January 20, 2013

André Previn: the very model for a modern music major

André Previn: a useful musician
Careers in music are not what they once were. The old-fashioned notion of what conservatory training prepares one to do is a thing of the past here in the twenty-first century.

I wish all music majors had "gotten that memo"...

When I was a young, skinny, naive undergraduate at Indiana University's School of Music, I majored in piano performance. I had spent my youth practicing the piano, playing in recitals, entering piano competitions; in short, the typical biography of an aspiring pianist. My heroes back then were Van Cliburn (yes, a dubious choice) and Rudolf Serkin (much better).

What did I imagine my future to be? Pretty much a comfortable life of playing classical recitals, dabbling in chamber music, being a soloist with orchestras, as well as making my mark as a piano teacher so I could produce a succession of students bearing the imprint of my musical values.

Pretty dumb, eh?

The model for that sort of career is the great Artur Rubinstein. But in the harsh light of day, how many Artur Rubinsteins are before the public in this day and age?  Rubinstein's fields of activity: he concertized and recorded. Here's what he did NOT do:

  • compose
  • conduct
  • hold a faculty position at a college or conservatory
  • work with singers as vocal coach
  • arrange music
  • write, other than an autobiography
He was a one-trick pony, essentially. He played like a god, and that was enough for him to sustain one of the longest performing careers on record. His repertoire, by the way, was fairly limited. His discography is revealing: not much Baroque, not much Debussy, no Mozart or Haydn; mostly nineteenth-century Romantics. A smidgen of Prokofiev; no Bartok.

The problem: there are still piano majors enrolled in Schools of Music and Departments of Music all over America whose curriculum seems chosen to shape them in the image of Rubinstein. They spend their days sequestered in practice rooms, slaving over repertoire that has already been recorded scores of times by immortal artists; repertoire they will perform for handfuls of people at best in their desultory solo recitals. All the works of the great composers have been recorded many times over - it's becoming increasingly hard to justify a career based solely and exclusively on yet more examination of that repertoire. No piano major will play with greater insight than Brendel; greater virtuosity than Horowitz; greater poetry than Argerich. 

Similar conundrums face aspiring vocalists, string players, and so on.

So what's a young musician to do? What are appropriate expectations and goals for those choosing music in 2013 and beyond?

While Leonard Bernstein is the prototype for a functional modern musician, he belongs to an earlier generation. Rather, I will extol the path taken by a still-living musician; one who is the composer of Virginia Opera's upcoming production of the operatic adaptation of A Streetcar Named DesireAndré Previn.

Previn is not the greatest living composer. He is not the greatest living pianist. He is not the greatest living conductor. His Academy Awards notwithstanding, he is not the greatest living film scorer (hats off to John Williams). He really isn't the greatest living anything, as he would probably admit - he's pretty down to earth, actually.

What is he?

He is versatile.

There appears to be nothing in the realm of music he can't do and do professionally, efficiently and reliably. He is an admirable classical pianist, and one of the great masters of jazz piano. He composes in all genres: solo vocal music, opera, instrumental concertos, film music, orchestral music, ballet, and chamber music. He is a distinguished conductor who has been at the helm of major American orchestras.

At no time did he narrow his focus on one path alone; from his earliest days of music study he was equally enamored of Mozart and Art Tatum; of Viennese Classicism and Hollywood. Now, in his eighties, he can follow his whims and feel useful regardless of where that whim takes him: jamming with a jazz trio in a New York supper club, leading a conducting master class, or accepting commissions for new compositions.

Young pianists: hearken unto my words! Get out of the practice room once in a while! Compose often, even if you think you have no talent. Listen to singers; learn how to accompany them and coach them. Learn a foreign language. Experiment with improvisation. Take voice lessons. Try your hand at directing a small church choir. TAKE CONDUCTING CLASSES, OMG! Pay attention to your theory classes and master those skills. WRITE! IMPROVE YOUR WRITING SKILLS, OMG! Write with impeccable grammar and some sense of style and well-turned phrases. Write about music; start a blog (cough cough). Get a gig accompanying rehearsals for musicals at your local community theater. Learn the basics of orchestration. Play the piano or organ at a church or synagogue or other house of worship in your community.






In short - don't "be like Mike" (as was said in the Jordan era).

Be like André.

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020. Also available at www.amazon.com


  1. this is exactly why I switched my major from piano performance. I don't want to be trapped doing the same thing over and over. I don't want anyone to show me how to play, I want to learn it on my own

  2. re Rubinstein:
    "One-trick pony"?? Wow. In fact, he did play (and record) many Mozart piano concertos, and played them frequently in concerts. He played his contemporaries (don't forget, he was born in 1887), introducing pieces that were controversial in their time (by Ravel and others). He adored chamber music, and played and recorded duets, trios, quartets, and quintets with many of his colleagues over the years.
    His repertory limited?? It was actually huge, but perhaps not as inclusive of as many different composers or eras as those who spread themselves wide and thin, perhaps at the expense of exploring what they play in as much depth as he did. He certainly did not spend his young days "sequestered in practice rooms", but rather partook of life in all its many adventures and delights, read enormous amounts of books, histories, biographies, fiction and non-fiction, which added tremendous insight and emotion to his interpreting of the music he loved. And that's perhaps a key to his choices --- he played only music he loved. He admired and respected Bartok, Haydn, and myriads of other composers. But he chose to play, in an astonishingly vast repertory, only what moved him deeply, and which he also felt he could offer to his audiences in a special way.

  3. I did not read the comments about Rubenstein as deprecatory. The same could be said about many performing concert artists (did Pavarotti do much Baroque? Mozart? 20th century? (Puccini doesn't count!) English? Russian? No to all of these. He did what he did best, and he did it better than almost anyone else -- just like Rubenstein. I think the author's point is that the opportunities for careers like theirs today are almost non-existent (they weren't all that common when these folks were doing their thing!) Even if you end up being a specialist, exposure to a wide variety of things will make you better at what you do. I agree -- BE VERSATILE (says the pianist, organist, coach, accompanist, singer, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, writer, etc....)