I am again watching the Cliburn live webcasts. So interesting and captivating and, yes, addictive! I’m enamored with some of the musicians. Distracted by one (and if you are watching it too you probably know exactly who I’m talking about!).

So now I’m pondering how we listen. When we listen to an anonymous recording all we have is the music. Nothing more. We don’t even have to know who the players are. We can “merely” focus on the music making. If I do know who is playing, I might be visualizing the musician(s), but I’m obviously only using my past memories and who knows if the player is really doing what I’m picturing. But still, that may influence how and what I hear.

But listening and watching is another thing entirely. I believe I hear differently. If someone looks uncomfortable, I’ll hear the work with some discomfort. If someone is doing bizarre things with his (or her) eyebrows, mouth or other body parts I’m going to be distracted and possibly even annoyed. If someone’s hair is stuck to her lips, I am distracted (and in the case of a wind player, I’m concerned!). I can sometimes see what looks to be fear, or anger, or even boredom. (And yes, of course I could be misreading, but I’m fairly good at reading faces.)

I think at least one of the Cliburn players deliberately makes the most bizarre facial expressions. Perhaps he thinks he looks more musical that way? But truly, he needs to watch a video and see if it’s working for him. It’s off putting for me. I finally stopped looking and only listened. Unfortunately he’s also very much a showman and note accuracy was less important than the wildness he was trying to pull off. (It was interesting to read some of the comments at the Cliburn blog, and see that some of the writers — some of whom appear to be performing pianists — think that one doesn’t always need to play the correct notes.)

Another player, and this one clearly can’t remain unnamed since you’d figure it out immediately, is blind. Obviously everyone who is following the competition knows I’m writing of Nobuyuki Tsujii. Do I hear him differently because I’m so moved by his story and by the joy I see on his face when he is taking his bows? I’m guessing so. I know one reader here didn’t care for him … and I never trust my opinions. So now I think I’m probably not being a very good judge. (I’d be a rotten critic, that’s for sure!)

I am, in fact, listening to him right now, playing Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. I’m not watching … just listening. But of course the past images are probably influencing me a bit in how I hear. Or even more than a bit.

I hope my blogging about this has caused some of you to tune it. It really has been great fun.


  1. I honestly don’t think Bozhanov’s expressions are all that deliberate – though they definitely qualify as bizarre. I think he’s just the kind of musician who wears his feelings and reactions to the music on his face and in gestures. I’m definitely in a minority here, but I even enjoyed his Rach 2 – honestly, I thought it was much more compelling than Nobu’s, whose Appassionata right now is so interesting to me that I’m taking the time to comment here. I’m sorry, that’s rude. I think Nobu is wonderful and I love much of his playing, but his approach to this kind of dramatic rep is just different than what I want to hear. I’ve honestly had the thought several times during this Beethoven performance that I’d love to hear what Bozhanov would do to this sonata. For the record, they’re both MUCH better than I am!

  2. I wonder if part of my problem is that I don’t much care for the over the top rep in the first place! Dunno. But I definitely struggle with Bozhanov. (Perhaps it reminds me of experiences I’ve had with soloists who do this sort of thing, too …?)

    Anyway, I’m bummed that I’ll be missing the big announcement of winners. Stupid work!

  3. Let me tell you, the awards ceremony was a bit of a trial to watch. Endless, boring speeches that make me value more highly Bozhanov’s quote, “You know, I don’t like to tell about music. It’s a big experience; it’s not to explain with words. It’s impossible to tell you.” Bob Schieffer spent way too much time trying to “explain with words.” I really wish Bozhanov had been the featured speaker.

    Then, the presentation of the awards was clumsily handled, in part because poor Van Cliburn seemed confused about what was going on. I really felt badly for him. For example, you could clearly hear him speak the silver medalist’s name before saying it over the P.A. system. Poor guy.

    But, in the grand scheme of things, a smooth awards ceremony isn’t a big deal. The competition and the webcast were both amazingly well-run.

  4. I, of course, couldn’t watch. I went to the archived videos hoping I could watch it that way but maybe it’s not there. Ah well.

    I truly enjoyed the whole thing, even while I actually hate the whole idea of the competition. I love music making, and it seems like that competitions distract from that. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe pianists love this sort of thing.

    I watched the awards ceremony four years ago and actually got a few nice quotes off of it from Cliburn. Sorry to hear he wasn’t “on” for this one.