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Topic: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...  (Read 1797 times)

Offline pianowhisper

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Hello everyone, I hope you are all doing well.
It's been a while since I last posted but I thought I'd pop by to ask for some advice, if anyone has any. I have no piano teacher, and I am not a professional player whatsoever.

My repertoire over the years consisted mostly of Beethoven, Debussy, and some Chopin. Some of the pieces I have learnt (although some would probably need rework on muscle memory and/or relearn... years away from the piano caused some forgetting):
  • Beethoven's Op.2/1, Op.7, Op.10/1, Op.13, Op.27/2, Op.31/2, Op.57, some movements of Op.2/3, Op.28, Op.53, Op.90... etc.
  • Debussy's Suite Bergamasque, 2 Arabesques, quite a few of his Préludes (around 10 I'd say), and some of Children's Corner.
  • Chopin: Valses Op.34/1, Op.64/1+2, Op.69/1+2. Nocturnes Op.15/3, Op.37/1. Some of his easier Préludes Op.28 (#3, 4, 5, 20). Also the Étude Op.10/4, but I could play it at a speed not higher than 140-ish bpm.
  • Some other miscellaneous pieces... Notably, Rach Étude Op.39/6 (the struggles...) but it was sloppy at some passages. I also got into ragtime music at some point (Joplin and William Bolcom).
Now, on the Chopin Ballade...
I have tackled this piece on and off over a few years in the past, studying the score, practicing some passages, and slowly becoming acquainted with it. I know very well of its reputation. Based off the repertoire above, I've humbly considered that I had at least some hope and could give it a few tries — but I've always kept my expectations low and I acknowledge that it might take years for me to be fully ready.

Recently I have been back to yet another cycle of "let me see once again how this goes...", and I decided to be more practical and start right away with trying out the Coda. I figured that if such passage could be doable for me, arguably the rest of the piece would be as well.

I'm currently still kind of learning the notes with slow practice. For now, 160bpm is my very limit without losing control (I find 200bpm a good goal personally), and I'm still learning the start. I realized how deceptively hard the passage starting at bar 216 is, when the right hand shifts positions in quick succession. The problem I've been having (and the whole point of me asking for advice) is that, even at 160bpm, I quickly start to feel pain in my forearm and reckon that shouldn't be right.

Could you share your experiences or advice on learning the Ballade (in general, or the Coda), or your opinion about the aforementioned pain? Is it a matter of "no pain no gain"? ;D I still simply cannot fathom this being played at faster tempo, but I guess that's what makes this difficult lol

Sorry for the long post. I look forward to further discussions. :)
Thanks in advance!
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Offline dw4rn

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #1 on: May 06, 2022, 07:55:28 AM
Is it a matter of "no pain no gain"? ;D

No. I think you need to be careful. Have a rest for a couple of days, then maybe try practicing the coda very slowly, softly, non-legato, and with a very light touch.
My guess would be that because of the large stretches in the coda, you are keeping your hand too stretched for to long, causing stiffness and pain. Try to rely as much as you can on flexibility, speed and also rotation.

Offline anacrusis

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #2 on: May 06, 2022, 01:22:27 PM
I realized how deceptively hard the passage starting at bar 216 is, when the right hand shifts positions in quick succession. The problem I've been having (and the whole point of me asking for advice) is that, even at 160bpm, I quickly start to feel pain in my forearm and reckon that shouldn't be right.

Could you share your experiences or advice on learning the Ballade (in general, or the Coda), or your opinion about the aforementioned pain? Is it a matter of "no pain no gain"? ;D I still simply cannot fathom this being played at faster tempo, but I guess that's what makes this difficult lol


You're completely right about the pain in the forearm, it shouldn't be right. Playing the piano should never cause any pain. Even difficult repertoire, virtuoso Etudes should feel physically comfortable and effortless to play with proper technique. So it's not a matter of "no pain no gain". Please be careful! Search for maximum comfort at all times, practice slowly so that you can make sure it's comfortable, and if you struggle with that, find a competent teacher who can help you build a technical foundation that feels good!

Offline bwl_13

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #3 on: May 06, 2022, 03:30:38 PM
Do not continue to practice through pain. Overuse injuries can develop in a matter of hours and get far more sever than you would think. If you feel, take a break and when you come back ease into it. If you feel pain again, then take a longer break. Observe the injury and don't overdo it. You could end up with nerve damage, tendonitis or any number of other afflictions pianists come across. It's not worth the risk. Get a teacher and play safely.
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Bach BWV 914
Beethoven Op. 58
Reger Op. 24 No. 5
Rachmaninoff Op. 39 No. 3 & No. 5

Offline pianowhisper

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #4 on: May 06, 2022, 05:18:53 PM
@dw4rn, @anacrusis, @bwl_13, Thank you very much for your considerate replies!

Yeah... I figured there was something wrong. I do not feel any discomfort when playing slowly and carefully, however, as I try to speed up the tempo, it's a different story.

I would just rectify my statement and mention that it's not a lot of physical pain per se, but rather muscular tension, I guess? You know... kind of like when you do heavy exercise and feel the lactic acid building up in your bloodstream/muscles.
I will definitely take it easy and concentrate on relaxing in between every note. It is only roughly my first week of practicing the coda, so I still have a lot of confidence and muscle memory to develop. I'll find out if the Ballade is still "unapproachable" to me or not.

As for getting a teacher, I unfortunately do not think I could afford lessons currently, but I would love to reconsider the idea in the not-so-distant future. :) In the meantime, I promise to be more careful!

Thank you again for the careful advice, much appreciated!!

Offline nightwindsonata

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #5 on: May 06, 2022, 06:17:16 PM
Hello,

If you send me a DM, I would be happy to do a short zoom call this weekend and explain a bit the technique required for the coda. I have quite a bit of experience with this piece, as my teacher plays it often, and my friend is also working on it as a challenge piece. I think you need to become comfortable with the movement between the notes (which is the trick with the entire piece). Think about moving your wrist very elegantly and smoothly, consistently relaxing the tension as much as possible. The stretches in this piece are not too difficult if you are able to relax the tension, but they do take a certain technique.
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Offline stringoverstrung

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #6 on: May 07, 2022, 05:55:47 PM


Yeah... I figured there was something wrong. I do not feel any discomfort when playing slowly and carefully, however, as I try to speed up the tempo, it's a different story.

I would just rectify my statement and mention that it's not a lot of physical pain per se, but rather muscular tension, I guess? You know... kind of like when you do heavy exercise and feel the lactic acid building up in your bloodstream/muscles.


If the tension builds up it is often a sign that you do not use antagonist muscle groups enough.
You should certainly try to obtain a copy of Cortot Ballades - Edition de Travail which contain preparatory exercises for every technically difficult passage especially if you do not have a teacher.  It will give you a direction to work towards.
G

Offline jamienc

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #7 on: May 07, 2022, 11:53:23 PM
The pain in your forearm is most likely the use of excessive gross musculature for the passages in the coda that don’t require that kind of technique, and also the tendency of getting stuck in the key or position. When you practice, do you tend to have the feeling of clawing the notes or grasping the keyboard as if you are clutching something tightly? This is often the case when technical demands of the piece exceed the physical awareness of the mind/body connection. Chopin is best experienced when you feel as if you are playing with less arm and more finger from the big knuckle down to the fingertip. It is more of a physical feeling of “through” as opposed to “down” on the keyboard.

A suggestion would be to set the metronome to about 86-92 and play the sections of the coda that have the quick shifts across the octave using the finger only, and detaching all of the notes so you don’t get stuck in the key. Maintain the octave shape so you have it ready for the next position and don’t spend the time and effort reshaping your hand position during the shift. The wrist/palm should be as quiet and supple as possible. Also, resist the urge to rotate. This is only excess motion that complicates the nature of the shifts, especially when it comes to the accuracy of the thumb upon arrival. The arm should simply relocate the hand position without any perceived motion other than laterally moving to the left or right during shifts.

Float over the keyboard and let the finger do the work!  Detach everything so you don’t get stuck.

I recently performed all four Ballades in concert so they are still pretty fresh. Let me know if this helps!

J

Offline pianowhisper

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #8 on: May 08, 2022, 06:28:26 PM
Thank you again for the kind replies, everybody!

I am currently away from the piano for some time, however, a couple of days ago I did practice following the advice given previously and I could already see lots of improvement.

To my surprise, I was able to play b.216-242 (the entire passage with the RH jumps) feeling no tension at all, however, only at 160-170bpm-ish (quarter note). Faster than that, I still lose a lot of control and hit many wrong keys, especially when the LH has the wider jumps as well. I hope that with slower practice I can build up more muscle memory and increase the tempo later on.

What "clicked" for me was playing the notes non-legato (or even a little staccato), which allowed me to relax my hand much more. Before, I tended to hold the lower notes with the thumb for too long, and I think that's what was causing me to strain the musculature unnecessarily. I think this is kind of a reflection of what @jamienc said here:
When you practice, do you tend to have the feeling of clawing the notes or grasping the keyboard as if you are clutching something tightly?
Chopin is best experienced when you feel as if you are playing with less arm and more finger from the big knuckle down to the fingertip.

You should certainly try to obtain a copy of Cortot Ballades - Edition de Travail which contain preparatory exercises for every technically difficult passage especially if you do not have a teacher.  It will give you a direction to work towards.
Thanks for that suggestion! I would guess IMSLP has the Cortot editions for all or most of Chopin. I will take a look when I can and try to integrate the exercises.


I will review all of your very valuable advice when I get back to practicing within some days. :)
Much appreciated!

Offline shashasha

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #9 on: May 11, 2022, 11:27:21 PM
As Claudio Arrau stated, you want to be free of tension in the joints everywhere from the shoulder to the fingertip. If you have tension, it severs the connection between the piano and your soul. Where most pianists put tension is in the wrist.

In my experience, if you have a loose (I mean literally flacid, hung, loose wrist), then you will never have tendonitis or pain in your forearm.  Every day, I spend the first 20 minutes of my practice literally focused on the sense of my wrist and keeping it flacid. Eventually, my correct finger muscles start working, I learn to relax all of my joints and sound significantly better.

IMO this is the way to achieve a higher technique. You want to learn to use your body weight. If there is any tension, you're severing that bodyweight. 

If you use this advice and feel like "a sloppy noodle" as you play, then try this. Move your fingers naturally, and quickly in the air, but be mindful of your wrist and make sure that it is hung in the air to use the proper muscles.

Next, go to the piano, and keep that mindfulness while you are INSIDE the keys (meaning you've played keys and maintain that same level of relaxation). Your pain should at the very least dissipate significantly.

Offline anacrusis

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #10 on: May 12, 2022, 10:09:17 PM
As Claudio Arrau stated, you want to be free of tension in the joints everywhere from the shoulder to the fingertip. If you have tension, it severs the connection between the piano and your soul. Where most pianists put tension is in the wrist.

In my experience, if you have a loose (I mean literally flacid, hung, loose wrist), then you will never have tendonitis or pain in your forearm.  Every day, I spend the first 20 minutes of my practice literally focused on the sense of my wrist and keeping it flacid. Eventually, my correct finger muscles start working, I learn to relax all of my joints and sound significantly better.

IMO this is the way to achieve a higher technique. You want to learn to use your body weight. If there is any tension, you're severing that bodyweight. 

If you use this advice and feel like "a sloppy noodle" as you play, then try this. Move your fingers naturally, and quickly in the air, but be mindful of your wrist and make sure that it is hung in the air to use the proper muscles.

Next, go to the piano, and keep that mindfulness while you are INSIDE the keys (meaning you've played keys and maintain that same level of relaxation). Your pain should at the very least dissipate significantly.

Interesting answer, I agree with you. Did you figure this out yourself or were you taught these things?

Offline nightwindsonata

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Re: Chopin Ballade #1 Op.23 — the pain (literally)...
Reply #11 on: May 14, 2022, 12:14:15 AM
This sounds like what my collaborative piano professor tells me to do every time we discuss technique. It's helped my technique a lot too.
1st-year Master's Program:
- Ravel Piano Concerto
- Liszt Ricordanza
- Liszt 3 Liebestraums
- Liszt 3 Sonnets

- Rhapsody in Blue
- Dante Sonata
- Schubert Sonata D.780
- Mozart Piano Quartet in Gm
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