Why on earth would anyone ever play Béla Bartók’s Op. 18?


That single word essentially captures my first—and lasting—impression of these devastatingly beautiful, terrifying etudes. I remember sitting in my studio apartment in the Winter of 2021 with my mouth agape, listening to a score-video of Zoltán Kocsis more or less eating the set for breakfast. I had just finished a long, rather hopeful, conversation with my teacher about future plans for repertoire, competitions, and general issues with my playing…

Much to my dismay, the topic of Etudes came up, naturally, as most competitions require pianists to present at least one “virtuosic” etude in either the preliminary video or live first round. Now, I don’t consider myself unique in this way, but I would never label myself as a particularly technical or athletic player, and, perhaps more importantly, I hate playing (Chopin) etudes. Few things, perhaps besides competitions themselves, feel so antithetical to the entire purpose of the artform and culture we participate in. More often than not, it is an unavoidable calamity—it doesn’t matter what I think, it’s just the world we live in. Expressing this to my teacher, I was hoping she would let me slide with a few Rachmaninoff etudes, or at least something well within my cushy, self-indulgent comfort zone. A boundlessly gracious teacher and, even more so, a generous listener (I do not mean that sarcastically), my teacher suggested the Bartók etudes (with warning) as a possible alternative. At first, I kind of brushed off the idea, thinking: “who in their right mind would want to listen to Bartók when something like Rachmaninoff’s Op. 39 is open at the buffet?” While most days of the week, I would not pride myself on my great ability to play the piano, I do pride myself as a great student, so I checked them out. 

Truthfully, I never liked Bartók. Of course, the blame lies with my own ignorance—two years ago, I could not have told you how many string quartets he wrote (let alone how searing, raw, and gorgeous they are—listen to them!!!), differentiated his Suite, Op. 14 from Out of Doors, passed a listening quiz consisting of his piano concerti, or told you that he even had a set of Etudes. That being said, I love modern and “new” music deeply—over 50% of the (solo) music I have learned in the past two years is music written during or after the first World War, or at least within some modern idiom. I don’t mention this because I think it’s a very impressive ratio, but to try to convince myself that I have just struggled *specifically* with Bartók’s music. 

Back to my studio apartment—listening to Kocsis absolutely shred, my brain successfully splits into two simultaneous, absolutely contradictory strains of thought: “Yeah, I could do this, whatever” and “Jesus Christ, I would rather die.” Returning to an earlier thought, the much darker motivator behind my categorical hatred for etudes is a pervasive sense of insecurity and underdeveloped anxiety management skills that leave me feeling incapable and physically dysfunctional under high pressure. In actuality, I know that I get by okay at the end of the day. Mostly, it is the psychological experience of doing things I care about that feels acutely unpleasant (okay, dramatic). Of course, most musicians are familiar—to some degree—with the feeling of performance/stage anxiety. Investment in preparation yields investment in outcome, naturally. Looking at repertoire like this, there is a massive front-end investment required of the pianist to perform them at an acceptable level. You can imagine how my brain consequently handles that equation… Trying to figure out what to do about my teacher’s recommendation, I was fairly certain I would be an emotional/mental wreck trying to play the set. As it turns out, the dopamine high of an egotistical fantasy is the only voice of nature that really matters when you’re tucked away in your tiny, cozy studio apartment, safe from the scary, scary work that actually has to be done. 

About nine months passed before I laid a finger on these pieces. The idea of playing them sat in the back of my mind, and, truthfully, it is always easier to say that you are going to do something, than to actually get down to it. During this period, there were a number of experiences that eventually pushed me over the ledge with these etudes. That summer, I participated in a well respected music festival where I was lucky to work with a brilliant musician and well known teacher who obliterated any sense of facility, command, or creativity that I felt at the instrument. Ultimately, it was for the better. The experience revealed to me a foundational, egotistical fragility in myself and my playing. It revealed to me an unreliable source of confidence, and a total lack of self-assurance of my worth as a musician and pianist. Now, I don’t believe this was necessarily the intent of this teacher—to send me off on a winding, black and white, Steinway & Sons sponsored psychological journey of self-discovery. I am glad they did—even if I played, for lack of a better word, like shit for months afterward. In those following months after returning home from the summer, I was hit with an (awesome) wave of rejection letters from every competition I had applied for—since it was the first year where I had applied to any sort of substantial competition, I was not yet emotionally accustomed to the joy and emotional rollercoaster of “rejection season.” I was struggling to do the one thing that I claimed was my life’s purpose, and then receiving significant feedback from the world around me that I was, indeed, struggling. 

Twenty-three was a hard year for me—I was feeling frustrated with my work, crushed by all of the things I hoped to do and eventually did not, and I was having the hardest time yet in my life with anxiety and periodic depressive episodes, leaving me exhausted and deeply unmotivated to work or practice. I spent countless hours that year in a constant guilt cycle of shaming myself for not practicing intently enough (or just frequently enough) and then sitting in a practice room miserably trying to get work done, which we all know doesn’t produce the most inspired results. Looking back on that year, I have no clue why or how I started working on these three etudes. My progress on them was relatively slow, I suppose, but as I sit here writing this I feel a mixture of surprise and pride for, in some way or another, sticking with it. 

But why, though? 

I am obsessed with trying to figure out the why for everything that I play. Personally, I struggle to learn repertoire that I am either assigned or required to play—when I select music for myself, the decision stems from a concrete sense of purpose and justification for why I should be the person playing it. I have never really been able to fully invest in repertoire that isn’t personally relevant to me or in line with what I have to say as an artist. There have been very few times in my life that I have even learned a piece of music because “it’s just a good piece,” or because it was in the opus number. As I first started to learn these etudes, I felt fiercely drawn to them on a personal level, however, I could not have ever given you a clear answer why. The cynic in me would say that was due to my desperate, wounded ego making excuses for me so I could chase after some sort of boost—while that may be partially true, it doesn’t really explain how something so brutally ugly could be so beautiful to me. 

The opus 18 is a nasty set of music—really. The middle movement redeems much of the brutalism throughout the opus, however, not without its own serrated edge of raw grief and devastation. The first time I performed this set, it was two days before Halloween and I basically made the excuse that I was playing this set in anticipation of “my favorite holiday” and that they could imagine the winged monkeys from the Wizard of Oz during the first etude, an evil witch brewing up an evil potion in her (evil) cauldron during the second, and that the third is an all inclusive choose-your-own-adventure creepy crawly nightmare. 

Yes, I stooped that low. 

While part of me is proud of myself for finding a way to make these pieces accessible to an inexperienced audience (children included), the other part of me wishes that I hadn’t. See, what I came to realize after nearly killing myself over eight minutes of music, is that this music manages to reach further into my life and touch on issues that are of the most pressing urgency to me as a human being. This music addresses the struggle that I—just like anyone else—lives with inside their own mind. In a year where I was wrestling with intense social and performance/work anxiety, maintaining any sense of self-worth, and feeling so unmotivated in my life that I even struggled to consistently prepare meals for myself, I had these pieces. These nasty, ugly, bitter, truly unfortunate etudes. 

Amidst everything over the past year, somehow, I did not feel voiceless, and I never felt alone. These etudes did not and could not “cure” me, but they have sat with me, and given clarity and expression to a side of my life that has felt so muddled and stomped on. Of course, we need music that loves us, pleasures us, and satisfies us, but we also need music that accompanies us throughout the full spectrum of our human experiences and sees us for who we truly are. Just as much as we need to listen closely, we need art that listens back to us, no matter how dysfunctional, desperate, or clumsy we turn out to be. 

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