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When you need your instrument.

In winter 1838-1839, the composer Frédéric Chopin, and his partner back then, the writer George Sand, and her two small children, settled temporarily on the island of Majorca (Balearic Islands). They settled in Cartuja de Valldemossa, an old palace and later on a monastery situated in a paradisiacal and romantic place, where Chopin composed some of his most acclaimed pieces for piano.

But that didn’t happen right away because the famous composer didn’t have a piano at his disposal when they first landed. Pretty soon he managed to get a small piano, a pianino as it’s called, and that got him going with a few preludes. Mallorca was a sunny place, but Chopin got sick there because of the cold. When it rained, their house leaked and everything got damped. Besides, the little stove they had didn’t produce anything but smoke, and certainly no heat. So, after a few month, and once Chopin was feeling better, they decided to get to an old monastery. Soon after, Chopin’s piano finally arrived.

It had been a grand adventure to get the instrument from Paris to the island, get it through customs, then transport it on a little carriage drawn by a mule, up the mountain, with winding roads and treacherous pavement. The whole process had taken months.

It was very important, though, as Chopin set the instrument in a small but acoustically beautiful room and proceeded to compose some of the most beautiful music ever written.

The point I am trying to make is this: some composers absolutely need their instrument to understand the depth of their own composition. Beethoven was another example of trying to create music against all odds. He was deaf but he had a sort of tube that he wore on his shoulders and that was directing any sounds towards his ears. People remember him banging on a piano horribly out of tune. The poor guy was trying to hear the next Symphony that would be remembered for centuries.

As for me, I confess that I do need a piano when I am writing music. Finding out how the phrases go, how the notes of a chord blend, how the harmonic progression marches forward require me to play the keys. On the other hand, I do not need a drum set to write a part. For some reasons, I know exactly how it’ll sound. Funny how it works, doesn’t it?

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