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.