Essay Sample: Glenn Gould the Pianist

Published: 2022-11-29
Essay Sample: Glenn Gould the Pianist
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Music Biography
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1816 words
16 min read

Glenn Herbert Gould was a Canadian pianist who came to be celebrated as among the most awed and praised classical pianists of the 20th century. Born on 25th September 1932 in Toronto, Gould became well known for his talent in interpreting the keyboard works of German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Gould showed great proficiency in both technique and his ability to articulate the polyphonic texture of Bach's music. In his career as a musical genius, Gould did not limit his compositions and craft to standard romantic piano literature by composers such as Chopin and Liszt; instead, he preferred compositions by Baroque, Renaissance and more modern composers.

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Gould's Interest in Music

Gould's interest in music started at an early age and this could have been attributed to the fact that both his parents were musical. He was exposed to music from infancy and by the age of three, his great talent for music could be seen as he mastered how to read music even before he could read words (Schonberg, 1962). Gould then developed a particular liking not only for the piano as a musical instrument but also in composing music to be played on the piano. Over the years as he grew older, Gould pursued his interest in playing the piano by attending classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Life after Injury

Following a fall that gave him a back injury, Gould was forced to move around with a chair for the rest of his life. Due to the low design of the chair that made him sit very low at the keyboard, Gould was forced to pull down on the keyboard instead of the usual hitting them from above - a technique that made him have more control over the keyboard and set apart his work from others. He further developed a tempo which was very fast while still retaining the uniqueness, distinctness and clarity of each note. He studied under his teacher, Alberto Guerrero, and through these teachings developed a technique called finger-tapping; where the fingers are trained to work more independently from the arm (Friedrich, 1989).

The Finger-Tapping Technique

Gould's impressive performances as a pianist were as the result of the impeccable control he had over the keyboard. The finger-tapping technique, which was an idea from his teacher, involved learning note sequences by slowly pushing or tapping the fingers into the keys of the piano. This technique was further aided by Gould having to sit down so low at the piano, where his fingers laid flat on the keyboard and his back made a hunch bringing him closer to the keyboard as he played (Bazzana, 2004). The seat that he used while playing - which he walked around with due to his injury as a child - was 14 inches above the floor. This then placed his elbows at a level lower than the keyboard with his wrists being at the same level as the plane of the forearm.

Gould did not just adopt this technique as a result of the injury, even as a child he would play differently from other children. Unlike others who would hit hard on the keys, he would instead hold on to the key until the note and vibrations faded - a distinct characteristic that made his works appreciated globally (Schonberg, 1962). As a form of practice, Gould stated that he rarely practiced on his piano but instead preferred to study repertoire and compositions by reading them as opposed to constantly learning and playing it on the piano, as most people would. This was not unusual for him, as he learned how to read music even before reading words. Even his father said that Gould would spend hours memorizing music until he understood it (Konieczny, 2009).

Guerrero's Impact

Gould adopted the finger-tapping technique from his teacher, Guerrero, who had a big impact on how he played and how he understood music. Guerrero encouraged and developed a character in Gould where his manual practice of music would focus on articulation as opposed to a basic facility. Gould could not comprehend the need or rather the requirement of artists spending hours on their instruments of choice by practicing for many hours each day. His technique of 'practicing' would be mentally, away from the piano and this was demonstrated when he did not get to actually practice on the piano for his Brahms recording until just weeks to the date of the recording sessions (Bazzana, 2004). His performance and skill heavily relied on his ability to play from compositions he had memorised, which was not only just limited to a vast range of music meant to be played on the piano, but also those meant for orchestras. This eventually allowed him to even write his own compositions and performances, particularly as a young man.

Humming while Playing the Piano

Another characteristic of his performances is his habit of humming while playing the piano - a habit that he must have picked up from his mother, who during her training lessons with him as a young boy would insist he should sing everything that he played. This habit did not go unnoticed by both his fans and his critics as all his performances would bear this 'unbreakable and notorious habit', as Bazzana puts it. Some of his listeners would find the humming and groans of Gould while playing intolerable, with a good example being his re-recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1981 (Schonberg, 1962).

Gould's Strict Requirements

In addition to his technique of playing and humming, Gould also had very strict requirements when he was about to play the piano. Among these requirements was that his chair had to be 14 inches above the floor and the piano needed to be put up at a specific height, even if it meant outing planks or blocks of wood beneath its feet. He would always insist on using the seat his father gave to him after his injury as a young child, despite it being worn out over the years from constantly being sat on. The temperature of the studio where he did his recordings would also need to be regulated as he preferred it to be very warm. With these conditions met, Gould could give his best performance as seen through the tours he made in home country of Canada, the United States of America, Russia, and many other countries worldwide.

Gould was a Piano Genius

Despite the strict requirements and all the humming and groaning while performing, Gould was an excellent pianist even to a point of being called a genius. His performances won him several awards including Juno and Grammy Awards both during his lifetime and even after his death on 4th October 1982. Following his death and legacy, Gould was in the following year admitted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame; and in 1998, he was also awarded a spot in the Canada Walk of Fame in Toronto.

During his career as a musician, Gould was highly inclined to studio recordings as opposed to performances in concert halls, which he described them to be as a 'competitive sporting arena'. His last public performance was in 1964, after which he committed himself fully to the studio where he recorded several albums, as well as wrote several compositions some of which he collaborated with other artists. Gould's preference of studio recordings was because of the control he had as well as the manipulations he could make - an aspect he believed to be part of the creative process in a studio.

Keyboard Recordings

In the studio, Gould made keyboard re-recordings of works by J.S. Bach such as The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Partitas, English Suites, French Suites, and Sinfonias; among others. He also reproduced works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and many other well-known and celebrated piano composers. Gould also did works by lesser-known piano composers; among them was Orlando Gibbons, Jean Sibelius, Georges Bizet, Arnold Schoenberg, Enoch Arden with Claude Rains, and Paul Hindemith (Bazzana, 2004).

In addition to re-recording piano compositions from other previous pianists, both famous and not, Gould was also a prolific writer of music. He pursued this line of his musical career following his retirement from public performances in 1964. As a writer, Gould explored various musical and non-musical topics, staying away from orthodox compositions. His compositions, which included recorder-liner notes, scripts, articles, and reviews, were mostly for broadcast and films. His interest in writing did not, however, start in adulthood; he was a great music composer from childhood having composed several music notes for the piano as a teenager. His mother even described him as a prodigy.

Major Compositions

His major composition was the long, one-movement String Quartet, which he composed between the years of 1953 to 1955. He later got recorded and published. As a performer and composer, Gould played very few early-Romantic and impressionistic compositions (Till, 1985). He mostly preferred 20th-century music as well as Baroque and Classical compositions, among others. Gould was also highly invested in transcribing orchestral repertoire for the piano. He did a few transcriptions from performers such as Wagner, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Schubert, and Bruckner (Wilson, 2000). His legacy undoubtedly lies on his unconventional ways of playing the piano where he had vast control and command of music characteristics such as creativity, tempos, dynamics, rhythm, and interpretation. Just before his death, Gould ventured out to conducting music, which was a new-found interest of his later years.

Finally, Glenn Gould's legacy has been felt globally with increasing intensity following his death in 1982. Even up to date, his works are not only appreciated but also included in many literary books rivalling even those of classical performers such as Callas and Toscanini (Bazzana, 2004). His technique with the keyboard redefined the piano with the intensity and energy that he produced while playing. Even at the recording studio, his idea of editing and manipulating piano recordings was way ahead of his time, making him a predecessor in the industry worldwide.

Overall, Gould was dedicated to his craft, his body language and habits such as humming while playing, memorising compositions and sitting low at the piano; all contributed to his success as an excellent performer, composer, and recording artist. His unusual characteristics, which distinguished him from all other performers like him, are what make him a celebrated performer to date.


Bazzana, K. (2004). Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. New York: Oxford University Press.

Friedrich, O. (1989). Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations. New York: Random House.

Konieczny, V. (2009). Glenn Gould: A Musical Force. Toronto: Dundurn.

Schonberg, H. C. (1962, April 7). Music: Inner Voices of Glenn Gould; Pianist Plays Them in Addition to Brahms Bernstein Speech Hits at the Interpretation. Retrieved from

Till, E. (Director). (1985). Glenn Gould: A Portrait [Motion Picture].

Wilson, F. R. (2000). Glenn Gould's Hand. Medical problems of the Instrumentalist Musician, 379-397.

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