Chopin vs. Liszt: Teaching style showdown

Chopin and Liszt, two wildly popular Romantic-era composers, could best be described as “frenemies”. They were both excellent pianists who were wildly revered, but were basically different in every way. Liszt was all flair and virtuosity; Chopin was delicate and subtle, seldom playing louder than a mezzo forte.

I thought it would be fun to explore their differences in today’s video. We already know they were very different writers and musicians, but they also had very different piano teaching styles. As a piano teacher, I find it fun to uncover their philosophies and see which style jives more with me.

A long time ago we did a video on two other composers: Czerny and Hanon. Czerny and Hanon have famous technical exercises for piano, but they couldn’t be more different. Check that out if you haven’t already!

Chopin vs. Liszt: Piano teachers

One of Chopin’s main occupations was as a music teacher, since he didn’t like to do big performances. He taught aristocrats, often wealthy women, and charged a very high fee (though some maintain that he also gave some free lessons). Liszt was also known to be generous with free lessons.

Since Chopin taught mainly women, he didn’t spawn famous pupils (since women didn’t have the opportunity for musical fame in the 1800s). Liszt noted this, saying, “Chopin was unfortunate with his pupils”.

Liszt also spent a lot of time teaching piano. He taught men and women but enjoyed being a little more “familiar” with women – he chose attractive students and would kiss them as a reward. As he grew older and moved out of his “rock star” phase, he took on more of a paternal role in lessons.

Style of piano lessons

Chopin was a teacher for almost two decades and enjoyed the practice immensely. He kept his schedule flexible based on the students’ talents, needs and money – most students he taught a couple times a week for about an hour.

Liszt would often teach group lessons (in a masterclass style), and his lessons would go about 1.5 to 2 hours long. His daily teaching usually began in the late afternoon. Students would come as often as every other day for a lesson, enjoying the challenge of frequent playing and of listening to each other.

Piano brand preferences

His piano of choice was the brand Pleyel, and he had two in his teaching studio (a grand for his students, and an upright for himself during lessons). Liszt preferred the piano brand Erard, a harder and heavier piano.

Chopin vs. Liszt: Performing

Because Chopin had no love of big public performances, he didn’t teach in a way to prepare a student for live performances the way Liszt did. Chopin would teach more on the artistry side, and to play for the sake of enjoyment.

Liszt’s lessons were geared more toward the serious student who desired to be a professional concert pianist. Sometimes he would surprise students by having some guests/musicians in attendance as an impromptu audience.

Choosing students

Chopin refused to teach beginners or children and was extremely selective of his students. Someone wanting lessons with Chopin would have to bypass his friends and go through a few meetings before ever having a lesson with him.

Liszt also refused to teach beginners and wouldn’t teach piano technique – he considered that to be beneath his abilities as a teacher and left that work to others. As such, he only accepted advanced students.

What music they taught

What kind of music did Chopin teach? He would always start lessons with some technical warm-ups, and work on some etudes such as:

-Cramer’s etudes

-Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum

-Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier

-Hummel pieces (which Chopin considered the best preparation for his own pieces)

-Field’s nocturnes (melodic and expressive preparation for Chopin’s music)

He would also teach Classical and contemporary music by:

-Handel

-Beethoven

-Weber

-Scarlatti

-Mendelssohn

-Moscheles

-Heller

Notably absent was music by Liszt and Schumann, two of his contemporaries, which he likely didn’t teach.

Liszt also taught Beethoven and refused to teach Chopin’s Scherzo in B-flat minor, since it was so popular and overplayed. Unlike Chopin, he didn’t spend time on etudes or technical exercises in his lessons.

Piano practice

Chopin was famously against long practice sessions. Hummel’s philosophy was that playing for more than three hours a day “damps the spirits, produces a mechanical, rather than an expressive and impassioned style of playing”, and Chopin subscribed to that belief.

He would rather his students spend time reading books, looking at art, and being present in the world instead of treating piano like a full-time job. He determined that any more than 2-3 hours of practice would effect attention and concentration, which are the most important elements in practice.

He was very against mindless practice, even with things like scales – only mindfulness would help the student draw the expressive possibilities out of technical exercises.

This is where Liszt and Chopin diverge hugely in philosophy – Liszt apparently recommended his students practice 6 or 7 hours a day. He was said to sometimes practice while reading a book – the opposite of full attention and mindfulness.

Piano technique

Chopin didn’t believe in doing technical exercises excessively. He figured the sole purpose of building technique is to free the hands to play more expressively (instead of impressively).

Instead of trying to develop each finger to be equally strong, Chopin determined that was a foolish and impossible endeavor. Instead, he sought to bring out each finger’s individuality at the piano, letting their natural differences in touch add more color and variation to playing.

Liszt approached the piano hand as something that could be finely tuned, like a machine. He spent many hours developing his own immaculate technique in this way, doing lots of repetitive exercises for many hours.

Piano fingering

Chopin broke many fingering rules from the Classical tradition before him. He considered the best fingering to be the easiest to play, regardless of if it followed rules or not. That was, at the time, a revolutionary way of approaching it.

Liszt didn’t do a lot of detail-work with his teaching, and seldom taught things like fingering. Instead he taught with metaphors and stories, giving students broad concepts instead of specific instruction.

An example is of Liszt saying, “‘Do I care how fast you can play your octaves?’ he once thundered… ‘What I wish to hear is the canter of the horses of the Polish cavalry before they gather force and destroy the enemy.’”

Playing piano with feeling

Of utmost importance to Chopin was playing music with feeling, or “putting your soul into it”. Neither Chopin nor Liszt liked when their students imitated them (or anybody). Chopin maintained that he seldom played a piece the same way twice. Anything else he considered to be mechanical.

Chopin encouraged his students to study Italian opera in addition to piano, in order to learn how to make melodies on the piano truly sing.

Liszt also believed that emotive playing was the ultimate goal at the piano. He preferred focusing on this in lessons and got angry when his students had poor technique (“leave your dirty linen at home”), suggesting they go to a conservatory instead.

Rubato

Perhaps where people tend to get Chopin the most wrong is with rubatos, or “rubber band tempo”. People tend to play his music with exaggerated stops and starts, but he was serious about having a metronome at his piano at all times.

But just because he had a metronome and despised exaggerated ritardandos and such doesn’t mean he was an adherent of rigidity – the opposite was true. Chopin’s music needs to be played with a certain spontaneity and elasticity.

Though Liszt tended to be more in favor of big, exaggerated gestures, he was also a fan of playing with flexibility, instead of being mechanically chained to the beat.

Details vs. big picture

Though Chopin might have been more detail-oriented, Liszt spent his lessons looking at the big picture. One of Liszt’s students said, ‘He doesn’t keep nagging at you all the time, but he leaves you your own conception. Now and then he will make a criticism, or play a passage, and with a few words give you enough to think of all the rest of your life. There is a delicate point to everything he says, as subtle as he is himself. He doesn’t tell you anything about the technique. That you must work out for yourself.’”

Student relationships

Liszt had a rather informal relationship with his students – he would hang out with them, would be invited out with them, and smoke/drank with them. He considered his students to be friends, and became invested in their well-being.

We’re not sure what Chopin’s relationship with his students was, but we know he was very reserved, choosing to express his feelings in music alone. Because of this, he likely maintained a very professional relationship with his students.

In general, students regarded Liszt as being warm, friendly and open – Chopin as gentle and composed.

Conclusion

I relied heavily on the resource “Chopin the Teacher” and “Liszt as Teacher” for this video. Definitely check those blogs out for more resources!

xo,

Allysia

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