Painless Piano Playing Part 1

Today’s post was originally printed in the recent edition of Piano Professional, a magazine for piano teachers published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). It focuses on an aspect of playing which I feel is extremely important: flexibility. This article concentrates on simple exercises which students find helpful as they start their practice sessions.

Playing the piano is a fascinating but complex activity. It can transport human beings to another plane, allowing us to interpret and become close to great master pieces, and it provides a wonderful background for education too, teaching us discipline, mental and physical agility, coordination, and, above all, patience. But it can also cause much pain and discomfort if not approached in a healthy way. Some pianists experience minimal tension as they move around the instrument, but for others, tension issues can go far beyond minimal. Tendonitis, repetitive strain injury and focal dystonia are just some of the physical problems caused by extreme physical tension, or a ‘locking-up’ of the muscles and tendons. As teachers, we need to be able to identify, and have the capacity to help, students who present themselves in this condition.

Physical issues generally form over time, whether a student has studied with a teacher (or several teachers) or has been self-taught, the underlying tightness has taken a while to take hold, and once it has, changing the physical and mental mind set so that a student can begin to unravel themselves, needs patience, great care and understanding.

I have had some experience in this arena, and over the past few years have worked with a cohort of students who have presented various stages of physical discomfort. Alleviating these issues can take much time and effort – often over a period of a few years, so it goes without saying that a healthier approach would be to encourage pupils to move in a relaxed, flexible manner from the outset. But what can we do to change the techniques of those students who have already ceased moving flexibly and are in the grip of pain and discomfort?

One particular mental aspect associated with pain or movement issues of any kind are the feelings of inadequacy or not being able to play the piano in the manner which they believe they should. Students can tend to think that they need to visit physiotherapists, chiropractors or osteopaths and so on. But in my experience, none of this is generally necessary. Once a student knows they have support and guidance, and they learn the following physical exercises, they not only begin to release their physical tensions, but also the associated thought process which might have led to their problems in the first place. Some pupils will need constant and continual reassurance, and therefore it can be beneficial to move through the following exercise suggestions slowly, thoroughly and with humility and sensitivity.

For those who have already manifested physical difficulties, here are a few ideas to hopefully start releasing any tension held in the upper body whilst playing the piano.

Tension issues or a feeling of tightness frequently manifests in the shoulders or back. This might sound far-fetched, but it’s surprising just how many students are able to ‘lock’ their shoulders and their backs as they play, often without even noticing their awkward position. I begin by asking students to sit on the stool in an upright position (with a straight spine), and with their feet firmly on the floor; it might be easier for some to sit on the edge of the stool (nearest the keyboard), so they are fully supported by their feet and legs. They will now be in a solid secure position playing position. I encourage their arms to drop from the shoulder in a completely relaxed manner, so that they are swinging by their side; this should feel akin to having very ‘heavy’ arms, as their muscles completely relax. I refer to this as ‘dead’ arms, which seems to suitably spark their imagination! After a while, it will be relatively easy to spot if a student is still tensing shoulders or other parts of their upper body.

This position can be viewed as ‘a starting point’ or a ‘default’ position during practice; students with issues benefit from returning to this position frequently, and once they have ‘learnt’ the feeling, they start to understand how to release themselves. Much emphasis must be placed on learning the feeling, because this is the most effective way to loosen muscles and tendons. As the arms swing heavily by their side, the back and shoulders will begin to release their tightness, and should return to a more ‘standard’ position, that is, with the shoulders in the expected horizontal position without being raised, and with the back completely relaxed and comfortable. It’s important to do this before any actual playing occurs, so they are free to feel and understand muscle release without the distraction of playing.

Many tension problems stem from pupils not quite grasping the tension and release concept which is so necessary in piano playing, and as teachers, it is up to us to demonstrate how this works, and offer solutions. I will work with a student, sometimes for many lessons, just on the particular exercise mentioned above, until they know how to release themselves.

Now we need to find a way for students to put their hands on the keyboard in the ‘playing’ position without feeling any tightening or ‘locking’ at all. I ask students to lift their forearms up from the elbows, whilst keeping flexible, and rest their entire hand on the keys; they need to be at the correct height sitting at the keyboard, so that they can then release their arms, hands and wrists of any tension as they rest their hands in the correct place (see photo 1).

                                                                                              Photo 1

Many students will feel tight just by putting their hands in the position to play, so the next step has to be to release their muscles and tendons whilst in the playing position. To do this it might be necessary to work separate hands, and hold one hand on the keyboard with the other, or free, hand (see photo 2). The whole arm, hand and wrist must be completely loose and ‘hanging’ down for total relaxation to have occurred. It must be noted that this is NOT a position in which to ever play the piano; it is merely an exercise to loosen muscles and alleviate tension.  Wrists should never appear as low as in my photo, but ‘dropping’ the arm, wrist and hand can be extremely helpful when trying to achieve the task of releasing tight muscles:

Photo 2

With adult students or teenage students, I always help here (with their permission), and often hold their hands in place for them on the keyboard, so they are free to be completely loose and at ease in their upper body. Hands will almost certainly fall off the keyboard without my assistance, although after a period of time, students can learn to hold their hands in position whilst feeling loose in their upper body; again, it’s all about learning the feeling.

Once the back, shoulders and forearms are starting to feel loose, which may take a few weeks of solid work, we can turn our attention to releasing the hand and the muscles/tendons within it. The hand can also be locked especially between each finger (as shown in the photo 3). This is particularly true of the fourth and fifth finger, and it’s this issue that precludes successful octave, chord and finger agility.

Photo 3

Firstly, make sure the hands are ‘loose’, with the fleshy areas feeling relaxed. Secondly, it can help to rest the hand on the top of the keyboard. Now ask your student to open their hand out in a comfortable position, stopping as soon as they feel any tightness (see photo 4).

Photo 4

They may not be able to open their hand very far to begin with, but if they do this exercise, little and often, eventually the hand will be able to open progressively further without feeling any tightness. To achieve this, hold the hand in position using the other free hand (see photo 5), allowing the tendons and muscles within the hand to release; this is challenging to do when the hand has to keep itself in an ‘open’ position, and therefore with the help of the other hand, this exercise is much easier to grasp.

                                                                                               Photo 5

Eventually, the hand starts to feel relaxed in this out-stretched position. Although it can take time, it’s well worth the effort, because it gives pupils the chance to feel comfortable and secure when playing in the position needed for octaves, awkward chords and it can also foster the development of independence within the fingers.

My ideas might seem exaggerated or even counterintuitive; students occasionally find it difficult to comprehend the concept of complete relaxation in the arm, hand and wrist, when they do in fact need to apply a certain amount of tension when playing notes. However, it’s only the fingers and knuckles which must remain firm, with the remaining upper body being totally relaxed, so that they can support the fingers whilst also providing the possibility of allowing the arm to move freely, for arm-weight and a rich, full sound.

Once a student has released their shoulders, back, arms and hands, we can move onto probably the most important joint in the body when it comes to playing the piano: the wrist. My second article in this series will focus on wrist exercises, with the aim of keeping it relaxed and flexible.

You can read the original article by clicking on the link below:

Painless Piano Playing Part 1

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.


Approaches to Staccato Playing

I’m a regular contributor to Piano Professional (the British European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA) magazine); I really enjoy writing for this publication, which focuses on providing piano teachers with helpful information. The following article was written for Issue 43 (published earlier this year), and examines various approaches to staccato. I hope it’s of interest.

When it comes to tackling articulation, there are numerous different touches to embrace, but the most crucial to master are legato and staccato. Staccato (or short and detached), tends to be ignored as lessons commence, perhaps due to the fact that some exam boards only require staccato scales above certain grades, therefore short, spikey playing is generally limited to a few notes or phrases in certain pieces at the beginning. This is possibly adequate for Grade 1, but if pupils can acquire a feel for the quick release of the keys and highly developed reflexes necessary for staccato technique, it will certainly prove beneficial even for relative beginners.

Legato generally poses few problems for students; it may take a little practice to become accustomed to the ‘overlapping’ of notes or ‘walking’ over the keys in order to join them smoothly, but most find the task surmountable fairly quickly. Legato scales can therefore be easily grasped. This is often not the case with staccato; crisp, short passage work at speed rarely feels comfortable (especially in the beginning), hence staccato scales are frequently taken at much slower tempos than intended. Scales are only one small facet of acquiring an effective staccato technique, but they can provide a convenient vehicle for those getting to grips with detached playing.

There are many variations on the staccato theme, including ‘close-to-the-keys’ staccato, finger staccato, wrist staccato and whole-arm staccato. Each touch demands a different technique and therefore a different body movement or motion. Making progress can take time and patience, because excellent coordination is a prerequisite. Tension can also be an overriding concern, sometimes irrespective of standard, and it can ruin the best of intentions. Economy of movement is essential, as is an inbuilt flexibility, so practising fruitfully, in small but regular sessions is probably the best approach. Aim to encourage students to work little and often, with a totally focused mind-set, building up muscle power and flexibility.

How do we help students conquer thorny issues associated with short, detached playing? Each staccato technique requires a multifarious perspective, so let’s look at them individually.

Finger staccato is the most commonly used for rapid passagework. When working at any new motion or technique with pupils, it’s helpful to ask them to drop their arms by their side at the start of practice sessions, as well as after practising a repeated movement, for a minute of two. If they can assimilate the feeling of ‘dead’ or heavy arms (which is my terminology, but really this only means a totally relaxed upper body), they will learn just how relaxed and ‘free’ they should ideally feel when playing. It can also help students become aware of any tension building as they work, and it provides a default relaxation position to assume after engaging muscles.

Finger staccato implies that only the fingers should move. However, if the arms and wrists remain completely static, tension will quickly arise, rendering fast movement challenging. Ensure complete freedom in the upper body.   If you can replicate this feeling when playing, flexibility won’t be an issue. As with many technical challenges, focus on how your body feels when playing, not just on what is being played.

Practice rapid finger movement away from the piano. Fingers should work from the knuckles, without much assistance of muscles in the hand or wrist, and every joint must be complicit; they need to move independently, making sure the first two joints of each finger particularly (nearest the fingertip), are ‘active’. Aim for a very swift finger motion; encourage fingers to make tapping movements or a quick, sharp pulling ‘inwards’ of each finger (towards the palm of the hand). This can be built up, so work in short bursts for a minute or so at a time, returning to dropping arms by your side at the end of each brief session.

As with most techniques, starting slowly often produces the best results. It can be useful to use heavy finger strokes to begin with; playing deeper (in to the key bed), forcefully and with strong fingers (in order to strengthen them).  It’s important to pay attention to how every note ends. Think spikey, pithy, sharp, and extremely short. Combine this with a free wrist at all times; letting go of tension in designated places.

Once heavy movements have been grasped and they feel comfortable, lighten the touch, using the fingertip (or top/pad of the finger), and aim to acquire a ‘scratch’ or flicking motion, so every note can remain incredibly short and effectively sounded. Once the finger has ‘flicked’ it will usually draw inwards (as already mentioned), almost into the palm of the hand, but best not to allow it to go too far, as quick finger changes necessitate fingers to resume the usual position promptly. When playing a whole scale or passage using finger staccato, it can be beneficial for the hand to employ a very slight ‘bouncing’ motion, allowing flexibility, but keeping the flow.

Practice passage work in different rhythmical groups; groups of four semi-quavers can be accented slightly on every first beat of the group, to improve co-ordination (if hands are playing together). Practice assorted strong beats (or accents), so all fingers can attain control, making it possible to achieve totally even playing, both rhythmically and tonally. Every time the thumb turns under (or the hand turns over it)  in a passage, encourage the wrist to use a small rotational or circular movement, providing a place to release any tension caused by the incessant ‘picking up’ finger motion necessary for finger staccato. Even when using a ‘scratch’ or flicking technique, fingers still need a ‘picking up’ movement, which after a while, becomes tiring. If tension does build, stop immediately, and only practice a few notes or a group of notes at a time. Divide passages into small sections, building up as and when strength is acquired.

If fingers consistently key-bed whilst practising slowly, the less the eventual effort when playing fast, light and crucially, detached.

For close-to-the-keys’ staccato, fingers need hardly leave the keys; they are really playing ‘in position’, and on the surface of the keys. Close-to-the-keys staccato is generally used for certain effects and isn’t as widely employed as finger staccato. Allow fingers to assume their positions over the keys (do this by placing fingers over notes from C-G in the right hand, using the thumb on C, as if playing the first five notes of a C major scale, but with fingers 1-5). Practice each finger separately at first, playing deep into the key bed with each finger, again employing the ‘scratch’ movement (build in a slight break between each note). Using a free wrist will help here. Once the fingers have played heavy, but short notes, lighten the touch considerably, and aim for a very quick movement with each finger making an upward (as opposed to inward) motion. This will encourage speed, rapidly moving onto the next note, taking less time and effort than downward movement. Repeat this with the left hand (also starting in a five-finger position).

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 may 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.

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 similar to a ‘vibrato’ action, as if shaking the hand rapidly.

Once the basic movement has been assimilated (by both hands) away from the instrument, experiment by applying it to a few chords (or single notes to start with) on the keyboard. 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 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 with no tension.

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, therefore, release the upper body after every single one. The wrist and arm will eventually become accustomed to the whole tension/release mechanism. I find it useful to make a rotational movement with the wrist too (when practising slowly) as opposed to only moving it up and down, because the use of arm weight seems to cushion the movement, providing a richer sound and freer action, in preparation for brisk tempi. Some prefer a ‘throwing’ motion, the flexibility stemming from the wrist’s release between each ‘throw’ of the hand.

After a while (and when the feeling of freedom has been honed), move from playing one chord at a time, to several using 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):

This passage might be practised in the manner suggested below, the rests providing spots to release tension, and build stamina. 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.

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 passagework, then it will be possible to play longer sections without tiring.  Once this aspect has been understood, velocity and virtuosity should miraculously appear.

Fore-arm, whole-arm or elbow staccato are probably used less frequently than the other types examined so far, and are generally in more advanced repertoire. As the titles suggest, considerable body movement is necessary, and in order to really understand and make use of these techniques, the arm-weight concept (i.e. employing weight from the upper torso whilst playing passages via flexibility in the wrist) needs to be secure, and wrist staccato must also be completely integrated. When playing staccato passagework with the whole upper body, we should ideally still be flexible between notes and chords, so when delivering short but hefty chords or octaves, a warm, controlled sound emanates. These staccato techniques are generally used for slightly slower figurations; those with which will be enhanced by a powerful sonority. Practising with added ‘breaks’ in the score, as has been suggested for wrist staccato above, can also be beneficial.

Within this framework, there are countless effects required when playing staccato, depending on the composer, stylistic traits and character of a piece, but these practice ideas will hopefully provide a veritable starting point. If pupils are introduced to basic staccato playing from the outset, they will be able to build and develop this technique alongside their legato playing.

Suggested advanced repertoire featuring staccato:

Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 3 in E flat major; Scherzo (2nd movement) by Ludwig van Beethoven, Andante & Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14 by Felix Mendelssohn, Puck Op. 71 No. 3 and March of the Dwarfs Op. 54 by Edvard Grieg, Polichinelle Op. 3 No. 4 by Sergei Rachmaninov, Étincelles Op. 36 No. 6 by Moritz Moszkowski, Étude Op. 23 No. 2 by Anton Rubinstein and Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes) from 2 Konzertetüden, S.145 by Franz Liszt.

You can read the original article here:

Approaches to staccato playing

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.


Weekend Competition! Safari by June Armstrong

safari-cover-238-236-225-light-backgroundMy competition this weekend features a new collection of beginner to pre-grade one piano pieces written by composer June Armstrong.

Safari consists of 23 elementary pieces and follows the course of a day in Africa, starting with African Dawn and ending with Night Sky with Stars.  You can meet all the animals along the way – gazelles, flamingos, lions, giraffes, hyenas, monkeys, elephants and many others, as well as a myriad of atmospheric scenes such as Mountain Mist and Mirage. To listen to every piece click here.

This selection contains a distinctly appealing atmospheric sound, and one which I think both adult and child beginners will enjoy. A wide range of piano techniques are introduced, and therefore these little pieces form excellent teaching material.

I have two signed copies of this volume to give away, so please leave your comments in the comment box at the end of this post, and I will select two winners (and announce them on this blog, so stay tuned!) on Sunday evening (British time). If you would like to purchase Safari, you can do so here.

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.


The Art of Polyphony: 12 Top Tips

Today’s post features an article I wrote for Piano Professional Magazine (an EPTA or the European Piano Teachers Association publication). It was published in June this year, and focuses on a few practice suggestions for counterpoint (or polyphony). There are so many different ways to work at this demanding style, and my thoughts are based on my own approach. I’ve included a link to the original article at the end of the post, and a downloadable PDF with twelve tips for students, teachers or anyone who loves practising the piano. Hope you find it helpful.

Polyphonic writing has been a popular compositional technique in Western music for over six centuries. It’s a method of writing favoured by a vast collection of composers, irrespective of their style and genre. Responsible for producing some of the most complicated, intense and beautiful music ever known to man, it’s a form which piano students must grasp thoroughly, as otherwise progress in piano playing will be challenging; at every stage of pianistic development and at virtually every music exam, pupils are expected to perform a piece constructed in this manner.

Polyphony may also be referred to as counterpoint (or contrapuntal style), alluding to the texture, or construction of a piece. According to the Oxford Dictionary, Polyphony is:

‘The style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other’

The art of playing many lines of music at the same time can cause a myriad of issues for students, and the study and practice of this genre requires a very different approach to that of a texture consisting of a melody and accompaniment (known as Homophonic style).

Countless composers from the whole spectrum of Western music have employed contrapuntal techniques; from Beethoven to Bartók, and Busoni to Shostakovich. However, arguably the greatest and most prolific era of this style occurred during the Baroque period (approximately 1600 – 1750). J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) was of colossal importance in the Baroque period’s golden polyphonic era, and his music provides a fundamental element in today’s piano repertoire.

Polyphony emerges in many guises and forms; from preludes, fugues, suites, and dance movements, to appearances in concerto movements and sonatas. In the Baroque period (and earlier), these pieces would have been played on completely different instruments; the harpsichord, organ and clavichord. The clavichord was, by all accounts, J. S Bach’s favoured instrument for performing his keyboard music. The possibility to vary the sound and colour, coupled with a slightly more responsive feel, undoubtedly played a significant factor. This provides insight into the performance of Bach’s music; and whilst much of his work may be described as generally highly rhythmic with continuous repeated patterns, it requires a level of musicianship, depth and commitment rarely witnessed in other genres.

How do we help students overcome the difficulties beset in the polyphonic style? Here are a few suggestions:

Learning any polyphonic work will require a substantial amount of analysis or study especially at the start; it can be helpful to take the score away from the piano. The linear element is the main focus in contrapuntal music, therefore the following observations will be vital; the shape and construction of each melodic strand within the contrapuntal texture (especially the thematic material), the key (particularly key changes), cadential points, how the melodic material develops, changes, or migrates throughout the piece.

Counterpoint usually consists of two or more lines or strands of material, and if a work such as a fugue is to be studied, three or four lines of texture will be evident. Once the score has been ingested, it can be useful to lay each part out on a separate stave, separating the textures, allowing complete understanding of where the music is going. I find absorption of each part is quicker this way.

Here is the opening of the Fugue in E major from Book 1 of the Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues by J. S. Bach. The three parts or musical lines of this (three-part) fugue have been separated, making it clear to see each subject entry (the subject is the main theme of the work):

Polyphony 1Students might find it beneficial to write the whole fugue out in this manner. It’s important to note each entry of the subject particularly, as this guides interpretation and also dictates articulation as well. In the example above (Fugue in E major), I’ve marked the subject and it’s three entries at the beginning (A1, A2, and A3) in each part. I encourage pupils to do this throughout a work, every time each entry appears (writing a piece out in this way assists with memory and really ‘knowing’ a piece).

Once the melodic material has been marked up and each strand of music has been grasped, work through the piece deciding how the texture will be divided between the two hands; sometimes two parts can be taken with either the left hand (LH) or right hand (RH), but occasionally the most convenient interpretation will see the subject, and subsequent material (often a countersubject, or an ‘answer’ to the subject), divided between the hands.

Taking the fully digested score to the piano, now is the time to mark up the most ideal fingerings. This will take time and will involve working hands separately, carefully observing comfortable hand positions, and the necessary movement needed to play each entry with a warm sound and varied tonal colour. This may involve certain hands movements, and a ‘leaning’ on particular fingers in order to create the desired sound within each strand or line of music. Aim to write as much in the score as possible; this will serve as an important prompt until the piece is really learnt.

Returning to the three-part score (which has now been written out), ask students to play each voice (each musical line) separately (using the correct fingerings, which may feel tricky at first). This could be extended to other thematic material too, disentangling various strands of texture, providing a feel for the musical content as a whole, whilst getting to grips with the various shapes and patterns within the piece.

Rhythm plays a paramount role in any contrapuntal work. In some cases, the pulse can be relaxed a little, taking slight ritenutos into consideration (mostly in improvisational passagework or at the end of a piece), but whilst playing fugues, dance movements and the like, a very firm rhythmic inner pulse is the secret to the ideal rendition. Encourage students to sub-divide the beat and count in semiquavers (or the smallest rhythmic denomination within a piece). A metronome can help, but I find counting every note (regularly and throughout the piece), the surest way to develop a reliable inner pulse.

Each hand will require a huge amount of practice on its own. It’s generally acknowledged that separate hand practice yields the best results, however, polyphonic music commands slow, pedantic, laborious work in this way, often for a substantial period of time (especially if a student hasn’t played much of this genre previously). The key to mastering polyphonic music is extremely slow practice. The slower, the better. Each hand must know what it’s doing to the point that it can, not only play fluently (free from hesitations and with all correct rhythms), but is totally independent of the other hand, and as though the patterns and shapes could almost be played by rote, without too much thought (so as to allow focus on purely musical concerns).

In order to comprehend patterns and chord structures, it may be wise to develop a variety of methods to enable pupils to learn quickly. The following example (from the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, Book 1 of the ‘48’), the Prelude is understood swiftly by first of all ‘blocking out’ the semiquaver patterns like this, from bars 1 – 4 (it’s possible to work through a large section of the piece in this way):

PolyphonyThis can be followed by practising the necessary movements, when playing as written; ensure the wrists are free, flexible, and a lateral wrist movement is in place, with the wrists and hands moving inwards from beats 1 to 2 (bar 1), and outwards again from beats 2 to 3 (especially in the RH), in order to coax a richer, fuller sound on the outer melodic line, lightening the inner parts, as highlighted here with the use of accents (bars 1 & 2):

Polyphony 3Outer fingers (often fifths), will benefit from playing deep into the key bed, employing the fingertip, which will gradually encourage them to gain strength and produce a larger sonority.

Students sometimes find the inclusion of multiple touches helpful in a work such as the Prelude; slow non-legato, dotted rhythms and accents on different beats of the bar, especially on unexpected beats. Experiment by using accents on beats two and four; both pertaining to the crotchet beat as well as the second and fourth semiquaver, within each crotchet beat (if the speed is very slow), which can be amazingly effective, and will definitely help with any coordination issues.

When practising hands together, assume one beat at a time to begin with, placing each note carefully and with focus, being mindful of the rhythm, as well as notes and fingerings. Mastering a fugue, beat by beat can certainly pay dividends, and when learning bar by bar (after each beat has been successfully negotiated), always stop over the bar line (or over onto the next beat if practising in crotchet beats). This will help with continuity, as it’s vital to be able to ‘pick up’ from any spot within the piece.

Now that your student is playing their fugue (or any polyphonic work), slowly and accurately, try suggesting they sing one voice (or line) whilst playing other linear textures at the same time. This might sound perfunctory and out of character (for this style), but by returning to the original concept of thinking about each strand in a polyphonic work’s texture, the act of playing one part and singing another can be very useful, and will cement learning.

Memorization is not necessary for those taking higher graded exams or some diplomas, but the act of remembering and ingesting all the information in a contrapuntal piece will only aid fruitful learning. Assimilating where subject entries occur, whether by singing, playing, tapping the pulse, or becoming acclimatised to the muscular movements (or a mixture of all the above!), within a piece, will eventually result in being able to remember the score, and most pupils find this valuable, even if they don’t plan to play from memory. Focused practice of any kind for long periods of time, tends to assume this outcome.

Articulation and ornamentation in polyphonic music can be a minefield, and are often deemed personal taste. Generally, we are not privy to any Renaissance or Baroque composer’s intentions; phrase markings, any accentuations or rhythmic inflections can be difficult to gauge, particularly if (as is often the case) nothing has been written in the score.

The following favoured practices may be taken into consideration: notes with longer time values, such as minims, crotchets, quavers, are effective when played non-legato (or slightly detached), whilst semiquavers and shorter note values, are best played legato. However, there are many exceptions to these ‘rules’. In order to interpret any polyphonic material, a degree of ‘separating’ notes will be necessary, and there are many varying degrees of separation, from staccato and staccatissimo, to tenuto or portamento. Appropriate touches will depend on many components including speed, character, harmonic context, and rhythmic patterns.

Ornaments are best left out when learning a work, as they tend to disturb the pulse, and can be the cause of hesitations and uncertainties. Eventually, most pupils will feel the pulse and play seamlessly, and as this happens, embellishments can be gradually introduced. In order to produce even, rhythmic ornaments, suggest students practice the intended embellishment incredibly slowly, powerfully, with finger strength (and a free wrist and arm). Once the pattern has been studied and can be played with ease, lighten the touch to reveal even, added notes. Then insert them at the appropriate place within the piece, slowly building speed until they feel and sound comfortable and natural.

Colour and voicing will become a deciding factor in the success of a performance. This is an issue which can be resolved from the outset (as can articulation), if tonal importance and rhythmic clarity is instigated when playing each melodic strand separately at the beginning of the learning process. Ensure melodic material such as a subject (in a fugue) is always clearly enunciated on every entry, and the accompanying material is sub-ordinate. Deciphering where textures rise and fall will be a consideration too; one tip is to allow a (very) slight hiatus after a climax, so the music is given time to breathe, and doesn’t feel rushed (but don’t be tempted to use rubato!).

Resist the urge to pedal with alacrity. Frequently depressing the sustaining pedal will merely smudge and obscure the numerous lines of music, which must ring out, allowing the listener to hear the textures clearly. The sustaining pedal may be used sparingly, to highlight specific points in the score, and to provide resonance. Tonal clarity, rhythmic precision and above all, musical integrity, will ensure a beautiful performance of any polyphonic piece.

Suggested Further Reading:

Keyboard Interpretation: Howard Ferguson (OUP)

Ornamentation; a Question and Answer Manual: Valery Lloyd-Watts, Carole L Bigler, Willard A Palmer (Alfred)

Downloadable PDF: The Art of Polyphony: 12 Top Tips

The Art of Polyphony: original article as it appeared in Piano Professional Magazine

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.






9 Top Tips for Practising Octaves

Octaves (or playing an interval of eight notes) can be a splendid and comfortable technical tool. However, for many they cause grief and even worse, pain. I wrote the following article for the EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) magazine, Piano Professional (which was published in the latest edition), and I hope it may be helpful. There’s a downloadable PDF at the end with nine suggested practice tips. You can also click the link at the very bottom of the article to view the magazine PDF.


Octaves add the most thrilling virtuoso element to piano playing. Romantic composers, particularly, thrived on their inclusion, frequently imbuing works with rapid octaves, which cascade impressively and flamboyantly around the keyboard, providing drama and excitement to engage and captivate the listener. They are a joy to behold, and played with power and élan, are amongst the most effective of all piano tools, assisting any composer in creating the appropriate expression; whether that be anger, sadness, love, passion or sheer jubilation.

Octaves are probably the most well-known and recognisable technical texture in the whole gamut of piano playing, and they emerged from the early Nineteenth Century onwards, as pianos became stronger, and produced richer, more vibrant sonorities. Such passagework played with aplomb, combined with the sustaining (damper or right) pedal can indeed contribute positively to a pianist’s reputation. As Hungarian composer and pianist, Franz Liszt (1811-1886), knew only too well, octaves not only add brilliance to a composition, but they could also attract, beguile and mesmerize an adoring audience too.

Many aspects of piano technique can cause grief, and playing octaves is often one of them, sadly. As octaves involve stretching to some degree (usually between the thumb and fourth or fifth fingers), pupils must be able to reach or stretch to the appropriate hand position fairly effortlessly before attempting to play them. Otherwise, injury can be a problem, causing tightness and pain in the hand and wrist. If for any reason players feel uncomfortable or ‘tight’, octave passages must be halted immediately, allowing students to wait until their hand grows slightly larger. Most young players are able to assume the necessary hand position eventually.

There are copious octave permutations prevalent in piano music, and whether fast and furious, or slow and legato, with a suitable approach and the correct physical movements, they can be negotiated relatively effectively, even for those with smaller hands. As they form a vital role in piano music, they cannot be ignored; the quicker students get to grips with them, and learn to feel comfortable and relaxed whilst playing them, the better.

So what is the best way to approach octaves? Here are a few ideas which if implemented carefully, will help students cope with octaves, as well as learn to explore and enjoy this area of piano technique. Once the required hand stretch has been mastered, there are several useful ‘tools’ for practising accuracy, speed and control, as well as producing a full, rich timbre.

The basis of octave technique begins in the wrist (as with many other technical areas). Before any fast playing commences, allow the hand to rest on the keyboard and stretch out to the full octave span; do this using the thumb and fifth finger on two white notes. As the notes are played, be sure to ‘relax’ the hand; only the thumb and fifth finger should be engaged and in an active position, the rest of the hand and other fingers must be totally free and comfortable. To ensure this is the case, feel the fleshy area of hand as it is placed on the notes; do the muscles feel supple or are they tensing up and rigid? Once they are wholly free, drop the wrist completely, but yet still hold on to the notes being played by the thumb and fifth finger. The wrist should ideally be able to rotate freely as the octave is still held in position, once this can be done, then total flexibility has been thoroughly achieved. Admittedly, it takes a while to become accustomed to this, as it will almost certainly feel alien to start with, especially if a different motion has been previously employed to play octaves.

A common issue when playing any wide stretch, is the notion that the wrist needs to be raised in order to ‘reach’ the chord or octave, and whilst this is understandable, it discourages flexibility. Muscles tend to ‘lock-up’ and this stops any possibility of moving quickly from octave to octave, as high wrists generally impede movement. Resist this temptation by focusing on moving very slowly, building a slight break, or hiatus, between each octave, making sure the wrist remains loose and free, rather than at an elevated angle. Applying this kind of practice tool is akin to the usual tension and release idea employed when negotiating any other demanding area of piano technique.

The finger and thumb, which is being used to play the octave, also requires a certain grip in order to assume the correct position thus avoiding note splits or inaccuracies. So there is a need to develop the necessity for building a ‘bridge’ position within the hand (knuckles slightly raised) whilst keeping the arm and wrist all very flexible and relaxed. This is the challenge for teachers when coaching and evolving a proficient octave technique.

As mentioned above, start slowly and build up, working on either octave scales or exercises containing octave passages, such as the following from Czerny’s Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740 (depending on the level of student). Once flexibility has been achieved whilst playing single octaves, try to play a string of them altogether. A passage such as the following (from Study No. 49 Octaves – Bravura, Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740):

Octaves No. 1May be broken up like this:

Octaves 2Breaking the pattern every four semi-quavers (or even fewer notes to begin with, such as every two semi-quavers) really helps to develop a strong consistent technique. This is because the hand is afforded an opportunity to rest. If it assumes the same wide-spread vista bar after bar, it understandably feels tired and exhausted. It’s this constant strain or body stress which can often lead to muscle pain and repetitive strain injury. However, if the hand is given plenty of time to rest (i.e. to stop holding the position), it quickly builds up a resistance, and eventually learns to feel comfortable and even relaxed after and during repetitive octave figurations. I encourage students to put their hand down by their side (or rest the hand on either leg), during the rests, as this promotes absolute freedom. Always remember to practise octave passagework in the left hand too, because whatever is worked at in one hand, should be mirrored in the other, building strength in both hands equally.

Once pianists have a feel for the stretched position, and how to control their hand freely whilst it is outstretched, more wrist motion and arm weight can be employed. Wrist motion plays a crucial role in octave movement, and if a springy, rapid, yet loose movement can be mastered, then fast passagework and repeated note patterns can be played with ease. Practise these body movements with care. Maximum arm movement and a malleable body alignment all help to create a relaxed stance. Working at keeping a free arm (upper and forearm), shoulder and torso, is vital in order to obtain economical movement around the keyboard, this is more important than moving the hand in fact, because it allows flexibility which ultimately increases speed.

To obtain this feeling, start by practising single notes; specifically the outer notes of each octave. Do this with either repeated notes or scale passages to start with, employing the fifth finger only. The little finger then becomes accustomed to playing each note with a full sound without relying on the thumb for support. The hand and wrist will also get the feel for the necessary quick, repetitive motion needed for each note i.e. a slight, but quick, loose bounce in the wrist for every note. As progression is made, so the bounce becomes smaller and quicker, yet just as supple.

Once comfortable with the above, add the thumb creating the octave, but only when the fifth finger can accurately and flexibly play every passage up to speed on its own. Then repeat the same passagework with the left hand, and finally play both fifth fingers on either hand together, thus creating the outer parts of each octave. Try this two octaves apart. Start slowly and build up speed, concentrating on varying the dynamics and articulation (experimenting with legato, non-legato and staccato touches). It’s the outer notes of each octave which are most important as they give the impression of fullness of sound and often provide the melodic interest.

As pupils acquire the skills to play octave scale passages and repeated notes in a relaxed manner with absolutely no tension, introduce pieces with octave skips. Octave skips can be approached in a similar fashion to the repeated notes and scales suggested above; work at the outer parts first and foremost, taking extra care when negotiating the jumps. When adding the thumb (creating the octave) allow space or rests after each beat, taking note of the shape and pattern of every upward or downward passage. The simple example below, demonstrates this point. Arpeggio figures are an ideal vehicle for practising octave skips (here using only fifth fingers):

Octaves 3

Now try these passages without looking i.e. blind. This can be a great method to really know skips and jumps, and as it’s almost impossible to ‘look’ at both hands whilst playing such passages, can increase the accuracy factor considerably. Accents or emphasis can certainly assist octave playing, providing pianists with a point to aim for when practising. Try the passage above accenting the first beat of every crotchet and then lighten the second quaver. This can also grant the wrist and hand a further chance to rest, as not all notes in dynamic, energetic octave passages need to be heavy.

Once secure, start adding speed and power to such figurations, using the forearm, via free arm movement from the shoulder. It can be helpful to use a metronome too; most octave passages require speed thus demanding exact rhythm and setting a slow beat on a metronome is a safe method of achieving the desired result. As with all suggestions and ideas, begin slowly increasing the speed when confident and secure.

Students can really benefit from using different or changing fingerings during octave figurations. Fourth and fifth fingers can be a great assert if used in combination, and those with larger hands might like to experiment with the third finger too in outer parts of octaves (although this needs a substantial stretch and should only be engaged occasionally). Different finger combinations allow for a more Legato approach, adding speed and smoothness (using fifth fingers constantly generally presents a martellato or staccato effect). Initially, work with the outer fingers, building strength as before, then practice with the thumbs.

The following example, from Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (first movement; cadenza), illustrates the type of passagework which will ideally benefit from continual finger changes:

Octaves 4This type of passagework, is best negotiated with changing or alternating outer fingers (the fingerings above are suggestions only), encouraging joined, legato phrasing. Indeed, careful phrasing when playing octaves, can aid tension, by alleviating the wrist at the end of each phrase, where a slight break is necessary, and sometimes it helps to add phrasing to such passages for practice purposes. Finger changes are also the best way to acquire speed, and once the stretch has been accommodated by pupils, this won’t feel challenging.

In slow pieces, octaves may be providing the melodic interest, and therefore a Cantabile line is the ideal approach. A sonorous, deeper tone on the outer notes particularly, will ensure a singing melodic definition, whilst the legato fingerings will allow a smooth, velvety line.

Thumbs also carry an important role in octave playing. It’s an idea to practice inner parts alone using thumbs, in the same way as working at the outer notes with fourth or fifth fingers. Inner parts guide octaves and if worked at thoroughly, can support pianists in gaining control of the keyboard as well as the work being studied.

Once comfort and freedom have been completely grasped and incorporated into a pupil’s octave technique, there are a myriad of different ways to explore timbre and colour in octave playing, whether that be a percussive, biting sound required in many Twentieth Century works, or the rich, resonant, luxurious sound needed to tackle the often fiery displays in late Romantic pieces. If pupils can safely incorporate octave proficiency into their technique, they will be able to access and explore a whole new world of virtuoso piano works.

Repertoire suggestions for those working at their octave playing might include some of the following: Rondo Alla Turca, from Sonata K. 331 in A major (W.A. Mozart) Andante Favori in F major WoO 57 (L.V. Beethoven), Prelude in G minor No. 22 Op. 28 (F. Chopin), Nocturne in C minor Op. 48 No 1 (F. Chopin), Andante and Rondo Capriccioso Op. 14 (F.B. Mendelssohn), Prelude in E flat minor No. 14 Op. 11 (A. Scriabin), and Allegro Barbaro (B. Bartók).

9 Top Tips for Practising Octaves

Read the article as it appeared in the magazine here: Octaves article: Piano Professional

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.


Weekend Competition: Piano by Ear


Piano by Ear is written by Lucinda Mackworth-Young, and published by Faber Music. It’s released for sale TODAY! So one lucky competition winner will have a hot-off-the-press copy.

Lucinda has written a very detailed and practical book designed to help pianists of all ages and all standards (although probably for those of Grade 3/4 or early Intermediate level and above) become confident playing by ear. The book is in a workbook style format (see photo below), taking pianists through suggested improvisations, accompaniment for songs,  and ultimately playing by ear. It’s perfect for those preparing for the ABRSM Practical Musicianship exams. There are over 125 useful pages full of suggestions, ideas and logical, practical help. Certainly a beneficial volume for teachers and students everywhere.


I have one copy to give away, so as usual, please leave a suitable comment in the comment box at the end of this blog post, and I will select a winner on Sunday evening (British time). Good luck!

Alternatively, you can purchase a copy here.

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.

EPTA Yamaha Urtext Primo Study Day with Nils Franke

EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) have introduced a series of three one day events this year. They are all to be held at Yamaha London in Wardour Street, and will be free of charge for EPTA members and their students. The first event is on March 19th and is an Urtext Primo Study Day with Nils Franke and Universal Edition.

Nils Franke has held scholarships and awards at several music colleges and universities, including the Royal Academy of Music (London). He studied piano, amongst others, with Sulamita Aronovsky and Vovka Ashkenazy. In 2005 Franke became the course director of the MA in Instrumental Teaching at the University of Reading and in April 2013 took up the position of Head of Studies at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). His commercial recordings include music by Rachmaninov and Bortkiewicz for Warner and Brilliant Classics, and his work in piano pedagogy led to an involvement in professional development programmes for piano teachers. Franke’s work as a pianist and researcher in historical piano pedagogy has led to a number of publications, including CD releases, editions of sheet music and the Urtext Primo Series from Wiener Urtext Edition.

Nils, who is author of Wiener Urtext’s Primo series, will look at three specific topics on March 19th: grading repertoire, the purpose of urtext in piano teaching, and the pedagogy of some of the great pianist-composers. He will play some of the rarer teaching material included in this series, and lead two workshop presentations in how to grade piano music. The day concludes with a short seminar that explores pianist-composer’s ideas about piano teaching, and their ‘top tips’ for technique development.

Adrian Connell (Universal Edition, London) recently interviewed Nils about the forthcoming UT Primo day, and here is their transcript:

AC: Nils, you are running a free day course for piano teachers. What’s the theme?

NF: I guess the story is Piano Teaching and Learning, but from a teacher’s perspective.

AC: What do you mean?

NF: The sessions offer piano teachers three things: a workshop in grading their own repertoire, an understanding of what the term URTEXT actually means in piano teaching, and an insight into the teaching practice of great pianist-composers, sometimes in their own words, sometimes in those of their students.

AC: What made you decide on these three topics?

NF: I wanted to place the teacher at the centre of the debate. Much CPD is –quite rightly- concerned with the student, from people’s learning styles to more specific pianistic issues. But teachers give a lot of themselves, every lesson, every day. I think sometimes it’s good to do something for yourself, and to spend some time enriching one’s own world. But there is no doubt that what we’ll be doing on the day will also benefit the students.

AC: Ok, tell me more about the sessions.

NF: The workshop on grading will use almost exclusively little or unknown repertoire. It’ll get people thinking about the criteria for what is suitable for students at what grade, and how a piece might be of technical and/or musical value to the student’s development.

The Urtext session looks at what this term means, and how to distinguish a really good and current edition from something, well, less convincing. But it’s not an academic presentation, it’s all about the music we use in teaching, and this time using some core repertoire.

And the talk about great pianist-composers as teachers will look at some really interesting stuff, for example Chopin’s drafts and thoughts for his piano method, Liszt’s advice on technique maintenance (even at the early stages of learning to play the piano), and Beethoven’s and Brahms’ advice to their students about technique and repertoire.

AC: Overall, what’s your goal for the day?

NF: I want those attending to leave the room with bags more information, with ideas and tips they can use for their own work, and be excited about knowing where to look for more info. Shall we have another round of coffee?

To reserve a place at this event contact

UT Primo Day Yamaha Music 19 March

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.

10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty

The following article was originally published in Piano Professional magazine, which is an EPTA UK (European Piano Teachers Association) publication, and it appeared in the most recent edition; Issue 37.  You can read the original article by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page, and I have compiled a list of ten top tips based on the article, as a PDF download, so you can print out and use at the piano.

 Tone Production

The piano is capable of providing infinite tonal variety, despite being a percussion instrument. From the softest whispers to the grandest, most powerful fortissimo, pianists have an abundant smorgasbord of tone available with which to conjure poetry and pathos. Whilst there are certain limitations or restrictions due to the varied quality of instruments, pianists are generally responsible for the sound they summon during each and every performance.

Exquisite tone production is the secret of a successful pianist; it makes each player unique and in some cases, instantly recognizable. Many great artists and teachers have spoken about the necessity of focusing on tone quality. These include the great pianist and pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964) who devotes a chapter to tone production in his book The Art of Piano Playing:

‘Mastery of tone is the first and most important task of all the problems of piano technique that the pianist must tackle, for tone is the substance of music; in ennobling and perfecting it we raise music itself to a great height. In working with my pupils I can say without exaggeration that three-quarters of all work is done on tone’ (chapter 3; pg. 56).

Renowned pianist and pedagogue, Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), also commented on tone production:

No life without art, no art without life. One does not win people’s hearts only with runs of scales and fast thirds, but rather with a noble singing style, clear and powerful, gentle and soft.’

Extract from After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton (Chapter 5; pg. 139).

Other influential pedagogues such as Frédéric Chopin, Ferruccio Busoni, and Tobias Matthay, have all remarked about the importance of tonal quality. Many pianists and pedagogues cite this facet as the most crucial factor when delivering an expressive, musically committed account.

Yet, surprisingly, tone production is sometimes rather side-stepped during piano lessons and practice sessions. It’s seemingly consigned as an after-thought; something to focus on during the final stages of preparation. How piano sound is produced does fundamentally change the whole concept of interpretation and performance, and therefore should ideally be placed at the forefront in lessons. Pupils of all standards, from beginners through to advanced players, can benefit from knowledge regarding how sound is produced and the fundamental difference this can make to their performance. Placing a student’s attention on how and why they must make a full, sonorous tone, and how this issue is intrinsically linked to phrasing, articulation and dynamics, is surely of utmost importance. So with this in mind, how do we create a beautiful tone allowing our artistic imaginations to take flight?

Before learning how to produce a good sound at the instrument, we need to understand what is required from our bodies, because the way the energy from the body is transmitted through the keys is the crucial determining factor in changing the sound. Many feel playing the piano is all about speed, fast fingers and quick hand movements (and this does play an important role!), but to significantly change the sound produced, affording a full, warm, rich tone, the whole upper body must be involved. This is the reason why any kind of tension or rigidity whilst playing generally results in a harsh, thin sound or timbre.

It begins with our upper body i.e. the back, shoulders, whole arm, elbows, wrist, hand and finger muscles, which all move specific parts in the hand, enabling it to strike the correct key. Similarly, bone structure also helps to transmit energy cushioning the hand, particularly from the back and shoulders (through the arm, wrist and hand), projecting the sound into the keyboard. The combination of the pertinent back, shoulder, arm, hand, wrist and finger movements all working in tandem, results in a bountiful, expansive tone, it also feels comfortable, relaxed and much more flexible too. Good tone production encourages a more secure, reliable technique and a feeling of calm and serenity during performance. In short, a full sound requires a pianist to move freely, swiftly and abundantly, which consequently generates greater note accuracy and assured control at the keyboard.

It’s paramount for piano students to fully explore their potential regarding the sound they are able to produce, because without learning how to use and control the keyboard’s complete sonority, it becomes almost impossible to grade tone from ppp through to fff successfully. This will prove imperative when employing an effective dynamic range appropriate for each musical period, style and composer.

Here are a few ideas to enable a more beautiful sound:

Sit comfortably at the keyboard; posture is a deciding factor where tone production is concerned. Many feel sitting too low is not good, but if you are too high over the keyboard, gaining control can be problematic. Always sit with a straight back and start with fingers on the keys, so that you will have control over the hammers (which strike the strings and hence produce the sound), and this will help with note accuracy too. Control of the sound can only happen between the time immediately before you depress the key and the escapement of the hammer. After a note has been played, pupils can relax and ‘release’ the note and their hand position, thus eliminating any further tension.

Allow the shoulders (and the whole back area) to be in a natural position, i.e. not raised.  Raised shoulders (and a tense back) can cause many problems definitely promoting tension, by stopping free and flexible movement in the arm and hand. Correct this by constantly reminding pupils to think about how they feel whilst playing. One idea is to encourage students to drop their arms by their side freely, assuming ‘dead’ arms, ridding all tension. It’s this heavy ‘weight’ that must be grasped and assimilated when learning to improve tone production. We have a tendency to ignore how our bodies really feel during a performance, usually because we are so focussed on what we are playing, but tension anywhere in the body will usually result in a certain discomfort and can lead to repetitive strain injury too. Regular prompting will eventually establish a good habit, and pupils will learn how it feels to be totally comfortable.

The wrists are probably the most vital body part for promoting a good sound. Interestingly, they are the seat of much stiffness and constriction. Some schools of thought promote high wrists, others favour a low position, but the most conducive is a constantly moving wrist. If they are kept moving, there is little chance of the wrists becoming stiff or tense. Experiment by laying both hands on the keyboard, moving the wrists (rather than the hand or arm), first up and down then from side to side, and finally in a rotational movement or motion. Practice this every day before practice commences. It allows the wrists to become accustomed to moving around flexibly.

Another exercise which can be beneficial, is to play a five-finger pattern (place the fingers over middle C, followed by nearby D, E, F, G; using the fingering 1-5 (or 5-1 in the left hand), and whilst holding down the first note (middle C), encourage the wrist to make a complete circular motion keeping the thumb (of the right hand) firmly attached to the note (even though the sound has dispersed). This allows the wrist and arm action to feel malleable whilst playing a note. Now continue playing D-G (and back down again, from G to middle C) using the same motion (taking time between each note) focusing on sinking deep into each key, feeling the key bed every time. By doing this regularly, pupils will become aware of the relaxed hand and wrist positions required to produce a more attractive sound. It’s certainly a technique to be worked at consistently; instilling the feeling which will ultimately metamorphose into a good habit.

Once the wrists are more yielding, so the arms and elbows also move freely too. The circular wrist motion will allow the upper body to move more effectively and efficiently, making keyboard coverage that much better and quicker.

The hand should now already be in a relaxed position; many prescribe forming and honing an arch shape, with the knuckles in an elevated aspect (like that formed when grasping an apple!). This can be an effective approach and will help to eliminate a collapsing hand, buoying the fingers, so they can work independently of the hand, striking each key with plenty of power by employing each finger joint (joints must not collapse, instead they should be totally engaged, supporting each finger). A rotating wrist movement will help the fingers to work on their own after a while, because of the freedom attained from the rotation motion whilst playing one note at a time (as the above exercise suggests).

A soft, elastic, heavy whole arm movement provides plenty of gravity, support and substance behind the wrist, allowing it to harness this arm weight generated by the back, shoulders, and upper arms, using this to produce a full, fat sound. The fingers should ideally play on their ‘pads’, the padded, soft area of skin on the finger-tip, because this will further ‘cushion’ the sound. If the sound is sufficiently cushioned by the finger (and whole arm) as it attacks the key, it in effect plays the key at a very slightly slower speed, caressing the key rather than forcefully hitting it. That combined with the weight of the arm seems to change the sound, thus producing a richer, warmer colour. Thorough flexibility in the wrist and ‘looseness’ in the other parts of the upper body are vital, but the fingers must remain like steel; and this is developed over time by strengthening finger and hand muscles (usually via scales, exercises, studies etc.).

It takes a while to master the use and control of the body in the way necessary to change the sound, but it can and will become a habit with patient practice. Once the fingers employ the heavy weight supported by the arm and upper body, they’ll take on a new persona and will begin to adopt completely new sonorities, particularly with regard to singing tone or cantabile. Cantabile is only really possible with plenty of weight behind the key; fingers must sink into the key bed, right to the bottom of the key, focusing on the musical line, playing with either a crescendo or diminuendo from note to note.

The piano sound’s natural decay means listening to a musical line is crucial when judging each sound in order to proffer a musically satisfying phrase. So listening becomes a vital part of tone production and tonal variation, and similarly, learning to voice within counterpoint, chords, and copious different piano textures is also essential.

It can be a good idea to practice this component by working at sound variation in combination with the physiology of tone production as outlined above. Try using Figure A as a vehicle for creating different tonal possibilities; pupils can work at creating their own sound variations, from as quiet and soft as possible to all out fortissimos, whilst being sure to check their body is working efficiently.

Figure A

Experimental chords

Plenty of experimentation will foster an increasingly large and diverse tonal palette, allowing for expert gradation of tone. Another interesting challenge is to use the same example to practice voicing specific lines i.e. highlighting the top of each chord, then the bottom note in either hand, followed by some of the inner notes within each chord. This will help to gain finger control too.

When producing a powerful fortissimo, guard against the urge to play as loudly as possible, because beyond a certain level, the sound tends to become astringent and unpleasant. Also having some sound in reserve can be important; not playing at full capacity (whether fff or ppp) all the time, keeping some power or delicacy for certain performance situations can be a good idea (in order to cope with different instruments and acoustics).

Employing the pedal further changes timbre and luminosity, and ideally the pedals can be used to enhance or complement tonal variety. Whether using the Sustaining (Damper or Right) pedal, the Sostenuto pedal (Middle) or Una Corda (Left) pedal (on grand pianos; uprights pedals may vary), each one adds a different tonal quality and ought to be used as an extra sonority as opposed to merely making the instrument louder (Sustaining pedal), quieter (Una Corda) or as a bolster (or cover) for defective finger legato.

Hopefully, these ideas may inspire students to continuously strive and search for a pleasing, more generous, opulent resonance at the piano. Once the technique for expanding and consolidating tone production has been acquired, students will enjoy the increasing feeling of beauty and control within their grasp

10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty PDF Download: 10 Top Tips for Tonal Beauty

View the original article here: Tone Production

© Melanie Spanswick

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.

Resolving Tension in Piano Playing: Article for EPTA’s Piano Professional

We all know too much tension can ruin piano playing, yet alleviating this issue generally takes time and lots of work. There are many ways of dealing with the uncomfortable, tight feeling which often accompanies a fixed, tense disposition at the piano. The following article was originally written for the Piano Professional Magazine, an EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association) publication, and it first appeared in the Summer 2014 Issue (No. 35, pages 8-10). Thoughts presented in this essay are merely a few ideas or tips to consider whilst practising, or when teaching technical proficiency to pupils; to acquire assured technical skill, the best way forward is to seek a specialist teacher.

Resolving Tension in Piano Playing

There will always be an element of stress in piano playing. Public performance, on any musical instrument, requires nerves of steel as well as complete focus, discipline and concentration. However, this is substantially different from the tension that arises due to technical problems and deficiencies. Some tension is very necessary, because without it, playing would be impossible, so it’s important to be able to recognise the imperative tension from the unnecessary often detrimental type. Tension is a widespread problem in piano playing. Most professionals, amateurs and students suffer from this ailment at some time or other, and it can be very debilitating. Prolonged tension frequently causes pain which can eventually manifest as Tendonitis, Repetitive Strain Injury and at worse, can stop piano playing completely.

There are two differing types of disadvantageous tension. The first comes from negative thought processes or mental stress. Many pianists have suffered from this, and it takes lots of positive mental work to alleviate. It’s quite startling just how much our external thoughts can ruin a performance particularly amongst those who have yet to learn how to deal with anxiety. Negative thoughts can arise from peer criticism, harsh, unhelpful teaching or just self-doubt. The latter is a recurring problem and is all down to fear and the age-old question; ‘will I be good enough?’

The first line of defence when dealing with this conundrum is to tame the negative ‘inner-voice’. Recognise the mental ‘chatter’ that goes on before a performance (or perhaps on the days leading up to giving a performance). This chatter or ‘little voice’ never stops (‘what will happen if I make a mistake or my memory lets me down?’). We have all suffered. The most obvious way to remove this problem is to practice playing in front of others; whether it be one person, a small audience or large gathering, it doesn’t really matter. The most crucial factor is to get out there and play. It will be painful at first and mistakes will be made, but eventually with regular performance practice, pianists become familiar with the performing experience and as the fear subsides so too will the tension. In essence, this tension is associated with fear.

The second kind of tension is physical, and is generally caused by technical issues, which are that much harder to mitigate. Rather like mental tension, technical issues can stop successful piano playing and solving them requires professional help or regular coaching. Physical ‘tightness’ or ‘tensing up’ is even more commonplace than mental tension. It can occur for many different reasons; the most obvious is poor teaching or insufficient, sloppy practice, but physical restrictions and pain may happen due to the mental worries and negativity already mentioned above. Another possible reason is attempting to play pieces that are out of our comfort zone or technically too demanding. Challenging repertoire needs to be worked at carefully otherwise damage can easily be done to hands, arms, wrists, and fingers.

One interesting feature regarding tension is that it can occur at any stage of musical development; from beginners to advanced students. The latter are much more difficult to help because their unfortunate habits are ingrained and therefore everything needs to be re-learnt which is very challenging for the student as well as the teacher, but it can be done with hard work and perseverance.

Good piano playing all starts with proper posture and free, flexible movement. This seems very obvious but it’s frequently side-lined as playing becomes more advanced, and this is where problems often start. As we sit at the piano, our whole body must feel free. Pupils should be encouraged to sit up straight near the edge of the stool, with their body weight transferred to their feet (which are flat on the floor) aiding stability. Hips can then be used as a pivot allowing for free movement. As the hands are placed on the keyboard, the forearms should be parallel to the floor in order to promote relaxed, comfortable playing.

Raised shoulders are a real sign of stress and tension. One of the best ways to deal with this is for hands to be placed on a student’s shoulders as they play, making them aware of their movements. They will then eventually start noticing it themselves. Neck and shoulder ache are associated with this habit, so pupils will start to feel better once they begin to free themselves. We are frequently unaware of our posture because we are totally focused on the music, so with this in mind a good teacher can be extremely helpful.

The next issue is usually tight forearms; often a ‘knock-on’ effect from the raised shoulders. Pupils are, again, unaware that they are playing in a tense fashion, so one way of illustrating this is to help them relax their arms altogether. A good idea is to encourage ‘heavy arms’. Ask pupils to drop their arms down by their side (as they sit at the piano) in a ‘floppy’ state (almost like a ‘dead’ arm which should feel very ‘heavy’); they will then know how to start ‘freeing’ themselves. Unless students are made aware of the ‘correct’ feeling, they will be unable to achieve this alone. Make no mistake, this is difficult to accomplish, but can be done over time and with a good supportive teacher. Pupils may need regular prompting at every lesson for a while in order to get used to this completely ‘relaxed’ posture, because it will feel ‘strange’ and different at first; it is a habit that must encouraged regularly in order for it to become permanent.

As shoulders and arms become more supple attention can turn to the real issue which is usually weak fingers. Weak fingers provide so many physical problems and we find that tight forearms and shoulders try to compensate for this deficiency. In fact, many parts of the body will try to counteract weak fingers and it’s probably the most problematic element in piano playing.

Weak fingers (or fingers that don’t really work on their own, they are relying on other extraneous parts of the body to ‘prop’ them up) are also related to stiff wrists. Often pianists will use their whole arm in one rigid motion forgetting that a free, rotating wrist can not only really help with movement but is paramount for a good sound too. One way of dealing with these issues is to address the wrists and finger shortcomings concurrently. There are so many ways of doing this, but it can be particularly helpful to use simple Czerny exercises. The simpler the better; The 101 Exercises Op. 261 work well, for example. The first two exercises provide all the necessary notes in fact.

Figure 1

Czerny 3

The first exercise consists of groups of four semiquavers in the right hand (which run up and down the keyboard in C major) with accompanying chords in the left (see Figure 1 above). The aim here is not speed. On the contrary, the slower the better to start with until the fingers and wrists are responding correctly. Always use Czerny’s fingerings. Start with a good hand position; one useful analogy is to place your hands over your knees whilst sitting down, you will find you hand forms a ‘cupped’ shape. It’s really important to make sure that knuckles are in an elevated position, i.e. the hand isn’t collapsing (see photo below), otherwise strong fingers are impossible to achieve. Free or rotating wrists, which are not too high or low, are also crucial.

So you want to play the piano photo 5

Image: So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music.

Power and finger strength both come from a solid hand position which will then encourage each finger to play on its tip (or pad) and most importantly, on its own i.e. without relying on other muscles from other fingers or parts of the hand to help out. The joints in each finger must not collapse either, but rather, they must help the fingers attain complete independence which is the end goal.

Practice the right hand of the first Czerny study alone for a while; each note must be deliberately struck, slowly so that every finger plays on its tips and produces a good, full sound; i.e. reaching fully to the bottom of the key bed. This is not the time to play pianissimo. It’s beneficial to learn these exercises from memory, so that hand positions and movements can be properly observed during practice. Between each note, encourage pupils to ‘free’ their wrist of excess tension. An effective way of doing this is to make sure the wrist moves freely between each note so as to stop it ‘locking up’. Many cite this as rotational wrist movement.

Encourage students to move their wrists (between every semiquaver at first) in a circular motion, making sure the wrist feels relaxed or floppy (the correct sensation should be very similar to that when the arm flops down by our side; nothing must feel tight or tense). This is all especially important when dealing with the fourth and fifth fingers, which by nature are far weaker and therefore more troublesome. A sure sign of tension in the hand is when the fifth finger sticks up towards heaven. This is symptomatic of problems, but will eventually be alleviated during this ‘freeing’ process as every finger gains control and independence. As the fingers and wrists become accustomed to this motion between every note, so then this rotational movement can be eventually lengthened to every group of four semiquavers allowing for more speed.

It’s a good idea to reiterate the main issue concerning tension; whilst striking a note, tension is needed but as soon as the note has been played, that is the time to relax the hand fully. This coincides with freeing the wrist at the appropriate moment in the Czerny study as described above. By doing this, fingers will eventually become not only much stronger but also totally independent too, because their muscles are being perpetually strengthened with every practice session whilst the rest of the upper torso is learning to relax.

The second study (see Figure 2 below) focuses on the left hand and should be practised as much, if not more so, than that for the right. The left hand by nature is weaker (for most pianists) and usually needs more attention. Repeat the entire process with this second study. About twenty minutes practice per day on these exercises should be sufficient to change basic technique.

Figure 2

Czerny 5

Students must be encouraged to listen to the sound they produce and also to feel the connection between each and every struck note (and to be sure that the whole arm and shoulder is responding freely). Always observe rhythm, and metronome practice is a good idea once the fingers start to move properly. All semiquavers (or whatever passagework is being negotiated) should be played absolutely equally, which is a sign of secure strong finger motion. It will usually take a few months of slow practice before the student learns to feel relaxed playing in what is essentially a completely new and alien way. It’s at this point that speed can slowly resume.

Once fingers are independent, examine hand positions for chords, arpeggios and scales as these provide the bedrock of piano technique as well as most piano pieces. The perfect scale requires constant free rotational motion in the wrist which is all linked to the technique studied using these basic Czerny studies. The same applies to arpeggios, which demand much more movement; tense wrists stemming from weak fingers are the overriding reason why many struggle with rapid passagework such as arpeggios.

Once the fingers and wrists are working well, introduce arm weight. This should now be a fairly straightforward process because fingers and wrists are already flexible, strong and independent, so pupils will learn to harness their body weight to make not just a good, rich sound but also a full, large one too. Harsh sounds are often produced because of insufficient arm weight which can lead to ‘hitting’ the instrument resulting in limited tonal colour. Once a pupil grasps the feel for a large, warm sonority, then they will be able to hone their tonal palate accordingly.

Learning to resolve tension in piano playing is a challenge, but if taught correctly, it will lead to a confident, relaxed, comfortable technique and a much happier, contented pianist.

Read the original article here: Resolving Tension in Piano Playing

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.

Improving Your Scales: Feature Article for Piano Professional Magazine

I’ve written about scales and arpeggios before here on my blog, but the following article was penned for the Piano Professional Magazine (Issue 34: Spring 2014), published by the European Piano Teachers Association or EPTA, which is designed for piano teachers. I write a regular feature article on technique for this very informative publication. Hopefully this article contains some useful advice and practice ideas for those keen to improve their scales. There is a handy PDF at the end of the article (10 Top Tips To Improve Your Scales) to download and keep next to the piano too!

Scaling Heights With Happiness

Scales and arpeggios often receive a bad press. They are the foundation of good piano playing yet few want to play them let alone practice them. However, scales are an excellent way to hone and establish piano technique.

The development and concept of major and minor scales goes back as far as ancient Greek music; the origins of scales can be traced to the system of modes which evolved in Greek music and church music particularly. Modern major and minor scales were eventually developed alongside the ongoing evolution of keyboard and stringed instruments, and the various temperaments affiliated with all the ancient and modern tunings which were finally adopted.

Every pianist is expected to learn scales and arpeggios from the outset and they are included in virtually all piano exams irrespective of the grade or examining board. This is one indication of their significance but exams are certainly not the only reason why budding pianists need to focus on them. The benefits of good scale practice and thorough knowledge of scales and arpeggios are numerous in fact, practised properly you could probably cultivate a sound technique from scale practice alone (although it’s advisable to use many other practice methods and musical material for technical development too).

Scales and arpeggios will first and foremost allow a pianist to become very familiar with all twenty-four keys; a crucial milestone in musical development. They will improve keyboard geography, rhythmic grasp, strengthen fingers, encourage proper legato playing, teach equality of touch, help develop endurance, train the ear, control knuckle movement, help control motor-activity, assist with the passing of the thumb under the hand and the hand over the thumb fluently, teach traditional fingering, encourage variety of tone production (dynamic variation), and flexibility of the wrists and arm movement. They can also promote independence of nuance and touch, variety of accentuation, different staccato and legato articulations and fluency with cross-rhythms, as well as complete co-ordination.

So they are indeed a very useful tool for generating superlative piano playing. One other often forgotten benefit is the role they play in improving sight-reading; if a student is routinely exposed to scales, arpeggios, chord shapes and their appropriate fingerings, then they become much easier to decipher when reading music at speed. Indeed thorough knowledge of scale patterns and shapes forms the bedrock of secure musical foundations.

So what is the best approach to scale practice and how can we keep ourselves both motivated and stimulated whilst working at them? There are many different ways to make practising scales and arpeggios more interesting, and with a little thought and imagination, they can even sound beautiful.

I believe students benefit from thinking about the musical considerations as well as the technical aspects associated with scales. So with this in mind, perhaps it’s a good idea to focus on them musically and once learnt, inject them with character and personality. This way they enhance a pianist’s musicianship rather than become just a test in agility. Every scale must be imbued with delicacy, warmth, a good sound, musical shape, grace and brilliance. Only then can they truly be regarded as effective and accurate. As with many facets of piano playing, merely playing the notes becomes a meaningless exercise, whether it’s a scale or a Mozart sonata. Students often ignore this important element at their peril precipitating the boredom so often associated with scale practice. Arpeggios also need a musical approach and I find them much easier to negotiate when the rhythm of movement (i.e. the thumb passing under the hand or third/fourth finger passing over) is thought of in terms of a musical phrase; this encourages smoothness in tone and hand movement thus avoiding jerky, unrhythmical playing.

A large part of technique is, of course, physical movement, but there are many reasons for using our minds and ears in a more fruitful, perceptive way. Indeed visualisation and imagination go a long way to creating excellent musicianship and greater facility too. Technique grows with the development and cultivation of the mind, musical awareness and personality. All these aspects can easily be applied to scales too, and it is definitely the quality of your scale practice that matters rather than the quantity.

Pupils and students have found the following suggestions and practice tips helpful whilst working at scales and arpeggios.

At the start of each scale practice session make sure your shoulders are down allowing every part of your upper torso to feel relaxed. The wrong kind of tension kills speed, so relaxation of the muscles is imperative here (tension is definitely required, but is only used at the exact moment of impact (that is, playing a note), after which relaxation must occur, otherwise your arms, hands or wrists will eventually ‘lock up’). Allow the fingers to work freely supported by arm weight. It’s a fact that you need to move when playing the piano (how else are you going to get from one end of the keyboard to the other?) this is especially true of scales, so allow your body to move freely and be aware of this when you are playing (it’s all too easy to block out physical sensations when you are focusing on playing the correct notes and keys).

It may sound obvious, but to play scales fluently and accurately, both hands need to be working equally well. So finger strength is paramount. The left hand must not be dragging behind the right. This is a very common problem. The best way to deal with it is to practice hands separately slowly, gradually increasing the speed.

It’s a good idea to start by practising two octave scales (only elongate to three and four octaves at a time when you have really grasped the patterns); the left hand will probably need more attention than the right regarding fingerings and hand positions. Everyone has their favourite hand positions, but when learning scales two crucial points arise; the number of accidentals (depending on the key) and the shape or pattern of each scale or arpeggio. If these points are observed completely from the outset then memorising will not be a problem, so it’s worth spending time getting this right from the beginning as all scales and arpeggios have to be played securely from memory anyway.

Once you have learnt the key and its shape, you will need to find a way of using appropriate arm weight and wrist movement allowing each finger to work properly on its ‘tip’. I am a real advocate of the fingers working on their tips i.e. the very top or ‘pad’ of your finger thus avoiding ‘flat’ fingers (many argue that flat fingers are effective but I prefer using my fingertips thus each finger acquiring a ‘hooked’ shape). The power should be coming from your arm weight, the knuckles supporting the fingers and the wrists working freely in a lateral and rotational motion. This technique not only allows flexible, free playing but also fosters excellent tone production and finger strength too. The fourth and fifth fingers are naturally weaker, but if they are encouraged to work well, functioning as independently as possible (from the other fingers) and via the knuckles (rather than the wrists which should feel free and ‘light’), then scale playing will be even and fluent. Spend time playing each note with a full sound, working slowly and purposefully, preferably with arm weight on each note to start with. This will help build up finger strength and achieve smooth, legato playing.

Rotational movement will play a vital role when dealing with the problem of passing the thumb under the hand (right hand scales) or fingers (usually the third or fourth in the left hand) over the hand. This does tie in with my earlier comment regarding flexibility. The more pliable the hand, then the easier this motion will be. The trick is to practice it so that the scale passage is not only completely stable rhythmically, but also the amount of tone or sound used for each note is matched exactly. Then your scales will be even. When practising very slowly, allow your hand position to move copiously i.e. encourage a complete lateral and rotational motion each time the thumb passes under in the right hand. Although this will feel awkward, exaggerated and uncomfortable to start with, it will allow your right hand and arm to get used to moving freely with no tension so when you practice up to speed, the whole arm will move flexibly and the movement itself will be much smaller and quicker. The same flexibility and motion also applies to the left hand when the third or fourth finger passes over the hand.

This works surprisingly well and needs careful consideration when applying to arpeggios which, by their nature, require lots more movement. Arpeggios rely on a perfect ‘swivel’ in the hand; your hand will need to return to the same position for each octave otherwise notes will not be accurate. This is especially true with the left hand. Rather like scales, they require slow separate hand practice before being played hands together. Get the perfect position or ‘swivel’ in both scales and arpeggios, and providing you have built up your finger strength, you will be able to play at very fast tempos with no difficulty. Try not to ‘block’ motions with tension or tense movements; we don’t consciously do this but it often happens, leading to inflexibility.

Articulation (or touch) is vital when playing scales, and staccato passagework needs a completely different approach to legato. Start by using your whole arm on each note, rather like the legato technique suggested above, only playing detached. Then introduce wrist staccato, playing every note with a separate wrist action, and finally you will need to use a finger staccato as you build up the speed. This takes a free wrist and total finger strength (a factor you will already be working on if you employ some of the suggestions above). There are many variations with articulation and you may want to think about implementing some of the following: legato, staccato, non-legato, marcato and leggiero. Once scales are really fluent, try playing legato in the right hand whilst playing staccato in the left and vice versa. You can build many different permutations regarding touch and they will all help in your quest to play scales perfectly.

It is worth mentioning the importance of fingering in scales and arpeggios. Many pianists (pupils, amateurs and professionals) like to invent their own, but scale and arpeggio fingerings are there for a reason. This is especially true of arpeggios, where I find fourth fingers in the left hand to be imperative (see the example below of a C major arpeggio in the left hand).

Extra example 1 scales

If you play this passage with a third finger on the second, fifth, ninth, and twelfth note, E (instead of the suggested fourth), you are immediately making your hand movement more awkward whereas with the fourth finger, this position is entirely natural as it’s in the shape the chord is usually played. Whereas in the second example below, which is in the key of D major, a third finger is preferable and more comfortable because of the addition of the F sharp.

Extra example 2 scales

So it does all depend on the shape or rather key of the scale or arpeggio. Fingering should support natural fluent scale playing.

Once you have grasped the keys, patterns and movements that are necessary for good scale playing, the next consideration should be how to co-ordinate your hands so that they play accurately and rhythmically at all times.

It’s a good idea to purchase a metronome. No one really enjoys learning to use one or indeed playing along to anything that feels unnatural or forced, however it’s challenging to learn to play in time effectively without one. It is possible to feel the pulse unaided, and of course pianists must learn to develop an ‘inner- pulse’, but slow metronome practice really does help achieve secure rhythmic scale playing. Start with slow tempi and increase as finger strength develops.

There are several ways to attain perfect co-ordination. The first is accentuation. Learning to play with accents; this will depend on how many octaves you are negotiating. Two and four octave scales can be accented like this:

Example 1 for Scales EPTA

And three octave scales can be accented in triplets:

Example 2 Scales EPTA.

This is a basic way to achieve co-ordination, however you may like to consider some of the following too:

Try basic dotted passage-work like this:

Example 3 Scales EPTA

Or this, practising two octaves apart:

Example 3 for scales article

Or this:

Example 5 for scales article

This can be quite helpful as well:

Example 6 for scales article

Then it’s possible to build up on the accent ideas, as this will help with finger independence:

Example 7 for scales article

Or cross rhythms like this:

Example 8 for scales article

Try different dynamics in each hand:

Extra example 3 scales

And you could even try something like this:

Extra example 4 scales

The last two examples could potentially be practised in so many different guises and corresponds with my earlier recommendations regarding playing scales and exercises expressively with plenty of sound, dynamic gradation and musicianship. This will really improve your scale and arpeggio playing tremendously.

Some find it useful to practice hands two octaves apart which will encourage astute listening. Listening skills, as with all piano playing, should be perpetually fine-tuned and honed. This is perhaps a very important factor when practising; always play exercises and scales when you are fresh and fully focused.

I encourage advanced students to establish a scale rota; if you are taking an exam like Grade 8 (whatever the exam board), it will be time-consuming to practice every scale every day, so a good plan is to build in a way of playing all keys and permutations effectively from week to week. Practising two or three keys per day is a good way of doing this. Make sure each version or variation is worked on. If you are doing the key of C for example, you would look at all scales (thirds, sixths, contrary motions) and arpeggios with their appropriate inversions (as well as dominant and diminished sevenths) in C major and minor.

Practising scales in a different order from that presented in your scale book really makes sense; they will always be tested in an entirely different order in an exam and it’s surprising just how distracting this can be. It can play havoc with your memory, so be prepared. Another tip is to practice with someone else who is also working at scales (a scale buddy!). You can then ask each other scales or arpeggios, and learn from each other too. Scale groups or small classes can work well especially if two or more pianos (or keyboards) are available, and then you can play scales together (although you will probably need a metronome!) as well as testing each other separately.

If you implement a few of these suggestions and ideas, you will be well on the way to developing an exemplary scale and arpeggio technique, and you may even find they become an enjoyable part of your practice regime.

10 Top Tips To Improve Your Scales

Read the original article here: EPTA Article on Scales

© Melanie Spanswick

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.