Learning to Play Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor by Chopin
I’ve been teaching myself to play Chopin’s Nocturne No.20 in C# Minor for the past few weeks and I’ve just about mastered the first section which corresponds to the first page of the Schirmer edition of preludes, nocturnes and waltzes. I had piano lessons from the ages of 10 to 17, but I never really learnt how to practice properly. I always thought that music practice for both violin and piano involved playing through my pieces, studies and scales for an hour or so, start to finish. I rarely pulled my pieces apart bar by bar, didn’t really warm up before practising, and gave up each practice session as soon as I got frustrated. Learning how to practice piano – and violin – properly as an adult has been an interesting experience.
I wish that more of my formal music tuition had focused on how to practice effectively, because it’s impossible to really master a piece or progress beyond the basics if you don’t know how to practice. I have taught myself how to practice as an adult by reading lots of blog posts, watching lots of YouTube videos and following lots of conservatoire level musicians on Instagram as they share their own practice videos.
With this newfound knowledge I have discovered that learning a new piece starts with reading the score, away from the instrument. For the Nocturne in C# Minor I listened to a few recordings to really get a feel for the tempo and mood of the piece, and followed the score as I listened. This helped me work out which sections would be particularly tricky, and what skills I would need to master in order to play it. In particular, I noted the chords at the beginning which need to be both smooth and quiet. The melody needs to sing over the top of the left hand accompaniment, and then there’s the question of the trills – which need to be even without being heavy handed. Then there’s the section with triplet and quintuplet quavers and semi-quavers over steady quavers. That’s quite a lot to focus on, and there was no way that I was going to be able to tackle it simply by playing the piece through start to finish like teenaged me would have done.
I started learning this piece by playing scales and arpeggios in C# minor to get my hands warmed up and my ear accustomed to the key, and then played through the opening chords with a pencil to hand to work out the best fingerings. It’s really important that the notes fall naturally under the hands, and so this is a step that I put a lot of time and thought into early on.
Each time I sit down to practice the piano I start with scales and arpeggios to warm up, and then take the piece bar by bar, section by section, playing hands together as much as possible but also breaking it down to separate hands if I need to. I practice slowly and methodically, drilling one or two bars at a time until it feels effortless. I keep a pencil to hand so that I can mark fingering changes but try not to over annotate my music like I used to do as a teenager. To keep my trills even I drill slowly, building speed as I go, and focus closely on my contact point with the keys. It’s easier – for me at least – to trill with the 2nd and 3rd fingers rather than the 4th and 5th. This is probably quite common. I have worked out fingerings that work for me so that my hands fall in the right place for the trills.
I estimate that I have put about four hours into learning and then consolidating the single bar that includes four sets of triplets and one set of quadruplets in the right hand over steady quavers in the left hand. It sounds so effortless and it’s such a short section, but I needed to work out the fingering pattern for the descending scale, drill the pattern into my fingers to build muscle memory so that I can play it at any tempo with my eyes closed, and then work on the cross rhythm. This blog post from 2011 by the Cross Eyed Pianist helped immensely.
Three weeks in I am pretty pleased with my progress so far. I never thought I could play a Chopin Nocturne, but that was based on how I used to practice. I can now understand how good students and professionals can perform without a score in front of them. Drilling the piece and learning it methodically results in you knowing the piece so well that you simply don’t need it.
18th August 2020 // Edited to add
I finished learning this piece in June and can now play it from memory at any tempo, so I feel that it’s pretty secure. Now for the lifetime of polishing it to make it sound musical and not just technically perfect. It is the most challenging piece that I have learned – to date – but working through it bar by bar gave me a much needed confidence boost. The hardest parts for me were the cross rhythms, and the fast run on the last page. I had to take these really slowly and put a lot of work in to get my mind and fingers around the tricky rhythms, but I got there in the end. If you are reading this and are struggling with the cross rhythms too, my tip is that you break it down to groups of notes within each bar, and get used to those before you try to play the whole bar. It’s like a puzzle, but once it clicks you’ll find it falls quite neatly under your hands and you don’t need to think about it too hard. I am now working on the E minor nocturne, and finding that it is less intimidating now that I have some experience with cross rhythms from another of Chopin’s nocturnes.