Visiting the house of my composer friend Matthew Smith (who has an outstanding CD out now, by the way), I noticed the score to Chopin’s E minor prelude out on the piano. It turns out that his wife, children’s book illustrator and author Lauren Stringer, is taking piano lessons, and she has been working on it. I was delighted — the piece is a favorite of mine. I dug out my recording of it for her to hear, and thought I’d bring it back to the podcast as well.
The piece has been a popular one on In the Hands — people have left many comments on it. I suspect that’s because it’s so popular with advanced beginner / intermediate piano students like Lauren. All of us who are, or once were, beginners owe Chopin our thanks for this piece: it is a great one, yet it’s within reach of a beginning pianist. (That’s not to undercut the task of learning it. Any pianist who has learned to play it well ought to be proud of their accomplishment! It is not in any way a trivial thing. In reach of a dedicated beginner, perhaps, but not easy.)
I abhor the idea that material for beginners should be dumbed down. Simplicity is necessary, but simplicity need not be dumb. We are especially guilty of doing this to children, but it happens to beginners of all ages. It’s kind of bait and switch: somebody loves music so much that they find the courage to start taking lessons, then we give them music that’s not worth loving, holding off the real stuff until they’re more advanced. It’s disrespectful, and it’s counterproductive: the lessons of substance and meaning do not need to follow years and years after the lessons of reading and technique. We do the same thing with reading, with math — especially with math! — oh, don’t get me started.
I see it as a challenge to us composers: Chopin, who wrote some of the most difficult piano music out there, managed to produce this music of tremendous depth without needing to make it tremendously difficult. If he can do it, why can’t we? OK, actually, making something both great and simple is one of the most difficult artistic challenges there is, but it’s also one of the worthiest. Lauren certainly knows that: the best picture books can tell compelling stories that tackle layered, subtle, and difficult ideas using only a very few words and elemental artwork, and they are powerful for their simplicity. Her gorgeous latest book is a nice essay on how the choices we make in our perception of reality shape that reality and our lives — though she says it much more simply, and more effectively!
I’ve paired the E minor prelude with the E major one. The latter is a bit more difficult (mostly because of the wider stretches), but is also within a dedicated beginner’s reach, and also a great one. It has a wonderful chord progression, and a very interesting structure: we set out from the same point of departure three times (0:00, 0:28, 0:58), each time finding a new path with newly surprising modulations. I learned these two preludes one after the other, and think they make a great segue. I do like the big contrasts!
Attention, beginners, would-be beginners, and especially those who say, “Oh, I wish I could learn to play the piano! But I’m just too old / too busy / too tonedeaf / too whatever.” Rubbish! Balderdash! Pish, piffle, and poppycock! It is never too late to start. Be bold! Lauren was; you can be too. Great music is not out of your reach.