S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G! A few thoughts……

Many piano students have issues with stretching. Smaller hands are less suited to playing the piano than larger ones, and they often need a little more help when learning certain repertoire. Playing hefty chords and intervals of an octave (8 notes) or more, in either hand, can create physical problems, causing the hand to ‘lock-up’ and subsequently become tense, curtailing fast movement.

This can also happen even when chords are negotiated relatively easily; fast double octave passagework, octaves with the melody in the top line (or bottom line), quick chordal passages, and chords which leap around the keyboard, are all potentially troublesome for the smaller hand. It’s occasionally possible to re-write passagework in order to play successfully, but a better plan is to train the hand and fingers so that they become accustomed, and indeed prepared, to play large intervals without any strain.

Here are a few ideas and suggestions to help prepare the fingers and hand; it is possible to re-train yourself mentally and physically, allowing the hand and whole upper body to feel free and unrestricted whilst stretching octaves and beyond.

Place your hand (or hands) on a table top (or your knee) in a totally natural position, stretching out as far as is comfortable, with no tension (see photo below). Observe how each hand feels as you stretch out whilst relaxing your arm(s) and upper body; it’s important to sense what is completely relaxed.

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Next play an octave interval on the piano in each hand (one at a time), again feeling totally relaxed (this might only be an interval of a 6th or 7th if you have small hands or an octave feels tense). If you can’t yet reach an octave, a flat hand position (i.e. the whole hand out-stretched as on the table top in the photo above) might be necessary at first so that you can actually reach the interval.

Whilst playing the interval, observe the thumb and 5th finger; the two fingers you will normally be using to play any interval (although after a while you may be able to use the 3rd and 4th fingers alongside the thumb for octaves as well). How they negotiate any wide interval is vital.

Firstly, try to ensure that the 5th finger in each hand is active and working independently from the rest of the hand. Employ your finger-tip on the key using the fleshy area of the tip, and be fully functioning from the knuckle down to both finger joints; it is best if the 5th fingers are bent and in a ‘gripping’ position  (see photo of my left hand below – my right hand was busy taking the photo!). Also notice the bridge position of my knuckles i.e. the knuckles are all visible; if this bridge ‘collapses’, then playing at speed outstretched (which is necessary for octaves and chords) becomes problematic. The thumb should also assume a ‘gripping’ position, as this helps with note accuracy. It will probably take a while for these finger positions to feel natural (it takes pupils generally six to nine months of constant hand/finger mindfulness).

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Whilst playing the interval, allow your wrist and arm to go floppy and relaxed. I ask my students to move their wrists freely up and down, as they are keeping the position of the chord or octave (it’s best to start practising using an octave – inner notes can be added later). Playing the piano is all about tension (to play the notes) and release (letting go immediately afterwards) and so chords and octaves also require this approach.

The idea of encouraging the hand/wrist/arm to go floppy and limp whilst keeping the interval shape with the fingers needs to be practised frequently, so it becomes a habit, and eventually it will feel natural when playing larger intervals.

It’s a good idea to get into the habit of ‘letting go’ of the octave as soon as it has been played. However, this doesn’t mean you need to physically let go of the notes or piano keys.  It’s possible to hold notes, chords and intervals without assuming a tense position, hence moving the rest of your hand should feel easy and flexible as you hold onto the notes. This is really like an exercise in assuming the interval shape. Try moving your whole arm/hand in a circular/rotational motion whilst still holding down a chord. If this feels relaxed and ‘free’ then you know you are on the right track! Always release the hand position completely after you have played a one or two intervals or chords – otherwise you might feel strain or discomfort.

Sink into the key bed as you play the octave interval ensuring your wrists remain free and not in a high position (high wrists usually indicates tension), It’s quite good practice to allow the wrists to drop as low as possible as well as moving freely in a rotational motion as already suggested.  Avoid a ‘fixed’ wrist position, but rather encourage it to move as and when necessary helping you reach each and every chord or octave. The wrist should act as a hinge allowing arm-weight to produce the sound.

Once you feel comfortable playing an octave, practice this stretch every day for around 5 minutes. Muscles will get used to the feeling of the stretch so that it feels like a ‘normal’ hand position. Then eventually add inner notes to create chords. Your hand will adjust to this new position and you might notice a change in the structure of your hand too.

This exercise should never be uncomfortable or cause pain in any way. If you feel pain whilst playing the piano then something is wrong, so stop and get help! If you want to develop a good piano technique finding an appropriate teacher is paramount.

After working systematically on this technical issue, you might find playing intervals of a ninth and even a tenth possible, as your hand gets used to stretching further and further without feeling strained or tense. It’s all about relaxing the hand so it feels more accommodating and pliable, whilst keeping a firm finger grip on the octave/chordal shape. Happy practising!


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.


 

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Some thoughts on chordal playing in the Scottish Legend Op. 54 No. 1 by Amy Beach

It’s great to highlight female composers and Trinity College Exam Board’s Grade 8 syllabus has revealed a gem of a piece, by the American pianist and composer Amy Beach.

Beach (1867-1944) was the first successful American female composer of large-scale art music. Most of her compositions and performances appeared under the name of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. A member of the Boston Group of composers or the Second New England School, She used her status as the top American woman composer to further the careers of young musicians and was also head of several organizations, including the Society of American Women Composers, of whom she was the first president.

Beach’s writing is generally Romantic stylistically, but in later works she experimented, moving away from tonality, employing whole tone scales and more exotic harmonies. She wrote choral works, symphonies, a violin concerto, piano concerto, many solo piano works and chamber music, but is most synonymous with songs. Two delightful, but less known piano works are the Scottish Legend and Gavotte Fantastique Op.54.

The Scottish Legend is a beautiful character piece similar in style to that of the European Romantic tradition present in the last half of the Nineteenth Century. Beach loved this genre and has written an attractive, albeit small-scale, work which is characterised by full chords, an enchanting melodic line and opulent, lush harmonies. Particularly interesting is the definite Scottish rhythm, no doubt highlighting the composer’s partially Celtic background. The melody is very similar to a Scottish Folk tune and effectively accentuates the ‘Scottish snap’ (or short accented down beat), giving the appropriate patriotic flavour. The piano texture is thick and mostly in the mid-range of the keyboard, with plenty of widespread chords and parallel sixths.

The predominant technical feature here is chordal playing. From the outset, Beach has written in a rich homophonic style. A chord is a cluster of two or more notes played at the same time. Chords can sometimes feel rather awkward to play, particularly in both hands simultaneously, but therein lays the technical challenge; chordal playing is all about voicing or deciding just which notes or lines of music are the most important at any given time and consequently need highlighting. With this in mind, one of the most crucial elements here is fingering. Each chord must be allocated appropriate fingering allowing for smooth transition from one chord to the next. Not every chord has a thick texture, but it’s a good idea to be quite sure of your fingering before starting to learn the piece (writing it in the score if necessary). Correcting fingering is painful and takes time, so bypass this by studying it accurately from the start! How you move from one chord to the next will determine the success of your performance.

Whilst polyphonic music such as that written by J.S. Bach may seem far removed from the Romantic style discussed here, playing plenty of contrapuntal works serves as an excellent ‘warm-up’ to dense chordal texture. Both styles require well-developed finger control in order to cope with various melodic lines of varying importance, because in nearly all chordal based works, there will be some musical lines that are far more interesting than others. So, strong fingers are vital for good voicing. The outer voices are normally the most crucial musically, and yet they routinely involve employing the weakest fingers; the fourths and fifths. In order to prepare to play this piece, it might be prudent to study a few Hanon or Czerny exercises (with the help of a good teacher) building up these fingers, as well as examining some polyphonic works. Fingers must be able to move independently, as I have mentioned on many occasions here on this blog.

To play chords effectively it’s a good idea to keep your hands close to the keys, preferably resting on the keys as opposed to hovering above. Then you will be able to move efficiently from one chord to the next, allowing your fingers to control the change between chords and the depth of sound required for each one. This is why firm, strong fingers are necessary. Also take care to make sure the hand is arched properly and not ‘collapsing’ – the knuckles must protrude, otherwise strong, equal playing amongst each finger will be almost impossible. Power to change the sound comes from arm-weight as opposed to just using your hands and fingers.

In the Scottish Legend, the melodic interest is usually in the top line, so the top three fingers of your right hand will be working continuously (third, fourth and fifth fingers). The first phrase of this work illustrates the chordal style;

Scottish Legend 1

 Here’s the right hand (or melodic material) with some suggested fingering;

Scottish Legend 2

You can break this down further by isolating the melody (in this case, the top part or line of music) and focusing on it completely, always employing the fingering you intend to use whilst playing all the parts of the chord together. Once you have practised this using a full, beautiful sound and total legato, try playing the remaining parts of each chord altogether, pianissimo and then fortissimo, changing the sound will help with fluency. You may find it helpful to play the left hand or bass line alone too.

Here’s the bass line with some suggested fingering – it may be useful to play the two parts separately, in a similar way to the right hand;

Scottish Legend 3

Crucially, play them very smoothly and without pedal. Then play the phrase as written, making sure the melody is always voiced above the other notes in the chord; with careful practice you will find this becomes easier over time. A flexible, pliable wrist really helps when negotiating homophonic music because it will ultimately help with balancing the tone correctly.

Using your ears properly is another deciding factor in the success of legato phrasing and well-spaced chords. It’s imperative to really listen to the sound you are producing and the effectiveness of any gradation (i.e. going from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again), when moving from one chord to the next. Resist the temptation to use pedal. Pedal should be added after you have learnt the notes sufficiently and then used to enhance the overall sound, as opposed to masking a lack of legato touch, incorrect fingering or hesitant, uneven playing.

The chordal progressions require careful work and many of them have ornaments; it might be worth practising these passages without the ornaments to begin with, making sure the rhythm is accurate and pulse, secure; then add them in (carefully adjusting the fingering where necessary) when your chordal grasp is firm (this is because ornamental playing tends to knock the pulse, as incorporating them in tempo can be challenging). Similarly, articulation of the spread or arpeggiated chords must not disturb the pulse. A quick rotational hand movement can be effective here, allowing a swift hand ‘roll’, aiding rhythmical playing.

There are copious tempo changes and rubato passages in this piece. It’s probably best to start by working rhythmically at each phrase, making sure the pulse remains stable. Once you have mastered the whole work, then it’s time to incorporate the tempo changes. You will find it much easier to do this once you have acquired an ‘overview’ of the piece.

Here are some quick tips or reminders when practising chords;

  1. Break the piece down into phrases, and then work at each one separately.
  2. Sort out the fingering before you begin, writing it in the score if necessary.
  3. Work at the outer parts of the chord or the top line (usually the melody) and the bottom, or bass line (the right hand first, then the left – separately to start with, then together), playing as legato or smoothly as possible – no ‘breaks’ in the sound.
  4. Then incorporate all the notes in the chords (again, right hand first, then the left, and finally together), slowly playing from one chord to the next, very smoothly, always making sure your wrist is free from tension (otherwise moving will be difficult).
  5. Practice voicing each chord in several ways (playing the middle parts from pianissimo to fortissimo), but always making sure the melody line is predominant.
  6. Use a metronome to check whether your chordal progression is rhythmical and then slowly increase the speed.
  7. Add the pedal only when you are able to play the passage fluently.

Master this chordal style, and you will be able to convey the meaning of this beautiful stately Scottish Ballad effectually.

Amy Beach

Amy Beach (Image link)

 My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of 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.