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Piano Technique - Practice

Preliminary Advices

How to play the piano easier...

Before consulting the heading Practice, please read these few remarks.

Preliminary Advices 1.
We can each create our own series of exercises for every difficult passage in the work being studied. The exercises presented in the heading “Practice”, still being prepared, will therefore be useful examples and help only for those who are not yet in the habit of inventing exercises themselves.

How to compose such exercises? For the time being, I will give a general principle that I will developed later using concrete examples, found in the heading “Practice” mentioned above.

Preliminary Advices 2.1.
The basic rule, to which I am always faithful, is to first attribute - as a permanent choice - a well thought out fingering for any given fragment of musical text. This means that the valid fingering - used in all of the exercises - must be the one for the stage of final interpretation, even if it is not always the most comfortable (see Example n° 1 below).

Preliminary Advices 2.2.
The difficulty of the exercises must be gradual: the first must be the easiest, and the next ones more and more difficult (see Example n° 2).

Preliminary Advices 2.3.
The exercises may be slightly different in relationship to the musical text of the work, but only when this can be justified. On the other hand, it is useless to create technical exercises inspired by the work but which include different notes than those of the original text (Example n° 3).

N.B. Actually, these rules are so obvious that speaking of them again might seem useless. Nevertheless, my pedagogic practice proves that it is wise to repeat even the obvious ones, because the less rigorous and concentrated students have trouble consistently putting them into practice.

The following examples are taken from the 5th measure Chopin’s A-minor Étude
(opus 25, n°11)
Example n° 1. If you choose to use Chopin’s fingering “524142” with the fourth finger on the D-sharp, you must use the same 4th finger to play the same note in the exercises, even if it would be more comfortable to make use of the 3rd finger. On the other hand, if you choose another fingering, for example the “524132” or the “524131” (Paderewski, Henle, etc.) you must play the same D-sharp with the 3rd finger (exercises 4 & 5)
N.B. Before playing the red notes, it is necessary to move the fingers from the preceding position by keeping them as close to the keys as possible (expression “skimming the keys”).


Example n° 2. In the chapter “How to study Chopin Études?” I present a series of seven exercises on the same fragment, which will help you attain the proper tempo. This series also highlights the rule of gradual difficulty.

Example n° 3. Here is one of the numerous exercises by Alfred Cortot, concerning the same passage of the A-minor Étude. As it is presented, this exercise is not bad at all. However, if we follow Cortot’s recommendations literally, we will work equally with tri-tones, fifths and sixths, and this would be too much! It is useful to waste time learning texts like these which will never be used elsewhere? The exercises which are supposed to help us master a particular work need to be based on the text of the work itself and not move so far away from it as Cortot’s exercise does. I consider Cortot’s proposals as universal exercises, useful to work on general technique, but not for a specific work itself. It is impossible to master a work practicing only scales and exercises.

Besides, my opinion is confirmed, for example, by Leopold Godowsky who admitted never having learned to play scales. Simply put, he played only those used in his repertoire, and that was enough for him. His student, H. Neuhaus, made the following comment: “Please note: this is a case of deduction instead of the more usual and generally accepted - though much less reliable - induction consisting of first learning ‘the scale as such’ and then playing it in a piece”.* Nonetheless, I would like to add that my objection does not include the exercises of Brahms, to name but these, which are rare pearls worth the effort of being mastered, benefitting equally technique and memory.
* Heinrich Neuhaus - “The Art of Piano Playing.”, p. 12, Praeger Publishers, Inc., New York 1973

Preliminary Advices 3.
I elaborate my exercises in the following manner:

1. I define the “center” of the difficulty, because each technical error begins frequently with a single note. Most often, among the crucial points we find many kinds of jumps and difficulties with the thumb passing under the hand or the hand over the thumb, i.e. changing the position of the hand in ascending or descending motions. Depending on the situation, I add to this first “difficult” note the one that precedes it, the one that follows it, or even both of them, and I obtain my first and simplest exercise.

2. In the preliminary exercises, I simplify the problem as much as possible: by grouping, for example, notes which can be played together, or else, on the contrary, temporarily leaving out certain ones. For each successive exercise, the level of difficulty gets progressively harder, but always according to the “puzzle” rule with the original notes from the given fragment and an unchanging fingering. In the final, most complicated exercises, the difficult spots may be even more difficult than in the original text, and this is the goal: it is especially thanks to exercises increasing the difficulty of a given passage that it becomes easier to play afterwards. Next, the last step is to put the exercise fragment back into the body of the work and to “hide the suture stitches”, so that neither the listener, nor the pianist will hear the slightest difference between this fragment and the rest of the work.

I will finish this short introduction with another precious quote by Neuhaus:
“I recommend that each exercise be played every conceivable way:
from pp to ff, from largo to presto, from legatissimo to staccato.”
Heinrich Neuhaus - “The Art of Piano Playing.”, p. 118, Praeger Publishers, Inc., New York 1973


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