Learning Chopin’s First Ballade

A contributor to the ABRSM forum asked recently:

“I’ve been playing the piano for a few years, self-taught. I have a good basic technique, but can’t play Chopin ballades yet. I can play his more challenging nocturnes and mazurkas. I’m also currently playing the famous D-flat waltz. What kind of repertoire do I need to study (whether it be Chopin or other) so that I can reach the skill level require to play Chopin ballades well?”

Here is the actual discussion: Working my way through Chopin

I have to say that, until I have seen and heard them play, I would not take the word of any self-taught pianist that they have “good basic technique” very much more seriously than the claims of a self-taught surgeon that they have good basic operating skills or a self taught karate exponent that they are a skilled martial artist.

Leaving that aside, wanting to learn other repertoire as a lead up to this piece is a sound idea. However if, as they claim, their basic technique is sound, and they can play the “more challenging” of Chopin’s Nocturnes, then they are ready to start work on the Ballade.

PERFORMING A “DIFFICULT” PIECE
Strictly speaking, you should not be performing a piece that you still find difficult to play. However much time, effort and pain a piece took to learn, by the time you perform it to an audience it should have become easy to you.

To learn a piece to performance standard fairly quickly it really needs to be something where you already have all or most of the technical skills that it needs, and can make a good job of playing it from sight.

It should go without saying that you must also have the understanding to make the music tell a story and not be simply a collection of beautiful sounds, or a display of bravura.

DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO A “DIFFICULT” PIECE
For a piece that is well beyond your capabilities there are two different approaches:

Lead up to it gradually
You can lead up to it in stages by learning other pieces and studies that will develop all the skills that you need. The big advantage is that when you come to learn the special piece you learn it correctly right from the start. A side benefit is that along the way you wil have added several useful items to your repertoire.

Dive right in
Dive right in to learning the special piece. Devise exercises and/or practice for longer, until you can eventually play it. This has a lot of problems. As the techniques are not fully developed you are likely to play sections less than optimally, the process could take years. On the other hand it is likely make you better motivated.

Some teachers would say you should only ever take the first of these approaches, and that the second will do damage. I am not so sure. Motivation is a strong ally.

HOW I LEARNED THIS PIECE
Chopin’s first Ballade, quite apart from being a wonderful piece of music, is a good piece for learning new technical skills, as it calls on such a variety of technique. It divides neatly into sections, each of which has its own dominant techniques and textures that can be studied independently.

It took me three learnings of this piece before I could perform it reliably and well. The first was in 1985. I already had a performance diploma, that is to say … I was playing much beyond Grade 8 standard, but the results of this first attempt were terrible! The second attempt was in 2008 which was a big improvement, but still nowhere near good enough for public performance. The third was in 2013, and it now sounds pretty good. In each case I worked at it for a few months, alongside other repertoire. It is going to take one more period of study to make the memorization bullet-proof!

LEARNING A SECTION AT A TIME
I broke the piece down into manageable sections to learnindependently. Of course this is not the only way to chop it up. You might want to subdivide some of my sections further.

I have rated each section as Easy, Moderate, Difficult or Very Difficult. These are only as a rough guide to which parts are likely to be mastered quickly and which will take more work. They are not meant as some absolute, eternal assessment. But if you have trouble with the “Easy” or “Moderate” passages then you might want to work on other material to develop your technique before tackling this Ballade.

SECTIONS FOR INDEPENDENT STUDY AND PRACTISE

  • 1. 1 – 7 . Slow Intro (E)
  • 2. 8 – 21 . Theme, not fast (E)
  • 3. 21 – 37 . Transition ending in fioratura (M)
  • 4. 37 – 43 . New idea derived from opening theme (2 above), twice, second time agitato (M)
  • 5. 44 – 55 . Lively bravura section derived from earlier motifs (D)
  • 6. 56 – 65 . Big arpeggios (D)
  • 7. 65 – 93 . Horn call leading into slow melody over expansive arpeggios (E)
  • 8. 94 – 105 . Variant of opening theme (E)
  • 9. 106 – 118 . Variant of the slow melody (7 above) in big chords (M)
  • 10. 119 – 123 . Octave passages (D)
  • 11. 124 – 125 . Descending arpeggios with added thirds (M)
  • 12. 126 – 137 . Bravura connecting passage (D)
  • 13. 138 – 144 . Scherzando based on 4 above (D)
  • 14. 145 – 165 . Further development of the scherzando culminating in a descending run (D)
  • 15. 166 – 193 . Return of idea 7, faster and more elaborate. There is one slightly tricky measure (170) where there are four voices, three of them in the right hand, and each playing an independent rhythm (M)
  • 16. 194 – 205 . Return of original theme (2 above) in yet another guise (E)
  • 17. 206 – 207 . Appassionato section as lead-in to the violent Presto (M)
  • 18. 208 – 241 . Presto con fuoco (D)
  • 19. 242 – 245 . Rising chromatic scale over chords(M)
  • 20. 246 – 250 . Descending passage work in right hand (M)
  • 21. 250 – 257 . Two big fast scales hands an octave apart and a tenth apart, each followed by fragments of the first (2 above) theme (VD)
  • 22. 258 – 264 . Concluding fff octave passage (M)

SOME WARNINGS
You have to take care that the result does not sound like 20-odd different chunks stuck end to end. Once the separate sections are fluent then the transitions between them need work until the piece is unified and the different textures meld seamlessly. Note how the motif of a falling semitone or tone permeates the entire piece, connecting the various themes and giving an overall unity:

Good luck!!

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