Michael Houstoun
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JUDGING PIANO PLAYING – an after dinner speech given on 6 July, 2006 at the Kerikeri National Piano Competition.

Good evening, everyone!

When I was asked to speak at this fine occasion Ian Munro was still the judge of the competition. I decided quite quickly that I would talk about the judging of pianists, but in a way that couldn’t be construed as trying to suggest to Ian how he should judge. I didn’t get very far with that before learning Ian was no longer coming to Kerikeri and that I would be the judge. This meant that my more generalised and probably somewhat more equivocal speech could become a much more personal statement, something resembling a manifesto. Given that I have no taste for lecturing – either as giver or receiver – I wasn’t displeased about this. I’m not here to tell you how to judge, but to tell you how I judge. And I think it is fair to say that I speak entirely as a performing pianist and a veteran of many competitions.

After our competitive life is over, which usually occurs around age 30, we look back and say “music is non-competitive, it is not about being better than someone else”. Yet we competed to help find out where we fit amongst our peers, knowing too that a place in the finals is a great encouragement that is hard to find elsewhere, and that first prize in a big competition can cement a career.

So alas we are hypocrites when we compete and at the same time say competing is rubbish. But there is also truth in saying that, on a certain level, musicians can not be compared. For me, that level is the deepest and most important level, perhaps even the defining level of a musician’s quality.

But let us start at the beginning and consider things that do allow for comparison – like, for example, technique or the mechanical aspects of piano playing.

For me this is the most basic level - getting what is written on the score on to the piano. First there are the notes themselves. There are usually hundreds, if not thousands, of them and credit is due to the pianist who can play the greatest number of them accurately. Wrong notes misrepresent the composer’s intention and, even when played with the greatest conviction and superb tone, act as a demerit, however minor. Of course there are more than just notes on a score (although not much more in the case of J.S.Bach!) and part of technique is the realisation of these other markings. Is the pianist observing phrasing marks, articulation marks, dynamic marks, speed indications, rests and pauses?

So far so good. For the experienced adjudicator this part is easy and these technical parameters will be used to sort the competitors into a certain heirarchy of merit, a heirarchy that will often hold steady throughout a competition of several rounds.

If I may digress a little at this point, I often felt as I grew into my vocation that in NZ there was a considerable suspicion of accuracy. Mastery of the printed score was seen as a statement of unmusicality, almost as a confession of coldness. No doubt there is a certain kind of mechanical accuracy which offers nothing more, but at the same time you will be hard-pressed to find a truly great pianist who doesn’t play with a very high degree of accuracy. The prejudice against it here – for many years directed horribly at young musicians from Asia, as if they were all the same – I think stemmed from the amateur approach to music-making which was all there was for quite a long time after European settlement began. But perhaps people always find it hard to accept that a tough mind and a warm heart can live side by side in the same person.

Anyway, after technique, then what?

Now we move into less well-defined areas and the subjectivity of the judge will come into play to a larger degree. We might call these areas musical understanding, musical imagination and the creation of mood.

Most music worthy of the name ‘good music’ is well-structured. Leaving aside for a moment the extreme, perhaps slightly inhuman, structuring of mid-20th century serial techniques, we can still talk about the very tightly-argued structure of a 4-voice fugue, or the beautiful mythical template of sonata form, or the exquisite design of a short Schumann childhood scene, or even the cogency of works designated fantasies. These structures can be described with ease by a well-schooled musician, but it is another thing to play them so that they speak just as clearly without words. I think it boils down to relating the parts to the whole, playing each theme, phrase or transition so that it belongs. I appreciate of course that this idea presupposes, perhaps somewhat rashly, a sense of the ‘whole’. But without these relationships there is something unsatisfying about even the most beautifully played sequence of bits. If a structure is properly played it leaves the feeling that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

As for imagination, what do you do when a composer, in this case Claude Debussy, writes at the beginning of one of his Preludes:

Ce rythme doit avoir la valeur sonore d’un fond de paysage triste et glacé?

This translates roughly as “This rhythm must have the sonorous value of…or must evoke…a depth or expanse of countryside, sad and frozen”. It is essentially the only instruction the imaginative pianist needs to understand this extraordinary piece, but it will be forever unrealisable for a pianist lacking imagination.

The creation of mood brings in the idea of appropriateness, for me a crucial element in the successful performance of any piece of music - an element only available to pianists who listen to themselves and who are governed by their musical feelings. The application of these imaginative emotions is only truly potent when it produces a mood that rings true. There is no merit in playing the Chopin ‘Military’ polonaise in a dreamy manner, or Schumann’s ‘Traumerei’ as a feverish nightmare. Not that there aren’t daring interpretations that come off, but there seem to be invisible lines drawn…not least the line between self-realisation and self-indulgence. More often though the problem is one of no mood rather than the wrong mood. Even fugues have a mood although they are usually played as if they don’t .

Perhaps at this point I could mention the part memory plays in a performance, or should I say the failure of memory in a performance. Because I am only too aware of the difficulty of holding large pieces of music in one’s memory I am lenient towards competitors who have problems in this area. Of course, it doesn’t do to keep breaking down, and those who play without lapses have an advantage over those who forget. But credit can be fairly given for rapid recovery, for continuing as if it hadn’t happened. There was a time not that long ago when performers always used the music. I’m not sure who began the fad of playing from memory….probably Franz Liszt who I don’t think forgot anything he had heard or seen once….but frankly he did none of us a favour!

So, now that we have note accuracy, accurate reading of the score, structural sense, musical imagination, appropriateness, what remains? Might I suggest two things, one outward which we can call personality, and one inward which we can call substance or essence. We have reached the area where judgement becomes much more problematic, comparison a subjective minefield.

I have always had the impression that a great number of people who go to concerts want to experience the personality of the performer, they want to watch as much as listen, they are interested in mannerisms and especially like it if the performer addresses the audience. Some performers have very vibrant and winning personalities, great onstage charm, can talk non-stop for hours. How are they to be compared to performers who seem to have absolutely no interest in such things, who come out, bow, sit down and play and then depart? One of the greatest pianists ever, Sergei Rachmaninoff, was famous for playing without any movement of his features….he showed none of his emotion through his face, he sat like an impassive statue. Yet his playing was riveting. Glenn Gould on the other hand sat extremely low which put his body into unorthodox positions, he moved his hands all over the place, sang and hummed. His playing was also riveting.

I hope it is not unreasonable for me to declare here that in general I am not much interested in the personality of a performer except as it is revealed in the music itself. Mostly at concerts I close my eyes after the first few minutes. I am much more interested in those inward qualities which I called substance or essence.

We can approach these rather vague ideas by looking at some more-readily graspable qualities which also hint at the inner life of a performer. Sincerity of feeling is one of my favourites. Self-possession is another. Neither of these can arise without a measure of humility, so that is another. But even these qualities can still be compared to some degree.

So what comprises this mysterious essence which moves a performer beyond comparison? Firstly I would suggest it has something to do with naturalness - the performer is somehow doing what is right for them and them alone – there is no strain and yet the playing is full of aspiration. I might also suggest that this essence is entirely non-verbal….it is only concerned with a musical language. This language is, in my vocabulary, spiritual, and its purpose is to convey information, just like any other language….but in the case of music that information is spiritual, to do with Being and Awareness.

Natural, non-verbal, and awake….literally beyond compare, even though no two essences are identical.

So, how to choose in the final analysis, when we find ourselves with two pianists who are on a technical par, who manifest imagination and understanding to a similar degree, who are not wilfully eccentric? This is quite a well-known nightmare for judges and we dread it. We have to look to the inner life of the performer and, if we truly believe in ourselves as musicians, we will likely choose the one that “most suits us”, the one that is our “cup of tea”….we will choose the spirit that is closest to our own.

If this is the case, the onus on the competition itself is to find an adjudicator who has shown themselves to have a worthy musical perception, and to avoid candidates who have shown themselves as wilful or obtuse (Rachmaninoff would probably make a better judge than Gould!). It should be someone too who not only understands a considerable amount about music itself, but is entirely aware of the special considerations involved in its performance….playing is not the same as knowing. (But nor is this the time to get into the problems with the universities!)

That I should be asked to judge this year is an honour and a privilege, I shall look forward to every minute of it, I shall listen as hard as I can, I shall back myself, and I shall hope that you will all enjoy the result.



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