September heralds the start of a new academic year and is therefore an appropriate time to begin my new monthly series, ‘Tricky Corners’.
Those who read this blog will know that I particularly enjoy developing a student’s technique. This is all about re-training bad habits, transforming them into good ones, which takes time and care. This part of my ‘job’ proves endlessly fascinating, but it’s not really a job, more a vocation.
An aspect which can be very instructive is the use of ‘spot’ practice for various technical issues. Like many teachers, I do this all the time in my lessons. A student and I might spend a substantial amount of time, often a whole lesson, addressing a couple of bars, or even a specific ‘movement’ in a passage. This new series aims to help those who may be seeking to improve various facets of their playing, or they might be wondering how to use their practice time more productively. In each post, I will deal with a ‘tricky corner’, and one which has presented itself during a lesson.
My suggestions in this series must be implemented with care, so as to not run the risk of causing possible injury.
Today we examine the leaping fifth finger.
Have you ever played a certain work and dreaded a particular passage? You start off, feeling relatively comfortable and relaxed, and as that passage draws ever nearer, you become gradually tighter and more anxious, and, finally, the said passage is upon you, and, of course, you inevitably make mistakes. One of my students was recently suffering this fate with a passage from C P E Bach’s Sonata in A flat, H. 31 (first movement, Un poco allegro) which she is preparing for an exam. The piece was mostly under her fingers with the exception of a few awkward leaps.
This work consists of running passages in one hand and quaver accompaniment in the other (normally the left hand). The challenging passage contained a leap onto the fifth finger, which we decided was the most convenient fingering for this leap. After a week or two of misery, we took one of the passages apart, working at it in detail, so that she could apply the following practice tools to other similar passages in the piece.
Let’s take a look at the offending section, which hails from the beginning of bar 9 (beat 1), marked with a bracket in the example below, and played by the right hand:
It looks fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? And if you have a larger hand, it will probably cause no issues at all. But for a smaller hand, the main issue is the uncompromising movement from the G to the B flat. This leap from a white note to a black one occurs on several occasions throughout the piece and can easily derail the passage if not handled and practised diligently.
The challenge for my student was landing cleanly on a black note at speed. This often needs care and attention, and a particular ‘placing’ of the finger at precisely the right moment. To address this issue, we spent a while taking the movement out of context and working at it in a variety of different guises. For those having similar difficulties with leaps or jumps, which can occur in any number of works, the following exercises may be of interest.
We began with Ex. 1:
The note patterns in Ex. 1 are amongst the ‘standard’ methods of practising leaps, that is, jumping much further than necessary (two-octave note patterns, as shown in bar 1), as well as playing repeated notes and ‘quicker’ note patterns (as shown in bar 2). Practice leaps which jump further than needed are beneficial because when returning to the original note pattern it’s easier to land on the note a split second before playing it, allowing for mental and physical preparation.
When jumping or moving onto the B flat, from the thumb (G), it helps to watch carefully how the finger approaches, and lands on, the note; in our lesson we tried to ensure a landing on the very tip of the finger, placing the fifth finger, with the joint nearest the tip, fully engaged with the finger in a ‘hooked’ position. On trying the pattern again, this time my student landed on the finger ‘pad’, that is, the softer area at the top of the finger, but not the tip. This involved depressing the key with a flatter finger position.
The fifth finger needs to be agile and ‘active’ in order to provide the much-needed precise landing on the B flat, and to this end, it can be helpful to oscillate between the finger-tip and the finger-pad during these extended jumps, as it will provide two different ‘landings’ and, therefore, the physical ‘feeling’ of two different landings; negotiating the top note (B flat) successfully is all about gauging ‘how to land’. If a conscious effort is made to focus on the fifth finger, developing greater control and an ever firmer ‘grip’ as it lands on the black note, errors, or slipping off the note, will be less likely. Whilst working at the jump, we also practised landing on different parts of the key; the black key is much narrower than the white, so it can help to practice landing towards the front of the key, in the middle of the key, and also at the back of the key.
When moving from the G to the B flat, employing a very relaxed lateral arm movement was helpful. This was led by a flexible wrist and loose elbow; a drop-roll movement between the two notes (or a large lateral rotational movement) can be surprisingly useful, too, because it aids the flow or movement from the bottom note (G) to the top (B flat), proffering eventual speed. You can watch my video demonstrating the drop-roll by clicking on the link below:
When practising slowly, we used a full, deliberate tone or sonority; arm-weight should ideally provide the necessary ‘weight’ behind the fifth finger as it lands on the B flat.
Once the suggestions above had been practised thoroughly, we moved to the following exercise:
Ex. 2 is a simple note pattern moving chromatically up and down the keyboard, affording copious opportunities to ‘place’ the fifth finger. The whole passage is to be played using the right hand only. I’ve added an accent to each black note to encourage precision. Once this note pattern has been worked at ascending the keyboard, it can be used to descend, too (as shown in the last two bars of Ex. 2). Observing the fifth finger as it depressed each black note was paramount, applying the two different finger positions; the finger-tip followed by the finger-pad. Next, trying this exercise again, this time we used only the fifth finger (fingering shown underneath the notes in Ex. 2), sliding from the first quaver to the second, replacing the fourth finger, offering lots more opportunity to ‘place’ the fifth finger accurately on both black and white notes.
Ex. 3 is the same as Ex. 2, but including the leaps, albeit that they are smaller than the interval of a tenth in the original note pattern in the score. Employing the fifth finger on every note was actually quite fun:
In Ex. 4, we employed the interval of a third:
The tenuto marking encourages a deeper touch on the black note, and a slight lingering, assimilating the ‘feeling’ of playing the black key with the fifth finger. The use of the interval of a third, and the third finger on the second and fourth quaver, replicates the succeeding note (after the jump) in the score.
Ex. 5 also takes into consideration the note after the leap, which, here, has an even more uncomfortable pattern than that written, that is, using the third finger prior to the leap, as opposed to the thumb. In short, this means there’s further to jump during this exercise, which is all good practice.
Ex. 5 should be played entirely with the right hand. The accents are intended to draw attention to the perfect placing of the fifth finger on the black note.
We experimented with these exercises, playing them with firm fingers and a firm touch whilst keeping a loose, relaxed wrist, and, when they were secure, lightened that touch, for a smooth and even articulation. It can be beneficial to practice these note patterns slowly at first, very gradually increasing the speed. After substantial ‘isolation’ practice, surmounting the leaps within the context of the piece was most certainly easier for my student.
Whilst this piece demands rhythmic precision, we eventually chose to leave a very slight ‘break’ or breathing space when moving from the G to the B flat, as, in the case of this piece, the music needs time to breathe at, what feels like, a natural break in the phrase.
Any ‘spot’ practice, such as these suggested exercises with repeated note patterns, can easily cause injury if practised for prolonged periods, therefore, if you decide to include them in your practice sessions, only work at them for very short amounts of time.
You can hear the first movement of this sonata, from which this passage has been taken, here:
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.