Sunday, July 4, 2010

Instrument comparison: Piano versus cello versus . . .

I've been thinking lately about the differences between playing the piano and playing the cello (as my poor cello sits in a corner while I practice the piano). I came up with a list of my pros and cons:

Piano vs. cello:
  • It's a complete experience -- I do not need to depend on anyone else to play something. Think about it: On an instrument like the cello, you can spend years learning a piece, but then when you are actually preparing to perform it, you get what amounts to a few hours to coordinate with an accompanist, orchestra, or ensemble, and you are pretty much dependent on their level of expertise for the final result.
  • Vast choice of music (Chopin!). A lot of music has been written for the cello, but the literature is miniscule compared with what is available for the piano. Hundreds of pieces by Bach alone! And a large proportion of the piano literature is iconic, containing many monuments to civilization, or at least to Western art music.
  • Much more intellectually challenging. Even for the simplest piece or improvisation, the pianist needs to understand harmony and voicing (emphasizing one line more than the others). When you get into a four-voice fugue, or the thick chromatic harmonies of the Romantics, there is a world of mastery to challenge you. To really play a piece well, you need to memorize it (even if you don't ultimately perform from memory), and memorizing all this complexity takes you to a seriously higher level of mental acrobatics than memorizing anything on the cello.
  • Don't have to carry it around. You would be surprised how limiting the cello's size is on a day-to-day basis. It's small enough to carry, but too large and heavy to just sling on your back. If you want to travel with it, you either have to drive or buy a seat for it on the public transportation of your choice. It's not so easy to just take it to work for an evening rehearsal, so I always end up taking time off to go home and pick it up, or having to come up with complicated plans so I can get from Point A to Point B with the darned thing.
  • Preparation for playing is easy: Just sit down! For the cello, you have to get it out of the case, tune it, find a chair, make sure your endpin doesn't slip, get your music stand situated (and if you're using one in a concert, figure out where to place it so you can see the music but it doesn't get in the way; one of my cello teachers called the music stand "the fig leaf").
Cello vs. piano:
  • Does not require as much practice time. This makes it an excellent instrument for an amateur musician. Now of course, you could spend endless hours on it, but for even above average competence, the minimum necessary practice time is  much less than what you have to spend on the piano.
  • More of a social experience (because it does require collaboration). This is really good from a reality-check standpoint. I know I tend to get twisted up in knots about my playing when I don't have any interactions with the outside world. When I'm practicing the piano and don't play for anyone else or get any feedback, I can either under- or overestimate how I'm doing. When I play the cello in a chamber group, or even in an orchestra, I get an instant reality check both in terms of what I'm hearing and reactions of the other players. There is also a "greater than the sum of its parts" effect: In good circumstances, all of those human brains working toward the same thing can create a better musical experience than just your lone brain.
  • More directly expressive -- you actually touch the strings and feel them vibrate. You really do feel more like you are singing and like the instrument is part of you than when playing the piano, which tends toward the percussive and mechanical (though it doesn't have to, of course).
  • Always perform on the instrument you practiced on (as opposed to the piano, when you generally do not). This is something that gives you more control over what comes out at a concert.
  • You can tune it and do basic maintenance (change strings, adjust the bridge) yourself. With the piano, even when playing on your own instrument at home, you are somewhat at the mercy of piano technicians and tuners.
I think this covers the basics, at least in terms of my opinions. I'd be curious to know if any readers out there have thoughts on this.

For fellow statesiders, I hope you're enjoying the holiday today! 

1 comment:

RyanLee said...

I really like this. I've just started learning to play the cello about a month ago myself, and before i started I was debating between learning piano or cello.

I ultimately chose the cello because I love the idea that the music you are making is more hand crafted. You can use vibrato, pizzacato, and so many bowing techniques to add your personality to the music. Obviously, this can be done on the piano as well, but it can't be done to the same extent as a cello.

I do agree that the piano is more versatile as well. However, cello is not an instrument that requires collaboration. It does have a fairly vast solo repertoire! Albeit, not quite as vast as solo piano repertoire. Piano does make a much better solo instrument, but cello has lovely solo pieces as well.