“Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils” by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, translated by Naomi Shohet with Krysia Osostowicz, and Roy Howat. Edited by Roy Howat.
Chopin never finished his much-promised piano method book, but he loved teaching and for quite some time divided his time equally between composing and teaching. He evidently didn’t enjoy committing his ideas to paper and explained “The pen burns my fingers”. However, his students wrote quite a few letters to others about him as a teacher and it is surprising how much knowledge we can gain about him, his music, and his teaching methods from these letters. This book uses those letters and many other sources to document how Chopin taught his music as well as insight into the man himself and his environment. I find it hard to imagine how much work it was to write this book, but the result is worthy of the efforts as it is a reliable and insightful reference for any piano teacher or serious student.
I call this book a pedagogy book because it really is a reference book consisting of an introduction to Chopin’s teaching methods along with historical context followed by a section on Chopin’s technique and style, then information on how to interpret specific Chopin pieces and finally the appendices including Chopin’s “Sketch for a method”, annotated scores, and Chopin’s playing as described by his contemporaries. There are also plenty of informative footnotes as is appropriate to such a scholarly work.
I have highlighted so many sections of this book and when I return to this book again and again, it seems like I have to highlight additional sections as I keep discovering new nuggets of wisdom from its pages. However, here are some of my current favorite quotes from the book:
“It seems to me that you don’t dare to express yourself as you feel. Be bolder, let yourself go more. 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 full 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. I see that timidity and lack of self-confidence form a kind of armour around you, but through this armour I perceive something else that you don’t always dare to express, and so you deprive us all. 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 that I’d find the shameless confidence of the “vulgaires” unbearable by comparison.”
“For Chopin, singing constituted the alpha and omega of music; it formed the basis of all instrumental training, and the more piano playing drew its inspiration from vocal models, the more convincing it became.”
“A well-formed technique, it seems to me, [is one] that can control and vary [bien nuancer] a beautiful sound quality. This is really the fundamental article of Chopin’s pianistic credo, illustrated equally well by an axiom attributed to Liszt: ‘All technique originates in the art of touch and returns to it’”
“Chopin cultivated the fingers’ individual characteristics , prizing their natural inequality as a source of variety in sound: ’As many different sounds as there are fingers’”
“Everything is a matter of knowing good fingering […]. Just as we need to use the conformation of the fingers, we need no less to use the rest of the hand, the wrist, the forearm, and the upper arm. One cannot try to play everything from the wrist, as Kalkbrenner claims”.
“Have the body supple right to the tips of the toes.”
“Suppleness was his great object. He repeated, without ceasing, during the lessons: ‘easily, easily’. Stiffness exasperated him.”
“The arms should be the slaves of the fingers, yet the opposite always tend to occur; one should keep one’s mind off the arms and just use them as naturally as possible: fingers elongated for singing passages and closely bent for that special couldy fluency of ornaments or apoggiaturas.”
“The fingers should sink, immerse themselves somehow in the depths of the piano – in piano as well as in forte playing – drawing from it that sustained melancholy sound which – the fingers reluctant to leave the keys – is able to bring out from even the least melodious instrument a singing quality close to that of the Italian singers whom Chopin recommended as models.”
“’Caress the key, never bash it!’ Chopin would say. And his pupil Georges Mathias would add, repeating Chopin’s advice, that ‘You should, so to speak, mold the keyboard with a velvet hand and feel the key rather than striking it!’”
“He made me practice first of all constantly varying the attack of one single note, and showed me how he could obtain diverse sonorities from the same key, by striking it in twenty different ways.”
“He recommended daily work on scales and arpeggios played with regularity and set great store by scales lightly accented in groups of three or four, or even played three against four and vice versa.”
“We use sounds to make music just as we use words to make a language.”
“A long note is stronger, as is also a high note. A dissonant is likewise stronger, and equally so a syncopated note. The ending of a phrase, before a comma, or a stop is always weak. If the melody ascends, one plays crescendo, if it descends, decrescendo. Moreover, notice must be taken of natural accents. For instance, in a bar of two, the first note is strong, the second weak, in a bar of three the first strong and the two others weak. To the smaller parts of the bar the same direction will apply. Such then are the rules: the exceptions are always indicated by the authors themselves.”
“He advised his pupil not to fragment the musical idea, but rather to carry it to the listener in one long breath.”
“In keeping time Chopin was inexorable, and some readers will be surprised to learn that the metronome never left his piano. Even in his much maligned tempo rubato, the hand responsible for the accompaniment would keep strict time, while the other hand, singing the melody, would free the essence of the musical thought from all rhythmic fetters, either by lingering hesitantly or by early anticipating the movement with a certain impatient vehemence akin to passionate speech.”
“We know Chopin was generally quite strict about the exact comprehension and performance of his works, and it required no less than the genial personality of the young Filtsch to make him admit: ‘We each understand this differently, but go your own way, do as you feel, it can also be played like that.”
“Use the pedal with the greatest economy.”
“Learn to make a diminuendo without the help of the [una corda] pedal; you can add it later.”
“’Look at these trees!’ [Liszt] said, ‘the wind plays in the leaves, stirs up life among them, the tree remains the same, that is Chopinesque rubato.’”
“It recalls Debussy’s phrase: ‘Above all, make me forget as I listen to you, that the piano has hammers.’”
Another favorite quote of mine by Chopin was not found in this book, but I particularly love it: “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”
One more thing…..I also love how you can look up individual works by Chopin and see if happens to be advice on how to learn or play the piece. I have often looked up works by Chopin in this book and am always pleased if there is specific information about how to learn or play his work.