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How to play Chopin's Military Polonaise

Helpful tips on how to approach the Military Polonaise

Released on February 12, 2013

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Video Transcription

Welcome to Virtual Sheet Music. I'm Robert Estrin and we have a question from a Virtual Sheet Music user KP asks some tips on how to play the military polonaise of Frederick Chopin. So I'm going to show you a bit about it. A lot of you probably know the military polonaise [plays piano]. That's the beginning part of it.

Now, how is it possible to play that without getting exhausted? I remember when I first studied that piece I was a young teenager, and I got so tired playing through it, because you notice there are tons of repeats. If you play it with all the repeats it's a tour de force, because almost the whole thing is loud and it has a little trill section in the middle that repeats a couple of times where you get your wrists, so you have a little wrist, and so yes the wrists. The secret is in the wrists. So that's the lesson for today, I'm going to explain how to approach this.

Now, you've got these rapid chords that require power and speed. Now, of course for ultimate speed you can't beat the fingers [plays piano]. The fingers go very, very fast on the piano, but they have very little power. Now the arms have immense amounts of power [plays piano]. So when you need tremendous power you use your arms, when you need speed use your fingers. It's music that requires a combination of both, like in the military polonaise, where you need to use your wrists and it's really important to identify that you're only using your wrists, because look what would happen if I tried to play the military polonaise with my arms [plays piano].

First of all, it's a hideously ugly sound because it's too much power, and the other thing it's impossible to get the snappy speed out of it. So, if I take the pedal off you can hear what I'm actually doing, and I'm going to do it slowly for you to show you the technique. It's important to make sure you're in the exact position over the keys, so that the wrist can do the smallest possible amount to achieve the results that are desired. If you're not precisely over the keys then the wrists can't possibly do their job. So, the arms do have a place in this. The arms have to guide the hands exactly over the right keys. Then the wrists just have to move less than an inch to be able to do their job. If they're moving much more than an inch, once again it's going to slow things down. So this is what it looks like slowed down for you [plays piano]. So you notice I'm using the wrist and sure it's not nearly as powerful as the arms, but it doesn't need to be because there's plenty of power in the wrist.

Now, if you don't have any wrist technique how might you develop it? I suggest taking something very, very simple like thirds, the notes C and E with the second and fourth finger and put a metronome on 60 at one note to the beat and just play it eight times and go up the scale eight times on each note, metronome at 60, and it'll look like this, if you do it correctly [plays piano]. Now I could go up the whole scale like this, but you get the idea. I guarantee if you've never worked in your wrists before and you play all the way up the scale eight times on each note and down, you'll feel it in your arms because these are muscles that, if you haven't used the wrists before in your piano playing, they are new muscles to develop. So I suggest doing that exercise once each day and if you get too fatigued then stop in the middle and then do the other half later in the day and you will develop it. This slow practice enables you to make sure that you're only using the wrists. What you don't want to have happen is a combination of wrists and arms like this.

The reason is that the arm motion will get in the way. Being able to play a technique slowed down feels unnatural at first, because obviously if the music was written that way you could accomplish it perfectly well with the arms. What you are doing is preparing your wrists for much faster music. You can practice octave technique exactly the same way [plays piano]. That's the secret of octave technique as well. And there are octaves later on in the military polonaise, as a matter of fact [plays piano].

So there we have some octaves for you and all of this can be accomplished easily if you have the wrist muscles and you know how to identify just the wrists, and the arms are used just as a guide. Thanks for joining me! Robert Estrin here at
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christopher Slevin * VSM MEMBER * on May 2, 2013 @2:34 pm PST
Many thanks Robert.
christopher Slevin * VSM MEMBER * on May 1, 2013 @1:19 pm PST
I have no formal training and want to ask you about arm positioning. In Zez Confrey's Dizzy Fingers on the descending arpeggio, my right elbow swings out in order to hit the F sharp with my fourth finger. Is this correct or should I try to keep my arm in the normal position?
Robert - host, on May 1, 2013 @6:31 pm PST
Christopher- You should avoid any jerky motion. If you reach with your fingers, you should be able to accomplish the arpeggio with a fluid motion. Try practicing slowly and very connected until smooth. Then increase the speed little by little. (The metronome is an indispensable tool for that.)
Dolph on April 28, 2013 @10:04 am PST
Does Virtual sheet music have Show Tunes (Broadway Music)
Thank you for your Chopin tips. I find the my recent exposure to the Ocean doable, thanks to you.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on April 29, 2013 @3:58 pm PST
Hi Dolph and thank you for your comment. Glad you enjoyed Robert's video on the Military Polonaise.

About your question, we are currently offering Broadway Music just from the digital Hal Leonard repertoire:

If you have any specific title you would like us to publish "our own way", please let me know! Any suggestions/requests are always very welcome.

Thank you again!

All the best,
DRG NURSILVYANTI on February 13, 2013 @10:48 pm PST
This is all I need. I love it very much. Thank you.
Rose Boltz on February 13, 2013 @3:57 pm PST
Very nice but this piece is beyond my skill level. I enjoy listening to it and maybe in a few years I will be able to play like that.
KP * VSM MEMBER * on February 13, 2013 @1:58 pm PST
The video was a great help. I am 62 and on my own with the piano and took lessons 40 years ago. My wrist is a little stiff from hand and wrist surgery, so the techniques shown will make things easier. I have always loved this piece and keep going back to it.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on February 14, 2013 @3:56 pm PST
So glad to hear that KP. I am sure Robert will have more tips to help you with that. Robert is watching this page and I am sure he will contribute with his thoughts soon. Thanks!
Robert Estrin - host, on February 21, 2013 @3:01 pm PST
So glad there is information in the video that is helping your hands. It is important to be prepared in practice to avoid unnecessary stress on your hands. Be sure your hands are warm before practicing. You can run them under warm water or use a heating pad or other source of heat before playing the piano. Try to start your piano practice session slowly at first to allow your hands to acclimate to playing. Please look forward to additional tips in upcoming videos!
elaine on February 13, 2013 @1:39 pm PST
I found the video extremely helpful. I found the exercises fantastic, very practical.thanks heaps. from New Zealand
Margie * VSM MEMBER * on February 13, 2013 @11:21 am PST
Great demo! I broke my right wrist a couple of years ago, and though it healed well, I lost more of my technique than I expected. My hand is no longer shaped quite like it was. (I'm 83 years old, which doesn't help any!) I was an advanced pianist before and can no longer play my old repertoire. You've encouraged me to get back to the piano and try again. How about some tips on dealing with the Ravel Sonatine 1st and 3rd movements at speed?
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on February 14, 2013 @3:55 pm PST
Dear Margie, I am so glad to know your story! I am sure Robert will tackle the Ravel's Sonatine you have suggested in the near future. On our side, we just need to publish it on VSM!
Barb * VSM MEMBER * on February 13, 2013 @9:18 am PST
Thanks for your clear explanation on how to improve the wrist movement.
Christine O'Connell on February 13, 2013 @8:39 am PST
Very helpful exercise, thank you! Tips for Chopin's Ocean Etude would be great.
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