In last week’s post on ties and repeated notes, I referred to Chopin’s Ocean Etude (more properly known as op. 25 no. 12). A reader contacted me asking if I could offer some practice suggestions for this etude, so here are a few thoughts.
The Cortot Edition
Apart from his most useful exercises for practice, one of the things I really like about Alfred Cortot’s study editions is his commentary, often shedding light on the more poetic aspects of the music. It is so important to keep in mind that while each etude by Chopin is a study in a particular aspect of piano technique, it is also a tone poem. This is where Chopin’s genius lies – raising a technical study to the ranks of great art. Cortot has this to say about the poetic meaning of this etude, as he sees it:
It is said…that Chopin composed this Study, as well as Study No. 12 (Op. 10), in his anguish at hearing the news that Warsaw had fallen into the hands of the Russians. If the legend can certainly add nothing to the intrinsic beauty of these two compositions, it lends them however a particularly pathetic significance. Wounded national pride, grief most sacred, generous outburst of revolt explain perfectly the sublime ardour that sweeps through these pages.
Keeping the meaning of the music in mind while we study the technical difficulties is for me paramount. Thanks to Walter Cosand, I am able to give you the link to his wonderful library of scores. Search through and you will find the pdfs to the full English translations.
Cortot realised the importance of diagnosing the technical problem and came up with an array of exercises that focus on it. Doing the mechanical work on the exercises rather than in passages from the music is a great idea. Then, when you go back to music, it all works so much more easily. I do have one caveat though – many of the exercises operate on the principle that from Cortot’s “etc.” you will continue the pattern he sets out. This might be transposition, but often seems to involve a pair of fingers in ever-increasing stretches, and I find myself constantly warning students only to stretch as far as is completely comfortable and to avoid the sometimes unnatural and potentially damaging extremes of stretch he suggests. Other than that, I find if you use these exercises not only do you learn the piece so much quicker and more thoroughly, but you can transfer the thinking behind them to other pieces.
Some of the etudes are built up from quite simple underlying structures, and the beauty is in how Chopin fleshes these out with figuration, the difficulty often being in the accompaniment. Constantly referring back to the basic skeleton keeps this in perspective. In this etude we play the melodic line implied by the first RH note in each bar (plus other melodic fragments from an implied inner voice where appropriate) together with the bass line. As we play this skeleton, we do it perhaps even faster than the performance speed (in order to feel the phrase structure) with artistic tonal balances and phrase shapings. I give an eight-bar example here, but practise in big sections, or even for the entire study. This is something you can practise and refine before embarking on the technical work for Chopin’s original. I would also suggest you memorise this skeleton:
Next, familiarise yourself with the chord shapes by playing block chords:
When you are ready to open up the chords, there is a variety of different skeletons you can use. Here are two examples:
I invite you to generate more on these lines. Some suggestions include playing one bar plus one beat, imagining the next bar before rejoining the music the bar after that. Then, practise a version where you play what you omitted, and omit what you played in the previous one.
Now playing all the notes, I would suggest practising using two different touches, martellato and leggiero. Practise both ways in tandem, completely evenly. Martellato is done somewhat slowly with an active finger and comes out at a forte or fortissimo level – every note is accented. Slightly raise each finger so it can grasp the key very firmly, consciously switching off effort after each note and constantly checking in with your arms and shoulders (which remain loose at all times). Practise this both legato and staccato. Leggiero can be both slow and fast (do it both ways), and will again be played with an active finger. This time, the finger plucks each key using a finger staccato touch, the fingertip coming in towards the palm of the hand (it feels like a scratching motion). Do this pianissimo with no accents whatever, completely evenly. The arms glide serenely behind the fingers, steering them into position.
Instead of playing the repeated note twice, we change finger at the bottom of the key in the manner of a finger substitution. After doing this a few times experience the repetitions by lifting the key only a fraction, only as much as necessary for the note to sound again. The benefit of this is a real physical legato in the repeated notes making for greater ease, speed and power because you remain in contact with the keyboard.
I use a thumb-over approach in this study – the thumb swings into the key the 5th finger is holding as a result of a forearm rotation (the same feeling the other way round, when changing from 5th to thumb on the way down RH, or on the way up LH). It is very possible for the next finger to catch the key before it has had a chance to come back up to the very top. This keeps us super-connected to the keyboard, avoiding the hiccups that can arise from faulty management of the repeated notes.
In passages with a constant rhythmic note value it can be very helpful to practise changing the metric groupings. Chopin’s pattern lends itself to a grouping of 123,123,12,123,123,12, etc and it can be useful to practise like this, accenting the 1s. Try going through the following routine, making sure the 1s get a strong accent each time. Since there are 16 semiquavers per bar, accents will only fall in the same place in each bar when accenting in groups of 4:
Accent the first note of each group: 1234, 1234, 1234, 1234, etc.
Accent the second note of each group: 4123, 4123, 4123, 4123, etc.
Now the third: 3412, 3412, 3412, 3412, etc.
And the fourth: 2341, 2341, 2341, 2341, etc.
The fun starts when you accent in all permutations of groups of 3, and more so of 5 (12345, 12345, etc.).
I am assuming you will also subject the etude to the usual variety of different rhythms. Use dotted rhythms (both ways round), “TA – ta,ta,ta TA – ta,ta,ta”, etc. (ad libitum et ad nauseam).
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