Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


The view from behind the ivories; I Really Should be Practicing, by Gary Graffman. New York: Doubleday & co. $14. 95.

By David OwensDavid Owens is assistant editor of the Monitor's Home Forum page. / June 10, 1981



Although the concert tour may not have been invented by Franz Liszt, he is certainly looked back upon as the founder of a tradition that continues and flourishes in today's musical world.

Skip to next paragraph

Near the top of any list of inveterate modern day performing voyagers one would certainly find the name of Gary Graffman, who has enjoyed one of the most peripatetic careers imaginable and whose experience well qualifies him for his present autobiography, subtitled "Reflections on the Pleasures and Perils of Playing the Piano in Public."

What also qualifies Mr. Graffman for his authorship is his extraordinary keenness as a raconteur. He is blessed with an abundance of memory, insight, both biting and charming wit, and a finely gradated sense for the comic, the absurd, and the outrageous. "I Really Should be Practising" is, in short, one of the most deftly written, readable, and enjoyable sets of memoirs of its kind to have seen print. One feels that any reader with even the slightest interest in pianos, pianists, travel, or humor, or with just a love of autobiography, will find the book hard to put down.

Born and raised in New York City, Graffman was exposed from the start to everything central to that musical capital. His reflections on topics ranging from a career- launching competitions to traveling in incredible places while keeping simultaneous track of pianos, grace, and sanity are positively bona fide. This is so because his career has in most of its facets been a textbook manual of How It Is done in the postwar musical community.

Things do bog down if one starts considering the larger meanings of an admittedly stimulating career like Mr. Graffman's. The question ultimately comes along: How stimulating has all this gadding about been for the art of music itself? Although, as I have indicated, his objectives have by no means departed radically from those of most other performers, one cannot escape the feeling that a greater love is perhaps being expressed here for shrimp aspic and a modern life style than for the art of music itself. Specifically, his lack of anything like a feeling of responsibility to the music of today is characteristic of the hoarding attitude that, in its ubiquity, has done its share to bring music to its present combined state of commercialism and creative anxiety.

In this connection, there is sometimes a patronizing tone with respect to playing "outerlying regions." This could be regarded as somewhat puzzling, for in embracing a repertoire of the tried and true, a decision tempered consciously or unconsciously by the desirability of broad appeal, any performer places himself firmly (if maybe not centrally) in the entertainment business. And, that being the case, it could be argued that he is in fact beholden to these more unsophisticated listeners, rather than automatically entitled to some ironic witticisms at their expense.

These (by now) academic points aside, it must be emphasized that "I Really Should be Practicing: is chock full of excellent writing, instructive and illuminating passages. It is a warehouse of hilarious anecdotes and as delightful and recommendable a set of memoirs as any to be found.