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Brett McCluskey
Music History 306
June 2003

Lessons with Chopin

With the improvements in the range, the action and the soundboard of the piano in the

19th century, pianists were able to break away from the formalities of the preceding classical

period and were free to explore new realms of expression that had yet to be discovered. The

greatest of these romantic explorers was tone poet Frederyk Chopin. His works are so widely

loved and so close to the hearts of music fans that we tend to forget that Chopin too was just a

man, and not a god of composition. He struggled with the pen. Music appreciators tend to give

composers god-like qualities, or imagine them as a having superhuman abilities. One needs only

to listen to but a few of Chopin’s works to understand why he truly was transcendental. His

works live on as monumental masterpieces of the ideal in expressive romantic art, poetry in tone

color.

His works are fountains, springing up with resources with which aspiring pianists can

draw for their own inspiration and from which they can draw the absolute standard in piano

virtuosity. If you can play Chopin, you can play with feeling. All of the fine nuances, and details

for which emotions are expressed on a grand scale, the emotions of love, and it’s opposite,

emotions of sadness and its opposite have never been portrayed quite like the way Chopin does.

Chopin’s music remains a resource of piano wisdom are fundamental staples in the pianist’s

repertoire.

Many know Chopin the pianist, and composer, but the fact that he devoted a quarter of

his short life to pedagogical pursuits is often overlooked. The latter part of his life was divided

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between teaching and composing. He began to write a piano method, of which only a few initial

sketches survive. The few fragments we do have of his initial sketches along with the many

memoirs of his students about his teaching, give us insights into his approach to pedagogy. We

can almost sense what a lesson with Chopin would have been like. He was a sincere teacher who

could bring out the best in his students. He encouraged daring and boldness; confidence in one’s

playing while exacting perfection and an application of the bel canto style of singing to their

piano playing. This was done to facilitate the ability to express the deepest of feelings, and the

strongest of emotions.

He sincerely fostered his pupil’s progression, seeking to bring them up to


his level. He was telepathic in a sense in that he knew what words to use to
extract from the student the proper results. This quote from a letter of his pupil,
Emilie von Gretsch’s, dated 30 April 1844 illustrates his approach: “Yesterday
at Chopin's I tried to play his Nocturnes. I knew, I still felt clearly within
myself the way in which he had played them. But partly because of uncertainty
with the notes, and partly through a certain inhibition which comes out in our
bearing and our performance when we are anxious or unhappy, I found myself
unable to express the music as I heard it in my head; I did not have the strength
to realise it in sound. It is wonderful then to see how tactfully Chopin puts one
at one's ease; how intuitively he identifies, I might say, with the thoughts of the
person to whom he is speaking or listening; with what delicate nuances of
behaviour he adapts his own being to that of another. To encourage me, he tells
me among other things, 'It seems to me that you don't dare to express yourself
as you feel. Be bolder, let yourself go more. Imagine you're at the
conservatoire, listening to the most beautiful performance in the world. Make
yourself want to hear it, and then you'll hear yourself playing it right here.
Have full confidence in yourself; make yourself want to sing like Rubini, and
you'll succeed in doing so. Forget you're being listened to, and always listen to
yourself. I see that timidity and lack of self-confidence form a kind of armour
around you, but through this armour I perceive something else that you don't
always dare to express, and so you deprive us all. When you're at the piano, I
give you full authority to do whatever you want; follow freely the ideal you've
set for yourself and which you must feel within you; be bold and confident in
your own powers and strength, and whatever you say will always be good. It
would give me so much pleasure to hear you play with complete abandon that
I'd find the shameless confidence of the vulgaires unbearable by comparison.”
(Grewingk, pg. 10-11) 1
1
Jean Jacque Eigeldinger. “In the composer’s words.” Frederic Chopin – the Poet of the Piano 20.5.2003
<http://www.humanitieswebv.org/cgi-in/human.cgi?s=c&p=c&a=q&ID=46>

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He considered pedagogy important enough to sketch ideas for a piano method. Since it

was hard for him to commit ideas to paper, it is easy to understand why he never finished the

book, which he was going to call, un method de piano. He was shy to commit his ideas in ink on

the page, for they were never perfect. George Sand says that, he would get these inspired

melodies and ideas for his works out of the air and they would be perfect in his mind, but as soon

as he started write them down, some part of the idea would lose its identity never to be written

down in its purest, most inspired form. He found it hard to duplicate on paper that which was so

freely given to him out inspiration. Chopin said, “The pen burns my fingers.” 2 His French

publishers tell us that he would constantly revise his works, on the way to the publishers, and

even after the works had been published. Chopin would change two measures of a piece

hundreds of times, never quite satisfied with the results, for they fell just short of the initial

inspiration.

There are certain things done on the keyboard so often that special exercises have been

built up around them. Examples include: octaves, thirds, fifths, sixths, tenths, scales, arpeggios,

trills, double trills, mordents, inverted mordents, broken chords, repeated notes, runs of all types,

rhythms (two against three, three against four, five against six -- you can thank Liszt for that),

trills and melodies in the same hand (thank Beethoven, for that one), various levels of staccato,

interlocked octaves, appoggiaturas preceding intervals of various sizes, multi-voiced

2
Stuart Isacoff. “I, Claudio.” Keyboard Classics Jan.- Feb. 1983: pg. .7

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contrapuntal styles, hand crossings , large interval jumps, interior melodies,

melodies switching hands (thank Bach), and a host of other techniques. Printed on the title page

to Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist: Sixty Exercises for Piano are the goals of many an aspiring

piano virtuoso. The traits considered by Hanon to be the most beneficial to the aspiring piano

virtuoso are, “the acquiring of agility, independence, strength, and perfect evenness in the

fingering, as well as suppleness of the wrist.” Would Chopin put his seal of approval to such

finger exercises? If we consider his main views music and playing piano by studying the diaries

and memoirs of his students along with his own notebooks and sketches of the Method de Piano,

we will be able to approximate whether he would have approved of Hanon’s exercises. Of his

pedagogical contributions to piano technique, I would like to touch on three of his ideas: First;

the idea of facilement; second, his ideas on fingering; lastly his ideas of singing as the

foundations of all music, or vocal modeling.

The Chopin Etudes cover more ground than all the tedious Hanon exercises

combined. The only problem is that they are not for the beginner; therefore, the Hanon studies

may yet be suitable. When his friend Moscheles, and Fetis asked him to contribute not-to-

difficult items for their new piano method, Chopin realized that such pieces should give practice

in some elementary technical points. So, with expert craftsmanship, Chopin fashioned three short

compositions, which he named “Three New Etudes.”3 There is Etude for thirds, sixths, octaves,

two against three, three against four, appoggiaturas, and many more. Those Etudes are not finger

3
“Chopin: Etude in A flat major.” Etude the Music Magazine Oct. 1950: pg. 26

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exercises, and they were probably what was to be included in his piano method. Therefore, if the

aspiring virtuoso is weak in playing broken tenths, you work out Opus 10, No. 1.

Chopin expressed the importance of hearing and touch. Chopin would say, 'Facilement!

Facilement.’ Parlaying repeatedly the same concept for those of his students needing reproof.

Facilement in French means ease. In piano performance this means suppleness or ease of

playing; the ease with which the hands and wrists, caress the pi9ano keys. It would seem that if

in doing Hanon’s exercises there came a degree of suppleness, then Chopin would approve.

He went against the pedagogues of the time, who wanted to equalize the fingers by means

of tedious and cramping exercises.4 Play an hour of Czerny and your arms,

forearms, wrists and fingers fatigue, there may be a burning in the forearms as well as now you

have quite the reach with all the fingers because they were made to twist and contort in all sorts

of ways.

Chopin felt that the fingers were naturally unequal. The fact that the middle finger is the

longest, the ring finger weaker than the index, the left hand naturally weaker than the right (in

right handed players) cannot be denied anatomically. Therefore, exercises (like the ones which

Schumann engaged in), or contraptions with the aim of strengthening the fourth or weaker

fingers by tying them up with rubber bands or strings, hanging them from the ceiling as you

sleep or pretending your fingers need a muscular workout because they, like Olympic weight

lifters, must train, would be far more detrimental than beneficial. Chopin instead knew the

limitations of the hands and thought they should be used according to its natural physiognomy.

The natural shape and strengths of the hands and fingers he thought should be used as a basis for
4
ibid. Keyboard Classics pg. 8

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fingering technique. "Everything is a matter of knowing good fingering [...] Just as we need to

use the conformation of the fingers, we need no less to use the rest of the hand, the wrist, the

forearm and the upper arm. One cannot try to play everything from the wrist as Kalkbrenner

claims."5 Chopin had a name for such studies. He called them Etudes de Mecanisme6.

Chopin became famous throughout Paris even to the then ‘king of the piano’

Kalkbrenner. He associated with the Polish and French aristocracy and from them drew his main

income. He did this, not from performing (which he didn't much like), but from teaching. Liszt,

Hiller, Berlioz, Schumann, and Mendelssohn were among those who admired his works and

became his friends. Some of the most famous of people, including the aforementioned giants

would seek musical advice from Chopin. Kalkbrenner brought his daughter in to him, to receive

his recommendations as to how to further her music study.7

This leads us to distinguish between playing the piano with touch, and playing it with

pure mechanics. There is a difference in the techniques, attitudes, and approach between the

Liszt school of piano and the Chopin schools. He was similar to Liszt in some ways, yet

different in others. It has been hinted that both were on the outside friendly to each other yet on

the inside could not stand each other. For example, neither Chopin nor Liszt would accept

children or beginners as students (prodigies being the exception. Similarly, both piano masters

thought of the usefulness of their piano skills to future players.

Liszt was all for fame, glory and public performance. If Liszt was an extrovert, then

Chopin was an introvert. Liszt succeeded in the task of writing his book of piano exercises

towards the latter part of his life, when he realized that it would be best to confer upon future
5
Mikuli Carl, "Vorwort", in Fr. Chopin's Pianoforte-Werke. Ed. Mikuli, Leipzig, Kistner, [1880], (Mikuli)

6
Chopin Pianist and Teacher as Seen by his Pupils. Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger Cambridge University Press, 1986 Paris Flammarion,

1993.
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generations those skills he learned. So, he prepared exercises, which are very hard to grasp,

unless you are already an advanced player. Chopin’s few initial sketches are more easily playable

and the results can be seen immediately. During his life, Liszt never wanted to be known as a

teacher. Au contraire, Chopin was much sought after as a teacher, and unlike Franz, he disliked

public performances.

Like I have mentioned before, the pen burned in Chopin’s hand so much that it was

probably impossible for him to write what he would have considered valuable exercises. He was

perhaps perplexed even writing the etudes for Fetis and Moscheles. How would he have

presented his ideas and concepts relating to facilement, vocal modeling, and hearing and touch to

future pianists, in an understandable way. That is the art of pedagogy, that is why teaching itself,

too, is a science as well as an art.

Both masters had ideas of piano exercises and methods for piano. Chopin’s exercises are

arguably of more value to the general piano playing public, where fiery virtuosity is not a factor.

He shoots from the shoulder. For example, he would always make his pupils start with the key a

B major not C major. The ease and comfortability of this key, in regards to the uncoordinated

hands of beginners, as well as the faster rate at which the other keys are internalized, and

memorized is much more appreciable by starting n B and not C. He made his pupils begin with

the scales B, F# and D flat. B Being easily grasped like a glove. F# in a sense its retrograde and

D flat, the inversion of the relationship between black notes and white notes. (See figure 1)

As far as modeling piano technique after the voice, there are numerous quotations.

Chopin felt that singing was the cornerstone of music. That the Bel Canto style of singing is

preferred above all other ways in which expressions come alive. We can see through the listening

of his works that it actually fells at times that the piano is breathing. He could express the

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strongest of feelings, and the deepest of emotions Chopin’s pieces transcend time, by means

wanting to sing. You must first sing if you wish to play.

Chopin, like many teachers sincere in fostering their student’s progress, did not keep

track of the time as he taught. He was sincere in his approach to pedagogy. He took teaching

seriously and was concerned about the improvement of his students. His goal was more to ensure

the healthy and proper development of their technical and artistically piano skills than on the

acquisition of money. Chopin was a much sought after teacher and lessons were expensive. It

required 20 golden francs to take a lesson with the master or, “30 francs if Chopin was to teach at

the pupil’s home about the equivalent of a ‘Louis d’or’ (£1 sterling of that time.)” 8

He sometimes would let two pupils receive a lesson at once. Lessons would go longer

than scheduled. Chopin’s teaching career began after he established himself in Paris. It occupied

the latter part of his life, from 1832 to 1849. From October or November to May, Chopin

received an average of five pupils daily. He would wake up early, spending the morning and at

least half of the afternoon teaching. Generally seated at his small upright Pianino while the

student played on the large Pleyel, he would point out the student’s errors and weaknesses using

more examples than words. He preferred his pupils to follow the text carefully rather than to play

from memory. He would make comments on the score as it lay on the music stand. Often the

entire lesson passed without the pupils having played more than a few bars (Mikuli, p.4). 9

Chopin’s work as a composer and a pedagogue are invaluable to anyone serious about

music. His piano pieces stand as monumental masterpieces of romantic expression. From them

we can gain the insight, the key to virtuosic playing without sacrificing the fun of music by

taking our medicine (piano exercises). Truly, even Chopin would have to feel as necessary the

8
Chopin Pianist and Teacher as Seen by his Pupils. Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger Cambridge University Press, 1986 Paris Flammarion, 1993.

9
Mikuli Karl, “vorwort”, in Fr. Chopin’s Pianoforte- Werke. Ed. Mikuli, Leipzig, Kistner, [1880], Mikuli.

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pianist’s daily dose of medicine, for the acquisition of … He, discovered new fields of

expression, through the piano, and has taught us to do the same. His suggestions about using the

natural shape and strengths of the hands to one's advantage, model our piano playing after the

style of singing, and using our sense of hearing and touch are more helpful than 3 Gradus ad

Parnassum, 2 schools of velocity, and a Hanon in a pear tree.

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Bibliography

Jean Jacque Eigeldinger. “In the composer’s words.” Frederic Chopin – the Poet of the

Piano 20.5.2003 http://www.humanitieswebv.org/cgi-

in/human.cgi?s=c&p=c&a=q&ID=46

Louis Elson Ed. Modern Music and Musicians. New York: The University Society, 1918.

Willard A. Palmer. Creating Music at the Piano. Alfred publishers, 1975.

“Chopin: Etude in A flat major.” Etude the Music Magazine Oct. 1950: pg. 26

Stuart Isacoff. “I, Claudio.” Keyboard Classics Jan.- Feb. 1983: pgs.7-10

Jeffery Kallberg. “Chopin’s Compositional process: From Piano to Public.”

Stephan Kutrzeba. “Growing Piano Art by the Chopin and Neuhaus‘ Method.”://m

23.1.2002 http://www.embers.surfeu.fi/ktrzeba/engprint.html

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