The demand of concert pianists in today’s world is not quite as large as it was a century or two ago. Today’s world is absorbed in and surrounded by pop music, with classical music only attaining a small, devout group of followers and constantly being pushed to the margins. The average person either goes to their local concert hall once in a blue moon or doesn’t even know it exists. Yet, the number of aspiring concert pianists continues to grow, and only an increasingly small percentage of them become successful concert pianists, while the majority either fruitlessly continue to pursue their dreams while drowning in mounting debt or end up disillusioned and begin working in another field. But for those that end up at the top, the same process can be traced in nearly all of them.
The first step of the process usually begins young. Talent, although not a true indicator of success, can be found in all great pianists. But talent has to be developed. Piano virtuosos of the past were often exposed to music at a very young age, and many of them became precocious four-year-olds who displayed an affinity for the piano. At around six or seven years old, most of them already started performing publicly and were already on the path to becoming a piano virtuoso.
Though all great pianists are talented, not all talented pianists are great. Talent is important in creating a great musician, but it is only the starting point. What’s more important than talent is practice and a desire to get better. At a young age, great pianists already start practicing three hours a day, focusing all their attention on perfecting that one Mozart concerto, Beethoven sonata, and Chopin etude. Practice is vital in distinguishing dedicated pianists from those who are simply talented but lazy. Those who want to achieve fame and recognition as a brilliant concert pianist can never fall prey to procrastination and laziness, as those two qualities will doom any talented pianist from becoming a great virtuoso. Practice takes time and commitment; one is forced to play for multiple hours a day and make great sacrifices in doing so.
With sufficient talent and practice, a pianist can easily get into one of the top music schools in the nation. Schools such as Juilliard and Curtis offer the greatest teachers and are only reserved for those who have the strongest ambitions of being a piano virtuoso. What this means for students is generally a competitive environment, an environment in which every one of your peers is entering prestigious competitions, confining themselves in practice rooms for hours a day, and sacrificing their own health and relationships for a shot at becoming a professional concert pianist. But entering a music school such as Juilliard is the dream of most aspiring pianists. For them, Juilliard is the gateway to the world of the professional musician, and going to Juilliard is the only way they hope to develop their skills as a musician.
However, once at Juilliard, these pianists discover the paradox of being a classical musician. As a piano virtuoso, your only purpose is to somehow use your expression, imagination, and creativity to explore the mythical depths of the art, but you are also expected to play with superlative skill, creating an impeccable rendition of a bunch of black markings on a page that represent some aspect of a composer’s life. While some are able to handle this pressure, and continue to understand the music beyond a given point, others eventually become disillusioned and leave the profession
Upon graduation, some may leave the profession and pursue other desires after realizing that their dream is unattainable. Only the most persistent, dedicated pianists will remain, with only the selected few entering prestigious competitions and being recognized for the countless hours they put into perfecting their craft. This is where the true test begins. Top music schools such as Juilliard and Curtis produce thousands of aspiring concert pianists each year, but only a selected few of them are able to make it into the spotlight. These selected few will go on to win competitions, play with major orchestras, and launch a career of their own. But those that are unable to stand out, those that are amazing yet offer nothing unique in their playing, are forced to forego a passion and pursue something else. But even though they don’t live off music, the process they underwent to become a piano virtuoso pays off and leaves a lasting impression on who they are as a person.