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 Books:

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

If you’re thinking about learning to play the piano, my guide-book, So You Want To Play The Piano? (Alfred) is full of useful help and support.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology (Faber) is also a valuable resource for those who desire a collection of standard repertoire from Grades 2 – 8, featuring 78 pieces in total.

My Compositions:

I have written a selection of educational piano music (both solo and duet) and you can hear it and find out much more here: EVC Music Publications.

 

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15 Top Tips for Successful Sight-reading

Last weekend’s blog post featured the first article I wrote for the European Piano Teachers Association (EPTA), which appeared in the Piano Professional Magazine (Autumn 2013 edition). Continuing with this theme, the following article was published in the Autumn 2014 Piano Professional (pages 20-22). It focuses on Sight-reading. We all know how important it is to be able to sight-read fluently, yet it can often be a forgotten element. Hopefully, this article may prove useful and there is a downloadable PDF at the end (based on the article), for students. teachers or anyone wanting to work at their reading skills.


Sight-reading: the most useful tool in the box

Sight-reading is a skill of immense importance, for both pianists and piano teachers. It is often under-valued by teachers and students alike, but if worked at consistently, it’s arguably the most useful tool in a pianist’s tool box. If a pianist can read well, the whole learning process is made that much easier and quicker, and the possibilities and capacity for ensemble playing of all kinds are enormous.

Sadly for many students, sight-reading becomes the dreaded part of a piano exam; it’s often an ‘after-thought’ which is addressed a few weeks before the actual test. To really make progress with sight-reading however, it must be worked at regularly and should certainly be on the priority list ahead of exam preparations. In fact, it’s a good idea to take sight-reading out of the exam equation altogether and study this crucial pianistic proficiency as a bona-fide subject all on its own, devoting some time to it at each and every lesson (and every practice session too). Sight-reading can be a studied craft; it’s entirely possible to substantially improve reading with practice, you don’t need to be naturally gifted.

Reading at sight is, in many ways, similar to reading a book. Language is primarily constructed of words and sentences. When speech is first learnt, some words are much more difficult to assimilate and grasp than others, but after a while they become anticipated. Context becomes paramount when deciphering words and sentences. Eventually, even though some words are much more complicated than others, they are eventually expected because they’ve appeared countless times before. Any potential knowledge gaps are quickly filled in intuitively. The same pragmatic, innate approach should be implemented when learning to sight-read.

A crucial factor in good sight-reading is perspective. Pupils often survey a page of music and in an attempt to read every single note and musical sign, they forget to view the page as a whole and understand the basic context in which all the notes appear. Attaining secure sight-reading skills involves total musical understanding; it’s about decoding copious different, oscillating shapes and patterns appearing on the page and comprehending this information before playing begins. It therefore becomes crucial to know and establish which signs, notes or patterns are of importance and which are not, prior to perusing any sight-reading exercise. So with this in mind, knowledge of music theory is a must and it’s preferable to begin studying this aspect as soon as possible.

Also beneficial can be learning to sight-sing. Whilst not essential, being able to hear a melody before it is played, or knowing how a passage ought to sound can be really helpful and can act as a signpost too. Therefore some knowledge of solfège or possibly looking at the Kodály Method may be a good place to begin when embarking on a sight-reading journey. It takes time to learn to sight-sing, but rather like the sight-reading process, gradual, regular practice will proffer the best results.

Another facet which can cause unnecessary worry when learning to sight-read is the ever-present problem of wrong notes and errors. To attain a high level of accuracy and speed when reading, mistakes are essential! It’s really just part of development and growth, so playing inaccurately should not be viewed negatively; quite the contrary, because much experimentation is required when learning to read. If sight-reading can be viewed as an enjoyable (and even fun) part of a practicing regime, improvement will be that much quicker.

To cultivate secure reading, plenty of motivation and determination is necessary, so it helps if you select music you really like and enjoy. This might appear obvious, but many reading tests are somewhat dull and lacking in imagination. A never-ending supply of good quality materials is imperative and all genres must be explored; from classical right through to pop and rock. It can be in the discovery of a ‘favourite’ composer or style that reading skills really begin to flourish.

Concentration is a key component in successful reading and again, this may appear trivial and self-evident, but getting rid of unwanted or distracting thoughts is the first step to really ‘seeing’ clearly what is written on the page. Getting in the sight-reading ‘mood’ will pay dividends. A totally focused mindset is difficult to maintain, so start by looking at small sections or passages making note of any mental wandering. Learning to control and refocus attention does take discipline, but it will make sight-reading so much better and easier over time.

Another useful tip is to have a regular practice session or time assigned specifically for sight-reading. Expect to read daily (or whenever practice is done) and it will ultimately become a good habit. Keeping a practice journal can be a handy way of recording what has been played at every session, and it can be brought along to lessons demonstrating what has been achieved each week.

Remember to maintain good posture and hand positions. Uncomfortable, tense piano playing will only hinder sight-reading, and it’s all too easy to forget about posture when concentration and focus is being directed towards the music, but feeling relaxed and flexible will aid swift movement around the keyboard. So breathe deeply and calmly before playing commences and try to ensure that shoulders remain totally relaxed rather than perpetually rising rigidly.

So what are the most fruitful ways of practising sight-reading? Here are a few ideas which may prove useful:

When faced with a new piece of music, slowly observe everything on the page. The key signature is a good place to start. Decide which major or minor key can be associated with that written in the piece being surveyed (it’s always good to decipher the relative majors and minors as well), mentally imagine the sharps or flats needed to play the extract and then memorise the key and keep it firmly in mind at all times. Fingers will know where to go once the key has been firmly established. It can help to play the associated scale beforehand (or at least picture it mentally).

Quick recognition of certain note patterns, shapes, and repetitions can be a deciding factor in the success of any test. Noticing features such as chords, arpeggio figures, scale passages, and ledger line passage work, will prove extremely important. Chords can be challenging to read at first glance, therefore, remembering their patterns and shape is vital because there simply isn’t time to read every note. Being able to pin point the tonic, dominant, subdominant chords in any given key can be a huge boost to the reading process. Other features such as phrase markings, articulation and dynamics will also be relevant when skimming a score for the first time. Examining the bass clef thoroughly can be beneficial, as often the left hand drives a work. Some memory work is required in order to learn various chord patterns and note progressions, but as with many elements in music making, these will become habitual if practised consistently.

Pay special attention to any suggested fingering, as it’s best to have this element visualised before you start particularly when negotiating scales, arpeggios or any contrapuntal sections. If fingering hasn’t been determined beforehand, it will hamper the ability to move at speed.

The tempo or speed of a test must be noted, by looking at the metronome marking or speed indication, and, of course, the time signature too. This can help to gain an understanding of the character and style of the work. However, I always suggest playing well under tempo to begin with. For those with reading difficulties, employing extremely slow speeds is the key to eventually unlocking reading skills and becoming fluent.

The rhythmic structure is possibly the most important element in sight-reading. Both rhythmic patterns and the necessity of attaining a regular pulse can be problematic when reading. In order to keep time, it’s imperative to assimilate all aspects of tempo. With this in mind, it can be a good idea to separate the rhythm from the notes completely. Firstly, tap the intended pulse. Then tap the rhythm of the sight-reading test on the piano lid with both hands; the right hand tapping the notes in the treble clef and the left hand, tapping those in the bass clef. This should not prove too taxing, enabling comprehension of the speed as well as any complex note values and rhythms.

Once the rhythmic pattern has been worked out, and rhythmic co-ordination between the hands is fully understood, a steady pulse must be kept. Counting aloud can be helpful, if the beat is subdivided, but playing along to a metronome may be an even better, more reliable option; learning to ‘sit’ on the beat and not rush ahead or linger behind is also crucial. The determining factor in success here is to make sure the pulse is extremely slow. Learning to read with both hands together can be overwhelming. There is so much information to process at once; the key to perpetual motion is a very slow pulse (probably a third of the intended speed). If a pulse is always constant and steady, after a while combining and coordinating the two hands should be a relatively simple affair providing eyes are always reading ahead (usually at least half a bar). It may be necessary to start the reading process using separate hands, only combining them when each clef has been thoroughly assimilated.

Slow speeds encourage reading ahead because there is ample time to find all the notes and detail in the score. Plenty of time is of the essence (even if fast speeds are indicated). It can be helpful to count a complete bar before starting to play in order to establish the pulse (I often clap a bars rest!) and any deviation from the tempo should be discouraged. Once this has been fully understood, speed can be gradually built up over time, as reading becomes more proficient (this process can take a few months).

A slow tempo will help with the all-consuming problem of hesitations followed by total collapse. These moments cause frustration, upset and discourage sight-reading, so playing slowly bestows the confidence to build momentum and get to the end of an extract without too much grief. This latter point is arguably the most critical in good sight-reading; once a pupil has started a sight-reading test, they must never, ever stop. If hesitations are still occurring then an even slower tempo is probably required. Learning to cope with mistakes is all part of the reading experience. Continuation is so important in sight-reading and sooner or later errors will be ignored and will not distract from the overriding rhythmic and structural outline of a performance.

Musical examples or sight-reading tests must feel easy to start with, so begin with straightforward diatonic exercises. It may be necessary to start at Grade 1 or 2 even if Grade 7 is being studied. If sight-reading is all fairly simple, it’s a pleasurable painless experience. One of the many benefits of reading a whole variety of musical styles is that different genres are quickly recognised; from Classical (Baroque, Classical, Romantic etc.) through to Musical Theatre and Pop. This will prove invaluable for Aural Tests too.

When the basics have been grasped, larger chunks of music can be negotiated and there will be a familarisation with the typical patterns which occur time and again in piano music. The bigger picture will eventually be noted, focusing concentration on the main structure of a piece, whilst including more and more detail (pedalling, phrasing, dynamics etc.).

For those of a slightly more advanced level, reading hymns can be extremely rewarding and useful. Slow moving chord progressions act as the perfect foil because they assist with reading four parts (or notes) at once, as well as fostering knowledge and understanding of four-part harmony, and they also afford the chance to get to grips with a plethora of key signatures. As all church organists know, accompanying hymns is one of the best ways to learn to read because stopping isn’t an option! As with all reading, begin calmly, moving carefully from chord to chord, making note of the various chordal shapes and patterns.

Reading at sight is fundamentally giving an impression of a work, so it’s perfectly acceptable to leave out notes and other details. Bear this in mind at the beginning of each practice session. Endeavor to scan ahead fluently, playing with relatively few stumbles or hesitations using a steady, regular pulse to achieve excellent sight-reading results.

15 Top Tips To Improve Sight-Reading Skills

Music flute piano

© Melanie Spanswick

You can purchase my book, So You Want To Play The Piano?, which is packed with practice tips and important piano information, here.