While those two words might sound similar, there is a marked difference between the two. An instrumentalist is fluent in their instrument of choice while a musician is fluent in the language of music.
That’s ultimately what it comes down to when we consider how to become a better piano player: engage with music in all its parts and treat it like a language.
Imagine that you are learning the English language. Would it not be exceedingly difficult to become good at English if you had no idea what good English speaking sounded like?
By the same token, would it not be difficult to be a better pianist if you had no idea what good piano playing and good music sounded like? We often get so caught up in the act of playing that it’s easy to forget that music is an auditory medium of expression. I would encourage aspiring pianists and musicians to listen to lots of music from all time periods and follow along with sheet music whenever possible. Try to find specific styles/types of music that you enjoy and build up an internal musical vocabulary from the music that you listen to.
Do you know your Scales and Arpeggios? Do you know what chords are and how to name them? Can you read sheet music accurately and fluently? Answering no to one or more of these questions indicates a gap in your pianism waiting to be filled. An integral part of cultivating any new activity is having a strong grasp on the core skillsets associated with that activity. If you are learning how to read English and still have trouble with the alphabet or still struggle with basic grammar, then you know that those things are a priority for you to learn before you learn anything else. This goes for piano playing too: make sure that you are always working to lay those important foundations and that you know what’s truly important in your learning.
Wouldn’t it be awkward if we said English was our language of fluency but could only speak and write in the pre-written words and sentences of others? For many pianists, this is still the case but in a musical context. I encourage pianists to draw on what they’ve learned from their years of studying repertoire and start building their own way of speaking. You should be comfortable with sitting down at a piano and just playing in your own voice spontaneously. You should also be comfortable with writing down your own music in sheet music notation. Doing so will give you a better understanding of a composer’s thought process and it will help when learning and refining new repertoire.
Music-like any other language-is a medium of distilling our thoughts and ideas and then allowing others to experience these ideas through this medium. The best writers and composers have such a deep understanding of the world and the human experience that their music plunges us to emotional depths that we would have no way of seeing prior. For them to do this, they must’ve lived their lives in a way that was conducive to understanding these ideas. What they certainly did not do is practice all day and work all day. Chopin would often scold his students for practicing more than 2 hours a day; he encouraged people to walk around and experience nature and people. Beethoven would take breaks very often just to walk around the city or the country before coming back to work. The common thread is that the greatest artists were the ones who took time to build up their emotional voice outside of their craft. It is impossible to say something in a language when you have little to say that’s meaningful. I would encourage aspiring pianists to take time to walk around nature and experience the world around them and take time to introspect on their life experiences. Doing so will bring a higher level of maturity and emotional depth to your music-making.