You can’t be a pianist without [at least one] (http://nicholasmccarthy.co.uk/). But what do you do if you are a small-handed pianist (barely an octave in the right hand, and that just at the edges of the keys) and want to play Chopin Op. 53 (the “Heroic” Polonaise”)? Your teacher looks at you with consternation, and then tells you that you must learn Chopin Études in a certain order, and that it will take a couple of years.
Fast forward two and a half years; my right hand span is now a centimetre longer than it was at the beginning of this saga. That single centimetre has been enough to allow me to play an octave right on top of the keys, enabling me to get a lot closer to the Op 53 ambition. I still can’t play the piece, but I can now play all the notes. It’s taken a lot of patience and trust in the sometimes non-intuitive ways of breaking down the Études; for example, I spent a couple of months practising the right hand of Chopin Op. 25 No. 9, shaking out my wrist after every half bar, to learn the feeling of playing octaves without stiffening my wrist.
I am well over the age that people stop growing, so the improvement is entirely down to the practise regimen. The increase in ability is not just down to the increase in span, but also increase in flexibility of all the fingers. When I play chords spanning an octave, I can now get the fingers out of the way that aren’t playing anything, avoiding hitting extraneous notes. I am not familiar with hand anatomy, but it feels as though the ligaments inside the palm have had to stretch the most.
As I progressed through the different exercises, I have felt my hands and arms up to the elbow ache in strange places. I am fortunately quite body-aware so have never done any damage; if the ache persists in the same place for a few days, I stop and work on something else until it goes away. (Incidentally, my typing speed has increased considerably, and I can now take dictation in almost real time.)
It’s tremendously motivating and every few months I take out a couple of octave heavy favourites to retry – every few months I am able to play big chords that bit more cleanly. There are no short cuts and this slow and steady progress feels more satisfying than if I were to magically be able to do it overnight, because I know that it is sustainable.
Mentally, it’s required the ability to trust that the practise will bear fruit, and to stop when it starts to hurt- not to push through to the point of damage (Probably a useful skill in any physical endeavour).
Obviously, my fingers aren’t going to grow any longer, but I hope that this will offer hope to other small-handed pianists. But a word of caution: It’s probably a bad idea to embark upon such a programme without the supervision of an experienced teacher, so as not to end up like Schumann.
Petra Chong is a computer programmer as well as a pianist and so is perpetually bashing keyboards of one form or the other. She is a student of Marina Petrov
Some years ago, before I resumed playing the piano seriously and started taking lessons again, I would open a score, look at the forest of notes and think “I’ll never be able to play that!”. I’d visit my friend Michael, who owns a beautiful Steinway B (purchased when he retired, instead of the clichéd sports car), see Schumann’s Kreisleriana open on the music rack, and my heart would sink. “I’ll never be able to play that!”.
There are certain pieces which represent the high Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire: the Rach 3, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Balakirev’s Islamey, Chopin’s two sets of Etudes, to name but a few. Pieces which have become the preserve of the virtuoso pianist to showcase technical prowess and extreme pianism. We probably have Franz Liszt – he of the famously difficult Transcendental Etudes – to thank for the elevation of the pianist from salon ivory-tinkler, providing a pleasing accompaniment to drinks, supper and chat, to onstage superstar whose pianistic pyrotechnics caused ladies to faint and piano strings to break
About 18 months into my study with my current teacher, I heard Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor, no. 7 from the Opus 25, on Radio Three’s Breakfast show, and was instantly entranced by its melancholic tone, the singing left hand cello-like melody (this Etude is nicknamed “the cello”), the floating chords in the right hand, in which the simplest secondary melody is embedded. I downloaded the score from Pianostreet and started to learn it. Eventually I performed it at a concert at my teacher’s house last year, and also on a 1920s Bluthner owned by Sir Alfred Beit, at Russborough in County Wicklow. “I can play a Chopin Etude” I told myself, when my confidence needed a boost. I felt I had at last entered that exclusive Himalayan club.
My teacher then suggested another Etude, this time the E major from the Opus 10, a piece I had always wanted to be able to play. This is one of the most famous of Chopin’s Etudes (along with the ‘Winter Wind’, the ‘Revolutionary’, the ‘Black Key’, the ‘Aeolian Harp’ and the ‘Butterfly’), which adds an extra degree of difficulty in the learning process. As my teacher said, “It’s so famous, and you want to play it well”. Aside from the dread sixths in the middle section (which, once analysed, unpicked, and put back together again, are not so fearsome – there is a pattern, yes, really!), it’s not as hard as it looks. Oh, all right, it is pretty difficult – allowing the right hand melody to sing above the accompaniment and achieving balance between the hands being the chief issues of this piece – but it is certainly not insurmountable, and my teacher would not have suggested I learn it if she did not think I could cope with it. This massive boost to my confidence has enabled me to go on to learn one of Chopin’s Ballades (the first, in G minor), some pieces by Liszt from the Années, and one of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. Waiting patiently in my score library is Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie Opus 61, one or more of the Scherzi, more Liszt, Hindemith, more Messiaen…. Now, when I open a score, I do not immediately react negatively: “I’ll never be able to play that!” has been replaced with “OK, where do I start?”.
Analaysing the score, going through it with a pencil, looking for patterns and sequences, listening to other people playing it, and general familiarity with what the printed page looks like before you all assist in learning. There is also a physical-versus-mental aspect: convince yourself on first sight of a new piece that you can’t play it, and you probably won’t. But sit down and sight read through it, get your fingers round the notes, enjoy the architecture and melody of the piece, spend time with the music, inhabit it, and quite soon it will become familiar; eventually it will be like an old friend (which is how I feel about the Messiaen now, despite finding it utterly terrifying for the first few months of learning it!).
There are other practical considerations, of course. Some music is physically very difficult or tiring to play, although I dispute the claim that you need big hands to play Liszt or Rachmaninov. You don’t; just a strategy for getting around the music efficiently and comfortably. Some pieces do not lie comfortably under the hand; others are simply exhausting to play and sometimes one is practising only to improve stamina.
Young students often lack the confidence to pick up music on their own, without a teacher’s help to guide them through the score. When I start a student on a new piece, we go through it together. I ask the student to highlight any signs or terms they don’t understand, to mark patterns and sequences, and to generally take the music apart and separate it into manageable chunks. Thus, a page of score which at first appeared daunting can be quickly simplified, making the learning process easier. Of course, many young students want to be able to play the piece straight through, preferably loud and fast (!), and find the crucial detailed study dull and arduous. But working in this way reaps huge rewards: I find I can learn – and retain – music much more quickly now, and “tricks” learnt from, say, a Chopin Etude, can be applied to other music. The “dread sixths” passage of the Opus 10, No. 3 enabled me to devise a simple strategy for a similar section in Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca. A case of “Well, hello! I’ve seen this before!”.
The piano repertoire is vast, hugely varied, and wonderful: don’t discount certain pieces because you think you’ll never be able to play them – but remember: sometimes the simplest pieces are the hardest!
Following on from last week’s post of 8 pianists playing the opening measures of Schubert’s last sonata, here’s another interesting selection of styles, tempos and interpretations, this time in Chopin’s Opus 25 No. 9 Etude (‘Butterfly’). The pianists, in order of appearance are:
1. Vladimir Ashkenazy
2. Wilhelm Backhaus
3. Idil Biret
4. Vladimir Horowitz
5. Phillipe Cassard
6. Murray Perahia
7. Maurizio Pollini
8. Leonard Bernstein
9. Grigory Sokolov
I particularly like Ash, Perahia, Pollini and Sokolov, who can do truly amazing things with Chopin. There’s a robustness in his playing, yet it’s light and playful when required. Pollini’s version is more light-hearted, joyful even.
Non-specialists and lay people have this idea that serious pianists spend hours and hours, every day, practising scales, arpeggios and other technical work and exercises to keep the fingers, and the mind, nimble. When I was in my early teens, working towards my Grade 8, I practised my technical work religiously, rattling up and down the keyboard until my fingers tingled and my head hurt. This was an essential part of my daily practising: as a result I can remember nearly all the scales I had to learn for Grade 8. As I said to some students who were waiting to take their Grade 6 piano exams at the exam centre yesterday, “Once learnt, you never forget your scales! It’s like riding a bike.”
I am quite fierce with my students about learning scales, partly because, as I tell them, scales are useful: they teach good keyboard geography, and are crucial in understanding key signatures. They also encourage quick thinking and nimble fingers, and assist in playing by ear and grasping the basics of chords and harmony. Some of my students love scales: Laurie (11, working towards Grade 2) always insists on commencing his lesson with a scale warm up. As a consequence, his technical work is very secure and he has quickly mastered playing scales hands together (a requirement for Grade 2). “Do you practice your scales, Fran?” my students ask me, and I smile and look apologetic and admit that I don’t.
And nor does my teacher, a professional concert pianist and Professor of piano at one of London’s foremost conservatoires. Nor does she recommend rigorous exercises such as Cramer or Hanon (which I know some people swear by). Instead, she prefers to create exercises from the piece itself, something she has encouraged me to do, and which I find incredibly useful. The great thing about doing this is that you have an instant finger exercise which is relevant to the music you are currently learning, but which can also be adapted and applied to other music. Take the drop slur: a simple, plaintive little piece by Bartok from his suite ‘For Children’ called Former Friends (Quasi Adagio) has proved invaluable in teaching drop slur technique. The opening bar is perfect as the right-hand notes (A-E E-D) sit easily under the fingers and the thumb can be dropped down on to the first A, while the fifth finger floats up and off the E. After teaching this piece to a number of students (it forms part of the current Grade 1 repertoire), I then applied the technique to the Chopin Etude I was learning (Opus 10, No 3). There are some tricky drop slur measures (mm. 32-33 and 36-37) which have benefitted from “the Bartok Effect”. And later, in the “dread sixths” measures (mm. 45-54, marked ‘Con bravura’, just to add to one’s woes!), applying this technique had a remarkable, transformative effect on my ability to cope with this passage.
One of the pieces by Debussy I am working on at the moment, the ‘Prelude’ from the suite Pour le Piano, requires playfulness and nimbleness in the fingers throughout. The interaction between the hands is quite difficult to achieve in the opening measures and the second theme: in many ways, one is trying to create the sense of “one hand playing” while retaining a playful, swirling movement. This piece is Debussy’s nod back to his Baroque antecedents, and, with that in mind, I turned to Bach for some finger exercises. I’d downloaded the infamous ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’ for one of my students, and playing it, in a very tongue-in-cheek way the other day, I discovered plenty of useful material to help practice the Debussy. Meanwhile, a little prelude by Delius (from the ‘Three Preludes’) has a nice figure of thirds in semiquavers which is great for training fleet fingers.
The Etude or ‘Study’ was intended for pianists to practice specific techniques, such as rapid passage work, octave playing, playing in thirds and so forth, and, before Chopin, the Etude was very much a student exercise (the most well-known composers of piano etudes are probably Clementi, Cramer, Moscheles and Czerny). Chopin, in his Opp. 10 and 25 Etudes, elevated the genre to something far, far greater than the dry student study, and his Etudes are considered some of the greatest, and most challenging music in the piano repertoire. To the pianist, they offered an entirely new set of technical challenges, while also becoming a regular part of the concert repertoire, combining technique and musical substance to create a complete artistic form, which was taken up by later composers, most significantly Franz Liszt. Thus, the first of the Opus 10, for example, is a crystalline, filligree of a piece, lasting just under two minutes, while the Opus 25 No. 7 (which I learnt last year), is a 5-minute melancholic meditation on perfect tone and phrasing, particularly in the left-hand. Some have become very famous – the ‘Revolutionary’, the ‘Winter Wind’, the ‘Tristesse’ and the ‘Aeolian Harp’.
Applying techniques I mastered from learning two of Chopin’s Etudes last year (the Opus 10, No. 3, and the Opus 25, No. 5) proves that despite their high artistic form and musical values, they are still studies, offering the pianist the opportunity to learn particular techniques which can be applied to other music. Both Etudes have informed my learning of Liszt’s sublime Sonetto 123 del Petrarca – and coming at this piece with a degree of “prior knowledge” has made the learning of it easier. And that drop slur exercise has proved invaluable in the recurring “rocking lullaby” motif in Messiaen’s Regard de la Vierge (no. 4 of the ‘Vingts Regards….’)
Don’t feel you should stick rigidly to traditional technical studies, like Cramer and Hanon (and, believe, me I’ve “been there and done that”, and I’m not convinced of the usefulness of such learning aids). Make up your own exercises from the pieces you are working on, and, if you can’t play a whole Chopin Etude, take an element of it and turn it into your own exercise.
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