Chopin, Chopin Nocturnes, Frederic Chopin, piano, piano blog

Don’t Choke through peak sections of a Chopin Nocturne

Many adult students get bent out of shape when a piece of “night music” blooms with “improvised,” decorative passagework at peak expressive levels. Add in prolonged trills with lower notes tied (held down) leading to a decisive crescendo through a tricky chromatic scale, and many players will shrink from the challenge. They’ll prefer to skip over what appears to be never-ending land mines.

I’m very sympathetic, because I’ve been in the thick of Chopin’s impassioned outpourings trapped by a frenzy that inevitably interrupts a smooth journey to full blown expression. As remedy, I’ve learned how to stay centered, relaxed, and in touch with my breath as my primary musical underpinning while I try to create an effortless “improvisation” that intensifies without a struggle.

This is why I selected Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No. 1 as my point of departure in the Keeping Your Cool universe of playing.

Measures 31 to 38 meander in improvised fashion to a resonating chromatic ascent to B minor. And while there are many Forte level measures in this section, one NEVER stays at a fixed dynamic given the ebb and flow of harmonic rhythm. The player has to poetically shape the ornaments, trills, and fancy filigreed passages with an understanding of harmonic dissonances and resolutions, and how various melodic meanderings invite nuanced, dips in phrases.

Chopin Nocturne, 31-

In particular, one of my pertinent epiphanies surrounds the lengthy trill spanning measures 36 and 37 in the E minor Nocturne. The first part of the trill is a suspension (Harmonic 2nd) that relaxes into a Harmonic third, even as the repercussions spill into a heightened chromatic ascent. By “relaxing” into the trill as it has resolved into a minor third, the player can take a new breath to impede CHOKING into the decisive B minor CADENCE.

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Only the singing nightingale could be true to Chopin’s music

Haddorff came through with her beautiful voice today. Her older brother, Steinway M on the far side of the room, had some communication problems while upright Steinway, the middle child of the trio, couldn’t begin to rival Haddy’s tone and temperament.

So as it happened, One special piano sang her heart out:

Haddy’s bio:

Made in 1951; kept by musicians until passed on to the next generation of non-musicians. Lived in the neighborhood, a mere walk away.

Cost $700, and was wheeled over to my home by a Russian fellow whose piano store in Visalia went under. His truck broke down.

He did what amounted to wheelies, or some kind of fancy acrobatics with a dolly. I should have had a camera.

A few bystanders helped nudge Haddy over a few nasty cracks in the sidewalk until she was turned right on Arthur. Then it was a smooth ride until a final bump over the threshold.

She should have been lifted up and carried in like a new bride.

In any case, Haddy’s fixed to stay here for a time, and she’ll sing like a nightingale whenever asked. (despite her imperfect tuning that makes her who she is)


But just the same, here’s older brother’s companion Chopin reading. He boasts a bigger bass and tonal proportion.

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Accept where you are in your piano studies, know your limitations, but still strive to improve (VIDEO)

This is my credo or philosophy that allows for imperfection without self-punishment. Yet students of all levels tend to invalidate their own performances despite growth spurts springing from dedicated practicing. Many have done all the layered learning steps, but have come to a plateau in a particular piece which is perhaps where that composition will remain for a while, but not permanently.

There are also the realities of technical challenges that may or may not be met in this lifetime, and I’m the first to admit them. I’ve had to accept physical short-comings associated with any number of so-called bravura pieces.

Other players, in mellower moments, have likewise made peace with themselves.

In many cases, technical problems as they occur in sections of pieces, may relate to an individual’s built-in limits of what his hands, fingers, arms, wrists can produce. Some pianists have the gift of a genetically rapid trill. Others can practice their hands off, and still not create a shimmering ornament.

When I studied violin I had a natural vibrato and beautiful singing tone, but no matter how much I slaved over exercises for the left hand, I could not amble up and down the fingerboard with strength and certainty. Even having had the best teachers, I had to admit to myself that an astounding left-hand technique was not within reach. Still, I played for hours on end and improved, but fell short of my goal to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Instead, I gracefully settled for performing the Vivaldi Violin Concerto in A minor and lots of chamber music from the Baroque and Classical eras.

A number of violinists that I’d encountered in my musical journey had a slower, wallowing vibrato and less than ideal tone, but they had astounding left-hand agility with excellent bow technique that landed them in the finest symphony orchestras.

Back to piano..

and speaking of physical prowess,

Just the other day, I decided that I would confront my demons head on in the the Middle section of Chopin’s F Major Nocturne. In the past I had dodged any opportunity to post a reading on You Tube, let alone try to teach it in full view of an Internet audience. I was always stopped in my tracks by interminably long strings of broken chord patterns at forte level jumping from hand to hand. Some taxed my small fingers by their big spreads (another limitation that had to be reconciled)

But as I shrunk from a full-blown dive into the work, I approached the difficult section behind tempo, inching my way around familiar landmines.

And while it was all well and good in a slow rendering, what would play out in the big boy universe of in tempo, CON FUOCO? (with fire!)

Seymour Bernstein was listening from the sidelines as I shared my step-wise efforts with him. His full-blown, uncensored comments lit a fire, but not enough to adequately ignite bands of 16ths!

Once my personal bonfire had been smothered by tiring hands, Seymour chimed in with assistance:

Shirley, there are many things to discuss about that passage from the F Major Nocturne. The most important thing concerns the r. h. It would seem that the choreography is down-up for each pair of double notes. Yet my theory is that all double notes are wrist-arm activities with each tone going up (prepare)-down (play), as though we were playing non-legato. In fact if you practice those double tones at first non-legato and then legato with the same wrist-arm movements (but always leading with the fingers), you will see how much more comfortable they are to play and how evenly they sound. The other way requires crab like movements of the fingers alone which creates arm tension.

“Now, having said that, the l. h. can’t choreograph as though you were playing a scale. So because the r. h. goes up-down for each tone, so, too, must the l. h. do the same on each tone of the scales. So practice both hands non-legato to get the correct choreography, and then play legato. Those hairpins are not only dynamics, but, more importantly, tempo fluctuations (see my book entitled INTERPRETING CHOPIN’S NOTATIONAL SYMBOLS). As hairpins open, I suggest they mean to broaden out the tempo. The dynamics must be of our own choosing. I play the passage beginning with an accented forte, drop to piano as the scales descend, and then make a
cresc. together with broadening out the tempo on the ascending scales. The requirement of double notes in the r. h. and single notes in the left occurs on the opening page of Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise. In that piece, the l. h. appears like a simple short chromatic scale. Yet if each tone doesn’t go up-down with each double tone of the r. h., the body goes into shock. In short, both hands make the same movements on each tone. The feeling when you go fast in all such passages is like a vibrating shiver.

“In the final analysis, we all have our pet ways of solving difficulties. If something works for you, certainly adopt it.”

(The last line was diplomatic. It was a bone thrown to me in my dogged despair)

Nonetheless, I took Seymour’s advice.

My next try was abbreviated with its focus on his recommended STACCATO strategy followed by a Legato playing.

Two brief uploads tumbled out evincing sedated cheers from him. He was both encouraging and once again, diplomatic:

“That’s the idea,” he said. But be sure to play with the dynamics I suggested. Now do the same shivering motions fast and legato with vibrato pedal and it should sound terrific.”

A second pianist and teacher with singular gifts and achievements, added her own two cents:

“Feel very strong support in your palm, in the knuckles, and try putting your wrist down every bit lifting it a little higher toward the end of each group of 6 intervals, (every BEAT)”

That would have worked if I could do it consistently over long spans of measures, not in bite-size chunks. (A goal to strive for)

Seymour Bernstein added his final comments to my growing collection:

More suggestions about the middle section: stop concentrating so intensely on the r. h. and focus exclusively on the l. h., especially the eruptions at the ends of the ascending scales. You must broaden out the tempo and make a decided cresc. as you approach those rests before the final quick repeated tones. The feeling should be energy going to the key bed in the l. h. and a floating, surface approach to the double notes in the r. h., shimmering, so to speak, only to the escapement level of each key and not to the key beds. In fact, practice this section sounding the l. h. and simulating the correct touch with your r. h. only on the surface of the keys without sounding them. Then gradually allow a few tones to sound in the r. h. until you hear a fast murmur of those double tones. This way you will gain speed and make progress.

Incidentally, these discussions suggest another blog on preferred tempo. I noted that Livia Rev had a playing time of 5:24 (Nocturne in F Major) so the middle section perhaps was played on the moderate side of the metrical spectrum. In its divine simplicity, the reading was for me very appealing.

(I’ve heard from many towering pianists/teachers that a slower tempo can still have the vitality or spirit needed. I tend to agree)


When all was said and done, I recorded the complete F Major Nocturne, with a few prayers said before the camera rolled.

While the performance was not stellar, the playing showed marked improvement compared to my efforts years ago.

If nothing else such progress was worth celebrating.

And that’s what I’ve always said to my piano students as they advance along in baby steps…


Seymour Bernstein, Video 4, You and the Piano

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A long distance Chopin Nocturne Makeover that might help others

It’s amazing that at 3 a.m. in the morning, I’d be fussing around with the Chopin Nocturne in E minor (Op. 72, No. 1) that I’d previously embedded in a blog about revisiting old repertoire. Either my kind neighbors love classical music, or they’ve managed to double pack their ears with spongy stopples. (These can be permanently “embedded” if one is not careful)

So lucky for me, with my unplugged, wide open ears, I had the benefit of a long distance communication from Seymour Bernstein (author, With Your Own Two Hands) who emailed me constructive criticism related to the Chopin. Basically, he zeroed in on what I knew in my sub-conscious to be on point–but because of my DNA connection to the piece, I was just too embedded in it (not that word, again, please consult a Thesaurus)

It was one of those situations, where I knew that I’d over-exaggerated my rubato, perhaps, but of more concern was my tendency to play unsynchronized bass/treble notes. You know what I mean, when the right and left hand should come together and not be schmaltzed up to high heaven, and divided all over the place. It’s what Liberace might do, or the celebrated hypochondriac pianist, Oscar Levant, who played Gershwin. He made it a point to exhibit all his illnesses on 1950s TV, kvetching the whole time on the Jack Paar Show, sniveling, snorting- about to pass out before a commercial break.

My family had an old 78 of his Chopin which I’ll have to dig up. In those days, the vinyls were very long-lasting, like some of Liberace’s half cadences, rolls and flourishes.

I’d imagined a less mannered interpretation as had permeated my last reading, and having Seymour Bernstein’s long-distance coaching would level me out. It was nothing short of a mitzvah (blessing in Hebrew)

But before I go further, here’s a comparison of conditions for each home-based recording of the Nocturne.

1)The first performance, previously embedded, was rendered at a civilized hour so my fingers didn’t feel like icicles. Here in Fresno, it’s dipped below 32 degrees at night so we’re having a honeymoon, of sorts, because the next season is our normally sizzling summer, with 100 degrees in the shade. (We are basically bi-seasonal with the help of global warming.)

2) In the second recording made at 3 a.m., my hands were ice balls, so forget the trills, if you can manage to find them–For relief, I’d shoved my bare hands in front of a portable heater, blocked by Aiden Cat who didn’t appreciate being pulled from his sun bath. He would otherwise be rattling the blinds, or tipping over nick knacks.

To be more precise about what I was thinking about before I attempted a Chopin Nocturne MAKEOVER, here’s what Seymour Bernstein recommended after hearing my first performance:

(I hope this advice will help others who are studying the composition)

“Some theorists hold to Chopin always beginning trills on the upper note. But that practice ceased with late Bach and Mozart. It comes down to personal choice. And choices are usually made on what the melody is doing”.

My comment: Bernstein is spot on. I appreciated the advice that the trill should preferably start on the principle note. (If you can bake your hands in a warm oven, you have a shot at playing any trill in the dead of winter) I ended up reducing my first few to upper neighbor ornaments. Don’t copy me.

“I like your new fingering. I divide that passage rhythmically as follow: 123, 1234, 1234.” (He’s referring to measure 37 with those 11 insanely bunched up treble notes crowding into one beat)

My chosen fingering was 1,2, 1,2, 123, 1234

“If you record it again, be sure to play your hands together more often, especially on downbeats. Of course one divides hands for special moments.”

In my first reading I had too many special moments, so don’t copy me. I made it a point to have less of them in the second performance.

Second, improved reading: I’m not gloating over this one, but it’s on the way to the next, which will be followed by another. The process is never-ending. (But I’ll admit to being in a happier place listening to this rendition)

Mikhail Pletnev, the great Russian pianist, always bemoans the existence of recordings, comparing them to mirrors of fixed, undesirable images.

I like to think of them as springboards to improve one’s playing and to grow as a pianist over time.


About Oscar Levant:

A reminder that the man’s celebrity was based upon his reputation as a pianist. He studied with Sigismond Stojowski, a friend and student of Paderewski. He also was a member of George Gershwin’s inner circle.

Levant was considered a genius by some, in many areas. (He himself wisecracked “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity.”)