Making the Well-Known Our Own

This week’s guest blog post features an article on how to approach interpretation of well-known works by Ken Johansen, author of the From the Ground Up series. In this post, Ken shares his thoughts on preparing a new edition for his series featuring Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 (please see further information at the end of this post) and provides some suggestions as to how one can develop a personal interpretation of popular works.

*** *** ***

Making the Well-Known Our Own

Thoughts on Learning Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat

Why do certain piano pieces become so well known? A catchy title seems to help, whether given by the composer or not. One thinks immediately of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. In addition, these popular pieces combine high musical quality, compelling emotional content, and technical approachability. And of course, the more they are performed and recorded, the more other people hear them and want to play them, making them still more popular.

Playing a popular piece of music brings a certain pleasure, like visiting a monument we’ve seen countless pictures of (the Eiffel Tower, the Little Mermaid). We already have an emotional connection to the piece, and our aural familiarity with it gives us easier access to it. But familiarity also poses challenges. It’s difficult to explore a score with fresh eyes and ears when we’ve already heard others play it countless times. Rather than searching for our own understanding of the music, we may subconsciously be trying to recreate a recording we admire.

These thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing an edition of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, no. 2 for my series, From the Ground Up. This piece is among the most popular of Chopin’s works, and seems to have been a favorite at least as far back as the early 20th century, when it was recorded by most of the great pianists of that golden age: Rachmaninoff, Hoffmann, Rosenthal, Paderewski, etc. It’s certainly an attractive piece, and not as technically challenging as most of Chopin’s other Nocturnes. But its very fame makes it difficult to interpret. The layers of tradition and habit built upon a piece of this kind can act as barriers to a direct, unbiased understanding of it.

To cut through these layers and experience this Nocturne afresh, I believe we need to try and reconnect directly with the emotional content of the music. A good way to start is by singing the melody while playing the accompaniment with two hands, as if it were an Italian opera aria.

Singing puts us in direct connection with the music, as we are literally giving our own voice to the melody. It teaches us where to breathe, which intervals to stretch with rubato, and how to carry the line forward with continuity. Playing the accompaniment by itself with two hands (a practise method advocated by Chopin himself) acquaints us better with the harmony, and gives us an aural ideal to strive for when playing it with the left hand alone.

Other practise methods that can help put us in touch with the vocal nature of Chopin’s melodic writing include re-fingering the melody to make the bigger leaps more difficult. Playing large jumps with one finger helps to simulate the difficulty, and expressive nature, of singing large intervals.

We can also replace the long notes of the melody with repeated notes to make us more aware of the inner portions of these notes (an awareness that singing also gives us).

Reducing the left hand to its fundamental bass line, as in the previous two examples, is yet another way of hearing the music afresh. This helps us to perceive the bass as a secondary melody, and to hear how it supports and guides the right hand melody.

Returning to the music as written after these kinds of exercises, we find that we have a new understanding of it, one that comes from our own experience, rather than from our memory of other people’s performances. In this way, we can develop a heartfelt, personal interpretation of even a well-known work.

– Ken Johansen

***   ***   ***

If you enjoyed this article then you may be interested in the author’s From the Ground Up series, or the latest edition which features Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Op. 9 No. 2 and provides a detailed guide to learning this famous piece efficiently and with understanding and creativity. Click here to view the walk-through on the Online Academy or click here to purchase and download a printable PDF version of the edition.

From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up is a series on the Online Academy devoted to learning individual pieces using outlines and reduced scores that help you to practise more effectively, memorise more consciously, and interpret music more creatively.

Each From the Ground Up edition starts with a reduced score or foundation which reveals the essential structure of the music. Detail is then added in layers through successive scores thus enabling learning a piece from the ground up rather than the top down. Please click here to find out more about From the Ground Up or on one of the following links to view the available editions: