In 1810, Frederic Chopin was born,
Frederick Chopin

 - by coincidence exactly 100 years before my mother, in 1910.
 BEHO passport picture

In 1842 when he was just 32 years old, only about 6 years before his early death, Frederic Chopin composed the now famous polonaise in Ab major . His partner George Sands wrote passionately of it "The inspiration! The force! The vigour! There is no doubt that such a spirit must be present in the French Revolution. From now on this polonaise should be a symbol, a heroic symbol”. And in spite of Chopin’s desire to stay out of politics, the piece has been referred to as the Heroic Polonaise ever since.

In 2010 (100 years AFTER my mother’s birth) when I was in my mid sixties living in Leaside with BH, I asked myself whether I still had the ability to learn and memorize a challenging classical piece and I loved the idea of playing this polonaise. I didn’t really think I would be able to play it all through and told myself that even if I could perform the first section I’d be a happy guy.

I started work on it and found that it was even more wonderful than I had thought. Each bar is a work of art and becomes a pleasure to study and learn. It is a challenging piece with difficult fingering, very fast runs and very large hand stretches. Practicing was going well and I found I was still able to memorize the music as I progressed, as I had done in my youth. I became comfortable with the first section and ventured into the second, and eventually on to the third.  As I was working on this piece, ironically my Dupuytren’s Disease began to assert itself quite aggressively in my hands and my left 5th finger began to contract quite quickly over a period of several months.

I tried somewhat frantically to stop the disease progression with various applications of ointments, cold laser treatments, splints etc. In late 2010 I finally convinced my family doctor that it was time to visit the specialist for a possible surgical release of the chords but when he eventually made the referral to Dr. Binhammer we found his office was backed up for 6 months. We tried direct calls from Dr. Mueller and some pleading for urgency on my part, all to no avail. In the end my finger was so contracted it was unusable on the keyboard and I had to give up working on the polonaise.

Finally I located Dr. Eaton in Florida, (the first surgeon in N. America to study and practice the art of needle release of the cords) got an appointment and flew down there Jan 13, 2011 where he somewhat miraculously treated both hands with this needle apo-neurotomy technique. This made a dramatic difference to my affected fingers and I was able to resume serious keyboard playing and started working on the polonaise again. Later in 2011 I went to Germany for followup radiation treatment on my hands (and one foot) and stayed with English schoolmate Terry Beedle in Frankfurt. Terry’s a good musician and has a nice Yamaha baby grand piano. We both played quite a bit and I was able to play the polonaise all the way through from memory, at well below concert speed but still most enjoyably (from my point of view).

It is emotionally and physically demanding to play the whole piece and I never ‘performed’ it for anyone, simply playing it (literally) for my own amazement and often thinking of Mr. Chopin, the young wizard, in the process. However a few years later, in 2015, after I somewhat impressed myself with an exhausting performance at home in Thornbury, I thought that I should at least record the piece while I could still play it. However this was not so easy, as just knowing the recorder was on interfered with my concentration enough to jeopardize simply playing the piece. In the end I never did make a complete and flawless recording and now my hands have changed to the point that I will not be able to play it again.

Recently, in Covid19 isolation on returning from Mexico in 2020, I was looking through some old recordings and it came to mind that just maybe, on one occasion, I had left the recorder on and recorded the whole piece to the end, even if there were mistakes in it. But if so, I had never listened to it. So I started searching.

Eventually I did find a possible file that I thought could be ‘it’. At this point I was quite excited to see if this really was the polonaise and also if it really would be me playing (I have several recordings of it).  I was really quite nervous as I got the thing to play and confirmed that it WAS the Heroic polonaise. Then I became quite excited at the level of the performance .. way above what I could reach now .. and then came a worrying doubt about whether that could even be ME performing it. Soon I recognized some of my own quirks in the playing and then about 2/3 of the way through, the whole performance disappeared into chaos .. taking me with it, - wondering what the heck I was listening to. What happened of course was that I ‘lost it’ by momentarily losing concentration .. perhaps remembering that the recorder was on or something. Playing without the music, I couldn’t get it back on track from where I was, so I started again a few bars earlier and (thank goodness) kept going to the spectacular ending (which I was SO happy to hear, as I play it in my own different way).

During this process, it occurred to me that my close friends and fellow musicians and even my family, except my long suffering and departed parents, have never really heard me play classical pieces even though this was what my early training and passion was all about.

I was always quite reticent about playing the classics to an audience, mostly because I was reluctant to ask that people commit time to listening to a ‘serious’ performance and on the other hand I was not keen to play a ’serious’ piece without putting myself fully into the music, - in which case it is very disruptive to have to break concentration with any kind of casual interruptions, movements, noises, sneezes etc. So I almost exclusively have played the classics only for my own enjoyment when I could fully lose myself in the music without thinking about an audience. Even as a child, my parents were never allowed in the room while I was practicing.

However, after working on this polonaise for about 5 or 6 years, and, in the process, losing it then finding it, losing it again then finally discovering it again one last time, now frozen in a single final performance, I have decided to post this snapshot version and make it available to my family and a few close friends.  As I’m not playing live, you are free to listen, sneeze, or listen to a part of it or just ignore it and it won’t affect the performance which was recorded in solitude in Thornbury on April 23, 2015 in my 71st year  :)

From my point of view it is a kind of tribute to what my hands could really do and to all the years that I was able to work with my hands and have access to the magic world of music.  It's also a salute to the many people I met and the experiences I had that resulted from the music I played and participated in. This goes from the excitement of my first professional house gig at the Zanzibar strip club in Toronto(!); being on stage with Chuck Berry; hanging out briefly in the different world of Janis Joplin; standing beside Buffy Sainte-Marie while she performed an impromptu a capela piece in Cree to Mohawk children in the hallway of the Akwesasne Freedom school; hearing the unforgettable voice of Richie Havens live in the studio; traveling around New England with the Mandala Folk Ensemble; playing the blues (love it) with Cordon Blues; traveling to far off places with so many musicians in different genres; hosting many amazing music parties at home where magic happens every time; to simply playing Christmas carols with family and friends.

And I must also mention the early school experience of taking over the twice daily chapel services on the pipe organ at Ridley College, playing all the hymns, psalms, processionals etc entirely by ear at the age of 17 - while at the same time playing in my very first group with the school jazz band. This was all quite ‘out of the blue’ for me but helped me to recognize that perhaps I did have an unusual combination of musical aptitudes that could be combined in different and interesting ways. These things and countless other such events have made me a much richer person and I feel extremely grateful for all of it.

But zooming in again, I have had so much enjoyment from this one magnificent piece that I do hope that you might experience even a small taste of this beautiful expression of Chopin’s genius from listening to this enthusiastic if imperfect performance.  The chaos/la-la land section is still in there, exactly how it occurred, and it may startle you if you are listening. Somehow I didn’t want to edit it out and now for me, it provides it’s own unique and certainly surprising experience of where and who I was then. I must confess I have come to like the way I stumbled, staggered around a bit wondering where I was, recovered and continued, noticeably a bit more focused!

Thanks for your indulgence if you are still with me, and here without delay I present my hands at 71 as they were after surgeries and radiation playing Mr. Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise - still as heroic as it will always be!