I have had several requests to talk about the Fantasie-Impromptu of Chopin. It’s one of those evergreen pieces that everyone wants to play!
There is so much to say on practising this piece, so rather than cram it into one long post, I’m going to spread it out over two.
Our first job is to prepare each hand separately, and I’m going to begin with the LH.
Arpeggiated patterns like this cannot be played with any level of skill without the full participation of the arm. There are two ways of choreographing, and I will outline both of these:
- The Spinning Arm. The LH describes an ellipse that moves clockwise, the thumb brushing off its keys, and the pinky coming up and round. Thus the upper part of the ellipse takes in the ascending note patterns, and the lower part the descending ones. For ease of movement, bring the thumb into the palm of the hand as you play each descending pattern, so that there is no stretching and no tension. A common mistake is to bring the arm up before the pinky has played – think of bringing the arm up and round AS the pinky plays, the fifth finger acting as a lever that lifts the arm. The point here is that the arm is in constant motion, bringing the fingers to their respective keys without the need for the fingers to reach or stretch. Even in those places where a physical legato is not possible (the big jump from bar 7 into bar 8, for example), there is still a connection – in the arm! When we disengage the hand from the keyboard at that instant (the last quaver in the bar), we maintain the lower ellipse and thus there is an arm legato if not a finger one.
- The Lateral Wrist. Instead of the circular – or more correctly elliptical – movements in the spinning arm, the arm moves freely from side to side, the wrist extremely loose and flexible.
In both of the above approaches (I personally prefer the first), there is a kind of perpetuum mobile of the arm which, once established, feels like a motor that drives itself effortlessly. Above this, it will prove possible and quite easy to add the RH.
As pianists, we are all familiar with practising running passages in dotted rhythms. It’s just what we do, it’s a resource we draw on almost without thinking. If it is done well, it can be very effective, but it is never the whole story.
There is a wonderful site called Don’t Shoot The Pianist – an archive of very funny cartoons which are really in-jokes for pianists. One of these cartoons, entitled Rhythmic Practice, shows a pianist going through the basic stages from slowly (a quarter of the speed) to using a variety of rhythms for the RH part of Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. What makes it funny, for me, is that this is just the sort of thing you will hear coming out of almost every conservatory practice room window in the world. You could describe this process as a universal recipe for how piano students might tackle their practising of this.
In the first frame, I would advocate doing this at a dynamic level of forte, and with a slightly raised finger. In the subsequent frames, you’ll get more value out of the process if you make the dotted notes double dotted (or the long notes twice as long) – prolong the amount of time you spend on these, then condense the next two (or more) notes so they are as close together rhythmically as is possible. Think of a single acciaccatura or a group of grace notes leading on to a main note. Then, on the next long note, release all effort immediately so that you are loosely holding the key.
A variation on this theme, well worth exploring, is to practise adding accents. Do this firstly on the quaver beats (this gives an accent every other note), then on the crotchet beats, then on the half bars and finally just on the first beats. Make the accents as strong as you can without introducing extraneous arm movements that you’re not going to use in the final product. This is very good for control, for showing the metrical hierarchy of beats. Once you’ve mastered this, it is also great practice to accent in groupings that go against the grain, for added control. You could accent in 3’s, and then in 5s. If life isn’t short enough, try shifting the goalposts, thus:
1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2-3, etc., then 3-1-2 3-1-2 3-1-2, etc., then 2-3-1 2-3-1 2-3-1, and so on…
Next week, I’ll talk about more sophisticated ways to practise the RH, as well as giving some suggestions for putting the piece together.
Further Reading & Resources
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