These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Jan 2, 2024

Pianist Seong-Jin Cho on preparation, performance, and the quest for the perfect concert
by Emma Robertson
As a classical pianist, would you say that music is a kind of poetry?
Yes, but it depends on the music! Chopin, for me, it’s very poetic music. But Beethoven’s music is really symphonic, you can hear different kinds of instruments…Whereas with Chopin, he is not a composer for orchestra. Most of his music was composed for piano, so it is a little bit different, it’s more operatic, it has that singing quality that makes it more poetic. The timing is more crucial with Chopin because in order to make it sound natural, like singing, you have to leave some space for breathing. So I try to play differently, depending on the composer.
Is that something that can be trained? Or is that kind of musicality something that has to come naturally?
Well, when I like Chopin’s music, or also Schubert’s music, I sometimes try to sing the melody by myself and then try to understand where to breathe or where to change the rubato… I’m a very bad singer, but I do my best in order to make it sound natural. But I can say there’s no right or perfect interpretation of any piece. That’s why classical music is very special, because each musician will have a different interpretation. It’s music that was composed 100 years ago or 200 years ago, but is still played so regularly simply because there are always new interpretations or ways of playing. It’s kind of like wine; it’s not the most popular drink for everyone, it can be very hard to understand, but to some people it’s very distinct.
It’s an acquired taste, perhaps?
(Laughs) Sure, and you have to try out different types before you find your taste in the end. For me, I always try to understand the composer’s intention. Understanding the background is very important, so I always study the score carefully; it’s the most important thing for me. I try to understand why they wrote this tempo or why they wrote this dynamic or this phrasing.
It’s kind of like an actor studying the script and creating a backstory for their character.
Right. So, for example, Chopin’s First Concerto, he composed this piece when he was 20. He left his country and moved to Paris where he fell in love with a very young singer. So it’s romantic music, but he was only 20 years old so it’s a kind of pure romance, unlike the romance of a 40 year old, you know? This is the kind of thing I really try to understand with each piece.
Apparently, you sometimes take several months to fully explore and understand a piece before a performance.
I need at least two months to learn the new piece. It sometimes only takes two weeks to memorize the piece, but to really understand it, to go deep and to absorb the music in your blood, I need at least two months. Especially because I’m traveling so often, it’s really hard to find time to prepare. But I do like this process of learning new pieces, it’s an endless journey for me.
What else are you doing to prepare for a performance?
Preparing for a concert is not only about the music, but also about my physical and mental health. So, I try to eat well and sleep well, those things that are not about music but help me in my journey as a concert pianist. I mean, 90 percent of my life is about music. In my head, there’s always music; I’m constantly trying to think how I can sound better, or how I can understand the composer’s intention better. I’m a very ambitious person. My goal is always to play better than yesterday. And that’s difficult because sometimes I don’t even know what it means to play better. I try to play in a way where I am satisfied…But I play 100 concerts a year, and only in maybe three or four will I be fully satisfied.
Really? What do you think it is about those three or four concerts that leave you feeling satisfied?
First of all, you have to be really prepared, so it definitely depends on having enough time to understand the piece, as I said before. But sometimes, it’s also a matter of luck: if there’s a cell phone ringing from the audience, it can be very disruptive, for example. It also depends on the condition of the instrument because pianists don’t travel with our instruments, like violinists. There’s a lot of factors we have to overcome.
You got your start playing in competitions, and now you’re focusing only on concerts and recitals. Is it a bit less pressure for you as a musician these days?
It is a totally different kind of pressure now! I never liked competitions, because to me, it doesn’t make sense to compete with the music. In the Chopin Competition, everyone was a great musician already! But also, playing only Chopin’s music can be very dangerous because you end up being labeled as a Chopin specialist, when there’s so much repertoire, great music from Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Schumann to explore. So, I intentionally stopped playing Chopin around 2018 or 2019, and I felt more relaxed. But it can also be even harder because now I’m competing with myself!
Is that more fun for you at least?
Fun is not the right word. It is demanding, but somehow I also find pleasure in that.
How do you come back from an experience where you didn’t feel fully satisfied or where you didn’t find the pleasure in your playing?
Well, I try to think about all the amazing concerts that I gave in the past, and also, of course I remind myself that there will be concerts again in the future. It is important to forget about the bad things and the bad experiences; and the best way to do that is to prepare for the next one.
This article originally appeared at and is used with permission.
Seong-Jin Cho performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony, January 18–20.

Please wait...