If you’ve ever wanted to play Chopin on the piano or need some advice for his more difficult works, this article is for you. The first 5 points cover some of the techniques you need to master to play Chopin on the piano, and the second 5 points focus on expression, how to take your playing from being just note correct to a piece of beauty.
Chopin’s work is beloved for its depth of expression that is just built in to the music itself. These five points will help you tap into that and show you how you can begin to interpret the music in your own unique way.
If you have any questions along the way or just want to chat about some Chopin, email me any time at [email protected].
This is a fairly long article, so if you’d prefer it in ebook form, so you can save it for reference, you can get the 10 tips for playing Chopin in your email here:
1. Choose Pieces Around the Right Level for You
This might seem like a obvious one, but the tricky part comes with knowing what level you are as a pianist and what level a piece is.
The goal should be to work on a few pieces at a time: one that you can nail in a couple of weeks, one that will take a month, and one that will likely take longer. You can use level numbers to help you figure that out, but it’s also important to pay attention to the specific skills that you struggle with the most, as that will add learning time onto pieces that have those skills (at least until you get comfortable with them!).
Examples of skills would be fast arpeggios, chromatic scales, homophonic (chordal) playing, large leaps, things like that.
While you can use the many level numbering systems out there to serve as a sort of guide, you do need to also look through a piece and pay attention to the skills you’ll need to play it.
If you haven’t played any scales at all ever, it’s probably not a great idea to play the Etude in A Minor, Op. 25 No. 11, “Winter Wind,” for example. It’s full of fast arpeggios and scales that go up and down the entire length of the piano.
If you’re new to Chopin, Alfred’s has a great book of his easier pieces: Chopin: An Introduction to His Piano Works.
Additionally, you can visit IMSLP.org (free, public domain sheet music—just don’t click on the ads…I’ve had people do that and given their credit card info away…you won’t need to enter any payment info on IMSLP). They have a handy sort by instrument and difficulty level, so here’s that page for piano.
If you type “Chopin” into the search box in the top right, you’ll get a list of the work that’s been categorized by level. Not all of it has been because this is all run by volunteers, but there’s a good portion of his music listed.
What you can see is that the easiest piece listed, the Waltz in A Minor, Op. Posthumous (B. 150), is a level 7 out of 15. It is a solidly intermediate piece.
This waltz is one of the most common first Chopin pieces pianists learn, so if you’re new to piano, just be aware that you’ll need a little more time to adjust to playing before you can efficiently learn some Chopin.
In the Beginner’s Guide to Chopin course coming out in 2022, I recommend these five pieces as good pieces for pianists new to Chopin’s work.
- Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4
- Waltz in A Minor, Op. Posthumous (B. 150)
- Largo in E♭ Major, Op. Posthumous (B. 109)
- Mazurka in G Minor, Op. 67 No. 2
- Mazurka in F Major, Op. 68 No. 3
The Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4 is less technically demanding than the Waltz in A Minor, so I’d recommend that as a late-beginner/early-intermediate piece.
Being able to play this prelude expressively, however, is where the true difficulty lies, but it is a good first Chopin piece that can grow with you.
2. Practice Your Scales
(Chromatic ones too!)
Chopin uses a fair amount of chromaticism (notes outside the given key) in his works, oftentimes with chromatic scales, so being able to just pull these out of your back pocket will make it a lot easier! Same thing with arpeggios!
In just these measures from Nocturne in C♯ Minor, Op. Posthumous, you can see that there a lot of scales moving quickly in odd rhythms. To be successful at playing these figures, you need to have the basic scales comfortable and confident.
Practice using good forearm rotation where involve the entire forearm when you do turnovers.
Turnovers, are my term for “thumb under” or “cross under.” These occur when we have fingerings like 1 2 3 then 1 again, where the thumb must pass the 3 finger. In my past, this was a type of situation where I caused pain and inflammation to the tendons in my wrist.
I had been doing turnovers with my thumb completely folding under my hand without really moving my hand out of the way at all. You can feel the amount of tension that creates just by folding your thumb across your hand and trying to reach the bottom of your pinky (where it meets the palm). I just did it sitting here, and it’s definitely not a great feeling!
To combat this, make use of rotation in the forearm. Rotate your entire forearm, including your hand, away from your thumb, so the thumb has room to travel beyond whatever other finger (usually 3 or 4) it’s moving beyond. This decreases tension and makes your scales quicker at the same time.
Here’s more of a break down of the motion:
Rotating your right forearm toward your pinky will cause your entire hand to turn onto its side, so the knuckles are almost perpendicular to the key bed. Practice just sitting your hand on the pinky side for a moment.
Do you see how much space your thumb has to move up and down?
Now, going back to normal, press your 3 finger down on a key. Turn your forearm toward your pinky while keeping that 3 finger down, just using the weight of your arm. See how much easier it is to use your thumb to press the key that’s to the right of your 3?
You can press both at the same time without much effort, and you get to have much more control over expressive features like articulation and dynamics (volume).
There are traditionally standard fingerings for scales that can help ensure your technique is solid. Piano Patterns: Fingerings for Scales, Chords, and Arpeggios includes all of these fingerings and the reasons why they’re the standard, so you can adjust them to your hand.
3. How to Practice Jumps to Play Chopin on the Piano
Chopin wrote a lot of social dance music, most famously Mazurkas and Waltzes. Both of these dance types feature an “oom-pa” in the left hand, also called “stride piano.”
This is where the left hand plays a low bass note then jumps up an octave or more to play a chord in the inner voice.
You can master these by playing them slowly and without looking. A teacher of mine suggested playing as if I were blind. Feel where the groups of 2 and 3 black keys are and orient myself according to those.
It is incredibly difficult at first because we are so used to relying on our eyes, but oftentimes when playing Chopin you’ll need to be looking more at the right hand for some difficult passages, and the left hand is meant to just carry on.
The more you practice this difficult exercise, the easier and faster it’ll become.
4. How to Play Big Chords
Chopin’s no Rachmaninoff, but if you have a small span like me, any octave work will fatigue your hands quickly. If you don’t stay loose, you risk tendonitis and other stress-injury problems.
To combat this (and to just make all of the chords flow together better), practice playing one chord at a time and bringing your finger tips together in between each chord. It should look like you’re pantomiming a squid or octopus swimming.
By doing this, you practice the sensation of relaxing between each large chord. When you speed it up later, you’ll subconsciously stay loose.
The other part of this is to sink into the keys, in the same way you’d sink your hands into dough if you’re baking. Use the weight of your arms and gravity to do most of the work, so you’re not pushing and creating more tension.
Not only will this promote relaxation (to prevent injury), it will also give you much more depth to your tone.
My favorite chords to practice this sinking technique are in the lower end of the piano. There’s so much resonance from those lower tones. When I sink into those chords, I can actually feel the soundwaves in my body: my fingertips, my arm, even through the floor into my feet.
5. Counting Polyrhythms in Chopin’s Piano Music
Chopin’s music is marked by polyrhythms (two sets of rhythms that sound at the same time but don’t divide neatly into each other). These are part of what give his music a whimsical but complex sound.
To get comfortable with them, look at where the notes from one rhythm line up with the other.
If it’s a simpler ratio, like 3 against 4, you can count these, and people often use phrases like, “Pass the golden butter” or “Eat your goddamn spinach” where the bold syllables are the 3 and italicized are the 4. For these examples, the first note of the 3 and the 4 rhythm line up together:
But, Chopin’s polyrhythms are often much more complex than that with ratios like 35 against 4:
Just like you could see where the 3 against 4 polyrhythm align, you can also do this just using the sheet music to see where they line up.
Music notation was designed to visually show us notes in time in relation to notes that happen at other times, which means this is a fairly reliable metric.
For this 35 against 4 example, then, you can see that they also start at the same time, so you’d press the bass C♯ and the treble A at the same time. Then, look to see how many of the 35 rhythm fit within that bass C♯ time span.
Visually, you can see that the 8va B actually lines up with the next bass note: the F♯, so that means that all the notes that go before that should be played before you press that bass F♯ down.
That is 8 notes.
Since 8 x 4 is not 35, you can see that this isn’t going to work for every single note, but the editor of this edition (and most of the editions) created a strategy for the performer that also inherently makes this figure more expressive.
When you look at the next 2 bass notes compared with the next treble notes, you’ll see that the F♯ is paired with 9 treble notes and the D♯ with 9 as well. But these don’t quite line up as clearly as the first one. The D♯ in the bass happens slightly after the high F♯ in the treble, and the following C♯ in the bass happens even more clearly between two treble notes.
Luckily, you don’t need to count them.
One helpful practice tool is to mark on the treble line where the bass notes happen in time in relation to the treble notes.
Then, practice out of time, just getting the notes in the right order. You’ll want to do this until you can play it fairly quickly, and then you can introduce the metronome. When you use the metronome, focus only on aligning the bass line.
Because you practiced playing the treble in relation to that bass line, it should flow fairly easily (as long as you don’t start too quickly!). If it doesn’t, keep going back and forth between practicing out of time and in time.
The interesting part about the notation that inherently helps performers be more expressive is that it starts with 8 treble notes aligning with 1 bass note. Then it adds more treble notes to bass notes, which means that the treble notes are moving faster. This is expressive because in long runs like this, you want to ease your listeners into the virtuosic figure. Starting slow and then building up speed is a natural phenomenon in every area of life, so doing so in these figures will make your playing sound and feel much more organic.
6. Play with Rubato in Chopin’s Music
(But not too much)
Chopin’s work falls into the Romantic era of music in the classical canon, which means the rhythm and meter is not meant to be as strict as J.S. Bach or Mozart. Instead, the performer (you!) should breathe in between phrases, take time towards the end of phrases, hold long notes out longer if it feels right to you.
Rubato in Italian means “robbed time.” That means while you are free to take time in some places, you should make up that time elsewhere. If you held a long note out longer, make it up by playing the next notes a little faster. In doing so, you create this ebb and flow effect that is characteristic of Chopin’s music.
But you also don’t want to fall into the trap of completely ignoring the rhythm and meter completely. Chopin, himself, is recorded in history as wishing his music to be played without a ton of rubato. Find a happy medium, listen to some masters like Artur Rubinstein, and do what feels right for the context of the piece. This also ties into the next point.
7. Notice Where Phrases Begin and End
Do you know what a cadence is? Do you know how to identify phrases and sub-phrases in music?
If you’re not sure, you can use the slur lines in the sheet music to guide you to where phrase ends are. Generally, in Chopin’s music (and many other composers’ music!), we slow down or ritardando as we approach the ends of phrases. In Chopin’s music you’ll often even see crescendo and decrescendo in every phrase, showing that the middle of the phrase should be loudest, so we both slow down and quiet down at the end of every phrase.
Additionally, physically breathing (like you, yourself taking a breath), between each phrase as if you’re going to sing the next phrase makes it more lyrical and expressive. Really lean into those pauses in between phrases.
If you want to really dig into phrases and sub-phrases and the way they function to create senses of beginning and ending, William Caplin’s Classical Form is a great resource. Even though this resource does focus on the works of Mozart and Beethoven, many of the elements carried on through the Romantic era and beyond.
8. Be Strict About Expressive Markings When You Play Chopin on the Piano
Especially dynamics. Observe every crescendo and decrescendo, every forte and piano.
Chopin often repeats phrases where the first iteration is loud, and then the second acts as an echo. It can feel expressively powerful but only when you really observe that contrast between the volume of the first and the second iteration of the phrase.
Expressive markings also include words like sotto voce, which means “under the voice” or to play like you’re whispering; subito, meaning “suddenly” so playing a dramatic shift in speed or volume; and stretto.
Stretto comes from fugal work and refers to passages where the theme enters in every instrument or voice in rapid succession and creates a sense of building up toward the end. In non-fugal work, it is often used for passages that are meant to be played faster and with this sense of building up towards the end of the piece.
This example from the Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55 No. 1 is marked “molto legato e stretto.” Chopin is giving the performer multiple directions here, “Very smooth and building up.”
He must have thought it was important to make sure the performer was reminded to play all the notes smooth and connected when they begin the stretto section because it might be easy to create that building up sensation by playing the notes more detached from each other.
Also note articulation like staccato (short and detached), as Chopin uses those deliberately as well.
Overall, if you play the piece exactly as written without any added rubato or expressiveness on your part, it will inherently sound stunning and expressive because Chopin was detailed in the way he wrote out his compositions.
If you’re still semi-new to reading sheet music or need a refresher, How to Read Sheet Music is a free course that will teach you everything you need to know about these expressive markings (and reading sheet music in general)
9. Pay Attention to the Middle Voices
Even though Chopin’s piano works weren’t written for four voices, music theorists often refer to melodies or chords that occur in the top part of the bass staff as the “tenor voice.”
The reason why it’s important to pay attention to the inner voices (alto too, but still mostly tenor) is that Chopin often has the tenor voicing singing in counterpoint against a melody in the soprano line (melodies that occur in the top part of what the right hand is playing).
This could be look like the tenor line holding out a note while the soprano moves, which is called “oblique motion.” The tenor might also move in the opposite direction as the soprano (contrasting motion) or in the same direction and creating parallel intervals, like parallel 6ths (parallel motion).
Some examples include Chopin: Waltz in A♭ Major, “Farewell Waltz,” Op. 69 No. 1:
In this example, the tenor keeps playing a B♭, which creates oblique motion between the tenor and the soprano. While you don’t want to emphasize that note, you also don’t want it to get lost in the mix. Make sure that it’s loud enough to be heard, sounds like its own independent singer, and that it also isn’t louder than the other parts.
Chopin: Mazurka in F Major, Op. 68 No. 3:
You can see the tenor moving in contrary motion to the melody in the right hand. They’re moving towards each other, which is opposite directions (opposite meaning either towards or away from each other).
And a little tougher to see is in Chopin: Nocturne in D♭ Major, Op. 27 No. 2:
Here, the tenor voice blends in with the rest of what’s going on in the left hand, but with higher notes of the left hand circled, you can see that it’s actually echoing the melody.
If you want to practice playing two distinct melodies against each other, J.S. Bach’s Two-Part Inventions are a great place to start. Numbers 1 and 4 are some of the easier ones!
Additional knowledge hat will help you with chord voicings is to understand what chords are and how they’re built. How to Build Chords is the perfect resource for learning this!
10. Listen to Some Opera
Chopin was a huge fan of the opera, particularly the bel canto style of singing, and you can hear it in his melodies.
Many of them include large leaps (like octaves), meant to evoke the sense of a singer fighting across their passagio.
Passagios are the in-between registers part of the voice, and singing from one register to the next without losing volume, resonance, and overall tonal quality is difficult.
Chopin evokes the vulnerability it takes to sing melodies like that. To capture that in your playing, listen to some opera. Listen to how the singers artfully move from low to high.
From a technical standpoint, they usually place a very subtle break, stop, or “h” in between each note, so they don’t slide between them, so there is a brief pause in between the two notes.
Adding in that subtle pause between leaps up in the melody can give your playing a more organic, lyrical quality.
To make it feel more natural to you as the player, listen to some opera. Some good opera composers Chopin would have heard include Mozart and Rossini.
I hope you learned a lot about Chopin in this book!
You could definitely spend a lifetime learning about Chopin and his lifetime. There’s so much depth to his story and to his music.
Chopin’s music in particular gives me that paradoxical sense of feeling deep, human connection, even when I’m alone in the practice room. I’m not sure who precisely I feel more connected to—Chopin, people in my life, all of humanity, or maybe all of these—but there’s something so vulnerable and so human about his work.
If you’d like to dig a little deeper into technique and interpretation for some of his easier works, check out A Guide to Playing 5 of Chopin’s Easy Pieces for Piano course at Girl in Blue Music.
Otherwise, keep playing Chopin as expressively as you can.
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Hi, I’m Amy!
I’m a 2nd-year PhD studying Music Theory & Cognition.
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