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Chopin's teaching

We all know Chopin's piano literature-almost every serious piano student plays (or aspires to play) his works. But what do we know about Chopin's teaching? After all, teaching was an important part of his life and provided his main source of income.1 What can we take from Chopin's teaching in the 1800s and apply to our own professional models today?

Chopin's teaching career was not fully launched until 1832, when he was twenty-two years old. From that point until 1849, the year he died at age 39, Chopin devoted himself almost equally to teaching and composing. In fact, Chopin's heavy teaching schedule in the winter months prevented him from extensive composing. 

Chopin's lessons

When he was in good health, Chopin generally taught five lessons each day. The lessons lasted 45 minutes to one hour, but he frequently extended them for his more advanced students. He usually began relatively early in the morning and would teach into the first half of the afternoon.Chopin preferred teaching in his own apartment, but he would also go to a student's home for an extra 10 francs, provided the student sent a carriage for him. In fact, at 20 francs per lesson, Chopin was considered to be a fairly expensive teacher, charging more than Liszt and Kalkbrenner.Students would sometimes receive more than one lesson a week, depending on Chopin's availability and the student's own needs and talents, but Chopin always charged for the extra lessons.4 We know that Chopin took his responsibilities for teaching quite seriously, and it was specifically reported that he was punctual for lessons.5 Chopin normally taught from a second piano. The pattern of his lessons perhaps looked something like this: first exercises, then scales, and finally repertoire. Chopin gave verbal instructions and corrected students' mistakes by interrupting their playing and demonstrating from the second piano. His students said that he treated them with kindness and patience, putting them at ease. He did not impose his own personality on his students, but rather would suggest points, allowing students gradually to develop their own musical personalities.6 It seems that Chopin's teaching was not oriented just toward the concert stage, but also toward developing an understanding and musical performance of the work studied. 

Repertoire

Chopin taught the Clementi Preludes & Exercises with all of his students, no matter how advanced they were. He used his own nocturnes for teaching, as well as those by John Field. When appropriate, Chopin taught the Bach Well-Tempered Clavier and suites, the Beethoven concerti, Beethoven Sonatas Opp. 27 and 57, Clementi Gradus ad Parnassum, Cramer etudes, Mendelssohn Songs without Words, Weber sonatas, and miscellaneous pieces by Mozart, Dussek, Ries, Heller, Hiller, and Schumann. 

Technique

 

Technique never was to be mechanical in Chopin's studio, and he never separated technique from the production of a cantabile tone. How did Chopin teach scales? Rather than begin with the key of C major, he felt that the more natural hand position occurs if the thumb is placed on E and the student outlines an E Major five-finger pattern in the right hand.

Chopin thus had his students begin playing with a B major scale, working slowly and with suppleness in the beginning.7 The scales with the most black keys were taught first because they felt more natural under the hand. C major was saved until the very end, since it was the most difficult in terms of hand placement on the keyboard. Students would first play scales with a full, rich tone, as legato as possible, and then progress gradually to a quicker tempo with metronomic evenness. 

Chopin was especially concerned with the suppleness of the wrist and with having the student move easily in a lateral position on the piano, presumably with the wrist level or slightly higher so that the thumb was poised to play on its tip, rather than flat on the piano. At this point he would begin the Clementi Preludes and Exercises with his students. Chopin believed that the evenness of the scales depended on equal strengthening of all fingers using five-finger patterns and a light thumb. He especially emphasized, in addition, a smooth lateral motion of the hand on the keyboard with the elbow hanging (not pushed) down, always relaxed to enhance evenness of scale work. 

For etude study, Chopin often taught selections from the Cramer etudes, Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum, and some Bach suites and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Chopin believed in technique as "sound production" and felt that "the technique originates in the art of touch and returns to it."8

Singing

Students sang in Chopin's studio, and Chopin required students to sing with natural phrasing, phrasing that would transfer to the piano. Chopin stated that, "We use sounds to make music just as we use words to make a language."9 He told one student, "You must sing if you wish to play," and he required that student to study voice as well as piano.10 Chopin employed the now familiar principle that states if a melody ascends, one should play a crescendo, and if it descends, one should play a diminuendo.11 Chopin was an advocate of long phrases in music, advising students not to fragment the musical ideas. He went on to discuss a typical eight-measure phrase where, at the end, the performer would take a slight pause or lower the sound (diminuendo) slightly.12 Chopin even used imagery in his teaching, once suggesting to a student to play as if "an angel is passing over the sky."13 

Chopin asked his students to notice the natural accents in a bar and execute them. He reminded students that in a bar of two, the first note is strong and the second weaker, while in a bar of three, the first would be strong and the remaining two weaker.14 This common concept is still a basis of sound musicianship today. 

Practicing

 

Chopin prescribed three hours daily of practice, interspersed with rest periods, and that total amount of time was not to be exceeded.15 In this respect he differed from many others of his day, including Liszt, who encouraged students to practice six or seven hours a day and incorporate many mechanical exercises. Chopin felt that more than three hours encouraged the mind to become numb and the playing mechanical. Chopin instructed that once a work is memorized, it could then be practiced at night in the dark. Without the ability to see the music or the keys, the performer's hearing would begin to function with even more sensitivity, and he could begin to hear himself more clearly. In this way, the connection between the performer's ear and his sound was heightened.16 Chopin did not allow his students to practice through physical pain. He actually forbade his student Mikuli from working on Hummel's Septet again after Mikuli remarked that his hand hurt after working on an octave passage in that piece.17 

Atmosphere

 

What was the atmosphere like in Chopin's studio? He showed a strong understanding and connection with his students' personal, musical, and technical problems. He inspired self-confidence in his students and seemed to find just the right words to use to encourage his students when appropriate.18 He wanted his students to be bold in their interpretations, and to let themselves go. In doing this, Chopin's students experienced a feeling of "revelation and liberation through Chopin's teaching." 19 Students were encouraged by Chopin's own creativity, and his belief that in letting them explore their inner ears and their own creativity, within bounds, they would play more naturally and convincingly. Overall Chopin is reported as being exacting, direct, patient, and firm.

Timeless teaching

 

I am struck by the many similarities between Chopin's teaching and that of a number of the best teachers today. He kept a regular daily schedule, charged an appropriate fee for his expertise, and accommodated students with extra time when needed. He taught from a second piano, and he showed a strong understanding and connection with his own students' personal, musical, and technical problems. He avoided exercises that were purely mechanical and encouraged practice that was productive but not excessive. Chopin had a clear hierarchy for developing a technique in students, having carefully thought out what to teach and how to teach it. And, he encouraged the students' own personal growth, so that they became independent musicians. 

I conclude with a quote in which Chopin is instructing and inspiring a student, with the hope that it, like the glimpses above, may inspire teachers, students, and performers today. 

Imagine you're at the Conservatoire, listening to the most beautiful performance in the world. Make yourself want to hear it and then you'll hear yourself playing it right here. Have confidence in yourself; make yourself want to sing like Rubini, and you'll succeed in doing so. Forget you're being listened to and always listen to yourself. .. When you're at the piano, I give you full authority to do whatever you want; follow freely the ideal you've set for yourself and which you must feel within you; be bold and confident in your own powers and strength, and whatever you say will always be good. It would give me so much pleasure to hear you play with complete abandon.. ."20 

The great traditions and our heritage continue today! 

Note:

1. Eigeldinger, Jean-Jacques (1986). Chopin: Pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 7.

2. Ibid., p. 6. 

3. Ibid., p. 7.

4. Ibid., p. 6.

5. Ibid., p. 10.

6. Ibid., p. 4.

7. Gerig, Reginald (1975). Famous Pianists and Their Technique. New York: Robert B. Luce, Inc., p. 165. 

8. Eigeldinger, p. 17.

9. Ibid., p. 42.

10. Ibid., p. 45.

11. Ibid.,p.42. 

12. Ibid., pp. 42-43. 

13. Ibid., p. 12.

14. Ibid. , p. 42. 

15. Ibid., p. 94.

16. Ibid., p. 28.

17. Ibid., p. 29.

18. Ibid., p.11.

19. Ibid., p. 13.

20. Ibid., p. 12.

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