Pianist Magazine is currently celebrating its twentieth year, and it has been an honour to write for the magazine since 2014. I write a ‘How-to-play’ article in every issue and a ‘5 Tips’ based article for the bi-monthly newsletter. The following piece first appeared in the magazine’s most recent newsletter. It’s a subject which I find fascinating to teach and I hope you find it of interest, too.
What do I mean by ‘spot’ finger practice? This is a term I use for a very useful tool which can help to highlight particular finger issues. Perhaps you may realise certain fingers aren’t responding in a manner you would like during practice and performance. They may sound uneven or jerky and, no matter how hard you try to rectify it, nothing seems to improve. Spot finger practice can be beneficial here, and it will also attune your ears to just ‘how’ you are playing each note, as well as hone tonal and rhythmic evenness.
- Begin by identifying several passages in a few piano pieces with which you are having difficulty. These passages may be fast, rapid scale-like figurations, arpeggios or broken chord shapes, or even octaves and chords. Play each passage, hands separately, and listen extremely attentively; the more you listen, the more you will realise which finger is letting the team down! Students find this challenging at first, as it can be quite daunting to ‘hear’ what is really played, but they generally become proficient in no time. You may consider recording your passage, as this is a good way to effectively ‘hear’ what you are playing.
- After repeated listening, you should be able to single out which fingers are not fully sounding, or perhaps they are rushing or lingering too much, or are missing the note, or notes, entirely. Mark those notes in the score with a circle. Keep the fingering you have chosen but be aware of which finger is playing which note in your passage.
- Now play the passage again at a quarter of the speed. Add accent markings to each note played by the finger that is underperforming. There might be quite a few accents at first. Play the passage again, slowly, and apply the accents, which will demand that you play heavily with a full sound only on those notes played by underperforming fingers, encouraging extra firmness and security.
- The weaker fingers might be the usual culprits such as the fourth or fifth, but more often than not, the second or third finger can cause issues as well, particularly in arpeggios and broken chords. And the thumb often needs attention, especially when it passes under the hand.
- Now add staccato markings to the fingers which need more control in your passage, and tenuto markings to all the other notes, that is, the fingers which are already working well. You can also try this by adding various dynamics, too, but I find varying the touch to be more beneficial. Play the whole passage through with a very heavy touch (on every note), and listen for tonal and rhythmic evenness. You can now finally add speed and lighten your touch, and those weaker fingers should feel firmer and perform with greater control.
You may need to return to spot finger practice over several practice sessions, but it can be an excellent method for instigating finger dexterity.
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.