Chopin Ballade No 2 – An Amateur’s Playground (Part 1)

Let me start this post with the end, literally, in mind. You have a proper cliffhanger here, in the form of me unceremoniously running out of space whilst oblivious to the fact that I was doing so. So the clip here cuts off when I was just getting into flow.

But, caveat aside, I hope you’ll see when you share with me here the beginnings of my exploration of Chopin’s Ballade number 2 in A minor that, premature termination notwithstanding, it’s worth me sharing this imperfect and sincere snippet with you here anyway.

Part of me thinks with a grin that it may induce you to “stay tuned for the next episode… akan datang” 😉 which I can assure you will come.

Because I got s o m u c h joy from finally sitting down at my piano, and doing exactly this. Letting you in to my private musical world, a world I gladly and yearningly inhabit with such singular pleasure.

A world that I have, on occasion at Cothill, already tasted the marvellous delight of sharing in precisely this way – talking out loud to an interested group of kids, who knew almost nothing about what I was playing, but whom were drawn to come watch and listen in curiosity and wonder, to me articulating as I went along what there could be, latent in the music, to hear.

I want to be clear about what the nature of this delight was for me. It was the chance to -explain- to them – like I do here – what kaleidoscope opens up so subtly, shimmeringly, evocatively, to me when I put fingers to keys and let the music in me come out the way it calls out so irresistibly to be expressed.

Being an amateur enthusiast at a certain level, skilled enough to scale some mountains, delivers an odd kind of satisfaction and pleasure that I wonder whether the professionals, with the unconscious competence of their highly-practiced technique, experience in a similar way.

Because this odd satisfaction and pleasure comes -precisely- from the fact that I am just not that good.

And that means that, instead of tossing off the scales and octave jumps with seasoned ease, I have to **slog** away at them.

And this is a long, slow, incremental, messy, frustrating process.

I have the advantage of my finely-trained musical memory to help here, of course. I have usually listened to the pieces I choose to teach myself to play – like this Ballade here, and its three other siblings, plus the two Scherzos that I can already (kind of) play at (village hall) performance level, Scherzo number 4 I am also slowly working my way through, leaving only one last Scherzo still a stranger, out of this divine set of 8 Ballades and Scherzos that I set out 22 years ago in Duino to start learning – several hundreds of times. So I have the sound of it already in my head when I start to figure out the playing. This is invaluable. This music in my head guides me forward as I map out the terrain, note by note, chord by chord.

(This is another reason why my playing repertoire hasn’t expanded much, besides the obvious reasons of lack of life bandwidth to devote to practice. I have fallen out of the discipline of sightreading new pieces, and to learn to play a new piece that I have never heard before is just too effortful a cognitive task for me to be motivated enough to try.)

So what happens when I slog away?

I get to play it through, very slowly.

And what does -that- give me?

It gives me – and I realise now that it has given me this for many years, way preceding any formal knowledge of “mindfulness” or “meditation” or “being present” that I have acquired in recent times – the inimitable, intense enjoyment, of appreciating the master’s craftsmanship.

BECAUSE I have to play it through quite slowly when I am learning it, I have plenty of occasion along the way to admire the way Chopin BUILT it.

This involves not only an admiration of the overall architecture and storyline of the piece. It also delivers these incredibly satisfying nuggets of gold. The way he constructs ALL his chords (and I mean ALL his chords), for example. I studied harmony as part of my piano theory, and there are certain rules around how to build a chord, so that it doesn’t sound trite, square, or graceless. I have played hundreds of chords in the various Chopin pieces I know and I can tell you that every single one of them is flawlessly constructed. So much so, that with his chords he can lead you helplessly, Pied Piper-like, from a place that you thought was all sweetness and light, through some mysterious alchemy that you don’t really understand but can feel is in play, to a place of ominous shadows and foreboding.

What distressed me some in this particular clip was that I inadvertently ran out of filming space, just when I was right in the middle of showing you how he does this with ONE note change, in one chord. A G, instead of the F you would expect, opens a subtle dissonance, a crack in the edifice. (I think jazz owes its entire life to the Romantics and thereafter. For that’s how they spin their magic, too. I hear it in my favourite composers – Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and also Ravel and Rachmaninoff, though I don’t play the latter two at all (yet). This pull of restlessness riffing against a base seemingly solid, sometimes so subtle you don’t hear it as much as feel it, sometimes so in-your-face there are whole waves of anguish mounting crest after crest into some high point of outcry (the start of Liszt’s Sonnet 104, for example), before some partial resolution arrives to soothe and draw out.)

You see, I hear all this.

And sometimes when I hear the pros play, it feels to me like their unconscious competence runneth over in strings of overly-effortless sparkle.

The Chopin lover in me pleads silently, “Nooo! Where are the *textures* in this melody line? Where’s the tug of pathos? Where is the irony of this childlike melody, about to be shattered by a crash from the heavens?” (Page 2 of this Ballade is like that.)

Sometimes the left hand is doing such interesting things while nominally supporting the main actor of the right hand, that I find myself ruing with aching regret that my unpractised fingers are JUST NOT UP to expressing the tapestry in my inner ears. I can hear it. I cannot play it like I hear it, like I know it can sound.

This is its own form of the most beautiful torment.

(This is also why I seek the refuge of expression in my words. Why I paint with my words the way I do.)

I’ll empty my phone and record my way through successive chunks of this, when I have the time. And hopefully, as you come along this most personal and blissful of journeys with me, you come to understand a little more viscerally why eudaimonic happiness, the pleasure principle inherent within the practicing of resilience and grit, and all that I keep on writing about the rewards of honing one’s awareness through mindfulness practice, all speak so truly to me.

Because it *really is like that*.
Life’s greatest pleasures I have tasted to date are really unlocked through discipline, like this. 🎹


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