Speed isn’t always synonymous with clarity. My work as an adjudicator can testify to the fact that’s it’s quite common to hear semiquaver (or demisemiquaver) passages played in a ‘garbled’, unstable, or just plain unrhythmical, manner; either too fast, with the tendency to rush through technically challenging sections resulting in the inevitable slips, errors and uneven playing, or, conversely, too slow or lingering, stretching past the limits of acceptable rubato. These mishaps are often due to a lack of finger control, as opposed to purely rhythmical errors.
Perhaps one of the most exacting elements, when learning to play the piano, is the necessary technical facet of learning finger control at speed, particularly over extended periods.
One of my students got to grips with this conundrum recently whilst studying Chopin’s Étude in F major Op. 10 No. 8. This work, with its florid right-hand note patterns, might be described as a ‘tour de force’ for the fourth finger, but, on closer inspection, this study is also a workout for the second and third finger, too. And, interestingly, we had to pay much attention to the right-hand thumb, which plays an important role as well. My student already played to an advanced level, and we had previously worked at developing finger control via a selection of Czerny studies, and a few Baroque and Classical pieces, which are also wonderful vehicles for learning these issues. But she needed to refine her touch and control to meet the demands of this work.
So, how to start? It was necessary to find a method of practice which would highlight the importance of each finger during the taxing right-hand passagework. This passagework runs for the entire piece, and it’s too easy for the right hand to ‘lock-up’ after a couple of pages, causing uncomfortable tension, sometimes resulting in pain and injury. It’s for this reason that shoulders, arms, wrists and hands must be kept flexible and relaxed at all times – and therefore they required constant checking, both by myself and by my student, who eventually learned to assimilate the ‘feeling’ of relaxation in her upper body.
My pupil already knew how to use her fingers firmly, and had no trouble playing into the key-bed (a crucial component for even, rhythmical playing), or the art of practising with a very heavy touch on every note, whilst keeping her hands, wrists and arms relaxed. Many disagree with this practice, but all I can say is that it’s one of the most useful techniques for honing firm finger control, but, as with many methods of practice, it must be implemented correctly, otherwise pain and injury can easily manifest.
Once right-hand note patterns had been initially studied, we worked bar by bar, monitoring hand and finger positions at excessively slow speeds, at the same time as employing a relaxed circular wrist movement between the thumb and fourth finger note pattern, as shown by the arrows in Ex. 1:
These wrist circles (or wrist rotations) help the right-hand and wrist to keep flexible; the swift change of position caused by the wrist rotating the fourth finger, and hand, over the thumb, and the thumb under the hand (during ascending passages), is a beneficial way to release any building tension, during this tricky motion. It should be noted that wrist circles only alleviate tension if correctly supported by a loose forarm, elbow and shoulder movement, and it takes time to learn to ‘feel’ this motion.
The thumb should ideally be placed firmly and precisely on every note, for the reason that it provides necessary stability during this rapid manoeuvre. The following exercise may also be a useful practice tool for learning to ‘relax’ the hand whilst playing the thumb and fourth simultaneously:
Ex. 2 should ideally be done slowly and carefully, placing the minim chords with the thumb on the F, fourth finger on the A; aim to depress the keys and completely release any tension in the hand (and whole arm) whilst keeping the notes depressed – this merely involves ‘letting-go’ of the arm and hand, so that it feels like a ‘dead-weight’. Photo 1 shows the thumb and fourth finger holding the F and A at the same time, and Photo 2, illustrates those notes held in a flexible position with the wrist, relaxed and loose, hanging down to eliminate tension:
This is not a performance position, but it’s a useful exercise for alleviating a taught, tight hand, which should be loose during the moment it ‘turns over’ – a movement which happens continually. My student found this exercise of real benefit and employed it throughout the piece. Once it felt comfortable, we moved onto creating larger wrist circles in combination with the hand turn; forming a circular movement with the wrist, that is, the wrist ‘swinging’ in a circular movement between note figurations, supported by the arm, which guides the fingers into the correct position over each ‘turn’. These encourage the whole hand and wrist to ‘release’ the taught, tight feeling which can occur during any repetitive passage. Whilst these ‘circles’ are very visible and crucial during slow practice (the more exaggerated, the better), as the tempo is gradually raised, their movement becomes smaller and smaller, and eventually they are almost imperceptible, yet they are still present, aiding tension release.
A metronome can assist with slow practice, and it can be advantageous to set three or four different speeds; from extremely slow to around half speed. A semiquaver pulse might be instigated for semiquaver passagework, playing one note to every ‘tick’; this immediately alerts the player to any speed deviations, and, eventually, if practised consistently, will result in a reliable internalised pulse. We started our practice at a semiquaver equals 80 beats per minute, taking it up to 110 beats when more secure, and, finally, 130 beats per minute (all semiquaver beats). Of course this is a mere fraction of the final tempo, but when practising using a heavy touch, this is about as fast as you want to go, otherwise arm or hand ache could follow.
Next, we had to find a way to keep the passagework even at every possible speed, without rushing or pushing the pulse, whilst also producing a beautiful tone. Focusing on slow practice at first, the following exercises were effective in terms of honing clarity and evenness for the second, third and fourth fingers.
Let’s take the first three beats of bar 1 as an example, here’s the original:
We began by focusing on the fourth finger. It’s a good idea to watch ‘how’ the finger is playing each note, that is, observing its position on the key as it plays. The use of finger-tips is helpful for the ‘placing’ of the finger on the key, and the thumb might be best placed on the left-side of the nail (when playing the right-hand thumb). We aimed to keep the fingers active and engaged, particularly the first finger joint, nearest the tip:
When practising in this way, try to keep with hand and wrist relaxed, with the power coming from the weight of the arm which can be applied to every note at slow speeds:
These patterns can be used for almost the entire piece, but I would never suggest playing them right through at one sitting, because of potential hand-tiring issues; aim to practice a two-bar phrase (such as bar 1 and 2), moving up to four or six bars when ready, and then stop and rest. When A and B are employed for short passages, or are taken out of context for ‘spot’ practice, they are useful. This is especially true for the passage at bar 5 and 6, and all similar, where the fourth finger must land on the B flat at the beginning of the bar – this will require a particularly ‘active’ fourth finger if the note isn’t to be missed or slid off.
Once the repeated notes have been worked at for a while. it’s time to focus attention on the second and third fingers, which benefit from the same approach:
The addition of the accent and tenuto markings are really to alert pianists of the precision and ‘placing’ required, as opposed to using more power.
Interestingly, we found that the repetitions were helpful for when observing thumb placement, too:
As note patterns are absorbed, we experimented with more varied touches; staccato, non-legato, jeu perlé, etc. And for those who like to practice disparate articulation, trying a different touch on every repeated note, as has been suggested (especially during the triplets), can be quite a challenging, yet productive, exercise.
After practising such exercises at the suggested metronome speeds (80, 110 and 130 semiquaver beats per minute) with a heavy touch, we returned to faster tempi (starting at 160 semiquaver beats per minute right up to 88 minim beats per minute), with a much lighter finger touch, the fingers skimming the keys; note patterns were now even and rhythmical, and the hand and wrist, relaxed and flexible, allowing for the important left-hand melody to soar.
My student was soon able to play the whole piece up to speed whilst her upper body remained relaxed and comfortable.
Here are various interpretations of this beautiful work:
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.