Frederic Chopin lived from March 1, 1810 to October 17, 1849. He is recognized as one of the giants of pianism, and his playing and composing impact the art even today.
Chopin was a master of smaller-scale works, and most of his output was for solo piano. He was equally at home making grand and dramatic musical statements as well as small and intimate ones.
Drawing on the traditions of great keyboard player-composers of previous generations, particularly Bach and Mozart, he developed his own unique approach to melodic writing. His melodies in and of themselves are often minimal in character, and taken out of context, they appear to not even be melodies at all–more akin to kernels or seeds than full-bloom creations.
However, he mastered the art of using ornamentation–trills, scales, arpeggios, sequences of notes played “outside of time”–and these elements are what create the momentum that allows the melodic kernel to soar.
Next year is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth. As a pianist, I am keenly aware of history and the heritage I am drawing on when I play. Up until now, while people said I had the talent, I did not have the mindset to play at a world-class level. I couldn’t imagine myself taking a year to study a recital program–I was afraid of boredom, but, perhaps to a greater extent, I was afraid of the weaknesses in my own technique that would be revealed if I focused so intensely for such a long period on such a small repertoire.
As my technique has gotten stronger and my ability and desire to play expressively have increased, my desire to apply that type of single-mindedness to practice has also grown.
So, when the idea for a Chopin lecture-recital pairing for 2010 came in the middle of the night earlier this winter, I didn’t dismiss it out of hand. I played with it, considering how I could illustrate Chopin’s evolution as a composer.
The program took shape fairly quickly:
Bach: English Suite No. 5 in E Minor, BWV 810
Mozart: Sonata in B-Flat, K. 281
Chopin: Preludes, Op. 28
I’d heard someone play the complete preludes on a recital when I was in college and always dreamed of doing it myself. But, while I started a few times, I was quickly deterred and discouraged, lacking the technique and the discipline to tackle such challenges as Prelude No. 3 (an all-16th-note left hand that required equal parts speed, smoothness and dynamic shaping); and I never even looked at No. 8 (if 16th notes were beyond what I could do, then 32nds were even further beyond my capacity).
But, as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, I have begun, taking half steps and whole steps as my mind and hands are able to find a way.
My most recent victory was to finish the fiendishly chromatic Allemande from the Bach suite. The first half was learned easily enough, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that I was able to hold the final few measures of the second half in memory from one practice session to the next.
I still often catch myself wondering how I’m going to accomplish what I’ve set out to do, especially since, as is often the case when we take an opportunity presented by the universe and run with it, the project has grown into a mission to play the program at least once in all fifty states.
Yes, it’s about Chopin, but it’s also about raising awareness of the fact that a blind person can play at the highest level, of showing the world that Braille music is a viable tool for independence, and taking listeners on a journey they might not otherwise embark on.
I could have done an all-Chopin program, and I’m sure many pianists will. The B Minor sonata is on my “must play” list, but not until my technique has grown even further.
In the twenty-four preludes, Chopin put all the different aspects of pianism in miniature form. For me, this is a journey of education. I’m allowing the pieces to teach me how to play, how to produce effects I once only dreamed of being able to achieve. Already, No. 8 has shown me that, by keeping the fingers close to the keys, you can bring out a melodic line and surround it with swirling notes that sound as if they have just blown in on a strong west wind.
Some days, I leave the piano exhausted, unsure how I will learn everything I need to if I want to play this program. I listen to the CD I’ve made of the recital pieces (Schiff on Bach, Uchida on Mozart, Polini on Chopin). With each listening, the music gets absorbed a little deeper into my being, and when I return to the keyboard, things that seemed insurmountable the night before make a little more sense. Even if I don’t have the whole solution, I may have the first step, enough to make my way through two more measures.
This coming Thursday, I will give the first semi-public performance of the prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 5, the piece that will open the program next year. I will be playing for a meeting of the Etude Club of Schenectady. It is a group for women musicians who gather each month to play for one another. For me, the meetings and the performance opportunities they present are an impetus to bring a piece to the highest level possible, at least given the short time it’s been since I first began working on it.
Throughout the next year, I will set several such performance milestones for myself. For me, these are important because they will compel me to have things finished and in a coherent musical form in time to present them convincingly to an audience.
But by this date next year, I will be unveiling the first full-length public presentation of my program. More than ever before, I know that I can play this at a level of musicality and polish that I never could have in the past. I also am beginning to believe the people who have said all along that I am a great player, with something unique to present. I am beginning to understand that I should be heard by more than just family and friends. And, at long last, my heart is returning to my music, and my voice is no longer content to sing in just a whisper.