Variation II

Variation II:  Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2


Chopin appeals to the hearts of all listeners, even those with no previous knowledge of Classical music.  He has a timeless, ageless appeal; not even Mozart is so accessible and beloved by the masses.

Chopin is also one of the more thankful composers to interpret.  His music is so easy to feel and understand, so natural to express, and so pianistic to play, that even Intermediate pianists find themselves quickly comfortable in many of his works.  For the adolescent, aspiring pianist, a healthy dose of Chopin is a must.  He teaches the pianist a transcendental technique, but more importantly, he teaches him how to sing and express himself.



Chopin is the pianist’s Opera composer.  Inspired by Bellini and Donizetti, he crafted long, expressive, lyric lines that appeal directly to the soul with their poetic melancholy and lofty visions.  His music embodies bel canto, even taking the idea beyond the capabilities of actual singing.  Beauty and warmth of sound is a constant goal, even in the most torrentially passionate moments.  Remember that Lucia’s suicide is expressed through bel canto.

The piano is not only capable of singing, but can sing seemingly never-ending lines without having to breathe.  Not only this, but it has a vocal range of 88 semitones, more than seven octaves.  Many of Chopin’s most stunning melodies take advantage of both these peculiar traits.  Look at this breathtaking when the Piano soloist enters for the first time in the 2nd movement of Chopin’s F-minor Concerto:



It spans six full octaves!  Look how long it takes before the singer’s first breath!  And this is only the beginning of the phrase.  The concept of Super-Melody is always easy to understand with Chopin because the principal line is so easy to define.  It’s often as if an entire composition were one long phrase, separated by commas and slight pauses, but with a single period at the very end.

The challenge of singing on super-long breaths with an abnormally wide range is that as human beings, we feel certain vocal limitations out of habit, perhaps even genetically.  Pianists usually find it easiest to sing within their own vocal range, or something resembling it.  As soon as they leave their range, they begin imitating singing, but don’t actually directly connecting to the notes emotionally.  Most pianists, men and women, seem to possess a vocal range of about three octaves, from the C below middle C to High C.  Experiment and see if this isn’t true for yourself.  Chopin challenges you to extend your pianistic vocal range to include the entire keyboard.

Singing a long line on a long breath is also mentally and psychologically challenging.  The mind seeks for something to hold on to, a slight pause or break, to re-balance itself.  Careful ~ you may occasionally find yourself forgetting to actually breathe.  In Chopin’s long lines, the energy turns and spins, but doesn’t break or pause.  Learning to come off one Energy Pillar, the energy receding, and gradually feel the increasing pull of the subsequent Pillar, gives you the feeling of briefly floating, then being spun around gently in a new direction by the pull of fresh energy.  You don’t stop or pause, you simply spin and redirect according to the energy surrounding you.  This technique applies to all music, but Chopin’s kicks it up a notch because the phrases are so long.


A particularly satisfying feature of interpreting Chopin is that it accepts all sorts of interpreters and interpretations.  The music gives you much interpretational freedom and also seems to accept you as you are.  It takes on your mood as its own, chameleon-like.  Arrau spoke of needing certain composers at different times in his life.  I think we could all admit that we need Chopin.

The Nocturnes represent the zenith of his Operatic approach.  Learn to play one of them well and you’ll have unlocked many of the secrets to interpreting the Polish Tone-Poet.  The excerpt we will be studying is the first four bars of one of Chopin’s earliest and most beloved works, the Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 No. 2:




Defining the Color Levels

Let’s first define the example in terms of its chorale-like four parts.  As with most of Chopin, and most Western Music for that matter, once you’ve defined the four parts, you’ll have defined the gist of the composition. 

The Soprano line, the Red Level, couldn’t be clearer.  Chopin often uses the r.h. as a solo singer like this in his works.  The Alto, Tenor and Bass might be less obvious at first sight because of the spread nature of the l.h. accompaniment, but are self-evident once you see them:



As in the Beethoven example, the fourth layer (here turquoise), the Tenor line, sometimes splits in two depending on the demands of the supporting harmony.

It’s best to define color differentiation at first simply with dynamic contrast.  Louder sounds tend toward brightness and softer sounds toward mellowness.  This needn’t be so, but for the moment, follow your natural tendencies.

Make your initial goal to be able to play the Soprano line in a bright, deep f, the Bass line, mf, the Alto line p and the Tenor line pp. 

Once you’ve achieved this, move on to the next filter and come back to color later on and define your choices with increasing specificity.


Creating an Orchestral Sonority – Applying Vertical Hierarchy

Each of the four parts should inhabit its own time dimension.  Begin by spreading the beat using Vertical Hierarchy, like so:


In order to achieve this, approach each voice, separating it in time from the pack.  Play that single voice f and the rest pp.  At first, it may feel like stabbing fish in a river with no sense of line or color, but as you become comfortable, the sound quality will improve, the horizontal line will come back into view, and you’ll begin to sing again.  Remember to connect to each line emotionally; listen to its individual character and needs.

Following the previous examples, build up the excerpt according to Vertical Hierarchy.   Ultimately, you should be able to separate the four lines in time while maintaining the dynamic differentiation achieved in the previous filter.


Reverse Hierarchy

Countless Chopin interpreters, especially from the Golden Age, use Reverse Hierarchy, especially in Chopin.  The result looks something more like this:


It’s a sort of subtle (and often not-so-subtle) continuous series of arpeggios.  The Bass usually anticipates the beat, the soprano lazes in after the beat, and the remaining parts spread in through the center of the beat.  It’s willful and romantic, often quite beautiful and luxurious, but quickly tires on the modern ear.


Free Placement

The more sophisticated Chopin interpreters use a subtle blend of Vertical Hierarchy and Reverse Hierarchy, which I call Free Placement.

Chopin taught that the accompaniment part should stay in relatively strict tempo while allowing the melody to express itself freely, with plenty of rubato.  This is simplistic and only touches the surface, but is a great starting point, and I’m sure Chopin meant it as such.  Let’s look at the first two bars in a possible realization of Free Placement:


Play it through this way until it becomes comfortable and you’re able to freely sing the melody.


Past, Present and Future Dimensions

One useful way to divide the beat is into three dimensions – the Future, the Present, and the Past.  The Future is the front side of the beat, the Present, on the beat, and the Past, after the beat.  Countless modern musicians interpret everything in only one of these three dimensions.  The wise pianist lives on the back side of the beat, constantly offering reflections and commentaries.  The young pianist, full of forward momentum and emotional longing, exists on the front side of the beat in a forward-moving, seemingly perpetual accelerando.  The Proper pianist nails down all his notes dead-center, existing in the present, but often quite deathly so.  What kind of pianist are you?

Once I heard a virtuoso Piano Duo composed of two artists with opposite personalities, one playing consistently in the Future, the other in the Past, neither aware of his own or the other’s proclivities.  Yet they meet in the middle in seemingly perfect sync.  The result is ironic and somehow disconcerting.  On the surface, it sounds like marvelous ensemble playing, yet they actually play with two divergent beats that never meet.

You’ll notice in the example above that the soprano and bass line are crossing between dimensions.  Even in the first measure, you’ll find a wonderous degree of subtlety and hidden meaning.  Notice the placement of the Soprano notes.  The B-flat pick-up is placed slightly early in relationship to its proper slot within the beat, full of hope and expectation.  The G and F that follow are centered in the present, but the following three notes are increasingly late, creating the illusion of a ritardando.  Beginning in the Future, passing through the present and ending further and further in the past evokes a potent sense of nostalgia.  The appoggiatura on the F resolves demurely into the E-flat as it lovingly turns its glance backwards.   Not to be drawn into reverie, the next phrase reasserts itself in the present, centered, but it too gets drawn increasingly into past reflections until the B-flat, which acts as a turning point.  The line then gradually gets drawn toward the present, setting up the third phrase, which will begin full of momentum, on the wings of expectation.

Turn your attention now to the eight notes in the bass, which balance and contrast the soprano.   When the soprano is off the beat, the bass is centered on it, solidifying pulse.  The one exception to this is the downbeat of m. 2, where the bass anticipates the beat and the soprano lags behind it.  The expressive tension of this moment is heightened by the tension of time bent and spread. 

Experiment on your own.  Play it first with the r.h. straight, in tempo, the l.h. manipulated; then try it with both Soprano and Bass manipulated, as in the above diagram.  The effect of these ever-so-slight variations in time is great yet subtle, refined and idiomatic.  For particularly beautiful effect, play the downbeat C in the Bass subito pp. 

This offers you a small glimpse of the possibilities, not only in Chopin but in all styles of music, of manipulating the Past, Present and Future dimensions.  If this concept is new to you, you’ve begun a lifetime hands-on exploration of this vast and complex subject.


Establishing Horizontal Hierarchy

Where are the Energy Pillars in our four-bar excerpt?  In Chopin, because of the idiomatically subjective nature of his expression, it’s not always clean-cut.  There often exist several equally valid ways of interpreting a phrase.  However, each choice affects the next, and often one choice forces you into another.

Take the first two bars, for example.  The first bar has two potential Energy Pillars, the G on the downbeat or the F on the third beat.  The second phrase { the second bar } also has two possible Energy Pillars, the C on the second beat or the B-flat on the third.  These two phrases form one larger phrase and need to somehow complement one another.  If you treat the first phrase in diminuendo, the Energy Pillar on the downbeat, the second phrase begins at a dangerously low energy level, longing for another jolt of Energy.  The second phrase then works most naturally if you choose the high C on beat two as the Energy Pillar, beat three acting as a retreating echo of sorts. 

If you have a more Wagnerian view of these two phrases though, you could begin in the same way with the first downbeat as the first Pillar and the third beat of the second bar as the second – it’s dramatic and effective.

If instead you choose the first Pillar as the F on the third beat, the second Pillar could fall quite naturally either on the high C, because of its height, or on the B-flat on the third beat, because of its melodic dissonance.  If you choose to place both Pillars on the third beat, they’ll have a Classical symmetry to them; if you put the first Pillar on beat three and the second on beat two, the asymmetry is more romantic and impulsive.  Both work equally well, but you must choose!  Indecisiveness ruins every possibility of meaningful communication.

Now look at the Energy Pillars for the Red and Blue levels as I realize them in:



Play it through a few times, trying to understand why each of the Pillars is placed where it is.  Do you disagree?  Experiment and define your own Pillars.  Be prepared to defend and justify your choices to others, but mainly to yourself; the most important aspect of interpretation is personal conviction.


Applying and Removing Gloss

Most interpreters and listeners seem to prefer matte finish when it comes to Chopin.  The Pleyel however, has a rather bright, thin, translucent sound.  Should Chopin’s instrument of choice dictate touch?

This is an interesting subject that’s not often addressed.  Americans are often criticized in Europe for using a brighter, less serious sound.  It’s thought to reveal a shallower approach to interpretation, and it sometimes does.  Yet look at European pianos – Bösendorfers, Bechsteins, Faziolis, German Steinways – they all possess a brighter, thinner, more translucent sound than an American Steinway or Baldwin.  Ironically, the European instruments have a Hollywood gloss about them.  It’s as if the piano manufacturers in Europe compensate for a less glossy approach to sound on the part of European pianists, and the opposite in America!  The result is a rather unified approach to sound on both sides of the Atlantic.  A European pianist playing on an American Steinway tends to sound lackluster, and an American playing on a European piano sounds too bright.  A good pianist can of course adapt, to a certain extent, to any piano and create his own sound, but habit is a powerful force.

Piano manufacturers obviously respond to the demands of their customers, but should period instruments retroactively dictate artistic choices to interpreters?  That is, should Beethoven be played with a Fortepiano-like sound, Bach with a Harpsichord-like sound, Chopin with a turn-of-the-century Pleyel sound?

I recently played Samuel Barber’s piano, still in wonderful condition.  If you listen to Barber’s own playing in recordings, it lacks warmth and has a certain modern quality to it.  Is this how he would have wanted his piano works to be interpreted?  His piano possesses one of the warmest, most lyric sounds I’ve ever heard it recalls the sound of his Adagio for Strings.  This is the piano he chose from hundreds with the help of a concert pianist colleague.  Did he choose such a warm, lyric instrument because it represented his ideal sound or because it complemented his more percussive approach to playing?  Did Chopin use Pleyels because he truly loved their innate sound, because they complemented his own sound in some way, or simply because they were the best he could get? 

As you can see, the argument is not nearly as simplistic as many make it seem to be.  Period instruments are extremely revealing, but they don’t necessarily reveal truth.

Chopin takes to all kinds of finish.  Experiment with various types of finish in each vertical level, and along horizontal lines, and decide for yourself what kind of approach is most suited to yourself in relationship to the piano you happen to have at your disposal. 


Remember a basic rule about gloss – for every note you add gloss to, several other notes should have gloss removed or decreased.  Balance your textures in good taste, always leaving room for shadows.


Defining the Pedaling

Chopin’s pedal indications are often rather bizarre.  It sometime seems as if he scribbled it in at the request of editors at the last minute, against his will.  They’re occasionally revealing and should always be tried out, but generally they have to be redone from scratch.

The biggest mistake in Chopin is continuous legato pedaling, never a moment of clean air or clear textures.  Many play with the effect of an old upright, changing the pedal 90%, but never clearing it completely.  This is offensive to a discerning ear; if this is your habit, practice lifting up the pedal completely and waiting a full sixteenth note before putting it back down again.  This will clean out your ears like a slice of pink ginger between pieces of sushi, helping you to properly appreciate each flavor. 

The ear pedals, not the foot.  Once the ear has made her  choices about pedaling, let your conscious mind become aware of them choices as specifically as possible; write them into your score with as much creative precision as possible.  No form of traditional pedaling notation will come close to virtuoso pedaling.  Pedaling is so intimately linked to touch, dynamics, dynamic and color differentiation, and a host of other conditions that one person’s pedaling may work for him and not for you.  Keeping this in mind, look at my pedaling for the first two measures of the Nocturne (notated in Free Placement):


If you look closely, you’ll discover traditional syncopated pedaling underneath – one pedal change right after the attack of each bass note, catching both the new bass note and the melody note above.  This much could have been notated with standard pedal indications.  Yet the depth of the pedal, the height of the change, the varying speed of change, the exact length of the breath at the peak of each pedal change, as well as other constant minute gradations are all wonderfully clear in this graph, as are the precise relationship of the pedaling to Free Placement.  And again, this is but a simplified reduction. 

As you take it to the Piano and realize it, be aware of the constant adjustments of touch as the pedal moves.  Your ear will teach you, but one guiding rule will be especially helpful:  when the pedal releases completely or even nears the last 10%, your fingers need to speak and sing more.  Clean changes will destroy the atmospheric overtones and diminish volume, so at the moment of these changes, you need to project more with your fingers.  If you manage this with perfect timing and balance, the ears will be distracted momentarily by the singular intensity and presence of the exposed tones at the change so that the listener won’t be pained by or likely even notice the loss of overtones.  Illusion reigns.  The difference between a trick and real magic is only the degree of mastery.   

In performance, real-time realities – acoustic properties of the performing space, tonal characteristics of the instrument, a split note, a less-than-well-regulated instrument, a less-than-well-regulated technique (Did you not warm up your finger-staccato before performance or forget to do your routine Sun Salutations this morning?), a split note, and on an on – will require minor or sometimes drastic changes to your intentions.


Linking and Separating

Separation is a subtle question in an excerpt such as this because the element of constant legato bel canto is present.  Chopin deliberately extends the line, making it seem eternal and never-ending.  The melody contains a single rest in the first, long eight bars, and the accompaniment, except for the upbeat rest before it enters, none.  Legato and connectedness reign.

Yet there are plenty of half-breaks and turns-of-phrase.  These can be defined mainly with a combination of subtle clearing of the pedal and gentle rubato.

Take for example the opening two bars.  There are two bar-long phrases that connect to form a two-bar phrase.  In the first phrase, there’s a gentle leaning forward tempo-wise into the third beat, then a relaxing and subtle suspension of time into and on the following downbeat, like so:


The pedal, likewise, becomes gradually deeper into the third beat and gradually clears in the third and fourth beats.  This by itself creates the effect of a crescendo/diminuendo of volume and lushness.  As the air clears, the listener perceives the phrase coming to a close, but since there’s then no break in the line, the following phrase grows naturally out of the first, creating a seamless two-bar phrase.  This same type of phrasing occurs over and over again in Chopin, such that a one-bar phrase becomes two, then three, then four, then eight, then sixteen, then thirty, and before you know it, the whole ten-minute work has become a single, ever-extended phrase!   Schubert and Rachmaninoff are two other composers who manage this miracle over and over again.

When you analyze the phrases in Chopin, define all of the smallest gestures first, then gradually work out from them, seeing how they combine.  You need ten different types of commas to begin analyzing Chopin.  Break up the individual gestures first, tightening them, then link them into larger, tight gestures, and eventually you’ll be able to conceive his endless lines without forcing them or breaking them up where they shouldn’t be.


Defining Rubato

Rubato needs to be understood on three basic levels.  The common interpretation of rubato is the manipulation of time in terms of its beats.  A more complex version of this same concept is the manipulation of sub-beats and sub-beats of sub-beats.  What makes rubato so complex, even on this surface level, is that each layer of the music possesses its own inner logic and dictates its own unique rubato.  The desires and aspirations of individual lines often need to be checked and compromised for the sake of the family of lines that share the same beats.

As you work through each individual line of a vertical texture, be sensitive to each line and give it full liberty to express itself in time.  You have to know the inner desire of each line before being able to make decisions for the greater good of the texture and pacing of the main line.

The second, less commonly perceived aspect of rubato is the way each note is placed against its proper position.  Just as the placement of a note against its designated place on the beat or inside a beat invokes the Past, Present or Future, rubato can similarly be viewed as representing the Past, Present and Future dimensions.

Balancing these two aspects of rubato is a complex art.  They often contradict one another.  An understanding and awareness of their combined use is necessary to master the flow of time and expression. 

The third aspect of rubato, generally not considered rubato at all, is tempo modification.  Great interpretations ever-so-subtly modify the tempo from phrase to phrase, section to section, just as the heart never beats at exactly the same pace.  The concept of rubato is identical, only that it’s viewed from a couple paces farther away from the structure.  Sensitivity to this level of rubato and the ability to naturally control it require a certain wisdom.  Your inner mind and heart will understand it sooner than your conscious mind.  Ideally this knowledge must pass between the conscious mind and the heart countless times, teaching one another.

The following diagram displays all three types of rubato in our 4-bar Chopin excerpt, together with Energy Arrows:


Stepping back and dryly observing the interrelationships between the three types of rubato and their constant interplay with the Direction of Energy dazzles the mind.  I’ve exaggerated and simplified it a great deal in this diagram, but even so, it’s immensely complex to realize in real-time.  Take it to the Piano and see how deeply and objectively you can penetrate into the movement of time and energy.  My interpretation here may differ greatly from your own; make changes to reflect your ideal interpretation and work it out with your own two hands.  Then release it again to your intuition and let your emotional whim guide you.  No matter how closely you learn to consciously manipulate time, masterful timing is guided by the energy of the moment.


Differentiating the Texture of Touches

Such a pedaled texture as our Chopin excerpt affords a good opportunity to observe Wet Talea. 

Play through the excerpt, being aware of the length of your touches.  Notate into your score what you’re doing that works and what you’d like to change.  The longer the touch, the more solid the effect; therefore, as a rule, the more important the note or line, the longer the touches should be.  Likewise, unimportant notes and lines should employ shorter, more relaxed releases.

Here’s how the first two measures of the Nocturne might be realized:


Try to achieve the minute specifications as closely as possible.  See if you can discover the rationality behind the seeming randomness of it.  What do you like?  What do you dislike?  Redefine your own Talea choices as needed.  Make it your goal to make no two notes exactly the same length, especially two notes side by side.


The Dry Pedal – Finger-pedaling

In such a wet example as this, dry pedaling may seem less important, but you’d be mistaken.  The reason for this is that a good command of dry pedal works within the pedal to help with every infinitesimal shade of pedaling. If you clear the pedal in the slightest way while holding notes down, those notes suddenly stand out in contrast.  You needn’t come even near completely clearing the pedal for this to work.  Simply lift the pedal 5% and you’ll hear the difference.

Practice the entire excerpt several times with absolutely no pedal while trying to imitate the effect of heavily smeared, romantic pedaling.  At first it may take real self-control not the put the pedal back on, but gradually this drier reality will gain its own appeal and you’ll become comfortable.  Then add in the pedal, at first very shallowly, then more generously but with continuous subtle changes.  Come all the way up as often as possible, trying to make the melody exist in a drier sphere than the accompaniment.  Notice that with the fingers capable of pedaling whenever you need them to, countless new levels of sound possibilities present themselves to you.

Again, pedaling is often understood in simplistic terms.   Deep pedal, half pedal and quarter pedal are usually thought of as originating from a completely released pedal.  Most pedaling, however, happens between pedals.  It happens as the pedal slowly or quickly sinks in or comes out.  It happens when you shake off 10% of the bulk of the pedal rising up from 50% depression to 60% depression and back again in a moment.  The listener perceives it not as a change in pedal, but rather only as some sort of magical highlighting effect.  And she doesn’t know whether you achieved the effect with the pedal or your fingers or both.  This is the realm of artistic pedaling.

The pedal is the soul of the Piano.  But think of it mechanically occasionally to try to unveil and master its mystique.  Think in percentages.  Descend quickly 45%, gradually surface over two beats to 20%, then come up quickly to 0%, down just after the next beat 90%.  Try to notate it in your score with such precision.  Does it still seem too artificial or scientific?  Specificity of intent is the very nature of Art.  Once you become completely conscious of your choices and of the very technique of pedaling, you will become intuitively wiser in its use.  Your knowledge will seep down again below the conscious level and serve you well.   Don’t be afraid of knowledge, as some artists are.

As pianists, it’s easy to disassociate ourselves from the nature of the instrument.  The Piano is essentially felt-tipped wooden hammers bouncing against strings at play with felt dampers.  As the strings vibrate, they rise up and down in various degrees depending primarily on the length of the string and how loud it’s been struck.  Imagine that the pedal has descended to the point where the damper is fully raised (and this usually occurs before the pedal is fully depressed, depending on how it’s been regulated).  You strike a note staccato, letting it ring out.  All of the strings vibrate slightly, some more than others depending on their sympathetic harmonic vibrations.  The note that was struck will vibrate most actively and widely, of course.  Now begin raising the pedal, ever so slowly, allowing all of the dampers to slowly descend.  Eventually they’ll will reach the outer edge of the struck note’s vibration cycle, and begin dampening it gradually.  It doesn’t happen all at once, of course; it gradually makes it softer and less clear and finally will dampen it completely only once the dampers have fallen completely.  There is an enormous amount of play between slightly brushing the outer edge of the strings’ vibration cycle and completely dampening them.  This is why pedaling is so complex and is capable of producing such magical effects. 

I spent a full summer in my early twenties tearing apart pianos in my living room, putting them back together and selling them again.  At one point, I had three large grands in my small Manhattan apartment.  Learning to understand every miniscule part of the instrument and experimenting with altering the interplay of thousands of parts was mind-opening. 

I don’t recommend that you necessarily go to the extreme that I did (!), but understanding the mechanics and inner workings of the Piano is important to becoming one with the instrument.  Even a few hours of study may open up your mind and change your attitude toward it.  Again I’m reminded of what my piano technician mentor and guru at the time had to say about the subject:  The more I get to know the inner workings of the piano, the more it becomes a mystery to me.


From the Key Surface or From the Air?

Rubinstein taught me the validity of playing chordal Chopin passages from the air, full-bloodedly.  Even passagework under Rubinstein’s fingers was full of life-giving oxygen.  Don’t suffocate Chopin by only attacking from the key-surface; constantly vary the amount of oxygen in the sound.

Play the excerpt through, again being aware of how much space you put between your finger and the key-surface on each note.  Notate it mentally into your score.

Experiment, as previously, with exaggerated Height and Height Differentiation, going through the various Height exercises from before.  Once you’ve finished, work through the score notating new decisions.  Then realize your intentions.


To the Key-bottom or Beyond?

Depth is the other side of Height, being both opposite and complementary.  As a general rule, Height (separated from Depth) effects the surface of the sound, whereas Depth effects the body of the sound. 


Chopin is still often played with very little Depth, as if his creations are too delicate to take any weight.  The surfacey Pleyel ideal persists.  Yet Chopin without Depth Differentiation is unsubstantial and unsatisfying.


Combining and Contrasting Height and Depth, Vertically and Horizontally

Play through the Chopin excerpt being aware of the Depth of each finger stroke.

Next, work through the various Depth exercises, first without any Height, then adding in Height as desired.  Gradually increase your awareness of the connectedness of Height and Depth in each stroke and how they produce differing but often linked results.

Compare it to a golf stroke.  For putting, a high preparation will get in your way and likely punch the ball over the green.  On the other hand, when driving, if you try to punch the ball 100 yards with a two-inch preparation, you may only send it 100 feet at best.  Depth encourages Height and Height Depth.

Golfers also have a choice of clubs to use; don’t use a putter when you need to drive it deep.  Clubs correspond to the pianist’s mallets.  Using the same Height and Depth but varying the mallet will produce quite different results, both in terms of dynamics and color.

The Pro Golfer knows as well how to balance Speed, Weight and Compression in his stroke.  Some strokes and clubs require a meaty weighted swing, others a compressed but slow swing, others a weightless, tensionless, little tap from the wrist.  A Tiger Woods understands all of this intuitively and consciously.

At the Piano, often the most peculiar and beautiful colors are produced by combining seemingly contrasting qualities.  Imagine for example using a soft mallet (the plush ball of the finger) with a compressed forearm in a weightless, but deep attack.  The effect is a penetrating and deep, yet slightly muffled color. 

As you gain increasing command of each of the individual filters, seek to consciously combine them, discovering new, more complex filters. 


My personal approach to this excerpt and to Chopin in general is to use a relatively greater Depth in the main line while varying the Depth within each line horizontally according to the demands of the phrase.

Try out this approach and then become aware of the ground-rules that define your own approach to Chopin.


On Conducting and Studying the Score Away from the Piano

One of the peculiar qualities of Chopin, as discussed above, is his long phrases based on bel canto.  In order to fully appreciate this all-important aspect of Chopin, it’s important for the pianist to learn how to breathe and sing, and this is as good a place as any to sneak in a short introduction to both.



For all of you who may have never seriously thought about how to breathe, this will be an important step in your development.  There are many places to learn how to breathe properly, such as a good Singing or Yoga manual, so I’ll be brief and let those so inclined search out other sources.

Babies breathe completely naturally from the stomach (laymen terms, although imprecise and sometime inaccurate, are often more useful for immediate comprehension).  Adults, for a number of psychological reasons, tend to breathe more from the chest.   When adults sleep, however, their breathing returns to its natural state.  Over the years, bad breathing habits are formed, and habits, good or bad, feel comfortable. 

Observe your own breathing.  Standing in front of a mirror, take in a long, deep breath.  Where does the air go?   Where do you feel the air pass?  If you’re like most when they first try this exercise, your shoulders will rise quite noticeably.   You’re holding in your stomach, pushing the air shallowly into your chest, and your shoulders tense up a little and rise.  People seemingly begin breathing this way as they become aware of how they’re perceived by their classmates at a young age.  Everybody wants to look thin and fit, so people hide their breathing by pushing it into the chest instead of allowing it in deep, which causes the stomach to swell gently in and out.

Right now you’re likely alone.  Try to shake off the sensation of being watched or judged on a physical level, even by yourself.  Breathing should be perceived as an activity that happens mainly below the chest.  The ribcage gently rises and falls, on the breath.  The shoulders, except for a light sensation of expansion, remain calm, flat and wide.  The open, natural sensation of good breathing happens when the shoulders don’t cave in on the chest protectively. 

Exhale deeply, then breathe in again.  Your stomach will expand outward, as well as sideways and even backwards as you feel your lower back gently expand.  It will help to feel all of this if you place your hands on your sides just below the ribcage, your thumbs touching your back and fingers wrapping around front. 

{Some people are on some level afraid of learning how to breathe because they fear losing their perception of natural breathing.  Don’t worry, this is impossible…}

Because of your bad breathing habits, at first, good breathing will feel a bit awkward and unnatural.  Reclaiming your breathing on a conscious level is an immediate but also long, long process.  Soon however, you’ll easily discern efficient, natural breathing from tight, high, surface breathing.

The best way to practice breathing is to apply it to Yoga or Singing.



The key to great singing is great breathing.  Amateur singers perceive their voice as coming from their throat and vocal chords; great singers sing from the diaphragm.  Although the diaphragm can’t be directly felt, you can feel most of the muscles surrounding it and in this way have a real, direct contact with your voice. 

Many great singing pedagogues advocate the noble posture of the Old Italian School.  This involves all of the characteristics of good breathing regarding posture discussed above plus one peculiarly singerly technique – slightly raising the rib cage before breathing.  To understand this, take in a few good breaths, noticing how the rib cage is pushed up and out during inhalation, and how it slowly collapses during exhalation.  Now inhale, and before exhaling, support the ribcage’s elevated position muscularly.  Now as you breathe out, hold your ribcage in this noble position.   It will still collapse slightly, but considerably less so.  Now, without allowing your ribcage to collapse, breathe in again.  The sensation of breathing will be much less heavy because the breath won’t be pushing against the ribcage.  It will feel unnatural and effortful at first, but you’ll become accustomed to it if you persist.  Most of the great singers breathe this way, which is why they often don’t seem to be breathing at all. 

As you begin singing, don’t fret about perfect breathing; strive only for improved breathing.

The Old Italian School of Singing, which is the model for the modern international approach to singing, often refers to the notion of appoggio, which means support or leaning.  The term appoggiatura, leaning note, comes from the same root verb, appoggiare.  There are two distinct ways the term is used, both of which have applications to Piano technique. 

The first definition of appoggio is as the root of good sound production.  Following a good deep breath, press gently against the breath from the abdomen, side and back muscles before beginning to sing.  This compresses the air expressively.  It’s the sensation you feel if you were about to blow hot air into your hands to warm them up.  Then begin singing while maintaining this sensation.

Try singing a five-note diatonic scale, up and down, in the middle of your range on mi (mee).  Breathe in deeply, gently lean on the breath (without letting any air escape), then begin singing. 

As the voice moves up, it will need greater breath support.  Some pedagogues recommend thinking of breath support as a pyramid.  The lower part of your range feels wider and less effortful.  As you move up the scale, gradually lean down into it, giving the higher notes more expressive compression and support.  The higher notes feel narrower and more compressed.

This brings us into the second definition of appoggio, which is related to phrasing and Energy Pillars.   When the energy centers in a phrase, which in vocal music is often the highest note of the phrase because of the vocal intensity that higher notes naturally imply, the expression requires greater support and compression.  The first definition of appoggio involves the onset of vocal sound in order to establish a supported, colorful, expressive sound for the entire breath; the second definition means giving greater support to the key expressive moments of a phrase or gesture.

A solid understanding of both definitions of appoggio is key to good singing as well as good Piano-playing


Returning to our Chopin excerpt, sing through the Soprano line (in your own range and changing octaves whenever necessary).  See if you can keep each phrase on a single breath; you’ll almost certainly need to catch a number of breaths here and there.  Give yourself time to breathe and don’t rush into the next note.  Use your own, meager voice – don’t try to be operatic – but try to breathe deeply and properly.  Keep reminding yourself that your voice comes from your stomach (diaphragm) and not from your chest, neck, vocal chords or mouth.  Sing on whatever vowel or syllable combination comes naturally to you.

Sing through each of the remaining three color layers in the same way, being aware of your breathing and phrasing.  As you reach each Energy Pillar, give greater vocal support from the muscles surrounding your diaphragm, centering your vocal and emotional energy.

Return to the Piano, using your fingers and arms to breathe and sing vocally.  The sensation of singing begins the same in your energy center, heart and mind, but instead of passing through the vocal chords with your breath, it passes  through your arms and out of your fingertips.  The differences between singing with your voice and with your fingers are only superficial.


Imagining Real Orchestration

If you were to orchestrate this excerpt, what kind of instrumentation would you use?  Whatever your choices, write them into your score with as much precision as possible and then realize your intentions. 

Listen to a Soprano aria of Donizetti or Bellini with a great singer and a great conductor.  Try to realize the effect of that type of orchestration accompanying a Soprano.  This is not the arrival point for understanding Chopin, but it’s a great departing point.

Then listen to the slow movement of either of Chopin’s Concertos from the Full Score and see if you can realize at least the orchestral introduction to either of them at the keyboard.  Once you’ve achieved the effect of Chopin’s orchestra accompanying a solo pianist, take that combination of colors and create a similar effect with the Nocturne excerpt, the r.h. as solo pianist and the l.h. as accompanying Orchestra.  Now you’re arriving closer to the real language of Chopin – inspired by Opera, but singing pure Piano.  


Zen, Circular Energy, and the Four Time Dimensions

Imagine yourself in an Opera House standing on the Conductor’s podium.  The Orchestra sits down below you looking up attentively, waiting for your first upbeat.  Several Soloists are onstage, as is part of the Chorus.  The rest of the Chorus is backstage.  The house is full. 

You suddenly realize that every person in the house is you.  The Opera House becomes your piano, which itself becomes an extension of your own body.  You are the Opera House. 

This is the essence of Circular Energy and the Four Time Dimensions.


The Four Principle Mallets

As with Beethoven and virtually all music, all four mallets can be used separately or in various combinations to great effect in Chopin.

As before, play through the excerpt becoming aware of the mallets you’re using.  Take a few moments to redefine them or clarify them in your mind, notating your decisions in your score as necessary.  Realize your intentions and make adjustments.

Work through the various mallet exercises from before; you’ll likely discover fantastic colors that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.


The Four Physical Levels

In the same ways as before, work through the various Physical Levels exercises. 

The only general advice I’ll offer as you define your interpretation is to play the melody as much as possible from the arm, even in pp.  Notate your choices into your score – f. for finger, h. for hand, f.a. for forearm and u.a. for upper arm.


Mimicking Masters ~ The Imitation Filters

By now you should have well over 100 hundred Imitation Filters, and your list should continue to grow.  Keep them written down and organized by discipline (Pianists, Instrumentalists, Singers, Conductors, Composers, Dancers, Artists) for easy reference and access.  When you access each Master, it may be helpful to remind you of his language, by putting on a recording for a minute, for example.  Over time, you won’t need additional stimuli as much.

Add to your Pianist list any Chopin specialists that might not already be there.  I recommend Ivan Moravec, Ignaz Friedman, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich and Vladimir de Pachmann for starters.  The most important part of your list for any style will hopefully be a storehouse of interpreters from the Golden Age; study interpreters with the same respect that you study composers.


The Weight-bar, or the Hand of Karajan

Play Chopin as if Mozart and Mozart as if Chopin.  This is a beautiful saying that sheds a great deal of corrective light on the interpretation of both composers as well as on their connection to one another.  Chopin should be played with Classical clarity and not as sentimental rubbish; Mozart should be played with warmth, full of expression, and not dryly or primly.  In this light, Chopin is usually approached with a finger-based technique as an extension of a Mozartian technique.  Chopin’s teaching regarding technique seems to affirm such an approach.  His grandness is poured from a porcelain vase.  Yet I side with Rubinstein – Chopin is not the weak, sickly, delicate, effeminate figure we often imagine; he has the strength of Liszt and the power of Beethoven.  Chopin had a small technique relative to his friend and colleague Franz Liszt.  Chopin was comfortable performing in Parisian salons but not onstage in larger halls.  Liszt on the other hand possessed a massive technique permitting him to comfortably sing to thousands at a time.  Chopin was the first to acknowledge that Liszt was the greater pianist.  It was Liszt who opened up Chopin’s eyes as to how the latter’s Etudes should be interpreted

Chopin always responds well to weight, and a bowed technique works beautifully quite often.  It all depends on what type of sound and mode of expression you prefer.  All of Mozart’s String compositions depend on the weight of the bow against the string – should his Piano compositions be devoid of bowed weight?

Work through the Chopin excerpt noticing where you might already be using a certain amount of bowing.  Go through the score notating potential bowings, even specifying up-bows and down-bows if you like.  Realize them.

Next, imagining the Hand of Karajan guiding you, play through the excerpt a few times.  Follow – don’t lead.  Feel a gentle weight sinking you into the keys.  Feel the breadth and vision of orchestral expression.


The Hand of God – Using Hammers and Chisels

This filter may seem like the antithesis of Chopin’s noble, elegant, warm and rounded language, but it isn’t.  Look again at the reproductions above of Rodin’s Hand of God and Michelangelo’s Pietà.  Both pieces, through the medium of rock, resonate all of these characteristics.

Using hammers and chisels in the practice room may as well grate against your manner of interpreting Chopin, but these are tools to be used to carve out a natural pathway so that when you perform, you won’t need to force.  Sometimes, forcing occasionally in the practice room, with great sensitivity and care, creates a larger interpretation, as well as a store of excess energy which will often save you onstage. 

Chisel your way through the Chopin excerpt, working in marble.  Once you become comfortable in the medium, return to the way your intuition dictates that you play the same excerpt.  You can be sure that you won’t be left untouched by the power of marble, neither technically nor interpretationally.



Remember that After-touch divides into two parts – the release of the key and the release of the pedal.  Releasing the key pertains to the fingers primarily, the hand secondarily.  Neither Weight nor Compression directly affects After-touch, only the Speed and pacing of the release.  A good Level I technique (finger-technique) is based on staccato or non legato, not legato. 

Wagnerian or even Dramatic Verdian Sopranos often have a weak staccato.  They specialize in slow, weighted, compressed, legato sounds.  When a light, quicker staccato passage comes along, they fake their way over it and hope no one notices.  A Coloratura Soprano, on the other hand, delights in letting her voice skip and jump and sprint along at sometimes dizzying speed.   Few Sopranos are equally at home in staccato and legato, fast and slow tempos.  This applies as well to Instrumentalists.

Remember that releasing the key requires an opposite set of muscles from pressing them down – exercise them!  Legato is somewhat relaxing; staccato requires conscious physical effort.  When practicing staccato, lower the dynamic level at first to p or pp.  Focus your energy on maintaining a short staccato or staccatissimo sound.  Staccato focuses your energy on releasing the sound much more than legato.  Once you gain command over a dry staccato with a quick release, you’ll gain sensitivity and control over every other kind of touch and speed of release.  There’s also a direct link between staccato and speed – the better your staccato, the faster you’ll be able to play.

Our excerpt is relatively slow, which will allow you to give special attention to each release.  Play it through without pedal, every note staccatissimo.  At first, play p or pp, not f.

Once this becomes comfortable, add in pedal, but keep the finger releases just as short. 

Now, change from staccatissimo to non legato, still with pedal.  Then play as your intuition dictates, being aware of your choices regarding the length of each touch (Talea) and the speed of each release (larghissimo to prestissimo).  You’ll experience now a heightened sensitivity to both Talea and After-touch.


Horowitz’ Voicing

One of my teachers lived and traveled with the Horowitz’s for several years, absorbing everything that the Master could teach him.  He made many legendary recordings, including perhaps the greatest recording of Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto, Reiner conducting – a must-own!  It’s of course the American virtuoso, Byron Janis. 

So much about his playing is heavily inspired by Horowitz and he comes closer than any other to capturing Horowitz language and demonic virtuosity.  Yet something’s decidedly lacking.  It’s a bit like listening to a Karajan recording and then to his student Ozawa’s rendering of the same work – everything’s there but something is missing. 

Then he lost the use of his hands and retreated from the concert scene for decades.  When he came back, just as I began working with him, he was a transformed musician.  He seemed a bit resentful of Horowitz’s heavy influence on his young development.   He had become the anti-virtuoso and a much more thoughtful and poetic thinker about music.  I knew he had many answers that I needed, but I avoided taking lessons from him as much as possible so I could make my own discoveries.  I only saw him a couple times the first semester and was pleasantly surprised to see that he had given me an A anyway.  I ran into him once at the Steinway basement after a long absence from lessons and he smiled kindly, encouragingly, So David, how’s it coming?  It’s been a while…

I had come to him because he is himself a colossal pianist, but also because I wanted to know Horowitz’ secrets first-hand.  I discovered that Horowitz was the last thing he wanted to discuss.

That’s how Horowitz can be for all of us sometimes.  His influence can at times be too great.  You can’t imitate him onstage and be convincing.  Yet in the practice room he has so much to teach that I feel justified in dedicating a little bit more space in these pages to Horowitz than to any other Master filter.

The first explanation I heard of Horowitz’ voicing came not from Janis, but from McCabe.  Imagine playing the note you want to voice slightly earlier than the rest.  I learned later that it’s more than simply imagining, but imagining does the trick.  Still, this only divides a chord into two layers – the imagined early note and the rest.  Horowitz’ voicing is much, much more complex than this.  I figured out countless other Horowitz’ voicing tricks along the way, but his own explanation of what I call drop-voicing was the most revealing.

In a five-note chord in one hand, for example, it’s as if the hand becomes a key with five teeth, each gauged according to its place in the chord.  Before dropping the key from above the key-surface, or while dropping, you can turn the hand slightly from the forearm, as if turning a doorknob, in order to favor the most important note in that chord.  However, turning the hand as you drop it swings the weight of the hand and arm into a single note or group of notes.   (This is very much akin to the basic twisting punch of TaeKwonDo.)  Swinging the hand (Rotation) can also be separated from dropping the hand, but this is another discussion.

Work through the Chopin excerpt dropping each note or chord in.  No finger-legato will be possible.  Raise the hand at least two inches for each attack.  Set the finger(s) first, turning the hand slightly if needed, then drop in fearlessly, trusting that the sound you pre-hear will come out.  You will of course have to work through a bit of rough splashing before this actually happens. 

It’s as if you play the notes first in the air, depressing the fingers and setting them in somewhat exaggerated fashion, then play them again with the hand and arm as you drop in.  It’s a combination of a Height and Depth attack with a chiseled Hand of God approach.  

A ten-note chord in two hands will involve two five-toothed keys opening a sound of ten colors in ten Time-dimensions.  And each will have its own dynamic as well.  After you become accustomed to dropping in, you’ll discover, somewhat magically, that it’s enough to simply imagine dropping in to get virtually the same effect.


Speed, Weight and Compression

Play through the excerpt being aware of the energy qualities of each note.  Label it in your mind as S (Speed), W (Weight), C (Compression), SW, SC, WC or SWC.    It’s possible to develop a perfectly acceptable interpretation without changing your approach to energy at all.  Work through the example consciously limiting yourself to each of the seven types of energy (the three principle types and the four combinations).  Then combine them in various ways at will.

When you feel that you’ve gained a certain command of the possibilities, work through the score, labeling each note or group of notes with a specific quality of energy.  Think of each of the seven as colors.  Then realize your energy transcription, as if filling in a color-by-numbers picture.



After turning your mind inside out over and over again, examining your subject from every conceivable angle, you always have to come back to the principle melody, learn to forget everything you’ve learned, and focus your mind and heart where it matters.  Don’t try to show off your deep knowledge and lofty intentions – you’ll only disappoint your listeners.  Instead, trust that everything you’ve studied in the meanwhile will have seeped below the conscious level and come out on its own.  You’ll experience it peripherally and will be able to fully appreciate it when you listen to the recording of your performance.


Playing Blind

Liszt chided his pupils, Never look down at the battlefield.  Only amateurs have to look at their fingers!  For any of you passive readers who still haven’t tried this, know that if five- and six-year-olds can accomplish this effortlessly and joyously, it shouldn’t be such a step for you to as well.