Becoming an Artist, Part 4: Working with Pawel Checinski

I had the most amazing piano lesson this month with Pawel Checinski, the teacher of one of my pianist friends. We met formally for an hour, and as often happens with a master teacher, I was given enough material to work on for the next few months! 

I had not had a piano lesson since my years as an undergrad, so I was a little hesitant going in. My inner critic is enough of a challenge as it is, and a lesson felt quite intimidating at first. However, I was met with the most encouraging and constructive feedback - not “soft” by any means, but specific and delivered with absolute respect. (Incidentally, I witnessed this as an observer the weekend prior as I watched Checinski work with high school students in a masterclass. At no time was he condescending or impatient, but he continually gave students tools to develop their musicality.) 

I learned so much as we worked on the Chopin Fantaisie Impromptu and the Rachmaninoff Prelude in G-sharp minor that if I shared it all here, you would grow weary of reading. I will try to be brief and share a few highlights: 

1. When trying to figure out what you want musically, isolate the melody. Play the melody by itself (no accompaniment or harmonies) and shape it. Breathe where a singer would breathe. Sing the line; draw the line in the air; find the arc. Then add the other notes and accompaniment back in, trying to keep the same shape of the melodic line. (In my pieces, the melody sometimes happens in the left hand on top of chords, so isolating the melody means taking it off the chords for a minute.) 

2. Rachmaninoff’s sound comes in waves. Dynamics must have big contrasts. Decrescendos should come down at the same rate as crescendos go up. Don’t go soft right before peaks; carry through the whole crescendo to the top and complete the phrase. 

3. When rolling bass chords, keep the bass note in the pedal. This may mean pedaling earlier or rolling the chord faster. Be a magician – trick the listener with a slight of hand, a quick pedal right after you touch the note, so that the bass will be heard. 

We also worked a bit on dropping arm weight into the key and resting. I tend to press into the note and then keep working, as if sound would continue to come after the hammer strikes the string. 

Pawel is a great storyteller. In addition to the musical coaching, I was treated to quite a few stories including one where Rachmaninoff hated the C-sharp Minor Prelude so much that he referred to it as “It.” Sometimes he would play the first three descending chords and then go into the Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu just to spite the crowds; other times he would tell an audience he had forgotten it! 

In the weeks following my lesson I have tried to apply what I learned to my playing. I still have a lot of growing to do, but I am so grateful for the time I spent with Pawel and the musical wisdom he passed on to me. I’ve recorded an “after” session of me working at the piano on the Rachmaninoff. If you are not yet tired of hearing me work on it, maybe you can glean a few tidbits from my work with Pawel for yourself!

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