Shakespeare wrote the famous soliloquy for Hamlet “To be or not to be.”
Shakespeare needs revision. It should read “To b or not to b,” and this isn’t some corny algebra class joke (I remember it well from junior high). No, my reference is to Chopin’s prelude in b minor.
Self-care often becomes a casualty in the line of fire of half finished to-do lists (okay, okay, 1/10th finished to-do lists in my case), goals, deadlines, and other commitments. Messages bombard our brains like a firing squad harassing us to work, to produce, and to make money. These words plaster themselves on our consciousnesses like Hollywood video billboard ads.
How often do you experience this suspension of the noise that is our modern world? I felt it for a few minutes tonight, playing Chopin’s b minor prelude. The haunting yearning of the left hand melody and the right hand accompanying b minor triad. The note in this piece that hurts the most is the last sustained B in the piece, the third B below middle C. It resounds, then fades away, a quiet death, with the piano’s inability to sustain it, resurrected by a B one octave higher and followed by the mysterious beauty that ends the piece.
In the notes of the score including some of Chopin’s preludes (one in each of the minor and major keys and dedicated to his friend J.C. Kessler), my edition edited by Willard A. Palmer notes the abuse of tempo rubato in the playing of Chopin’s music. Tempo rubato. Stolen time. It seems there is some misunderstanding about this in the way Chopin is played, but that Chopin intended his pieces to be played precisely as written. He had a vision for his music. How dare we try to steal time. How dare we alter the meter of a piece or foist our ideas on the meter of how we live our lives. No one can steal time. Not even physicists. Not even Chopin who died at age 39.
I played this piece in a recital some weeks ago. The choir of voices berated me in my head as usual, imposing psychological obstacles to my measured practice of the piano, something with which I still struggle, despite it being one of my greatest of joys. I was unprepared for the recital but felt determined to show up anyway, part of my credo even before learning of the Woody Allen quote. The choir’s dynamic tuned themselves to a whisper, and I showed up, achieving my only goal (in addition to having a left hand singing tone). Previous exposures to recitals dimmed my performance anxiety; playing for friends is much more challenging than for anonymous strangers. Who might turn out to be not so anonymous, as I later discovered someone I knew was in the audience.
This is a lesson to me that change is possible. We can change ourselves through practice, including practiced exposure to our fears. We should never give up on ourselves or others, for we can always fight, even albeit a gentle one, for change in ourselves and maybe even our world or the world. Never give up is another one of my credos.
The other players at the recital were children, and their performances inspired me as much as a night at the symphony. Chopin’s b minor Waltz Op. 69 No. 2 opened the recital, played by a girl whose feet, I don’t recall, could touch the floor from her seat on the bench. Chopin’s Grande Valse Briliante Op. 34 No. 1 was also on the program as well as Dela’s Hommage. I felt humbled to be included among these gifted children at the recital. I felt humbled by their practiced dedication that led to their expert playing. I felt humbled and questioned why I could not be as committed, despite my love for my piano and piano music in general, as I am to physics or writing.
Playing the piano is being. I lack the talent to be. And yet, as a child I practiced ferociously, even four hours a day for some time when I wasn’t even taking lessons, learning by heart the piano orchestral accompaniment to my sister’s violin piece for a talent show, Mozart’s violin concerto in D, since it was the most beautiful piece of music I could find in the house at the time. I dare you to listen to its opening bars and feel Mozart’s passionate being in it.
Maybe we can learn from the children who make music, from the children we were, and the children we are, to play, to be free, and to be.
I owe it to Chopin to try.
We all do.