Do We Need Special Exercises for the Left Hand?

I am often asked about what to practise to make the left hand feel strong, and equal in technical ability to the right hand. Are special exercises necessary? In 2011, researchers in Germany published an article which showed a surprising fact: Whether the pianist identified as right- or left-handed, the performance of the right hand always displayed a higher degree of evenness between notes, and therefore a higher degree of motor control, than did the left hand. And the more practice time that a left-hander had accumulated, the better the performance of his or her right hand. Another statistic that came up is perhaps more understandable and obvious – we often listen more to the right hand, because in most music from 1750 onwards it assumes greater importance. The melodic interest tends to be more on the top, the left hand in a supporting role. Not that I’ve counted them up myself, but in Beethoven’s sonatas there are apparently 122,650 notes in the left hand and 133,064 in the right! If we really want to develop our left hand, perhaps we should always be working on contrapuntal music – especially fugues, where both hands are completely equal in terms of input. German Romantic composer, Hermann Berens published his Training of the Left Hand in 1870, at a time when mechanical exercises were especially lauded. I have noticed that many players seem to enjoy practising technical exercises and studies. As I always stress, it is how you do them that is important and if you follow a middle path and do them mindfully and in small doses, Berens’ left hand exercises can certainly be of some value.  But why not include one or two pieces of music written for […]

By |January 31st, 2019|Technique|2 Comments

The Principles of Scale Fingering

I have recently published a series of three articles for Pianist Magazine on fingering, and as always there is a video demonstration for each available on YouTube. In my first article, I outline some of the basic fingering principles as well as giving some suggestions for choosing a fingering. In the second article, I explore fingerings for scales, arpeggios and chords. The principles for scale fingerings in use today were first proposed by C.P.E. Bach in his treatise, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments (1753). There are two main principles. Neither the thumb nor the 5th finger are used on black keys (the exceptions are the arpeggios of F sharp major and E flat minor) Each scale is made up of a short group (123) and a long group (1234) in alternation. There are some useful pointers: Long fingers (2nd, 3rd and 4th) usually play on black keys Short fingers (thumb and 5th) go on white keys The 4th finger appears only once in each octave* – if you are struggling to remember the fingering for a scale, just notice where the 4th fingers go and use these notes as anchors. *not counting situations when the 4th finger substitutes for the thumb (B major and minor LH bottom; F major and minor RH top) C Major Fingering We get great value from the C major fingering, since it applies to several other scales too. Once we have learned C major we can use the identical fingering for C, D, E, G and A majors and minors. That’s 10 scales in all! The diagram below shows the fingering for an ascending then descending scale over two octaves. It’s helpful to notice: 3rd fingers always come together […]

Playing Double Notes at the Advanced Level

When I was a student, I was struck by the two opposing camps that seemed to exist among my peers. There were those whose teachers expected them to be practising finger exercises and studies religiously each day for at least an hour, and others who were supposed to build up their technique almost exclusively from the repertoire they were learning. Whether you were assigned reams of Pischna, Dohnányi, Czerny and Clementi, or managed to escape this treadmill largely depended on which school of pianism you inherited, and where in the world you received your pianistic education. The concept of a thorough training in the mechanics or gymnastics of piano playing as a separate activity from real music became very popular at the time the conservatories were being founded and is still very much alive today – even though some newer systems of pedagogy challenge the fundamental concept. In the twentieth century, celebrated Juilliard teacher, Adele Marcus (herself a product of the great Russian tradition) required her students to spend ninety minutes daily working on technique, and had a strict regime they had to follow. While many well-known teachers advocate this today, many others do not. Does this system produce better pianists that those who build up technique from repertoire, inventing their own exercises from their pieces to help solve specific problems? Certainly a great pianist will always emerge from any school or tradition of piano playing. I am about to launch a substantial new collection of resources exploring areas of technique on the Online Academy, and this will involve looking at a selected number of exercises and studies. From this you may draw the conclusion that I am a great fan of studies and exercises, but […]

Feeling Comfortable in All Keys

Do you feel comfortable playing in all keys? Are you able to transpose technical exercises without notation? The ability to play by ear in every key is an important musicianly skill, one that cannot be developed soon enough. When we transpose technical exercises not only do we develop our aural awareness but also our keyboard geography as we experience the different black-white terrain under our fingers that each new key offers. This adds enormous value to the gains from any exercises we might be practising, and to our technical development in general. Most of the exercises we find in the various books of technique regimes give the full version of a particular exercise only for one or two keys (usually C major, and if we’re lucky Db) before trailing off with an unhelpful “etc”, or the instruction to “continue through all keys”. The ability to carry on without any further notation relies on two skills: An understanding of the structure behind the given note patterns found in the particular exercise Thorough knowledge of each key (major and minor) Knowledge of the basic chord shapes and qualities – many exercises use mainly major, minor, diminished and dominant 7th chords Pattern Recognition It is far better to memorise the exercises as soon as possible so all your attention can be focussed on the matter at hand. It is infinitely more beneficial that your eyes are directed at the keyboard and that your mind is focussed on the task (not being distracted by having to read from the printed page). The ability to memorise relies on pattern recognition, a skill that improves with practice. Let’s explore this a bit, using the infamous and all-too-familiar note pattern from the first exercise of […]

Intermediate Scales Manual Now on the Online Academy!

I have some good news for those of you practising your scales! I have just published the first part of my new scale manual aimed at intermediate players on the Online Academy.There are several scale manuals already available, but this manual is different in that it offers exercises and suggestions for practice, together with short, easy-to-use video demonstrations. It is my aim that these will be of practical help in the learning and practising process. Teachers will be able to assign specific exercises, and students will have a clearer focus in their day-to-day practice. Using the ABRSM Grade V syllabus as a guideline for this level I will be publishing the manual in stages, beginning with a practice worksheets for the group of scales built on C major fingering, and one example from some of the main groups for arpeggios. I will gradually add to these until the manual is complete. Why Scales? Scales and arpeggios have traditionally been examined as the technical requirements in piano exams from Grade 1 right through the conservatory level – and like it or not they are here to stay. The advanced pianist will have mastered all major and minor scales in single as well as double notes, plus an array of different types of arpeggios, in all inversions. The result will be an intimate kinesthetic knowledge of the keyboard (how a particular scale feels under the hand) and of all tonalities and key relationships, acquired and honed over the course of time. Whether we continue to practise scales in later life depends on the individual – the great virtuoso Shura Cherkassky apparently played scales and arpeggios in every key every day. In fact, many of the world’s greatest pianists wouldn’t […]

By |November 9th, 2017|Technique|0 Comments

On Studies and Exercises

I follow a middle path when it comes to the studies and exercises I suggest or assign to students, preferring to work on technique from the music itself rather than have them learn a whole slew of dull and dreary studies they won’t especially enjoy. I supplement the repertoire with carefully chosen material, often culled from a variety of unusual sources  – and some of it of my own invention. I am a fan of taking some exercises and using them off-label (finding a different way to use an easily memorable pattern of notes than what the author may have had in mind). There are three main ways of categorising such material. I’m going to make one or two suggestions for each. 1. Exercises The shorter and simpler the better. Exercises should be easy to memorise, so that the whole attention can be focussed on the specific mechanical or technical goal we’re aiming to master. Exercises have no pretensions toward artistic merit, although they can be played musically. Hanon patterns are good examples of the exercise genre. Do them with a definite purpose and they can serve you; do them mindlessly and they will waste your time as well as ingraining whatever you are doing with them. If you practise them without aligning your hand and arm to the finger that is playing you are automating the habit of not aligning your hand and arm to the finger that is playing (seems so obvious, doesn’t it?) and you will develop technical problems and most likely tension. The exercises themselves are neutral, it’s how we do them that counts.  There are numerous books of technical exercises on my shelves. One I especially like for beginners is […]

By |September 21st, 2017|Technique|11 Comments

On Wrist Control

I often think it must be very confusing for the pianist seeking guidance on piano technique from the internet, only to find conflicting information from various authorities. Nothing is more contentious than the wrist, it seems. As you may have discovered, some pianists and teachers of repute insist on using a full range of motion via the wrist (more about this later) while some others advocate never breaking at the wrist. According to my own pianistic legacy from the wonderful training I was privileged to receive, and based on many years of subsequent experience, I can say there is place in piano playing for both a firm (but never tense) wrist, and for one that is soft, springy and malleable – depending on the situation. When discussing piano technique, it would be very convenient if we could isolate the various muscles, levers, bones and joints that make up the mechanics of playing and investigate them one by one. The problem with this is it’s just not how piano playing works! Sure, we might deliberately concentrate on what the fingers are doing in a given situation, or switch off certain muscles while engaging others, or stabilise one joint or lever while activating another to sense what’s going on in our body, and so on. But this is not always helpful, because when we play we tend to create a blend of activity in which all the components of our playing mechanism collaborate, and we do this subconsciously based on how we have practised, and the sounds we hear in our imagination as we adapt to the performance space and the particular piano we are playing. Do you recall the well-known spiritual song by James Johnson, Dem Bones? […]

Are Scales Fun?

The very mention of the word scales to a piano student is likely to conjure up associations with something they know is necessary but somehow unpalatable, like eating spinach or a visit to the dentist.  I think it is actually possible to make scale practice fun, rewarding and challenging – provided it is presented in clear, step-by-step stages that students can easily follow by themselves in their daily practice between lessons. Scales and arpeggios have traditionally been examined as the so-called technical requirements in piano exams from Grade 1 right through the conservatory level – and like it or not, they are here to stay. The advanced pianist will have mastered all major and minor scales in single as well as double notes, plus an array of different types of arpeggios, in all inversions. The result will be an intimate kinesthetic knowledge of the keyboard (how a particular scale feels under the hand) and of all tonalities and key relationships, acquired and honed over the course of time. Whether we continue to practise scales in later life depends on the individual – the great virtuoso Shura Cherkassky wouldn’t think of beginning his daily practice without a thorough regimen of scales and arpeggios in all keys. Once learned, scales can be used as the starting point for all sorts of problem-solving exercises – if you are struggling to feel a polyrhythm in your piece, practise a scale up and down in that polyrhythm. If you want to refine a particular touch or for independence between the hands, use scales. Practice Worksheets In addition to walk-throughs and worksheets for the ABRSM exam pieces I decided to include some resources for scales in the Online Academy, since it is easy […]

By |January 12th, 2017|Technique|2 Comments

Exercises for Trills

This is the final post in my short series on trills. I am going to share with you some exercises to develop speed and fluency, as well as a neat tip for slowing down videos on YouTube so you can listen in very slow motion. This is great if you want to research how different pianists handle trills (and indeed anything else), but more on this later. Trill Exercises The following exercises are in no particular order. I suggest trying them out and finding those that suit you best. From a mechanical point of view, you might want to experience the trill in these ways: from the finger (active finger, and then keeping the finger inside the keys) powered by forearm rotation (the equivalent of power-assisted steering) Repeated Note I’m using as my example a trill between the 2nd and 3rd fingers in the RH, but this whole series of exercises can be applied to other combinations of fingers. Hold onto one finger of the trill and play the other finger (a repeated note) from the escapement, without lifting the key all the way back up to the top between the repetitions. It will feel like you are at the bottom of the key; there won’t be any gap in sound between the repeated notes because you are effectively tying one note to the next. Start slowly and build up speed. Next, try holding the finger you have just been playing and play the finger you have just been holding. The first exercise is done freely; in the next one we’re going to do it rhythmically. It can be useful to feel the rhythm of the finger that plays on the beat in a measured trill when […]

By |December 15th, 2016|Technique|10 Comments

Secrets of Beautiful Trills

In last week’s post, the first of this three-part series on trills, I looked at some of the rules and regulations concerning trills and other ornaments in the music of the Baroque period. Today I would like to explore a little more how to produce a beautiful trill at the piano. Chameleons I am often asked what is the secret of a good trill, and I find myself answering with another question – what sort of trill do you mean? There are so many different types that it is impossible to lump them all together. Some trills are featherlight and delicate, others strident like an alarm. Some are exuberant and invasive, others elegant and sensitive. So let’s think of trills (and indeed other ornaments) as chameleons that blend into and enhance their surroundings. Shape and Speed We pianists tend to think that trills need to be as fast as possible. They don’t! First determine whether the trill is rhythmic or expressive, and whether it is fast or on the slower side. Often trills and tremolos tend to sound better when they are measured out and played evenly, whatever the speed. Evenly means both in terms of time (precisely rhythmic) and tone (with no unwanted accents). There are, however, some situations when we won’t want a precisely measured trill. In slow or expressive music we might prefer to start the trill slowly and gently, perhaps with a crescendo to the middle, then end it with a slight ritardando. We can often make decisions based on our own judgement and good taste. Register The register of the piano determines the speed as much as the musical context. Trills in the high registers are often faster and more brilliant […]

By |December 8th, 2016|Technique|4 Comments