The Secret to Playing Chopin

Pianist Warren Mailley-Smith on overcoming the challenge Chopin's music presents.

The Secret to Playing Chopin
Warren Mailley-Smith

I will soon be giving the 6th recital in my Complete Chopin Cycle, at which point I will pass the halfway point in the series.  As the series has progressed, a recurring question I’ve been asked is how so many notes can be remembered.    

I am sure that other pianists have also found that the more notes you have to play, the more important it is to focus on the bigger picture, for fear of getting 'bogged down' in a particular passage.  It is certainly much easier to retain the big building blocks of a particular piece in your mind than to focus on each individual note.  An excellent example of where this approach has really helped me is in the Mazurkas.  I've been familiar with a lot of Chopin’s music for many years, although less so with the Mazurkas.  Therefore I've had to find an efficient and reliable way of committing this large number of subtly different works to memory in a shorter time frame.  The Mazurkas lend themselves particularly well to being broken down into these clear blocks, so at key places in the music I set signposts in my head about which way to turn next.

The more of his music I play, the more fascinated I become with the conflicting forces at work in his music.  On the one hand, it has a natural flow and simplicity to it, with waves of emotion that seem to reflect his legendary improvisatory skills.  (He was famous for regularly entertaining his friends late into the night as he improvised at the piano).  On the other hand, there is a ruthless precision and clarity to every note he wrote, so that to leave out the smallest detail fundamentally changes the meaning of the whole piece.

It is probably fair to say that most music benefits from a feeling of spontaneity, preventing it from sounding prosaic or too safe and mechanical.  But I think that in the case of Chopin, the secret of performing his music lies in balancing the instructions on the page with a feeling of almost spontaneous improvisation.  Of course, anything that is truly spontaneous in performance comes with a healthy dose of extra risk, but when something genuinely unrehearsed and magical happens in a performance, the performer and the audience are really sharing the same experience, and the music comes alive.

Which is possibly why I am finding this particular journey such a rewarding one, as there is really never an opportunity to get bored with this music.  The more you look, the more there is to find.  I hope, of course, that this is as true for the audience as it is for myself…

Warren Mailley-Smith

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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