University of Colorado
Chopin's Pedagogy: A Practical Approach
Presentation delivered at the MTNA National Convention, Pedagogy Saturday, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2010
University of Colorado
I see this paper as essentially practical: Chopin's pedagogical ideas are ideas that I and many other teachers use regularly. Rereading Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger's important book Chopin as Pianist and Teacher reminds me of how much Chopin's ideas resonate with the way I teach, the way I was taught, and the way that I try to play. This important source collects most of the information that we have on Chopin's teaching in a convenient and user-friendly format. The book draws from Chopin's memoranda books, correspondence, and his fragmentary "Projet de méthode" as well as the annotated scores and statements of his students and associates.
Chopin's approach to teaching was original and individual: as he had been himself largely self-taught, and thus not part of any "school" of learning or teaching, he was to some extent free of the technical dogmas of his contemporaries. He saw technique in an essentially musical way, and his teaching emphasized sound production first, technique second. In his sketch for a method, he writes, "One needs only to study a certain positioning of the hand in relation to the keys to obtain with ease the most beautiful quality of sound, to know how to play long notes and short notes and [to attain] unlimited dexterity." "A well-formed technique, it seems to me, [is one] that can control and vary a beautiful sound quality." (Quoted in Eigeldinger, 16-17).
Chopin spent a great deal of his time on teaching, unlike Liszt who, at least in the 1830s, had no desire to be known as a teacher. Chopin's teaching was his primary means of support once he settled in Paris (1832-1849). In fact, he seldom performed after 1835, and was not particularly interested in teaching his students to perform. (Eigeldinger, 5). He told one pupil, "Concerts are never real music; you have to give up the idea of hearing in them the most beautiful things of art." Contemporaries (students and associates) mentioned that Chopin himself was at his best as a performer in private because of his nervousness.
Students were given one to three lessons a week, officially of 45 minutes each, but not always so short if the pupils were talented. He taught 5 pupils per day. He was much in demand as a teacher of wealthy women, who paid 20 gold francs per lesson (this was a lot of money) or 30 if he came to them (Eigeldinger, 6-7). The more talented pupils seem to have paid less; sometimes nothing at all.
Of Chopin's roughly 150 pupils, only a few are of great interest to us, both because of their later success as performers and teachers and because of their recollections. Clara Wieck's description of George Mathias, one of Chopin's most important disciples because of his later career as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, illustrates Chopin's teaching well. In an 1839 letter to her father, Clara writes of the twelve-year-old Mathias: "[he] has received an excellent education, has wonderfully flexible fingers, plays all of Chopin, and there is nothing he cannot do. In fact he outshines all the keyboard strummers around here. Remarkably, he has never worked more than one hour per day. His father, an extremely reasonable man, does not make him play in public and is not one of those fathers who deify their children." (Quoted in Eigeldinger, 170). Understanding that Clara's father was something of a slave-driver and insisted on her practicing a lot and performing all the time, these words are quite interesting! We have this description of the adult Mathias' playing by his contemporary Marmontel: "Under his agile and firm fingers, the most arduous passages retain their transparent clarity; one never senses fatigue, or is aware of the difficulties overcome. The expression, controlled by the principles of style and good taste, is never exaggerated." (Ibid.) Of Chopin's teaching of rubato, Mathias himself said, "you can be early, you can be late, the hands are not in phase; then you make a compensation which re-establishes the ensemble. In Weber's music, for example, Chopin recommended this way of playing." (49-50). Mathias went on to teach at the Conservatoire (for over 30 years, beginning 1862) (Ibid.) His two most important pupils were Isidore Philipp and Raoul Pugno. (Interesting examples of Pugno's playing are available on YouTube, including the A-flat Impromptu, the F-sharp Nocturne, and the Berceuse; see Resources page.)
Carl Mikuli was another important pupil. In his preface to his edition of Chopin's works, he writes,
A true pianist's hand, not so much large as extremely supple, enabled [Chopin] to arpeggiate the most widely disposed harmonies and to perform sweeping passagework, which he introduced into the idiom of the piano as something never before dared, and all without the slightest exertion being evident, just as overall an agreeable freedom and ease particularly characterized his playing. At the same time, the tone that he could draw from the instrument was always huge, especially in the cantabiles; only Field could compare with him in this respect. A virile, noble energy - energy without rawness - lent an overwhelming effect to the appropriate passages, just as elsewhere he could enrapture the listener through the tenderness - tenderness without affectation of his soulful renditions. With all his intense personal warmth, his playing was nevertheless always moderate, chaste, refined, and occasionally even austerely reserved. Unfortunately, in the trend of modern pianism, these fine distinctions, like so many others belonging to an ideal art movement, are thrown into the attic of "superseded ideas" that hinder progress, and a naked display of strength, not considering the capacity of the instrument, not even striving for the beauty of the sound to be shaped, today passes for large tone and energetic expression.
Mikuli's pupils included Moriz Rosenthal and Raoul Koczalski.
(See Resources page for examples of their playing on YouTube)
Chopin's philosophy of teaching springs from the idea of music as a language, which had become standard by Chopin's time. Chopin was said to have frequently incorporated language as a metaphor in his teaching. In the sketch for a method, Chopin made a list of attempts at defining music: (Eigeldinger, 195)
The art that manifests itself through sounds is called music.
The art of expressing one's thoughts through sounds.
The art of handling sounds.
Thought expressed through sounds.
The expression of our perceptions through sounds.
The expression of thought through sounds.
The manifestation of our feelings through sounds.
The indefinite (indeterminate) language of men is sound.
The indefinite language music.
Word is born of sound—sound before word.
Word: a certain modification of sound.
We use sounds to make music just as we use words to make a language.
The idea of "musical declamation" also relates to Chopin's interest in bel canto. Chopin is known to have frequently advised his pupils to listen to great singers of the time (Eigeldinger 14).
Chopin placed great emphasis on musical practice. In contrast to Liszt, Thalberg, and other virtuosi known for having their students focus on finger exercises, or pianistic "acrobatics," as Chopin said, Chopin taught mostly from the music itself. That said, assigned repertoire did include Clementi's Preludes and Exercises, as well as Gradus ad Parnasssum, evidently in order to develop even scales in particular. He also liked to teach some of Moscheles' etudes – the most "musical" etudes before Chopin's own. A-flat major seemed a particular favorite—the Clementi Exercise in that key and also the Moscheles Etude in A-flat (op. 70, no. 15) are both mentioned by pupils. Marie Roubaud, who had 18 lessons with him in 1847-48, studied the A-flat major sonatas of Beethoven (op. 26) and Weber (no. 2) with Chopin. (Eigeldinger, 61, 178). Chopin was also said to have played FieldÕs A-flat major Concerto particularly beautifully. (Examples: Clementi Exercise in A-flat major; Moscheles Etude in A-flat major, op. 70, no. 9.)
Mikuli mentions Cramer studies as part of the curriculum as well, but it seems these were only for the less advanced pupils and were seldom assigned in actuality. Chopin was known to reserve his own works (and especially the Etudes and the larger scale works) for the most advanced pupils. His own practicing and teaching of Bach is well documented, with special emphasis on the Well-Tempered Clavier – apparently the only music that he brought along to practice himself on the trip to Majorca with George Sand. (That trip resulted in the composition of the Preludes, op. 28.) According to his student Camille O'Meara (Dubois), he said at their last meeting in 1848 "always practice Bach—this will be your best means of progress" (Eigeldinger 61). George Mathias reported that Clementi, Bach and Field were the composers given to new students.
Chopin encouraged short practice sessions. Madame Dubois (Camille O'Meara) reported: "One day he heard me say that I practiced six hours a day. He became quite angry, and forbade me to practice more than three hours." (Eigeldinger 27). Another student wrote: "He always advised the pupil not to work for too long at a stretch and to intermit between hours of work by reading a good book, by looking at masterpieces of art, or by taking an invigorating walk."
Chopin, beyond the basic level, was not very interested in purely "technical" exercises. In general, he advocated an approach that avoided brute force solutions to technical problems. Mikuli offers the following example, writing that, "In complete opposition to Chopin, Liszt maintains that the fingers should be strengthened by working on an instrument with a heavy, resistant touch, continually repeating the required exercises until one is completely exhausted and incapable of going on. Chopin wanted absolutely nothing to do with such a gymnastic treatment of the piano." And: "Chopin invented a completely new method of piano playing that permitted him to reduce technical exercises to a minimum." (Eigeldinger 27). In light of these remarks, it is hardly surprising that Chopin preferred the Pleyel pianos, which had a lighter and more responsive touch than the Erards that Liszt preferred.
He was concerned with developing hand position in a natural way. Thus, he says that C major, which he considered the most difficult scale pianistically, should not be introduced first. Rather, he suggests beginning with the B-major (RH) and D-flat-major (LH) scales in order to more naturally introduce the passing of the thumb—an understanding of piano technique from a piano-centered rather than music-theory centered approach. Chopin writes: ÒFind the right position for the hand by placing your fingers on the keys E, F#, G#, A#, B: the long fingers will occupy the high keys, and the short fingers the low keys....this will curve the hand, giving it the necessary suppleness that it could not have with the fingers straight."
ChopinÕs method was predicated on what the student actually needed to know in order to play the piano. Chopin writes in the Sketch for a method: "People have tried out all kinds of methods of learning to play the piano, methods that are tedious and useless and have nothing to do with the study of this instrument. It's like learning, for example, to walk on one's hands in order to go for a stroll. Eventually one is no longer able to walk properly on one's feet, and not very well on one's hands either. It doesn't teach us how to play the music itself—and the kind of difficulty we are practicing is not the difficulty encountered in good music, the music of the masters. It's an abstract difficulty, a new genre of acrobatics." (Eigeldinger 193)
Chopin's sketch for a method attempts to be very practical and simple, beginning from first principles: all music is either steps or skips (scalar or arpeggio patterns). From this he derives the idea that all you need to know how to do is play trills, scales, and arpeggios, in addition to chords of various numbers of notes.
The method also goes into the proper position, suggesting the elbows level with the keyboard. His pupils and associates report that both in teaching and in his own playing, he wanted the elbows relaxed and close to the body, and with a minimum of unnecessary movement. Of one pupil, Chopin is reported to have said that he is talented but still plays from his elbows! According to Jan Kleczynski, who collected reminiscences from a number of Chopin's pupils, "For all rapid passages in general the hands must be slightly turned, the right hand to the right, and the left hand to the left; and the elbows should remain close to the body, except in the highest and lowest octaves." (Eigeldinger 31)
Chopin works from the idea that the finger initiates everything, the wrist is supple (29), and "the arm is slave to the hand." Mikuli writes: "According to Chopin, evenness in scales and arpeggios depended not merely on equal strengthening of all fingers by means of five-finger exercises, and on entire freedom of the thumb when passing under and over, but above all on a constant sideways movement of the hands (with the elbow hanging freely and always loose)" (Eigeldinger 37) Chopin writes "No one will notice the inequality of sound in a very fast scale, as long as the notes are played in equal time" (Eigeldinger 37) –an important indicator of where his priorities lay.
Perhaps Chopin's most important idea, one which was taught to me by Earl Wild many years ago, is that the second finger is the center of the hand. (Eigeldinger 18 elucidates extensions etc. in the etudes). I will show this idea with various examples from the etudes. The most obvious case is in op. 25, no. 3. Some less obvious examples include op. 10, no. 3 and op. 10, no. 4, which can serve to illustrate how all-pervasive this second-finger-centric philosophy is (and how practically applicable). Any arpeggiated passage (op. 10, no. 8; op. 25, no. 1) and many chordal passages (op. 10, no. 11 is an excellent case in point) serve to strengthen the second finger and achieve good balance. The accent pattern in the opening of the "Revolutionary" Etude (op. 10, no. 12) also forces the hand to roll through the second finger, actually making the passage easier to play. This idea comports nicely with Chopin's desire for a hand position with the hands slightly turned out.
Chopin also made a point in his teaching of advocating the right fingering for every passage (Eigeldinger 19). There are numerous examples in students' scores as well as in the published scores of the etudes and other works that demonstrate his philosophy of fingering. The B-flat minor scherzo is full of good examples as well, where the pattern is almost unplayable unless you understand the proper placement of the hand around the pivot of the second finger.
Some of his musically-driven fingerings include playing the same finger on different notes while carrying the melody, playing repeated notes with one finger, and using numerous substitutions to encourage legato playing with a relaxed hand. Also toward a more relaxed hand position, he suggested trills with 1-3, 2-4, and 3-5 as being inherently more flexible and easier than with adjacent fingers.
Some of Chopin's suggestions for practice include moving from a gentle staccato to legato with simple patterns. One advantage of this was to demonstrate a more relaxed passing of the thumb, avoiding contortions of the hand in position changes (Eigeldinger 38). Chopin's own legato was known for depth of tone and relaxed hand position. Chopin was also known to abhor overly loud or exaggerated playing.
It is impossible to overemphasize Chopin's adherence to developing technique only for a musical result. Chopin's attitude to "evenness" is telling: he preferred to emphasize the individuality of the fingers, and made clear that light and fast playing eliminated the need for a forced evenness of touch. Mikuli writes: "Untiringly he taught that the appropriate exercises should not be merely mechanical but rather should enlist the whole will of the student; therefore he would never require a mindless twenty or forty-fold repetition (still today the extolled arcanum at so many schools), let alone a drill during which one could, according to Kalkbrenner's advice, simultaneously occupy oneself with reading(!)."
Chopin's teaching and practice of rubato is important to elucidate. Many sources confirm that Chopin actually abhorred liberties of tempo. Mikuli writes, for example, "In keeping time Chopin was inexorable, and some readers will be surprised to learn that the metronome never left the piano." Like Mozart before him, Chopin suggests that the accompaniment remains in strict time while the melody is free to work around it (this would be akin to the way jazz musicians handle time now). This indicates that the hands would not necessarily sound together at all times. Mathias writes, "you can be early, you can be late, the hands are not in phase; then you make a compensation which re-establishes the ensemble. In Weber's music, for example, Chopin recommended this way of playing." (Eigeldinger 49-50). Kleczynski adds, "This style is based upon simplicity, it admits of no affectation, and therefore does not allow too great changes of movement. This is an absolute condition for the execution of all Chopin's works." (Eigeldinger 54) In light of these comments, it is interesting to me that in the Third and Fourth Ballades (in contrast to the first two), Chopin's compositional language has developed to the point that he indicates no changes of tempo (with the exception of a slight pi mosso at the end of the Third Ballade—it seems that he has reached a point of classical balance, and has striven to show changes of character more with the notation of note values than with changes of tempo. I believe this is reflective of his general "classical" attitude toward tempo. (Example: Raoul Pugno: Berceuse.)
In terms of phrasing and articulation, the following remarks are important and instructive. Kleczynski summarizes: "A long note is stronger, as is also a high note. A dissonant is likewise stronger, and equally so a syncopated note. The ending of a phrase, before a comma, or a stop, is always weak." (Eigeldinger 42). "Chopin attached great importance to slurs, which by the way are not always correctly drawn in the greater part of his works; whenever this mark terminated he detached the hand after having diminished the tone." (Eigeldinger, 45)
Physical demonstrations of the principles of playing mentioned throughout this paper are necessary to fully elucidate the practical implications of Chopin's teaching philosophy. Although I have heard it said that Chopin's school died with him, it is evident to me both through the teaching that I received from Earl Wild and Paul Doguereau and through the examples of Chopin's grand-pupils that this is not the case. Chopin's legacy and philosophy in fact do live on, and many of his most important principles—including practicing musically, practicing practically, practicing in limited doses, and developing a technique based on musical needs rather than on the need to demonstrate physical prowess—are central the teaching of many of us in the field today.