Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ballade Blogging, Part 7: Self-reflection

Though I've spilled more than 6,000 words in the past week, I'll have to admit that this "ballade" series has focused only intermittently on Chopin's fourth and final ballade. I've stayed busy practicing it, but I guess I'm more interested in letting the music speak for itself when I get around to recording it - or not recording it. Certainly there are plenty of recordings out there to speak for it. What has interested me is thinking more broadly about the experience of connecting to a piece, in this case a piece I also played about twenty-five years ago.

So, even my specific musical examples have had less to do with musical/technical analysis and more with my relationship to the piece. For example: 1) being genuinely surprised (in a piece I know!) by the way Chopin subtly reprises a theme and 2) finding tension in the way I hear a theme vs. the way it's notated. I've also mused about the 3) vivid way in which a musical re-encounter can awaken very specific memories and even 4) about the degree to which Chopin's ballade allows an introverted person like me to enact something passionate and extroverted - though within 5) a contained sort of context.

One subject I haven't tackled: what's the point in investing so much energy to learn something that's been recorded dozens of times (and performed thousands of times) by more able pianists? To some degree, this question implies a critique of the whole "classical music" mindset - why do we keep going back to the same well? Furthermore, since I tend to define myself as a "collaborative pianist" and my professional life revolves mostly around being an accompanist, music director, and professor, it almost feels selfish to spend so much time on solo stuff. Shouldn't I be working with someone else and being part of something bigger?

There are plenty of easy surface answers to that question. I'm a professional pianist and I teach piano (sometimes), so I should work on challenging repertoire and keep up my memorization skills, etc. If I'm a better musician, I'll do all my other jobs better. There's the possibility that audiences will enjoy hearing me play it live. Playing great music that's been handed down through the ages IS being part of something bigger. But on some level, there is still something a little bit selfish about this, if only because I think I'll get more out of it than anyone else will.

A Chopin ballade is a public piece in some respects, but I'd argue that its greatest rewards are for the person playing - the three-way intersection of the remarkable musical ideas with the countless hours spent internalizing them and the sensual connection with the instrument itself. When I play through the insane coda and most of the notes fall into place, it's an extraordinary meeting of mind, body, and spirit. Fingers are sent on very specific missions [mind], they experience tremendous tension and power [body], and I feel as if I'm flailing about like a madman [spirit]. An argument could be made that the audience gets to enjoy it more since they don't have to worry about the technical stuff - but that's not my experience.

I suspect this is one of classical music's problems. We all say we're doing it for the common good, to bring great art to audiences, to make the world a better place, yada, yada, yada - and all of those might be true, don't get me wrong - but I think most of us do it first because it's just so rewarding. No wonder we have so many students playing at absurdly high levels in the conservatories, even when there's no clear future ahead career-wise. The music and the instrument are incredibly compelling.

There've been times in the past few weeks when I could barely pull myself away from the keyboard. I wish I could say that happens more often in my daily musical life, but as I said in my first post, the solo piano repertoire was my first musical love, and it's really gratifying to re-connect with that part of myself. I enjoy going to concerts and listening to my iPod and the radio (although I don't listen with the passion I did as an avid LP-collector in my formative years), but being at the piano is where my musical center is.

Here's a little confession that's slightly embarrassing. A lot of times with recordings, my most engaged listening happens when I'm imagining that I'm the one performing. I've listened to this Richter recording of the Prokofiev 1st Concerto about fifty times driving down various highways, and often I'm seeing myself at the keys. When I'm listening that way, I'm completely locked in. (Amazing that I haven't gotten a speeding ticket!) I've also found that just about every piece my violinist daughter studies suddenly becomes so much more interesting - at least until she's done with it. For example, I've never had much interest in the Wieniawski 2nd - but when it was on the daily playlist here at Chez MMmusing, it seemed the equal of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos. I guess I'm saying something pretty obvious - that music works most deeply when it's personal.

Of course, "selfish" is kind of a loaded word - there's certainly nothing wrong with learning music for oneself, and there's no question that audiences have received countless gifts from performers who are motivated first by pure self-interest. Lots of stuff in life works that way. I don't really feel guilty about any of this - excerpt, perhaps, that I haven't practiced as much as I'd hoped...

So, here endeth this little series. I'd fantasized about posting my own recording today, but the truth is, there are a couple of pages not yet memorized, and I'll need some time to live with it even once the memory's done. It's a finger-twister! I was at first relieved to find that the ballade seemed easier to play than it did in college (one sometimes fears, at a certain age, that the technique will slip away), but I'm realizing that's partly because I can read and grasp complicated patterns much more readily than I once could, so getting started was a breeze.* The refining part is still just as hard, though. Back to work!

* It's also been kind of cool to see Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Rule" in action. I used to hate working in all those back-and-forth boom-chick patterns in Chopin's left-hand writing, but years of playing constantly (all those Schubert songs!) have made that seem effortless.

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