While sharing a few beers with my buddy Louis C. Monteverdi a couple of weeks ago, we started (somewhat ruefully), discussing the phenomena of wrong notes in classical piano playing.
Now, please keep in mind, we’re discussing the great classical piano repertoire - by and of the masters. Perfect, peerless, and at times, ludicrously difficult stuff that is nonetheless, very well-known and highly well-thought of.
“Very well known” despite decades– nay centuries!- of tumultuously tortured renditions. As the night wore on, Louis and I formulated that each and every great piece is itself accompanied in a parallel universe, a meta-layer, a Superman Bizzaro World, if you will – by its wrong-note doppelganger; a desperate twin of perfectly formulated wrong notes.
Why does this have to happen? Do we need background checks before the average Joe can even purchase a piano? But given the Jerry Lee lewis factor, maybe it’s just a question of better securing the printed music.
But I digress. Somewhere between the Tequilas and the Buffalo-Wings, Louis and I ultimately came up with Five Categorical Reasons Why Wrong Notes Occur in Piano Recitals. (By the way, to make things sporting, we decided to exclude rampant performance nerves and memory lapses).
- “The Flub! The flub is the fart-in-church, so to speak. It’s unpredictable and indiscriminate. The greatest pianists know it well- and the much lesser ones could give a flying flub. In other words, “flubs happen”.
- “The Learned Wrong Note” This doesn’t happen on the fly (as with “The Flub”). This is much more organic, attributable to poor training and a potentially lethal build-up of ear wax. “Can’t you hear that’s wrong?”, the pianist coach might say. But then there are very early recordings of “great” pianists who evidently adopted wrong notes as part of their own unique styles and interpretations. Not to call anyone out in particular, but check out the first decade of 20th century piano recordings (or rolls) of Vladimir de Pachmann.
- "The Risk Taker” Yes, not all tempos are created equal. You were all set to perform Chopin’s Ballad in G minor, ‘all set’ that is, until you decided you would kick butt in the coda by bombastically and exponentially making it so fast you finally wished they had prematurely closed the curtains and turned off the lights. Aww, and it was your last piece on the program! Well, there goes your encore of that sweet little – and oh so much easier - Schubert, Moments Musicaux.
- "The Technically Outmatched” The cliché is, “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight”. And then there’s” 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. But if the masterwork is a heavy weight- and you’re a welter weight- then it’s best to wait- and come fight another day.
- “Out-of-Focus” No, this is not about memory lapses. This is about your parents, your significant other, or the old geezer who dozed off – all sitting in the first row. And don’t forget the cell phone lady who’s really distracting you. I mean, for god’s sake! You’re trying to barrel through the piano transcription of Stravinsky’s” Petrushka’ and she’s playing Words with Friends. Damn, there goes another marred dissonance!
You really suck, cellphone lady. You really suck!