating and interpreting them for a live audience, alert to the singularity of the moment and its potential for connection.

In recent years, this live sharing of music has come under considerable threat, however, and on a number of distinct fronts:

  • a decline in the musical health of many schools has led to a reduction in the quantity and quality of performing opportunity
  • it has become ever-harder for some venues to host live music (for a variety of reasons such as traffic and parking, noise concerns, safeguarding, performing and other licensing laws)
  • it is becoming expensive and difficult for musicians and educators to find and book suitable local venues with a good piano
  • even music exam boards are increasingly moving away from a live performance model towards a video recorded assessment

Those closely involved in promoting any of these developments may be unaware of the others, oblivious to their cumulative effect, isolated from any realisation of their own contribution to the decline in shared music-making.

But those who appreciate the value of live music, and who are struggling with the consequences and mounting impact of these changes in their own community, will undoubtedly find themselves with deepening concerns. Many already have stories to tell, and a perspective to share which needs to be heard.

My own story, set in Milton Keynes, is a fairly depressing one, though typical of our time: the venue I hire for a student concert each year has more than doubled its asking price since just two years ago. We have simply been priced out, and I have been informed that the venue is prioritising private functions in preference to booking in performances.

I am not unsympathetic to the point that venue and theatre managers, head teachers and exam boards have to juggle numerous competing concerns. Of course we all have bills to pay, and many interests and groups to please. But let’s not forget that live music is worth supporting for its own immense social value, community benefit and cultural importance.

Similarly, while there is no doubt that video-based performing exams widen the opportunity for participation in music assessment, I nevertheless believe that the whole music education community has a shared responsibility to support, foster and make space for live music-making at all levels, in a dizzyingly creative multiplicity of forms, and however we can.

Let’s come together to protect existing and develop new opportunities for music students to play to one another, to friends and family, and to share their art directly with living, breathing audiences. And let’s also try to do more to promote the informal sharing of music in homes, schools, music clubs, local grassroots events, and simply between friends in a social context.

Stephen Nachmanovitch points to the reality that where two or more are gathered together in the name of music, powerful things can happen.

Let’s embrace the magic!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.