In this post, I aim to give a thorough approach to practising an extract, the return of the “A” section from Rachmaninov’s famous warhorse, the Prelude in C sharp minor, op. 3 no. 2. I have chosen this because it is a good example of a reasonably extended stream of full fortississimo chords (interspersed with some double octaves) that uses the full range of the keyboard. It calls for a certain amount of stamina as well as an ability to measure distances accurately. The passage in question occupies four staves, two for the RH and two for the LH:

Firstly, the right tool for the job is a strong grip in the hand to support the transfer of weight from the shoulders and upper body through the keys. The fingers will be in touch with the keyboard before the release of weight – certainly not landing from any sort of height, as this would produce bad sound, extraneous noise and there would be next to no control of right notes, let alone of voicing. Have the hands on the surface of the keys before playing, feeling the appropriate (strong) grip in the hand. Grip does not equal tension, at all. If you were transferring a fledging back to its nest, you would need a very different sort of grip in your hand from the one involved in carrying a tray of lasagne to the table (each of these braced conditions happening naturally and spontaneously with no need whatever for conscious thought). The best way is to imagine that with one thrust generated from the torso you are aiming to shove the piano through the wall ahead. It will be a short yet powerful burst of energy away from the body. As soon as you sense the key bed (or actually a nanosecond before this), all effort ceases. The trick here is to release the effort as quickly and as completely as possible before moving on to the next event. It might also be helpful to feel an almost imperceptible grabbing motion in the hand, as though you were going to make a fist, except that you use only the very first part of the range of motion from a naturally curved finger to an actual fist. I recall an exercise I used to do to strengthen the small muscles of the hand with a large sheet of newspaper when broadsheets were still in use. Being strict about using one hand with no help from the rest of the body or other surfaces, you screw up the page into a ball.

Before we go much further, we will need to make sure the (not inconsiderable) distances between each event are measured extremely accurately in the practising so that there can be a sense of bravado, élan and panache in performance (isn’t it interesting that foreign words describe so well the “je ne sais quoi” of the mystery and magic of performance?). The paradox here – there is a correlation between the sense of abandon in performance and the precision and care that have gone into the preparation.

I attempt to describe the two complementary practice methods I call “quick cover”, and “frogs”, indispensable for measuring distances in all piano music (if the verbiage is too convoluted, here is a video link to a demonstration of it).

QUICK COVER

  • With each hand separately first (and then together), play the first chord and hold it. Like a cat ready to pounce, prepare yourself to move to the next event/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. 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 new 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 extremely fast indeed
  • If your measurement was not 100% accurate, or if you overshot, undershot or otherwise fumbled then the rule is you are not allowed to play the new chord! Be like the ethical angler who discovers a stray Chilean sea bass in his net – throw it back. First learn from your mismeasurement however, 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 left?
“FROGS” (You would have thought after all these years, I’d have come up with a better name for this process)
  • Sit on the key surfaces of the first chord. Don’t play it yet
  • When you are ready, using the keys as a springboard for the next chord propel yourself from this chord to the next one,
    which you land on in one fell swoop. The kicking off and the landing are to be thought of as one motion
  • HOLD ONTO WHATEVER YOU LAND ON. You’ll want to correct it or recoil in horror or embarrassment if there are errors by taking your hand away immediately, but please don’t. Again, learn from your results before doing it again. If you overshoot on the first attempt, then undershoot on the second by way of compensation this is actually progress (since you are learning to adjust) even if the results sound horrible. Eventually, by a process of gradual refinement, your result will be accurate, but this is not a comfortable process.
  • The chord you just landed on becomes the new springboard for the next
  • Watch it here
LINES
Big chords like this encourage vertical thinking, whereas the music moves horizontally, as a line. Concurrently with quick cover/”frogs”, I would also advise linear practice. Firstly, familiarise the RH 5th finger with its task (it is involved in each and every event and carries the tune) by playing the pinky alone, firmly. Now do the same thing with the RH thumb line, somewhat lighter and somewhat faster (the thumb will steer the hand in chord and octave playing, which is why it is a good plan to build in speed and flexibility). Now play the outer pinky and thumb notes in the RH before doing the same thing with the LH. If you have the time and can bear it, it will pay dividends to play the two pinky lines together, the two thumb lines together, the RH pinky with LH thumb, and vice versa.
I also recommend playing the top note with the next note down, or next-but-one note down. Try this also playing only the middle notes of the four-note chords; also the thumb and the next note up (RH) or down (LH), or the next-but-one note. As usual, exhaust all possibilities by exploring as many combinations as you can find.
TAPPING PRACTICE
As I mentioned in the previous post, a chord needs to be felt as a living organism, a team effort between all the fingers involved. To encourage independence and interdependence, I suggest this process whereby one or more fingers involved in a chord release and replay. The note(s) can be double- or triple tapped, or played in whatever rhythmic cell takes your fancy (which can vary from day to day). Since this is Rachmaninov, perhaps a rhythm of crotchet-quaver-quaver-crotchet?
  • Release and tap single notes
  • Release and tap pairs of notes (non-adjacent fingers pose more of a challenge)
  • Hold down one note, release and tap the remainder
  • Watch the demonstration
A final word about practising fortissimo passages: practise them very regularly softly! Why? Two main reasons. Firstly, loud playing is tiring on the ear and dulls it to subtleties of inflection, nuance and sound. Tone can easily degenerate into noise. Secondly, loud playing can make one muscle-bound and leads to tension and stiffness. Soft playing not only keeps the ear alive but enables us to retain elasticity and freedom.

 

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