Scales and arpeggios are an important part of the developing pianist’s technical regime, especially for those who go through graded examinations. Having looked at scale playing in recent posts, I thought I would explore arpeggios a little.

Arpeggio playing relies on similar technical skills to scale playing, only an arpeggio is more demanding for two main reasons:

  • A scale is built up of eight notes per octave (counting the key note twice), the arpeggio four (for major or minor). Thus, arm and whole-body movements are twice as fast in an arpeggio.
  • The greater distance the thumb has to cover compounds the difficulty – in a scale the distance from one thumb note to the next is a fourth or a fifth, in an arpeggio it is a whole octave.

Unless the correct technical conditions are met precisely, an arpeggio is likely to be accident-prone and to feel awkward and precarious – like walking on ice.

The Arm

Looking at a beautifully controlled and choreographed arpeggio, we notice a smoothness and fluidity in the way both arms move across the keyboard, seamlessly connected together and describing a gentle curve. If the arpeggio is played continuously as though on a loop, the curve turns into a figure of eight (or the infinity symbol), all angles rounded out. My general advice for arpeggios is to hold the elbows slightly higher than in scale playing. There will be a bit more space under the arms, as though a current of air from beneath were lifting the arms up slightly so that they appear to float. The golden rule is never drop the elbow down onto the thumb! 

The Thumb

There are three main approaches to the thumb in arpeggio playing, all of which are viable. Which one you choose depends on the speed and musical character of the individual arpeggio as much as the particular school of piano playing you have inherited.

  1. Thumb Under

We achieve a physical legato to (and from) the thumb, the thumb travelling underneath the hand in the same way as in a scale. To achieve the necessary stretch comfortably the thumb needs to start its journey immediately, as soon as it releases its previous key, and the elbow needs to lead. This is the approach I recommend for beginners and intermediate level players presenting arpeggios for examination, and it is the most traditional. At the advanced level, I would introduce the thumb over approach as well as the arm shift.

  1. Thumb Over

Instead of the thumb passing under the hand, it swings over using a free forearm rotation. The thumb lands in its next key as a result of the rotation and because we stay connected to the keyboard, we can achieve a legato – almost!

  1. Arm Shift (No Thumb Joins)

Opponents of the thumb-under approach claim passing the thumb underneath the hand causes unnecessary tension at high speed (especially in the big stretches we find in arpeggios). Using an arm shift, the hand is simply carried from one octave to the next, the thumb making no attempt to pass under. A physical legato is compromised, but if done well there is no discernable break in sound.

Fortunately, I am able to demonstrate all of these and various other components of good arpeggio playing in a video demonstration I made for Pianist Magazine.

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If you would like to know more about arpeggio playing, I am delighted to announce the launch of Part 3 of my eBook series, Practising the Piano. Part 3 is a single, bumper volume on scales and arpeggios starting with a guide to the basic skills required followed by chapters for the elementary, intermediate and advanced levels.

As with my other eBooks, Part 3 features numerous video demonstrations, exercises written out in manuscript and practice suggestions.  It also features a number of resources and interactive tools to keep you motivated and to make your practising more effective.

Preview or buy Practising the Piano Part 3

Click on “Preview” for a free preview or on “Buy” to purchase Part 3 of Practising The Piano now.