Coaxing the fourth and fifth fingers into action

So you want to play the piano photo 5

‘My little finger just won’t work on its own’; how often have I heard this phrase from disgruntled piano students? Too often is the answer. Pupils invariably spend so much time focusing on and looking at the music on the desk, that they forget all about posture and technique.

One of the major technical obstacles when developing a piano technique is allowing all fingers to work equally and properly from the knuckles. This takes time, a lot of energy and practice in the right direction. Many think scales will adequately help fingers to work equally but this is usually not to the case. Scales do help finger independence but they don’t help all fingers – the poor old fourth and fifth fingers are normally left to limp along on their own.

The fourth and fifth fingers are always the weakest in both hands but especially in the left hand. If they don’t play alone i.e. independently of the other three (or thumb and two fingers) then playing becomes uneven and haphazard to say the least. Rapid passage work can become unrhythmical. Tone production suffers too.

So what can be done to aid this problem? Firstly, arms and wrists need to be very flexible and ‘free’. This can take months of practice  – many students find tension really hinders their playing, sometimes leading to pain or worse, repetitive strain injury. Tension is necessary in order to play at all, but it’s the wong kind of tension that stops fingers and wrists from working properly. It can take lots of time correcting tension problems. However, by working on fingers individually whilst ‘freeing’ the wrist simultaneously, the weaker fingers begin to work. It does take time but once understood, pupils are so pleased to feel more in control when executing fast  passage work particularly.

If you want to start improving the technique of your fourth and fifth fingers, then begin by allowing your whole arm to become a dead weight, hanging totally free by your side. Once it feels totally relaxed you will know how it needs to feel when you play. When working on strengthening fingers, try to use a rotating wrist motion every time you play a note with a different finger, so in effect, you are disengaging (or freeing) your wrist so as to stop any tension which may result when playing from one finger to another. Problems begin when students keep stiffness or continue to be tense when playing from one finger (or note) to the next without letting go of the tension in between. Tension is only required at the moment of impact. Try this at very slow speeds especially when working at the fourth and fifth fingers.

Allow the fingers to play on their ‘tips’ which generally produces better results than flat fingers (although many prefer to play the latter way) and make sure you go down to the bottom of the key bed so as to produce a rich full sound.  In a sense, you are using arm weight to play each finger via a freely rotating wrist. It takes a while to get used to this motion but once each finger has learnt to play from the knuckles on its own, using the weight of the entire arm behind it, but without any tension in the wrists, then your fingers will begin to gather some strength.

Tone production and finger strength are very much linked and it’s a good idea to work at this with very simple studies – Czerny’s  Exercises Op. 101 or perhaps The School of Velocity Op. 299 are both excellent; you could actually use any piece which features scalic passage work. These are easy enough not to disturb concentration allowing pupils to focus purely on the technical task in hand – it’s also much more effective if studies are learnt from memory, so students are free to observe their physical movements. The wrist really needs to be totally flexible at all times as do other parts of the body especially arms and shoulders (shoulders are usually raised when they are tense).

Twenty to thirty minutes of concentrated slow practice per day should be all that is needed on studies in order to start improving finger strength and create a relaxed hand and wrist action. It’s important to emphasize that any technical improvement takes time and patience.  Playing in a different way will feel completely alien at first but it will be worth it in the end!

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


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.


Piano exam success: 9 key points

Music Lessons Glasgow | Violin Tuition | Sound Production CoursesSeveral of my piano teacher friends and colleagues have recently asked me to suggest ways in which pupils can improve their chances of achieving good marks in their forthcoming piano exams. I examined for the ABRSM (The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) for 5 years both in the UK and abroad, so I have compiled the following list of important points to remember when preparing for exams.

1. Preparation is the key to success. You have a very short time to make an impression on the examiner so good preparation allows you to feel more confident about playing. Confidence can equal distinction! Examiners recognize a distinction candidate before they play a note; they exude confidence.

2. It is a good idea to start your exam with scales (usually you can choose to start with scales or pieces). Starting with scales allows you to get used to the piano and warm up. It also gets them over and done with.

3. Before starting each piece, pause for 10 seconds to think about your intended tempo and interpretation. Try to focus your mind solely on the music. The examiner is looking for totally committed playing not just right notes.

4. Musicianship is very important particularly beyond Grade 5; it will make the difference between a pass or a merit. Musical playing is important at all levels, but from Grade 5 upwards, examiners are looking for structural understanding as well as a convincing interpretation.

5. Before starting the sight reading tests, it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few key questions; in what key is the extract? how fast should it be played? what fingering will I use? Perhaps try out some passages too (this is always encouraged by the ABRSM).

6. Aural tests need plenty of practice before the exam so don’t leave it until the week before. Some candidates are shy about aspects of aural particularly singing, so it may be a good idea to have aural lessons in a group. You could even join a choir to practice your singing and pitching skills.

7. One particularly useful habit all candidates should harbor is the practice of playing for friends, relatives, or teachers regularly. This cannot be stressed enough. I insist on students playing their entire exam programme through (including scales) at least 2 or 3 times. It really doesn’t matter who listens or how you play, you will gain confidence from the experience which will help when you are faced with a stressful situation like a piano exam. It is so important to learn how to deal with nerves and having practice ‘runs’ will help you do this.

8. Do bear in mind that an exam is only a snapshot of your playing on a particular day so try not to be too upset or disappointed if it doesn’t go as well as you planned.

9. Always remember that examiners are nice, friendly people who really want their candidates to achieve good marks.

Follow these rules and you will be well on the way to achieving a distinction. Good Luck.


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.


 

Piano Practice?

I rather like this fun chart. I have seen it several times this year on various blog sites and on reading it my mind conjures up images of students in music conservatoires relentlessly  following these ‘rules’. There is certainly lots of pressure to practice at a music college and plenty of competition which fuels this incessant practising. Don’t get me wrong, I used to practice for hours too – I would have felt out-of-place if I hadn’t and I did really enjoy it. There is something immensely satisfying about giving your fingers and your mind a good workout.

I do wonder though if hours and hours at any instrument is good for the body, mind or soul. Too much repetition can do physical damage to muscles especially if a pianist has tension problems; a condition which affects so many players. Having been an examiner and an adjudicator, I am struck by how many budding young pianists (some of them very talented) exhibit signs of tension.

The problem with tension is, if left unchecked, it can really escalate and cause a lot of damage eventually forcing the pianist to stop playing. Stiff wrists, high shoulders, uncomfortable inflexible arm positions and inefficient fingers are just a few of the frequent sights I have seen. There are many ways to stop pupils suffering in this way but it does take time to banish embedded habits, especially in older players.

Good technical grounding is vital in piano playing but many students find themselves ill-equipped and it is difficult to compensate years later. Excessive practising when technique is not fully developed or is lacking in some areas definitely does more harm than good. It is better to practice little and often allowing your muscles and you mind to rest.

To make progress with your piano playing you need to find a teacher who really understands how to deal with tension problems and can show you how to apply this to all  areas of piano study from scales and studies to your exam pieces. There are many teachers who use Yoga and other types of relaxation methods in their lessons which may be helpful. Alexander technique is also very good for helping muscle relaxation. Always spend time researching a prospective teacher before you start lessons (a topic I discuss at length in my recently revised and republished book, So you want to play the piano? published by Alfred Music.)

If you feel pain or stiffness after any practice session then it might be time to reassess your technique and the way you approach the piano.  If you can’t feel physically relaxed at the keyboard then you won’t give a convincing musical performance irrespective of how much piano practice you do.


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.


 

Piano Practice – how much should I do?

 
  

My last blog post focused on the amount of time it takes to learn to play the piano. I had some thought-provoking comments on this post (a couple of pianist friends reckon 30 years and they make a valid point).

This little chart suggests the time required to make real progress in your piano playing and it seems to be good advice:

1 60-minute Practice per Week = 2 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 30-minute Practice per Day = 6 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 45-minute Practice per Day = 12 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 60-minute Practice per Day = 15 Months Progress in 12 Months
1 90-minute Practice per Day = 24 Months Progress in 12 Months
2 Hours Practice per Day = 36 Months Progress in 12 Months
(source: http://vahlpiano.blogspot.com/)

So if you can devote this amount of time to your piano practice every day then you should see real progression in your playing.

Little children really don’t need to spend too much time at the piano; it is better that they are kept interested in music generally and maybe practice for 10-15 minutes per day. It’s all about keeping them focused and making it fun.

For older children, teenagers and adults, it’s a tricky balance between spending enough time working on the more mundane aspects of playing (scales, technical work etc.) whilst keeping inspired and interested. If you can motivate yourself to do this, you will have won the practice battle! Good luck.


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.