Annoyingly, last week’s post on eliminating tension (which was to be the first of two or three on the subject) has itself been eliminated. It disappeared into the ether when my web host was down. While I attempt to retrieve it, I will make a small detour and complete a post I started a while back on skipping the octave. The subject matter is not unrelated.

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I am a great believer in the attitude of a closed hand as default, any stretches happening at the last second when the hand opens and then immediately closes again. This is based on the abiding principle that a stretched out hand is prone to tension, and that tension leads directly to lack of mobility.

In my teaching, I occasionally make use of an octave displacement of an individual note (or perhaps a group of notes) in a line or a passage. I do this when the note involves what might be perceived as a stretch, whereas an actual stretching out of the hand is either unnecessary, unfeasible or downright impossible. It doesn’t stop pianists trying though, even if they are not aware of this. By placing the note in question an octave higher or lower, it is obvious that any attempt to reach it by the finger is futile. Thus, we retain our closed-handedness and (depending on circumstances) either use the note before as a springboard to landing on the note in question, or we use forearm rotation, getting there quickly and loosely that way. When we to back and play the written note, we will have solved a technical problem.

Since I used an example from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata in a previous post, here is another from the same work (bar 83 in the first movement). Instead of playing the first note from each group as written, we might practise (under the tempo) thus:

I have noticed people get in a tangle in the passage beginning in bar 46 (with the ornaments in the RH). If you take every other slurred pair and play an octave higher (under the tempo but not too slow), you will need to be loose to make the movement up and back. When you go back to the original, you aim to retain the freedom in the hand and the arm you experienced with the octave displacement:

Another way of using the idea of octave displacement is if you need to repeat a snippet that has caused you to get in a tangle, when you want a clean slate between repetitions and the feeling of approaching it anew each time. Instead of simply jabbing at it a few times as written, you can avail yourself of the whole keyboard and repeat in different registers. By repeating this all over the keyboard and connecting each repetition to a pulse, considerable mental and muscular freedom is achievable in a way that playing over and over in situ will not be. Of course, if you want to go the extra mile, it is worth transposing into a couple of other keys too, but if you do this, it is vital to preserve the fingering of the original, even though it will feel contrived.

We’re learning a new piece and we come across a particular chord that requires us to pause and figure it out carefully. Take a moment to analyse it (so you don’t have to work it out all over again next time), and attach a theoretical label if possible. Alternatively, recognise whatever shapes, patterns and intervals are meaningful to you and then aim to play the chord in several different registers of the piano. Play it an octave higher, then two octaves (if there’s room). Do it in lower octaves, of course. If you can get there directly, securely and confidently, then the shape and sound of the chord will be more clearly etched on your consciousness than if you had just repeatedly played it in situ. Each register will give you a subtly different kinaesthetic sense of the chord (hand/arm positions will not be exactly the same), as well as an altered aural perception of it. Put simply, you’ll know it better on many levels.