In last week’s post, the first of this three-part series on trills, I looked at some of the rules and regulations concerning trills and other ornaments in the music of the Baroque period. Today I would like to explore a little more how to produce a beautiful trill at the piano.

Chameleons

I am often asked what is the secret of a good trill, and I find myself answering with another question – what sort of trill do you mean? There are so many different types that it is impossible to lump them all together. Some trills are featherlight and delicate, others strident like an alarm. Some are exuberant and invasive, others elegant and sensitive. So let’s think of trills (and indeed other ornaments) as chameleons that blend into and enhance their surroundings.

Shape and Speed

We pianists tend to think that trills need to be as fast as possible. They don’t! First determine whether the trill is rhythmic or expressive, and whether it is fast or on the slower side. Often trills and tremolos tend to sound better when they are measured out and played evenly, whatever the speed. Evenly means both in terms of time (precisely rhythmic) and tone (with no unwanted accents). There are, however, some situations when we won’t want a precisely measured trill. In slow or expressive music we might prefer to start the trill slowly and gently, perhaps with a crescendo to the middle, then end it with a slight ritardando. We can often make decisions based on our own judgement and good taste.

Register

The register of the piano determines the speed as much as the musical context. Trills in the high registers are often faster and more brilliant than those in the lower registers. Because of the greater resonance of the tenor and bass registers, trills might need to be played more slowly and clearly so they do not cloud the texture. The LH trills in Schubert’s G flat Impromptu are examples of this – let them blend into the landscape as distant rumblings rather than pneumatic drills digging up the ground.

Measured or Free?

In many situations, it is not so much the trill itself that is problematic, but coordinating it with the other hand. If you are struggling, the solution is to practise all trills in a measured way first, including those that will eventually be free and unmeasured. As an exercise, you’re going to practise a series of different realisations of the trill each with different numbers of notes and different rhythmical organisation. You’ll need to decide exactly how many notes you want in each practice version of your trill and how it fits together with the other hand. Start off with a slow one (few notes) and progress to ever faster ones. The slower models are not going to sound like the eventual end product, but think of them all as steps on the way. Once you are able to coordinate the variety of trill shapes and speeds you have practised you will be in a better position to allow the trill to be spontaneous and go its own way in performance.

Here are three different rhythmical versions of a LH trill from the Schubert G flat Impromptu. Practise each one carefully, generating others as you go, and then allow the trill to be free.

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Fingering

The most obvious trill fingering is between 2 and 3, but we need to be able to trill skillfully between many different pairs of fingers. Non-adjacent fingers are often much stronger than adjacent ones because of the design of our hand. 1 and 3 is an especially strong combination; 2 and 4 is often better than 3 and 4; 3 and 5 better than 4 and 5. We might experiment by beginning with one pair of fingers and changing to another during the trill. For example, begin with 2 and 3 then change to 1 and 3 for a crescendo (do the opposite for a diminuendo). An especially strong fingering is 1323,1323, etc., or 1323,2323 (bringing the thumb in for the strong beats). We can also begin with 1323 then after a while change to 1313, there are so many possibilities. Double trills within the same hand can be real finger twisters, and it is worth being creative with the fingering. Sometimes a fingering that looks downright bizarre might end up being the loosest and the strongest.

Mechanical Issues

If we examine what happens when we play a trill, we notice it is made up of two notes that repeat rapidly in alternation with each other. In order to play trills skillfully, we have to be able to manage repeated notes in a loose and easy way, without tension. Of paramount importance when managing the repeated notes in the trill is to play inside the keys, without bringing them all the way back up to the top. On a grand piano, thanks to Sebastian Erard’s double escapement mechanism (patented in 1821) we don’t need to lift the key all the way to the surface to repeat it, we can lift it only about half way up in order to play it again. This means we can repeat a note much more efficiently (upright pianos generally do not work this way, unfortunately, although some manufacturers are addressing the issue.)

Keeping inside the key is only part of the story, since there is only so much pure finger strokes will deliver in terms of speed and endurance. In order to keep a trill loose and free (especially one that goes on for any length of time) we can keep two things in mind. One is to add to our fingerwork a gentle undulation of the arm and the wrist (see my video demonstration). The second thing is to use forearm rotation rather than lifting the fingers up and down from the knuckle joints. This is nearly always the best and most natural movement, allowing us to trill freely and powerfully (if required) without any tension whatever. The best rotary fingerings are 1 and 3, 1 and 2, or 2 and 4 (again, see my video demonstration at the end for how this works).

Cheat Trill

Since we pianists have to be masters of illusion, I have no hesitation in sharing my cheat trill. It works beautifully as a quick fix but actually it is more than that. Once you have refined this, you’ll find you can use it to great effect.

Here is the process:

  1. Play the two notes of the trill dead together.
  2. After a moment, allow the two keys to come up the tiniest little bit then start to vibrate between them in the manner of an unmeasured tremolo. This neither has to be exact, nor does it have to be especially fast or loud to give the illusion of an impressive, energetic trill. The ear remembers the percussive event at the start of the trill and all we need to do is to feed it minimally. Where possible, use with the pedal.
  3. This will feel like a cheat to the pianist who is used to organising their trills with metrical precision but it works extremely well.

Pedal

The pedal blends the notes of a trill together to produce an effect that is generally pleasing in many situations. Trills can sound faster and stronger this way. Avoid in Baroque music though.

Video Demonstration

Here is the video demonstration on trills and ornaments I made for Pianist Magazine in 2013. Next week, in the last post in this short series, I will give you some exercises for trills (including Mozart’s exercise) for trills and show you how to discover for yourselves what the great masters do.

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