In the landscape of classical music, Frédéric Chopin’s Etudes loom large.
“These pieces are the Mount Everest of the piano repertoire,” said pianist Jocelyn Swigger, who’s dedicated the past seven years to studying and performing the Etudes as a personal challenge she’s dubbed The Chopin Project. “Every time I perform them, it’s an adventure.”
Swigger will play all 27 Etudes on April 29 at the Paso Robles Inn ballroom. The concert is being presented by Festival Mozaic and the Paderewski Festival as part of Festival Mozaic’s WinterMezzo concert series.
“Except for my home audience, I just feel that Festival Mozaic is the best audience in the world,” said Swigger, who’s performed twice at the festival before. “The kind of focus and attention and love that they have for the music is really rare and it’s really wonderful. I feel so lucky that I get to play this amazing music for these wonderful ears.”
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According to Swigger, whose sister is Festival Mozaic Executive Director Bettina Swigger, the impetus for the Chopin Project came in 2010 in the midst of major life changes.
In July, just four months after her mother’s death, Jocelyn Swigger gave birth to her son. That December, she discovered she had secured tenure as associate professor of music and coordinator of keyboard studies at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
“I really felt like my mother was at her absolute best as a parent … when she was really busy,” focused on her own pursuits, explained Swigger, who holds undergraduate degrees from Oberlin College and Conservatory and master’s and doctorate degrees from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. “I was really lucky (to have) that as a model. I felt like the thing I need to do (to) be the best mom I could be is be really happy and fulfilled in my artistic life.”
Seeking something that would make her “a better pianist, a better teacher,” she settled on an extensive study of the Etudes composed by Chopin, a Polish composer and pianist who was one of the musical megastars of the Romantic era.
Swigger first encountered the Etudes, three sets of solo studies for piano published in the 1830s, as a child in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She and her sister “grew up in a house where there was a wonderful classical radio station on all day,” she said.
“They’re part of the standard repertoire,” Swigger said of the Etudes. “You don’t major in English without reading a couple Shakespeare plays. You don’t become a pianist without studying the Etudes.”
That said, the Etudes are notoriously tricky to learn and perform, requiring remarkable focus, flexibility and skill.
“There’s a specific game to each of them that you have to unlock,” Swigger explained, whether that means mastering a challenging tempo or a physically awkward pose.
I feel like I’ve been taking piano lessons from (Chopin) for the past seven years.
Swigger originally planned to dedicate two years to Chopin’s Etudes, but her project has lasted much longer.
“I feel like I’ve been taking piano lessons from him for the past seven years,” she said with a chuckle.
When school is in session, Swigger practices an hour and a half each day. During breaks, she tries to log three to six hours of daily practice.
“I have various draconian rules for myself. I don’t do anything with my phone except look at the weather and use it as a timer and metronome,” said Swigger, who’s discussed her journey on her two podcasts, Play It Again Swig and Daily Piano Improv.
She’s tirelessly pursued that schedule despite “a whole laundry list of physical problems,” she said, including tendonitis, tennis elbow and a benign but painful tumor in her uterus the size of a rugby ball.
“There are musical moments in the pieces that, for me, are all about that experience” of discovering and treating that tumor in 2015, Swigger said.
“It was really scary,” she added, but “it made me feel more determined to do (the Etudes).”
As part of the Chopin Project, Swigger has traveled across the United States to play historical pianos similar to the ones Chopin would have played.
At Paso Robles she’ll perform on two pianos, including one that belonged to Polish pianist, composer and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewksi — now part of the inn’s collection. (Via a camera, audiences will be able to see Swigger’s hands on the keyboard and the score of the music as it’s played.)
“If you’re talking about pianists I can’t compare myself to, Paderewski is way high on that list,” Swigger said with a chuckle. “That (I’ll be) having an experience that is somehow similar to what this great artist had is very moving and very wonderful.”
Swigger plans to record the Etudes this summer on an 1841 Erad piano from Chopin’s era. (She’s released three solo albums with Con Brio Recordings, including 2014’s “Troublesome Moon & Other Forgotten Gems from Tin Pan Alley.”)
“Partially (my motivation) is selfish. I want to be able to prove to myself that I can do it,” Swigger said.
After all, Swigger explained, the challenge of the Etudes is part of what makes them irresistible.
“It’s Everest,” she said simply. “You climb it.”