Vera Brandes was a 17-year-old girl in 1975. She was a jazz fan and she had begun organising jass concerts because of the lack of live performances in Germany at the time.
Tim Harford relayed the story of Vera in a recent podcast.
Vera had managed to convince world-renowned jazz pianist Keith Jarrett to perform at the prestigious Cologne Opera House. How exactly a 17-year-old manages to do this is probably quite a story in its self.
Anyway, Keith Jarrett arrives at the Opera House and he discovers that there’s been a terrible mistake.
Keith insisted on a Bosendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano. But there had been a mix-up and the opera house staff assumed the old Bosendorfer baby grand that was backstage was for the concert.
This piano was only used for rehearsals. It was old, out of tune and the pedals stuck. The upper registers were tinny and the bass was weak.
Keith and his producer Manfred Eicher inspected the piano and they both know it was totally unacceptable. The piano was unplayable.
Vera was trying everything to get a replacement, but it was too late.
When it became clear that the piano couldn’t be replaced, Keith quit and refused to play.
Vera was in a bad spot. She’d sold 1,400 tickets to eager fans. The famous opera house had never allowed an event like this to take place and she was about to let a lot of people down.
So she did the only thing she could do, she begged Keith not to pull out. Keith’s producer sided with Vera and pointed out that the recording equipment was set up and they were paying the sound engineers so they may as well go ahead with the concert.
At least they would have a recording as proof of what a terrible concert sounded like.
Keith eventually agreed to continue with the concert. He played the concert and everyone loved it. The recording is known as The Koln Concert and its the biggest selling piano album ever made.
How could this concert become such a raging success when the piano was unplayable?
Keith Jarrett was forced to avoid the upper and lower tones of the piano. He had to stay in the middle tones. This gave the piece a soothing quality.
To compensate for the lack of volume from the baby grand, he used repetitive bass riffs with his left hand and pounded on the keys creating as much volume as possible. He couldn’t play the way he usually played and this wasn’t the music he ever imagined playing.
He couldn’t relax into his usual flow. He had to concentrate on every note, remembering to avoid the faulty keys.
The result was something new, fresh and exciting.
Constraints or obstacles are important for all of us. Because they force us to do things a little differently. Whether its how we run a farm or business or how we write an article or design a house or plan a wedding.
When we are faced with an obstacle or a constraint that is out of our control we tend to become much more alert than we usually would. We can’t just go through the motions on autopilot. This forces us to watch very carefully to stay on top of things. We do this because we don’t have control of the situation.
A good constraint also has an element of danger to it. This sort of alertness is exciting.
Keith Jerrett had the pressure of letting 1,400 people down by playing badly. There was the danger of his reputation being damaged.
When faced with a big obstacle or constraint it forces us to behave and act in a way we normally wouldn’t do. It forces us to consider options that we normally wouldn’t consider.
That’s why fresh new innovation and ideas come from obstacles or failures.
The book The Cat in The Hat was written after the challenge was made to write a children’s book with only 225 distinct words. The constant resulted in a truly unique book.
But when we are faced with our own version of an unplayable piano, we always try and run away. Just like Keith did.
We never voluntarily put obstacles in our own way and most of us don’t want something new, fresh or exciting either. Many of us prefer a more predictable existence.
But if you get bored with the predictable, maybe you should try and find a few obstacles.
After all, its the danger of the unplayable piano that’s exciting, fresh and results in new things.