Technique

Tips for a Natural Hand Position

My approach to piano technique is based on using movements that are most natural to the body, movements that are free, loose and that feel good. It is most important that we are in touch with physical sensations as we play – our feet in contact with the ground, freedom in the legs and thighs, support from the piano stool, mobility in the torso, looseness in the shoulders and arm, and not least the absence of tension from our wrists, hands and fingers. Touching the keyboard can feel delicious and sensual, or strong and energetic. It should never feel tight or awkward. Hand position I have read elaborate descriptions for the correct hand position for piano playing, but finding the position is actually surprisingly simple. If you stand up and allow your arm to swing freely from your shoulder, you will discover your palm is facing behind you. Swing your arm up to a table or your piano keyboard and land there. Provided you have not tensed up or done anything to change the hand shape, you will have found your ideal hand position. There will be a natural curve in the fingers, and all the knuckles will be aligned and supported.  Curved, not curled We avoid the two extremes, flat fingers and overly curled fingers because they tend to lead to tension. The natural curve is the best default position for piano playing as it encourages the best coordination.  Don’t isolate the fingers Traditional pedagogy supplied the pianist with copious finger exercises in which each finger was to be lifted high in isolation from the other fingers, which were to remain on the surface of the keyboard. Modern thinking has moved on, and we don’t […]

Choreographing Bach’s D Minor Invention

I’m going to look at Bach’s Two-Part Invention in D minor, aiming to help you solve a couple of the issues that seem to bother some players in this piece.  The Subject The first thing is to find a good fingering for the main subject based on its tempo and character. For me, it’s a vigorous forte at the start, somewhere around M.M. = 60 (+/- 10%) for the bar. I play the semiquavers (16th notes) legato and the quavers (8th notes) detached, allowing for the possibility of more finessed articulation here and there.  The Invention would be extremely difficult to manage if we stuck to the myth that the thumb should not go on a black key. Here is the fingering I prefer, by no means the only solution but the one I find works best. In order for this fingering to work we need to remember one important fact: when we place a short finger (thumb or 5thfinger) on a black key we need to make an adjustment up and in towards the back of the keys, since the black keys are higher up and further away. There is no mystery here. Start from your lap and land with your RH on the two black notes with thumb and 5th finger. You should find the way you align will be perfectly natural – there won’t be any twisting in the wrist, and you will have found a comfortable position on the black keys to feel balanced there. When we play the five-finger position, E-Bb in the RH, a certain amount of motion towards the black key area is necessary so that when we arrive at the Bb the hand will be in the right place – in other words, we […]

A Practical Guide to Forearm Rotation

In my work as a teacher, I regularly encounter pianists even at the advanced level who ask me for my special exercises to “strengthen” their fingers. Initially they react with disappointment when I tell them I don’t have any such exercises nor do I believe in them, and that their fingers are strong enough already. My job is to show them how to coordinate the fingers with the arm in ways that end up feeling strong, but this has nothing to do with developing muscles.  The Finger School There is still a strong legacy from the old Finger School in the piano teaching world, which has its roots in the pedagogy of Clementi and Czerny. While their approach may have been just fine for the early pianos with their short keyboards and light actions, it proved less and less efficient as the piano and the music written for it evolved. Teachers kept at it though. If you were a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory in the mid 1800‘s during the reign of Sigismund Lebert and Ludwig Stark, you would have had to practise a strict regime of finger exercises, preferably with the aid of a hand rail (a device attached to the piano enabling the player to rest their wrists on it). The point was to achieve everything with the fingers and the wrist, the rest of the arm remaining quiet and passive. The elbow was to stay close to the body and only the forearm was supposed to move if the hands needed to move outwards. The basic finger touch was known as the “hammer touch”, where each finger was lifted as high as possible and then slammed into the key fortissimo (with no help from the arm). When […]

Being Creative with Scales

Does scale playing scare you? Does the thought of practising scales for an exam intimidate you? Scales have a reputation for being among the least interesting activities we pianists face, but there is no reason scale practice should be dry and boring. Last week we launched a new module in the Online Academy’s technique library. The module includes detailed instructions on how to play and how to practise scales and arpeggios. You will find short videos, along with exercises and their demonstrations to assist you on your journey. Once we’ve learned all our scales and arpeggios and no longer need them for any exams, it’s up to us whether we continue to practise them or not. Some professional pianists of the highest calibre go through their scales daily as part of their warm-up routine, others see no value whatever in doing this. Readers of this blog will know that I rather like to use scales as vehicles for other things. For example, if you are struggling with a two against three polyrhythm in a piece, before you grapple with the passage itself practise first a scale in this polyrhythm (one hand will play three octaves, the other hand two). For good measure, switch this around too. The point here is that you already know your scales, so you will not have to read any notes or think about fingering. You will be able to look at the keyboard and focus on the particular difficulty you are trying to master. The first Arabesque of Debussy is a good example: We might also use scales to explore touch and articulation. A very good example of this came up in a recent lesson. My student was about to learn […]

Fundamentals of Scale and Arpeggio Playing

Scales and arpeggios are part of the requirements of all examination boards, and every pianist will encounter them. The importance of knowing scales and arpeggios in every key cannot be exaggerated, but many players struggle with them because of poor technique. How do we learn to play any scale at the drop of a hat? How do we play an even scale at a suitable tempo, with the correct fingering? How do we manage the thumb movements in an arpeggio accurately without bumping? How do we sit, how do we move across the keyboard without tension? I have addressed all these questions and others in my new module in the Online Academy’s technique library. With detailed instructions in the videos, along with printed exercises and their demonstrations, I hope this material will assist you on your journey to making friends with scales and arpeggios. Once we realise that all scales are made up of short (1, 2, 3) and long groups (1, 2, 3, 4) in alternation we are in a much better position to learn the fingerings. Not all scales begin at the start of a fingering group; to embed the fingerings, blocking practice is helpful. How do we solve the problem of the thumb in scale playing? There are several ingredients – a smooth arm with no drops in the elbow, mobility in the thumb itself, and freedom in the wrist. This video excerpt offers some suggestions for practice. Attention to whole-body choreography is especially important to feeling comfortable in arpeggio playing. This video demonstrates how we sit and how we move across the keyboard. *** Elementary Technique – Fundamentals of Scales & Arpeggios is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. […]

Thoughts on Piano Technique

After some initial trepidation regarding how to approach extending our resources on the complex subject of piano technique on the Online Academy, I am happy to say that we have just published the first module in a new collection, with others to follow in due course. Because there can be no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching technique, as it grows, our technique library will also contain content from other leading experts offering different angles on the subject. As such it will be a research-based, organic and consistently growing resource representing diverse viewpoints. I have several worthy books on piano technique on my shelves, some are clearer and more usable than others. However, as soon as an author starts writing about hand positions, arm movements, giving detailed instructions about what the fingers are supposed to be doing in a given situation, etc., they immediately run the risk of being misunderstood. Very often the excessive verbiage involved is hard to fully understand, even by the most educated of readers, and any images included can only tell part of the story.   In the modern age, many of these problems can be resolved by video demonstrations. Building text-light modules around a number of videos has been my default choice of format this new material. Some videos are longer with more description; others are very short indeed – with few words, if any, and filmed close up. The beauty of the short videos is they can easily be watched repeatedly, when you might want to check and recheck how a particular movement looks. My aim is to identify and use the best format to communicate the subject matter at hand.   My attitude to technique is based […]

By |February 20th, 2020|Technique|0 Comments

Technique Library & Resources Preview

Following our announcements last year regarding upcoming projects and content, we’ve been hard at work on a collection of modules on piano technique, the first of which is now available on the Online Academy – with others to follow thereafter. These initial modules will cover technical fundamentals, scales and arpeggios and a detailed exploration of forearm rotation. The first module explores the basics of piano technique, covering seating position, posture, whole-arm and legato touches. Using a combination of bite-sized annotated video demonstrations, musical examples and downloads, this module shows how to move in ways that are natural to the body and to achieve physical freedom for playing that feels and sounds good. It will be a good starting point for beginners and useful for piano teachers who teach beginners as well as those seeking a refresher or “health check” on the basics.    The next module will look at the basics of scale and arpeggio playing, featuring close-up video demonstrations of the movements involved. The following video example takes a break from the technical aspects and offers a practical keyboard theory lesson showing how we can go through the circle of fifths one key at a time, clockwise in the sharp direction or anti-clockwise in the flat direction by playing the scale as a chord (all eight notes together, one tetrachord per hand). The scale-chord gives us a bird’s-eye view of the scale and is an excellent way of seeing the pattern of black and white keys as a whole. Building on the first two modules is an extended video-based course on the principles of forearm rotation and its application, with many musical examples and text. This video excerpt shows a short example of how […]

By |February 13th, 2020|Technique|4 Comments

An Essential Guide to Healthy Piano Playing

Piano playing is a deeply satisfying artistic activity, but it can also be very demanding physically on our arms and hands. Just as elite athletes understand and care for their bodies, so should pianists think carefully about their approach to playing and practising. A healthy piano technique not only avoids injury – it also helps to achieve greater freedom of expression, a more beautiful sound and quicker progress. With the number of piano-related injuries on the rise and as a response to this growing problem, we have worked with leading expert in pianist injuries, Penelope Roskell to publish a new guide to preventing and recovering from injury for pianists and teachers. Combined with Penelope’s existing resources on Yoga, warm-ups and posture, the guide offers detailed information on each of the most common playing-related injuries with numerous video demonstrations of practical remedial exercises to aid recovery and prevent relapse. The information contained within this guide is based on Penelope’s many years of experience in working with pianists with injuries. Although it will be useful to any pianist, it is especially beneficial for those experiencing fatigue, tension or pain and piano teachers who want to know more about helping their students keep healthy. The guide covers the following topics: Healthy playing – Develop a healthy technique (and wise practise) methods for greater freedom of expression, improved sound quality and quicker progress General advice on healthy and wise practising Whole-body approach and sitting posture Warm-up sequence Preventing and recovering from injury – Learn how to look after your arms and hands to avoid problems in future and general advice on recovering from injury Common pianist injuries How to identify common injuries like RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome and tenosynovitis […]

By |January 16th, 2020|News, Technique|0 Comments

On Technical Exercises

In the nineteenth century there was a widespread belief that hours a day spent practising finger exercises would lead to mastery of the instrument, and many method books were published, filled with exercises and studies. The prevailing opinion was that you needed to separate the study of technique from the study of music – by practising endless drill, you would be able to play the repertoire more easily. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. Hours spent on exercises and boring studies leads to playing that is fixated on mechanics, to the detriment of artistry or musical merit. It can also lead to a lack of coordination, pain and injury. Not only is this kind of mechanical practice largely a waste of time, it can actually do more harm than good. The word technique comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning “of, or pertaining to art; artistic, skilful”. This should highlight to us the close connection between the technical, and the musical or interpretative. Interpretation and technique are one and the same, since every sound that we strive to produce has to be achieved by physical means. Many modern piano pedagogues discourage their students from separating purely technical work from music for this very reason. And yet, we do need to understand how to meet the demands of the music we play. Is a thorough training in the mechanics or gymnastics of piano playing essential, or can we develop our technique solely through the music? Read about Samuil Feinberg’s ideas on what constitutes an exercise Although practising repetitive mechanical exercises is out of favour amongst many teachers at the moment, I believe that it is very possible, and sometimes preferable, to study a particular aspect of the […]

Perspectives on Technique

Like many of us, I have come from an eclectic background as a pianist. There are strong influences from the British School, with its emphasis on craftsmanship (especially in the practice room), the German school, with its focus on musical structure and clarity of thought, and not least the great modern Russian School (the Neuhaus line from Nina Svetlanova), with its rich traditions of pianism, artistry and attention to creating an incredible sound. Since one of my teachers studied in Paris with Marguerite Long and another with Artur Rubinstein, there will be some French and Central Europe in there too. I also undertook an in-depth study of what has become known as the Taubman Method from a student of Dorothy Taubman in New York, and I worked for a time with piano guru Peter Feuchtwanger in London on his various exercises. No description of my background would be complete without acknowledging the enormous debt I owe to Leon Fleisher, whose weekly classes for piano majors at Peabody during 1982 were among the highlights of my pianistic education. And of course my masterclass and subsequent lessons with Andras Schiff in the early 80s were hugely influential. My own approach to piano technique is therefore rich and varied with all these various influences, and I have found it possible to use the best parts of all of them. Consequently I do not subscribe to the view that there is one correct way to play the piano – rather many different and equally valid ways depending on the physiology, mind and aesthetics of the individual. In my video lecture series on technique on the Online Academy, I offer some very detailed instructions on how to achieve results at […]