ONE OF the many fascinating aspects of this autobiography by concert pianist Gary Graffman is its intimate account of the subtle power relationships in the world of music. Grafman got his first taste of these in 1946 when he was asked to play the Rachmaninov Second with Ormandy and the Philadelphians, his first engagement with a major orchestra. Knowing nothing of musical politics, "as this subject was not taught along with octaves and double thirds," the 18-year-old Graffman kept interrupting Ormandy at the rehearsal, saying things like "A little faster please, Mr. Ormandy." But Ormandy got his revenge at the performance: when Graffman, who had asked for extra time on a solo trill, looked up at Ormandy at the end of the trill, expecting the maestro to bring the orchestra in, he found Ormandy "gazing raptly off into the distance somewhere over my head." After Graffman's endlessly trilling hand nearly fell off, Ormandy "smilingly brought the orchestra in to my rescue." Later, at his first Carnegie Hall concert, Graffman managed to commit another political gaffe by performing Stravinsky's Serenade in A next to some pieces by Rachmaninov, a composer Stravinsky loathed. Just last year, Graffman was shown an old Carnegie Hall program of that concert signed by Stravinsky. In the margin was scrawled, "What a neighborhood!"

From the first page of this book, which describes the aftermath of a concert tour that took Graffman, "by some freakishly alliterative coincidence, from Baden-Baden to Bora-Bora," we know we are in for some exceptionally witty and originally conceived memoirs. Although musicians will take special delight in this account of the life and times of an American concert performer, Graffman's audience is by no means limited to fellow musicians. Indeed, there is surprisingly little technical shop talk, even when the subject is music. Whether recounting the treacherously unpredictable personalities of pianos, the horrors of unknown hotels, the hair-raising logistical mishaps of tours, the peculiarly frenzied enthusiasm of Soviet audiences for American performers, the daring 1960s movement (which Graffman virtually instigated) to boycott racially segregated audiences, or the disorganization on "a truly monumental scale" of South American airports, I Really Should Be Practicing has a vitality and an irreverence that make even the grittiest details of concertizing irresistibly dramatic.

Although Graffman claims he can give "only a messengers'-eye view" of the many great musicians he has known, his book is filled with sharply observed portraits of legendary artists such as Vladimir Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz, and William Kapell. One of the most humorous and revealing of these is an anecdote involving Kapell, a man with little patience for social routines, suffering through the usual "post-concert punch-and-cookie routine" that depressingly summed up the Community Concert scene in the 1950s: "Legend has it that on one occasion when he was, as usual, skulking in a dark corner, undoubtedly seething about the poor piano at the concert and matching nourishment offered at the party, a dowager sailed up to him and smirked conspiratorially. She lowerer her voice.

"'I paint!' she whispered.

"'So what!' responed Willy."

Equally endearing are Graffman's sketches of famous conductors, from the fiery Tosconini -- at whose 1940s rehearsals he gained not only invaluable musical insight but also "a lifetime supply of shockingly foul Italian obscenities" -- to the genial and gentle Charles Munch. The most extended and vivid portrait is of George Szell, with whom Graffman made his finest concerto recordings and whose notoriously acidic sensibility Graffman manages to make enchanting: "He was aware and, I think, even proud of his ogre-like reputation. The day that Time magazine appeared on the newsstands with his picture on the cover and an exhaustive profile inside displaying his foibles -- warts and all -- his delight was boundless. 'It's official! It's official!' he crowed. 'It's in print -- I'm a bastard!'" On one occasion, Szell refused to be photographed with Graffman for the cover of the Tchikovsky First Piano Concerto until Graffman got a haircut. After emerging, thoroughly depressed, from the barbershop, Graffman got a call from Szell: "'Gary,' he shouted. 'Don't do it! Helene [his wife] says she loves your hair lng. Besides, she says, it will surely sell more records if one of us, at least, looked like a Beatle. Nobody, she says, will want to buy a record with a picture of two crabby businessmen on the cover.'"

Like most of the reminiscences here, the portrait of Szell is most touching and affectionate precisely when it is most droll and ironic. Graffman clearly cares for Szell and his other mentors too deeply to compromise his admiration with sentimentality. Furthermore, Graffman's acerbic anecdotes are never trivial but are an enchanting way of advancing his own serious, seasoned esthetic propositions. After a chilling description of Szell's prickly, fanatical perfectionism at a typical rehearsal, Graffman tells us that "only when nothing is left to chance -- when every idea has been thought out and practiced and ingrained -- is it truly possible to take real chances . . . and to allow the inspiration of the moment to take over."

The commitment to rapture and spontaneity through discipline and exactness is not only a dominant motif in this book but the key to Graffman's personality in both his playing and writing. The same intelligence, clarity and pungency which have always distinguished his music-making emerge unmistakably in his use of language. From either a musical or a literary standpoint, this is an uncommonly civilized book.