5 Top Tips to Improve Wrist Staccato

Wrist Staccato 1

This is the second post exploring touch and articulation. The first focused on finger staccato (you can read it here), and today I’ll try to provide a few practice ideas for wrist staccato. Wrist staccato technique is generally used to play chordal passage work or groups of two notes or more in a very short, detached manner.

A pianist friend and I were chatting recently about articulation  (we need to get out more!), discussing the whole gamut of staccato possibilities and variants. After a long pause my friend suddenly remarked, “what if wrist staccato doesn’t really exist – it seems to have been incorrectly labelled”. I’ve been pondering this ever since.   Due to the title, it’s easy to misinterpret wrist staccato as merely  the wrist in a ‘fixed’ position bobbing up and down at the end of the arm, but if this is the only physical action taken, rigidity and extreme tension will prevail. Unlike finger staccato, wrist staccato requires much more movement than just that of the wrist.

To achieve success, it really must be harnessed to a very flexible, moveable forearm, upper arm and upper torso.  As with many other techniques in piano playing, each movement benefits from being cushioned and supported by other parts of the upper body. So, in this post, I will aim to describe wrist staccato, and how to achieve it as transparently as possible.

1. As always, start with arms in a relaxed state (they should feel ‘heavy’, with muscles relaxed). This is the feeling you are trying, if possible, to replicate when playing. Practice away from the piano at first; begin with the hand in its natural position, then move it upwards using the wrist only, then downwards, with your forearm remaining fairly static, the wrist acting rather like a hinge. Gradually build up speed. The faster the speed, so the motion becomes smaller and smaller, and is eventually akin to a ‘vibrato’ action, as if shaking the hand rapidly.

2. Once the basic movement has been assimilated away from the instrument, experiment by applying it to a few chords or intervals on the keyboard. A C major triad (similar to those in the example above) might be helpful. Play hands separately at first, and as you play every chord, using a large hinge-like motion with your wrist (almost like a ‘throwing’ action), land on the chord accurately using the tips of the fingers.  After the chord has been struck, completely ‘release’ the wrist and arm, letting go of any tension, before the next chord is played. This is tricky to do at speed, so as always, slow practice can really help. As speed is built, be sure to release any elbow tension too, as this can feel uncomfortable after a while. To release muscles, swing your arm down by your side; this will serve as a reminder of the feeling of relaxation or no tension.

3. In order for the arms, elbows and upper torso to remain as free and flexible as possible (so they can support the wrist), it’s important to have an in-built ‘breathing’ space between each chord or interval. Therefore, release the upper body after every single chord. The wrist and arm will eventually become accustomed to the whole tension release method. I find it useful to make a rotational movement with the wrist too (when practising slowly) as opposed to only moving up and down, because the use of some arm weight seems to cushion the movement, providing a richer sound and freer action, in preparation for brisk tempos. Some prefer a ‘throwing’ motion, the flexibility stemming from the wrist’s release between each ‘throw’ of the hand.

4.  After a while, move from playing one chord at a time, to several on one wrist motion. An example of wrist staccato, is shown below (which is the first bar of Czerny’s Study No. 40, from The Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740):

Wrist staccato 4

This passage might be practised in the manner suggested below, the rests providing spots to release tension. During the crotchet rests in the right hand, ensure the wrist and whole arm is loose and floppy or free, before continuing, then you will know if you have released tension successfully.

Wrist staccato 3

5. Practice on passages which don’t require a large hand stretch; if octaves or big chords feel strained, choose smaller triads as in the example above. It’s important to feel comfortable, not over stretched. Also, by giving a slight accent on the first beat of a passage or group (such as the first triad in the chordal group above), it’s possible to facilitate the movement required to play all three chords in the group with ease. The action needed for the strong beat sets the motion rolling, helps to rotate the wrist, and keeps the arm and elbow soft and light too. As the wrist and arm become used to the feeling, so the breaks between each chord can be less and less, although it is always necessary to free the wrist very swiftly between groups of chords, ridding the arm of any tension before continuing.

Speed will come eventually, when the wrist and arm feel able and willing to relax the muscles between passage work, then it will be possible to play longer sections without tiring.  Once this aspect has been grasped, velocity and virtuosity will appear.

My publications:

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.

Absolute Articulation

I have spent much of the last month adjudicating at various amateur music festivals around the country. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable job; I get to visit all different parts of the UK, and also hear a wide variety of piano playing. Standards vary of course, from young, inexperienced beginners to incredibly accomplished performers. Whilst it’s my job to mark (or judge) the competitors, I’m also able to comment on their playing in a fairly detailed manner, via a written mark form and verbally at the adjudication.

Contrary to popular belief, most of these young players (and some not so young; there are always adult amateur classes at most festivals!), are very happy to receive feedback and constructive criticism. Care is needed when discussing any negative traits, particularly in a public forum, but nevertheless, it can be a great way for pianists to obtain an unbiased appraisal of their work. Where possible, I try to give helpful practice tips and advice. At a couple of the recent festivals, I also gave short workshops at the end of classes; these are hopefully useful, partly because the entire audience can benefit from what is essentially a public lesson.

One major issue, cropping up with absolute regularity, through a whole gamut of piano playing, irrespective of standard or ability, seems to be that of articulation. I never cease talking about this subject. Perhaps it’s just me, but I believe this aspect to be one of the most crucial elements in good performance practice. Without it, a successful performance is virtually impossible, especially when a pianist reaches diploma level and beyond. In fact, the more advanced the player, the more important the subject of articulation. It is one of the main reasons why the Baroque and Classical repertoire remains the most challenging.

In many ways, articulation is like speech and diction; some clearly pronounce or ‘articulate’ words, often with a staccato or ‘short’ effect, enunciating every syllable, whilst others tend to ‘slur’ their words together, in a rather lazy legato manner with little differentiation of colour, tone or intonation from one word to the next. This can result in a merging together of words and sometimes whole sentences, rendering them incomprehensible! This can happen in piano playing too.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Articulation refers to the musical performance technique that affects the transition or continuity on a single note, or between multiple notes or sounds.’ Good articulation generally stems from total rhythmical control, allowing each note to be played with equal value whilst employing a variety of different effects or touches, and this in turn comes from finger control. Crisp, clear finger work, particularly in rapid passages, all depends on how fingers are, in a sense, programmed.

Articulation also implies different touches; staccato, legato, marcato, and even martellato too, but in this instance, I’m referring to the lack of precision between each beat; it’s all very well playing rhythmically on the main beat, but then what happens within each beat? Frequently, groups of quavers or semiquavers (and demisemiquavers) are rushed or played unequally.

Arguably, one of main the differences between the amateur and professional pianist comes down to articulation; professionals generally articulate with a total accuracy and almost mechanical regularity, allowing for a convincing interpretation.

So, how do we learn to play notes crisply, evenly and with the utmost precision? Here are a few practice tips which may be helpful:

  1. Effective articulation must be instigated from the outset, so when looking at a new piece for the first time, be quite clear on your fingering for both hands, particularly if rapid passage work and ornaments are involved (secure articulation is vital when negotiating trills, turns and mordents etc.). It may be a good idea to write all the proposed fingering into your score before learning begins. If the fingering isn’t completely assimilated, then haphazard, unrhythmical playing could become a problem.
  2. The slower you practice, the easier it will be to play smoothly, rhythmically and also to listen to what is actually being played. This might sound obvious, but it’s all too easy to switch off and ‘imagine’ what we are playing; the reality can be somewhat different. Listen to the clarity of your finger work, and the ‘space’ between each note. Ask yourself, are all the notes in this phrase really equal or are some being rushed, or perhaps being played too slowly?
  3. For total precision, count each and every beat out loud (even if you are playing semiquavers), when you play to your own (equal) counting, it becomes quite obvious if the passage work is clear and in time.
  4. Flexible wrists can help with clear articulation, allowing for free hand and finger movement. Separate motions (or movements) can be really useful when staccato and non-legato touches are involved. Pay special attention when you need to turn the hand, or place the thumb under the hand in running passages. This is where problems can occur, and where ‘bumpy’ or jerky sounds will hamper a run or group of notes played at speed.
  5. It can be very beneficial to practice with a powerful heavy sound (this can help with clarity and also to develop stronger fingers), the weight of each finger being evenly placed and transferred from one note to the next. Use proper arm-weight and play on the fleshy part of the finger-tip. After a while, when you return to playing ‘lightly’ with less force, you should find it easy to articulate each note; each fast passage or run will feel more comfortable and manageable.
  6. If you have the time and inclination, practice each phrase with many different touches, from legatissimo to staccatissimo. When you return to playing the particular phrase ‘normally’, there should be a real improvement in clarity.

Ideal repertoire on which to practice perfecting articulation are works from the Baroque and Classical period (as well as using technical exercises), especially less demanding, smaller pieces, such as those from the Anna Magdalena Notebook,  the Eighteen Little Preludes and the slightly more intricate  Inventions and Sinfonias BWV 772 – 801 , all composed by J.S. Bach. Less complicated pieces by Handel, C.P.E Bach, Scarlatti can also be useful as can the Sonatinas of Clementi and Kuhlau.

For articulation inspiration, the performance linked below offers a stunning example of the wonderful combination of technical clarity and musical mastery. It’s played by celebrated Canadian pianist, Janina Fialkowska, who is, incidentally, the next interview guest in my Classical Conversations Series.

My publications:

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.