By Eugenia Jeong, Director of the Piano Program
What do painting watercolor flowers and playing Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs and Daisies have in common?
When my husband surprised me with a watercolor painting set as a Christmas gift, I initially stammered before breaking out into a hug. Though I had enjoyed dabbling with other painting mediums in the past, I was intimidated by water colors for as long as I can remember. It was so elusive, so difficult to get anything to look like what I wanted. But trying to endure a Chicago winter amidst a pandemic forced me to give it another chance. As the weight of the chaos in the world around me pressed into my little corner, I sought to create beautiful things that temporarily took me out of myself and reminded me that springtime was coming, beauty not lost.
Here are the similarities that I discovered:
Blending Colors - I listened with fascination when somebody explained to me once that using the pedal on the piano is like using white paint: a little dab can make a big difference. Since working with watercolors, I have found the damper pedal on the piano to function like water in watercolor painting. As a pigment-soaked paintbrush can be dipped in water multiple times to draw out lots of other subtle shades of that same color, artful pedaling can reveal the full spectrum of overtones hidden in the sound. When applied tastefully and with good timing, both the pedal and water bring out unexpected and beautiful hues and sonorities.
Visualization - Developing a clear vision of the final product is everything. I found this to be as true in watercolor painting as it is in piano playing. Sometimes, I may spend time carefully visualizing a single flower petal, or a single musical phrase. Other times, I find myself doing a complete run-through of the music in my mind. This visualization technique can be the best teacher within us that we didn’t know we had. In the beginning, as a watercolor newbie free from any standard method of approach or preset rules, I frequently referred to a reference photo or observed other paintings to form an idea of the style or color palette that I wanted to imitate. Later on, visualizing simply meant taking the time to imagine, wonder, and listen before each stroke and be immersed in the process. ‘What kind of color scheme am I going for here?’ ‘How do I want the flowers to be laid out?’. The tricky thing about watercolor painting is that it’s really hard to erase mistakes without wasting paper. The wonderful thing about piano practice is that you can freely experiment and make plenty of mistakes without ever running out of supplies!
Meditation - Lilacs and Daisies are the only songs by Rachmaninoff that he later transcribed for the piano. Inspired by poems, they express the gentle, tender, delicate blossoms of daisies and lilacs that express joyful abundance and are home to “where happiness lives.” Playing these pieces and painting watercolor florals created the space for me to access the soft and tender emotions easily neglected, and reminded me to be kind to myself, and take the time to listen to others and show care, always more than I think.