Play what you love and the artistry will follow
There is no substitute for true love in music. When it’s lacking, you can hear it in the playing. Well-meaning teachers who push music on students thinking they'll learn to like it are all too often rewarded with dead and boring playing. Even if the piece gets learned, the price is too high because students who push through the pieces assume that “serious” music is tedious and boring and only “non-serious” music is enjoyable. Sadder still, sometimes this kind of thinking gets internalized and we put the same pressure on ourselves long after we’ve left formal lessons. Why? Because we don’t trust our own hearts. We listen to our heads telling us that we “should” be playing this or that piece and we distrust the simple joy we take in the music we really wish to play. In my life I find that my ego is to blame for all those “head not heart” decisions. I start thinking that I need to prove myself good enough to play this or that piece. It never ends well because my emotions and imagination aren’t engaged and no matter how diligently I practice, the music never comes alive.
I don’t believe we can force ourselves to love a piece of music. It may be that we just need to suspend judgment and see if it speaks to us later in life, but if the magic isn’t there it can’t be commanded to appear. But I also know that the course of true love never runs smoothly—in music or in life. I’ve fallen for pieces I’m woefully ill-suited to play and like any rejected suitor have had to learn to appreciate the pieces from afar. But these “rejections" aren't wasted; each one of those misfires has drawn me closer to the pieces that are my true loves—pieces that form part of the narrative of who I am.
When the piece chooses me just as much as I choose it, creating music is as natural as breathing and learning to play it is a joy. I’m motivated to work like mad to get the technical bits into my hands. The notes become my mental soundtrack when I’m away from the piano. My current life events imprint themselves in the score, offering musical Proustian moments when I revisit the piece years later. I feel I know the composer as a friend and I find the essence of his or her personality in the score. In this way, learning and playing the music is an act of co-creation and communication. And in this way, I’m rewarded by moments of artistry when I’m not sure if I’m playing the piece or the piece is playing me.
My advice to pianists is this: Lead with the heart. Don't settle for everyone else's repertoire choices for you; spend your practice time communing with the music that you love. Rather than trying to force your musicianship into some kind of rigid, self-imposed mold, drop the word “should” from your piano playing and let your heart direct you into passionate relationships with the music that you're born to play. And when those pieces become as natural to you as your own heartbeat, you will offer authentic artistry to the world.