To some of the pianists auditioning, our choices may seem arbitrary, or random. I believe they’re not. From the jury’s side of the table, it’s frequently very clear — who we should accept into the school and to whom we should say, “No.”
The members of the committee (all of us are pianists) do not always agree. But, it’s often surprising to me — even concerning — how closely matched are our estimates of a talent, of the potential of an applicant to do something more.
Cases of disagreement among the score-givers are occasionally heated. It’s seldom about mistakes. The musicians who play for us may be obsessed with playing perfectly. And we notice slips. (I even make notations of them.) But, almost without exception, wrong notes or a memory lapse will not keep a student from being accepted.
So what are we looking for? Simply, I’m looking for something. I’m waiting for something to happen — music I can witness with my ears. I prefer music-making that I perceive to be genuine or real. But I’ll even take something that seems overstated, or over-seasoned, instead of playing in which nothing is going on.
It’s fairly frequent to hear quite proficient, even expert piano playing in which “nothing happens.” No musical speech or argument. No questions and answers. No communication.
In the 1970s, Roland Barthes wrote, “For today’s pianist, enormous esteem but no fervor.” Virtuosity he says becomes a “somewhat chilly prowess.” Do we experience that in auditions? After a long day of hearing pianists, a colleague reported, “A lot of excellent playing, but nothing to love.”
Aging musicians have long been complaining about perceived emotional and spiritual deficiencies of the young. I hope I can respond to music making or piano playing unlike my own. And strong artistic personalities can cause controversy.
One of my most gifted students played his graduation exam at Juilliard. Many of the faculty didn’t like his way of playing J. S. Bach’s music. And it crossed my mind: “This playing’s not for us, this is the Bach playing of the future.”