Archive for June, 2011

Finding a Musical Intelligence  – Chopin and The Art of Touch

Michael Jones


Chopin may have been one of our first ‘ecologists’, a composer and inventor so deeply attuned to the sense of his inner and outer environment, that his music’s deep sensibility serves as a touchstone that can detect the most subtle of variances in sound, rhythm and pitch.

Michael Jones

A Story of Place

 This past weekend I facilitated a regional forum for community leaders on creating a new story of place. Upon reflecting on their own inspiration of place, many spoke of the power and beauty of nature and community. Others also spoke of the quality of place inside – that leadership is not only a question of how you lead – but also the place you lead from.

Coincidentally shortly after the forum a colleague who is giving a presentation on the ‘Musician Leader’ later this month wrote to ask;  “ What leadership competencies are generated when you spend a lifetime playing and creating music?  It’s becoming very important for educators to communicate the value of music education, not just for the purposes of increasing musical skill/talent, but other equally important qualities for work and life”

One of those values of a music education has been discovering a sense of place. And one of the touchstones that has connected me to the inner place I play from over a lifetime of piano practice has been the music of Frederic Chopin.

I was first introduced to Chopin by my music teacher who, one day suggested that I see a movie titled The Eddie Duchin Story. Eddie Duchin was a widely respected society pianist who opened and closed his engagements with the Chopin Nocturne in E flat minor. When I first heard it performed during the opening scenes I was completely entranced.  I was twelve at that time and I had never heard a piano sound this way before.  And when I listened again as it was performed with two pianos and four hands during the closing credits I was overcome with feeling – my eyes filled up with tears. As I left the theatre I could remember the magnificence of the sonority of the music and the resonance of each musical note.

 Chopin; A Deeply Personal Adventure

Chopin was a student of place.  His preference for conveying the natural flow and organic form of music revealed how in touch he was with his environment. This intimacy with the natural world was such that the refined articulation of the shapes and surfaces of his world were fully embodied in his own inner musical articulations.  He lived in an empathic resonance with his surroundings.

Not only was he a profound composer– he was also a daring innovator and designer – one whose prophetic harmonies drew succeeding generations of composers and pianists under his spell.  In this context Chopin may have been one of our first ‘ecologists’ a composer and inventor so deeply attuned the sense of his inner and outer environment, that his music’s deep sensibility served as a touchstone that could detect the most subtle of variances in sound, rhythm and pitch.

While my lessons involved precisely following the notes and chords recorded on the page – and learning how to interpret the mood and tempo prescribed by the composer – with Chopin so much more is left for the performer to interpret regarding the structure of sound and space. His interest was always to encourage the student to be guided by his or her own innate sensibility regarding how the music should flow.

Most significant perhaps is that at a time when Chopin’s contemporaries were offering virtuostic displays of prodigious speed and technique, Chopin’s concept of technique was based on sonority. The mastery of the piano’s tonal resources was for him the necessary precursor of virtuosity. To perform Chopin therefore involves exploring all the many ways that a note might sound so that as a pianist you become fully literate in all the tonal possibilities available at your fingertips.

So for all that Chopin was revered and admired in the world, his music was always a deeply personal musical adventure, the articulation a personal touchstone to which everything else could be measured and understood. The seeing, touching and hearing of the music opens an inner world in which new qualities of musicality can be felt.

Finding A Musical Intelligence 

 This may lead us to ask; how do we find this musicality?   In the years that followed, I discovered that to master Chopin’s language of touch involved less focus on performing from the wrists and the forearms and instead allowing the sound to begin in the center of my back.  To accomplish this I needed to keep my attention on the looseness of the upper arms and shoulders so that the elbows could always float free. By shifting my orientation so that the whole body was engaged, including my hands, back, shoulders and lungs, I developed a physical and embodied relationship with the instrument. This enabled me to bring more color, contour and freedom so that the upper melodic notes could sing very much in the spirit of the Bel Canto line Chopin loved so much from Italian Operas such as Verdi. To find this singing line involved an inner and outer connection. This connection allowed me to develop a suppleness – (or Souplesse avant tout!  Chopin would say- Suppleness before everything was his pianistic motto) in the wrist action that gave me the flexibility in my hands to shape and bend the notes rather than strike, force or – in Chopin’s language – bash them. This was the worst of all offences in his mind.

This shift in orientation from playing from the wrists to playing from the whole body what not just piano technique but a way of living. It was an orientation to the piano that allowed me to more naturally move with the full weight of fingers along the keys creating both a depth of expression and a lightness of touch at the same time.  Chopin wanted each finger to find its distinctive character so that the player could expand the full range of their palette. This could not be accomplished if the player yielded to the equalizing the fingers – a common technique at the time. For Chopin the richness was found in the diversity of the finger weight, the rhythm and tone.

Ease- Chopin’s Trademark Prescription

He recognized that cultivating these differences through the movement of weight could not be achieved without ease. This was his trademark prescription – “ facilement!  He would say easily… easily.  Ease was at the core of his philosophy of piano technique.  With ease a pianist could convey the impression that they were playing with four hands, not just two.   Furthermore, when the sound originated from this sense of relaxation and ease then it could unfold freshly and naturally.  Then each could play according to their own need, he would emphasize.

The result of this shift in orientation is that with Chopin, you don’t strike the note. Rather you sink the full weight of your arms and shoulders into how you shape the sound so that you can create this warm singing tone.  In this context Chopin looked more for poise and grace in his students playing than for force or effort. Throughout his teaching it was the delicacy of the notes that took precedence over technical virtuosity. What he wanted his student to master above all was the ‘art of touch’

“Caress the keys, never force them,” he would say repeatedly.  And he always encouraged his students to mould each note with a velvet hand rather than striking it – it was as if the through immersing themselves in the depths of the piano that the instrument itself was transformed into something alive and responsive to the variability of weight and the expressiveness and intelligence of the hand.

In this context stiffness exasperated him. To find this ease he would say to his students; “Express as you feel…. I give you the full authority to do whatever you want; follow freely the ideal you have set for yourself and which you must feel within you”

Thus for Chopin simplicity and suppleness of the hand and body was the hardest thing but for him they were also the only thing.  No matter how complex, difficult or challenging the music, he always encouraged his students to approach it with grace and ease. The beautiful quality of sound he sought after could only be found by being relaxed at the keyboard. It was this that created the poetry in the sound. It was through the discipline of finding just the right word or image – and his music communicated a kaleidoscope of feelings, stories and images – that he tried to develop a language in which the quality of tone and touch always took precedence over speed and virtuosity.

Lying Under the Piano

Foremost in his mind was the concern that his students avoid the “mental numbness” that comes from too many hours of strenuous practice. Please, he would say – to ensure that the spirit of naturalness and simplicity is preserved, if you find yourself straining in your practice leave the piano alone, instead go for long walks, visit museums or read a good book.  It is this avoidance of stiffness and strain that goes to heart of Chopin’s teaching and composition.

Every pianistic challenge imaginable is found in the complexity and expressiveness of Chopin’s music and yet, at no time did he want his students to strain. Instead his ultimate goal was for them to connect to their inner music as a touchstone  – then, and only then, could they express this music as an intimate expression of their unique inspiration to the world.

Fifty years later I was a witness to the music of Chopin in a movie theatre for a second time. This time the movie was Impromptu with Judy Davis with Hugh Grant. It was set as a lovely period piece in the 1830’s outside Paris, France where Chopin and his companion George Sand are spending a warm Sunday afternoon on a country estate. Suddenly the rain pours down and they quickly retreat to the parlor were George Sand immediately lies under the piano (the only place where she would listen to Chopin play) and insists that he perform music that has the feeling of the rain and thunder outside.

Over the past twenty years many hundreds of people have also listened to my musical impressions of wind, rain and thunder in conferences, workshops and seminars. And   they have also closed their eyes and become immersed in sound, as they lay side by side under the piano much as George Sand did 150 years before.


 1.The opening correspondence was from Colin Funk who I have worked with as a faculty member in the Leadership Development Program at the Banff Centre when he was Director of The Leadership Lab. Colin has a contract with the National Arts Centre as a consultant for the Music Alive program (musician outreach to schools) and presenter/workshop facilitator for the Summer Institute where he is doing a presentation for the students and faculty on the “Musician Leader

2. Recently I also enjoyed an insightful conversation with author Peter Block and other artist colleagues as we explore a language that establishes connections between artistry, dialogue and community.  In my work with them I reflected on my formative experiences at the piano such as playing it as an orchestra, using all 88 keys and inventing musical soundtracks with nature that created a sense of music making as a sacred occasion – all these and more, laid an early foundation for creating transformational learning experiences for leaders through music in later years…more about this in future essays.


 Frederic The Great with Alan Walker, Jessica Duchen and Jeremy Siepmann in Chopin His Life, His Genius, His Legacy BBC Music Magazine February 2010 P 25 Bristol UK.

Chopin: Pianist and Teacher by Jean -Jacques Eigeldinger, edited by Roy Howat, translated by Krysia Osostowisc (1987) Copyright 1986 Cambridge University Press.


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