Piano Probabilities

Seymour Benzer was a great scientist, “whose biography,” said a colleague, “Caltech shines up every year at Nobel Prize time.” An old friend of my parents, and instrumental in my first appointment at Caltech, he once asked, “How do you make a concert career, anyway?” I said, “The best way is to be so accomplished and gifted that you don’t have to ‘make’ anything; the career unrolls itself before you.”

These days, such super-duper performers would include Yo-Yo Ma, Yuja Wang, Lang-Lang, Marta Argerich, Evgeny Kissin, and some others. (This list isn’t for arguing over, but just to convey the idea.) In my parents’ day, pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Jascha Heifitz.

After Einstein heard the 13-year-old Menuhin, he embraced him and exclaimed, “Now I know there is a God in heaven!” And when the Russian-born Heifitz, age 17, burned up the stage at Carnegie Hall, the great violinist Mischa Elman, in the audience, murmured to pianist Leopold Godowsky, “Isn’t it awfully hot in here?” And Godowsky smiled. “Not for pianists.”

“For the rest of us,” I explained to Seymour, “winning a major international competition is a good step.” (Not that I ever did). Of course, many are won by the Super-Dupers, with lesser players hoping to pinch one the way a merely superb chess player might grab a title when Fischer or Kasparov don’t stoop to compete.

“But even winning a competition” (I served up the bad news) “doesn’t do much for you without a catalyst like the unique political-cultural context surrounding Van Cliburn’s win at the Tchaikovsky Competition. Or a dispute.” When jury and audience, or factions of the jury, disagree on the merits of the contestants, it makes for great publicity; and everybody wants to judge those performers for themselves. “That,” I told Seymour, “sells tickets!”

At the Montreal International Piano Competition, when the list of contestants making it into the finals was read at midnight on my birthday, and the alphabetical order passed me by, two audience members called out, “Boyk! You skipped Boyk!” A professional musician from the area told me, “All the musicians in town are here, and we’re all keeping lists of our favorites. And you’re number one of all the lists I’ve seen.” But these meant nothing; generated no publicity. Pleasant memories, though.

“Coming down to everyday reality” (I offered gleanings from my pre-YouTube struggles, wondering what Seymour was making of it all), “you can fund your own concerts in places with a chance of big audiences and major reviews” (“Expensive!” he said) “then accumulate 50 or 100 raves from the USA, UK and Europe. Praise from ‘outside’—from Europe if you’re in the USA, from the East Coast if you’re on the West Coast, (from Microsoft, I wouldn’t be surprised, if you work for Apple)—is more potent than ‘inside’ praise.”

Reviews in hand, in those days, you approached the managers who could get you bookings by the power of their rosters. (“You can have Rubinstein,” they’d crack the whip on a concert series, “if you take three unknowns.”) One pianist’s mother—not at all a ‘stage mother’—was convinced that Sol Hurok put her son on the roster merely to keep him out of competition with pianists already on the list.

I added another aspect of everyday reality: “Be alert for opportunities.” I thought I saw one when Sandor Kallai, director of Meadowbrook, the Detroit Symphony’s summer home, complimented me after a recital in Michigan. He talked to others for a while, then returned to compliment me again; so I figured he meant it. “Thank you, Mr. Kallai,” said I. “Why don’t you engage me for Meadowbrook?”

“Oh ho ho, young man,” said he, “I couldn’t engage you unless your career were to take a sudden upward leap.”

“Mr. Kallai,” said I, “your engaging me would constitute a sudden upward leap!” He laughed two “ha”s’ worth; and you’ve never seen a laugh cut off so sharply as when he turned and walked away.

At an Affiliate Artist conference on Long Island, I was talking about performance and education to a man who seemed as enthusiastic about my ideas as I was. He was the director of the Music Program of the National Endowment for the Arts! And he invited me to apply for a grant! “For once, Boyk,” I remember thinking, “you’re in luck. They say grants come where the funding organization initiates the contact.” I worked hard on the proposal, submitted it to NEA, and—was turned down flat.

At one point, I asked advice from artist manager Mariedi Anders. “Tell me, my dear,” she asked, “how many bookings you arranged for yourself this season.” I told her. “My advice to you, my dear, is, Continue to do exactly as you are doing. You are doing much better for yourself than I could possibly do.” She said that for the well-regarded European pianist Walter Klien, she’d been able to arrange zero American bookings that season.

I shared an insight with Seymour: “You know what the problem is? There’s only a finite amount of money available to pay performers, and an infinite pool of performers competing for that money.”

“As soon as I put it that way to myself,” I told him, “it was obvious that I should stop competing for that money and generate new money instead. Skip the concert series and the artist manager! Go direct to the audience by creating a TV series. Do for classical music what Julia Child did for French cooking. People who liked me on TV (this was before “liking”) would demand to hear me in concert. A career would roll itself out before me!

All this had been adding up in Seymour’s mind; and now I saw the light bulb go on above his head; and he said, “I get it! You can’t assign a probability to success!”

“Seymour,” I said, “that’s exactly right!”

“Assign a probability” means say how likely something is to happen. If it’s a certainty, the probability is 1. If it’s guaranteed not to happen, the probability is 0. Otherwise, it’s somewhere between 1 and 0. If “the odds are 50-50,” the probability is .5. What Seymour meant was that trying to make a career as a performer is so complex and uncertain that you can’t even say what the probability is!

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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