This month’s 5 tips for Pianist magazine’s newsletter focuses on the issue of moving quickly around the instrument. I hope it’s useful.
Moving quickly and accurately can be tricky. Especially if fast passage work is involved. There are many ways to alleviate this conundrum, but one which can be really beneficial is octave displacement. Yes, you did read that correctly! No-one wants to feel ‘displaced’, but by moving in disparate patterns our brains are unexpectedly taxed, and when we return to playing what is written, the notes should feel more secure.
Start by locating a passage in a piece; one which you feel needs more work. It could involve any type of rapid passage work (in either one or both hands). Now practice the passage hands separately, and then hands together at a slow speed. Ensure you are happy with your chosen fingering.
- Let’s assume that your passage is situated within the middle two octaves of the keyboard (if it’s not, you can still apply the following practice technique but you may need to be a little more creative about how you apply it). After playing hands together slowly, repeat with the left-hand part down one octave, keeping the right-hand in the original position. Play through and listen astutely to each line; are you clearly articulating every note? Negotiate any leaps or position changes within the passage with care, watching and feeling every movement.
- Now take the left-hand down an octave further, so you are playing with the hands three octaves apart. The lower part of the keyboard often requires a deeper or heavier touch to successfully articulate notes, and fingers will usually accommodate this change.
- Once you have assimilated the heavier touch, keep the left-hand where it is and take the right-hand down one, then two, octaves, so that eventually both hands are playing in the lower range of the keyboard; the necessary deeper touch will hopefully encourage clear finger work.
- Next, return to play the passage as originally intended. Take the left hand down two octaves (if possible), and the right hand up two octaves. You should now be playing the passage at the extremities of the keyboard. Here, you can articulate note patterns with real clarity, as it’s possible to hear effectively when hands are far apart.
- One secure with the hands in this position, gradually increase the speed, and, finally, aim to constantly switch between positions; from one octave apart to two, and then up in the treble and then down in the bass. Aim to play these ever-changing patterns as one continuous phrase. This movement is surprisingly challenging, and necessitates a light arm motion, guided by a loose elbow. You have, in effect, constructed an elaborate ‘study’ or exercise around a demanding passage in your piece.
You might want to employ this practice tool for just four bars at a time or for an entire passage, but the more variety, the easier it will feel on returning to play the original written version. Continual octave displacement demands deft body movement as well as a nimble mind, and the greater the challenge during a practice session, the more comfortable you will feel when you play the piece through.
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious 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.