dismiss icon

Win a FREE year of tonebase!

Enter our raffle for a chance to win free access to 500+ courses, weekly LIVE events, a vibrant community, and more!

Enter To Win A Free Year Of tonebase Piano
Free PDF: Rachmaninoff's 10 Essentials Of Piano Playing

Free PDF: Rachmaninoff's 10 Essentials Of Piano Playing

Peer into the mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff, a composer regarded as among the most formidable virtuosos of the 20th century.

Download →

The Chopin Competition has garnered an international reputation for being arguably the most prestigious piano competition in the world. In late summer 2023, the Chopin Institute initiated the 2nd Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, featuring a dynamic roster of pianists from all over the world.

One of the stand-out stars from the competition is Piotr Pawlak, a Polish pianist who took home 2nd place for his spectacular performance.

Here, we’ve had the opportunity to chat with Pawlak about various tenants of piano interpretation, from influences, artistic philosophies, and more.

Lastly, Pawlak has shared with us how he prepares for piano competitions such as this one, so read to the end to learn more.

Winners of the 2nd International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments gather for a prizewinners concert (Image Credit)

AV: Hi Piotr! Want to extend a huge thank you to you for spending the time to answer some questions, it's an honor to have you here on the tonebase Blog with us! Before we begin, I just want to say a huge congrats on your spectacular performance at the 2nd International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. I was watching from the YouTube livestream link, and it was apparent from reading the comments that your delicate sense of phrasing and interpretation really stuck with everyone watching. Bravo!

My first question to you has to do with your journey leading up to this big accomplishment. Could you tell us a bit about how you got your start on the piano?

PP: My adventure with the piano started in my early childhood, despite being born in a non-musician family. As a kid I was really interested in one particular toy with a small keyboard, on which I could play some simple melodies. I was also singing almost all the time. My parents, seeing that, bought me a keyboard as a Christmas gift, when I was four. As I was spending so much time playing on it, they signed me up for some lessons. After a few months, my first music teacher told my parents that I really should go to the music school. She said to them: “not doing that would be a loss for the future Polish culture”. So at the age of six, I passed the music school’s exams and started my professional music education.


AV: Something you said in your Finalist Portrait that I absolutely loved was that you approach music similar to a mathematical puzzle, where you take musical “objects” and restructure them as though you were solving an intricate problem in engineering. I’m curious, are there any composers that come to mind whose music particularly appeals to this mindset of yours?

PP: Bach, especially. The music of Bach has almost no expression marks, so I am working with pure musical text. Of course it is impossible to play only notes, I have to give them some structure and decide about the moments of tension and relaxation. I have to decide which voice I want to focus on the most. 

There is no one best solution, and there are millions of ways of interpreting (much more than in later music, I think). When I was practicing the Bach Prelude for the competition, I had to decide beforehand which places are the most important for me. 

I had to decide what I want to emphasize, where I want to create tension, and where I want to take a breath. Not every bar is suited for tension, and not every bar is suited for relaxation, so it creates a puzzle on how to carry this through in a logical way. 

AV: Even as a master of the interpretive arts, you also seem to have a passion for improvisation. What is the intersection between improvisation and interpretation for you as an artist? Do they fuel each other, or exist as entirely separate practices?

PP: Of course they influence each other. My interpretation is always affected by improvisation. I cannot, nor do I want to, plan everything in my interpretation. I always leave some freedom for deciding on the spot and “feeling the moment”. And if I have some strong idea during the performance, I sometimes break my planned interpretation and do something different. 

On the Competition I took it also to the next level, as I decided to spontaneously alter the music text in repetitions: in Mozart, both Polonaises and a little bit in the Mazurkas, and for the first time in my life I played in public improvised interludes between pieces. I did this practice for many years, but only for fun, during practicing, never on the stage. 

My improvisations are strongly influenced by published compositions. The harmonies, textures and forms are, I think, just a compilation of music that is already in my head, I do not create anything really new with my improvisation in this field. I also often improvise on some themes, so that is an inspiration from interpretation too. What is new in my improvisation, is the way that I combine all the elements together.

I think my interpretation of the Polonaise “Farewell to Homeland” was somehow an intersection between interpretation and improvisation. As the base music text of the Polonaise is very simple and repeats many times, I decided to improvise different variants of the melody and accompaniment. I think my interpretations could suggest the question: where is the border between these two practices?

AV: Here is Pawlak's performance of the Ogiński polonaise "Farewell to Homeland":

For the final round you selected an Érard. You mentioned that this was due to the instrument's acoustic projection, which would complement the orchestra in that concert hall nicely. Is this an instrument you had an extensive amount of practice with via the Chopin Institute in previous years? What are some of your favorite period pianos you've encountered over the years?

PP: No, actually, as far as I know, I have not played on this particular Érard before the competition. The same applies to the Pleyel from 1842, which I chose for the previous stages. I have played before on competition’s Buchholtz and on the copy of Pleyel by Paul McNulty on the masterclasses in Radziejowice, organized by the Institute. The Pleyel from 1842, which was available for the competition, is my absolute favourite so far from all period pianos I have played in my life. 

AV: Already at such a young age you’ve seen success at so many competitions around the world, and I’m sure at this point you have a preparation routine for each competition you compete in. Would you mind sharing in detail how you prepare for a piano competition?

PP: I actually do not have a strict routine of preparation for competitions, because every competition is different and also my life around the competition is always different. But there are some rules I try to follow.

First, I try to arrange the repertoire in the way that in the later stages of a competition, there are pieces that do not need extensive practice. For example, in this Competition, I had three options available from my repertoire for the finals: I know both Chopin concerti and op. 13 & op. 14. I decided to play the 1st piano concerto mostly because I had played it most times. I knew that before the competition I could allow myself to play it through only a few times, and start to practice it after the second stage, in general. All the new pieces prepared for the competition were in the first stage.

If I have concerts before, I try to fit some competition program there. When I have free days that I can spend fully on practicing, I try to listen to my body. If I am tired I am taking the break, and if I am “in the flow” I am extending my practice. As I am a night owl, it often meant that I was sleeping in the morning and then practicing till 2 or 3 am ;) When it comes to 2–3 days before a performance, I focus only on the repertoire I am playing at this stage (it is not always possible though, sometimes the schedule of the competition is too tight). The day before a performance, I record myself with the full program of the stage, and I listen to it in order to introduce some last improvements. 

On the day of performance, I am not practicing anymore. It is a waste of time, it won’t change my muscle memory anyway. I am only experimenting with the details of my interpretation, and also looking for some outer inspiration.

- -

Be sure to watch Pawlak’s performance at the final round of the competition here:

Are you a pianist looking to take your technique to the next level?

Click here to check out tonebase’s in-depth courses on piano, taught by artists including Grammy winning pianists and professors from schools such as Juilliard, Curtis, and more.

On tonebase, you will find in-depth courses and workshops with some of the world’s top pianists, covering a wide range of subjects such as repertoire-specific lessons, piano technique, and more.

Happy practicing!

Learn From The World's Leading Pianists

Online lessons, courses, and interviews with the greatest minds in classical piano.

Get Started
Enter your email below to receive free lessons, PDFs & more!

Or, see how tonebase can take your practice to the next level today!

learn more →
Share the learning:
facebook logotwitter logolinkedin logo

"I don't regret for a minute having spent the money on the membership. There's something for every musician on tonebase – I recommend you give it a try."

Photo of Dave
Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Musician

Join over 10,000 fellow musicians improving every day on tonebase.