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All I Really Need to Know, I Learned from a Chopin Nocturne

Brad Hull

Brad Hull

I grew up in a small conservative town in Pennsylvania. As a budding piano player, my entire focus was on the great hymns of the faith, playing in church every Sunday.

The first time I had ever memorized a piece of classical music was in preparation for my college entrance auditions.

With this small bit of information about me, you can well imagine the sight of me as a very green, frightened, and shy freshman, entering the halls of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music as a piano major, walking around the three floors of practice rooms hearing incredible music emanating from almost every one. On top of that, due to a lack of attention to technique, I had developed tendonitis the summer before.

My piano teacher was phenomenal and we studied the Chopin Nocturne in D-Flat, op. 27 no. 2 for the entire year. Little did I know that these were lessons not only about Chopin, but also about living and working. Here are a few things that I learned:

1. The best things in life require attention, presence, and care. Don’t take anything for granted. Chopin ended the phrase on the half beat for a reason. Turning this descending melody line upwards creates a very specific effect. Modulating to the subdominant here prepares the listener for the return of the A section. Honor these elements with your attention.

2. Meaning is only found when you bring to bear your own perspective. Every phrase requires your personal and conscious decisions based on your experience and your character. If you wish to develop a great rubato, it requires taste, refinement, and courage. The different choices that pianists make create whole worlds of meaning that originate with each musician’s own personality.

3. Tension stifles. If you want your nocturne’s melody to soar like a great line of bel canto opera, there can be no tension in your fingers, your hand, your wrist, your elbow, your shoulders or your body. Tension kills effectiveness and it destroys beauty.

4. Concentration elevates you. It places you in “the zone”—a place that transcends pedestrian abilities and where you feel fully actualized. In this world where multitasking is commonly praised, we’ve lost the gift of deep thinking and the creativity and freedom that it brings.

5. The abstract and practical are siblings. So many people shun speaking of abstracts, things too distant to seemingly matter—the political events in the 1830s when Chopin moved to Paris, the nocturnes of John Field, the nature of a Pleyel piano, or the science of acoustics. Yet all of these components have direct, meaningful application to a Chopin nocturne. For instance, understanding the pedal markings of Chopin relates to the intimacy of the Parisian salon.

6. Understanding, embracing and creating subtly is the power of life and art. One of my teachers once said to me, “if it were possible for me to teach you to play this Chopin exactly the way I do—every phrase, every dynamic level, every nuance of rubato, everything exactly as I do—it would still be different than mine, because your soul is different than mine.”

Although these are some of the things I learned in playing a Chopin nocturne, they have served me well in many different careers, although as with my Chopin, I am still practicing. Be present, know yourself and what you value, work from a place of peace, focus your whole being, understand the connectedness of things, and enjoy those subtle elements in life and work.

I suggest that these skills, once imbued into “the workforce,” would create a definition of success by which we all would be proud.

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