Chopin Etudes and Piano Technique

In the early 1800’s, Chopin was a new a freer pianist, free from the conventional discipline of stiff bodily action. His music was entirely new, demanding novel forms of hand coordination. Schumann declared him a musical genius. At only nineteen, Chopin announced the creation of his Etudes. Said the pianist, “I have written a big technical exercise in my own special manner.” These would soon be known as his Twenty-four Etudes, Opp. 10 and 25 (see below).

When Chopin’s Etudes were first composed, they offered severe stumbling blocks to older players of his day. One contemporary critic advised, “Those who have distorted fingers may put them right by practicing these studies; but those who have not should not play them, at least not without having a surgeon at hand.” But the Chopin Etudes came to rule the world of piano playing, forming an encyclopedic methodology, a summary of Chopin’s enlarged vision of piano technique.

Chopin’s Etudes provide the equipment for the rest of Chopin’s almost invariably difficult music, and give the key to music that followed Chopin. The Chopin Etudes are the most important pieces in the genre and formed the basis for all future concert etudes. Merely one set of his piano etudes contain all the Clementi, Cramer, Czerny, Berger, Moscheles, Hummel, Steibelt, and others were striving for technically. They are challenging to every generation of pianists, and few feel equally comfortable in all. They demand an enormous endurance, while musically they are as exposed as Mozartian keyboard sheet music.

Chopin’s influence pianistically and harmonically spans two centuries from Liszt to Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, to Debussy, Granados, and Szymanowsky. Anton Rubinstein called him “the Piano Bard, the Piano Rhapsodist, the Piano Mind, and the Piano Soul,” declaring that “whether the spirit of the instrument breathed upon him, I do not know . . . but all possible expressions are found in his compositions, and are all sung by him upon this instrument.”

Following is a quick review of several etudes:

  1. Op. 10, No. 1 in C major: Arpeggios based on wide extension.

  2. Op. 10, No. 2 in A minor: The study is an expansion of chromatic scale passages for the third, fourth and fifth fingers of the right hand, with chords in the right hand for the first and second fingers.

  3. Op. 10, No. 7 in C major: A toccata requiring strong fingers for quick changing on the same note with the first finger and thumb of the right hand.

  4. Op. 10, No. 9 in F minor: A left-hand figure of wide extensions, needing endurance and a developed rotational freedom in the forearm; its right hand melody is feverish.

  5. Op. 25, No. 5 in E minor: This study demands variations of touch including trills in both hands at the highest of pianistic imagination.

  6. Op. 25, No. 6 in G-sharp minor: The piece is known as the most hazardous study in thirds in the literature of piano.

  7. Op. 25, No. 9 in G-flat major: Good wrist octaves and endurance are necessary for the projection of this devilish study.

  8. Op. 25, No 10 in B minor: A fierce study in legato octaves in both hands. It is fearsome in its demand for endurance and can tax a small hand.

Pianists will benefit from listening to recorded Chopin and public performance to gain a feel for this tremendous composer. Arthur Rubinstein's recordings of Chopin are recommended for listening to great interpretations of this Romantic composer. When learning to play Chopin etudes:

  • Begin slowly and study the fingering of the notes and chords. Learn one section well, then continue to the next section, until you have mastered the second section as well. Continue to learn the etude in this manner, until you have mastered the entire piece.
  • Then, begin to increase your momentum gradually to the recommended tempo.
  • Use a metronome to help keep discipline your fingers.
  • Make sure not to slur your phrasing and play each note individually and distinctly.