Over the past couple of weeks I have had a few requests for advice on how to handle the flurries of little notes we find in the music of Chopin. I am republishing a post I wrote back in 2013 – I hope it helps!
When you’ve been teaching the piano for as long as I have, there are certain problems that are universal. It might be a particular spot in a particular piece that will always need to be brought up, or it might be a concept – such as how to manage the fioratura in the music of Chopin. Before we go any further, let me explain what this term means. Taken from “fior”, which means “flower” in Italian, fioratura refers to the flowery, embellished vocal line within an aria. Chopin was a diehard fan of the bel canto tradition, and we find its influence throughout his music.
Some of these passages look extremely scary, for example the coda of the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne:
The first thing to realise here is that Chopin did not intend the notation of his fiorature to be mathematically precise. The whole point is for them to sound free, improvisatory and personal. In my lessons with Ann Schein on Chopin’s Second Concerto, I was instructed to start the fiorature fast and take time at the end of the groups. Since Ann was one of only two students of Artur Rubinstein – no slouch when it came to the interpretation of Chopin – this has always been good enough for me. Because the notation is free, I feel we should retain a sense of freedom and even whimsy about how we play our fiorature, being unconstrained by the mathematics of them. My only strict rule is that the LH should be in time, and my guiding principle that the two hands be completely independent of each other.
All well and good, I hear you say, but how do we actually play the things? The whole point of this blog is to be practical, so here are some practice suggestions that I guarantee will make your fiorature easier to cope with.
The first way I would suggest is cold calculation. Take the number of fast RH notes and divide them by the number of LH notes, in order to coincide the two hands at strategic points. Thus in our C sharp minor Nocturne example, there are 4 LH notes and 18 notes in the first RH group – 4 goes into 18 4 times with 2 left over. The way to deal with this at the piano is to practise all permutations of groupings one after the other. In the examples below, the RH coincides with the next LH note on each 1:
3 groups of 4 notes and 1 group of 6 notes
- 1 234 – 1 234 – 1 234 – 1 23456 – 1, and then
- 1 234 – 1 234 – 1 23456 – 1 234 – 1, and then
- 1 234 – 1 23456 – 1 234 – 1 234 – 1, and then
- 1 23456 – 1 234 – 1 234 – 1 234 – 1
2 groups of 4 notes and 2 groups of 5 notes
- 1 234 – 1 234 – 1 2345 – 1 2345 – 1, and then
- 1 2345 – 1 2345 – 1 234 – 1 234 – 1, and then
- 1 234 – 1 2345 – 1 2345 – 1 234 – 1, and then
- 1 234 – 1 2345 – 1 2345 – 1 234 – 1, and then
- 1 2345 – 1 234 – 1 234 – 1 2345 – 1
If you practise moving from one permutation to the next as soon as you have got it right, you won’t have a chance to ingrain it. By the end of this process you will have practised nine variants each one subtly different. Thereafter, you will be in a better position to feel what comes naturally – now play without worrying about which note coincides with which other. It is a good plan to repeat this process daily for a few days, after which you shouldn’t need it any longer. Do it slowly to start with, aiming for precision at speed. The paradox here is that 9 precise versions will lead to 1 imprecise (yet correct!) version.
Do not panic at the next group, consisting of 35 notes to be played in the time of half a bar. The tempo will have relaxed here, and even though the LH quavers will be in time with each other there need be no feeling of hurry. The groupings for this will be 3 groups of 9 and 1 group of 8, I’ll leave you to work out the rest.
But how about when things don’t divide so neatly, such as this example from the B flat minor Nocturne, where we have 11 against 6?
A good way to do this is to insert a triplet group that floats from one place to the next. Here are the steps:
Using the Metronome
You can modify a process I use for practising cross rhythms. Here it is for the B flat minor Nocturne example:
- Set the metronome to pulse in dotted minims (i.e. half a bar).
- Starting on the second beat of bar 2, play each hand by itself in alternation, stopping on the next downbeat (over the barline). This means play the RH once, then the LH, RH again, LH again, and so on. Do this without stopping, literally without skipping a beat (on one beat the RH plays, on the next beat the LH, etc.).
- After several repetitions, without thinking too much, attempt to play the hands together (it is important not to stop beforehand – keep with the metronome!). The chances are you will be unsuccessful on your first attempt, but start the process again with the separate-hand alternations and when you feel ready try again hands together.
- Eventually, after many attempts, you will coordinate and you will be able to play it successfully. This may not happen the first day, but persist and eventually, I promise, you will be able to do it without thinking. It’s a bit like learning to ride a bicycle.