Pedalling Chopin’s B minor Prelude

Chopin’s 24 Préludes, op. 28 were composed at a difficult time in the composer’s life. It was the winter of 1838-9, and Chopin and his lover George Sand had decided to visit Majorca for a romantic holiday. He had contracted tuberculosis and, for fear of contamination, none of the local inhabitants would allow them to stay. So they ended up in the abandoned monastery in Valldemossa – miles from anywhere.

To make matters worse, Chopin’s piano was held up by customs so he had to rent another, a small upright known as a pianino built by Bauza, a local. To say it was not up to the job would be an understatement, but this unpretentious little instrument ended up with a fascinating history and was later owned by the great Polish harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska. Paul Kildea has written an entertaining and informative book about this piano – Chopin’s Piano – A Journey Through Romanticism 

While the Préludes make a magnificent set when heard all together, several of them are manageable by intermediate players. Number 6 in B minor is currently on ABRSM’s Grade 6 exam syllabus, and while at first glance it appears relatively straightforward, it is actually far from easy.

The cello-like melody in the left hand needs to be played with projection, shape and an understanding of legato cantabile touch, and because the player’s attention is likely to be focussed on the left hand it is all too easy to neglect the tolling bell we hear in the repeated right hand B’s. The quaver pairs need a lot of control and careful listening if we are to stress the first and lighten the second as marked.

Pedalling is another issue in this Prélude. Are we to take literally Chopin’s blurry pedal mark at the end, and do we only pedal where he has indicated? Pedalling in Chopin’s piano music is problematic, since notating pedal can never really be that precise. I have attempted to shed some light on the pedalling in this short video extract, I hope it is of some help to you!

For my full video walkthrough of Chopin’s Prélude in B minor on the Online Academy, follow this link. This video also forms part of our collection of resources on the ABRSM syllabus which can be viewed here.

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Q-Spots Series: Bach Invention in D Minor

For my first piece in the Q-Spots Series I have chosen Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, and identified two Q-spots that very often cause players to falter (click here for an introduction to the series). If you are a piano teacher you will immediately know that I am referring to the places where one hand has a long trill, and the other hand a passage of even semiquavers (16th notes):

  • Bar 18 – Downbeat of 23
  • Bar 29 – Downbeat of bar 35

The idea behind Q-spots is to identify and isolate awkward places where we stumble and fumble, and go through a systematic sequence of practice activities that helps us break the section down into stages. We practise each stage until our inner quality control inspector is happy to sign it off, before moving on to the next stage. We repeat these stages for a few days in a row, by which time we should find the passage is not only possible but actually feels easy.

Let’s look at the first Q-spot in the Bach Invention and analyse the nature of the difficulty. There are two main problems here – coordinating the two hands together at the required speed, and managing the trill without tightening up. Part of the solution is to play a rotary trill (from the forearm) rather than lifting the fingers from the main knuckle; for the trill to fit together with the left hand we will need to organise it rhythmically. Probably the neatest way of doing so is to play a measured trill in demisemiquavers (32nd notes), beginning on the upper auxiliary (D) and stopping on the main note on the last demisemiquaver before the tie.

Before we can expect the hands to fit together comfortably, I suggest knowing the left hand so well by itself that it happens automatically when we play hands together. We might begin by practising the left hand very slowly in two ways:

  1. Firmly with active finger tips, each note exactly equal in tone. Make sure the wrist remains loose and supple.
  2. In a more cantabile style, with hairpin crescendo and diminuendo shapings.

Being able to control the left hand in a variety of different rhythmic patterns can really help here. Here is just one of many rhythmical variants you will find in the detailed Online Academy article – alternating one bar at full speed with a bar at exactly half the speed, with added dynamic contrasts (for practice – we’re not going to play like this). Do this extremely precisely, making the contrasts sudden:

Now that we are fluent with our left hand, it is time to add the right hand trill. We might proceed by playing the two notes of the trill together, loosely holding onto the thumb and gently tapping the Ds with the 3rd finger. The first stage will look like this:

The following video provides a demonstration of some of the practice procedures I recommend for this Q-spot:

Ten further practice stages for daily work on this Q-spot are available on the Online Academy as part of our Q-spot series. Click here to view this article on the Online Academy or click here for a blog post with more information on quarantining and the Q-spots series.


Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor

Chopin wrote the Nocturne in C-sharp minor (op. posth.) in 1830, but it was only published 40 years later in 1870.

Dedicated to his sister, Ludwika “as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto”, there are some interesting parallels with some of the themes between the Nocturne and the Concerto no. 2 in F minor, op. 21. Getting to know the concerto will certainly enhance your appreciation of this beautiful Nocturne.

I decided to put together a video walkthrough of the introduction only. The reason for this is I have noticed over the years examining and adjudicating this piece that I have never once heard the introductory bars played to my satisfaction. Maybe it’s because they look easy, and players don’t bother to practise them much. However, like any introduction first impressions count for a lot. If these bars don’t engage the listener, communication of the rest of the piece is likely to suffer.

Further reading & resources

  • For my blog post on the annotated study edition and video on how to play the LH arpeggio patterns, click here
  • A full series of detailed video walkthroughs and worksheets for this work is available on the Online Academy here.
  • My Annotated Study Edition for this work can also be purchased separately from our store here.

Choreographing Bach’s D Minor Invention

I’m going to look at Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, aiming to help you solve a couple of the issues that seem to bother some players in this piece. 

The Subject

The first thing is to find a good fingering for the main subject based on its tempo and character. For me, it’s a vigorous forte at the start, somewhere around M.M. = 60 (+/- 10%) for the bar. I play the semiquavers (16th notes) legato and the quavers (8th notes) detached, allowing for the possibility of more finessed articulation here and there. 

The Invention would be extremely difficult to manage if we stuck to the myth that the thumb should not go on a black key. Here is the fingering I prefer, by no means the only solution but the one I find works best.

In order for this fingering to work we need to remember one important fact: when we place a short finger (thumb or 5thfinger) on a black key we need to make an adjustment up and in towards the back of the keys, since the black keys are higher up and further away. There is no mystery here. Start from your lap and land with your RH on the two black notes with thumb and 5th finger. You should find the way you align will be perfectly natural – there won’t be any twisting in the wrist, and you will have found a comfortable position on the black keys to feel balanced there.

When we play the five-finger position, E-Bb in the RH, a certain amount of motion towards the black key area is necessary so that when we arrive at the Bb the hand will be in the right place – in other words, we move from the front of the keyboard towards the back. As we release the Bb in bar 2, we’ll want to slide back out so that the long fingers (2nd, 3rd and 4th) can feel comfortable on the white keys. If we did not use the length of the keys, we would certainly not feel at all coordinated. 

Traditional v. Modern Methodology

Traditional methodology, based on 18th and 19th century concepts formulated when our forebears were playing harpsichords and fortepianos, favoured a rounded hand position in which finger lengths are equalised. The idea was to curl up the fingers in order to keep them all on the surface of the keyboard, the thumb included. This may work just fine for the early pianos, but as pianism has evolved there has been a shift towards a less curled position and greater freedom about using the full length of the key – in and out movements that might mean the thumb is not always on the surface of the keyboard when long fingers are playing on white keys. 

Clementi’s instruction to place a penny on the back of the hand when practising ensured that it was the fingers alone that did all the work, meaning rotational movements of the forearm inevitably got excluded. Many important teachers have since incorporated rotational movements into their methodology, but I still find a surprising number of pianists struggling with tension issues who are largely unaware of how these movements can assist, how they work and how to apply them.

New Guide to Forearm Rotation

In my new guide to forearm rotation and associated movements on the Online Academy, I look at how we might incorporate these movements into our playing so we can feel strong, free and coordinated. Because the subject is rather involved, it is important to tackle it step by step – nothing much is going to happen overnight. Hence the 40 instructional videos, all short and to the point, and many musical examples that allow you to go at your own pace, backing up if anything is not clear along the way. 

When I was compiling this module, I wanted to come up with a way to notate the mix of single and double rotations involved in applying the rotational movements. Here it is for the D minor Invention opening. The L-R indicates the direction of the initial preliminary swing (from left to right), the slurs showing the single rotations. In the alternate view, I encourage a brief stop before each double rotation to check the hand is level and to facilitate a last-moment fast swing in the opposite direction of travel to land us squarely in the next note. Confused? It is a bit confusing to start with, I will admit. However after a while it does become second nature, the motions getting ever smaller and ever faster. 

The Trills

The single rotations that make up the trill are perhaps easier to feel, but controlling the trill with the semiquavers (16th notes) in the other hand proves challenging.

In my Q-Spot series on the Online Academy I devote a whole article to this issue, offering a systematic step-by-step process we might apply day by day for a short time to develop the necessary coordination to help this feel easy. I offer some ideas in my introductory blog post.


As my regular readers will know, we have recently introduced a technique library on the Online Academy that will grow and expand. Last week saw the launch of my first module on forearm rotation, a practical guide that you can take at your own pace. 

A Practical Guide to Forearm Rotation is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view if you are already a subscriber.


Beethoven Piano Sonata in F Minor (Op. 2 No. 1)

This week’s guest post is by pianist and captain of The Piano Boat, Masayuki Tayama with whom we’re delighted to have embarked upon a project creating detailed walk-throughs of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The first set of videos features Beethoven’s first piano sonata, Op. 2 No. 1, which Masa introduces and shares some thoughts on in this post.  


Much has been written about the life and works of Ludwig van Beethoven, a man who had a defining impact on the direction of music in and beyond the Classical period as well as the development of the piano itself. Most well-known for his symphonies, concertos and piano sonatas, it is a delight, and at the same time a fearsome undertaking to embark on exploring his Sonata Cycle. Each of these 32 (or nowadays, 35) monumental works introduces something new. However, it’s easy to forget that at the point of writing his very first catalogued sonata, Op.2 No.1, Beethoven would not have known that he would go on to write another thirty one, spanning all the way to Op. 111.

Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor

This work bears an overly simple dedication to his then-teacher, Joseph Haydn, from whom Beethoven claimed to have learnt nothing. There may well be an element of truth in this given that Haydn was probably too busy with his own compositions to devote much time to his student. However, there is no doubt Beethoven would have been greatly influenced by Haydn’s works themselves, including their Sturm und Drang elements.

Beethoven’s choice of key for this work, F minor, is unusual as most keyboard compositions at the time were aimed at the keen, privileged amateur pianists and more accessible keys were preferred.  Additionally, as contemporary keyboard instruments were not tuned to the ‘well-tempered’ standards of today, the key of F minor may well have sounded slightly bizarre.

It is folly to believe that he would have chosen this key just to be different for the sake of it. In fact this key, already used by Beethoven in one of his three early sonatas which demonstrates his dramatic characteristics, eventually leads to the great Appassionata Sonata. The temperament and immensely dramatic opening of No.1 does indeed, for the right reasons, stamp his mark in the world of great composers.

Whilst adhering to the more traditional ‘sonata form’ from the Classical period, he does add an extra movement across the set of Op.2. This would normally have been reserved for larger scale works such as symphonies or chamber music and is therefore unique in itself.

1st Mvt – Allegro

Beethoven didn’t hesitate to borrow material previously explored and at this stage, influence from the Classical period is seen throughout. However, the way he turned the ‘Mannheim Rocket’ theme in Mozart’s G minor symphony into something even more dramatic on a single instrument is uncanny. There are many of his own temperamental traits already displayed in every corner of the music.

Piano Sonata No. 1 1st Movement Opening

2nd Mvt – Adagio

Here, we find Beethoven adhering more to the Mozartian approach to writing a slow movement. I started playing the piano at a young age, attracted to Mozart’s music, and treasured a yellow-labelled – so it must have been Deutsch Gramophone – cassette tape of Mozart’s last piano concerto No.27. I would attempt to play by ear some of the themes, following which I was then sent to piano lessons. My feelings about Mozart’s music are aptly put in the quote from the film Amadeus, where Salieri describes Mozart’s music as ‘filled with unfulfillable longing’. This really does feel most appropriate in articulating the serene yet almost painful second movement.

3rd Mvt – Menuetto & Trio

Whilst the other Scherzo third movements in the set of Op. 2 are more light-hearted and jovial, Beethoven adds an enigmatic, almost haunting opening to this brief movement with a more peaceful, contrasting Trio section. There is much to explore in this additional movement with a sense of innovation prevailing.

4th Mvt – Prestissimo

It is intriguing to imagine what the audience at the time felt when first hearing this incredibly dramatic movement. A foresight of his later work, the third movement of Moonlight Sonata, this movement stands on its own merits, serving as a precursor of what was to come. Whilst Haydn in particular wrote hugely contrasting piano sonatas, none compare to the intensity and relentless and temperamental pursuit of drama of this movement which builds to a fiery conclusion.

Piano Sonata No. 1 Fourth Movement Opening

Having studied many of the 32 sonatas with some of the world’s greatest pedagogues and performed them extensively, along with Beethoven’s concertos, and subsequently works by Schubert, Brahms and Rachmaninov, revisiting this F minor sonata brought a fresh perspective to my view of the pure genius of Beethoven.

His early works tend to be relegated to ‘study pieces’ at conservatoires, and not often included in concert programmes. They pose unique technical difficulties, some almost impossible to execute as written and performers are much more exposed due to the relatively simple harmonic progressions and melodic writing. This may contribute to the reluctance of pianists to perform them on stage.

It was fascinating to look at practice strategies with knowledge and experience I did not possess as a student, to overcome some of these challenges, and explore the musical detail and depth with which these works can be performed. The 32 sonatas span Beethoven’s lifetime, exhibiting the bridge between the elegant, style gallante of the Classical period and the more direct, personal and emotional output of the Romantic period. They cannot be explored enough and I am thrilled to be embarking on this adventure!


The full set of eighteen videos in which Masa explores background, style, interpretation, technical challenges and practice methods for each of the four movements of this work is now available on the Online Academy. Click here to view or click here to find out more about the Online Academy. Information on further videos featuring the second sonata in A Major is available here.

Beethoven on Board

Our Beethoven on Board series will ultimately feature all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and is being filmed on board The Piano Boat. The Piano Boat is a new way of bringing classical music to audiences in and around London, surrounded by the intrigue and beauty of the canals.

The boat, Rachmaninov, is designed for and dedicated to musical events, carrying a beautiful Steinway Model A grand piano in the concert saloon. Seating 12 in an exclusive, intimate setting, it offers an experience where spectacular music is at the forefront of your experience on the canals. Click here to find out more.

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Beethoven Piano Sonata in C Minor (Op.10 No.1)

The fifth instalment in our Beethoven on Board series is now available on the Online Academy and features the Sonata in C minor, Op. 10 No. 1. The set of Op. 10 comprises three works, all worked on simultaneously, with Nos. 1 and 2 featuring, for the first time in his piano sonatas catalogue, only three movements. Although there are some references indicating that more movements were intended, these two works show a deliberate move away from the Viennese four movement structure.

There is plenty to be said about the significance of the key of C minor, but here we have Beethoven’s first piano sonata in this key with which he shares later with the Sonate Pathétique, the infamous ‘Fate’ Symphony (No.5) as well as his very last piano sonata No. 32. The key of C minor also hints at some influences, including Mozart’s Mass in C minor, the pivotal piano concerto K. 491 and Haydn’s first piano sonata written for the fortepiano rather than a harpsichord (Hob.XVI:20) to name just a few.

1st Mvt – Allegro molto e con brio

Much like the opening of the F minor sonata Op. 2 No. 1 where Beethoven quotes Mozart’s G minor Symphony No. 25 K.138, for this one he borrows the theme from Mozart’s C minor sonata No. 14 K. 457 – one of the very few Mozart sonatas in minor keys – and with the use of dotted rhythms, turns it into something even more effective than a simple rising figuration of the Mannheim Rocket.

The decisive opening chord is in contrast to the openings of the four piano sonatas he had written so far and establishes the strong character of the movement. With a relatively short development section, the movement and ultimately the whole sonata is rather compact compared to the grandeur of the E-flat major sonata Op. 7. It therefore calls for much focus to ensure the subtle details, twists and turns are not missed whilst studying the score in practice as well as conveying in performance.

Beethoven Sonata No. 5 1st mvt

2nd Mvt – Adagio molto

In the middle movement, we witness Beethoven’s beautiful melody writing at its best, characteristic of his long phrases. It is useful to listen carefully and assess each tone created, then to each phrase and section in addition to singing with the piano. The tempo mark of Adagio molto implies a very slow two-in-a-bar, which adds to the challenges for both performers and listeners.

3rd Mvt – Finale: Prestissimo

Perhaps due to the fact that Beethoven omitted a scherzo movement at this point, we have a somewhat light-textured opening to this movement, though with a unique colour created from the unison writing. Nevertheless, his temperament does not allow the character to stay the same for long and much contrast is seen within this relatively brief movement. Abrupt changes of mood and dynamics all require careful thought, practice and facilitation within a demanding two-in-a-bar Prestissimo.

Whilst his Appassionata, written much later, heavily features the ‘fate’ motif in the first movement, here within this corresponding finale movement, we also have a clear indication of the same anguish and defiance as we approach the recapitulation from an incredibly short, 11-bar development section.


The full set of fourteen videos in which Masa explores background, style, interpretation, technical challenges and practice methods for each of the three movements of this work is now available on the Online Academy. Click here to view or click here to find out more about the Online Academy. Click here to find out more about Masa’s videos featuring other Beethoven Sonatas.

Beethoven on Board

Our Beethoven on Board series will ultimately feature all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and is being filmed on board The Piano Boat. The Piano Boat is a new way of bringing classical music to audiences in and around London, surrounded by the intrigue and beauty of the canals.

The boat, Rachmaninov, is designed for and dedicated to musical events, carrying a beautiful Steinway Model A grand piano in the concert saloon. Seating 12 in an exclusive, intimate setting, it offers an experience where spectacular music is at the forefront of your experience on the canals. Click here to find out more.

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Toccata from Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E Minor

The Toccata from Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830, is a popular choice for piano diplomas. I decided to make a study edition for the fugue and a series of walkthroughs for the whole movement to assist players in their learning of this magnificent music.

Even if you’re not playing this piece, many of the concepts I discuss in these new resources can be applied to other works from this period. The videos also provide a detailed walk-through of a piece that is a perfect example of Bach’s genius in contrapuntal writing, with the subject appearing in different keys and with different textures, creating beautiful variations in its colour.

Learning a Fugue

Much keyboard music is written with the human hand in mind, whereas a fugue is conceived in horizontal lines with each as important as the others. This makes learning and playing a fugue something of a challenge and calls for a great deal of coordination. The process of learning a fugue cannot be hurried and requires a disciplined, step-by-step approach.

One of the methods for learning a fugue which I suggest in my edition is called the “Stepladder”. Instead of learning hands separately, you first learn the individual voices separately and then together in different combinations. For example, in a three voice fugue you’d learn the soprano (S), alto (A) and bass (B) lines separately. Then you’d combine two voices e.g. S & A, A & B and S& B before putting all the voices together. 

To facilitate this process, edition has a version of the fugue written in an open score which makes it easier to read the individual voices:

JS Bach Toccata from Partita in E minor open score


I strongly advise organising a fingering that works for your hand. After some experimentation, write it down and commit to it every time you practise. Eventually the fingering will become automatic, allowing you to concentrate on other aspects of music making and performance. My edition provides some fingering options, but these are only suggestions – feel free to come up with your own (but remember to write them in!).

One of the challenges with playing a fugue is that there are more voices than we have hands. Therefore we need to divide some of the voices (usually the middle voice(s)) between the hands. In addition to my fingering suggestion, I’ve also used different colours to provide some suggestions for hand distribution:

Extract from Toccata

Style & articulation

Bach has left us some slurs in this movement, which of course need to be respected. Elsewhere, as is the case with music from this period, the choice of articulation and other performance details is very much up to the individual performer and there is no one right way of doing it. For example, the head of the subject can either be played legato, or the up-beat quaver (8th note) separated from the quaver pair (which will want to be played slurred):

Articulation ideas for fugue theme

There are some further ideas for articulation, interpretation and realising the ornamentation both in my edition and the accompanying video walk-through. The complete, downloadable version of this edition is available for separate purchase from our store here or as part of a combined bundle of study editions. It is also included with an annual subscription to the Online Academy. Please click here to find out more about subscription options or click here for an index of the videos if you are already a subscriber.

Other Resources for Playing Baroque Music