Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Opus 10, no.1

I could chart the inevitable emotional stages of learning a new and difficult piece of music. When you’re a young inexperienced squirt, blindly passionate about your art and (in retrospect) embarrassingly confident about your international career prospects, the emotional reverberations that each stage provokes tend to be somewhat bulimic in nature: each new revelation or set-back, each good or bad performance, each success or failure, praise or critique is alternately confirmation of your superior talent, or that you suck and never should have learned the piano in the first place.

And so sitting before a new piece and facing new challenges has its emotional hazards. I'm not embarassed to admit that up to and through undergraduate school I was quite prone to those sorts of emotional fluctuations. Fortunately experience – or rather, the confidence that results from it – levels the emotional rollercoaster. However even today I have my teary-eyed, WTF, throw-the-score-across-the-room moments. 
Need I specify that said score is an edition of the Chopin Etudes? 
Neither is it probably necessary to mention that the very first étude, opus 10 n.1,  has been the source of much, much, much frustration on the part of this humble pianist. While it seems straight-forward -- C major, simple left-hand, repeated chordal patterns -- it's arguably one of the most inaccessible of all the études. Hélas, I 'm not the first or the last pianist to be whipped into whimpering submission by it. 

(For the ambitious pianist this frustration can be compounded by the fact that the Chopin Études have long been held up, not just as a rite of passage, but as a measuring tape of pianistic worthiness, a haunting view exemplified by Monique Déchaussées in her Frédéric Chopin: 24 Études -- Vers une interprétation : "I think that any professional pianist worthy of the name should be capable of playing the 24 Études back-to-back (enchaînées), without feeling any physical or muscular fatigue.") 


Happily my own tears of frustration have mostly dried up. I've come to realize that with patience, an open mind, and conscientious work, success and satisfactory performance of the piece is within the grasp of most any advanced pianist with a well-developped and healthy technique -- even those who might never have thought it possible. 


In that spirit, I'd like to extend some words of advice -- observations, really -- to my fellow Brothers and Sisters in pianism, to all my keyboard comrades who have decided (or will decide) to just go for it, to jump in the arena, to grab the beast by the horns, to join the club of Chopin Étude survivors. Veni, vidi, vici. While the hazing is harsh (yes, you too will probably cry for your mommy), the rewards are worth it.  


                                                    *    *    *                         


Of course the first step to solving any problem is identifying what the problem is in the first place. So what precisely are the problems, or difficulties, of opus 10 n.1?


Let's take the bar one arpeggio figure as a model for the entire étude since the primary technical difficulty of the work as a whole is contained in this fragment. As Victor Hugo says about Notre Dame cathedral in Paris: Et ce que nous disons ici de la façade, il faut le dire de l'église entière .... Mesurer l'orteil du pied, c'est mesurer le géant





Primo, the right-hand sixteenth-note arpeggios require constant lateral movement over a large range of the keyboard. Secundo, the extended right-hand figures demand uncomfortable extensions between adjacent fingers which risks destabilizing the hand and causing excessive tension. Tertio, these first two difficulties render the third seemingly insurmountable: that is, playing the étude as indicated, allegro and forte. 

Walk the fingers 
Generally speaking, healthy finger technique dictates that you should avoid playing in an extended position, which would otherwise destabilize the hand and arm, rob you of force and agility, degrade tone quality, provoke excessive tension.  To deal with the extensions in 10/1, the whole notion of extension must be eliminated all together. But how do you do that in real physical terms? The answer is effective weight transfer, one of the basic tenets of piano technique.

Monique Deschaussées says it better than I ever will, so let me quote her here: 


"You can eliminate the feeling of distance by shifting weight from one finger to the next, by instantaneously closing the hand and by emptying the palm of all tension; each finger must be absolutely balanced, the arch of the hand closed under the finger's starting point. In a very slow tempo, work on achieving this sensation of weight transfer from one finger to the next, playing all the notes including those of the thumb. It's the same sensation as when you walk, transferring weight from one foot to the other in the most natural way. We walk on the keyboard with ten fingers; each finger empties out completely on to the next. This gives a marvelous sensation of muscular facility." (1)
Learn to walk the fingers, first with simple melodies and five-finger patterns, then scales, then arpeggios ("extended scales"), then opus 10/1 ("extended arpeggios").


Understand (and master) lateral movement
Why do students play scales? To learn the keys? Yes. To work finger technique? Yes. To master the thumb and second finger passage? Yes, yes and yes. But they're also a means to learning and perfecting lateral movement. The problem of lateral movement isn't just gliding your arm sideways (easy enough indeed), but rather gliding from the upper arm while the wrist and forearm stay empty of tension and the fingers play as naturally and tension free as in a fixed position. In other words, there continues to be an uninterrupted sense of weight transfer.

Opus 10/1 exacerbates this difficulty by extending the range and incessantly repeating the lateral movement. There should never be the feeling that the hand moves up off the keyboard and comes back down for the next group of notes. In fact, there is no "next group of notes" in any physical sense. There is a single smooth movement for a single string of notes, going up, coming back down.


Think small
While physically or audibly there may not be "groups of notes", there are mental groups. To be more precise, we group notes together to form coherent wholes like we do letters to form words and words to form sentences. There are two points I'd like to make here.

The first is that, as what you play with your fingers should first pass through your mind, how you group notes mentally can, and often does, have physical implications. Thus it helps to think in terms of smaller intervals (i.e. definitely not the tenth -- C to E -- in bar 1). The second point has to do with notes that provide bearings in rapid execution. Déchaussées writes in her book (see footnote)  that the second finger will determine the failure or success of this étude. In the first arpeggio, that's the G. The G is the guide, the note that provides your bearings.



Yet I would argue that the guide note is actually a pair of notes (and not the easiest ones to grasp either): the two notes of every ascending arpeggio that fall at the change of position, which happen to be the same that form the very first interval of each rising arpeggio, played with the 1st and 2nd fingers:



The principle of "non-transposition"

Along with the preceding E, (5th - thumb - 2nd finger) I like to think of this part of the figure as the link or interchange, the place where the hand changes position. It finds its equivalent in the delicate thumb - 2nd finger passage when playing scales. Despite the awkwardness, it should not feel like you're changing positions, but should feel essentially no different than if you were playing 5 - 1 - 2 in a fixed five-finger position (i.e. C major: G - C - D).

This is what I call non-transposition and is at the heart of virtuosity itself. Non-transposition is kinesthetic. It makes no difference whether you're playing white keys or black,  adjacent notes or ones separated by larger intervals, moving up or down the keyboard laterally: the basic feeling is no different than if your were playing with those same fingers at a fixed, white-key five-finger position.


And so A:




shouldn't feel fundamentally different from B:



Likewise, if you can't play B evenly and without tension, you can forget about A. Assuming you can play B perfectly fine, search relentlessly for the feeling of non-transposition in all the arpeggio figures.

Know your fingers (and their roles)
This étude has led me to think of the weaknesses and individual needs of each of the fingers. Or rather, all except the third (which shouldn't need much attention). Let's take them in turn. I've already mentioned the thumb and the 2nd finger working as a pair, embracing the bearing notes. The thumb requires special attention. It must remain light, empty of tension, and extremely quick in coming back to the hand after playing it's note, staying at the surface of the keys.


The second finger guides of course, but just as it is about to play during the interchange, it should also stay as close as is reasonably possible to the keys. Nor should it "grab" or "stab" at its note; it should come down as naturally and easily as it would in example B above. (If you've never thought much about it, pay attention to how your 2nd finger moves when you play scales over several octaves.)


Lastly, the 4th and 5th fingers. Here is where the complementariness of the études comes into play, as opus 10/2 addresses exactly this issue. The problem is how to become comfortable on and articulate with these fingers. There are numerous exercises, from Hanon to Alfred Cortot's Principles rationnels de la technique pianistique to the opus 10/2 étude. Even -- or perhaps especially -- in opus 10/1 the so-called weak fingers should be independent enough to be forgotten. The 4th should have a quick release of its note, and the hand should not roll towards the 4th and 5th when they play, as this puts the thumb at a disadvantage.

Put the bone to the tone
This is a phrase my esteemed former teacher, the wonderful Mary Ann Knight, used to pound into my head. I've never forgotten it. Regretfully, it was only years later that I fully understood its meaning. Bone to the tone is not simply a way of invoking a full rounded tone, a fun way of saying 'play louder', but corresponds to an actual physical reality. I've heard it referred to as proper bone or skeletal alignment. Seymour Fink talks about this in his article "Biomechanics of healthy pianistic movement" : 

"One should take maximal mechanical advantage of the skeletal structures so that the tensile strength of bones, rather than energy-consuming muscle power, carries the brunt of the load."


Allowing the weight of the arm to pour into the keyboard and feeling the bone to the tone is the only way you'll be able to play this étude forte and allegro. (Thank you Mrs. Knight!)



Comments and suggestions welcome. 



[1] Frédéric Chopin :  24 Etudes – Vers une interprétation, p.26. On parviendra à la suppression de l’écart par le transport du poids d’un doigt sur le suivant, en refermant instantanément la main et en sentant se vider la paume ; chaque doigt doit être très en équilibre, la voûte de la main bien refermée sous le point de départ du doigt. Travailler alors dans un tempo très lent cette sensation de transport de poids d’un doigt sur l’autre, en jouant toutes les notes, y compris les pouces. La sensation est la même que lorsqu’on marche en transportant le poids d’un pied sur l’autre, tout naturellement. On marche dans le clavier avec dix doigts : chaque doigt se vide sur le suivant sans rien garder en lui. Cela donne une merveilleuse impression de facilité sur le plan musculaire.

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