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How to play Moonlight and Pathetique Sonatas

Hot tips about studying and playing the most known Beethoven sonatas

Released on January 24, 2013

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Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Robert Estrin here at with a technique video, How to play the Beethoven's "Moonlight" and "Pathetique" sonatas. Now, you may wonder how can I have one video that's gonna cover two completely different sonatas. Well, the truth is, I'm not gonna cover everything in these sonatas. That would be a very, very long video. Instead, I'm going to show you some intrinsic techniques, that you can not only use for part of these two sonatas, but you can use it with a great variety of music.

So, what do these two pieces have in common? Well, if you take the beginning of the "Moonlight Sonata" and the second movement of the Beethoven "Pathetique Sonata", you have a great challenge. Which is, not just being able to play some parts louder with one hand and the other hand, but playing parts that play with one hand, two different parts. Where you want one part to be louder than the other, with one hand. This is extraordinarily challenging on the piano. Of course, in the "Moonlight Sonata..[music] Notice how the top line was brought out. Same thing with the second movement of the "Pathetique Sonata".

[music] Because you would not want them to sound like this. [music] That sounds terrible, doesn't it? Because you don't hear the melody. I'm playing them equally, but they don't sound equal because the melody dies away. This is the great challenge with playing the piano. When you have a slow melody, the melody notes will die away. So, you actually have to accentuate the melody even more, just for them to be equal. Same thing, the second movement. If I play them equal, they don't sound equal. The fast notes that are under the melody, sound louder than the melody. Because the melody dies away. [music]

So, how is it I'm able to play the melody louder than the accompaniment? How can you practice a thing like that? Well, I've got a technique for you. Because it's difficult to quantify volume with different fingers, we use something else. We use articulation. So, you practice it playing the accompaniment notes staccato from the fingers and the melody notes legato. No pedal and you end up with this. [music] Now, does that mean you play it staccato? No, but you train your hands to feel the difference between melody notes and accompaniment notes. Same thing with the second movement of the "Pathetique". [music]

So then, when you play it as written, you don't have to play those bottom notes staccato. You just play them lighter, add the pedal and voila. This is what you have. [music] So, if you've ever wondered how is it possible to get two different levels of dynamics in one hand, you have the secret now. Try it with all your music. Any place you have a challenge of balancing different voices. Play the accompaniment lines staccato and the melody lines legato and watch what it does for your playing. Thanks for joining me, Robert Estrin, here at See you next time.
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E. Harkin * VSM MEMBER * on October 21, 2015 @7:20 am PST
Useful learning technique but PLEASE get your piano tuned!
Paul Plak * VSM MEMBER * on October 21, 2015 @10:59 am PST
Well I like Robert using so many different pianos, I won't complain when one is slightly off, diversity has its virtues too ...
Pat Fisher * VSM MEMBER * on October 21, 2015 @9:23 pm PST
Yes. I certainly agree. It was obvious from the very first.
mary on March 17, 2014 @11:04 am PST
This was a definite "ah-ha" moment for me! Thanks!!
christopher Slevin * VSM MEMBER * on February 25, 2013 @8:14 am PST
Really enjoyed your pedal advice. Can you now help with the "awkward one - the middle pedal. I am totally confused and hope there is a simple answer. I have had little or no formal training - about 20 lessons along time ago so I apologize if the middle pedal is widely understood and I'm a solitary eedjit.
Robert Estrin - host, on February 25, 2013 @11:40 am PST
The middle pedal on pianos presents something of a mystery to many people. In fact, on upright pianos the middle pedal does various things such as enabling quiet practice or sustaining all the notes in the bass section of the keyboard only. On fine grand pianos, the sustenuto pedal (as the middle pedal is called) is a selective sustain pedal. While the sustain or damper pedal (as the pedal on the right is called) releases the dampers on all notes of the piano allowing them to continue sounding after the player raises the keys of the piano, the sustenuto pedal holds only selected notes. The way it works is, first depress notes on the keyboard. While those keys are still down, push down the middle pedal. Those notes will continue holding even after the hands are released from the keyboard. However, subsequent notes that are depressed on the keyboard will only hold as long as the keys are down. The middle pedal only became commonplace on pianos at the end of the 19th century. So, only 20th century piano compositions require the use of the sustenuto pedal.
Robert Estrin - host, on February 25, 2013 @11:46 am PST
Here is a link to a video which explains the middle pedal:
Pat Fisher * VSM MEMBER * on October 21, 2015 @9:30 pm PST
Thanks for that video, Robert. It explains why the uprights I've played
with a middle peddle don't seem to need it (because it's basically nonfunctioning).
christopher Slevin * VSM MEMBER * on February 25, 2013 @11:55 am PST
Wow, Thank you Robert for taking the time to answer my middle pedal confusion. Thanks to your explanation I can start experimenting and having even more fun.
Paul Plak * VSM MEMBER * on October 21, 2015 @10:58 am PST
Thanks for asking Chritopher, now I know it too ...
Coren on February 13, 2013 @12:07 pm PST
Clear "before and after" examples! The different articulation practice technique presents a huge challenge to students until they learn that finger independence. As soon as they get it just once, they never forget how it feels, and can then apply it to all other similar situations. We were so lucky to have a magnificent teacher who taught us how to do this!!
Robert - host, on March 17, 2014 @4:53 pm PST
You have that right! Our father (Morton Estrin) is the greatest piano teacher I have ever encountered and a musician with incredible depth which can be appreciated on his many recordings.

More than that, his ability to express musical ideas down to their essence is the primary reason I am able to share important musical principles in my teaching and video presentations. Thank you Dad!
fiftiethyear * VSM MEMBER * on February 13, 2013 @7:59 am PST
thank you Robert.. Very helpful. I wlll apply right away. Theres are two of my favourites..Peter Caldwell music teacher NZ
Maga on February 4, 2013 @6:31 am PST
Great tip, thanks a lot!!!
Jerry Dunne * VSM MEMBER * on February 1, 2013 @9:38 pm PST
I also wish I'd come across this tip years ago!
I'll pass it on
Piano teacher fo 29 years!( in Ireland )
Christine * VSM MEMBER * on January 31, 2013 @7:57 am PST
Do you have any tips for an adult with small hands? I am trying to learn Moonlight Sonata but struggle with sections where I need an octave or greater.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on February 12, 2013 @8:08 am PST
Thank you Christine for your tip request, let's see if Robert can make a video about this.
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on October 21, 2015 @7:21 am PST
It would be a very useful video also for me, since my hands have always been very small and they are getting smaller with age and arthritis to the point that now I have a hard time reaching one octave. I sustained a nasty injury while practicing some Czerny studies due to overstretching. There is an article in the Sept/Oct issue of Clavier Companion about different sizes of keyboards built by David Steinbuhler that can be fitted on any existing piano. The universal keyboard is 6.5" for one octave. I am strongly considering ordering the DS5.5 for my upright Yamaha. One inch less would make a big difference for me.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on October 21, 2015 @8:32 am PST
Dear Fulvia, Robert made a video about "How to approach the Moonlight Sonata with small hands":

I hope that can help! Please, let us know if you have any further questions.
Toya Harvey on January 30, 2013 @8:09 pm PST
Would you give suggestions for Chopin's Ballade in f minor? Especially the sections where the right and left hand rhythms are different and more complicated than 4 against 3! I'd be interest in your comment! Thank you.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on February 12, 2013 @8:08 am PST
Thank you Yoya, Robert will surely tackle this Ballade. Stay tuned!
George Hamilton-Meikle * VSM MEMBER * on January 30, 2013 @9:35 am PST
That is really neat and I shall tuck it away for future use. The idea of a brief instruction is very exciting. I hope there will be others.
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