When my teacher first suggested I start working etudes after my Nocturne, I honestly had no idea what I was getting into. Heck, I barely knew what etudes were. Sure as a girl I’d heard the awesome Revolutionary Etude and so I knew the word but didn’t really know how these pieces were special in any other way.
Etudes are now, in a sense, special pieces to me. When I began working on Chopin’s op. 10 no.9 it didn’t take me too long to realise that the piece was on a whole different level than I was used to. In a nutshell, etudes are pieces that offer specific technical challenges but are also musical pieces in themselves. In this way, they differ from the daily “excercises” that are all technique and have no real musical side.
Here’s what I mean when I say that etudes are completely different beasts. In the beginning, it really did seem to be all about fingers. In the case of op.10 no.9, the technical difficulty of simply spanning a fifth with just your fourth and fifth fingers seemed quite mind boggling to me. However, in contrast to all the preludes, fugues and other pieces I’d played before this one, that little finger difficulty was just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s my take on the challenge of learning, and why after all of that, its still worth it.
A huge part of etudes is the sheer amount of time they take to master, unless your technique is already quite formidable. It often felt like there were two levels of difficulty while playing the piece – the first enemy is the technical demands it places on hands, and the second enemy was training the mind. This isn’t to say that other pieces don’t possess these difficulties, but the etude really seemed like boot camp in comparison.
While the earlier pieces I played had one or two major difficulties, the etude seemed to have crammed a bunch into a single piece. First was the stretch, then came the extensions, then came the extensions on black keys….and we haven’t even talked about speed yet. Needless to say, it takes a significant time commitment to overcome these difficulties.
Psychologically, the etudes are pretty tough too. Day after day I would play the same piece without seeing the slightest improvement. That’s just how it is sometimes – fingers don’t stretch overnight, and brains don’t memorise complex phrases overnight. But hitting a wall over and over again really made me grapple with my own inner demons. It’s one thing to work through a particular section and quite another to be playing the same piece for months at snails slow pace, barely making it through. It hits your confidence pretty hard and brings in moments of self-doubt. There were times when I began to question if I could really play the piano because I would honestly sound like a baby on it sometimes.
Etudes pose difficulties not just in dealing with yourself, but also in understanding and memorising complex structures and phrases. The second page on op.10 no.9 was the bane of my existence for the longest time since I had no idea what was going on. I’d look and look and look again and go “What the hell is he doing??”
So the question is, why would anyone want to deal with the scale of frustration and difficulty that go a long with these piece? In a word, the answer to me is empowerment. Sure these pieces can impress audience and evoke ooohs and aaahs, but the real reward is what it does for the player.
It is no exaggeration to say that I am a different person from when I began learning the etude. I look at things differently now, my hands are forever changed, and suddenly the impossible seems possible. Before learning an etude I would look at pieces like the Revolutionary Etude or a Rachmaninoff Concerto and wistfully sigh, unable to see them in sight. And now, if I look at any of these, I still appreciate their difficulty and the time commitment it would take to learn them but the thought of “Ah maybe in a million years” has now changed to “Alright let’s see where we can start”.
It feels like I’ve learned a vital tool in my piano playing that will help in other pieces along the road. And along with that tool, I’ve also learned and confronted a little more of myself. Perhaps the bridge between my mind and hands has become a little stronger. All of this is empowering to me as player and it gives me the confidence to attempt things that were otherwise.
I often wondered why playing an Etude made eyebrows rise or made it seem as though I’d somehow been accepted to the exclusive Country Club. It seems like a rite of passage now and I guess it’s a nod to the sacrifice and commitment it takes to play these pieces. It’s a nod of appreciation and perhaps an understanding of the transformation that took place in that journey.
It is with these thoughts that I went ahead and started my second Chopin Etude “ocean”. Sure, I sound awful right now and am playing it at a snail’s pace. I’ve been doing this for months and it will take lot more of this to get it right. Sure, there’s a certain page that I have absolutely no clue what he’s doing and the dissonance makes it hell to practice. But this time, I know the reward at the end and that makes the journey sweeter.