Performance Hints & Techniques in Piano Playing

and the Music of Chopin

by Dr. Richard Dowling


The Aural "Illusion" of Legato Playing on the Piano

Piano tone is solely determined by the speed that the hammer travels to the strings.

Listen for the decay of the first note and match the next note to same volume level.

Wrist suppleness: prepare beginnings of phrases for good tone.

Maintain freedom in elbows.

Transfer arm weight from note to note.

Use "flat" fingers and "wipe" the keys for better tonal control.

The Damper, Sostenuto and Soft Pedals

The secret of successful use of the damper pedal lies in an awareness of when the dampers actually contact the strings as the pedal is released. Every piano’s pedal is adjusted differently and responds differently. Learn to find the "touch point" of the pedal by actually looking at the dampers inside the piano and by listening. Use the "upper" half of pedal depth for special effects and for controlling the volume of accumulated left-hand accompaniment sound.

Imitate concert hall acoustics by "riding" the pedal. Take advantage of sympathetic vibrations of unplayed strings. Use the Sostenuto (middle) Pedal to sustain low bass notes in certain passages.

"Pre-pedal" before beginning to play in order to "open" the resonance of the piano.

Avoid consistent pedalling with bar lines. Hold the pedal when the harmony does not change, especially across bar lines.

Rolled Chords: Always pedal with the fifth finger of the left hand. Play on the "edge" of the keys in order to stretch as far as possible.

Chopin’s 19th century Ped. * indications—how do we respect them on a modern piano that has more sustaining power than his pianos? Listen and adjust!

The Soft Pedal is the "killer" of piano tone in the treble. Overcome the soft pedal’s effect by using more arm weight on melodic lines in right hand.

Special performance tip: Use the soft pedal to make an out-of-tune grand piano sound temporarily a little better by playing only on two strings instead of three. 

Understanding Rubato

Rubato means "robbed" literally. Meaning, time that is borrowed at one point in a phrase must be "paid back" later in the phrase. In other words, if one slows down, one must speed up later in order to maintain balance in the phrasing.

Phrasing slurs must be strictly observed in Chopin’s music. They are the key to understanding flow and pacing, and thus serve as guides to rubato.

Some generalizations about performing rubato:

• Long note values should be sustained. Subsequent short note values should move forward.

• Make the left-hand accompaniment follow the flow of the melody.

• Begin phrases slowly and gradually build up speed.

• Take plenty of time in decorative, small-note, quick passages in the right hand. Left hand accompaniment should slow down considerably. Break up decorative scales and arpeggio passagework into easily-playable smaller parts, being certain about fingering.

• Count out loud during rubato passages. Say "o-o-o-o-one" in order to feel how the tempo is momentarily ritarded.

• After a rubato passage, slowly regain the original tempo. Think of a tempo as meaning "into the tempo," not simply immediately faster.

Unusual Italian Musical Terms Found in Chopin’s Music

Doppio movimento = double speed, i.e. twice as fast

Con anima = With soul

Tempo giusto = Strict tempo

Sotto voce & Mezzo voce = Under voice & Medium voice

Slentando, calando = ritardando + diminuendo

Smorzando = Dying away

Stretto = hastening, i.e. getting faster 

Suggested Early Intermediate Level Pieces by Chopin

Preludes in E Minor, B Minor, A Major, Op. 28

Waltzes in A Minor (Post.), E-flat Major (also known as "Sostenuto in E-flat Major")

Mazurkas in C Major Op. 7 No. 5, G Minor Op. 67 No. 2, F Major Op. 68 No. 3

Largo in E-flat Major

Polonaise in B-flat Major (Post.)

Two Bourrées

Suggested Late Intermediate Level Pieces by Chopin

Prelude in C Minor, Op. 28

Polonaise in G Minor and A-flat Major (1821)

Waltz in A-flat Major Op. 69 No. 1, B Minor Op. 69 No. 2, F Minor Op. 70 No. 2

Nocturnes in E Minor Op. 72 No. 1, E-flat Major Op. 9 No. 1, G Minor Op. 15 No. 3, C Minor (Post.)

Mazurkas in B-flat Major Op. 7 No. 1, A Minor Op. 7 No. 2, E Minor Op. 17 No. 2, G Minor Op. 24 No. 1, B Minor Op. 30 No. 2, C Major Op. 67 No.3, A Minor Op. 67 No. 4

Cantabile in B-flat Major, Album Leaf in E Major, Contradanse in G Major

Suggested Early Advanced Level Pieces by Chopin

Preludes in C Major, E Major, D-flat "Raindrop", A-flat, G Minor, F Major

Nocturnes in B-flat Minor, Op. 9 No. 1, B Major Op. 32 No. 1, G Minor Op. 37 No. 1 F Minor Op. 55 No. 1, C-sharp Minor (Post.)

Grande Valse Brillante in A Minor, Op. 34 No. 2

Waltz in D-flat Major Op. 64 No. 1 "Minute", C-sharp Minor, Op. 64 No. 2, E Minor (Post.), Valse Mélancolique in F-sharp Minor, E-flat Major (Post.)

Mazurkas in F-sharp Minor Op. 6 No. 1, A Minor Op. 17 No. 4, F Minor Op. 63 No. 2, A Minor Op. 68 No. 2

Polonaises in C-sharp Minor Op. 26 No. 1, A Major Op. 40 No. 1 "Military" C Minor, Op. 40 No. 2

Etude in F Minor, Op. 10 No. 9 & Trois Nouvelles Etudes (1839) Nos. 1 & 2

Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66

Recommended Alfred Editions of Chopin

Easier Works

Chopin: The First Book for Pianists, edited by Willard Palmer, Alfred Edition #491

Chopin: An Introduction to His Piano Works, edited by W. Palmer, Alfred Ed. #635

Intermediate to Advanced Works

Chopin: Selected Favorites for the Piano, edited by Willard Palmer, Alfred Ed. #611

*At the Piano with Chopin, edited by Maurice Hinson, Alfred Edition #2484

*This edition contains excellent historical background and valuable performance advice for both teachers and students.