Saturday, February 11, 2017 9:48 PM
Fryderyk Chopin was tutored in piano by Wojciech Żywny from age six until age eleven. From age 13 to age 16, Chopin (a child prodigy) studied at the Warsaw Lyceum, then composition under Józef Elsner. Chopin lived in Warsaw until the age of 20, in 1830, when he and several friends decamped to Paris—just prior to the November Uprising that same year. This marked the start of a doomed Polish struggle against Russian rule which Chopin is noted as supporting from afar throughout his brief adult life.
Chopin was such a consummate pianist that some of his compositions, when they do not cross into virtuoso territory (which was often the case) are technically accessible even to someone like me—though reading-through and playing the correct notes (mostly) is still a far cry from a true, capital-P performance of a Chopin work. His delicate lyricism and serendipitous, near-improvisational freedom of expression are found nowhere else in written music—and merely playing the notes as written is just a beginning towards reaching the full effect.
But I try—there is something about playing a piece oneself, on the piano—it is the reason that I play, albeit poorly, and with no hope of ever mastering the instrument. When we listen to music, we hear only the sound it makes. But in reading the music, as written by the long-dead genius (or any other) and in pressing the keys with my own hands, I feel an understanding and a connection to Chopin that is easily equal to relationships I’ve had with living people—I get not only the end result, the sound—but also the roots, the human source of whatever musical invention I happen to be playing. It is a wonderful kind of rush that transformed the way I listen to music, as much as it included me in the making of music.
Thus, when I play Chopin, I can stop dead in the middle of the piece—odds are I had to, but even still, I speak to Chopin—I say, ‘clever, that bit—and very beautiful.’ And Chopin replies, ‘I thought you’d like that.’ It’s amazingly like a vicarious composition of my own—as if I was creating it instead of playing it off the sheet music—as if I were Chopin. Despite the fact that my end results are hardly praiseworthy, in the playing of the music myself, I can hear it as Chopin first imagined it—in some ways, sounding more beautiful than the most polished artist’s performance of the same piece.
I was a weird kid. I enjoyed classical music in grade school—I had a lot of LPs, and many more that I borrowed from the Katonah Village Library. I sometimes fought with my siblings about playing classical music on the big stereo in the living room (rather than their rock n’ roll—not that I didn’t enjoy some of that, too) but most often, I would stack’em up on my record player, turn out the lights and lie on the floor to listen in the dark. My dad hated that—he’d burst in and turn on the lights and say, ‘What the hell are you doing in here in the dark?’ or whatever.
But my point is this—I’ve always loved classical music. But it wasn’t until I was fifteen (way too old) before I took piano lessons. There’s something about hitting the keys and making the notes play—feeling the music as an activity, as a part of you, instead of listening to music—it gave me a heightened appreciation of music that I don’t believe is possible without some experience, with some instrument, or with the voice. Glenn Gould’s Bach recordings, for instance, went from relaxing to fascinating—without changing a note—it was like a veil was lifted for me. Music is a wonderful thing to hear—but it isn’t until you make your own that you get the full picture, as it were.
And I’d say that’s why I improvise at the piano every day, too. I can’t make great music, but I can make music—and there’s something very empowering about playing music that no one else has written down, music that I make up as I go along. Survivalists prepare for a life after civilization—I suppose I’m preparing for a life after I-tunes?