Hand Flexibility: Piano Professional Article

I’ve written about hand flexibility before here on my blog, but it’s an important topic for piano students and teachers, so I thought I’d publish a more in-depth post on this subject. The following article was first published in the most recent edition of Piano Professional, which is the UK piano teachers magazine published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). I hope you find it of interest.


Hands. They are fairly crucial for pianists. Many will immediately refer to the fingers as being the most significant ‘tools’ in a pianist’s tool box. And there’s no doubt, without fingers, playing is rather tricky. But, over the past few months, I’ve been working with a group of students and we have routinely discussed hands; hand positions are always important, but one aspect causing regular issues (and sometimes anxiety too) is the flexibility and ‘softness’ in our hands necessary to move easily, at the same time as retaining finger strength and independence.

Whilst we work ceaselessly to remain ‘free’ and relaxed in our upper torso, even once this has been acquired, some find the muscles in their hands are still inflexible and tense. For me, movement around the keyboard (particularly at the moment of impact i.e. depressing the key) is vital. There’s little point in discussing the finer points of interpretation, musicianship or even dynamic range, if we can’t get around a piece and feel comfortable doing so!

Once our students have assimilated the feeling of freedom in their wrists (the first point of relaxation), arms and upper body, it’s probably time to move onto the hands. When muscles in the hand itself are tense, octave stretches feel challenging, as do large chords and double note passages. Many complain that they find octave stretches and beyond almost impossible. However, I’ve yet to come across a pupil who really can’t play an octave once taught how to relax their hand (small children are an exception).

To begin with, our students need to know which part of the hand to relax. Photo 1 illustrates the approximate area to which I’m referring:

Photo 1.

Photo 1 shows the palm and surrounding areas, especially around the thumb joint; these are normally fleshy and soft when not outstretched or engaged in playing; they need to stay this way as much as possible, as and when a student plays. This does present some challenges, but the main aim is to keep the hand (or the area between the wrist and knuckles) loose and relaxed.

Photo 2.

Photo 2 illustrates the muscles between the finger joints which also have a tendency to tense.

Here are a few ideas to loosen the hand, helping it to feel less restricted during practice and performance.

Ask pupils to drop their arms down by their side, allowing them to swing loosely, so they can ‘float’ freely from the shoulder (arms should feel ‘heavy’ and weighty as the muscles relax). Once this has been grasped, encourage pupils to lay their hand flat on a surface (away from the piano), palm facing downwards. Slowly open the hand, determining how far it can reach in an outstretched position without feeling tense or uncomfortable at all. To begin with, it might not be that much. However, pupils should note the feeling of the hand when it is still relaxed and ‘loose’. Do this every day for just a minute or so, until it feels natural.

Now ask a pupil to play both chords in Example 1 (first with their right hand, and then the left), and during contact with the keys, with their spare hand (i.e. the hand not playing), feel how the muscles in those fleshy areas of the hand, respond. They might be surprised by how ‘hard’ or rigid each hand appears as the chords are depressed.

Example 1.

The trick is to learn to relax the hand whilst it’s playing. It’s paramount to know how our arms, wrists and hands feel when engaged. These feelings are easy to block out, as we are generally too busy focusing on the music. This is why exercises or scales can be of value, as they generally have less musical content, allowing us to concentrate on how our upper torso feels in action. When the feeling of flexibility has been digested thoroughly, we will start to assume a comfortable stance whilst playing.

Hand flexibility can be exacting to teach as it requires students to really know themselves and their hands. I constantly work with pupils on this aspect, and find it equally fascinating and rewarding.

A good way to begin is to play a single note (in each hand, separately). As the note is struck, notice how the muscles within the hand react; decide if they are tense or uncomfortable. If they are rigid, as the note is held by the finger, relax the surrounding hand by releasing any tension in the whole arm (students often need help here, both in terms of learning to feel the difference between tension and relaxation, and also learning to hold a note in place whilst relaxing). Clenching the hand (this can be done away from the piano) and then swiftly ‘releasing’ the clench can be one way of explaining the feeling of tension and the subsequent ‘release’ of muscles. We need to be honest and truthful about the physical sensations felt as we play. It can be beneficial to keep returning to the feeling learnt when the hand was outstretched, but was still pliable and felt completely relaxed. By returning to this sensation time and again during practice sessions, it will eventually become a habit.

The following single note pattern, Example 2 (right hand, followed by the left), opens with notes a sixth apart or an interval of a sixth, moving on to an octave (the interval of a seventh could also be used too, before the octave):

Example 2.

Encourage a student to gently ‘reach’ or rock from one note to the next, with the aim of developing wrist and hand flexibility between notes; there are many ways of doing this, but I ask students to ‘drop’ their wrist after they have played one note, and before they play the next (whilst still keeping notes depressed), allowing a ‘heavy’ relaxed feeling (as the muscles loosen), moving the wrists in a free lateral motion. This motion can be extremely useful, helping students acquire the necessary loose feeling, enabling them to determine the optimum movement needed to release their hand.

Students can check the muscles and tendons in their hand by using the hand that is free i.e. the one not playing, to make sure they feel comfortable and not tight during this exercise. If they don’t feel relaxed, ask them to gradually ‘let go’ of the muscles as they engage their hand. ‘Letting go’ is just another terminology for relaxation or releasing a tight hand. This is the most challenging part. When we learn how to ‘let go’ as we play, at the same time as keeping the fingers in place, the hand starts to release its grip.

Eventually, octave intervals, such as those in Example 2 (second and fourth bar), appear more relaxed and notes can be played together i.e. to form an octave. If we can do this with ease already, as we play an octave, encourage wrists to drop (it’s awkward and uncomfortable to play such intervals with high wrists), and relax (releasing the hand, wrist and arm), whilst still playing the notes. For secure octave finger ‘positions’, the fifth finger needs to be fully functional, and the thumb, light but aiming to keep the shape during movement.

If octaves are played slowly, we can watch and feel the hand as we ‘let go’ or relax in the fleshy area, whilst the fingers depress the keys; the flesh should change from being tense to become softer and more malleable. This type of exercise must ideally be done slowly and painlessly, with much focus on physical movement. After a period of time, it’s interesting to note how the hands adapt, and pupils will be increasingly able to cope with being outstretched and ‘open’ with no discomfort, as is required during octaves and chords.

Once octaves have been negotiated (these exercises should be done little and often, and certainly not for long periods of time), students can move onto adding chords to their ‘flexible hand repertoire’ (inserting inner notes after practising the outer parts alone first), and then working at other types of passage work, including double notes and large leaps.

Hand flexibility takes time, but a positive, valuable way to begin is to become more conscious of hand palpation and movement.

You can read the original article, here:

Hand Flexibility (Issue 46, Spring 2018, pg. 16 – 17)


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

Practising Duets: Part 1

This is the first of two posts addressing piano duet practice. Most students love to play duets, after all it’s one of the few times they get to work with a fellow pianist. It can be helpful for pupils to work in pairs for many aspects of piano playing – from practising scales and arpeggios, to testing each other on sight-reading, and for me, duets are an extension of this important work.

Playing with another pianist (i.e. four hands) can make the overall piano timbre feel much grander and fuller than when playing solo. And with this in mind, beginners and less experienced players can really benefit from playing four and six handed music (at one keyboard).

As a young pianist, I played a large array of duets (at every level), and had lessons as a teenager at music college in this discipline. In my twenties, I established a piano duo with a Russian friend and colleague; we played both two piano and duet repertoire; everything from Schubert’s glorious Fantasie in F minor (for duet) to Liszt’s dramatic Reminiscences de Don Juan (for two pianos). Particular repertoire favourites included Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat major and Poulenc’s superb Two Piano Concerto. We had great fun with these masterpieces. Working at two piano repertoire feels very different to playing with four hands at one piano, and it’s preferable to start with one keyboard; playing trios is becoming increasingly popular too, and is a great way to incorporate beginners into ensemble playing.

When young students (and older students!) play together for the first time, there will be a number of issues requiring careful work and preparation. From rhythm, sound and precise ensemble to pedalling (it feels so different from pedalling for one), balance and articulation. This post hopes to address a few of these concerns, arming potential duettists with various methods to practise different technical and musical elements.

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced player, it can help to begin by warming up with a few exercises together, as a duo: these exercises can help with sound production, finger and wrist flexibility and mostly importantly, will foster precise ensemble playing. They will also attune listening skills; a facet which can take time to develop. Once each pianist has learnt their own part, the work starts – playing with another certainly adds a new musical dimension, especially for the less experienced player.

Here are a few exercises for the beginning of a practice session:

The first consists of slow semibreves; play very steadily, focusing on producing a warm, full sound, using the wrist in a very flexible, loose manner, whilst keeping arms and elbows relaxed:

duet-exercise-1The Secondo (bass) or second part is just as essential as the Primo (treble) or first part; both parts  must be considered equal. Starting pianissimo, experiment with plenty of different tonal colours (an enjoyable part of the process during this first exercise). It will help you to listen to the sound produced, and learn to place the notes together at the same moment (quite a challenge!). Aim  to observe each other’s hands at the vital moment just before playing each note, and learn to place trust in one another’s physical gestures too. If you can also keep to a strict pulse (break this down into small sub-divisions i.e. try counting aloud together in quavers, for example), this will instigate precision when placing each semibreve.

The second exercise (below) focuses on prompt placing of crotchets a third apart, which will again encourage listening skills whilst building on the first exercise. It’s in the five-finger position, so is convenient and easy for beginners, but could be used for up to and including intermediate to advanced players.

duet-exercise-2The final exercise is faster and needs firmer finger technique. However, finger technique will hopefully improve when practising this seemingly never-ending pattern. Be sure to use the suggested fingering, which follows the five-finger position, and remember to decide on a place to stop too! You could also play this exercise in reverse, coming down the keyboard following a similar pattern.

duet-exercise-3Play the exercise slowly to begin with then gradually build speed when secure. Clear articulation, and completely rhythmical quavers should ideally be the primary concern.

Once assimilated these exercises can be practised using various rhythms and touches (legato, non-legato, staccato, tenuto). I hope they help pupils of all levels to focus on ensemble skills, before negotiating their duet pieces.

Other useful exercises include the 28 Melodious Studies Op. 149 by Diabelli. They offer a wealth of study material for duettists, from around Grade 2 onwards.


My Publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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.


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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 two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


Learning the notes….it can be fun!

Today my video-blog focuses on note learning and the patterns of the stave. It features basic notes and some new graphic signs too….hope you like them!


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.