Embrace Your Unplayable Piano

Back in 1975, pianist Keith Jarrett reluctantly agreed to play a solo concert that he was certain would be a musical catastrophe. Instead, he made history.

17-year-old Vera Brandes, Germany’s youngest concert promoter at the time, organized a concert for Jarret to play at the Cologne Opera House. At Jarrett’s request, Brandes had selected a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano for the performance.

However, on the day of the concert at the sound check, Jarrett quickly discovered the piano selected for his concert was not what was ordered. It was out of tune, some of its black keys were sticking, the upper register keys were tinny where all their felt had worn away, and most importantly, it was too small and lacked the volume needed to fill the concert hall. Jarrett refused to play the concert with such an unsuitable piano.

It was too late to have the correct Bösendorfer piano delivered to the opera house, so Brandes did all she could to tune and fix the “unplayable” piano. But even with the hours Brandes spent on it, Jarrett refused to play and told her to cancel the sold out concert. With no other options, and her reputation on the line, Brandes begged Jarrett to do the concert. Jarrett looked at this teenager, then thought of the 1,400 people who were planning to show up for this concert, and finally relented. “Never forget,” he told her, “Only for you.”

Jarrett and his music producer set up recording equipment to document the pending embarrassment, so that they could demonstrate how important it was for a musician to have the proper equipment. When it was time, Jarrett went on stage.

Faced with this unplayable piano, Jarrett was forced to improvise, and adapt to the situation at hand. He avoided the harsher upper register keys and stuck to the middle of the keyboard, which resulted in the music taking on a soothing quality. Because the piano was so quiet, he added rolling repetitive riffs in the bass keys to give the music more resonance. He also stood up and pounded down on the keys to make them louder.

“You can hear him moaning with frustration during the concert, but it is amazing,” recalls Jarrett fan Tim Hartford. “The combination of the peacefulness and the dynamism makes this electrifying piece of music.” The concert, as it turned out, electrified audiences far beyond the Opera House. It became best selling solo jazz album of all time, and the best selling piano album of all time.

Jarret was successful not because his raw talent allowed him to dominate and prevail over the piano, but because he remained flexible, and adaptive to the experience. Firstly, he didn’t say no to playing the concert. He accepted his situation and worked to make the best of it, even if that “best” was probably going to be a recording of an awful concert. He dropped preconceived notions of how the concert would go, and instead worked within the piano’s limitations. He used his skills to devise ways to make the piano not only sound better, but actually shine, by creatively building musical tones and melodies that turned the piano’s faults into strengths. Freeing his mind from any expectations around the quality of the output allowed him to truly experiment for the betterment of the piece itself.

Just like with Jarrett’s greatest masterpiece, we often are faced with the unplayable piano. At times it seems like we’ll never overcome the situation we’re faced with, and we resent the limitations life puts on us. When we resist these situations we often find pain, hardship, and emotional discomfort. However, when we embrace the confines of the “piano” and work to make the best of what we have, we are often rewarded with wonderful outcomes that might not have happened any other way.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. How many small businesses were birthed out of someone being laid off? How often have people discovered new leases on life, after finding themselves in a mid-life crisis? How many amazing ideas have been developed in the pressurized space that lies between a rock and a hard place?

Day in and day out, you may be faced with “unplayable pianos.” Sometimes these will be small inconveniences, or mild challenges. Other times, they will be large crises. Regardless, embracing the chaos, rather than resisting, can not only lead you out of the dark; it can bring more light to your life than you might have never thought possible.

Is there something in your life that you want to do, but the circumstances just haven’t felt right? What might happen if you did it anyway? How could you turn those circumstances to your advantage?

“Chaos is the score upon which reality is written.” Henry Miller

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