Some pianists are just fed up with their chairs
Conductor Benjamin Zander spoke once in a TED speech in favour of moving the body during piano playing. He praised the movement of the body, claiming that a “one buttock play” is a way of unchaining the music out of the body.
Moving across the piano chair is not as simple as it sounds. The first years of playing music train the young pianist to adapt introvert behavior, as being expressed in his sitting, moving, breathing, and voice making. In classes, the child learns not to sing with the melody. Moving with it is not encouraged. When the child plays at home he is required to sit still at his chair and practice long hours. The body learns how to hold the utterance that music rise in it.
Furthermore, the child learns to play the piano while the body is still small and cannot seize the whole width and height of the piano. He or she can not reach the pedals so they place their feet on a footstool. The chair is a safe place for the young pianist and sitting still is a secure thing to do near the huge instrument. But even when the young pianists grow up they are under pressure of keeping the body still. If they move to much in the concert hall, the audience will accuse them of mannerism and artificial behavior for trying to cover for some musical weaknesses. Zander’s advice only sounds simple.
But some pianists do get some courage and move across the chair. Ethan Iverson, The Bad Plus’ pianist, seems uncomfortable sitting while playing. He bumps on the chair with minor risings and sometimes ends musical sentences with a full standing. His behavior is sincere. He is not trying to get attention by this moving. It seems it is completely driven by the music.
Unlike Iverson, Eric Lewis (AKA ELEW), jazz pianist and a TED star, perfected the standing while playing into a full gimmick. Lewis, whose style is best described by his own label name, NinJazz, is not rising from his chair lifted by the music. He moves the chair out the piano zone, stretches his legs far from each other till he stands at the height of sitting. It is not clear what this position contribute to his music besides a weird show-off. He once referred to this issue in an interview and said that standing like this is painful, but he does it after years of playing for hours with the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. “I was watching the years of my youth melt away while I was sitting at the piano”, he says. So he decided to play while standing.
It should be put straight: it is not comfortable to play standing. Playing seated let the palms the ability to move freely, while playing standing fix them firmly in a stiff position. Having said that, there are still pianists who play while moving a lot and even standing. This raises the question: are we watching an authentic behavior or a manipulation?
One of the pianists that is in the heart of this debate is Keith Jarrett. His physical behavior near the piano rose some vicious criticism blaming him of mannerism. One of his critics wrote once that his rising from the chair is a sign for the audience that a moment with an artistic depth is just happening, so they should be amazed.
Is it really possible to stand up absentmindedly or with an inner force which is not an intended manner? Peter Elsdon, musicologist from Hull University, published an article about the body movement of Keith Jarrett while playing (can be found partly here and fully at the book “Music and Gesture”). As I understand it, Elsdon claims that the music plays Jarrett’s body and not vice versa.
Jarrett has a ritual of sitting quiet by the piano before playing. This can last even a few minutes. After that, he starts improvising. When he plays, his body moves awkwardly, sometimes in a way that seems unrelated to the music being played. Improvising requires the feeling of being free-minded and that feeling is being obtained with the body movement. For Elsdon, the body is an indication for improvising: it resemebles the struggle, the tension and liberation required for such music playing. Elsdon’s insights support Zander’s “one buttock play” advice: moving the body encourage freedom and creativity. As for the audience, if you find it distracting, you can always close your eyes.