Waltzes demand a fair amount of left hand agility from the pianist – all that hopping back and forth can be quite dizzying. A pre-requisite for mobility across the keyboard is physical ease and looseness, we simply won’t be able to manage waltz accompaniments if we are in any way tense. Take something as difficult as the following excerpt from Schulz-Evler’s fabulous Arabesques on “An der schönen blauen Donau”. Let nerves get the better of you in performance and this lovely waltz suddenly takes on atonal properties – we have “Grande valse catastrophique”.

As is always the case, painstaking and thorough practice will equip us with the skills we need to negotiate the leaps in the left hand. Two processes that are invaluable are what I term Quick Cover and Springboarding.

QUICK COVER

  • Play the first chord and hold it. Like a cat ready to pounce, prepare yourself to move to the next chord.
  • When you are ready, in your own good time, use an ultra-fast (yet free and loose) motion of the arm to move like lightning to the surface of the keys of the next chord. DON’T PLAY IT YET!
  • Before playing, check to see that you arrived directly and dead centre of the keys, that no finger is in the cracks between the keys, no finger hanging half over the edge of a black key. What you are after here is a spot-on millimeter-accurate measurement of the distance involved both across the keyboard and within the hand.
  • If you were 100% accurate, and you got there fast, then go ahead and play the chord.
  • Now sit on this chord, and prepare for the next quick movement. Notice the tempo of the music is DEAD slow (there is no rhythm involved in this process actually), but the motions very fast indeed.
  • If your measurement was not 100% accurate, or if you overshot, undershot or otherwise fumbled then do not play the new event. First learn from your  faulty measurement, so that you can make the necessary adjustments when you try it again. Perhaps the span between the second finger and the thumb wasn’t quite wide enough, so that the second finger was too far to the right? Diagnose where you went wrong before trying it again.

SPRINGBOARDING

Having measured the distances using Quick Cover, Springboarding further refines speed and accuracy of movement in jumps.

  • Place the hand on the surface of the key and when you are ready, use the key as a springboard to the next position. As you play the notes, jump off the keys and land on the next chord.
  • FREEZE! The golden rule is to hold onto whatever you land on, whether this be the correct chord, nearly right or a fistful of clangers. Check to see how accurate your measurement was. If you were totally accurate and dead centre of the keys, release to key surface and use this as your springboard to the next position. If not, your instinct will be to make the necessary corrections immediately but RESIST THIS. Instead, examine what went wrong and learn from it before repeating the process from the previous position.

For the sake of simplicity, and taking into account my minimal skills with Musescore, let’s take a snippet of Chopin’s Waltz in A flat as our example of further ways we can practise passages like these.

To encourage the left hand to arrive at its destination ahead of time, here is a good way of practising it:

And:

We can also practise what I call selective landing, whereby we land on a preselected note (or notes) ahead of the other(s), then fill in the remainder (the following is one example of several different possible landings):

We can also practise in the following ways:

  • Go the extra mile and play the low bass note (first beat) an octave lower than written, so that when we come to the original, the span is that much less.
  • Practise adding an upper octave to the bass note with the thumb, which acts as a gauge for the hand and makes the distances feel much smaller. (NB. I am not suggesting, in the final product, that the hand remain in octave position. Actually, I think this would be contrived and contrary to the general principle of keeping a closed-handed attitude whenever possible. Practising like this, as is so often the case, has a positive residual effect, however.)
  • Now practise omitting the actual (lower) bass note and playing the higher (thumb) octave and the chords that follow.

When we return to the original, we can expect the LH to work reliably (provided we can keep physically loose, at this stage largely mental). These tools apply, of course, to any jump.

Let me leave you with Josef Lhévinne‘s amazing recording of the Schultz-Evler, the performance I grew up with.