How to Physically Relax: Chopin Edition
S.B.’s lesson on 8/3/19
-Nocturne, Op 48 / 1, in C Minor
Eliminating tension from the playing mechanism.
Any tension, in any muscle, versus a buoyant physical state, impedes
the alacrity with which one can play any passage.
How can we most effectively deal with tension once it exists in the
It tends to be easiest to be relaxed when first starting a piece.
With each succeeding note of the piece there is the possibility of a
subtle but continuous rise in tension.
Because the rate in increase of tension can be very gradual we may not
be conscious of it. By the time we are usually aware of it there may
no longer be a “way out”.
A relevant question is: how many notes can you play through before
tension sets in? Is it just a couple of notes, or a measure, a couple
of measures, through an entire long phrase, through a major section of
the piece, etc.?
If we can come up with a procedure whereby to rid the body of tension,
is there a way we can activate that procedure periodically, regardless
if we do or do not perceive that there is tension at that moment in
We want to find a procedure that restores relaxation, regardless of
what degree of tension my at that time be present. The procedure
should insure sudden relaxation versus gradual relaxation.
A preliminary exercise:
I ask S.B. to play a comfortable chord (she chose the chord
d4-fs4-a4-d5). I asked her to let the chord continue to sound. While
holding it, before changing any of the notes, I asked her to practice
ADDING tension until there was great tension throughout her body. We
started with the fingers, then added the hands, arms, etc.. She was
now gripping the chord in a panicked way – holding on for her life.
We exaggerated the tension, beyond what might exist in the middle of a
piece after tension had grown over a prolonged period of time without
our having been aware that it was happening. In our preliminary
exercise we have simply shrunk the period of increasing tension, until
it is obvious that it was happening.
That is part one of the preliminary exercise – suddenly and
overwhelmingly increasing the tension.
The next phase is, while still holding the chord, to eliminate the
tension in noticeable stages until the tension is gone. Through
repetition the time it takes to undo the tension gradually shrinks,
until it happens in as short a time as would elapse in performance
between one note and the very next note.
These are the two complementary parts to the preliminary exercise.*
The passage beginning at measure 49 (“doppio movimento”)
S.B. knew what she wanted but felt hopelessly blocked from attaining
it. I said that when something is this complicated to figure out, it
is often helpful as a first step to “orchestrate” the passage, so that
in our mind we are no longer dealing just with a piano. And at least
in our imagination we are no longer limited by the ideosyncrasies of
the piano as an instrument.
The cellos and basses play a series of half notes starting
with c3-c4 on the first beat of measure 49, followed by another half
note, f2-f3 on the third beat. And so on through the next measures.
Start by playing just these two instruments. Everything else, whether
in the left hand or the right hand. is left out and all we hear is the
long bass tones sustaining for two beats each. Let there be a certain
buoyancy in the way the left hand starts these sounds. And let the
left hand float upwards between the onset of one tone and that of the
next. This floating motion is not separate from the attack on the
notes but somehow already contained in the gesture of the attack.
During each half note, in the growing vertical space between the hand
and the keyboard, you can imagine playing the missing notes.
There are other instrumental assignments to the other notes and layers
of sound. However, even without going further, often the player can
already switch to playing all the notes in the score – but, constantly
tell themselves that all these other notes, every one of them, is
inconsequential. Everything is still there, every detail, including
crescendos and decrescendos. gradations in loudness. The same
regarding bringing out the main melody on beats 2 and 4 in the right
hand. Nonetheless they are all the result physically inconsequential
gestures. Almost at the verge pantomiming but still audible in every one their details of line, expression, emotion, intensity, etc..
Complex measures with a wide variety of variables.
S.B. jokingly complains that her brain’s ‘bandwidth’ doesn’t permit
her to focus simultaneously on as many different things, technical
and musical, as she needs to be aware of in a complex measure. I said that
no one’s brain has that capacity. Before there were parallel
processors, when computers used to run several apps at once, they were
not really multitasking. They simply spent a certain number of
millionths of a second updating one app and then switched to another
app and spent a similar amount of time updating it.
Before the early 2000s, films were delivered to movie theatre in the
form of physical reels of film. When run through a projector, it was
usual for 24 frames of film to run through the projector each second and be displayed on the screen. At 24 frames per second, motion will seem continuous even though it has been broken down into discreet chunks with noticeable changes from one frame to another if the two are displayed side by side. The multi-tasking we are describing for computers operated by up to a million times per second, so there was no problem convincing the user that more than one thing was happening at the same time, both continuously.
In a very complicated measure of music we can multi-task by thinking
of one thing at a time. As soon as the first thing has borne fruit in
the ear, we may let our attention go to another and reasonably assume
the first will continue as it was. Some of these things may be
physical in nature and have to do with body use or body sensations,
others with music feelings, ideas, and aspirations. Each time one
thing has caught fire from the spark of our imagination, go on to the
next thing. There may be four or more different things to think about
in one measure. This is possible, but only if we go from one to
If we propel an elastic ball down against the group, but once it has
started bouncing back up, then down… it will continue bouncing that
way until the bouncing has to be re-initiated by us again (or in our
case ‘thought’ about again).**
The key ingredient in this process is mental flexibility, the ability
to think of one thing and then another, without clinging to one in
particular. As a general rule, in piano playing, it is not as much
the what you think about, but the when you think about it.
Beware of playing at your maximum loudness.
If you are maxed out loudness-wise, and you see a crescendo coming up
that is indicated in the score, there is no way to play that crescendo.
Even within the span in time of the loudest phrase, some sub-groups of
notes in the phrase need to undergo some process of growth and decline
or the phrase will have no shape.
There always has to be a reserve tank of greater loudness available.
Don’t dig a loudness well out of which you cannot get back out.
#4 An unexpected cause for difficulty.
A. Measure 49, left hand
I said to S.B., one of the left hand notes during the first two beats
of the measure is not sounding anywhere as near as loud as the other
notes, and I don’t think this was on purpose by you. Can you spot the
note? She played and listened and gradually went through a list of
possible note culprits, starting with the note that she felt was most
likely and then less and less likely ones.
She only failed to suggest one note as a possible culprit. Of course
that was the note that didn’t sound equal with the others, in fact far
softer if at all. It was the g3 in the third triplet eighth of the first group of triplet eighths.
She thought she was listening but was actually feeling what was going
on in her muscles. She wasn’t listening for every note.
#2. Measure 46
This is a measure in double octaves that unlike similar double octave
measures that came before, skips around more, pitch-wise.
The further into the measure she went, the more difficulty she
encountered playing what was let of it. The tension occurred when she had to move between octaves. It was a blip on a radar that lasted too short a time to be noticed by the radar screen observer. It is especially important at those very brief moments that the arm and hand, like a very flexible blade of grass, be set into motion from the least hint of a vagrant breeze. The blade may have rested still for quite some time (in our case the duration the octave is held down) but it is in a state of willingness to be moved.
-Nocturne Op 15 / 2 in F# Major
Cadenza-like runs as in measures 11, 18, 20. 50.
The unsuspected cause of impediments to the constancy of flow in these
runs was a greater physical tension in her thumb than in her other
fingers. She had been unaware of this. It only was observable in
comparison to the somewhat less tension in the other fingers. It did
not stand in a self-evident way. Once she evened out the muscular
tension in all the fingers (keeping that common degree at a minimal
value) the interruptions we first noticed in those runs was replaced
by an even flow of tones.
Unexpected causes of problems: “turn around” points
Again an unevenness in the way the sixths rose and again fell.
I offered a solution before the explanation for why the solution
Notice that the score asks you play the bottom note of the sixth
twice, one before rising the sixth the other after the sixth
re-descends. Why not try playing the upper note of the sixth twice, as
Instead of starting the measure with: b4 gs5 b4 as4 fx5 as4 …
play it this way: b4 gs5 gs5 b4 as4 fx5 fx5 as4 …
This seemed odd but she tried it. Joe: now try it as written. The
surprise was the eliminating of the tiny resistances to the evenness
in the whole cadenza.
Then, the explanation. The gs5 at the beginning of the measure is the
result of a rightwards motion from the b4. What about the second b4?
It is the result of a leftwards motion from the same gs5. This creates
a problem for the single gs5, in that it has to be two things at once:
the result of an upward motion, and the cause of a downward motion.
Repeating the gs5 twice gave that note an opportunity to distinguish
between those two roles rather than try to combine them as part of one
Measure 50 again. This time when the motion in sixths cedes to
Where exactly is the turning point between the two? The pivotal note
is the d5 which is the result of an upward skip from es4 but also the
cause of the succeeding chromatic scale (d cs c b as … ).
Hitherto, once she started the measure she would go right though this
pivot point without fully being conscious that she had already passed
it. It took only the awareness of which note was the pivotal point
and that she was aware of the moment when she was about to play that
note, in order to homogenize the entire cadenza.
Again a pivot moment. To solder the two main pieces of this cadential
phrase into a homogeneously flowing ribbon of sound, we simply
identified the point when chromatic motion downwards in the right hand
turned into motion in broken thirds. That point was at the ds5, which
happened to fall exactly on beat two of the measure.
Measure 25 …
To bring out the principal melody in the right hand, she had to play
its notes louder than she wanted to.
From my privileged position as the unmoved observer I noticed that
when the right hand played an octave (for instance as the first and
sixth note of the measure). What she didn’t notice, because she
happened at that moment to be more physically involved in her playing
than listening to that playing, was the that the thumb note of the
octave tended to play a moment after the pinkie its note in the
octave. When I brought this to her attention, at first she didn’t
believe that this discrepancy in onset time was happening. So I asked
her to play some of the passage again, but this time I physically
intervened with the right hand with my two hands to force the two
notes to happen at the same moment. Then, of course, because it felt
physically different than how she played it before, she became
conscious of the delay.
An unexpected dividend of this newly forged simultaneity between the
notes of the octave, the octaves not only sounded cleaner and clear,
but perhaps more importantly, the note at the top of the octave (the
melody note) sounded slightly louder than before. The result was that
she now had an additional way of causing sounds to be louder, one that
was not simply a matter of dynamics.
* If one were making a graph of an increases then decreases in
tension, the resulting curve would gradually climb higher off the
x-axis until reaching a peak value, then return in short course back
to the x-axis. This is similar to shape of what is called a “saw
tooth wave”. The difference is only in that instead of plotting the
details of increase and decrease in the amplitude (y-axis) of a sound
wave through time (x-axis), it was plotting the increase and decrease
of bodily tension.
** you can set many balls into a bouncing motion but not if you have
to start all of them at the same moment in time. But once they are
all in motion they will all continue to be in motion for a while. The
same with the fruits of thought.
A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound
S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.
The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.
The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.
#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.
The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.
A. Measure one and the first half of measure two
The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.
B. The first two notes in measure two
The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.
C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.
Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.
D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.
When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.
E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.
This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.
#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.
The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord. Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.
The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.
C. The section with double octaves.
S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.
She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all that flexibility.”
I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.
I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.
This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
Details on Solving Technical Issues in the Chopin Etudes. Part Three.
Op 10: #5, #7, #8, #9, #12. Op 25: #1
“Chopin: Etude: Op 10 / 5 in G Flat Major
- Op 10 / 5 : general, for the right hand
As I get older the black keys on the piano seem to get narrower and
narrower increasing the probability that I will be off center when
playing one. This could be a delusion on my part, or a result of
having undergone a major weight loss program. Since it is on my mind
today, I’ve experimented with steps to compensate for this effect
(real or imaginary).
I am looking at the spaces in between the adjacent fingers of my right
hand. When the hand is in a closed position these spaces disappear,
but as the finger tips move apart relative to each other a wedged
shape space develops between the fingers. The space is widest between
the tips of the adjacent fingers, and progressively narrows down until
the fingers join the rest of the hand. The bottom of this empty wedge
is located just prior to the bumps of the third knuckles on the upper
surface of the hand.
Now I take the index finger of my left hand, place it in between the
tips of two adjacent fingers in the right hand, and draw the left hand
finger along the narrowing space between the right hand fingers, until
the left hand finger is blocked and can go no further.
I keep the left index finger at this point. If I pull it any further
in the same direction I will, in effect, be pulling the entire right
hand away from the fall board. I proceed to do just this. The hand
and the fingers move towards the body. If one of the two adjacent
fingers happens to be lying on the surface of a black key, I can use
the pull into the body as a way also of depressing the black key.
As I pull horizontally along the longitude of the black key I also
apply a slight vector downwards. The further the finger tip slides
along the black key the more the black key secondarily is urged
downwards into the key dip. As the second finger nears the lip of the
black key, the black key has settled downwards into the altitude of
the neighboring white key (which is still at the top of its key dip).
I thus use this semi horizontal motion towards the body and away from
the fall board, to sound the black key. I think of this motion as
being along the hypotenuse of a long skinny right triangle, whose
shortest side is the distance the black key travels vertically
downwards to reach the bottom of the key dip.
By tracing the length of the black key before sounding the note, it is
like landing an airplane along a runway. I use the full distance of
the runway (the black key) to insure I am centered left and right.
It is then just a matter of internalizing this motion into my imagination. Subjectively I still feel that I am travelling along the longitude of the black key, but objectively my finger does not appear to change location along the key’s longitude.
“Chopin Etude in C Major, Opus 10, Number 7. Oscillating thirds and
- Op 10 / 7
Take a pair of right hand sixteenth notes that begin on an eighth note
beat, such as at the beginning of measure 1. We have e4-g4 and then
e4-c5. Combine those notes together into a single chord. The c5
repeats in both sixteenths, so we end up with a three note chord
e4-g4-c5. I use the thumb and second finger of the right hand to play
the e4, the third finger for g4 and the pinkie for c5.
The next step is to play that triad twice in a row, at an extreme
speed, the second just a ricochet off the first. As soon as the first one sounds, almost before the fingers have had a chance to fully
release the keys, slap the fingers down a second time to repeat the
chord. We are aiming for a difference in time between the beginning
of the two triads that approaches zero.
I go into a loop and repeat the two identical triads over and over. As I do, I gradually try to be aware that there is a third (e4-g4) in the first iteration of the triad and a sixth (e4-c5) in the second. There is no more than a hint at this awareness, so that the two iterations of the triad can be part of a single action rather than two separate actions.
Once I’ve repeated and repeated this triad twice, without thinking I
segue into the actual written order of the pitches. In each beat, the
third is barely more than a very rapid grace note to the sixth.
“Chopin Etude in F Major: Opus 10 number 8
hold the right arm and hand several inches above the keyboard,
hovering over the part of the keyboard which contains the notes to be
applied. Apply a sharp, sudden torque of the wrist starting at the
pinkie side of the right hand and going to the thumb side. The total
rotation is no more than a matter of just a few degrees, but this
small quantitative measurement should be in inverse proportion to the
suddenness and force of the twisting action. Let that torque like
motion result in the articular of four notes in a row (such as a6 g6
f6 c6 in measure one).
Now we need to get the wrist and hand back into their starting
position before the action in order to use the same motion for the
next four notes in the next octave range. Something about the
suddenness of the counterclockwise jerk of the hand towards the thumb,
is so strong, that when it is arrested after just a few degrees
rotation, it ricochets back in the other direction, thus setting up
the hand for the next octave. By doing things this way the hand is
ready for the next octave without any delay in finishing one octave
and beginning the next.
The reverse procedure is used for ascending arpeggios.
“Chopin Etude in F Minor, op 10 / 9
- op 10 / 9: the beginning and in general
Play the pinkie note in the left hand, f2. Next, rotate the hand sideways
with only the pinkie staying in contact with its key. When in this
position, fully curl the entire length of the fourth finger. Do this
with great force and rapidity. The plane in which the curling occurs,
is horizontal. Act as if you are trying reach the fourth finger as
far as possible towards the next note to be played, c3. The pinkie
remains on f2 as you do this. Then, play the c3 with the fourth
finger. Once in contact with the c3 key, immediately restore the
fourth finger to its normal posture and spatial orientation.
A similar procedure can be used on the behalf of the fifth finger,
when the sixth note of the current left hand group of six notes is
about to go to the pinkie on the first note of the next group of six
notes. When you play the sixth note, c3, with the fourth finger, turn
the hand sideways, pinkie side down. Flex the pinkie rightwards (sic)
so as to make a slapping sound or concussive sound against the hollow
of the palm. Slap it over like a mouse trap closing. Now translate
the plane of the hand back to normal and have the pinkie go leftwards
instead of rightwards.
“Chopin Etude in C Minor, Opus 10, number 12 (“the Revolutionary”)
- Op 10 / 12 : measure 9, 13, et. al.
Take the right hand and surround and cradle the left wrist. When I
come over the thumb, which is playing c3, in order to play d3 with the
fourth finger, at first sight it may seem that the overall motion
should go entirely to the right – over the thumb. A closer analysis
shows that there is also a compensatory motion to the left. This
force is easiest to create using the right hand to prevent the left
wrist from rotating rightwards. It is only through the principle of
balancing two oppositely directed forces that we attain the stability
in the hand needed to effect the complex motion of putting the fourth
finger over the first finger. One force plays off the other force
with the result that neither vector by itself throws the hand offside
and cause it to loose equilibrium.
- Op 10 / 12, measure 70, 71, et al
The arm is used consciously only to carry the hand carry the left hand
from the c2 to ef4 (in measure 70), or the b1 to the d2 (in measure
71). On the way from the lowest note to the highest note, the arm
ignores any motion designed to carry the hand from note to the next.
In making such an overall motion with the arm, the most important
thing is to have no foreknowledge, no adumbration in the hands and
fingers, of the notes that will later be inserted. For, in figurations like this, the required motions in between the lowest and highest notes are too subtle, too many, and need to be too exact, to rely on any conscious control over them. Intention can never duplicate the organic cohesiveness of the required of the melding and harmony of these component motions, one of which is the passing over the thumb of the fifth, fourth or third finger to continue flow of pitches upwards through the next octave.
That it is why we dictate to the hand only the scope of the motion by
defining its lowest and highest points, knowing that whatever else the
playing mechanism (including the individual fingers, the wrist, the
forearm, etc.) needs to proportionally contribute to the indivisible
series of motions required will happen automatically if not coerced.
We must let go of all intent, all trying, all tending to specific
details. There is no component, unnatural motion, that need to occur.
- Op 10 / 12 : measure 73 and 74.
Just play the first note of every two sixteenth note dyad. You can
even use solely the thumb to articulate this chromatic scale.
“Chopin Etude in A Flat Major, Opus 25 Number 1
Keep the hands soft and closed. Throughout each sextuplet, use the
arm alone to transport each finger to next note. Avoid any motion in
the fingers which would attempt to make a connection between notes.
Such motions by the fingers (or the wrists, etc.), if intentional, can
only lead to stiffness and inexactitude. Go through one sextuplet in
this manner, rather slowly, and immediately afterwards at full speed,
trusting that the playing mechanism will unconsciously add whatever
nuances and helping motions are required to supplement the simple
left-right motion of the arm.
This principle can be taken to another level of detail by applying it
to the notes of a simultaneous chord. Close the hand, turn the chord
into a slow arpeggio of individual notes, again with no motion in the
fingers to make connections between the notes, but only the ‘pick up
and deposit’ of hands by the arms of the required finger onto the next
note. Without any opening, or closing, of the spaces between the
fingers in response to the changing distances between the adjacent
notes of the chord.
Details on Solving Technical issues in the Chopin Etudes. Part two.
Continuing entries about the Etude in C Sharp Minor: Op 10, No. 4
- Op 10 / 4 : measure 8
What is the theoretical limit of playing a series of notes as fast as
possible? The faster they go the more they approach being sounded
simultaneously, with no time duration between the beginning of
one note and the beginning of the next note.
To attain maximum velocity we should not begin at a slower speed from
which point we gradually increase the tempo. Rather, it is best to begin
at the opposite end of the spectrum, causing the notes to begin
simultaneously, from which point we can then back off very slightly to
create a state just bordering on simultaneity, a slightly “blurring” the oneness of sound, if you will.
It is like a beginning, younger student who is asked to play for the first time a C major triad (c4-e4-g4), who is not yet coordinated enough to sound
them simultaneously. They try to play the notes simultaneously but
unintentionally add a discrepancy so that the notes do not all come
out together. Their intent is still nonetheless simultaneous, only a
slight error has been introduced. There is no intention to play them
staggered. The more experienced student can also intend to play the three notes simultaneously but then, in a spare compartment of consciousness, let in a slight deviation, one that in no way negates the original strength of the overall will to play them simultaneously but introduces the bare hint at sequentiality.
In this measure of the etude we will use little bursts of extreme
speed that can later be concatenated.
Take the first two sixteenth notes in the right hand, e4 and fx. Rather than trying to play them very fast, play them as if your intention is to play them simultaneously – yet secondarily introduce a little tremor in your hand that, without loosing the intention of simultaneity, causes the first note to sound like an ephemeral, almost non-existent grace note to the second note.
This can be repeated for the second pair of sixteenths (ds4 gs4).
At that point see if you can fuse the first four notes, as if the
physical mechanism is fully committed to playing them simultaneously, only the pianist unintentionally “goofs” slightly. Barely misses the mark. The hand comes down simultaneously, as if to play one note but four emerge to the ear. And the perception of time it seems to take to enunciate the four notes should feel physically, and consciously, no different than the time taken to enunciate a single note.
The same procedure can be used with sixteenth notes 5 through 8 (fx
through b4). We now have two groups of four sixteenths travelling at
extreme speed. At this point we fuse those two groups of four into
one group of eight: one gesture, one single tremor in the arms.
- op 10 / 4 : measure 13 : the first two notes in left hand
Change the fs2 to an a2. Then rapidly go back and forth between es2
and a2. The purpose of changing the higher note is to widen the span
bridged by the two adjacent fingers. These adjacent fingers are now far
apart enough that one can implant an imaginary shunt or see-saw to connect them, one whose ends rest on surface between the finger tip and first knuckle of each of the two fingers.
Once in place, imagine a pivot point midway across the shunt, bridge, or see-saw. This pivot point causes one side to go down if the other goes up.
The right hand can get into the act to help the left hand. Choose two
fingers from the right hand, one each to help depress one of the keys under
the two adjacent fingers of the left hand that are playing the es2 and the a2. Use these two “helping” fingers of the right hand to keep the left hand fingers moving steadily and at a high velocity.
Then compress the interval spanned by the two left hand fingers from
five steps to just the one half step written. This act of compressing
is not to be felt as instantaneous but as a process by which the action of the
imaginary lever between the fingers is not diminished in any way but
through compaction is exaggerated.
- Op 10 / 4 : measure 16 : starting on beat 2
The descending scale-like passage in the left hand.
- Play the left hand notes up through the fs3 and then continue to hold
the latter. While holding the fs3 play, with the thumb, g3 then f3,
Then continue on with the written notes to the cs3 (with the third
finger). Hold the third finger down on the cs3 while the thumb plays
the series of notes d3, c3, and b2.
Then play on to fs2 with the fourth finger, and while holding it down
play, a2 g2 f2 e2.
2. The second thing I can do is to gently spread the right hand over the
left hand. Lightly press it, in its entirety, against the entire left
hand. This as a way of insuring that the left hand remains close to
the keyboard. The interaction between the two contrary forces
resulting from 1) the left hand fingers trying to rise upwards between note
attacks (so that they can descend again onto the keys), and 2) the
right hand resisting the first by balancing it out with pressure
downwards, has the cumulative effect of keeping the left hand in
balance, and increasing rather than diminishing the force of the
fingers moving downwards to depress the key.
Pantomiming helps this process along. Because without the other fingers
having to make with the key surfaces I can practice extending the
thumb even further downwards from the rest of the hand in order for
the fingertip to make contact with the keyboard.
Alternatively, use the right hand to raise the left wrist higher off the keyboard, enough to necessitate that the thumb of the left hand has to extend further downwards from its third knuckle in order to reach the key surface.
3. As the left hand scale moves further and further leftwards from the center of the keyboard, the right hand, if acting as the helping hand, can guide and urge the left hand to the left. Furthermore, as the notes get further from the center of the keyboard, it urges the left hand to move more and more rapidly to the left. This is to compensate for what I call the tangent-circumference principle: the further the arm gets from a position directly in front of the torso, the further the motion of the arm, using the shoulder as a pivot point, wants to take the hand further and further away the keyboard and inwards towards the body.
For the arm naturally wants to describe the circumference of a circle, whose radius is the length of the arm from shoulder to finger tips. If we measure the length on the keyboard from one octave to an adjacent octave, then that measurement will progressively shrink in comparison to, or in ratio with, the length the hand would travel along the circumference of the circle, as the left hand generally moves leftwards.
Thus to cover the same distance on the keyboard there has to be an increasing velocity to the leftwards motion of the left hand to make up for the disparity between the length of the straight line of the keyboard and the length of the arc of the circle. By making this compensation in velocity, the left hand doesn’t get caught off-side and out of balance.
- Op 10 / 12 : measure 22 and measure 25
One of the “joys” (sic) of old age is that I have developed what is
medically called an “essential tremor” (the term sounds somewhat worse
than the actuality). My hands and my fingers intermittently shake.
There are times when it is necessary to move the pinkie of my right
hand to the right, away from the remaining four fingers of the hand.
The tremor acts up in this situation. I needed to find a way to
stabilize the pinkie and thus regain control of its motion. The
solution that was most closely available was to lay my fourth
finger on top of the pinkie. This entailed having to move the pinkie and fourth finger somewhat towards each other until the first knuckle of the
fourth finger was juxtaposed with the upper surface of the nail of
the fifth finger. These fingers, acting as one, created a very strong and solid lever with which to depress the key that the pinkie was supposed to play by
- Op 10 / 4 : measure 28
Here I try something different than grouping the notes so that the
pitch ascends from the first to the fourth note of each group.
I take the quarter note triad and play it four different times, as
four sixteenths, so that two hands work simultaneously within the
duration of the beat. I do the same for the notes falling within each
of the following beats.
At the end of each group, as the third finger segues to the fourth
finger, I use the muscles within the third finger to remotely pick up
the thumb and deposit it on the note it plays on the next beat. This
insures that the thumb remembers to move rightwards at this moment in
time in addition to the other fingers moving rightwards.
- Op 10 / 4 : measure 30
Physical and Sonic “Glue” for tying the notes together.
An example of using “physical glue” (an explanation of which can be
found using the front page search feature. Practice going from the c5
with the fourth finger at the end of the second beat, to the same c5
played this time with the thumb at the beginning of the third beat.
And an example of “Sonic Glue” (an explanation of which also can also be
found using the front page search feature. There are two f-sharps, fs5
on the third beat with the third finger, and fs4 with the first finger
on the fourth beat. Let the ear give preference to the fact that both
of these notes sound like F-sharps, rather than sounding like two different F-sharps (separated by an octave).
- Op 10 / 4 : Measure 31
I find that I loose alacrity in enunciating the sixteenth notes when
there is an interval of a third between one note and the next, I.E.
between the second and third sixteenth of each beat. I can take those
pair of notes and turn them out “on a lathe” by repeating the two
notes over and over again until till they attain the right speed and
without any change or distortion to that speed.
- op 10 / 4 : measure 42 through measure 44
For when the thumb articulates a note followed immediately by the pinkie
articulating a higher note. This is an example of an extra strong rotational motion anchored by the thumb and designed to slap the entire hand over the pinkie note.
Put the thumbs down on the two notes that they are to play. Then
anchor the lengths of the thumb solidly along the lengths of their
keys. Then, without loosing equilibrium, rotate the thumbs along their
longitude at the same time using them as an axle on which to rotate
the remainder of the hand. The latter will raise as a unit higher and
higher off the keyboard until they are as close as possible to being
vertically arrayed over the thumb – but without any straining.
This may be a coincidence, but when I rotate the axle of the right
thumb clockwise, in order to bring the rest of the fingers back in
contact with the keys, my elbow wants to lead this overall motion by
descending rapidly as far downwards as it can go to lead the thumb
- op 10 / 4 : measure 79 and 80
In measure 79, once I play the thumb for second repeated cs4, I can smother the elbow downwards to smother the other fingers downwards onto their keys, through the fourth finger on cs5. Then the elbow lifts quickly; only
to smother down the next group of fingers on their notes in the next
In measure 80, when the thumb lands on cs6 (the third note of the
measure), I combine a longitudinal axle rotation of the thumb –
counterclockwise this time – with the thumb pulling the other fingers
towards it and then over it.
MORE BLOG ENTRIES ON SOLVING TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES IN CHOPIN ETUDES TO FOLLOW IN ANOTHER COUPLE OF DAYS.
Opus 10 / 4
Chopin Etudes Advice
“Chopin Etude in C Major, Op 10, No 1.
The way up:
Use the left hand as a ‘helping hand’ for the right hand, by placing
it under the right elbow. As you get to the pinkie note in the right
hand on the way up (measure 1, 3, etc.), have the left hand raise the
elbow of the right hand in an arc-like motion through space, and then
drop it back down on the keyboard, in such a way that the right hand
thumb makes contact with its next note. This action should be
repeated each time the pinkie is followed by the thumb; every time the
thumb begins another terrace of upwardly directed pitches.
The way down:
As you get to the thumb note on the way down (measure 2, 4, etc.),
have the helping hand lift the right elbow as before, up and over to
place the right pinkie on its next note. This action should be
repeated each time the thumb is followed by the inky; every time the
pinkie begins another terrace of downward directed pitches.
Op 10 / 1 continued: General: Three things:
There is an exaggerated action of the thumb and second finger of the
right hand causing them to move apart from each other – further apart
than they can normally diverge without additional help from the rest
of the hand, such as placing the third finger adjacent to teh second
In conjunction with number one, I allow each finger in the right hand
to make contact with its intended key at the most comfortable location
along the longitudinal axis of that piano key. For instance, given the
current physiognomy of my right hand, I placed the tip of my right
second finger near the lip of the white keys to compensate for a
strange twist that has become more exaggerated as I get older.
On the way ‘up’, I make a movement to the right, after I play the
pinkie, a movement that draws along with it the right thumb,
depositing it near to where the thumb needs to be next. In analogy to
this, on the way ‘down’ (usually in the next measure), the thumb moves
off to the left after it plays its note, which gently brings the
pinkie along with it to the left, to where the pinkie needs to be in
order to begin the next terrace of four descending pitches.
“Chopin Etude in A Minor, Op 10, No 2
My right hand feels awkward in the beginning of measure one (when it
plays the triad c4-e4-a4), especially if I am in any way already
conscious of having to move the right hand upwards from that triad to
to proceed to bf4. I did not notice this discomfort prior to today
when I practiced, but it was clear that it has always been there. I
found an interesting way to get rid of this discomfort. I dissect the
triad into two parts. At first I play just the upper two notes (e4
and a4(. Then almost immediately I tuck in the c4 with the thumb.
This makes it easier for me to transition from the triad to the ascending
notes bf4, b4, c4..
In contrast to this strategy, when the notes start back down, as in
measure 3, instead of first playing the middle and top notes of the
triads, I play the bottom and middle note and then almost immediately
tuck in the top note followed by the descending sixteenths.
“Chopin Etude in C Sharp Minor, Op 10, No 4
In case if I forget to pay attention, try to ensure that the palp of
the finger is the part of the finger that makes contact with each and
every sixteenth note regardless of the finger being used.
The thumb is not aligned with the other fingers in a way that makes it
is easy to have its palp come into contact with the key. I use some
‘stand ins’ for the regular palp. For instance, I can use the side of
the thumb adjacent to the side of the nail (on the right side of the
right thumb and on the left side of the left thumb). This is sort of
OK, but feels less palp-like than if I act as if I can twist the thumb
radially. and make contact with the key with the section of the side
of thumb that runs from the side of the nail to about half way to the
Apart from to this attention to the palp of the fingers, I find it
useful, for each finger vibrate back and forth along the longitude of
the key, but just with an ambit of a half an inch or so, alternating
being nearer then farther from the fall-board, until after a fraction
of a section the finger settles down on the spot with which depress
the key lever.
`Op 10 / 4: Measure 1, et. al.
When I use a rotational action of the forearm, I tend to classify it
under a very different category of motion. For lack of a better term
I call the category “blob and deflect”. The blob parts means that the
palm of the hand sinks into the white notes of the keyboard further
from the fall board than the lips of the black keys. Once I’ve
established the presence of my entire palm on a continuous, unbroken
segment of the keyboard, I act as if I’m going to rotate the forearm,
but actually do something else. Let’s say it is the right arm and the
rotation is clockwise. I try to make a forearm rotation, but no
matter how strongly I try to make the rotation, all five finger tips
remain fixed in their place of contact with each key. The torque of
the forearm changes from one finger to the next but enough pressure
downwards remains that no finger tip looses its firm contact with its
Blog and deflect is a very powerful and balanced, or stabilized,
motion when we want to change the point of contact of the hand on the
keyboard from the thumb to the pinkie, for the purpose of playing a
very fast sequence series of notes that belong to a portion of scale
or an arpeggio.
I use just such a powerful deflection, anchored by the elbow*, for the
four notoes starting with bs4 (the third note of the measure), the four
notes starting on cs4 (the third sixteenth note of beat 2), et. al. It
is as if a mouse trap has suddenly sprang shut rightwards, the purpose
of the motion being to compress the pinkie against its note without
loosing contact with the notes the other fingers are playing en route
to the pinkie. The rotational motion is counterbalanced by a force
Op 10 / 4 : measure 1, et. al.
Small rotations can always be treated as if parts of a larger, more
comprehensive rotation, which if allowed to continue would complete a
360 degree motion.
In the previous example the right hand deflected to the right to get,
for instance, from bs4 to e5. But one can widen that motion, whose
center is the second and third fingers adhering to cs5 and ds5, by
having the thumb start the upwards motion from an a4, and have the
pinkie end the rotation not on an e5 but perhaps an f5 or g5, or even
an a5. Rip the hand from left to right to play the series of ascending notes that now cover as much as an octave.
It is useful to demonstrate to the hand what a 360 degree rotational
motion is like. Start with the right palm resting on the keyboard but
facing upwards and the right elbow extending out to the right of the
torso, Then gradually rotate the arm until you execute as close to a
360 degree rotation of the hand as possible so that the palm is again
facing upwards. To do this requires great mobility on the part of the
elbow and the shoulder. The point of this exaggerated motion is that
any smaller rotation executed during the piece breathes the air of
this enlarged motion, making the smaller motion feel less constrained
in its potential of degree of rotation.
Op 10 / 4: measure 3 et. al.
Sometimes changing the order of the notes simplifies the execution of
a group of notes. We can then carry over that feeling of comparative ease into the original order of the notes.
In this measure we have four note groups, starting with this one:
cs5 gs5 e6 a5
Going up to the e6 (with the pinkie) from gs5 (with the second finger)
and then coming back down from e6 to a5 (with the third finger) can be
tricky. This awkwardness disappears if the re-order the notes as
follows: cs5 gs5 a5 e6. One can simplify the physical action even
further by completing the pitch shape, by adding notes after the e6 so
that there is a symmetric descent of pitches. This is done by
playing: cs5 gs5 a5 e6 a5 gs5 cs5. Sort of completing a circle.
Op 10 / 4 : measure 4 et. al.
Broken octaves in the right hand.
A sharp, slight, tremorous, jerking motion of the tip of the elbow
along an arc in space that brings the elbow inwards towards the
abdomen. Though this leftwards motion by the elbow is in the opposite
direction of the intended motion of the pinkie which is rightwards to
the higher note in the broken octave, one action coordinates with and
supports the other. Imagine that there is a pivot point located
midway down the forearm and underneath it, that translates any
leftwards motion by the elbow, and with it the upper half of the
forearm, into rightwards motion on the part of the lower part of the
forearm near the wrist.
This same motion can be used when it is desirable to move the right
pinkie rightwards away from the other fingers including the fourth
Op 10 / 4 : measure 5
Play through the gs2 and as2 but then simply hold onto the as2. Play
the next four notes very fast (fx2 gs2 as2 b2 with fingers 4 3 2 1).
Bring in the right hand chord, printed on beat two, but not where it
is supposed to be (which would be in conjunction with the as2) but
delayed by a sixteenth so that it comes out together with the b2. Do
a similar “mis-coordination” between the hands with four note groups
starting gs2 (the third sixteenth of beat 2), the as2 (the third
sixteenth of beat 3), etc.,
Then run the measure as a whole, always withholding the right hand
chord so that it coincides with the highest pitched note of the four
ascending sixteenths. Then, as an afterthought, restore the right
hand chords to their original position, on the quarter note beats.
Fingers 4, 3, and 2 launch themselves towards the goal of the first
finger, as if the first three notes are trivial grace notes to the
Op 10 / 4 number 4 : m8, et. al. (right hand)
This is a place where I use a procedure which I call “extreme” speed.
It involves playing faster than the fastest I seem to be able to play.
It bypasses, literally hops over, the barrier I encounter when I
gradually speed a passage up, little by little, or by bigger chunks,
until I’m playing as fast as I can. It is at that point that I need
to say to myself: “now play it much faster!” The previous limit I
approached like a curve in math that works its ways towards a vertical
line but never gets there. I seem to get nearer and nearer to the
speed that I have set as a goal, goal but the increments by which I
get nearer to it shrink in size, so I never get to it.
The disadvantage of getting closer and closer method is that the same
muscles are always being called into action, they are just being asked
to flex more rapidly. What if these muscles cannot simply flex faster
and faster? What if muscles that one would never have thought of
using need to come into play? How do I discover what they are? How
do I learn to activate them? We can answer these questions simply by
attaining our limit and then determining by sheer dint of will, to a
good deal faster. I know of no other way to discover this new
arrangement among the muscles unless they are already functioning.
I gave a long distance lesson to a student at the Oberlin Music
Conservatory. It was Op 10 / 8 in F Major. She had to play it in
twenty minutes at her piano class, but she could not get it up to the
suggested quarter note equals 178. I asked her if she had a metronome
with her. She said yes. I said: set it to 220! She said, Joe, if I
can’t play it at 176 how am I supposed to be able to play it at 220?
I said: humor me; just try it. One page into the etude she stopped
and said: Oh, I see what you mean. I said: it is actually easier to
play it at that speed than at the slower 176, because you have
spontaneously engaged, without planning it ahead of time, different
muscles…in fact you had no choice but to do that.
In a few days I will publish the second part of my advice for solving
technical difficulties inn the Chopin Etudes. Please be patient.
* Which may as a result make a spasmodic motion in the general
direction of the torso.