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How To Become A Concert Pianist

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One of the more intriguing things about playing the piano is the possibility of playing the instrument for a living. Many people wonder how to become a concert pianist though because the path forward is not always so clear.

Being a concert pianist myself, I can help share some of my own personal experiences so that you know what it takes to start a career and maintain it! Below are 9 important things to know and do if you want to become a successful concert pianist.

How To Become A Concert Pianist

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1. Receiving The Proper Training

A concert pianists career weighs heavily on the training they get from the very start. A good piano teacher will help mold the pianist into the type of player they want to be.

It’s important that you invest in a high-quality piano teacher from the very beginning. Make sure to check their credentials first.

Also, have a conversation with the teacher and be realistic about the goals you can achieve together. These are some qualities you should look for in a good piano teacher.

Most concert pianists have taken their studies up to the collegiate level at major universities and music academies. You should expect to study with someone for at least 15 to 20 years as you develop your skills.

Regardless of which teacher you have, there are a few crucial skills you will need if you plan to make piano playing your career.

Some of the important skills to solidify in the early years of piano training include:

  • Sight Reading
  • Rhythm
  • Composition and Theory
  • Technique

Each of those four skills is crucial to a pianists development, especially if they want to play professionally. Let’s look at the impact sight reading first.

Sight Reading

Whether it’s accompanying work, getting ready for a music audition, or preparing your own solo recital, sight reading is probably the most crucial skill on this list.

This is the ability to quickly decipher a piece of music; breaking it down into rhythms, harmonies, and tempo.

Pianists who sight read well are able to pick up a piece of music and read through it rather quickly and often error-free. This is a skill that needs to be developed early because concert pianists are always under strict deadlines when learning new repertoire.

In a fast-paced concert career, there just isn’t enough time to spend 4 to 7 hours practicing each day to perfect a piece. With good sight-reading skills, concert artists are able to pick up difficult music rather quickly.

This allows talented pianists take on commissioned works, enter rigorous competitions, and fill in for ailing musicians when those opportunities arise. Read this article to learn how to improve your sight reading skills.

Rhythm

Rhythm skills are important too. There are many pianists out there who play beautifully but cannot hold a steady tempo.

Being able to control not only the consistency of the tempo but also reading very difficult rhythms as you would find in a Rachmaninoff piano concerto is important. A lot of the more advanced concert repertoire centers on meter change, rubato, and playing lyrically.

As a concert pianist, the last thing you want is to struggle with rhythms everytime you learn a new piece. Instead, you could put that time towards memorization and adding character to the work.

Composition And Theory

Composing is an often overlooked skill to learn early on in your piano studies. This involves making up your own music. This can be done either through improving or actually writing music out on staff paper.

In order to become proficient at this, pianists will need to have a basic understanding of music theory. Understanding how harmonies work with one another, musical form and much more can help greatly with the interpretation of a piece.

While all pianists will not become composers, being able to write your own music means that you truly understand how your concert repertoire is structured.

It’s much easier to pick a piece apart during practice and find creative ways to learn it when you have this skill.

Occasionally if you decide to do a lot of accompanying you may need to amend your music as well. It’s not uncommon for pianists to add notes, or to create their own cadenzas to some of Mozart’s music just to use as an example.

Those with true artistry are not just married to the sheet music. Instead, the more gifted artists find ways to bring out their own interpretations while still paying respect to the composers.

Technique

A pianists technique is the biggest attention grabber for the audience. Being able to execute a chromatic run to perfection is just a highlight of some of the worlds top pianists.

To develop flawless technique means to establish a consistent routine early on. Piano technique is something that can falter if it’s not maintained even in the later years of a career.

Pianists should have a firm grip on all of their scales, triads, formula patterns, doubled chords and even musical articulations.

When a piece of repertoire calls on something difficult, pianists need to be able to execute that easily. If those skills are not developed during the early years of training, it may take a pianist much longer to bring their music to performance level.

Many of the beginner piano books like these build on those skills from the very beginning. A good piano teacher will be able to help you figure out the correct way to position your hand and arms so that you can play those difficult passages with ease.

Piano technique is something that has to always be refined. Most concert pianists are very skilled in this area, although not all of them are well versed in every aspect of technique.

For example, some pianists excel at scalar passages while others excel in other areas of technique. Overall though, most successful pianists have a well-balanced offering.

2. Practice On A Quality Piano

The quality of the piano a pianist practices on is important. Poor pianos with badly regulated action and that are not regularly tuned can have negative effects on one’s development.

It’s tough to develop a unique tone or even execute certain technical difficulties if the pianist is using a bad instrument. Some characteristics of a bad piano include:

  • Bad pedals
  • The inability to stay in tune
  • Unresponsive piano keys
  • Bad voicing
  • Significant age

The top piano brands to work with include Steinway and Yamaha; see the differences between the two pianos here. These piano brands consistently offer stellar hammer action and amazing sound quality.

They are the brands most played by concert pianists in the worlds leading concert halls. Other brands that are steadily making a presence with concert pianists include Fazioli and Bosendorfer just to name a few.

Owning a Steinway or Yamaha requires a huge investment. Most Steinway pianos cost well north of $50,000 to purchase brand new. Yamaha has a better price point, but overall most families do not have that kind of money to invest early in a child’s piano development.

As long as you have a quality piano, it will do fine for developing a musician to be successful in the future.

It’s fine to start a beginner pianist with an upright piano that is regulated and in good condition. As far as maintenance goes, it’s important that the piano is tuned regularly.

Eventually, as a pianist develops they are going to need the action and repetition speed that only a grand piano can produce. Some great entry level grand pianos are the Brodmann CE175 or the Boston and Essex models produced by Steinway.

If you cannot afford an acoustic piano, digital pianos like the ones I mention here are great alternatives. Many digital pianos now actually have realistic hammer mechanisms built into them so that they can replicate the action of a real acoustic piano.

While it’s not perfect, it’s definitely better than going with a cheap keyboard. Digital pianos are great for the beginner stages, but eventually, an advanced pianist is going to need to upgrade to a real instrument to speed up their learning.

3. Booking Your Own Piano Concerts

Getting your start in the performing circuit takes a lot of time and effort. Generally, aspiring pianists will have to book their own concerts if they do not already have a form of artist representation.

Booking your own concerts is not as hard as it may seem, although it can be a time-consuming task. There is a lot of work involved and it’s easy to miss something if you’re in a rush. Let’s have a look at the common tasks involved with booking concerts.

Developing A Concert Program

One of the best ways to get booked is to have a compelling recital program. A good way to do this is to study other concert pianists and to see what they are playing in your area.

Try to curate a program based on what the audiences are drawn to hearing. Add this repertoire to your list, film a promotional video and have that ready to send via email.

Contact Venues and Promoters

Once you have a program ready to present, it’s time to contact venues and promoters. This can be done either through email, letter or by making phone calls.

Without artist representation you can expect to get turned down by the majority of the larger venues (more on this later), however, you can build a resume through smaller options.

This includes church concert series, music festivals, and private recitals. These opportunities are just as important, and they will help build significant performance experience and credibility.

Creating a press kit, CD’s and other materials

It’s best to look professional when presenting yourself to venues, promoters, and audiences. Create a professional press kit that lists all of your accomplishments, has professional photos, and other useful information.

When promoters have this information ready to go, they are more likely to move forward with a booking. After concerts, it’s a great idea to have CD recordings available for sale.

This helps drive additional income to you and also helps with spreading your name to the public. Other materials you may want to offer are signed photographs and concert memorabilia.

Negotiating artist fees

Once an agreement to perform a show is in place, it’s time to negotiate artist fees. Some promoters will pay the artist an upfront fee and collect ticket sales on the backend.

Other cases involve the artist collecting a percentage of those sales as well. That typically means the artist is paying some sort of venue fee to rent the recital hall, have access to the piano and a stage manager.

The money is then recouped through those ticket sales, so I only suggest this if you think you can fill seats!

If you’re just starting out with church concert series of small venues, it’s a good idea to do a donation based concert. In this case, the venue is offered for free and the artist performs and collects donations.

I’ve performed many concerts using that model and have made significantly more than my normal booking fee at times. It’s a low-risk method for booking concerts, and most of the pressure falls on the host to produce an audience for you.

Booking travel and hotel accommodations

Other fees that can be negotiated include travel and hotel accommodations. Smaller venues will simply not have the budget for this, so expect to come out of pocket for this expense. If you find that the math doesn’t add up or this risk is too great, don’t book the show.

It’s best to book as many local concerts as you can to minimize the gas and flight costs associated with a busy performance schedule. To avoid hotel costs it’s best to see if you have a friend or relative you can stay with nearby the concert venue.

Promoting via social media and websites

After a concert is booked, it’s time to promote yourself. Share your concert dates on social media and also post it to your website. Something as simple as sharing a post on Facebook can draw significant attention to your show.

The best ways to fill small concert halls especially is through word of mouth, not just paid ads. Keeping your profiles up to date also makes you look active as a concert artist no matter what stage of the process you are currently in.

4. Acquiring Artist Representation

Exceptional classical pianists will someday want to acquire artist representation. This can be a full management team or just a personal agent.

With a management team, you have someone who can take care of everything you need. This includes booking your concerts, negotiating fees, making phone calls, responding to urgent messages and much more.

You as the concert pianist will only need to worry about practicing and preparing yourself for whatever performances arise. The other benefit of having artist representation is that it gets your foot in the door with concert venues.

In fact, most large venues won’t even acknowledge you unless you have representative pitching you. Artist management can be obtained a number of ways, but the services can be expensive.

Some will charge a flat fee, while others will want a percentage of the concert revenue; usually 20% or more.

5. Enter An International Competition

Entering an international competition is almost a must if you want to make it as a concert pianist. Competitions provide an enormous amount of exposure, even if you don’t win the top prize.

Whether that’s the Van Cliburn, Honens, Liszt, or Chopin competitions, the entire process is rigorous. Pianists prepare for years and the field of entrants is always very skilled.

Most competitions have multiple rounds, masterclasses and other networking opportunities worked into the model.

A big reason why many pianists enter international competitions is to win artist management or an agent.

Competitions offer access to these resources for free as part of their grand prizes, but those who compete well also tend to get signed to contracts and recording projects.

With the rise in video technology, many competitions are streamed online. This gives the competitors a ton of exposure and can help build fan bases rather quickly.

To prepare for a piano competition, a pianist needs really good teaching, plenty of performing experience, and tough skin. Competitions can be very overwhelming, and some really great pianists don’t show well under those circumstances.

While not an absolute requirement to become a concert pianist, entering a competition of any sort is a major propeller for those who want big careers.

There is always some level of controversy with piano competitions. Most of them have strict requirements when it pertains to jury members and if their pupils can or cannot enter the competition.

Also, there is some bias with some international competitions. As a pianist trying to make it, your focus needs to be on being the best you can be in that moment and working your network opportunities just as much as you want to win.

6. Promote Yourself On YouTube And Social Media

Pianists like myself who do not perform in many international competitions decide to build our brands in a different way. Through YouTube, social media, and websites, you can reach a lot of potential fans.

YouTube is the best place to place your professional recordings. Pianists can record just about anything, upload it, and then share that video on social media. In conjunction with one another, this can lead to a ton of exposure if the video gains some virality.

You never know which videos will get viral exposure, so record as much as you can and keep sharing it everywhere to help them get traction. You can truly build a fanbase on these platforms and then market your concert schedule and services to them.

Once you’ve gotten enough video views and subscribers, you can turn your YouTube profile into a partnership account. This allows you to earn an income from YouTube ads on your videos which can be helpful in other areas of your career.

7. Expand Your List Of Repertoire

It’s tough to break through as a concert pianist playing the same repertoire everyone else is playing. It’s also tough to break through if you don’t know enough of the major piano works that draw money into major concert halls.

A concert pianist should always be looking to expand their list of repertoire whenever possible. For every standard classical piece you add to your list, consider adding newer classical pieces too. There is demand for 20th-century works and various styles too.

Chances are that a majority of your piano concerts will be with an orchestra because that draws the biggest audiences and more revenue.

The more concerti you have in your profile, the easier it is to get booked for future performances. If your repertoire list is too focused, you could be eliminating yourself from the start.

It’s also a good idea to learn more collaborative works, not just solo piano repertoire. Collaborations provide bigger audiences and lead to more concert bookings.

The more you network with other musicians around the world, the more chances you will have to play together. Spend some time learning piano quartets, vocal works, and other unique ensembles that feature the piano.

8. Network With Other Concert Pianists

Playing the piano for a living can be a very individual profession. That’s why when you have an opportunity to connect with other concert pianists, it’s important you take advantage of it.

Concert pianists who work together have a better chance at making a name for themselves. It’s always a good idea to connect with other professionals in the field because that helps spread your reach to other audiences.

You can work on special recording projects together, participate at music festivals, and much more together.

A pianist who is doing well can refer you to an orchestra, or a venue and vouch for your expertise at the instrument. The biggest benefit of networking with other concert pianists is for doing promotions, sharing advice with one another, and developing unique recitals.

9. Be Patient And Set Realistic Goals

Becoming a concert pianist is a long term project, and there are many steps along the way. Pianists have to constantly practice patience and analyze their goals on a regular basis to push forward in their careers.

The worst thing you could do is to try and rush the process by overspending, learning more repertoire than you can handle, booking too many shows and entering way too many competitions.

That not only can put you into debt, but the workload will become too much to handle if you haven’t developed well as a player.

Pianists should be selective and spend their time and money in areas that best position for success. If you can only afford a certain type of piano, then you need to make that work to the best of your ability instead of overspending.

Ultimately the biggest impact on your career will come down to your training and how you market yourself. Building a brand takes time, and you should not expect to build a huge fanbase overnight.

Careers take some time to build, so it’s a good idea to have several small milestones in mind on the way to your ultimate goal of performing for a living.

Make a list of what your accomplishments are so far. Take notes on who your teachers were, and where you have developed so far and what areas of your playing need improvement.

Next look at your accomplishments and write down what’s missing. Do you need to enter a competition still, or perhaps you need more musical studies?

Self-analysis is the best way, to be honest with where you are right now as a pianist and set a realistic goal for where you want to be.

How Long Does It Take To Learn Piano - Joshua Ross

Wednesday 30th of January 2019

[…] At this level of skill, it’s a lot less about learning how to play the piano and more about creating diverse programming, networking, collaborating with orchestras and other instrumentalists and staying engaged. This is what it takes to become a concert pianist. […]