Chopin Waltzes and Antifragility

This is in reference to Chopin Waltz in B minor, Opus 69, No. 2. I played this as a French School student, and encountered another pianist who had learned this a couple years ago and resurrected it so we could discuss musicality. He mentioned that while he had no problems with the beginning, the latter part was problematic. This led to the following discussion.

Those darn repeated notes. The waltz would be a pleasant piece to play except for those rapid, repeated notes. And rapid repeated chords!!!! Chopin created a lovely boogeyman for generations of music students sweating the prospects of facing their recitals and juries with that particular piece.

Not only do you have to practice to master the technique, you’ll want to do targeted research when you practice: how high do you have to let your hand bounce to ensure you absolutely, positively nail those rapid repeated notes? That’s one element. How low can you bounce and get a more and more rapid repeated note / chord? Continuity rule on steroids. Also, some of those repeated notes are black keys!! Those are narrower and easier to miss. You learn to tilt your fingers slightly diagonally and flatten them to maximize the surface contact with those black keys and minimize the chances you will slip and miss something.

The other element is out of your control, but that plays a huge part too. How good is the action on the piano that you’re playing? If it’s regulated, voiced, and smooth as butter this will be a joy to play. If there are sticky keys or the action is not regulated, that's just a giant pothole waiting for you to fall in. I have a French School recital recording of my playing this piece with mistakes forever immortalized. So if you’re going to play this publicly, you’ll want to know exactly what beast of a piano you’re playing on. This just made me realize I need to add something to the performance anxiety chapter. If you are going to play publicly on a completely unknown piano, start with an easy piece first. Not only does this ease you into performing, warm you up, and build your confidence - most important of all, you can simultaneously gauge the condition of the piano and action, and decide from there what pieces you want to play.

- Out of tune? Might be nice to have a honky tonk repertoire ready. I realized that during Sing For Hope with the public outdoor pianos.

- Pedal out? Might be nice to have something that plays well without pedal. Ditto, discovered that one during Sing For Hope.

If it’s a less than stellar piano and you still want to go for it, obviously, you’re going to slow down when playing those repeated notes, add a lot of bounce and add musicality in lieu of showcasing your technical prowess with rapid repeated notes / chords.

So piano practice is much more than learning the notes, and it’s even more than the musicality. It’s also about learning how to become an antifragile performer, able to adapt to just about any condition out there. The most amazing thing I saw at Sing For Hope was when a group of us from a “Let’s Play Piano!” meet up met at one piano and took turns playing. This little boy joyfully ran up and started playing in the lower registers as one guy performed. He smiled graciously, Somehow Managed to keep playing all while not letting this kid mess him up!! He didn’t say hey stop! It was two people joyfully playing away. I admit even I don’t think I could pull that off. So if this Chopin is an outstanding piece to play, it’s because of both the musicality and the fact that it forces you to begin thinking about what you need to learn to become an antifragile performer.

Also, while the beginning of this waltz is bewitching and absolutely timeless, there are other parts that do not quite align with today's modern world. Then the question becomes, as a performer, how do you transport your audience through a time machine back to an era of grand ballrooms and couples in their sumptuous finery?

All of this turns what might otherwise be boring and robotic piano practice sessions hearing repeated notes and phrases over and over again, into infinite possibilities to explore in terms of technique, musicality and antifragility. This also reinforces the importance of mastering the fundamentals of music through solfege, and using efficient piano practice techniques, because you cannot begin to address all of these types of details without having that solid foundation on which to build.

Eileen Sauer