Educating the Soul: Chopin as Teacher

By Isabel Keleti

Warszawa - Łazienki Królewskie - Chopin Monument
The Chopin Monument in Warsaw. Via Creative Commons.

“We could not hope to convey to those who have never heard him, any just conception of that fascination so ineffably poetic….” – Franz Liszt on Frederic Chopin[1]

Though modern audiences do not have the privilege of hearing Chopin play, the ‘ineffable poetry’ of his compositions continues to capture the imaginations of listeners all over the world. Yet Chopin was not merely a dreamy, transcendent idealist. He was also a famous and beloved teacher. Chopin’s pedagogy continues to hold lessons for all teachers and lovers of music today.

Much of our information about Chopin as a teacher comes from Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s book, Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by His Pupils, which compiles information gathered from Chopin’s unfinished “Projet de méthode,” letters, annotated scores, and statements from students and friends. These documents describe Chopin’s teaching as too personal to fit a definite tradition.[2] While following principles of a school or method can influence our understanding of piano-playing, Chopin felt, it cannot provide the key for understanding each student’s personal experience with the instrument.

Chopin’s students provide insight into a teacher who constantly shaped his approach to nurture a diverse array of individuals. He had a few highly-skilled professional piano students, but most were amateur “dilettantes.” One student described of Chopin: “His absolute novelty opened wide… the doors of all music, not just of piano playing.”[3] While contributing to their understanding of music, he also cultivated their individuality, creativity, and self-confidence at the instrument. Chopin’s intent was for his students to play in a natural and convincing way. Another student recalled a lesson in which Chopin instructed: “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.”[4]  Chopin would frequently demonstrate for his students in his lessons, but with varying interpretations, as he was wary of students imitating his ideas.  Another pupil recalled Chopin saying to him in a lesson: “We each understand this differently, but go your own way, do as you feel, it can also be played like that.”[5] He praised students for creating their own interpretations and encouraged them to play with their own unique feeling and sense of purpose.

Chopin’s insistence on individuality extended to a consideration of how students’ unique voices and physical bodies might shape the production of music. He encouraged his students to think of music as analogous to verbal expression. “We use sounds to make music just as we use words to make a language,” he said.[6] Chopin felt that sounds, whether through music or language, express human thought and feeling. That feeling could also be communicated through the natural movements of the body. He brought out a singing quality of musical tone through muscle control and relaxation, natural hand positioning, and allowing the whole arm to help the fingers play. These ideas broke from his predecessors, who stressed high individual finger motion, independent from the larger muscles of the arm. He believed the first step to learning a piece was to find an appropriate fingering that fits the hand, in order to play with a relaxed and comfortable hand position, making it possible to play the smooth legatos of the bel canto (“beautiful singing”) style Chopin loved. He communicated this emphasis on the natural movements of the hand through even the most technical exercises. He had all his students start by learning the B, D-flat, and F-sharp major scales. These scales more comfortably fit the natural finger position of the hand, with short fingers playing white (longer) keys, and long fingers playing black (shorter) keys. He first instructed students to practice scales slowly to focus on producing a beautiful sound before practicing them to attain speed. Throughout his pedagogical technique, we can see an emphasis on bringing out each student’s natural abilities rather than enforcing an ideal upon them.

By giving pianists the freedom to achieve their unique artistic goals, Chopin expanded the expressive and poetic power of classical music. His pedagogical tactics reflect his sense of the endless variety to be found in music itself. “Music, rich, full of feeling, not soulless, is like a crystal on which the sun falls and brings forth from it a whole rainbow,” he wrote. “And everyone may admire it for a different reason; one will enjoy the fact that the crystal has been artfully carved, another will like the red color, still another the green, while the fourth will admire the purple. And he who puts his soul into the crystal is like one who has poured wine into it.” [7]

Further listening:

Chopin: Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat Major, Op. 51 (Performed by Isabel Keleti) https://youtu.be/CXK4oyMl6QQ


[1] Liszt (1863) 82.

[2] Eigeldinger (2010) 10.

[3] Eigeldinger (2010) 13.

[4] Eigeldinger (2010) 12.

[5] Eigeldinger (2010) 142.

[6] Eigeldinger (2010) 195.

[7]Quoted in MacCabe (1984) 214.

Citations

Casarotti, J. (n.d.). Chopin the Teacher. Retrieved December 11, 2020, from https://www.forte-piano-pianissimo.com/Chopin-the-Teacher.html

Eigeldinger, J. (2010). Chopin: Pianist and teacher: As seen by his pupils. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Liszt, F. (1863). Life of Chopin. Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co.

MacCabe, Patricia Chu-Li. The Piano Pedagogy of Frederic Chopin. M.A Thesis, San José State University, 1984.

Isabel Keleti is a Kansas native and NYC-based pianist. She completed a Masters of Music degree in Piano Performance at Mannes School of Music – The New School in New York City under the direction of Dr. Vladimir Valjarević. She received her Bachelors of Music in Piano Performance from KU School of Music studying with former department chair Dr. Jack Winerock. In 2019, she won two international competitions in China: the ROXE MTSY International Music Competition in Xi’an and BIMFA Solo Piano Competition in Beijing. She is also a dedicated teacher, having been awarded a Mannes Teaching Fellowship, and was one of the founding teachers for Pianos Without Borders. You can read more about Isabel on her website.

Published by The Gluecktionary

I like ideas, school, books, and people, not in that order.

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