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I am trying to learn Chopin Etude Op 10 no 1, and since it is the summer I am without a teacher. I've got the notes and the fingering down pat, but I am stuck on a tempo of about 130 bpm, when I should be playing 170.

I can play it consistently at 130, but every time I try to go higher, I stumble and play very badly. I've played the piano for about 5 years, and have never really attempted pieces like this one before. What are some tips or exercises I can do to get my tempo up?

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First of all, attempting that piece after 5 years of study is probably too early. I guess it's possible, depending on your study "regimen" for these 5 years, your age, and your natural talent, but to give you a reference, Chopin's Op.10 is in the Syllabus of the Associate Diploma (ARCT) in Piano Performance of UK's Royal Conservatory. I'm not fully familiar with the UK's program but I gather this level is after 10 years of study.

Having said that, I don't see a problem in having a go at it as a holyday project of sorts, but you must be careful in not letting bad habits and sloppy playing settle in. From your own diagnosis it seems like you already are sensitized to that risk, so that's good.

To practice the piece and try to achieve proper tempo, normal practice methods should be applied:

  • Practising with metronome and increasing speed as slowly as necessary to be always be able to keep precision and fluidity of phrasing
  • Practising complementary mechanical exercises. For OP.10 #1, arpeggios would be the most obvious choice, both two hands and right hand only. Note that if you are right handed, practising arpeggios with both hands will obviously slow down your right hand, but the drill of playing with both hands while striving to achieve tempo precision and phrasing fluidity will be enormously beneficial
  • Practising by segments, specially the harder ones, with several "mechanical" drills: alternating accentuation, syncopation (binary and ternary), with staccato, legato, etc.
    • Try short separate segments at increasing speeds, always maintaining precision, before attempting larger segments and the whole piece at the same speed.

Don't worry if in the course of a couple of months you can only achieve a relatively modest progress in speed, that would be totally normal, and a quite good result anyway as long as you keep clarity and precision of execution.

Edit: a severe omission in my original reply above is the issue of hand rotation, the answer of @Alephzero points to some very good videos explaining that.

  • My grand child started to play this etude after 2 years of piano lessons. But he has been playing violon cello for at least 6 years. I didn‘t now this piece before, now he‘s playing already better than me after almost 60 years. – Albrecht Hügli Jan 23 at 7:31
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This was intended to be a comment, but since I don't have enough reputation I must write it down here.

Joseem gave you very good advices, but I wanted to add a few things.

  • No one requests you to play at 170 bpm. There's no point in trying to play like Cziffra and other professionals.

  • If you can play it consistently at 130 bpm and cannot go any higher, then you should look back at how you managed to get to 130 bpm. Usually it is because you got to 130 bpm too fast. Therefore you should slow down quite a bit and work from there. Is is very important that you do this as soon as possible, as you might have picked up some bad habits by playing this fast (arms feeling tense, accuracy of the fingers, etc.)

  • Try to work by accentuating the first note of an arpeggio first by segments, then during the whole etude. Follow by accentuating the second note of each group, then the third...always slowly!

  • It might seem dumb, but the left hand is often neglected due to the relative difficulty of the right hand. The left hand is the foundation of the etude, and sometimes by concentrating on the left hand can help.

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Playing the 1 op 10 after 5 years is a little "ambitious" should we say :-)

That being said:

  • that etude has caused tendinitis to many piano players so be on the watch for that: never let the increased speed cause you to tense up your forearm. Not to mention that relaxing will be key to keep your performance accurate.

  • accuracy is tough on that etude as you have noticed. Transitions tend to be the hardest so it does help to play the last few notes of each measure at half the speed of the other notes to increase your finger memory and accuracy for all those transitions.

  • one of the big challenges of that piece is that your hand keeps contracting and expanding. An exercise that helps improve the accuracy is to focus on these transitions, such as repeating each of these transitions twice.

Good luck!!!

PS If you want challenging but more manageable etudes, I suggest 9 op 10, 1 op 25. Possibly 12 op 25 if you like arpegios: much less stretching involved.

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I can play it consistently at 130, but every time I try to go higher, I stumble and play very badly.

Don't forget the remark attributed to Einstein: "Insanity is endlessly repeating the same procedure, but hoping for a different result".

If you are "stuck" at a particular tempo, and you have been playing for (only) 5 years, most likely your technique is just not appropriate for this piece.

Some things can't be learned by slow practice. Starting at a slow tempo and gradually increasing the speed will only take you part of the way to your goal.

See these answers, and the video links in them: Please explain hand rotation in playing the piano Fingering for some arpeggios on piano (Final Fantasy prelude)

  • good point @alephzero, the issue of hand rotation is indeed a most important one and a severe omission in my own original answer . – José David Jun 6 '17 at 20:38
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A little late but I've come back to this etude after many years and have some tips that might be helpful to others learning this.

This exercise is not really a study in arpeggio technique (as there is never any need to do a traditional 'thumb under' arpeggio) but rather a way of ingraining correct positioning of the hand to play each interval (at lightning speed). The main thing to do is ensure you are playing easily and correctly (as in correct technique not just correct notes) at 130 bpm and then increase the tempo.

For example, for the first RH interval C - G, ensure your hand is oriented purely to play this interval. Your thumb should be very slightly turned inwards but your fingers should be pointed outwards. As you move to the G you reorient your hand so that the next interval (G - C) is lined up (your middle finger should be pointing forwards). Likewise as you move to the C line up your fourth and fifth fingers to play C - E, and, again to play the E - C your fingers and thumb should be pulled in together (similar to how you would hold a tennis ball). At every stage you should not feel any tension or wrist strain.

For some of the patterns this might sound heretical but do not try to connect all the notes with finger legato . For example, the pattern C - Eb - A - Eb don't connect the A - Eb. Instead treat the sequence as almost like a chord playing fingers 1-2-4 on C-Eb-A but first starting with your little finger on the Eb then pick your hand up and move it up an octave. Similarly with A - E - A - C# treat it as 2-4-5 on E - A - C# with your thumb ending on A then move it up an octave. You'll recognize the 'chord' shapes once you try this.

One other 'trick' - play it with your eyes closed! Doing this forces you to think of, feel for, and ingrain the intervals. You'll be surprised at how much faster you can play just from a few solid days of slow practice without looking at the keyboard.

This might all sound like basic advice (focus on the intervals, avoid tension, don't look at the keys) but Chopin was apparently quoted as saying about this etude 'unfortunately, instead of teaching, it frequently un-teaches everything'.

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Just a note. You can play C - Eb - A - Eb legato, but you need to have a very high wrist just after playing the A just at the line between the end og the two black keys and then go for the Eb. You might need larger hands though. I do it this way..

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