If I have been able to write this chapter it is principally thanks to my first professor, Bolesław Woytowicz. He was a student of, among others, Aleksander Michałowski, whose teacher was one of Chopin’s students, Karol Mikuli. Michałowski gave Woytowicz a lot of information about Chopin and his method - some of which were even written down by Woytowicz himself, but, unfortunately, were lost. Luckily, he passed on many of them to his students in practice, although he did not always give their source.
One of my most vivid memories of Professor Woytowicz is the sentence he often repeated: “Chopin used to say «The same TEXT does not mean in the same WAY.»”. The point was that the repetition of a motif, phrase or fragment of a piece should not be performed mechanically in the same way as the first time. The Professor’s emphasis on this indication was very significant.
A pianist, by the way a very good one, told me that if a composer wrote the same thing twice, it meant that he simply wanted to hear the same thing twice. It’s difficult to agree with that. This may be applied to harpsichordists, possibly to the early classical era, but not to later music, and certainly not to romantic music. Performances of the greatest musicians testify to the observance of this rule of Chopin.
Other messages from Chopin can be found in Professor’s method and in his recordings (available on YouTube - more about them on the Woytowicz page). A very characteristic means he used was to “play” on the student’s hand. I have never met another pedagogue using this way of sensitizing the student to the touch of the keyboard - neither in my universities nor in other professional contacts. And yet, it is really effective in giving the student a precise, “tangible” indication of the kind of movement and the force to use to strike the key.
I’ve extended this method a little: sometimes I ask a student to “play” something on my hand and I can immediately tell why something isn’t working. Or we both “play” on his forearm at the same time and he can feel the difference between his touches and mine. Moreover, the current technical possibilities are very useful - for example, I play with one hand the same thing as a student, but an octave or two higher, and with the other hand I film our two hands with my telephone. This way, the student can immediately see on the video what movement he is not doing or what he is doing unnecessarily.
The exercises I give on these pages and in my videos are of course different from those published previously - for example, by Aleksander Michałowski (I share them on the page PDF) or Alfred Cortot - so they can all be used independently.
NB. There are two ways to practice exercises: if you have enough time, you can consider each exercise as a mini-etude and practice it as such. Aleksander Michałowski’s advice for his exercises for Chopin’s Fifth Etude is significant: “The dizzying speed of the tempo crucial for the proper rendition of this etude can be obtained by patiently studying all these exercises in G-flat major and then transposing them to G major.”
However, when we have a lot of work and little time, the best way is to create ad hoc our own “tailor-made” exercises to solve specific problems. I highly recommend this! You have to work on this, because “no one knows my own hand better than myself”. And it’s not that complicated at all - just change the original difficult group of notes to make it even more difficult! When you have mastered such an additional difficulty, the original group will seem ridiculously easy and comfortable. Of course, as always, be very careful not to damage your tendons, which may happen easily in extreme conditions!
In the Chopin and Liszt and others sections, I provide extracts from my recordings and exercises to help solve the technical problems of certain pieces. They serve well both myself and my students, but of course, they are just small examples from the vast amount of piano literature. For each student who comes to me with any other piece, I prepare new exercises adapted both to the given piece and to his/her hand.