Andre Watts made a basic distinction while talking about playing the piano. "Pianists divide pretty much into those who approach a piece to play it on the piano," he said, "and those who approach the piece first as music."
For Watts, the latter approach is the way to go. While he was willing to talk about the technical side of piano playing, and indeed very specific about his feeling that technique, such an overwhelming factor for the ordinary piano pupil, is simply the basic foundation upon which music can be built.
He had a quotation from Arthur Schnabel on the subject: 'Technique is being able to produce at will what you hear and want." Schnabel's pupils included, among many others, Lili Kraus, and Watts' friend and mentor Leon Fleisher. The direct line from the great German pianist to Fleisher and to Watts was often clear during our conversation.
"It is more disturbing," Watts put it, talking about Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy, "if that first chord in the slow part does not sound the way it should than if there are wrong notes in the finale."
The matter of wrong notes led Watts to another unusual observation: "Wrong notes are interesting," he began. "Various pianists play different kinds of wrong notes. With some you can feel them coming. Why do they come out wrong?"
And suddenly technique and wrong notes got somewhat mixed up as he spoke with greater intensity. "Sometimes, when you are in the preparation stages of a piece, your technique seems as if it is all bad." There was a thoughtful pause. "You want tonal control, you want balance of chords, consistency, and you want it regularly. If, for instance, you come out time and again to play the Beethoven Fourth Concerto), you want to know, 'Will that first chord come out the way you want it do?" It all boils down to what you have up here," and the index finger of his right hand moved up to point straight at his head.
"Take another example: the Liszt-Paganini Etudes. They are physically hard. You have to practice. But I find the better the concentration is, the better the performance. You think in one place about the movement of the wrist so that the phrase comes out just right, and constantly better. The brain is the control."
"Practice" - there was that word again.
"I am going to try - " Watts is 31 and has been playing publicly in a major career since he was 17 - " try to get to the point where no day goes by that I do not practice three hours. I need it. That is much better than those times when you may not practice at all one day, then one hour the next, then six, then eight. But I am going to try for a minimum of three."
"And there will be some very basic studentish ideas in my practice - hands separately, blocking arpeggios, off accents - these are valuable. Sometimes it all gets borderline."
The studentish ideas Watts mentioned were those he learned from his first teacher. Born in post-World War II Germany, Watts is the son of an American GI and a Hungarian mother. It was she who gave him his first lessons.
After a moment he went into the problem of the "borderline." "When playing brings fame and money and you get into the whole thing. YOU KNOW if your playing is borderline. You may push the border back. THEN comes the fear, and the thought, 'My God, IF I COULD REALLY DO WHAT I WANT!' THEN you may be afraid to push to the limit."
This time the pause was to bring out some philosophy, and what had been suspected all along became unmistakable: that for Andre Watts the art of making music through the medium of playing the piano demands a vast amount of cerebration. "There doesn't have to be a limit," he resumed. "But there is no substitute for age. I know that someone may be as great a musician at 20 as he will be at 60. But," and again that reflective look in his eyes, "there is no substitute."
Watts switched to another angle of the practice question. "Very often I don't work on what I am playing currently. But in a six-hour-a-day practice, I may, perhaps twice a month, think, 'How about some real taking apart?'"
Suddenly, for no reason, his comment brought to mind the famour story about the time a young cellist walked out of a class being conducted by Pablo Casals in Paris in the 1920s, and muttered in a tone of utter exhaustion, "Nearly two hours on the difference between F sharp and G flat."
For Watts the two hours would have flown by.
He turned his attention to the producing of tone. "It is so much a matter of knowing the sound you want and being able to achieve it. It takes great muscular tension just to put down notes. But you don't want to maintain it, so you have to find ways to get the weight out, out of your arms.
"Sometime there may be a performance that went the way you wanted it to, say the octaves, but you think about it afterwards, and perhaps you got 95 percent of what you really wanted."
Sooner or later, every pianist must confront the pedals, those three strangely-shaped bits of metal that are controlled by the feet. It never hurts to remember, too, that for a long time, the world's greatest composers of piano music had only two pedals and managed very nicely, thank you, without that little wizard in the middle of today's concert grands.
"The pedal is a part of the whole," Watts opened up the subject. "It gives color. But there are also always the hall acoustics, and the piano itself - they differ. The pedal can change phrase endings: take the end of the Suhubert A. Minor Sonata, where it goes from C Sharp to A. There you think about horns and winds, and with the pedal you can make it seem as if you were not playing on a percussion instrument at all."
What, at 31, does Watts want to play in the future? "I do not say, 'I am a pianist, therefore I must play this piece.' But when the time is right, I will play Bach, more Bach. And I would love to run around and do all five of the Beethoven concertos, with Leon."
Earlier, in speaking of a performance of the Brahms B Flat Concerto which he had played the night before with Fleisher and the Annapolis Symphony, he had said, "Who Knows? When I am 60, I hope I will know more about how to play that concerto.?