They called it “les leçons orageuses” – “Stormy Lessons” at the home of one of the most demanding – and in-demand - piano teachers in Paris: Monsieur Chopin. Known for “irritably snapping pencils into bits” as his charges struggled at the keyboard . Fit to bursts of rage and belittlement: Once, explaining his concept of rhythm to a student, Chopin blew on a candle. As it flickered he explained: “That is MY rubato.” He then blew OUT the candle and declared: that is YOURs.”
But Chopin, by all accounts, was also a dedicated teacher. When his health permitted he spent four to five hours per day with students. One student recalled, “A holy artistic zeal burnt in him” – single lessons could last hours at a stretch.” Another claimed: “Only Chopin’s pupils knew him the pianist in the fullness of his unrivalled height.”
So what did Chopin’s students learn? Usually they began with scales. Only Chopin started in B – and not C major. Better for the fingers, he explained. Chopin also had innovative suggestions for how to use the thumbs. He Encouraged his students to study singing and attend the opera to understand ornaments and trills. As for music: Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Studies by Johann Baptist Cramer. Lots of Clementi. A little Hummel. Maybe even some Beethoven….but Mozart was off limits.
And if the student showed exceptional promise…perhaps some Chopin. Etudes. Nocturnes. Preludes. And why not? As pianist and author Abram Chasins noted in his book Speaking of Pianists, “Great interpretive dangers lies in every bar of Chopin’s music. In matters of phrasing, touch, tone, pedaling, and dynamic relationship, it is treacherous terrain.” Who better to show the way than the renowned Polish professor of the piano? - Jennifer Foster & Benjamin K. Roe