My First Lesson with Arie Vardi

If someone asked me what the most shocking experience of my life was, what would it be? I have been a musician ever since I can remember, so I have countless memorable shocking experiences: a shocking mistake during a performance, shocking pleasure after a satisfying performance, or shocking inspiration at a concert I went to and so on. Even so, one particular day comes to mind: in August 2004 at a summer music camp in Goslar, a small town in Germany I went to in search of one particular highly-regarded teacher. It was there I had my first lesson with my teacher Arie Vardi.

“I will go listen from upstairs. Is that ok?” He kindly exchanged greetings, strode up to the balcony on the second floor and took a seat. I breathed in deeply and started playing the first of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28. Perhaps because of nerves or the fact that there was no sense of  thrill that an actual performance would generate, my playing was going badly. I began losing motivation as my fingers weren’t moving, my head wasn’t working and I felt that the more I played, the worse things got. I barely made it till the end of No. 13 when he said, “thank you. I’ve heard enough. Could you now play No. 16?”

At that moment, thousands of thoughts crossed my mind: ‘oh…there are still more than ten preludes left. Does this mean he doesn’t need to listen anymore? And why No. 16 of all of them?’ No. 16 is short, but it is famous for being especially difficult because of right-hand fast runs combined with left-hand leaps. I gathered my breath again and started playing. After what felt like thunderous roars and a minute that went by at lightening speed, I held my breath and looked up. Our eyes met, and he quietly closed the music and applauded. For a long time. He then slowly climbed down the stairs and sat down at the piano next to mine.

“Shall we start working?” He opened the music to Prelude No. 13. “It says lento (very slowly). Can you think of other pieces by Chopin with this marking?”

I of course couldn’t think of any. It was something I had never thought about before. When I couldn’t utter an answer, he played several other Chopin pieces indicated as lento. His next question: “could you then think of other Chopin pieces in F-sharp Major?” My head was completely blank again. And this wasn’t even a difficult question. Only after a long while, I could come up with one answer: “Nocturne, Op. 15 No. 2.” His eyes suddenly widened. “Yes! And there’s also this one.” He played the Barcarolle, Op. 60.

“So…Thinking of similarities among these pieces, can you define the fundamental characteristics of Chopin’s F-sharp Major?”

“Hm…serenity?”

“Yes, exactly! And maybe more directional?”

“Yes…you’re right.”

He went on with matters I had never thought of before. “There are strange slurs here. One slur for two bars, another one for two bars and then no slur just for this one bar. Why do you think this is?”

I had looked at this music every day, yet I noticed this for the first time. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t observed such an interesting detail.

“Of course, I don’t know the answer myself. But in light of this we could think of many possible ways to play this passage.”

He then suggested several ways to render the slurs. The first eight bars thus took more than forty minutes to discuss.

I was getting dizzy from this process of perusing what felt like the entire world.

“Should we move onto the next passage? What do you think this ‘piu lento’ means?”

“A bit slower?”

“Yes. So how much slower should we play it?”

How much slower? Shouldn’t it of course depend on how the performer feels from moment to moment? I once again became speechless at the face of such an endlessly probing question. “Anyone can play slightly slower. But any good performer would think about what Chopin might have intended here. The question is, what?” Exactly my question.

“Take a look at this part. The left hand has had steady 8th notes, but the right hand now has dotted half notes. Don’t you think Chopin subconsciously wanted to divide the smallest rhythmic unit into two at first, and then into three later? If so, it’s simple. If we maintain the same beat and plug in threes at the beginning and twos later, we can keep rhythmic unity while generating two different tempi.”

I doubted my ears. I was most surprised by the fact that music could be approached so logically, but I was as surprised by his pure passion for the  quest toward composer’s intentions. It was something I had seen for the very first time.

“Of course, I won’t ever know all of his intentions. My analysis or conjecture may not even be right. But if we try persistently, maybe Chopin will help us from above and beyond. I really believe so. Let’s wrap up for today. I had a great time thanks to you and your tremendous talent. Thank you for coming.”

I was reborn that day. And sometimes the pure passion I inherited from him keeps me up all night.

Yeoleum SON