Finding the appropriate practice tool for a specific issue can, as we all know, be a matter of trial and error. When all the usual methods have been exhausted or have perhaps already been overused, it’s time to experiment with new ideas and find a fresh approach in order to nail that awkward passage.
Recently, I’ve been working with a couple of students who are both preparing Mozart’s Sonata K. 311 in D major. The first movement can be deceptive, with many rapid passages containing unforgiving twists and turns in the right hand particularly. Changing fingers at speed can be a major challenge for many, especially during the trills, which whilst look similar, in fact require different fingering depending on the succeeding note patterns.
There are many ways to finger an ornament, but copious hand rotations, or thumbs set under or over the hand often need a different practice regime, so that fingers are literally programmed to play the pattern accurately every time. If this doesn’t happen, then hesitations or a slowing down (or destabilising) of the tempo may occur. Here’s a notorious spot for some (bars 35 – 36):
It’s the second time this trill appears (first time is at bar 31), and the material following the ornament takes a different turn (than that after the first time), hence the unexpected finger change at the end (turning the hand over the thumb to play a 2nd finger), which can sometimes upset the flow (the following is only a suggested trill interpretation):
Here, I normally suggest applying many different touches (non-legato, staccato etc.), followed by different rhythms (dotted rhythms, triplet figures and the like), and a whole array of accents (I love using accents for practising purposes), as well as playing in various octaves around the keyboard (I could go on here, but you get the picture!). However, occasionally further detailed work is necessary.
This is when we turn to the repetition method. A successful ornament demands strong independent fingers; ones which will work very quickly, cleanly, and rhythmically. If trills are becoming sluggish, slower than necessary, or notes are not fully sounding or are unequal, try the following suggestion.
The ornament must be isolated and taken out of context. Banish any sense of rhythm or pulse and just focus on the notes, working at the right hand. Start by playing the pattern in double notes. Follow this with triplets:
And finally you could try playing four semiquavers per note! Make sure you use the fingers with which you will play the ornament. Always practice slowly to begin with and, most importantly, free of any tension. With this in mind, you may need to ‘bounce’ the hand after each note (at first), especially at the beginning of each beat (to free the wrist), so that it doesn’t ‘lock up’.
Now experiment with accents; start with one on the first beat of every group, then on the second beat. Follow this with accents on beats 1 and 3 of every note group (for the triplet group). Add speed gradually until you can play quite fast and with a warm sound. Ensure each note is completely even tonally and rhythmically (whilst you are not yet adhering to the pulse, the notes must still be equally played). You could also try using dotted rhythms on each repetition, whether two, three or four notes are being played.
Once you’ve mastered this, return to playing the ornament as written. Lighten your finger touch and, hopefully, the practice repetitions will enable an even trill (fingering, notes, rotations) with all notes clearly articulated and fully sounding. Try now to combine the trill with the left hand.
You might require a fair amount of practice in order to become acquainted with the feeling of repeating the notes with flexibility (the wrist must always be free of tension and ideally should move after every quaver beat, albeit imperceptibly). Playing the repetitions with the left hand semiquaver pattern might also be beneficial (at very slow speeds), enabling perfect placing of each note.
Repeating notes in a pattern can be successfully applied to all tricky passages and ones which combine both hands too; if there is a unison pattern of quavers or semiquavers, this may be a useful way to help coordination. Happy practising!
Here’s Daniel Barenboim’s interpretation of Mozart’s Sonata in D major K. 311:
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.