Every few years I get the bug to start playing the piano again for fun. This is generally after the bad dreams fade away where I’m in middle school again and performing a piece I can’t stand and my abusive piano teacher starts screaming at me that my technique sucks and writes in red caps over the music score that I need to sound sexier.
This past week I have been interested in playing Chopin Nocturnes again. Specifically the one in C minor, which is hailed as a tragic masterpiece. I’m throwing several decades of music history and theory training out the window—it sounds joyful to me.
The first section has a halting and mysterious theme, with a hint of playfulness surfacing in the periodic syncopation. Due to the tempo, it purposely drags a bit, like it wants to be firing on all engines and reach its full potential, but it can’t due to circumstance. The melody is gorgeous, but the accompaniment is sparse. The melody still finds opportunity for breezy embellishments—its making the most with what it has.
The second section is generally seen as bittersweet hope, ray of light. It reminds me of the type of music my abusive teacher would be all over me playing, because I could play a traditional romantic theme and be pleasing to look at. To me it sounds syrupy and fake. My teacher would always describe secondary themes as feminine and passive, so I view this theme as knowing what’s expected, playing it to the hilt, and hiding claws until a more opportune time to rip people that hurt you to shreds.
Towards the end of this section, there’s a hint of teeth as chromatic scales come into play and elbow aside the lush harmonies. It’s subtle at first, and then before you know it, you’ve gone from tender melody to murky chromatics to a key shift and the initial theme grinning at you.
And then the final section begins, which is generally interpreted as devastating. In this section, the halting melody from the first section is flying. As your right hand’s ring and pinky fingers play the melody, your left hand and remaining right hand fingers are rapidly playing quiet full-bodied chords. The melody is in motion, buoyed by constant sound. It’s confident in its twists and turns, reaching new levels of embellishment backed up by a gorgeous full accompaniment.
I’d link to various recordings but there are wildly varying interpretations. It’s tempting to turn this section into a Broadway tune—turn up the volume on the rapid chords, belt the melody, up the drama. There’s something satisfying on a meta-performance level of playing something technical and brash as loud as possible.
Looking at the actual score though, much of it is marked pianissimo—a quiet fury. It doesn’t need to be loud—it wanted to be alive, and now it is. Only a handful of measures towards the end are marked as forte, which is a beautiful development for the piece’s character—it’s gone from hesitant, to coping, to having a voice, to knowing when to raise it.
I’ve also thought of learning the e minor one as well. After I quit lessons with the abusive teacher, I picked away at various pieces I wanted to learn but was denied. Even with no constraints, I rejected this one because it seemed too easy, too fun. When you play music for four hours a day, you irrationally care about what a small sliver of pretentious people would think about what music you perform alone.
What’s a classical warhorse piece anyway? Most people sneer at “warhorses” that are “always played” yet the majority of people is clueless about this genre.
It seems that the pieces my small hands could play were always viewed as lesser pieces or “warhorses”—unless if they fell into the category of being completely slow, lyrical, and something my teacher would smirk about. Then they were perfect choices for me. Rarefied pieces were those that didn’t naturally fit my hand span and had a full range of emotions.
This is why being able to belt out the last section of that Nocturne would feel satisfying. I haven’t experienced it much with unusually small hands, most of the pieces I was praised for treated me as an object, lyrically playing softly happy or quietly tragic melodies. It’s also not a fun experience to attempt to play music your hands don’t naturally fit into, and realize that you’ll never play it as well with someone with regularly-sized hands, even after years of stretching and hand technique exercises.
So I tried a few days ago. Obviously even if you regularly play for 20 years, there will be rust when you don’t play for a few years. It was fun, and then thinking about the various exercises I’d need to do was less fun. I had thoughts initially on how it might be fun to play and share pieces I enjoy with others, and I wanted to nurture that idea because I was always terrified of performing, ever since my teacher would play mind games, say I was terrible, and secretly record my performances as a tutorial to the other students—when it finally came to light, apparently I reacted better when I was scared.
Soon after picking my way through some melodies slowly, the idea of playing publicly was less cool. Would people just view me as a delicate girl playing a sad melody? Would I look overly precious, a toddler playing dress-up in heels, if I tried to sound authoritative instead of stereotypically tragic? Aren’t there better uses of my time if I want to do something that feels rewarding and groundbreaking? I like doing things that reinforce I’ve healed from the constant mind games and mental abuse.
I sat on the couch and waited for the anxiety to subside, and then I logged onto beta to gather some seeds and rocks. I think with some patience and even more therapy, I could do a damn good job playing those Nocturnes. I’m not sure when that will be though. It will be hard but I want to keep trying.