25. Hands Together and Mental Play

We can finally start putting the hands together (HT)! Some students encounter the most difficulties here, especially in the first few years of piano lessons. Although the methods presented here should immediately help you to acquire technique faster, it will take about two years to be able to really take advantage of everything that the methods of this book have to offer.

Playing HT is almost like trying to think about two different things at the same time. There is no known, pre-programmed coordination between the two hands like we have between our two eyes (for judging distance), our ears (for determining the direction of oncoming sound) or our legs/arms (for walking). Therefore, learning to coordinate the fingers of the two hands accurately is going to take some work. The preceding HS work makes this coordination much easier to learn because we now only have to concentrate on coordinating, and not coordinating AND developing finger/hand technique at the same time.

The good news is that there is only one primary “secret” for learning HT quickly. That “secret” is adequate HS work, so you already know it! All technique must be acquired HS; don’t try to acquire technique HT that you can acquire HS. By now, the reasons should be obvious. If you try to acquire technique HT, you will run into problems such as:

  1. Developing stress
  2. Unbalancing the hands (the RH tends to get stronger)
  3. Acquiring bad habits
  4. Creating speed walls

Note that all speed walls are created; they result from incorrect play or stress. Premature HT practice can create any number of speed walls. Incorrect motions are another major problem; some motions present no problems when played slowly HT but become impossible when speeded up. The best example of this is “thumb under” play (5. Playing Fast: Scales, Arpeggios, and Chromatic Scales).

First, you will need some criterion for deciding when you have done adequate HS practice. A good criterion is HS speed. Typically, the maximum HT speed you can play is 50% to 90% of the slower HS speed, either the RH or the LH. Suppose that you can play the RH at speed 10 and the LH at speed 9. Then your maximum HT speed may be 7. The quickest way to raise this HT speed to 9 would be to raise the RH speed to 12 and the LH speed to 11. As a general rule, get the HS speed well above final speed. Therefore, the criterion we were seeking is: if you can play HS at 110% to 150% of final speed, relaxed, and in control, then you are ready for HT practice.

If you still have trouble, use the method of “outlining”. Let’s assume that you can play HS satisfactorily. Now simplify one or both hands so that you can play them HT easily, then gradually add the deleted material. There are many ways to do this, and you can develop really powerful methods depending on how much music theory you know, so outlining will be discussed in more detail in 8. Outlining (Beethoven’s Sonata #1). However, you don’t need theory to use outlining; one example is the method of “adding notes”: take a short segment of the difficult section, then play the more difficult hand HS, repeating the section continuously (this is called cycling, see 2. Cycling (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu)); now start adding the easier hand note by note. First add one note and practice until you can play it satisfactorily. Then add another, etc., until the segment is complete. Make sure that, as you add notes, you keep the same fingering as used during HS practice. Very often, the reason why you cannot play HT although you can play HS is that there is an error somewhere. Frequently, this error is in the rhythm. Therefore, as you add notes, try to find out if there is an error in one hand; this is best accomplished by referring back to the music score.

There is a world of difference in how the brain handles tasks in one hand and tasks that require two-hand coordination, which is why it pays to learn them one at a time. HS practice does not tend to form habits not directly controlled by the brain because the brain controls each hand directly. HT motions, on the other hand, can be cultivated only by repetition, creating a reflex habit, which may involve nerve cells outside the brain. One indication of this is the fact that HT motions take longer to learn. Therefore, bad HT habits are the worst because, once formed, they take forever to eliminate. To acquire technique quickly, you must avoid this category of bad habits.

Mental play (MP) is necessary for HT play exactly as for HS play but HT MP is, of course, more difficult for beginners. Once you become good at MP, HS and HT MP will be equally easy. Since you already know HS mental play (12. Learning, Memorizing, and Mental Play), the main remaining job is to learn it HT. When memorizing MP HS, you should have encountered places in every composition where you had to go back and check it at the piano – you can play it at the piano but not in your mind – those places weren’t entirely in your head yet. Those are the places where you could have had blackouts during performances. As a test that you have solid MP, there are 3 things that you should be able to do in your mind:

  1. Can you start from anywhere in the piece and start playing HT?
  2. Given any section that you are playing one hand, can you add the other hand?
  3. Can you play both hands simultaneously in your head?

You should find that if you can do these in your mind, you can easily do them at the piano.

Let us now proceed with real life examples of how to practice HT. I have chosen 3 examples to illustrate HT methods, starting with the easiest, the 1st movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, then Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, and finally, the challenging Fantaisie-Impromptu (FI) by Chopin. You should choose the one best suited to your skill level. You might also try the Bach Inventions that are covered in detail in sections l. Sight Readers versus Memorizers: Learning Bach’s Inventions and 19. The “Ideal” Practice Routine (Bach’s Teachings and Invention #4). I will leave the Für Elise, discussed above, for you to try by yourself, as it is fairly short and relatively straightforward. For many pianists, Für Elise is “too familiar” and often difficult to play; in that case, play it in a subdued way, concentrating on accuracy instead of emotion (no rubato), and let the music speak for itself. It can be quite effective with the right audience. This “detached” play can be useful for popular, familiar music.

The three compositions chosen here present certain challenges. The Moonlight requires legato, PP, and the music of Beethoven. The Alla Turca must sound like Mozart, is fairly fast and requires accurate, independent hand control as well as solid octave play. The FI requires the ability to play 4-against-3 and 2-against-3 in the 2 hands, extremely fast RH fingering, the romanticism of Chopin, and accurate pedaling. All three are relatively easy to play HT in the mind because the LH is mostly an accompaniment to the RH; in the Bach Inventions, both hands play major roles and HT MP is more difficult. This demonstrates that Bach probably taught MP and purposely composed challenging pieces for his students. This increased difficulty also explains why, without proper guidance (such as this book), some students find the Inventions extremely difficult to memorize and play at speed.

Beethoven’s Moonlight, 1st Movement, Op. 27, No. 2

The most notable controversy about this movement is the pedaling. Beethoven’s instruction “senza sordini” translates to “without dampers” which means that the pedal should be down from the beginning to the end. Most pianists have not followed this instruction because on modern concert grands the sustain is so long (much longer than on Beethoven’s piano) that the mixture of all those notes creates a background roar that is considered crude in conventional piano pedagogy. Certainly, no piano teacher will allow the student to do that! However, Beethoven was not only an extremist, but loved to break the rules. The Moonlight is built on contrast. The first movement is slow, legato, pedaled, and soft. The 3rd movement is the extreme opposite; it is simply a variation on the first movement played very fast and agitato – this is confirmed by the observation that the top double octave of bar 2 in the 3rd movement is an abbreviated form of the 3-note theme prominent in the 1st movement, discussed below (see 5. Playing Fast: Scales, Arpeggios, and Chromatic Scales for discussions of the 3rd movement). There is also a glaring contrast between the dissonances and the clear harmonies that give this first movement its famous quality. The background dissonance is created by the pedal, as well as the ninths, etc. Thus the dissonances are there in order to make the harmonies stand out, like a sparkling diamond on a dark velvet background. Being the extremist that he is, he chose the most harmonious theme possible: one note repeated three times (bar 5)! Therefore, my interpretation is that the pedal should be down throughout the piece just as Beethoven instructed. With most pianos, this should present no problems; however, with concert grands, it gets difficult because the background din becomes louder as you play and you still have to play PP (“sempre pianissimo”); in that case you might reduce the background slightly, but never cut it out completely, as it is part of the music. This is not the way you will hear it in recordings, where the emphasis is usually on the clear harmonies, eliminating the background – the “standard” convention for “correct” pedaling. However, Beethoven may have decided to break that rule here. This is why he did not put any pedal markings in the whole movement – because you never have to lift it. Having decided to fully engage the damper pedal throughout, the first rule in learning this piece is not to use the pedal at all until you can play it comfortably HT. This will enable you to learn how to play legato, which can only be practiced without the pedal. Although it is played very softly, there is no need for the soft pedal in this piece; moreover, with most practice pianos, the action is not sufficiently smooth, with the soft pedal depressed, to enable the desired control at PP.

Start by memorizing HS, say bars 1-5, and immediately commit it to mental play. Pay attention to all the expression markings. It is in cut time, but the 2 first bars are like an introduction and have only one LH octave note each; the rest are played more strictly cut time. Beethoven tells us immediately, in bar 2, that dissonance is going to be a major component of this movement by inserting the octave B in the LH, jarring the audience with a dissonance. Continue memorizing in segments until the end.

The LH octaves must be held. For example, play the LH C# octave of bar 1 using fingers 51, but immediately slip the 4, then 3 finger onto the lower C#, replacing the 5, holding this lower C# down. You will end up holding the octave 31 before you reach bar 2. Now hold the 3 as you play the B octave of bar 2 with 51. In this way, you maintain complete legato in the LH going down. Using this procedure, you cannot maintain complete legato with the 1 finger, but hold that as long as you can. In the transition from bar 3 to 4, the LH octave must come up. In that case, play the F# of bar 3 with 51, then hold the 5 and play the next G# octave with 41. Similarly, for bars 4 to 5, play the 2nd G# octave of bar 4 with 51, then replace finger 1 with 2 while holding it down (you may have to lift the 5) so that you can play the following chord of bar 5, fingers 521, and maintain the legato. The general idea is to hold as many notes as you can, especially the lower note for the LH and the upper note for the RH. There are usually several ways to do these “holds”, so you should experiment to see which is best for you in a particular situation. The choice of a specific hold procedure depends mostly on the size of your hand. For example, the LH octave of bar 1 could have been played 41 or 31 so that you do not have to replace any fingers; this has the advantage of simplicity, but has the disadvantage that you need to remember that when you start the piece. Throughout this piece, use the “finger replacement” method to hold as much legato as possible. You must decide on a specific replacement procedure when you first memorize the piece and always use that same one.

Why hold the note legato when you are eventually going to hold all the notes with the pedal anyway? Firstly, how you depress the key depends on how you hold it; therefore, you can play a more consistent and authoritative legato by holding. Secondly, if you lift the key but hold the note with the pedal, the backcheck releases the hammer, allowing it to flop around, and this “looseness” of the action is audible – the nature of the sound changes. Moreover, as commander of the piano, you always want the backcheck to hold the hammer so that you have complete control over the entire piano action. This degree of control is extremely important when playing PP – you can’t control the PP if the hammer is flopping around. Another reason for holding is that it provides absolute accuracy because your hand never leaves the keyboard and the held note acts as a reference for finding the following notes.

Music – how to make music? Bar 1 is not just a series of 4 triplets. They must be logically connected; therefore, pay attention to the connection between the top note of each triplet and the bottom note of the next triplet. This connection is especially important when transitioning from one bar to the next, and the lowest note often has melodic value, as in bars 4-5, 9-10, etc. The RH of bar 5 starts with the lowest note, E, and the music rises all the way to the G# of the 3-note theme. This theme should not be played “alone” but is the culmination of the arpeggic rise of the preceding triplet. If you have difficulty reaching the RH ninth of bar 8, play the lower note with the LH; similarly, at bar 16. In these instances, you cannot completely hold the legato in the LH, but the legato in the RH is more important, and the lifting of the LH can be made less audible when you use the pedal later. However, if you can reach it easily, you should try to play the ninth with the RH alone because that will allow you to hold more notes in the LH. Although the first note of the 3-note theme is an octave G#, the top note should be distinct from, and firmer than, the lower note. Bars 32-35 is a series of rising triplets of increasing tension. Bars 36-37 should be connected, because is it one smooth release of that tension.

The beginning is PP to bar 25 where there is a crescendo, decreasing to P in bar 28, and returning to PP in bar 42. In most cresc. and decresc., most of the increase or decrease should come near the end, not near the beginning. There is an unexpected crescendo in bar 48, and an abrupt jump to P at the first note of bar 49. This is the clearest indication that Beethoven wanted a clear harmony superposed on a dissonant din created by the pedal. The “ending” starts near bar 55. Be careful to observe the cut time; in particular, emphasize the first and third beats of bar 57. What appears to be a normal ending is indicated by the (wrong) accents on the 4th beat of bar 58 and the 3rd beat of bar 59. The first chord of bar 60 is a false ending. Most composers would have ended the music here; it is the same chord as the first chord of this movement - a characteristic of standard endings. However, Beethoven often used double endings, which makes the real ending more “final”. He immediately picks up the beat and leads you to the true ending, using a nostalgic recapitulation of the 3-note theme played by the LH, all played PP. The final two chords should be the softest notes of the entire movement, which is difficult because they contain so many notes.

For HT play, this movement presents no problems. The only new element is the holding of notes for legato which requires extra control over both hands simultaneously.

Once you have memorized the whole movement and can play it HT satisfactorily, add the pedal. If you choose to keep the pedal down all the time, the melody of the top notes in bars 5-9 can be played as an ethereal apparition superposed on a background dissonance created by the chord progressions. Beethoven probably chose this construction to demonstrate the sonority of the new pianos of that time and to explore their capabilities. This observation supports the idea that the dissonant background should not be completely eliminated by judiciously lifting the pedal.

Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, from Sonata K300 (K331).

I am going to assume that you have already done the HS homework, and begin with the HT part especially because HS play is relatively simple with most of Mozart’s music. The discussions will center on the issues of technical difficulties and “how to make it sound like Mozart”. Before starting on the details, let’s discuss the structure of the entire sonata because, if you learn its final section, you may decide to learn the whole thing – there is not a single page of this sonata that is not fascinating.

The term sonata has been applied to so many types of music that it does not have a unique definition; it evolved and changed with time. In the earliest times, it simply meant music or song. Prior to, and including, Mozart’s time, “sonata” meant instrumental music with one to four parts, consisting of Sonata, Minuet, Trio, Rondo, etc. A sonatina is a small sonata. There is also a sonata allegro, initially developed as the first part of a sonata, symphony, concerto, etc.; it generally contained an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. The sonata allegro is important historically because this basic structure was gradually incorporated into most compositions. Curiously, no part of this Mozart sonata (No. 16, K300) is in sonata allegro format (Hinson, P. 552). It starts with a theme and 6 variations. Variation V is Adagio and should not be rushed. Then comes a break, which corresponds to the middle or slow movement of a Beethoven sonata. This break takes the form of a minuet-trio, a form of dance. The minuet originated as a French court dance with 3 beats and was the predecessor of the waltz. The waltz format also includes mazurkas; these originated as Polish dances, which is why Chopin composed so many mazurkas. They differ from the (Viennese) waltzes that have the accent on the first beat, in that their accent can be on the second or third beat. Waltzes started independently in Germany as a slower dance with 3 strong beats; it then evolved into the popular dances that we now refer to as “Viennese”. Trios gradually went extinct as quartets gained popularity. Both the minuet and trio in our sonata have the time signature 3/4. Thus every first beat carries the accent; knowing that it is in a dance (waltz) format makes it easier to play the minuet-trio correctly. The trio should have a totally different air from the minuet (a convention in Mozart’s time); this change in air gives the transition a refreshing feel. “Trio” generally refers to music played with 3 instruments; therefore, you will see three voices in this trio, which you can assign to a violin, viola, and cello. Don’t forget the “Menuetto D. C.” (De Capo, which means return to the beginning) at the end of the Trio; thus you must play minuet-trio-minuet. The final section is the Rondo. Rondos have the general structure ABACADA..., which makes good use of a catchy melody, A.

Our Rondo has the structure (BB’)A(CC’)A(BB’)A’-Coda, a very symmetric structure. The time signature is a lively cut time; can you figure out the key of BB’? The rest of this Rondo is all in A, as is the formal key of this sonata. The entire sonata is sometimes referred to as a variation on a single theme, which is probably wrong, although the Rondo resembles Variation III, and the Trio resembles Variation IV. It starts with the B structure, constructed from a short unit of only 5 notes, repeated twice with a rest between them in bars 1-3; it is repeated at double speed in bar 4; he cleverly uses the same unit as a conjunction between these repetitions at the end of bar 3. It is again repeated at half speed in bars 7 and 8 and the last 2 bars provide the ending. Bar 9 is the same as bar 8 except that the last note is lowered instead of raised; this abrupt change in the repeating pattern is an easy way to signal an ending. The half speed units are disguised by adding two grace notes in the beginning, so that, when the entire B is played at speed, we only hear the melody without recognizing the individual repeat units. The efficiency of his composing process is astounding – he repeated the same unit 7 times in 9 bars using 3 speeds to compose one of his famous melodies. In fact, the entire sonata consists of these repeated sections that are 8 to 10 bars long. There are several sections that are 16 or 32 bars long, but these are multiples of the basic 8 bar sections. More examples of this type of micro-structural analysis are discussed in 4. Mozart’s Formula, Beethoven and Group Theory for Mozart and Beethoven. This type of analysis can be helpful for memorization and mental play – after all, mental play is how he composed them!

The technically challenging parts are

  1. the fast RH trill of bar 25,
  2. the fast RH runs from bar 36-60 - make sure you have good fingering,
  3. the fast broken RH octaves of bars 97-104
  4. the fast LH Alberti accompaniment of bars 119-125.

Examine these elements to see which is the hardest for you, and start by practicing that element first. The broken octave sequence of bars 97-104 is not just a series of broken octaves, but two melodies, an octave and a half-step apart, chasing each other. Practice everything HS, without pedal, until they are comfortable before starting HT. Parallel set exercises are the key to developing the technique to play these elements and parallel set exercise #1 (quad repetitions, b. Parallel Set Exercises for Intrinsic Technical Development) is the most important, especially for learning relaxation. For fast trills, go to a. Trills. The broken chords in the LH (bar 28, etc., and in the Coda) should be played very fast, almost like a single note, and match the RH notes. The HT practice should initially be without pedal until you are comfortable HT.

How do you make music that sounds like Mozart? There is no secret – the instructions have been there all the time! They are the expression markings on the music; for Mozart, each marking has a precise meaning, and if you follow every one of them, including the time signature, etc., the music becomes an intimate, intricate conversation. The “only” thing you need to do is to suppress the urge to insert expressions of your own. There is no better example of this than the last 3 chords at the end. It is so simple, that it is almost unbelievable (a hallmark of Mozart): the first chord is a staccato and the remaining two are legato. This simple device creates a convincing ending; play it any other way, and the ending becomes a flop. Therefore, these last 3 chords should not be pedaled although some scores (Schirmer) have pedal markings on them. Better pianists tend to play the entire Rondo without pedal.

Let’s examine the first 8 bars in more detail.

Right Hand: The first 4 note theme (bar 1) is played legato followed by an eighth note and exact 8th rest. The note and rest are needed for the audience to “digest” the introduction of the unit. This construct is repeated, then the 4-note theme is repeated at double speed (2 per bar) in bar 4, and climaxes at the C6 played firmly and connecting to the two following staccato notes. This doubling of speed is a device used by composers all the time. In bars 5-7, the RH plays staccato, maintaining the level of excitement. The series of falling notes in bars 8-9 brings this section to a close, like someone stepping on the brakes of a car.

Left Hand: The simple LH accompaniment provides a rigid skeleton; without it, the whole 9 bars would flop around like a wet noodle. The clever placement of the ties (between the 1st and 2nd notes of bar 2, etc.) not only emphasizes the cut time nature of each bar, but brings out the rhythmic idea within this exposition; it sounds like a fox trot dance step – slow, slow, quick-quick-slow in bars 2-5, repeated in bars 6-9. Because every note must be staccato in bars 6-8, the only way to emphasize the rhythm is to accent the first note of each bar.

Both notes of bar 9 (both hands) are legato and slightly softer in order to provide an ending, and both hands lift at the same instant. It is clear that we must not only know what the markings are, but also why they are there. Of course, there is no time to think about these complicated explanations; the music should take care of that - the artist simply feels the effects of these markings. The strategic placing of legato, staccato, ties, and accents is the key to playing this piece, while accurately maintaining the rhythm. Hopefully, you should now be able to continue the analysis for the rest of this piece and reproduce music that is uniquely Mozart.

HT play is slightly more difficult than the previous Moonlight because this piece is faster and requires higher accuracy. Perhaps the most difficult part is the coordination of the trill in the RH with the LH in bar 25. Don’t try to learn this by slowing it down. Simply make sure that the HS work is completely done using bars 25 and 26 as a single practice segment, then combine the 2 hands at speed. Always try to combine things HT at speed (or close to it) first, and use slower speeds only as a last resort because if you succeed, you will save lots of time and avoid forming bad habits. Advanced pianists almost never have to combine hands by slowing down.

After you are comfortable HT without the pedal, add the pedal. In the section starting at bar 27, the combination of broken LH chords, RH octaves, and pedal creates a sense of grandeur that is representative of how Mozart could create grandeur from relatively simple constructs. Hold the last note of this section a little longer than required by the rhythm (tenuto, bar 35), especially after the repetition, before launching into the next section. As stated earlier, Mozart wrote no pedal markings; therefore, after practicing HT without pedal, add pedal only where you think it will elevate the music. Especially with difficult material such as Rachmaninoff’s, less pedal is looked upon by the pianist community as indicating superior technique.

Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66, Fast Play Degradation (FPD)

This example was selected because:

  1. Everyone likes this composition
  2. Without good learning methods it can seem impossible to learn
  3. The exhilaration of suddenly being able to play it is unmatched
  4. The challenges of the piece are ideal for illustration purposes
  5. This is the kind of piece that you will be working on all your life in order to do “incredible things” with it, so you might as well start now!

Most students who have difficulty do so because they can’t get started and the initial hurdle produces a mental block that makes them doubt their ability to play this piece. There is no better demonstration of the efficacy of the methods of this book than demonstrating how to learn this composition. However, because this piece is reasonably difficult, you should read section III before learning it.

You will need about 2 yrs of piano lessons before you can start learning this piece. For easier pieces, try the above Moonlight and Rondo, or section l. Sight Readers versus Memorizers: Learning Bach’s Inventions, Bach’s Inventions. Make sure you figure out the key before you start.


After the G# “announcement”, it starts with C# in bar 3 and the composition ends with C#, and the Largo starts with Db (same note as C#!); but is each in a major or minor key?

The large number of sharps and flats, as in this composition, often worries beginners; however, the black keys are easier to play than the white keys once you know the flat finger positions (see b. Playing with Flat Fingers) and the Thumb Over method (see 5. Playing Fast: Scales, Arpeggios, and Chromatic Scales). Chopin may have chosen these “far out” keys for this reason, because the scale does not matter in the Equal Temperament that he probably used (see c. Pythagorean, Equal, Meantone, and “Well” Temperaments).

We start by reviewing the preliminary work with HS practice and mental play. Therefore you should practice HT with the objective of attaining very accurate synchronization of the two hands. Although the last page might be most difficult, we will break the rule about starting at the end and start at the beginning because this piece is difficult to start correctly but, once started, it takes care of itself. You need a strong, confident beginning. So we will start with the first two pages, up to the slow cantabile part. The LH stretch and continuous workout makes endurance (i.e., relaxation) a major issue. Those without sufficient experience and especially those with smaller hands, may need to work on the LH for weeks before it becomes satisfactory. Fortunately, the LH is not that fast, so speed is not a limiting factor and most students should be able to play the LH faster HS than final speed in less than two weeks, completely relaxed, without fatigue.

For bar 5 where the RH first comes in, the suggested LH fingering is 532124542123. You might start by practicing bar 5, LH, by cycling it continually until you can play it well. You should stretch the palm, not the fingers, which can lead to stress and injury. See section e. Playing (Wide) Chords, Finger/Palm Spreading Exercises for palm stretching exercises.

Practice without the pedal. Practice in small segments. Suggested segments are: bars 1-4, 5-6, 1st half of 7, 2nd half of 7, 8, 10 (skip 9 which is the same as 5), 11, 12, 13-14, 15- 16, 19-20, 21-22, 30-32, 33-34, then 2 chords in 35. If you cannot reach the 2nd chord, play it as a very fast ascending broken chord, with emphasis on the top note. After each segment is memorized and satisfactory, connect them in pairs. Then play the whole LH from memory by starting from the beginning and adding segments. Bring it up to final speed and check your mental play.

When you can play this entire section (LH only) twice in succession, relaxed, without feeling tired, you have the necessary endurance. At this point, it is a lot of fun to go much faster than final speed. In preparation for HT work, get up to about 1.5 times final speed. Raise the wrist slightly when playing the pinky and lower it as you approach the thumb. By raising the wrist, you will find that you can put more power into the pinky, and by lowering the wrist you avoid missing the thumb note. In Chopin’s music, the pinky and thumb (but especially the pinky) notes are most important, so practice playing these two fingers with authority. The Cartwheel Method, explained in 5. Playing Fast: Scales, Arpeggios, and Chromatic Scales, may be useful here.

When you are satisfied with it, insert the pedal; basically, the pedal should be cut with every chord change which generally occurs either once every bar or twice every bar. The pedal is a rapid up and down (“cutting the sound”) motion at the first beat, but you can lift the pedal earlier for special effects. For the wide LH stretch in the second half of bar 14 (starting with E2), the fingering is 532124 if you can reach it comfortably. If not, use 521214.

At the same time, you should have been practicing the RH, switching hands as soon as the working hand feels slightly tired. The routines are almost identical to those for the LH, including practicing without the pedal. Start by splitting bar 5 into two halves and learn each half separately up to speed, and then join them. For the rising arpeggio in bar 7, use the thumb over method because it is too fast to be played thumb under. The fingering should be such that both hands tend to play the pinky or thumb at the same time; this makes it easier to play HT. This is why it is not a good idea to fool around with the fingerings of the LH – use the fingerings as marked on the score.

Now practice HT. You can start with either the first or second half of bar 5 where the RH comes in for the first time. The second half is probably easier because of the smaller stretch of the LH and there is no timing problem with the missing first note in the RH (for the first half), so let’s start with the second half. The easiest way to learn the 3,4 timing is to do it at speed from the beginning. Don’t try to slow down and figure out where each note should go, because too much of that will introduce an unevenness in your playing that may become impossible to correct later on. Here we use the “cycling” method – see “Cycling” in section 2. Cycling (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu). First, cycle the six notes of the LH continually, without stopping. Then switch hands and do the same for the eight notes of the RH, at the same (final) tempo as you did for the LH. Next cycle only the LH several times, and then let the RH join in. Initially, you only need to match the first notes accurately; don’t worry if the others aren’t quite right. In a few tries, you should be able to play HT fairly well. If not, stop and start all over again, cycling HS. Since almost the whole composition is made up of things like the segment you just practiced, it pays to practice this well, until you are very comfortable. To accomplish this, change the speed. Go very fast, then very slowly. As you slow down, you will be able to take notice of where all the notes fit with respect to each other. You will find that fast is not necessarily difficult, and slower is not always easier. The 3,4 timing is a mathematical device Chopin used to produce the illusion of hyper-speed in this piece. The mathematical explanations and additional salient points of this composition are further discussed under “Cycling” in 2. Cycling (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu). You will probably practice this composition HS for years after you initially complete the piece because it is so much fun to experiment with this fascinating composition. Now add the pedal. This is when you should develop the habit of accurately pumping the pedal.

If you are satisfied with the second half of bar 5, repeat the same procedure for the first half. Then assemble the two halves together. One disadvantage of the HS-HT approach is that practically all technique acquisition is accomplished HS, possibly resulting in poorly synchronized HT play. You now have most the tools to learn the rest of this composition by yourself!

The cantabile section is the same thing repeated four times with increasing complexity. Therefore, learn (and memorize) the first repetition first because it is the easiest, then learn the 4th repetition because it is the most difficult. Normally, we should learn the most difficult part first but, in this case, starting with the 4th repetition may take too long for some students, and learning the easiest repetition first can make it much easier to learn the 4th repetition because they are similar. As with many Chopin pieces, memorizing the LH well is the quickest way to build a firm foundation for memorizing because the LH usually has a simpler structure that is easier to analyze, memorize and play. Moreover, Chopin often created different versions of the RH for each repetition while using essentially the same notes in the LH as he did in this case (same chord progressions); therefore, after you learn the first repetition, you already know most of the LH part of the 4th repetition, enabling you to learn this last repetition quickly.

The trill in the 1st bar of the 4th repetition, combined with the 2,3 timing, makes the 2nd half of this bar difficult. Since there are 4 repetitions, you might play it without the trill in the first repetition, then an inverted mordent the 2nd, a short trill the 3rd, and a longer trill the last time around.

The third section (Presto!) is similar to the first section, so if you managed to learn the first section, you are almost home free. However, this time, it is faster than the first time (Allegro) – Chopin apparently wants you to play this at two different speeds, possibly because he saw that they can sound quite different when you change the speed; why should it sound different, and in what way? – the physics and psychology of this speed change is discussed in 2. Cycling (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu). Note that in the final 20 bars or so, the RH pinky and thumb carry notes of major thematic value, all the way to the end. This section may require a lot of HS practice with the RH.

If you play any composition at full speed (or faster) too often, you may suffer what I call “fast play degradation” (FPD). The following day, you might find that you can’t play it as well any more, or during practice, you can’t make any progress. This happens mostly with HT play. HS play is more immune to FPD and can in fact be used to correct it. FPD occurs probably because the human playing mechanism (hands, brain, etc) gets confused at such speeds, and therefore occurs only for complex procedures such as HT play of conceptually or technically difficult pieces. Easy pieces do not suffer FPD. FPD can create enormous problems with complex music like Bach’s or Mozart’s compositions. Students who try to speed them up HT can run into all sorts of problems and the standard solution had been to simply keep practicing slowly. However, there is a neat solution to this problem – use HS practice! And remember that whenever you play fast, you will generally suffer FPD if you do not play slowly at least once before quitting. Also, FPD can be an indication that your mental play may not be solid or up to speed.