A Chopin marathon

Pianist Warren Mailley-Smith on what he has learnt from marathon runners.

A Chopin marathon

With the arrival of BST, London marathon season appears to be well underway, with joggers populating the parks, cycle paths and pavements of central and suburban districts from noon till dusk. In recent years I’ve often found myself amongst their dedicated ranks, keeping a religious check on timings, distance and heart rates. Having experienced first-hand the level of planning, training, focus and energy that goes into running a race, I have felt even more admiration for comedian Eddie Izzard and his super-human undertaking of running 27 marathons in 27 days in order to raise funds for Sports Relief.  

This flurry of physical activity has also caused me to reflect on my current project of performing Chopin's complete works over this season at St John's Smith Square.  As any pianist will tell you, the process of preparing and delivering any challenging programme is one that takes much planning, preparation, reflection and practice along with a good deal of energy and discipline in the build up to the performance itself. The parallels between challenges that face runners preparing for a race versus musicians preparing for a performance are clear, despite some obvious differences.   Having now given 6 of the 11 concerts in my Chop-a-thon concert series, I have already discovered that one of the biggest prerequisites, despite all the planning in the world, is stamina, both mental and physical.

Often after a challenging recital one can feel in need of a short period of rest, both for the brain and the fingers!  However, with only 2-4 weeks between my programmes in this series of 11 programmes, rest has been a luxury that I have not been able to afford and I have often found myself looking deeper for mental and physical energy reserves than I have ever had to in the past.

My main motives for undertaking my particular marathon was to immerse myself in the music of a composer who I truly love to play, to stretch my artistic limits and to broaden my understanding of every facet of his music.

But an unintended result of such exertions has certainly been a development in both mental and physical stamina.  I have discovered that (with some sleep!), my capacity for uninterrupted bursts of concentration has noticeably increased, as has my overall rate of learning.Likewise, the increase in both technical and repertoire work that my fingers have enjoyed in the last 12-24 months has resulted in fingers that seem less prone to injury, strains and burnout.

But with an increase in ‘use’ I have become increasingly aware of the health risks for musicians associated with over-use, in particular those associated with posture, repetitive strain etc and so I have made a conscious effort to monitor my posture more than usual – and take more regular breaks than if I was practicing for shorter periods.At the same time, I have no doubt that as I ease my foot off the accelerator in a few months time, my stamina, if not immediately, is likely to decrease over time, if I don’t consciously continue to stretch myself at the outer limits.

So has dawned the realization of what a fine line we tread as professional musicians. On the one hand, we want and need to give 100% of ourselves on the concert platform but without pushing ourselves so hard that we damage ourselves in the process. Listening to our bodies will almost certainly help us to recognize where that line is.   And yet sometimes, whether in a race, or in our preparation for performance, that extra push, beyond our comfort zone is what will help us to achieve something we wouldn’t usually be able to do…

Mental and physical stamina certainly has to be developed over time, but unlike runners, whose occupation is often seasonal, a concert pianist’s work is required almost unceasingly all year round to ensure that ones best is delivered.  

Preparing and performing the complete works of Chopin could not have been a more enjoyable and rewarding way to help improve my own stamina – although for stamina-building alone, I’m sure there must be easier options; running 27 marathons, perhaps?!

Warren Mailley-Smith


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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