Learning from Chopin

There are only two known photographs of Frederic Chopin. That’s a little tidbit of information I picked up from a podcast recently. Two photographs. Thinking about it logically, it actually isn’t that surprising. Modern photography wasn’t invented until the 1830’s and Chopin died in October 1849. So, there’s only a window of about a decade or two for Chopin to sit for a photograph. And I’m using the word “sit” intentionally. At the time, Chopin would have sat completely still for about 20 seconds as the photographic film was exposed. And history documents that Chopin did this at least twice.

Looking at the historical record, Chopin seems to have been a pretty busy guy and chose his endeavors carefully. While he composed hundreds of ballads, etudes, concertos and waltzes, he reportedly only gave 30 public performances across his 30 years of musical life. He was one of the first musical celebrities of the 19th Century and people clamored for his time and attention. And through his busy schedule, he chose to sit for those two photographs.

To be honest, I’m not a huge classical musical fan. I can identify certain composers and maybe only a handful of symphonies. But for some reason, I’ve been thinking of this Chopin photography thing for the last week or two. You may be wondering why this is such a big deal. After hearing about Chopin only being photographed twice, I found the pictures online. If you’re interested, you can find them here. In both, Chopin appears stern and solemn. He appears to be scowling and very serious.

Maybe this was culturally appropriate at the time. In the early 1840’s, I don’t know how many pictures were taken that show smiling individuals. But this is the image that Chopin presents in the two existing photographs of hims. Not Chopin as the musical genius, but Chopin as morose and taciturn.

So, what’s the point? I think Chopin’s photographs are a great metaphor for how we interact with our colleagues, our students and maybe everyone else. Consider each conversation, email, discussion board post, phone call, social media discussion and video chat as a photograph. It is the indelible image that someone is going to have of you. For some, it may be the only image they ever have of you. Like Chopin, we’re all busy people. We have a lot of time commitments, deadlines and expectations. But if we’re going to spend a few minutes to write that email, have that phone or post on Twitter, let’s consider the image of ourselves we’re presenting. Are we scowling? Morose? Or are we supportive and empathetic?

As I’m typing this post, I literally just had a student email me and say that they tested positive for COVID. This isn’t some literary device I’ve created to make a point. They’re actually sick and actually COVID positive. In their email, they explain how they were having trouble breathing and went to the hospital where they received the COVID diagnosis. While they’re still hoping to participate in our synchronous online class this week, they wanted an extension on an assignment that’s due in a few days.

So, as I’m writing my response to them, I’m asking myself “what image am I portraying?” Maybe Frederic Chopin should have done the same.

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