So, you want to be a virtuoso soloist in classical music? No, this is not like that trick Carnegie Hall joke (customer in taxi asks driver how to get to Carnegie Hall, driver says “practice, practice, practice!”). Classical musicians have several options for pursuing a career in music, and virtuoso soloist is only one. None of the options is easy, either. But virtuoso soloist can be next to impossible. And yet, musicians still try.
In my Perceval series of novels, the main character, Evan Quinn, is an orchestra conductor who works with soloists when he conducts. One of his good friends, Vassily Bartyakov, is a young pianist who is just starting out on his career, and he wants to be a soloist. One path for a young musician to build a solo career is to come to the attention of a well respected and sought after conductor who could request her for solo gigs with orchestras he conducts. Evan had already begun to function in that role for Vassily by the end of Perceval’s Secret. Conductors, however, don’t support just any musician. The aspiring soloist really has to have the talent and the drive to succeed. The soloist’s life is as tough and lonely as that of a conductor and requires total dedication and really an obsession with the music and the work. When I was studying piano in college, I was thinking of pursuing a solo career. I’m grateful that I realized at that time that I did not have the drive to achieve it. Saved me a lot of time and heartache.
On Sundays at noon, I listen to a radio program on Minnesota Public Radio called From the Top that showcases kids performing classical music on the instruments of their choice. I love this show. Host Christopher O’Riley, a virtuoso soloist pianist, encourages them, supports their aspirations, and sounds like he revels in their demonstrated talent. This show travels around the country and even abroad, and occasionally, as it did yesterday, does updates on some of the musicians they have showcased in the past — what are they doing now kind of thing. It must be gratifying to all involved with this show that so many of the young musicians go on to achieve music careers — some as orchestra musicians, some as soloists, opera singers, or teachers. This show also proves the Cassandras wrong that classical music is dead or dying. These kids are passionate about the music, and they have the drive to succeed. They provide the pressure from below to keep the momentum going for classical music to endure.
One musician really caught my attention yesterday: Natasha Paremski. She’s a 27-year-old pianist who was on From the Top as a teen. Her career has developed into a virtuoso soloist career — something that can be especially difficult for a pianist because there are so many of them out there — and it was interesting to listen to her talk about her teen years, the decisions she made in order to achieve what she wanted. She talked about the necessity of being obsessed with technique, with developing virtuosity, as a teen, and the work necessary to do that. She took a different route than usual — kids usually stay in school and go on to attend a conservatory or music school. But not Paremski. She dropped out of high school (got her GED later) in order to concentrate on the piano and her obsession. She knew exactly what she wanted to do. I thought: Wow, she definitely had/has the drive to be a virtuoso soloist.
As a twentysomething, Paremski’s focus began to change in her piano work. She found herself focusing more on the music, on the sound she was making and asking if it was what the composer had wanted, and realizing that technique was only a part of piano performance. But once she had the technique mastered enough, then she was ready to move into the much more difficult area of “interpretation.” This is really not a good word for what musicians do — they study a music score, the musical language that the composer has used, and the signs the composer has left in notation that will help them bring the music’s sound to listeners’ ears the way the composer wanted it. Paremski confessed that now pieces that she had thought she’d mastered were now even more difficult than they’d been before because each time she studied them, she learned something more from them. This is another indication that Paremski is a true virtuoso soloist. To plunge into the music’s depths is the real work for a musician, and technique is only the top few steps down into the music. Now I’m looking forward to attending Paremski’s performance with the Minnesota Orchestra this coming fall.
If you’d like to listen to Paremski for yourself, you can listen to yesterday’s program here.
Every Sunday at noon, From the Top confirms my decision not to pursue a music career because I hear the kids perform and talk about music with such a passionate obsession and drive that I did not have at that age. They really are necessary characteristics for a musician to have in order to succeed in a music career — I think that’s probably also true for all artists, even writers…..