2020 and the Unplayable Piano

When it comes to concerts, solo pianists are not too demanding. They don’t need large stages and pyrotechnics like rock bands. They don’t need beefed-up security to handle crazy fans like pop-stars. They need just one thing exactly right: The piano.

That was not the case in the Cologne Opera House on January 24th, 1975. The American jazz and classical music pianist Keith Jarrett had a clear idea about what was the perfect piano for him. Alas, there was a mix-up. Not only the Opera House produced the wrong model (much smaller than Jarrett asked for, too small for the venue). The piece was in poor condition. As Wikipedia puts it: “The instrument was tinny and thin in the upper registers and weak in the bass register, and the pedals did not work properly.” When Jarrett found out, there was only one reasonable thing he could have told the concert promoter:

“This piano is unplayable. If I don’t get another one, I’m cancelling the concert.” The concert promoter Vera Brandes tried to get another piano, but it was too late. What next?

Sometimes when you’re dealt a bad hand, the best you can do is to fold.


Were you happy with the cards 2020 gave you? If you’re like most people, 2020 was not what you’d call “the best year ever”. Uncertainty, lock downs, travel bans.

Did you fold?

I don’t think so. More likely: You coped. And here’s more: I bet you did things you had never done before.

Any come to your mind? A lot, you say?

A few come to mine: I miss doing live soft-skill trainings – but turning them virtual allowed me to train and lead workshops for colleagues from the US, Prague and Singapore on the same day. I miss exploring foreign cities – but 2020’s limits to travel made me realize that not only long flights, but also long walks can lead to new perspectives. And while I miss the crowds at conferences – it was thanks to the unusual solitude I had the space to learn how to prepare a gazpacho, solve the Rubik’s cube or edit videos.

If 2020 was a normal year? I would have done none of that.


What could have happened if Keith Jarrett had decided to play the concert back in 1975? We don’t have to speculate – in fact he did! Brandes (she was only 17 at the time!) in the end convinced him to give the unplayable piano a try. Jarrett had to adapt his style, ” (…) rolling left-hand rhythmic figures during his Köln performance to give the effect of stronger bass notes, and concentrated his playing in the middle portion of the keyboard” (Wikipedia), and hope for the best.

How did that turn out?

Not too bad actually. The Cologne Concert recording became the best-selling solo album in jazz history.


There are big hopes for 2021. The light at the end of the tunnel. Back to normal. The year when we’ll hug each other again.

Maybe that’s how it will go. Maybe not.

Either way. No matter the cards – or the piano – you get from 2021: Play. After all – it will be the only 2021 we’ll get.


Note: I first heard the Cologne Concert story from Tim Harford’s brilliant TED Talk How Frustration Can Make Us More Creative.


Cover photo by Olaf Smid on Unsplash.

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