I spend a lot of time running; 4-6 times/week, with about one long run per week that's upwards of 15+ miles long. Below are shots of some amazing places around the world I've gotten to run through this year: (Hover over the photo for captions)
I log 100+ miles a month, which is an unusually high mileage for the average classical musician (classical musicians aren't exactly stereotyped as the body sculpting, active type...). But here's a secret: running is easy. [disclaimer: I am not a fast runner, by any measure]
The beautiful thing about running is that it's one of the very few things in life where the amount of effort put in directly correlates with outcome (never mind freak accidents/injuries/weird bodily malfunctions, etc). Assuming you have a relatively well functioning body, if you put in the requisite amount of time and effort, you WILL be able to go from being a couch potato (or a piano bench potato) to running 1 mile. Slowly, 1 becomes 2, 2 becomes 5, 5 becomes 10. You need to be patient enough to not add mileage too quickly (you will get injured), and boom. The increase in distance happens over such a long time period, it'll be six months and you'll all of a sudden look back and find that you can run a hell of a lot further than you ever believed would be a humane distance to put your previously doughy body through. Trust me: I have never been remotely close to being the athletic type. My proudest sporty moment growing up was when my 8th grade Junior Varsity basketball team won ONE game in the entire season. And that game was against the 7th grade J.V. team. I'm pretty sure we also played the 7th grade Varsity team and lost.
Another great thing about running is no one besides about me really gives a damn about my performance. No one cares how fast I'm running, or how far, or how beautiful or ugly my form is. I go out with a goal for myself and myself only, and I achieve it, however long it ends up taking. Or I'll veer completely off the plan and cut the run super short because my body says I should, or I wander into unknown lands and get lost and run three times the distance I meant to. Whatever. It doesn't matter. It just feels good to be pumping my legs along for no other reason than to do just that. And it's pretty outside. And it's nice to remind myself that it's an incredible blessing to be in good health.
These are the two reasons why running keeps me centered and grounded, and is a good counterweight to living as a classical musician. The fact that in running, you can bank that: time+effort = result, and that there is zero pressure to perform.
In piano, unfortunately, time+effort do not necessarily yield results. It's possible to put in tons of time+effort into a piece, but to still somehow not "click" with it and the interpretation ends up mediocre. Or it's possible to practice one tricky passage endlessly but still miss notes in the heat of a performance. Some days it can feel like I'm aimlessly walking around in thick fog. And performance always matters - not in terms of impressing this person or that audience - but doing my best to uphold the standards that a piece of music deserves. These uncertainties that are inherent to being a musician can be frustrating and terrifying. But that's the nature of performing art. Nothing is certain - that's why when it goes right, it is so singularly beautiful and unlike any other experience. Running is not art (for me at least); that's why it's a good counterweight to being a musician.
Oh right, how running relates to Chopin Etudes. First as a visual break, and for you map nerds, here are some of my memorable running routes this year:
I've been learning Chopin Etudes in bulk recently. If your'e unfamiliar with them - an étude (literal translation: "study") is a composition meant as a technical exercise. Infamous ones include sets by Czerny and Hanon, which are deathly boring but supposedly give you ironclad technique if practiced diligently. Chopin was essentially the one to elevate études from mere technical exercises into a genre of beautiful and artful pieces of music which also demand significant technical prowess; his three sets of études are one of the cornerstones of piano virtuosity (but more significantly the 24 études that form Op. 10 and Op. 25). Many composers followed suit in their own sets of masterful études, including Liszt, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Ligeti.
You can find YouTube videos of cratefuls of 12-year old prodigies busting out Chopin Etudes like it's no big deal. Because I hated piano when I was little and was busy perfecting the art of how-little-can-I-practice-without-totally-devastating-my-teacher, I didn't learn many of these études growing up. Which is great for me, because I'm deriving a lot of masochistic pleasure and satisfaction from trudging through them at this mature age of 29. I've found that this experience is the closest it gets to running. Because they're so technically oriented and relatively straightforward musically, he input of time and effort correlates pretty closely to the outcome; I'm doing these mostly for my private ears only, so there's little performance pressure; and the physical exertion feels pleasurable and empowering. I have days when I reflect back and realize I am technically capable of significantly more than previously. Most importantly, it's grounding to enjoy the process for the process' sake and nothing else, while also enjoying the beauty of the music and have fun. It feels like being out on a run and seeing the landscape. But with a lot less sweating.