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How to Play "Clair de Lune" by Debussy

Hello everyone! Michael Winters here with the Musical Paradise©, and this is my beginner's guide to "Claire de Lune" by Claude Debussy.

Quite frequently I have people inquire or comment about this particular song when I play it. That's because a lot of people cannot unlock the beauty in this song. I will explain exactly how to do that.

                                               

This song is a beautiful piece that is necessary in any pianist's repertoire. However, this piece is a pretty sophisticated piece, and can be difficult to learn without guidance or extensive experience. So you need some sort of foundation, but this is a great piece to learn for any player!

That is why I am going to give you some of my best tips and need-to-knows about learning this piece, and hopefully give you some good insights that will aid you in your playing. Most of these tips also apply to almost all other songs, so it can help you learn any piece. So let's get started!

I can provide easy directions, but you MUST KNOW some things about music before being able to learn this. Otherwise this will all go over your head. I think it goes without saying, you need some sort of musical background to understand what I'm saying and have the capability to play it.

Likewise you must be able to play piano fairly well. This is a very technical and advanced piece. It will be very difficult to play it if you aren't familiar with the piano.

Fingerings:

Before anything you need to figure out and write in fingerings. When you use specific fingerings, you practice the same thing consistently. It's very difficult to learn a song (and memorize later) if you are doing something different every time.

Fingerings also allow you to know exactly what is comfortable and most efficient when you're playing. That way you play with good technique, practice consistently, and can learn more quickly.

I used to absolutely hate fingerings, but I didn't know the true value of using good fingerings. 

                                      

We'll go over some of the more difficult fingerings throughout the song further down.

 

Rhythm:

I really hope you don't hate me for this one, but if you want to play the song correctly, you HAVE to have the right rhythms. Particularly on the first page where it is slower, it needs to be resolute. 

To start off, you need to figure out exactly where the beats are. Something that I like to do is like this.

This is something that I personally prefer doing. I personally think that it's easiest and quickest to learn when you learn correctly the first time. 

By marking exactly where the beat is, you are learning EXACTLY what notes play right on the beat. "Making up rhythms" reinforces a wrong idea, making you have to unlearn it, then learn it correctly later. 

Take special note that the time signature here is 9/8. This means that there will be 3 beats with 3 eighth note subdivisions. You can count it like this. 

You should get three "tri-po-lets" for every measure.

You can also count it like this.

This all depends on personal preference.

When you learn rhythm correctly, you can then add your own color to it. However your knowledge of the song translates to your playing. If you hesitate you will play that hesitation and your audience will hear it. If you know the rhythms, then even when you add your own flare to it, you will not lose the sense of beat.

 

Sostenuto Pedal: 

This pedal is absolutely CRUCIAL if you're going to play this song correctly! This is the middle and least used pedal.

 

Don't mistake the fact that it isn't commonly used as it not being important! This pedal will allow you to play in ways you didn't know were possible unless you knew how to use it.

Crash course on how to use the sostenuto pedal:

This pedal is fascinating. This pedal allows you to sustain some notes, but have complete control of staccato/legato like normal everywhere else.

To give you an example, I want you to play on a piano to best visualize this. I will give you step by step directions of how to use it.

  1. Push and hold down any key.
  2. Push down sostenuto pedal.
  3. Release key.
  4. Play any other keys and notice how they play normally. Only the original key is sustained. All others can be played with/without sustain with the sustain pedal.
  • Note:
  • If you play the same key that you originally started with, it will continue to be sustained if you're still holding down the sostenuto pedal. 
  • When the sostenuto pedal is pressed, it holds every damper that is raised. So if you hold the sustain pedal (raise all dampers) then press the sostenuto, you will hold EVERY single note. It doesn't sound good.

To give you an example on when you should use this pedal, I will provide picture of the music and give an explanation.

Now to an untrained pianist, you'd probably think, "Okay cool. I'll just sustain the whole thing." Sorry guys.. it's not QUITE that simple. 

These bass notes are VERY important to the overall sound and intonation of this part. You have to have them, and they MUST ring out to harmonize with the melodies above to create the beauty that is "Clair de Lune."

This my musical friends is where the sostenuto comes in.

Let me give you step by step directions like above to approach this:

  1. Press and hold the circled bass notes (Eb)
  2. Push down sostenuto pedal
  3. Play every note with the sustain pedal to your heart's content as you normally would without the bass notes
  4. Release pedals

See? Isn't that awesome?! It adds so much more having a strong bass with the melodies up top, rather than cramming it all together and losing the bass notes. It is a completely different song when you use the middle pedal. 

Any time you see in music a note(s) being held over the line like that, you can use the sostenuto pedal. In fact, for example, every measure from measure 10 to measure 24, you should be using the middle pedal on the bottom notes.

A little "good to know"

You're counting in triplets, and now all of a sudden you have to fit two notes into a subdivided beat. Well how on earth are you gonna do that?!

I am pleased to tell you it is actually very simple. 

Because you're now fitting two notes into a beat, just count a normal eighth note. This sounds REALLY obvious, but I've had a lot of people try to overcomplicate it. 

Let me show you what I mean:

You keep the same beat, same tempo and everything, but you just count 1, &, 2, &, 3, &, etc. instead of Tri - po - let, Tri - po - let, Tri - po - let. So the eighth notes are naturally slower because you're fitting less notes into the same amount of time. 

A lot of people see those 2's above the notes and get intimidated. Don't be. You got this!

Some tricky fingerings:

Okay this is where a lot of pianists differ. What fingerings you use are not super important, as long as they are comfortable, stable, consistent, and efficient. Cases come up where fingering may be weird or uncomfortable, but it really is about finding the BEST way. 

This CAN differ from person to person because of hand size and experience. I will provide you with some fingerings to get you started. However I want to push you to figure out fingerings for yourself. 

Here's where things can get messy. 

Debussy Fingerings

Naturally if this doesn't work for you, then you can alternate it. This is just what works for me and my experience and hand size.

Now with the rhythm here, I like to count the bass hand. I count "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6." This is the easiest way I've found.

Here is another part that is a common fingering problem.

Debussy Fingering 3

You may notice the red boxes. With the general idea, I'd like you to try to write your own fingerings in the red boxes. If you need more help you may email me and I will try to help you.

These I would say are the two hardest areas in the song. If you can get these, you can get the whole song. I know you can do it!

 

Looking for the details:

When you approach the song, I would advise listening to the song to get an idea of what it should sound like. Follow with the music and pay attention to the details in the music. 

When you can imagine the sound in your head, your body will try to find the easiest way to create the sound your mind wants. 

When you get the fingerings, rhythm, and the details, you are well on your way to create you own beautiful masterpiece. 

Look for dynamics, phrasing lines, and all other details and you're piece will come to life!

My own thoughts:

  • This song is pretty difficult. It will take time and it will take persistence. 
  • Ultimately relax. This song is a slow, beautiful piece, and if you are tensed up or trying to rush, it will not have the same message. 
  • Go over it ONE measure at a time. Yes I know, one measure sucks, but if you do that and break it into one piece at a time, you'll realize you'll learn everything correctly, and quicker. If you can play one note, the transition to the next note, and then the next note, (One note at a time) you can play the whole song. Break it down by measure. 
  • It's piano. Make it fun. Make it enjoyable. Don't stress. If you're not ready, don't fret. There are plenty of other songs that are worth learning. 
  • If you need anything, have questions, or suggestions, don't hesitate to contact us at amusicalparadise@gmail.com

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If this guide helped you in any way, PLEASE tell us in the comments below! If it didn't, please tell us your concerns or questions and we will try to help or explain it in a different way.