Benjamin Salman, photographed in the Central District on August 23, 2013

Even when he’s not sitting at a piano, Benjamin Salman is always playing. His fingers are in constant motion, tap-dancing on his knees as he reflexively plays soaring Beethoven sonatas and intricate Liszt pieces that only he can hear. It’s almost always been that way. As the son of celebrated concert pianist Mark Salman, Benjamin was lulled to sleep by the sounds of his father’s nightly practice sessions. Now, after less than a decade of study, the 19-year-old is proving to be every bit the virtuoso his father is. On October 19, the younger Salman will be one of just 36 finalists chosen to play in the biannual Seattle International Piano Competition at Benaroya Hall, where the recitals of his mind will become art for the world. 

 

It’s almost unthinkable for me to not play the piano because I always have. Pretty much my first memories of being alive, the piano was there. It’s always been there, and I’ve always played it. 

My parents didn’t push me into music, despite being musicians. They didn’t make me practice. Actually, very much in contrast to a lot of young musicians, there was no pressure to be a musician. It was when I decided that I wanted to take music seriously that I started practicing.

My father and I have things worked out: I practice in the morning, he teaches in the afternoon, and he practices at night. He’s known to stay up until 4:30 in the morning practicing. Fortunately the piano’s in the basement. It used to be in the living room, which was just down the stairway from my bedroom. So when I was little, I went to bed every night with piano.

We have seven pianos. One is the concert grand, a Steinway D, essentially what performers play on. You can bang on it all you want and it’s fine. Almost all of our other pianos are antiques. One is the sort that Liszt or Chopin would have played, so if I’m playing a Liszt or Chopin work, it informs something about the interpretation. For example, there’s a Chopin etude that has a tempo marking that’s very, very fast. It’s almost impossible to play on a modern Steinway. I remember trying to play it that fast and I almost couldn’t do it. But I tried it on Chopin’s piano and it was easy. I could play it that tempo because the action is lighter. It’s not as hard to push the keys. What that says is you don’t need to play it as fast now because the modern piano is different. You can get the same effect while playing it slower. 

Do I think I’m good? Not compared to the great pianists of the past.

I get a lot of pleasure out of just sitting down at the piano and playing through whatever music I feel like playing at the time. But in the long run, what I find the most rewarding—and what I could probably make the bigger contribution to music with—is composition. 

The way I write music is different than a lot of people today. I’m trying to write music that I find expressive—purely expressive, above all else. Not that other people don’t do that. Every great composer writes music that’s expressive. But I’m not worried about what the style is or whether it’s anything like anybody else’s music or whether it adheres to this school or that school. I just don’t care. 

Competitions have positive and negative aspects. The positive is that they give young musicians a chance to get out there, to get performances. The downside is that people tend to choose flashy repertoire so they can look impressive and win. Music that’s just as great, but isn’t as good for showing off, gets played less often.

Who doesn’t like to win? Sometimes, I will freely admit, I am disappointed if someone who I don’t think played very well beats me. If the person who beats me did a great job, then great; I deserve to be beaten by that person. But who doesn’t get disappointed if someone they don’t think is deserving beats them? That’s human nature.  

There’s an innate contradiction in trying to objectively judge a subjective art form. So my response is to not take the results of a competition too seriously. If I lose this competition, whatever. It’s not an objective decree that I’m a bad pianist. It’s that the judge happened to like this other guy today. That’s the only way to do this without letting it destroy you. If you keep thinking, every time you lose, that you need to change something, then you’ll have no musical identity whatsoever.

I’m not really into popular music. I think it’s that I never grew up with it. I never heard it. To me, it’s not what music is. You have to be in a different frame of mind to be able to listen to it, perhaps. 

My friends would probably say I’m a little eccentric. You can certainly tell I’m not just like everyone else. My interests are so different. But the people I’m friends with tend to be people that are like me and that I get along with. So I don’t think they would describe me as being too strange. Perhaps a normal high school student might find me rather peculiar.

The pressure everyone else puts on me doesn’t feel bad because it’s never as much as the pressure I put on myself. The person who will be most disappointed if I fail is me.

 

Published: October 2013

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