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 actually not! I am a believer in a carefully chosen plan of study tailored for each individual pianist and sometimes this involves some very specific exercises and etudes. This programme is subject to frequent review and involves a sane and realistic amount of time and energy. Like scaffolding around a building project, an exercise might only need to be practised for a very limited amount of time; when it has done its job it can be discarded.
In my series on technique on the Online Academy, I shall explore the various categories of technical work critically – breaking it down into elementary, intermediate and advanced levels.
For some reason, I decided to start in on double notes – at the advanced level. I have prepared several chapters with over 100 musical excerpts, exercises, scales, etc, with detailed suggestions for practice using over 40 embedded video demonstrations. However, double notes at the intermediate level will come soon, and thereafter the remainder of the resources on technique will follow.
Double Note Playing
Playing an extended double note passage, especially when fast, is one of the most technically difficult activities at the piano. It requires a high level of finger independence, super-fine coordination and collaboration of the fingers, arm and wrist. Common problems include seizing up through muscular tension and an inability to synchronise the pairs of fingers involved for more than a few notes.
Image courtesy of Don’t Shoot The Pianist
Some of the hardest pieces in the piano literature involve double notes, usually thirds and sixths, but it might be fourths, seconds or indeed a mixture of intervals. Chopin’s Etude op. 25, no. 6 and Liszt’s Feux Follets are two virtuoso examples of double notes in action.
In my postgraduate training, my teacher stressed the importance of doing some work on double notes as part of the daily practice. Practising this skill was more important than the material I used – it might be scales in thirds, an exercise or two, or working on studies or excerpts from the repertoire. Nowadays, when I need to be in good shape for performance I include some gymnastic double note exercises in the warm up routine I have come to prefer for myself, varying them regularly so I don’t get bored with them. I do not spend too much time on these, nor indeed on exercises in general, but they play a part in my general pianistic fitness.
In this series on double notes, I am going to explore how to start developing the technical skills needed, from exercises that prepare the groundwork at the elementary level, leading to the intermediate level (where double note study begins in earnest). There will be detailed advice on how to practise scales, exercises and studies, along with some suggestions for studies you might not have come across. These may well be more appealing than some of the standard fodder (which can be rather dry and unwelcoming).
However, I decided to begin this series at the advanced level – with articles on the modulating patterns for exercises, some exercise patterns and also the various scale fingerings we can explore for diatonic scales in thirds. The series can be viewed on the Online Academy here and is currently comprised of the following chapters:
Traditional exercises of the type we find in collections of technical regimes are often designed to be transposed from the given key of C into all other keys (since there is only limited value in practising exercises only on white keys). This chapter helps the reader understand the patterns found within the exercises (based on the different chord shapes generated from the key note) and offers practical suggestions to help with the transposition process. The modulation pattern is given in full as an aid. Click here >>
Before the double note exercises themselves, I suggest one of the best exercises I know. It is not a finger exercise in the traditional sense, since the cooperation of the wrist, arm and ear and inextricably linked with how we play it. Essentially this exercise demands two different activities in the hand – a smooth, shapely legato line and a soft leggiero trill in the other. Once the hand has become accustomed to managing these two touches simultaneously, double note exercises can be safely begun. Click here >>
Double Note Exercise Patterns
This chapter offers a series of double note patterns using the modulating pattern in the first chapter. Full instructions for practice are included, with an emphasis on how to keep free of tension. Click here >>
Diatonic Scales in Double Notes
This chapter looks at the traditional fingerings for scales in double thirds, where the octave is divided up either into three groups (long-short-short) or two groups (the so-called “double thumb” fingering). There is also an exploration of alternative fingerings by Moszkowski and Busoni, and by Penelope Roskell. The final part of the chapter gives detailed suggestions for practising double note scales. Click here >>
In addition to the articles on elementary and intermediate exercises and studies, there will be articles on chromatic scales in minor thirds, scales in sixths and an exploration of Safonov’s ideas applied to the practice of double notes. When it is complete, I am hoping the Online Academy’s library of resources on double notes will be exhaustive (but certainly not exhausting!).
It is most important to keep technical work in perspective. Heinrich Neuhaus, one of my pianistic “grandfathers”, encapsulates the dangers of separating technique from the music beautifully:
A few words about technique. The clearer the goal (the content, music, perfection of performance), the clearer the means of attaining it. This is an axiom and does not require proof… My method of teaching, briefly, consists of ensuring that the player should as early as possible (after a preliminary acquaintance with the composition and mastering it, if only roughly) grasp what we call “the artistic image”, that is: the content, meaning, the poetic substance, the essence of the music, and be able to understand thoroughly in terms of theory of music (naming it, explaining it), what it is he is dealing with. A clear understanding of this goal enables the player to strive for it, to attain it and embody it in his performance; and that is what “technique” is about. (Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing)