Tricky Corners: Lateral Arm & Wrist Movement

My previous ‘Tricky Corners’ article focused on finger articulation, specifically relating to Chopin’s Étude in F major Op. 10 No. 8, a study on which I was working with a student. You can read it here.

Today’s post examines this magnificent piece a little further, taking into consideration possibly one of the more challenging passages which, for comfort, either demands a large hand, or, for those who aren’t so lucky, excellent combined lateral wrist and arm movement, in order to easily negotiate bar 54 – 55. Let’s take a look at the offending passage:

Ex. 1

Irrespective of hand size, the interval between B flat and E in between beat two and three (bar 54) in the right hand, and the C sharp and G in the left hand (marked with a bracket) is substantial, particularly if using the fingering suggested in Ex. 1. Some will practise this specific motion as a ‘leap’ taking the fourth finger off the E (RH) in order to ‘reach’ the B flat, but this tends to incur inaccuracies, as the fifth finger either extends too far, or not far enough, consequently missing the B flat (and C sharp in the LH), therefore a more secure method of developing accuracy is to use a lateral arm movement, training the wrist, hand and fingers to establish a motion which allows the fingers to ‘bridge’ the gap, joining with a fairly smooth legato.

At first this passage appears and feels almost impossible for the smaller hand (my student, rather like myself, has fairly small hands), after all, the interval demands the fourth and fifth finger to work powerfully, which is not easy being placed on the outer edges of the hand, and especially when in an out-stretched position. This type of practice could certainly result in tension issues, and even pain or injury, if not practised thoughtfully and diligently and, therefore, we began slowly with Ex. 2. This exercise offers a useful focus, employing the tips of the fourth fingers, ensuring they ‘stood’ effectively on the E (RH) and G (LH), almost acting as ‘anchors’, solidly ‘planting’ the fourth finger in the middle of the texture:

Ex. 2

Taking the passage out of context, it was helpful, for practice purposes, to play the fourth fingers with a deep or heavy touch (as I always suggest to my pupils), as in Ex. 2.

In order to negotiate this passage without any tension, we needed to concentrate on implementing wrist circles in order to relax the wrist as it moves the hand from side to side, rotating, creating the necessary shift in order to play the furthest notes.

When moving the wrist in any direction, there should ideally be the feeling of complete looseness in the upper arm, forearm, hand and wrist – and the shoulders must, of course, remain relaxed and in their natural position (as opposed to raised). Creating ‘wrist circles’, or a constantly moving circular wrist motion, is a most effective way to eliminate stiffness and tension; we begin this technique with exaggerated movements, honing them over time, so eventually they are almost invisible when the piece is played at speed. I work at this aspect with students, usually for many weeks, as it generally requires constant coaching until the pupil finally learns the ‘feeling’ for themselves.

Once this passage has been assimilated without the large interval, we continued with the following exercise:

Ex. 3

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 2

Photo 1

Using Ex. 3 as note patterns, it’s helpful to play the intervals as two-chords, which can be tricky. But, by aiming to relax the hand whilst holding the notes in place (see Photo 1 and 2), the hand and wrist become accustomed to feeling relaxed in this out-stretched position. If this is uncomfortable, the other, or left, hand can be used to hold the right hand’s two fingers in place, allowing it to loosen its grip. Fingers won’t fall off the keys if they are securely held in place by the free hand.

It’s a good idea to start with smaller intervals at first – possibly a third or fourth. This method of ‘freeing’ the hand of tension, provides the opportunity relax the tendons between the fourth and fifth fingers, which takes time and patience. As the hand relaxes, so the fingers are able to ‘reach’ the larger intervals. It was important to return to this exercise over several lessons, and after a while my student was able to play the interval, in both hands, with ease. When playing such exercises, I encourage students to ‘drop’ their wrists (encouraging muscles and tendons to relax), often below the keyboard level, which is not a position one would ever employ to play, but it is extremely useful to implement arm ‘release’ and flexibility.

It’s helpful to remember that ‘holding’ our arms in any position whilst playing the piano can incur tension, therefore, when practising, it’s a good idea to frequently encourage the arms to swing loosely. Students are often unaware that they are ‘holding’ their arms in position at all – it’s just a habit which has developed over time.

Now that the intervals don’t feel so large, we worked at the passage as written, starting with a very slow speed and using an exaggerated lateral arm and rotational wrist movement combined with the wrist and arm making a fairly sizable movement, which can be easily assimilated at slow speeds, but will be much smaller and less noticeable when played fast. However, the movement will still be present, and if learnt with a flexible arm and wrist motion, should cause no tension issues.

The accents in Ex. 4 are important. The notes involved in the interval should ideally sound clearly and be played legato, or with a seamless join; the addition of these accents ensures notes are clear and not ‘swallowed’ when played at speed. We found it useful to use the finger-tips for this exercise:

Ex. 4

Ex. 5

Next, experimentation was the name of the game! Ex. 5 was beneficial, particularly the largest interval which was extremely taxing at first, but it’s surprising just how quickly our fingers and hands adapt to wider intervals. Ex. 6 is a rather bizarre practice exercise, but my student said she found it one of the most helpful, as is often the case with exaggerated leaps and jumps:

Ex. 6

Once the passage could be played at a reasonable tempo, we worked at the following, slowly, with both hands:

Ex. 7

Developing exercises around such ‘corners’ can be fun, and repetitions are an excellent practice tool, but should only be used when combined with a relaxed arm, wrist and hand – and very firm fingers. Drawing on dynamics combined with accents, offers greater clarity and precision. The octave exercise was good for ascertaining the appropriate lateral arm movement and ‘swing’ between the B flat and E, the wrist and arm acting as a pivot.

Each exercise was practised with both hands, and eventually my pupil could play this passage comfortably and at speed.

You can hear the piece by clicking on the link below:


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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