I am sure we can all identify a particular chord in a piece that causes us to stumble or fumble (and, under our breath, mumble). This could be because the chord is an awkward or unfamiliar shape for the hand, or because the way the chord is spelled is hard to read. We end up needing more thinking and preparing time than the music allows. The solution is to get it into the head as well as into the hand.
The first thing to do is to analyse the chord, either theoretically or in simpler terms such as its shape, intervallic structure and patterns of black and white keys.
Here is an isolated chord from Robert Muczynski’s highly effective Toccata, op. 15:
There are two obvious ways of seeing this chord. Mentally changing the D flat in the LH to a C sharp, you can understand the shape as an augmented chord of A with two extra notes – a B flat in the LH and an E in the RH. Notice that the extra notes form a minor second, or a semitone with their neighbours. Alternatively, you can see it bitonally, as a chord of A major with an added minor sixth on top of a triad of B flat minor constructed on a bass A.
Having understood the chord in whichever way is meaningful to you, here are some suggestions for practice:
- Play the three A’s, then fill in the rest of the chord
- Play the semitones (the A/B flat [LH] together with the E/F [RH]) then fill in the rest of the chord
- Play the LH B flat and the RH E then drop in the A augmented (and vice versa)
- Play the white notes first, then (holding them down) add the black notes. Do this the other way round
- Explore the tapping exercises I described in the last post on Rachmaninov
- Remove the hands to the lap and visualise the chord. On command, go to the chord as directly as possible
- Play the chord an octave lower than written, and then an octave higher, finally in the style of the Tchaikovsky concerto (low octave, written octave, high octave)
You will have gathered that I like to see a chord as a five-a-side team event rather than a fused cluster. Taking another example from the Muczynski Toccata, the very end, we see a journey from three low E flats to a ten-note chord higher up:
Following on from the previous example, we can practise using the E flats as a springboard and landing on selected components of the large chord. We are going to turn this into a three-event process: the E flats, our selection of notes from the chord, and (while holding down the selection), play the remaining notes. Change the selection each time, and exhaust all the possibilities. Involve the mind as much as possible. Thus, if your selection is the black notes in the chord, label it as a chord of G flat major.
I would like to end by demonstrating an extremely useful exercise for a difficult chord, which will make something initially awkward and uncomfortable fit like a glove! Holding all the notes of the chord down (without pressing), start from any finger you choose. Lift that finger up and take it for a walk. Move chromatically up and down as far in both directions as is comfortable. It is fine to move under or over other fingers, and to touch the keys being held by other fingers. It is also fine to play in the crack between the keys, it’s the stretch that counts more than the actual notes. Remember that stretches are good, contortions aren’t! Do this with each finger in turn, shake out the hand and see how easy the chord now feels when you go back to it.
From September, I have a few vacancies for new students. Even though I am associated with training specialist pianists (secondary and tertiary levels), I am interested in teaching anyone with a passion to play the piano. At present my studio consists of people of all ages, the youngest being 8 and the oldest 78! Please contact me at email@example.com