‘Positional piano playing’ is a term I use for a particularly helpful technique which allows students to locate and play note patterns with ease. At my most recent Finchcocks piano course (held at the end of last year), I applied this technique in one of my classes with several adult students, and to their amazement they were able to circumnavigate notes and note patterns in their chosen repertoire much more swiftly than usual.
What do I mean by positional playing? When we learn to play the piano, we can fall in to the trap of only ‘seeing’ notes as they are written on the page. This is inevitable to a certain extent as it’s generally how we are taught to read, one note at a time. But when it comes to learning music, it’s not simply a matter of reading notes, we must be able to observe patterns of notes as we play them, so we can quickly ascertain chord structure, apply convenient fingering with ease, and, more importantly, learn how to move flexibly from one note group to the next. To do this, it may be necessary to look and play through a piece a phrase at a time, or a bar at a time, or as a series of chords.
‘Blocking out’ or ‘chunking’ is one such example of assimilating note patterns, that is, playing groups of notes as a chord (or chords), enabling easy reading, and the opportunity to finger the passage without moving or turning the hand unnecessarily.
When we first examine a note passage, we might not immediately spot a pattern or series of chords, but on careful observation, patterns usually reveal themselves, and this enables us to see the overall picture of a phrase or even a page of music. The following example is the beginning of the Two-Part Invention in F major No. 8 BWV 779, from the Two-Part Inventions by J S Bach. The opening 6 bars look like this:
And could be ‘blocked out’ like this:
The fingering in Ex. 1, might be based on how we block or group the notes as shown in Ex. 2.
This is a simple example of how to spot patterns within a two-part piece.
After playing the chords in the second ‘blocked out’ version (Ex. 2), you’ll notice how playing every bar in the piece as a chord encourages a quick sojourn through the whole work, offering an overview of the chord structure and how the piece has been constructed, as well as how much hand and finger movement is required. You now might consider fingering the passage applying similar fingering to that which could be used to play the piece as a series of chords; this will not work with every piece, but with many, such fingering is very effective.
Positional playing can be beneficial in almost any style of music. The following passage is taken from Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor Op. 10 No. 1, first movement, bar 82 – 85. This energetic and dramatic group of quavers, which hails from the exposition, has been written like this:
And could be grouped like this, a bar at a time:
Or this, a beat at a time:
Most students will agree that the suggested fingering in Ex. 3, with the hand keeping in the same ‘position’, that is, not moving too much, encourages speed, and whilst the less-active fingers, such as the fourth and fifth, might find this a challenge at first, if carefully worked at, they will become accustomed to it. The fourth finger works well on the E flat in the right-hand, if it’s played firmly, and worked at with a flexible wrist motion at the start of every bar, alleviating any possible tension. Positional playing frequently calls for use of the entire hand, that is, equal use of the fourth and fifth fingers to that of the thumb, second and third.
Similarly, in Twentieth Century music, whilst often stylistically more complex, it’s still possible to learn music quickly and in position. This is a short passage from the first piece of Shostakovich’s Three Fantastic Dances from Op. 5. The original looks like this (bar 17 & 18):
Aim to add fingering to each chord ‘group’ so that they can be played as one movement or ‘in position’, that is, the fingerings for the triplet semiquavers in Ex. 6 (right hand) will be the same as if playing the chords in Ex. 7.
There are many other beneficial examples where this technique can be incredibly helpful. Once you’ve grown accustomed to using it, you’ll have fun employing it in much of your repertoire.
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.