An Open Letter to Composers: 6 Reasons Why I Didn't Play Your Piece

Dear Composer:
It’s an accepted fact: most classical pianists prefer to play tried and true masterpieces by famous composers who have been dead for at least 100 years.  It’s frequently what arts presenters want to book us to play, and it’s what audiences understand. The few of us who prefer to play brand new music face daunting challenges—not only do we have the challenge of co-creating a piece of music we’ve never heard before, we must also convince concert presenters and audiences to listen to it and appreciate it too.   And sometimes, no matter how much we may love a composer’s piece, we simply can’t commit to programming it.  Over the years many composers have asked me why I haven’t performed pieces they’ve written; while I can’t speak for all pianists, here are some of my reasons:
The piece is too long. There are several multi-movement works in my music closet that I’d love to play but know I can never convince a concert presenter to allow me to program because they’re just too long.  Most of my audiences are classical music lovers who want a little dash of something new thrown into a musical meal of something they recognize.  If you want me to perform your pieces, send me shorter works.

The piece is too abstract.  This may label me a Philistine, but if the composition doesn’t have a tune and a beat, I don’t connect well with it and (as a result) neither does the audience.

The piece doesn’t fit with the rest of my program. I do most of my concert programming with the idea of creating a seamless experience for the audience because, let’s face it, we’re all in show business.

I’m in a stylistic “phase.” Composers go through compositional “phases”; pianists do as well.  Several years ago I couldn’t play enough tangos.  For the past few years I’ve been obsessed with pieces that blend minimalism and edgy rhythms, as well as stuff that sits on the line between classical and jazz.  Tomorrow? Who knows?

The piece is too hard. I hate admitting to this one, but sometimes the score is so daunting that I can’t muster the enthusiasm to spend a year of my life learning it.  Other times, physical limitations (such as small hands) keep me from being able to do the music justice.

It’s not your best work. Few composers write masterpieces every time they compose.  If the latest piece you’ve sent me doesn’t seem to do you justice as a composer, I simply don’t perform it.  I may be wrong about the piece’s quality, but if I’m not, you’ll thank me for this someday.

This humble pianist wants to “do right” by my composer friends.  I'm grateful for the chance to bring a new composition to life, and I live for those moments when I succeed in catching your vision of the music.  Keep writing, but be patient with my limitations. The next piece just might be that perfect match.

Your biggest fan


Dave Deason said…
A thoughtful and provocative view by a superb interpreter of new compositions. Most composers should be able to come to these same realizations even without being as well articulated as in this letter. Just try submitting your music to performers and check out the results. Even if a composer tries his or her best to incorporate these ideas, there is absolutely no way to guarantee a performance, unless the composer is willing to pay for it. The best policy is to write as much (good) music as you can and keep sending 'em out. Odds are that at least a few takers might be willing to try out the piece and, with luck, perform it publicly. One big problem for performers is that the audience, who may not know the piece, often listens and criticizes the piece rather than the performance. So the poor performer may have spent his or her time and sweat learning the piece, yet gets little or no recognition for their efforts.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
Thanks for your perspective on this, Dave. Introducing new music to audiences is fraught with challenges for both composer and performer, but when it works, there's no "high" like it.