Chopin’s evergreen First Ballade has never been more popular, thanks in part to Alan Rusbridger’s book about his personal quest with the piece, Play It Again. It is a piece that most aspiring young pianists yearn to play (often before they are ready for it) and you’ll hear it coming out of conservatory practice room doors the world over. Given the exposure of the piece, it is easy to forget that it presents formidable challenges for all who choose to play it, amateur and professional alike. I thought I would offer some occasional suggestions for practice, starting with a small section that seems to trip a lot of players up.

Let’s look at the section beginning in bar 138, a waltz if ever there was one (compare this with Chopin’s Waltz in A flat, op. 34, no. 1):

IMG_0196

I am sure many players give a lot of attention to the RH here, and yet without a beautifully crafted LH this passage is doomed to fall off the rails. The filigree passagework of the RH is only going to work if the LH can provide a buoyant, rhythmical underpinning – think of the RH as the dancer and the LH as the orchestra. Make sure you can play the LH by itself fluently, up to speed and beautifully shaped. Listen to the second slurred crotchet, making sure it is softer than the first; enjoy the dissonance between the A flat and the A natural in the second beat.

Of the many editions available in The Petrucci Library, only a few include LH fingering for this passage and in his excellent study edition (available in Petrucci in French), Alfred Cortot gives but one practice suggestion here. Cortot’s perverse fingering for the LH is to use the 3rd finger for the staccato crotchet basses (on the main beats). I’ve tried it and frankly don’t like it – it makes the jumps bigger and there is no reason at all to avoid the obvious 5th finger.

Here are some suggestions for practice:

1. Use the main beat basses as springboards to the next event. Make sure you land freely, accurately and squarely on the chord. It is a good plan to include the second of the slurred crotchets if your ear can handle the scrunch, as this makes the complete hand position:

chopin 1

2. Use the second of the slurred crotchets as a springboard back to the bass, thus completing the circuit:

chopin 2

3. Experiment with a few rhythmic variants. Each one of the following examples gives a slightly different experience of the passage, allowing more focus on the elongated notes. Generate more, and use those that help you most:

chopin 3

 

4. Land on a selected note (or notes) of the chord and then fill in the remainder:

chopin 4

chopin 5

 

5. These two patterns will also help to fix the notes, and add variety during repetition:

chopin 6

When you practise the RH by itself, try adding just the basses on the main beats (the oom minus the pah-pah). Next, miss out the oom and just play the slurred figure (the harmony with its sighing appoggiatura). The idea of continuing with the complete RH and a skeleton LH is an excellent one.

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