Winds of Change
In the ongoing effort to stimulate my students, I have occasionally tried an all-studio repertoire project. For example, in the winter of 2009 my students performed two recitals devoted to the complete solo piano music of Maurice Ravel. This turned out to be a splendid choice: two quite advanced students had already undertaken Gaspard de la Nuit and Le tombeau de Couperin, another had two movements of Miroirs scheduled for her recital, and another was working on Sonatine. Yet another had played Valses nobles et sentimentales during the previous year. From there it wasn't that difficult to assign the remaining pieces: difficult shorter works went to graduate students, easier shorter works to undergrads, including three freshmen that year. Ravel's solo piano music fits on two 70+ minute CDs, so it's not like undertaking all the Beethoven sonatas or the complete solo works by Brahms. We learned a lot from the experience and at the same time bonded as a group more intensely than weekly studio classes permit.
This year the studio's population had changed enough that I thought it time to try another project, and over the summer I hit on the idea of tackling the twenty-four Chopin Etudes contained in Opus 10 and 25. There were thirteen students, two with rather small hands, so my concept was that eleven students would play two etudes apiece, with the remaining two going to the students who had never before been thankful for petite hands. How hard could it be? I thought. With barely more than an hour's worth of music to learn, and everyone "knowing" the etudes from years of aural familiarity if not digital experience, and no one having to play more than two etudes, this would be relatively easy. And with a December 2010 recital date, we'd even get in under the wire of the Chopin Year.
The first sign of trouble came in the opening lessons of the fall semester. I had e-mailed everyone their assignments in June, but curiously, hardly anyone brought their etudes to the first lesson. In the ensuing weeks they started trickling into the studio, one at a time, at very slow, labored tempos. As optimistic as I had been, I wasn't expecting miracles, and so with each etude we set to work "solving" the technical problem, developing practice methods, searching for the musical poetry latent in the forest of notes. It was stimulating work, but slow. Progress was even slower. I'm rather ashamed to admit, given my years of teaching experience, that I thought my students would gobble up these etudes like so many potato chips. Had I given it more thought, I might have remembered that Chris, the kind of student who would be a star in any studio and whose Gaspard left jaws on the floor wherever he played it, had only partial success with the first etude (Op. 10, No. 1) when he attempted it.
Chris had moved on to graduate school elsewhere, and Op. 10, No. 1, fell to Daniel, whose enormous hand would have less trouble with it (or so I thought) than anyone else in the studio. Dear Jingyi, she of the quick, precise Chinese-trained fingers, had Op. 10, No. 2. Trevor, the poetic freshman, landed Op. 10, No. 3; fiery Noah caught a break with No. 4 since he had already played it, but he was determined to play it better this time. And so on, each student with a distinct story matched to etudes that seemed to have wills of their own. In making the assignments, I tried to be sensitive to difficulty levels, so if a student ended up with a handful like Op. 10, No. 7, which fell to sophomore Kent, the other etude was supposed to be "easier," in this case, Op. 25, No. 4, one of the least-often played. We discovered the reason for this paucity of performance: it's just as difficult as any of the etudes—it only sounds easier. Indeed, Kent probably had more trouble with his "easy" etude than with the ever-formidable Op. 10, No. 7.
About six weeks into the semester I realized we would need a booster rocket if this project was ever to get off the ground. My former Peabody colleague and distinguished Chopinist Ann Schein was in the neighborhood for another residency, and we were lucky enough to invite her to give us an all-day session on the etudes in mid-November. With her appearance imminent, everyone's practice seemed to go into high gear. Ann knows the etudes as only someone who learned all of them at age twelve can. To say that her seven hours with us was humbling understates the case by a factor of ten. As hard as I had tried to "solve" the problems in these pieces for my students, there could be no substitute for the years of familiarity Ann had with them. She couldn't "solve" the problems either—it was simply the years of working on them, of knowing each note in the body, the mind, and the soul. Everyone but Ann was exhausted at the end of that day. She would have gone on all night!
We had to get up the next morning, though, and push on to the performance. Lessons and studio classes became wall-to-wall Chopin etudes. Yet another difficulty reared its ugly head as we began to imagine the recital experience itself: sitting down cold and playing the fast etudes is like diving into an icy, turbulent sea and swimming for your life. There could be no warm-up: just coming onstage and playing two minutes of dizzyingly intricate pianistic patterns. Cadence. Bow. Then someone else does it all again, through two sets of twelve. This was not a recipe for a delightful recital experience for either performer or listeners. So we made lemonade: I took on the role of genial host, seated comfortably in a chair to the side of the stage and talked to the audience about the whole project, about what it's like to learn these pieces, about what goes into performing one. This took some of the pressure off, since we were allowing the audience a glimpse into the process rather than presenting a finished product. I said that mistakes were permitted—everyone had a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. And why not? The impossible demand for perfection every time we step on stage is paralyzing. Perhaps we would have a better connection to our audiences if they were more aware of just how difficult it is to play in public. Perhaps more students of all ages would continue to make music if they weren't afraid of making a mistake.
As it turned out, not many cards were needed. Daniel practically aced Op. 10, No. 1, and was greeted by a high five from his teacher as he left the stage. Noah wailed through Nos. 4 and 5, earning personal bests in each. Chelsea traced the intricate chromatics of No. 6 and arrived safely onshore. Kent nailed No. 7, and Charl delighted with No. 8. I cannot mention everyone, but I must give Vicky a special honor for conquering her fear of the dreaded "Double Thirds" etude in Op. 25, performing it with great assurance only a few weeks after giving birth to her first child.
Everyone conquered inner demons that day. The project of mastering the Chopin Etudes will continue for years for all of us, but on that one day, we could all say we had more than begun the process.