[1.II.25.3] Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66

This example was selected because (1) everyone likes this composition, (2) without good learning methods it can seem impossible to learn, (3) the exhilaration of suddenly being able to play it is unmatched, (4) the challenges of the piece are ideal for illustration purposes, and (5) this is the kind of piece that you will be working on all your life in order to do "incredible things" with it, so you might as well start now! Most students who have difficulty do so because they can't get started and the initial hurdle produces a mental block that makes them doubt their ability to play this piece. There is no better demonstration of the efficacy of the methods of this book than demonstrating how to learn this composition. However, because this piece is reasonably difficult, you should read section III before learning it.

You will need about 2 yrs of piano lessons before you can start learning this piece. For easier pieces, see the above Moonlight and Rondo, and section III.6.12.1 (Bach's Inventions). Make sure you figure out the key before you start. Hint: after the G# "announcement", it starts with C# in bar 3 and the composition ends with C#, and the Largo starts with Db (same note as C#!); but is each in a major or minor key? The large number of sharps and flats, as in this composition, often worries beginners; however, the black keys are easier to play than the white keys once you know the flat finger positions (see section III.4.2) and TO (Thumb Over method, see section III.5). Chopin may have chosen these "far out" keys for this reason, because the scale does not matter in the Equal Temperament that he used (see Chapter 2 for Temperaments).

We start by reviewing the preliminary work with HS practice and mental play. Therefore you should practice HT with the objective of attaining very accurate synchronization of the two hands. Although the last page might be most difficult, we will break the rule about starting at the end and start at the beginning because this piece is difficult to start correctly but, once started, it takes care of itself. You need a strong, confident beginning. So we will start with the first two pages, up to the slow cantabile part. The LH stretch and continuous workout makes endurance (ie, relaxation) a major issue. Those without sufficient experience and especially those with smaller hands, may need to work on the LH for weeks before it becomes satisfactory. Fortunately, the LH is not that fast, so speed is not a limiting factor and most students should be able to play the LH faster HS than final speed in less than two weeks, completely relaxed, without fatigue.

For bar 5 where the RH first comes in, the suggested LH fingering is 532124542123. You might start by practicing bar 5, LH, by cycling it continually until you can play it well. You should stretch the palm, not the fingers, which can lead to stress and injury. See section III.7.5 for how to stretch your palm.

Practice without the pedal. Practice in small segments. Suggested segments are: bars 1-4, 5-6, 1st half of 7, 2nd half of 7, 8, 10 (skip 9 which is the same as 5), 11, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20, 21-22, 30-32, 33-34, then 2 chords in 35. If you cannot reach the 2nd chord, play it as a very fast ascending broken chord, with emphasis on the top note. After each segment is memorized and satisfactory, connect them in pairs. Then play the whole LH from memory by starting from the beginning and adding segments. Bring it up to final speed and check your mental play.

When you can play this entire section (LH only) twice in succession, relaxed, without feeling tired, you have the necessary endurance. At this point, it is a lot of fun to go much faster than final speed. In preparation for HT work, get up to about 1.5 times final speed. Raise the wrist slightly when playing the pinky and lower it as you approach the thumb. By raising the wrist, you will find that you can put more power into the pinky, and by lowering the wrist you avoid missing the thumb note. In Chopin's music, the pinky and thumb (but especially the pinky) notes are most important, so practice playing these two fingers with authority. The Cartwheel method, explained in section III.5, may be useful here.

When you are satisfied with it, insert the pedal; basically, the pedal should be cut with every chord change which generally occurs either once every bar or twice every bar. The pedal is a rapid up and down ("cutting the sound") motion at the first beat, but you can lift the pedal earlier for special effects. For the wide LH stretch in the second half of bar 14 (starting with E2), the fingering is 532124 if you can reach it comfortably. If not, use 521214.

At the same time, you should have been practicing the RH, switching hands as soon as the working hand feels slightly tired. The routines are almost identical to those for the LH, including practicing without the pedal. Start by splitting bar 5 into two halves and learn each half separately up to speed, and then join them. For the rising arpeggio in bar 7, use the thumb over method because it is too fast to be played thumb under. The fingering should be such that both hands tend to play the pinky or thumb at the same time; this makes it easier to play HT. This is why it is not a good idea to fool around with the fingerings of the LH -- use the fingerings as marked on the score.

Now practice HT. You can start with either the first or second half of bar 5 where the RH comes in for the first time. The second half is probably easier because of the smaller stretch of the LH and there is no timing problem with the missing first note in the RH (for the first half), so let's start with the second half. The easiest way to learn the 3,4 timing is to do it at speed from the beginning. Don't try to slow down and figure out where each note should go, because too much of that will introduce an unevenness in your playing that may become impossible to correct later on. Here we use the "cycling" method -- see "Cycling" in section III.2. First, cycle the six notes of the LH continually, without stopping. Then switch hands and do the same for the eight notes of the RH, at the same (final) tempo as you did for the LH. Next cycle only the LH several times, and then let the RH join in. Initially, you only need to match the first notes accurately; don't worry if the others aren't quite right. In a few tries, you should be able to play HT fairly well. If not, stop and start all over again, cycling HS. Since almost the whole composition is made up of things like the segment you just practiced, it pays to practice this well, until you are very comfortable. To accomplish this, change the speed. Go very fast, then very slow. As you slow down, you will be able to take notice of where all the notes fit with respect to each other. You will find that fast is not necessarily difficult, and slower is not always easier. The 3,4 timing is a mathematical device Chopin used to produce the illusion of hyper-speed in this piece. The mathematical explanations and additional salient points of this composition are further discussed under "Cycling" in Section III.2. You will probably practice this composition HS for years after you initially complete the piece because it is so much fun to experiment with this fascinating composition. Now add the pedal. This is when you should develop the habit of accurately pumping the pedal.

If you are satisfied with the second half of bar 5, repeat the same procedure for the first half. Then assemble the two halves together. One disadvantage of the HS-HT approach is that practically all technique acquisition is accomplished HS, possibly resulting in poorly synchronized HT play. You now have most the tools to learn the rest of this composition by yourself!

The cantabile section is just the same thing repeated four times with increasing complexity. Therefore, learn (and memorize) the first repetition first because it is the easiest, then learn the 4th repetition because it is the most difficult. Normally, we should learn the most difficult part first but, in this case, starting with the 4th repetition may take too long for some students, and learning the easiest repetition first can make it much easier to learn the 4th repetition because they are similar. As with many Chopin pieces, memorizing the LH well is the quickest way to build a firm foundation for memorizing because the LH usually has a simpler structure that is easier to analyze, memorize and play. Moreover, Chopin often created different versions of the RH for each repetition while using essentially the same notes in the LH as he did in this case (same chord progressions); therefore, after you learn the first repetition, you already know most of the LH part of the 4th repetition, enabling you to learn this last repetition quickly.

The trill in the 1st bar of the 4th repetition, combined with the 2,3 timing, makes the 2nd half of this bar difficult. Since there are 4 repetitions, you might play it without the trill in the first repetition, then an inverted mordent the 2nd, a short trill the 3rd, and a longer trill the last time around.

The third section (Presto!) is similar to the first section, so if you managed to learn the first section, you are almost home free. However, this time, it is faster than the first time (Allegro) – Chopin apparently wants you to play this at two different speeds, possibly because he saw that they can sound quite different when you change the speed; why should it sound different, and in what way? -- the physics and psychology of this speed change is discussed in section III.2. Note that in the final 20 bars or so, the RH pinky and thumb carry notes of major thematic value, all the way to the end. This section may require a lot of HS practice with the RH.

If you play any composition at full speed (or faster) too often, you may suffer what I call "fast play degradation" (FPD). The following day, you might find that you can't play it as well any more, or during practice, you can't make any progress. This happens mostly with HT play. HS play is more immune to FPD and can in fact be used to correct it. FPD occurs probably because the human playing mechanism (hands, brain, etc) gets confused at such speeds, and therefore occurs only for complex procedures such as HT play of conceptually or technically difficult pieces. Easy pieces do not suffer FPD. FPD can create enormous problems with complex music like Bach's or Mozart's compositions. Students who try to speed them up HT can run into all sorts of problems and the standard solution had been to simply keep practicing slowly. However, there is a neat solution to this problem -- use HS practice! And remember that whenever you play fast, you will generally suffer FPD if you do not play slowly at least once before quitting. Also, FPD can be an indication that your mental play may not be solid or up to speed.