I feel like I’ve taken a sort of long sabbatical from teaching the piano since I left France 12 years ago. I’ve taught some students, all of them very serious at their own level, hard working, conscientious. Recently though several students have been working on Chopin Etudes, which is really gratifying on almost every level, pianistic, musical and pedagogical. Many years ago at Juilliard, I took Alexander Technique every Friday afternoon with Lorna Faraldi, who was a very gifted instructor who unfortunately passed away many years ago at an early age. She turned me onto Abby Whiteside’s book “Mastering the Chopin Etudes and other essays”. I had the great good fortune of being able to take a few lessons with her teacher, Sofia Rossoff, who was one of Abby Whiteside’s disciples, and a fabulous teacher in her own rite. I grew up listening to Cuban-born pianist Juana Zayas’ recording of the 24 Etudes, which are inimitably wonderful, a lifetime of hard work and complete dedication to the piano. Harold C. Schoenberg of the NY Times said of her playing “A Chopin pianist to the manner born” and went on to give her one of the very best reviews I’ve ever read. After years of working with German Diez, a life-long disciple of Claudio Arrau, I’ve had lots of fantastic advice and guidance on how to learn the etudes and study them. With German I began learning all 24 of them very slowly, painfully slowly. I always wanted to rush, learn them as fast as I could. Then I learned that it doesn’t really work that way.
I read a book written by a French pianist/ pedagogue that someone highly recommended, saying how much they had learned about mastering the etudes. When I got to the chapter on Op. 10 no. 2, the author said something along the lines of “This etude should be light and graceful and fly like the wind.” I thought to myself, “Boy, now wasn’t that helpful!” Duh! So recently when one of my students started to work on it, we went through it step by step. First, learn the top line with a comfortable fingering. Don’t attempt to learn the upper line with the last 3 fingers. Let it be easy so that your ear will always have an easy association with the upper line. Today few doubt Chopin’s genius as a composer or a pianist. Legend has it that he added the chords in the right hand almost to oblige pianists to learn to play a chromatic scale with 3,4 and 5 of the right hand. Without chords, everyone would naturally play the melody with thumb, index and middle fingers. Once my student had an easy mastery of the upper line, we started to look at the “choreography” of playing a chromatic scale with the outer 3 fingers.
Starting on E in the right hand, we have a group of 3 notes (E, F, F#) that fit easily into a gesture. Move the elbow slightly forward over the first 3 fingers, and the fingers engage, notes are played. Child’s play. After that there are 2 rotations, G-G# and A-A# with thumb and middle finger. You can also take a short cut and play 1,2,3,4 on those 4 notes for more speed. After that, B,C,C# is another group of three notes, followed by D-D#, which is another rotation on thumb and middle finger. When you’ve identified where the groups of 3 notes are (E,F,F# and B,C,C#), the rest is all rotation of the forearm. The chromatic scale sort of falls out of your hand onto your fingers, into the keys.
Playing the chromatic scale in the right hand with the outer 3 fingers, a.k.a. “middle, ring and pinky”, the groups of three are (A#, B, C) and (D#, E, F). Helping the student find those first, makes it much clearer. The same principle of rotation then applies to the groups of 2 notes, namely C#-D, F#-G, G#-A. What I find is tricky for students is to get them to feel the weight of their arms behind the finger tips in the keys. We’re sooooo used to using 1, 2 and 3 for writing and playing, pointing, that 3, 4 and 5 suffer from a lack of use. The habit hasn’t been created. So we work on just getting the student comfortable with this new sensation of playing with the outside of the hand. It can take some time for the coordination to develop, for the fingers to get strong, to solidly support the weight of the arm. It’s a brilliant thing to know how to do as a pianist, because so much of our literature as pianists uses the outer 3 fingers for projecting or voicing melody all the time, lightening up on thumb and index fingers so as to not drown out the “singer”. Opus 10 no. 2 is a quintessential study for learning how the outside of your hand works, especially in relationship to the entire arm and shoulder. Just getting comfortable with the upper line without the chords is a major accomplishment.
Then we go on to learn the chords at the beginning of each group of 4 16th notes. It’s interesting to see how well you think you know the piece to actually go back and try to play just the first 16th notes of every beat and see if you can make it to the end. It’s interesting compositionally as well, but we’re not going there right now.
After that we introduce the technique called “le lacé” that I learned from Merces de Silva Telles in Paris many years ago when I was preparing major international competitions. The technique is fairly simple. Start with the chord on beat one, play the chord on beat two. Then go back and fill it in, playing the remaining 16th notes. Keep doing it until it feels relatively smooth, and SLOWLY! Force nothing. Go for the feeling of the notes just falling out of your hand. Repeat process for beats 2- 3, then 3- 4, then 4-1 of following measure until you get to the end of the piece. Again let me reiterate yet one more time… SLOWLY!!! There’s a lot going on in your hand that the muscles, bones, nerves and your ears need to process. Please do not be in a hurry to learn any of these pieces. Take your time, enjoy the process. Nothing is more difficult than trying to unlearn engrained bad habits. Always pay attention to where the forearm needs to rotate, and staying in touch with the sensation of the fingers connecting and being grounded in the key bed, and when I say grounded, I mean lightly, not pushing into the key bed. The art of Alexander Technique was always to find the “necessary energy” to accomplish a certain gesture, a certain movement. Feeling the difference between “not enough energy” and “way too much energy” helps in the long run to find “just enough energy” to get the keys down, have a solid and even sound, yet keeping the sound somehow wistful and light. What are the Polish words for “wistful and light”?
Arrau used to tell his students to warm up everyday at the piano with 3 Chopin Etudes played through slowly. This helped all of the parts of the arm and hands warm up slowly and gradually and build a solid, completely reliable technique.
It’s very interesting to me to see how my students evolve from week to week and how this coordination, this ease, once it is woken up in them, becomes a part of their lives, such that I have to remind them what their playing was like and how stiff they were a few years back before they started to learn these techniques. I love teaching about ease and coordination, and finding the freedom that comes from what Alfred Tomatis used to refer to as “letting the ear coordinate everything”. Like it or not, we memorize everything, not just the notes, but how we breathe, how we sit, where we look or don’t look when we’re playing. It gives me great joy to share this knowledge, as much joy as it gave me to learn about it decades ago. It has opened up worlds for me pianistically that were previously closed, and I will be forever grateful and indebted to all of these fine teachers who took the time to patiently show me all of these things until I was ready to fly with my own wings.