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Life / Biography - general outline / The Teacher


Chopin the teacher

Chopin's teaching activities

The atmosphere of the lessons. The teacher's attitude

Stylistic foundations and technical basis



Chopin a piano teacher? Here we have an image which lies uneasily with the popular and widespread views of Chopin as the songster from oppressed Poland, the frail companion of the ebullient George Sand, the elegist of the Nocturnes, and also as the pianist at intimate soirées who was jealously guarded by his circle of admirers. And yet the facts are there, which are proof in themselves: the artist spent almost a quarter of his brief existence teaching the piano. He fully accepted this professional choice (contrary to Liszt, who did not wish to be labelled as a teacher), the importance of which we have only recently started to examine and to evaluate its significance. In some ways, the lessons were a substitute to Chopin for the profession of virtuoso pianist, which he had renounced after 1835. On a sociological level, his teaching to a largely aristocratic clientele (see the dedicatees of his works) covered a spectrum which linked the most eminent salons of Louis-Philippe's Paris to Camille Pleyel's pianos as well as to Pleyel's concert hall. Only her rank prevented Princess Marcelina Czartoryska, who is unanimously recognised as his most faithful pupil, from making her career as a performer. Two of Chopin's most brilliant students, Friederike Streicher (née Müller) and Emilie von Gretsch (née von Timm), also renounced their musical careers when they got married. Pauline Viardot willingly played the piano during musical gatherings in her salon, but never divulged more than a few snippets of information about her lessons with Chopin. Mme Rubio (née Kologrivoff) and particularly Mme Dubois (née O'Meara), who were both taught by Chopin, confined themselves to private teaching, just like Adolf Gutmann and Thomas D.A. Tellefsen, who, between 1850 and 1860, succeeded his teacher, Chopin, both in Paris as well as in London and Scottish circles. It is Georg Mathias, head of piano teaching at the Conservatoire de Paris since 1862, who was acknowledged as the official trustee of the Chopin tradition, whilst Karol Mikuli held a similar position in Lwów which became, thanks to him, a lively centre of the Chopin style. Michalowski, Rosenthal and, above all, Koczalski are among Mikuli's pupils, just as Pugno and Isidore Philipp are to be found amongst those of Mathias.

    * * *

The following are the sources available at present, concerning Chopin's teaching and his pedagogic activity:
  1. The autographed draft, in its embryonic stages, which he left as a Méthode de piano - a draft which was partly re-copied by his sister Ludwika Jędrzejewicz and partly put in shape by Tellefsen in the beginning of a Traité du mécanisme de piano
  2. The annotated scores by a number of his pupils and intimate friends and family: particularly those of Jane Stirling, Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, Camille Dubois-O'Meara and the Franchomme family (see Eigeldinger 1988, Annexes I & II, pp. 269-345, which concerns scores, which belonged to his pupils and friends).
  3. His pupils' written testimonies (diaries, correspondence, souvenirs) and, in the best of cases, of pupils, who mainly wrote about orally transmitted recollections.
  4. Chopin's pocket diaries for the years 1834, 1848 and 1849 (Chopin Society Museum, Warsaw).
  5. Chopin's correspondence in addition to that of George Sand (KFC, CGS).

Chopin's teaching activities

If Chopin was persuaded to give some lessons in the years before leaving Warsaw, it was only as a special favour to friends. His real teaching career began only after he settled in Paris, and it occupied the latter part of his life, from 1832 to 1849. During this period he divided his time equally between composing and teaching, dedicating himself to each in turn in summer and winter respectively; this at any rate was the pattern after his return from Majorca until the time of his separation from George Sand. For six months of the year, from October or November to May, Chopin received an average of five pupils a day. Rising early, he would spend the morning and at least the first half of the afternoon teaching. Each lesson lasted theoretically between 45 minutes and an hour, but would sometimes stretch out over several hours in succession, particularly on Sundays, for the benefit of gifted pupils whom he particularly liked (see the memoirs of Mme Streicher, Emilie von Gretsch and Mikuli). Pupils would receive one lesson a week, or more often two or three, depending on their teacher's availability, their own individual needs and their talents, and on the state of their finances. Some pupils maintain that Chopin unofficially taught them practically free of charge, or that they were offered numerous additional lessons.

Chopin's lessons were even more in demand than those of Liszt or Kalkbrenner; they were also expensive, since the fee was invariably fixed at 20 gold francs, the equivalent of a 'Louis d'or' (Ł 1 sterling of that time), or 30 francs if Chopin was to teach at the pupil's home. It is only fair to add that teaching was Chopin's main source of income - hence his talk of a 'treadmill' to describe the succession of lucrative hours. As a rule, his contracts with his editors stipulate once and for all the exclusive transfer of his compositions. As for his public concerts in Paris and Scotland, only six or seven of them brought him anything approaching a reasonable profit; more numerous were the occasions when the pianist offered his services to benefit performances. On the other hand, he was often remunerated for his private or semi-private concerts (notably at Louis Philippe's court).

How many pupils did Chopin have ? This is difficult to assess with any degree of precision. If anyone who received his advice at some time is to qualify as a pupil, then the number of identified pupils to date is about 150. But this figure is certainly higher than the number of proper pupils; one also has to be sceptical of various biographers' claims regarding alleged 'pupils' of Chopin. In Chopin's life-time it was already fashionable and even advantageous to claim to be his pupil, and Chopin, aware of this, would respond, 'I never gave him lessons ; but if it's of any use to him to pass as my pupil, then let him be. Let him remain one!' (Karasowski, II, p. 98). In addition, various categories of students may be distinguished: with the large majority made up of 'dilettantes' (in the positive eighteenth-century sense of the term), the number of professionals bordered on twenty. If a small number studied with Chopin for four or five years, others cannot have had more than four or five lessons in all - such as the 'Lady de Liverpool', who hastened down to London to be taught for just one week ! (KFC, II, p. 254)

In any case, Chopin saw straight through the motives of many of these. Some artists also came to him for advice on furthering their studies: we find even Moscheles and Kalkbrenner not above requesting an interview or some advice, one for his daughter, the other for his son. Finally one can add that Chopin devoted himself with particular care to his Polish pupils, though this did not prevent him from taking under his wing various other pianists who travelled from all over Europe to study with him. His reputation as a pianist and teacher reached far and wide: one finds his pupils coming not only from France and Poland but also from Lithuania, Russia, Bohemia, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Great Britain, Sweden and Norway.

Chopin did not accept beginners or children - with the exception of certain prodigies (Carl Filtsch, Georges Mathias). Nor was he easy to approach: for Chopin was surrounded, adulated and protected by a small entourage of enthusiastic friends who defended him from unwelcome visitors or second-rate admirers. Access to him was difficult; as he himself told Stephen Heller, one had to make several attempts before one could succeed in meeting him (Marmontel, p. 9). This anecdote recurs in the memoirs of a good dozen pupils, and by no means the least significant, who at first regularly found themselves confronted with a polite refusal. However talent or artistic personality would always serve to overcome these initial obstacles. Once the ice was broken, Chopin revealed personal qualities regarded as exceptional by all his pupils. We should not underestimate the affectionate atmosphere suffusing many of the lessons given to the refined, talented and chastely enthusiastic young ladies of the aristocracy; doubtless these conditions stimulated progress by creating an intense state of receptiveness in the pupil. The special quality of these pupil-teacher relationships, demonstrated by numerous album pages and dedications of works, helps to explain why Chopin's teaching was not suited to mass popularisation or to the establishment of a definite method. The character was more personal and to some extent improvisatory. As a rule Chopin's lessons were private (some dubious testimonies present them as an occasion for social gatherings!). Sometimes certain pupils would be allowed to attend the lessons of a colleague: Mikuli and Lenz were both to benefit from these stimulating circumstances.

Exceptionally, Chopin once organized at his home a special dress rehearsal on two pianos for Filtsch, who was to perform the E minor Concerto op. 11 at society events and concerts. At certain times Chopin would employ an assistant, notably Mme Rubio, and occasionally Adolf Gutmann and Marie de Rozières.


The atmosphere of the lessons. The teacher's attitude

It would be wrong to imagine that Chopin saw his teaching as a burdensome task or as a poor substitute for the concerts he no longer gave. On the contrary, he was highly aware of the importance of this work and presented himself for lessons with meticulous punctuality, which only ill health eventually impeded, and with the zeal of an apostle.

Chopin daily devoted his entire energies to teaching for several hours and with genuine delight [...] Was not the severity, not so easy to satisfy, the feverish vehemence with which he sought to raise his pupils to his own standard, the ceaseless repetition of a passage till it was understood, a guarantee that he had the progress of the pupil at heart ? (Mikuli, p. 3)

Exactingness, passion, patience and firmness were united in Chopin; he wished for certain immediate results that would herald the future achievements towards which he tirelessly schooled the pupil's inner vision. The intensity of his concentration equalled that of his lucidity. Chopin was a born teacher: expression and conception, position of the hand, touch, pedalling, nothing escaped the sharpness of his hearing and his vision, for he gave every detail the keenest attention. Entirely absorbed in his task, during the lesson he would be solely a teacher, and nothing but a teacher, according to Maria von Harder (Adelung, p. 122). Chopin preferred pupils to follow the text carefully rather than always play from memory, and he would mark the score as it lay on the music stand. Generally seated at his small upright pianino while the student played on the large Pleyel, he would tirelessly point out each error, each carelessness, each weakness - more profuse with examples than with words. 'Often the entire lesson passed without the pupil having played more than a few bars', (Mikuli, p. 4). Chopin's usual courtesy, even playfulness, could give way on days of illness or irritability to fits of anger, as violent as they were brief; the male pupils seem to have been more prone to these 'leçons orageuses' than were the women. Then again, repeated negligence or careless playing would sometimes exasperate him, with positively glacial results. But more often, without in any way relaxing his demands, Chopin showed a humane understanding of his students' personal, musical and technical problems. He knew how to inspire self-confidence and to find the right words of encouragement to free the pupil's inner resources at the right moment. Then he was a subtle guide blessed with an absolute sureness of intuition and psychological penetration. This aspect of Chopin's teaching has not yet been given the attention it deserves. To illustrate this, here is a passage from one of Emilie von Gretsch's letters, dated 30 April 1844: "Yesterday at Chopin's I tried to play his Nocturnes. I knew, I still felt clearly within myself the way in which he had played them. But partly because of uncertainty with the notes, and partly through a certain inhibition which comes out in our bearing and our performance when we are anxious or unhappy, I found myself unable to express the music as I heard it in my head; I did not have the strength to realise it in sound. It is wonderful then to see how tactfully Chopin puts one at one's ease; how intuitively he identifies, I might say, with the thoughts of the person to whom he is speaking or listening; with what delicate nuances of behaviour he adapts his own being to that of another. To encourage me, he tells me among other things, 'It seems to me that you don't dare to express yourself as you feel. Be bolder, let yourself go more. Imagine you're at the conservatoire, listening to the most beautiful performance in the world. Make yourself want to hear it, and then you'll hear yourself playing it right here. Have full confidence in yourself ; make yourself want to sing like Rubini, and you'll succeed in doing so. Forget you're being listened to, and always listen to yourself. I see that timidity and lack of self-confidence form a kind of armour around you, but through this armour I perceive something else that you don't always dare to express, and so you deprive us all. When you're at the piano, I give you full authority to do whatever you want; follow freely the ideal you've set for yourself and which you must feel within you; be bold and confident in your own powers and strength, and whatever you say will always be good. It would give me so much pleasure to hear you play with complete abandon that I'd find the shameless confidence of the vulgaires unbearable by comparison' " (Grewingk, p. 10-11).

Such testimony is by no means unique in Chopin's pupils' memoirs. In his lessons, Chopin worked simultaneously with music and words. Not content with demonstrating a few passages over the pupil's shoulders, he would often play the piece from beginning to end, even repeating it several times, constantly striving for greater perfection. And many a lesson was prolonged while he sat at the piano playing one piece after another, not only his own works but also those of other composers. Several of his pupils agree in saying that Chopin the pianist was never greater, never more complete and more ideal than in these transcending moments of grace. He did not, however, neglect to make the pupil analyse the formal structure of the works studied, and readily resorted to images or analogies to evoke the mood of a piece and to arouse the right musical impulse in the pupil. In order to obtain a particular expressiveness and sonority, for instance, he once suggested to Georges Mathias during a section of Weber's Sonata in A flat (op. 39) that 'an angel is passing over the sky' (first movement, bars 81ff, Mathias, p. VI). Where the young Liszt in 1832, making use of his freshly acquired education, sought to stimulate the pupil's imagination by reading him a page of Chateaubriand or a poem by Hugo, Chopin achieved the same result with a single, concise image - so intensely was he imbued with the reality of his vision even as he translated it into words. These spontaneous creations of the mind, evoking here a legion of capricious spirits, there a house of the dead, elsewhere a dialogue between a tyrant and his victim, are the result not so much of a literary temperament as a visionary imagination and a feeling for poetry rooted in popular Slavonic legend.

Sometimes a pupil's sensitivity would meet with Chopin's recognition on a higher, privileged level, as is shown by this astonishing declaration to Juliette de Caraman: "I give you carte blanche to play all my music. There is in you this vague poetry, this Schwärmerei that is needed to understand it" (Hedley, p. 8). We know Chopin was generally quite strict about the exact comprehension and performance of his works, and it required no less than the genial personality of the young Filtsch to make him admit : 'We each understand this differently, but go your own way, do as you feel, it can also be played like that.' (Denis, p. 127).

Professional or not, many pupils experienced a feeling of revelation and liberation through Chopin's teaching; his absolute novelty opened wide to them the doors of all music, not just of piano playing. Then it would not be long before they noticed radical changes in their playing, their listening and their mental attitude. Chopin for his part did point out these improvements to them. Emilie von Gretsch relates: "During the last lesson [...] Chopin showed me how best to practise the Etudes. Some of them required no comment from him, 'since you understand them perfectly' - that was his opinion. It was a special joy to me to be able to play easily what had previously seemed to involve perilous difficulties, particularly when I was working on these Etudes with Henselt. Chopin (I think he can read hearts), at the precise moment when this agreeable discovery about my progress crossed my mind, told me, 'This seems perfectly easy to you now, doesn't it ? - not like it was before. Well! In this short time you've made miraculous progress!' He told me that within a few months I'd be more aware of it, or, at any rate, he presumed that I would, since he had found this happened with his best students." (Grewingk, p. 13).

The student could then forge ahead powered by creative energy, since his work was now based on a natural method, revealed by a poet who could turn his hand equally to dialectic.

Stylistic foundations and technical basis

What are the fundamental principles governing Chopin's technical instruction and how was he an innovator? It is hard to answer these questions without giving an outline of his musical aesthetic. His piano teaching is as closely bound up with stylistic views as it is with his contribution to the technique of the instrument.

For Chopin, as for most of the Romantics, but even more so for the Baroque and Classical composers with the notions of Affektenlehre and redender Prinzip , music is a language. Through the specific medium of organized sounds it seeks to express a world of thoughts, feelings and sensations. Even if Chopin seems to share E.T.A. Hoffmann's view of music as the language of the inexpressible, for him this does not make it any less subject to the principal laws of verbal language. There are revealing parallels on this subject which Chopin frequently established between the arts of oratory and musical interpretation, between the means and ends common to spoken declamation and musical discourse. In both cases the purpose it to move and convince the listener by means of intonation and accentuation, appropriate to the meaning of the text. Just like a piece of prose or verse, a score consists of an arrangement of sections, paragraphs, phrases, periods and clauses; a system of punctuation aims to ensure correct articulation, the general sense of direction and the main breathing points, while prosodic laws determine the long and short syllables, accented or soft, and so forth.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Chopin was very early on attracted towards the art of singing, and particularly by its embodiment in bel canto. The great vocal school of the 1830s, in which the art of declamation and its dramatic expression in music were harmoniously united, represented for him the ideal and definitive model for interpretation. It was on the singing styles of Rubini, of Pasta, that Chopin based his own style of pianistic declamation, the key to his playing and the touchstone of his teaching. We find him repeatedly exhorting his pupils to listen to the great lyric artists, even to the extent of declaring to Mme Rubio: 'you must sing if you wish to play' (Niecks, II, p. 187). For Chopin, singing constituted the alpha and omega of music; it formed the basis of all instrumental training, and the more piano playing drew its inspiration from vocal models, the more convincing it became. Hence came Chopin's art of transforming the piano into a leading tenor or a prima donna and creating the impression of human breathing; hence that pre-eminence given to broad cantabile style, that intense legato, that inimitable sense of line and phrasing, that fullness of sound, that 'cello-like quality which the piano can suddenly reveal. Even an important part of his particular conception of rubato is vocal and Baroque in essence, in that it seeks, wherever apt, to release the melodic part from all metrical fetters and let it expand with the perfect freedom of inflection found in singing. Moscheles writes of Chopin's playing: "So one does not miss the orchestral effects which the German school requires from a pianist, but allows oneself to be carried away as by a singer who, unpreoccupied by the accompaniment, gives full rein to his feelings" (Moscheles, II, p. 39). This predilection for vocal art may be put beside Chopin's abhorrence of all massive effects, and his insistence on naturalness and simplicity in piano playing. Nothing was more foreign to Chopin's nature than over-emphasis, affectation or sentimentality. 'Je vous prie de vous asseoir', he said on such an occasion with gentle mockery" (Niecks, II, p. 341). But dry and inexpressive playing was equally unbearable to him, and in such cases he would implore the student 'Put all your soul into it!' (Karasowski, II, p. 91) - and what happiness he felt when innate musicality expressed itself spontaneously, 'She [Wanda Radziwill] has plenty of genuine musical feeling and you don't have to tell her crescendo here, piano there, quicker, slower and so on' (KFC, I, p. 112).

Piano technique should be no more than a means; and so it should come directly out of an imperative need for musical self-expression. There Chopin opens the way to a modern conception of music teaching, resolutely turning his back on many piano professors of his time (and after!), whose teaching is based on a mechanistic conception of instrumental playing. With the exception of pianists such as Cramer, Field, Hummel and Moscheles, the teachers descended from the Classical generation regarded the acquisition of virtuosity as a collection of recipes (catalogued in innumerable Methods) to obtain a well-determined position of the fingers, hand, forearm, etc. One concentrated on the physical act of producing the sound, forgetting that the desire to create a certain sonority engenders the appropriate movement and in this way contributes to the education of the fingers. So the presumed way to virtuosity lay in a daily regime consisting of long hours of digital gymnastics and stubborn repetition of Etudes de mécanisme like those of Czerny, Kalkbrenner, Herz and others prolific in the genre. Galvanised into action by Paganini's enchanted violin, Schumann and above all Liszt helped to pull piano teaching out of this rut, drawing new resources out of the instrument with their adaptations and transcriptions of Paganini's Caprices. Chopin, on the contrary, self-taught (his only piano teacher, Zywny, was a violinist) and an outsider to all Schools, with no taste for transcribing, offered in place of the narrowly mechanistic views a new, artistic conception of technical work. In place of the mental numbness caused by mechanical repetition of exercices, he advocated an intense listening concentration, an element reflected in the work, and playing, of Leimer and Gieseking. In this concentration reside the two complementary factors indispensable to a good sonority: refinement of the ear, and muscular control and relaxation. One can hardly overstress that in Chopin's definition of technique, sound production, or the art of touch, comes before the acquisition of virtuosity: "One needs only to study a certain positioning of the hand in relation to the keys to obtain with ease the most beautiful quality of sound, to know how to play long notes and short notes and [to attain] unlimited dexterity" (Eigeldinger, 1993, p. 42) and "A well-formed technique, it seems to me, [is one] that can control and vary [bien nuancer] a beautiful sound quality" (Eigeldinger, 1993, p. 74). This is really the fundamental article of Chopin's pianistic credo, illustrated equally well by an axiom attributed to Liszt: 'All technique originates in the art of touch and returns to it.'

A maximum of suppleness ('facilement, facilement' he would repeat tirelessly), and a cultivation of sensitivity of hearing and touch - these were the purposes of the exercises he prescribed in the first lessons. Chopin's famous predilection for the black keys springs from his understanding of the keyboard's proper relationship to the physiognomy of the hand, as the black keys favour a natural, comfortable position of the longer second, third and fourth fingers. This is why he made his pupils begining with the scales of B, F#, and Db (following the basic fingering 1-2-3-1, 2-3-4-1 and 2-3-1 respectively). Contrary to the teachers of his time, who sought to equalize the fingers by means of laborious and cramping exercises, Chopin cultivated the finger's individual characteristics, prizing their natural inequality as a source of variety in sound: "As many different sounds as there are fingers" (Eigeldinger, 1993, p. 74-76). In this way he would quickly develop a great variety of colours in his pupils' sound, sparing them meanwhile much tedious labour in fighting the structure of their own hands. As for evenness of fingers and the jeu perlé, that touchstone of Romantic pianists, Chopin achieved it by two original means: innovative fingering conducive to producing a flowing succession of sounds, and, in scales and arpeggios, a light movement of the hand in the direction of the run.


Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger
Translation from French: Katarzyna Naliwajek-Mazurek



  1. Adelung Sophie von, Chopin als Lehrer Neue Musik-Zeitung XLIV (1923), nr 8, pp. 121-123. (Adelung)
  2. Denis Ferdinand, Journal 1829-1848. Ed. Pierre Moreau, Fribourg-Paris, 1932. (Denis)
  3. Działyńska Cecylia, Jak grać Chopina, Kurier Poznański nr 270 (24 November 1892), p. 2-3.
  4. Eigeldinger Jean-Jacques, Chopin Pianist and Teacher as Seen by his Pupils. Cambridge University Press, 1986. (Eigeldinger, 1986)
  5. Eigeldinger Jean-Jacques, Chopin vu par ses élèves. Troisième éd. revue et augmentée, Neuchâtel, La Baconnière, 1988. (Eigeldinger, 1988)
  6. Eigeldinger, Jean-Jacques, Frédéric Chopin 'Esquisses pour une méthode de piano'. Textes réunis et présentés par ..., Paris, Flammarion, 1993. (Eigeldinger, 1993).
  7. Grewingk Maria von, Eine Tochter Alt-Rigas, Schulerin Chopins, Riga 1928. (Grewingk)
  8. Hedley Arthur, Nieznana uczennica Chopina, "Ruch Muzyczny", XIV (1970) nr 4 , pp. 6-8. (Hedley)
  9. Holland Jeanne, Chopin's Teaching and his Students. Ph. D., University of North Carolina, 1973. Microfilm 73-26-183.
  10. Karasowski Moritz, Friedrich Chopin. Sein Leben, seine Werke und Briefe, Dresden, 1877, 2 (Karasowski)
  11. Kleczyński Jan, "Chopin's Greater Works. Transl. with Additions by Natalie Janotha", London, William Reeves, (1896).
  12. Kleczyński Jan, "Frédéric Chopin. De l'interprétation de ses oeuvres". Paris, Mackar, 1880.
  13. Koczalski Raoul de, Chopin pianiste, Remarques générales pour l'exécution des oeuvres de Chopin, in: Frédéric Chopin. Quatre conférences analytiques. Paris, édité par l'auteur, [1910].
  14. Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina. Bronisław Edward Sydow, Warszawa, PIW, 1955, 2 vol. (KFC)
  15. Lenz Wilhelm von, Les Grands virtuoses du piano. Liszt - Chopin - Tausig - Henselt. Traduit et présenté par Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Paris, Flammarion, 1995.
  16. Marmontel Antoine, Les Pianistes célébres. Paris, Heugel, 1878. (Marmontel)
  17. Mathias Georges, "Preface", in Isidore Philipp, Exercices quotidiens tirés des oeuvres de Chopin, Paris, s.d. [1897] (Mathias)
  18. Mikuli Carl, "Vorwort", in Fr. Chopin's Pianoforte-Werke. Ed. Mikuli, Leipzig, Kistner, [1880], (Mikuli)
  19. Moscheles (Charlotte), Aus Moscheles' Leben. Nach Briefen und Tagebüchern, Leipzig, 1872-1873, 2 vol. (Moscheles)
  20. Niecks Frederick, Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician. London, Novello, (1902, third ed.), 2 vol. (Niecks)
  21. Sand George, Correspondance. Ed. Georges Lubin, Paris, Garnier, 1964-1991, 25 vol. (CGS). 

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