News from out there: I’m playing piano and the family won’t pay attention…

News from out there: I’m playing piano and the family won’t pay attention…


norman lebrecht

May 31, 2021

A letter to Dear Abby:

DEAR ABBY: One of the things I always do when I have my parents and my sibling’s family over is play the piano. My 80-year-old father LOVES to hear me play. I am an accomplished pianist and I love to play difficult pieces.

During their most recent visit, while I was “trying” to play the Warsaw Concerto for my father, my family was talking over my grand piano, my niece was chasing my grand-niece through the living room and my sister-in-law was filming me, which was chaotic and terribly distracting. I think they were rude and disrespectful. How can I get them to stop this kind of behavior without sounding like a snotty jerk? — SERIOUS MUSICIAN IN COLORADO

ABBY replies:
DEAR MUSICIAN: When you wish to perform a concert for your father, entertain your parents APART from your sibling and the kids.


  • Genius Repairman says:

    The problem is that the Warsaw Concerto is confectionary, and your niece and other disgruntled members of your gallant family were not cerebrally challenged enough. Try Ligetti’s concerto, or Lutoslawski, or some other ethereal composer not yet on any cultural radar for better results. Sniff.

  • sam says:

    Dear Serious Musician:

    By choosing to be a classical music pianist, you already come across as a snotty jerk.

    And who plays the Warsaw Concerto at a family gathering, except maybe Liberace?

    Did you invite your family over to enjoy their company, or to show off? I’m a serious lawyer, I don’t invite my family over for lunch and make them watch me practice my oral arguments.

    My final advice is, don’t ever take a job as a pianist at a restaurant, if you don’t want people talking over your playing and generally trying their best to ignore you. Yes, even professional pianists get paid just to be ignored. And they certainly wouldn’t play the Warsaw Concerto to the room.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      My mother played Warsaw Concerto (piano only) after WW2 when she was a nurse in a ward for rehabilitating soldiers. She thought it was schlock but the patients loved it. Amazing that there was a piano in the hospital.

  • FrankInUsa says:

    I hope the little lady takes the advice. An attentive audience of one or two is better than an inattentive audience of more. Good luck to her.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Well there are any number of “funny” replies one could think up to this anguished plea (mostly relating to the Warsaw Concerto), but I do firmly believe that Americans in general, and this is not new, really do not know how to shut up and actually listen to music — any music, not just classical, and not just “live music” — and their kids naturally pick up this ignorance from their ignorant parents and other adults, and it becomes part of the American inheritance.

    I am convinced that the root cause of this is that so few Americans in general and on average know how to make music. Thus the making of music by others creates an experience and a situation for which they have little to no natural sympathy or understanding, and indeed often seems to create unease and actually generates the nervous responses of talking over the music and the other distractions that the writer described.

    Unmusical people are often made profoundly uneasy by the making of music by others and have developed these perhaps entirely subconscious responses to it. I can’t count the number of “live” recordings made at jazz clubs that to my way of thinking are badly marred by the unthinking (but always well recorded) “behavior” of the audiences.

    Or maybe this particular family just wanted to hear the Cornish Rhapsody or Dream of Olwen instead. There is after all no accounting for tastes.

    • Brian Lee says:

      I knew some American-bashing would be in order when I followed this thread. You didn’t disappoint. Do you feel better now?

      • Steve says:

        I never noticed that American-bashing was the order of the day here… Trump-bashing yes, and quite rightly so..

      • David K. Nelson says:

        I feel great, thanks for asking Brian. My comments and my position are not limited to classical music or music which is regarded as art. I mean any music, including folk, rock, jazz, movie music, “praise songs” in evangelical churches, you name it. People don’t know how to listen — really listen — because they don’t know why they should listen. The making of the music actually generates the intense need to move about, to do, to chatter, to do whatever it takes not to listen. I said Americans because that’s where I am, and I know how few Americans are capable of making music in any capacity.

    • The View from America says:

      How is this specific to American audiences?

      Jelka Rosen on performances of Frederick Delius’ incidental music to “Hassan”: “At the performances the audiences make so much noise that hardly anyone can hear it properly. It is strange in England how they allow tea and chocolate to be sold in the theater while the music is going on, and then the people talk! It is terrible; I think that the English theater public has no reverence for art.”

  • Aaron says:

    That’s it? When he visits his family he is supposed to just somehow entertain his father apart from the rest of the family? What terrible advice! So this pianist puts in tens of thousands of hours of practice and gets a small limited amount of time to perform for his father and family on a visit, and they take it for granted and ignore him and worse–the kids run uncontrollably around the house and distract his intense concentration and disregard the talent they have in the family and disrespect him. Sounds to me like if Dear Old Abby was in your family she would be ignoring your hard-earned rare skill as well. The Warsaw Concerto is not an easy piece! Here is some real advice: Let your family know how you feel. Tell them that it takes intense rehearsal and concentration to play 25,000 notes in fifteen minutes, using ten fingers coordinated with both feet. You are gracing them with a talent which very few people dedicate the time and energy to master to such a high degree. Tell them that they are not only disrespecting you, but are disrespecting your father and their grandfather while he tries to appreciate something he loves and cherishes and only gets to hear on the occasions you can visit. I’m sure he can hear the wild children running around the entire rest of the time they are there, but please, for thirty minutes, stop and listen and show some respect. They obviously will not give it to you, so you must somehow ask for it. Most people, Abby here included, have never put in their 10,000 hours to master ANYTHING, and they do not understand the time and dedication it takes, much less the coordination and concentration necessary to play an instrument. Not only are there thousands of notes to play in a huge piece like the Warsaw concerto, bit you also have to control your dynamics, your phrasing, articulation, pedaling, and add in emotion to your playing as well. If you are playing by memory, that is a feat in and of itself. If you are sight reading, then you have to factor in page turns as well. Most people would struggle to chew gum, walk, rub their belly, and pat their head at the same time. Yet what musicians do is intensely more difficult than those simple operations. You should print up some fake “tickets” to your concert and invite everyone to watch and listen at a set time so everyone knows what to expect. Have the rowdy kids play outside during your concert if need be. I had to bring my digital 88 key piano to my mom and dad’s house so I could perform for my father with Alzheimer’s before he passed away. Our time is limited on this earth, and the kids can be kids the rest of the visit, bit for a short while, they should show some respect. Or you could always show up to their baseball game with an air horn and blast it right before they swing…

  • J Barcelo says:

    1. This inability to really listen to music is hardly unique to Americans, David Nelson. I’ve witnessed horrible audiences in China, Mexico, Germany….and even England.

    2. A truly accomplished pianist would have minimal difficulty with the Warsaw Concerto.

    3. Don’t bash the Warsaw. It’s a remarkable bit of pastiche that Addinsell wrote for a movie and no doubt was a gateway for many hopeless romantics into listening to other classical concertos from Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Corny it may be, and it isn’t nearly as well-known as it was a couple of generations ago, but it’s still better than 99.9% of any piano concerto written by any modernist composer.

  • Bronwyn says:

    My advice would be play for your own enjoyment and even though they may not be behaving like a professional audience your family is still listening to you play even if they are chatting. Your nieces etc are getting to hear a professional pianist even if they are running around. My children are very musical and I also play both violin and piano. My son even though untrained has started to play jazzy tunes on the piano and they listen to me practice they both currently take Viola and Cello so I am just giving them a bit more time to get established in their current instruments before having them take piano.

  • Joseph says:

    When I was young, my relatives would visit and ask me to play the piano for them. I’d oblige, but they’d talk constantly throughout whatever I was playing. After a few years of this, I wised up. And so did my mother, who allowed me to opt out of being the sideshow.

  • Sharon Beth Long says:

    When classical music is played as background music in department stores, bus terminals etc what else can one expect?

    I remember reading, I believe in Menuhin’s wife’s autobiography, that they refused to let their children listen to music as background music.

    That is, they could not listen to music as they were doing something else–music had to be taken seriously. Jeremy, one of the sons, became a concert pianist.