This afternoon I took time out from my workday to practice piano. Because tonight I met with a quartet of like-minded amateur musicians for what was to be the second week of a two-week stint as a guest pianist with their string quartet. We were sight-reading Mozart’s piano quartet in Eb major; and I needed to prepare.
Yes, you’re correct: “sight-reading” means that you pick up the music on the spot and play as you go. And that is just what the others did. But I wouldn’t have gotten very far with that approach. I had to practice to have even a prayer of keeping up. Because the piano part has a LOT of notes! Just look at them:
MORE THAN ONE AT A TIME. In two clefs! With both hands!!! Really, some things are just too much to ask.
Here is the piece we played, in a recording featuring the marvelous pianist Emanuel Ax (with his buddies Isaac Stern, Yo Yo Ma and Jaime Laredo):
And we sounded just like that! Except for tempo, phrasing, tuning, timing, dexterity, rhythm and overall musicality.
The Eb quartet is Köchel number 493, which means that it was Mozart’s 493rd composition. So that means he was maybe 12 at the time. Or perhaps by the time he wrote it, he’d already been dead for five years.
Before this, I have not played chamber music since….ummm….1980. Really. I don’t play piano like I used to. Truly, I was never much good to begin with. But tonight, after a week of (for me) hard practicing, I more or less held my own. My goal was to avoid total humiliation and not to hold the others back. I managed well enough that they invited me back for another round, this time to play the Schumann piano quintet (a lovely piece, Opus 44. When he wrote it, Schumann had been dead for only a year and a half.)
I did hit an awful lot of wrong notes, and some I missed playing altogether. Now this part, I played flawlessly:
But look at this thing:
What ARE those? 32nd notes? 64ths? 256ths? I can’t count that high. And if I can’t count them, there’s no way on earth I can play them.
What would Mozart say to that?
Not a word. Mozart has been dead for a very, very long time. And thus do I forge connections with genius across the centuries: some day I, too, will have been dead for a very, very long time.
Tonight, like last week, was a total pleasure. With or without the 64th notes, playing Mozart is pure delight. Making music with other people may be the most fun thing humans can do. As my teacher Rick Travers likes to say: music, like sex, is simply too good to be left to the professionals.
It is the gift of middle age that I can be fully aware of my limitations and yet remain unburdened by them. No matter how I strive, how many hours I steal from my work day to practice, I will never have been dead for as long as Mozart. And I'm fine with that.
Although if I play my cards right, I still have a shot at being dead longer than Emanuel Ax.