Fundamentals of Piano Practice, 2nd Edition by Chuan C. Chang

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Fundamentals of Piano Practice, 2nd Edition
by Chuan C. Chang
November 21, 2004
ii
Copyright 1994–2004; No part of this document shall be downloaded or copied without including the name of
the author: Chuan C. Chang, and this copyright statement.
Request To those who have found this material useful, please make an effort to let at least two people know about
my web site (http://members.aol.com/chang8828/contents.htm), so that we can start a chain reaction of ever
more people that will be informed of this site.
I am looking for volunteers to translate this book into any language. See “Notes for Translators” in the web page
site. Please email me at [email protected] to discuss this matter.
This book is now available in German, Polish, Italian and French. I am very grateful to our German translator,
Edgar Lins, for his many suggestions that have significantly improved the quality of this book.
If you feel that you have benefited from this book and wish to express your appreciation, please send a contribution to:
C. C. Chang, 35 Orchard Ln, Colts Neck, NJ 07722, USA,
to defray my expenses for writing this book and maintaining these web pages. Those who download the nonEnglish versions should send their donations to the translator. If you send $15 or more, I will send you my 1st edition
book (available in English only) until I run out of them (include your shipping address and email address). I will
pay shipping and handling (1st class in US, airmail for overseas).
About this version This version has been typesetted, indexed and converted to PDF by Frédéric Loyer. Some other
variants are available depending of the paper size or the font size; You may find them at the following address:
http://www.sinerj.org/~loyer/PianoBook.
Feel free to send typographic error reports or suggestions specific to this version at the following address : [email protected]
internet.fr. The original book, in HTML, can be found at
http://members.aol.com/chang8828/contents.htm.
Printing One way to print this book, is to save it in a file and send the file electronically to http://docstore.
kinkos.com and follow directions (e.g., request double side, regular white paper, collate, coil binding, clear front
and black vinyl back covers, locate nearest Kinko’s Store, etc.); cost is about $30/copy (8 cents/page) if you pick it
up at Kinko’s, less if you order more copies.
For learning Piano For learning piano, use this book as a supplementary textbook if you have a teacher. If you
don’t have a teacher, pick any piece of music you want to learn (that is within your technical skill level) and start
practicing it using the methods described here; the methods are arranged roughly in the order in which you will
need them as you start learning a new piece. In either case (with or without a teacher), read the entire book quickly
the first time, starting with the Preface which gives you a quick overview. Skip any section that you think is not
relevant or is too detailed; do not try to understand every concept or to remember anything – read it like a science
fiction novel, mainly for fun – you just want to get acquainted with the book and get some idea of where certain
topics are discussed. Finally, read as much of the Testimonial section as you find interesting. Then re-start from
where you think the book gives material that you need; most people will need to read all of 1.1 and 1.2. Then you
can skip around to specific topics that apply to the composition you are learning. If you don’t have a clear idea
of what compositions to learn, this book cites many examples, from beginner material (1.3.18) to intermediate;
therefore, in your first reading, look for where these examples/suggestions are
iii
This book is dedicated to my wife Merry,
whose love, support, and boundless energy
is what enabled me to devote so much time to this project.
iv
Testimonials
These testimonials illustrate the hopes, trials, tribulations, and triumphs, of pianists and piano teachers. The testimonials are not just a collection of flattering endorsements but are open, frank discussions of what it means to
learn piano. I am heartened by the number of teachers who provided testimonials and by their indication that they
are having more success with their students by using these types of methods. It seems inescapable that teachers
who conduct research and improve their teaching methods are more successful. Numerous pianists mentioned
that they were taught all wrong by previous teachers. Many, who liked their teachers, noted that these teachers
used methods similar to those in this book. There is almost uniform agreement on what is right and what is wrong;
therefore, when you follow the scientific approach, you don’t get into the situation in which people cannot agree on
what is right. I was impressed by how quickly some people picked up these methods.
The excerpts have been edited minimally, but irrelevant details have been excised so as not to waste the readers’
time. Entries in [...] are my comments. I take this opportunity to thank everyone who wrote; they have helped me to
improve the book. I can’t get over the fact that readers of my book keep writing the book for me (i.e., I could insert
their remarks in my book, and they would fit perfectly!). In the following, I have not selected just the flattering
remarks; I chose material that seemed significant (educational), whether positive or critical.
1. [From a Christian Minister]
This book is the Piano Bible. I have made such tremendous progress since purchasing it [1st edition book]. I
continue to recommend it to others.
2. [In Jan., 2003, I received this email] (with permission)
My name is Marc, and I am 17 years old. I just started playing the piano about a month ago and have been
reading your book, The Fundamentals of Piano Practice. . . I do not have an instructor yet, but am in the
process of looking for one . . . [followed by a series of precocious questions for a young person with so little
piano experience. I answered his questions as well as I could; then]
3. [in May, 2004, I received this astounding email]
I don’t quite expect you to remember me, but I sent you an email a little more than a year ago. . . I would
like to let you know how piano has been coming along for me using your method. I began playing the piano
about Christmas of 2002, using your method from the beginning. Mid-March of 2003, I entered my high
school’s concerto competition for fun and experience — not in the hopes of winning their $500 scholarship.
I unexpectedly won first place, competing against more seasoned pianists of up to 10 yrs. It did shock the
judges when I told them I had been playing for 3 months. A few days ago, I won this year’s competition, as
well. In other words, progress has come very quickly. Such progress is one of the greatest motivators (aside
from the general love of music), so I can now see myself playing — and improving in — the piano for the rest
of my life. And, though I must give my teachers credit as well, your method is my foundation upon which
they build, and I believe it is the main reason for my progress. However, I still consider myself a beginner . . .
My website (http://www.mtm-piano.tk) as all of the recordings which I have made to date (18). . . recently,
I have been re-recording Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude, Scarlatti’s K.466, and Bach’s Invention in F major. . .
My next recording will be Bach’s Sinfonia in E minor, and I plan to have that done by the end of next week.
Your book is far more than any lover of music and the piano could expect, and I cannot thank you enough
v
Updated:
June 28, 2004
vi
for the help you have given to me and so many other aspiring pianists . . . [Go to the website and listen to
those amazing recordings!! You can even find him at the http://music.download.com web site (search
Marc McCarthy).
4. [From a respected, experienced piano teacher.]
I just skimmed your new section [on parallel set exercises] and thought I’d share my initial reaction. As the
Queen Regent of Exercise-Haters, I’ve lobbied loud and strong for the criminalization of Hanon et al, and was
at first aghast to think you may have joined the downtrodden masses of the pseudo-voodoo-esque practitioners, hopelessly, helplessly, repeating, repeating, . . . . Anyway, to get to the point, I do see a point of merit
in your approach, IF IF IF the student follows your COMPLETE directions and uses the described key combinations as a diagnostic tool — NOT to repeat each and every combination as a daily routine. As a diagnostic
tool and subsequent remedy, you’ve succeeded marvelously! There was something familiar about your exercises, so I dug around at the studio today and found the Technische Studien by Louis Plaidy, Edition Peters,
first printing ca 1850. Although Plaidy’s philosophy concerning the use of his exercises is much different from
yours, the actual notes printed on the page follow nearly to the letter (tee, hee, I should say to the note) what
you have described in your exercise chapter. Plaidy’s exercises were highly respected in Europe throughout
the late 1800’s and were used during that time at the Conservatory in Leipzig. Plaidy himself was quite a
sought-after instructor, with several of his protege accepted into Liszt’s inner circle and/or having some sort
of success on the concert stage. You’re in the company of greatness!
5. I am curious to know if you know of the work of Guy Maier. Does his approach with “impulse” practice of
5 finger patterns go along with the “parallel sets” you mention? Maier does use the principle of repeating one
note with each finger as the others are held quietly at the key surface as one of the 5 finger exercises. Thinking
Fingers was one of the books of exercises Maier wrote with Herbert Bradshaw in the early 1940s. One of his
first 5 finger exercises that seems to mirror what you have said about “quads” repetitions on one note using
one finger is as follows:
(a) Single fingers in repeated note impulses of 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, and 16.
(b) Practice each finger separately, depress other keys lightly or hold fingers silently at key top position.
(c) Using CDEFG in right hand, place 5 fingers on these notes one octave above middle C, right hand thumb
on C.
(d) Similarly with left hand, one octave below middle C, with fifth finger on C.
(e) Exercise hands separately; starting with right hand thumb play one impulse C, then release, then two
impulses, etc., up to 16. Repeat with each finger, then do the left hand.
[See my Exercise section 1.3.7.2; it is amazing how we independently arrived at groups of “quads” (four
repetitions), up to 4 quads (16 repetitions) for this exercise which is almost identical to my Exercise #1.]
(f) Beginners will have to do the impulses slowly, working up to full speed (and here I think your “quads”
come into play — so many repetitions per second is the goal).
Maier mentions 16 as his limit. He gives a great many patterns for using this approach to 5 finger impulse
exercises, in Book 1 and Book 2 of Thinking Fingers published by Belwin Mills Inc., NY, NY in 1948. I think
Maier was striving to help students get the facility they needed without the endless repetitions of Hanon,
Pischna, et al.
6. Please send me your book — I’ve been a piano teacher for over 50 years, still eager to learn.
7. [This testimonial is an eye opener: it teaches us about one of the most frequently misdiagnosed problems
that stops us from playing fast.]
At a young age, I started, and then quit piano. Then as a teenager, I went to a [famous] conservatory and tried
for years to acquire technique but failed miserably and ended up with an engineering career. Years later, I
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have returned to piano (Clavinova) and am trying to do what I failed to do years ago. One of the reasons I
stopped practicing is that my wife and son would get irritated when they heard me repeat passages over and
over; the Clavinova allows me to practice guiltlessly at any hour. I read your web page and was fascinated.
Wish I had thought of some of your ideas years ago. I have a question and I can’t seem to get an answer that
makes any sense, yet it is such a basic question. I was taught that when you play piano, you support the
weight of your arm on each finger that plays. Gravity. You never push down, you must be relaxed. So I asked
my teachers how to play pianissimo. The answer was that you play closer to the keys. This does not work for
me. [Long discussion of various methods of trying to play pianissimo with arm weight and why they don’t
work. Seems he can play pianissimo only by consciously lifting his hands off the keys. Also, since everything
tends come out forte, speed is a problem.] Would you kindly answer this question for me? What does one do
with ones arm weight when one plays pianissimo? I have read many books about playing the piano and have
spoken with many accomplished pianists. It is one thing to know how to play anything and it is quite another
to be able to teach someone how to play. [I could not have said this any better!] Your writings are brilliant
and in many ways revolutionary, I knew instinctively that if anyone could help me you could.
[After such a compliment, I had to do something, so I read the account of his difficulties carefully and came to
the conclusion that he must, after so many years of trying, be unwittingly pushing down on the piano, almost
as if he were hypnotized. I told him to find a way to see if he was actually pushing down — not an easy task.
Then came this reply.]
Thank you for your response. Truth is best examined through extremes. Your suggestion gave me the idea
that maybe I should ALWAYS play like I play MY pianissimo — by lifting my hands off the keys. I rushed
to my Hanon, and YES! I can play much faster! I quickly rushed to the Bach Prelude II that I could never
play to speed (144) and I always had troubles getting the fingers to land together when playing fast, and at
speeds above 120 the fingers were landing like one note together. No fumbles, no strain. Not only that, I can
play piano or forte as fast as I want. It feels so incredibly EASY! Just discovered it now! I can’t believe this.
[Long discussion of how, through the years, he had come to equate arm weight with pushing down, mainly
caused by a fear of not understanding the teacher who was a strict, arm weight disciplinarian. This is actually
something I have been very suspicious of, about the arm weight method: that so much emphasis on arm
weight and overly strict discipline might cause some type of neurosis or misunderstanding — perhaps even
some type of hypnosis.] A huge wall just crumbled and now after so many years of thought and hours of
practice (I practiced up to 10 hours a day at the conservatory and still only memorized music without ever
improving my technique) and now I can see beyond. I discovered that I have the ability to play faster than
I ever dreamed I could (just tried the C major scale and I was shocked that this was me playing) with full
range of sound that I want WITHOUT TENSION. [A long description of all the new things he is now doing
and comparing them to his previous years of struggles and criticisms from others.] I have you to thank for
this. Yours was the only book I have ever read that offered enough variation from the mainline to get me to
finally free my mind from a huge misconception. I was pushing down, not letting go. My arms simply don’t
weigh a ton, but they are free. Because I was afraid of my teacher and was obsessed with the weight of my
arms, I was subconsciously bearing down. I never dared play ppp for her. I knew how, but I was certain it was
the wrong technique. [I am afraid this happens frequently with youngsters; they don’t understand the teacher
but are afraid to ask, and end up assuming the wrong thing.] What she should have told me was DON’T EVER
PUSH DOWN; instead, I fixated on the weight of my arms as being key to everything. [A youngster must push
down to put any “weight” on his arms! How are you going to explain that this is wrong to a child who hasn’t
studied physics?] She also never allowed me to play quickly. [This is another comment I have heard from
students of strict arm weight teachers — speed is a no-no until certain milestones are achieved; although we
must exercise caution when practicing for speed, slowing down is not the quickest way to speed.] Because I
was tense, and she said I would never play quickly if I’m tense. In your book you say that we have to play fast
to discover technique. I was never allowed to! Your book and your email freed the chains in my mind that
held me captive for all these years. Thank you so very much. I cannot describe how grateful I am to you and
your insight.
[Although my comments seem to be directed against the arm weight school, that is not the case — similar dif-
viii
ficulties apply to any teaching based on insufficient knowledge in the hands of strict disciplinarian teachers.
Unfortunately, a large number of piano teachers has historically adopted inflexible teaching methods because of a lack of a theoretical understanding and rational explanations. For systematic treatments of speed,
see sections 1.2.13 and especially 1.3.7.1]
8. I found your book on the internet and consider myself very lucky. Thank you very much for making such
a great effort on describing the piano technique and practice habits that make sense. I am a piano teacher.
I’ve only started to read the book and have already applied some practice techniques with my students. They
liked it and I liked it too. The practice becomes so much more interesting. Do you know the book called
“The Amateur Pianist’s Companion” by James Ching, published by Keith Prowse Music Publishing Co., 1956,
London. This book may be out of print, but I found it second hand at: http://dogbert.abebooks.com/
abe/BookSearch
You might be interested because “the detail of correct postures, movement and conditions as outlined in this
book are the result of extensive researches into the physiological-mechanics of piano technique carried out
by the author in conjunction with Professor H. Hartridge, Professor of Physiology, and H. T. Jessop, Lecturer
in Mechanics and Applied Mathematics, at the University of London”.
9. I am so grateful that I found your web site. I am an adult piano player, that was taught all wrong, when I was
young. I am still trying to unlearn my bad techniques and habits. I now take lessons from a very good teacher.
10. A few weeks ago I downloaded your book from the Internet and have been trying it out. I’m about halfway
through and a long way from fully applying everything, but I’m so pleased with the results up to now that I
thought I’d give some spontaneous feedback.
Firstly some background. I studied piano up to an advanced level and started a music degree, which I
dropped after a year to study math. After graduation I was an enthusiastic amateur, but over the last 20 years
my playing has become less frequent, mainly due to my frustration at a lack of progress, convinced that I
would never be able to find the hours of exercise needed to be able to play better.
I was looking for some hints for buying a piano and came across your site. After reading a couple of chapters
I downloaded the whole thing and started trying it out. This is not the first time I have tried to improve with
a book or advice from a teacher, but I’m a sucker for punishment. Here are my experiences after three weeks.
[Note how quickly people can learn and immediately make use of these methods.]
I’ve been concentrating on studying 4 pieces which are very dear to me:
• Ravel’s Prelude;
• Chopin Prelude no. 26 in A[ major;
• Poulenc Novelette no. 1;
• Ravel Alborada del Graziosa from Miroirs.
The Ravel Prelude is a small piece of no apparent technical difficulty. This is a piece that I had always played
on sight, but never really well. There is a crossed hands section in the middle with some exquisite dissonance
that poses some difficulties, but that’s about it. I applied the practice methods in the book to this piece and
it suddenly came alive with far more nuance than I had ever credited it. It’s anything but the throwaway I
thought it was, but without proper practice methods it will always seem that way.
The Poulenc Novelette is one of the pieces that I have played at least once a week for 20 years and am very
fond of. I’ve never really played this fully to my satisfaction, but I’d always assumed that this was due to a
lack of exercise time. Using your suggestions I started analyzing what was wrong. Aside from some obvious
flubs that had never really been learnt correctly the most surprising result was that it was impossible for me
to keep in time to the metronome!! Some more detailed analysis revealed the cause — a lot of Poulenc’s
writing requires rapid and awkward shifts of hand position with melodies that need to be sustained across
these shifts. The bad habit that I had learnt was to “grab” at the keys during these shifts, hence destroying the
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melody line and gradually speeding up the piece. The revelation to me was that the problem could not be
fixed by practicing with the metronome! It could only be fixed by analyzing this problem and working out a
strategy for dealing with the shifts. Now I am very satisfied with the way I play and even have a lot of time left
over to consider the music.
Alborada del Graziosa is a case apart. This is a fiendishly difficult piece which I had tried to learn in the past,
but was unable to bring most of the passages up to the correct speed. My assumption had always been that
more practice was necessary and that I could never find the time. Again — applied the methods in your
book to learning this and, after three weeks, I’m not yet there but I can now play most of it up to speed and
reasonably musically as well. I reckon I’ll have it all in my fingers in a couple of weeks then I can concentrate
on the music.
Last but not least, the Chopin prelude. I learnt this for an exam when I was 16 yrs. old, but have never really
played it since. I started relearning it and made a couple of discoveries. Firstly I had never played it up to
speed, even for the exam, so this was something I needed to fix. However this just didn’t work — I discovered
that for two reasons I couldn’t speed up. Firstly I had learnt to fake the legato with the pedal — but once you
speed up you just get a jumble of sound and if I try to pedal correctly I just couldn’t get the legato. Secondly
the middle section contains some highly stretched broken chords in the left hand that shift on each beat.
Played slowly this is ok, but at speed it becomes fiendishly difficult and even painful to play. Basically I have
had to relearn this piece — new fingerings, new hand positions, different pedaling etc. Now I can play this at
any speed I like with no stress. I found this an interesting proof of what you say in the book — this is a very
small piece that seems fairly easy, but at speed it completely changes character and will frustrate any student
using the intuitive method, unless they are blessed with a span of over 1.5 octaves.
In closing I’d like to thank you for writing the book and even more for making it available on the Internet. I
have in the past spent enormous amounts of money on highly recommended teachers and not one of them,
although I have no doubt that they understood these techniques themselves, could teach me how to practice.
11. I think your book is worth my reading although many of the “rules” (such as hands separate practice, chord
attack, . . .) I have learned from our teachers. In my logic even if just one rule I learned from your book works,
it is worth far more than the $15 I paid for the 1st edition. I also like the section on how to prepare for
recitals. I agree that practicing full speed before the recital is a “no no”. I discussed this with my teacher
and we see several reasons why [extended discussions on why playing full speed on day of recital can lead
to problems, not excerpted here because I can’t understand them]. Thus practice fast before the recital is a
no-win situation. Finally, I would like to see more about how to gain speed and how to put hands together
more efficiently. Some music (Bach’s Inventions come to mind) is easy to play hands separate but difficult
hands together. Overall, I enjoy reading your book.
12. I encourage everyone to try hands separate practice as stated in your book. While studying with Robert
Palmieri at Kent State University, he had me do this as part of my practice. It helped me get past the amateur stage and on to much better technique and musical playing.
13. Based on what I was able to glean from your web site, I applied one of the principles — hands separate playing
at full tempo — on a couple of difficult passages in two completely different types of songs I was playing, one
a church hymn, the other a jazz tune. Interestingly, I found that when I got to church yesterday and it came
time to accompany the congregation, the difficult portions I had learned by the hands separate method were
among the most solid and sure of the entire hymn. It seemed that each time I came to one of those difficult
spots, a mental trigger went off that alerted my brain/nervous system to execute those parts with particular
care and accuracy. Same goes for the difficult spot in the jazz tune, which is now no longer a problem at all.
14. About one and a half years ago I ordered the book Fundamentals of Piano Practice from you. I just wanted
to personally thank you for your contribution. It has helped me a great deal! I never knew how to practice
before your book because I was never taught. I took lessons, mind you, but my teachers never taught me now
to practice. Isn’t that amazing! I suspect that it is commonplace. The most beneficial piece of advice for me
x
is your suggestion to play at a much slower speed on the last run-through of the piece you are practicing. I
must admit developing this habit has been most difficult for me. But I am trying. I find that slow practice
is a big help. Also, practicing just a measure or two at a time has been valuable! I wished that memorizing
music came easier; if you have any new ideas on memorizing, please let me know. [I have added considerable
material on memorizing since this correspondence.]
15. Thank you for answering my piano practice questions. I must tell you that there is one particularly tricky
Prelude of Chopin’s — the one in C sharp minor. When I received your book, I mastered this Prelude more
than up to its rapid speed in one day. Granted it is a short one, but many pianists wrestle with it. This
experience has been very encouraging.
16. I have been playing piano for 8 years now and bought your book about a year ago. After reading this book,
my 1 hour a day practice sessions are much more productive. I also learn new pieces much faster. You show
insight on the following:
• Correct methods of practice;
• How to start a new piece;
• Slow practice (when to do it and why);
• When to play faster than normal;
• How to get ready for a performance.
I don’t agree with everything you write, but I read your book about every couple of months so I don’t lose sight
of the proper way to practice. [This is a common refrain: my book is such a dense compilation that you need
to read it several times.]
17. After one week, I was very pleased with myself and the method since I thought that I had successfully MEMORIZED!!! a whole page HS. This was an absolutely unknown achievement as far as I was concerned. But
problems arose when I tried to put the two hands together, which I then tried to do whilst learning the rest of
the piece. I also found on trying to learn the rest of the piece that I had ‘memorized’ the first page wrongly,
and I ended up writing notes to myself. [This probably happens more often than most of us would like to
admit — when you have difficulty in getting up to speed HT, CHECK THE SCORE! the cause could be an error
in reading the music. Errors in rhythm are particularly difficult to detect.] Your book HAS given me exactly
what I was looking for — i.e. some basis for working out how to learn more quickly and efficiently. No teacher
has ever been able to give me any clue as to how to go about learning a piece. The only suggestion I have ever
had is, ‘Have a look at this and see what you can make of it’, and as for how to improve the accuracy and/or
speed, ‘Keep practicing, practicing, . . . ’ WHAT????? I’ve now got answers to these vital questions. Thanks.
18. I have been reading your book on your site and have been getting a lot out of it. You have inspired me to
practice the way I have always known was the best way but never had the patience to do it. What you outline
about even chords before trying to play fast lines sure has helped me a lot. I think my inability to play beyond
a certain speed is due to a basic unevenness in my fingers that I have never really addressed. I always would
just say, “I just can’t play fast well”. I have worked up a small portion of an etude using the chord attack
approach and can actually play it fairly smoothly and evenly! I am curious about your theories on perfect
pitch development. The camps seem very divided on that subject: genetics vs. environment. [Since this
correspondence, I added the parallel set exercises for chord practice, and have written an expanded section
on acquiring perfect pitch.]
19. I just wanted to let you know how much my family of musicians has been enjoying your book on piano
playing. Without doubt, you set forth some innovative, unorthodox ideas in your book that really do work
in spite of the fact they sound extreme by most practicing piano teachers’ standards. [I agree!] The method of
practicing hands separately seems to be working quite well as well as the method of not playing everything
soooooo slowly! Also, putting less emphasis on the metronome has also been proving beneficial. Certainly,
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your methods have helped speed up the entire learning process on new pieces, and now I can’t imagine how
we ever managed before without knowing these “musical truths” of yours. Thank you again for writing such
a marvelous JEWEL of a book!
20. I read the online sections and think every piano teacher should be required to have read this book. I’m one
of the unfortunate who spent 7 years practicing scales/Hanon without any hints about relaxation or efficient
practice methods. I started to pick good practice hints from internet discussion groups and various books,
but your book is by far the most comprehensive and convincing source I have found yet.
21. I am a piano player at an intermediate level. A month ago I downloaded parts of your book and I must say in
one word that it is fabulous! Being a scientist I appreciate the structural way the subject matter is presented
and explained on a down to earth level. It changed my way of looking at piano practice. Especially the part on
memorizing helped me already to reduce memorizing efforts considerably. My private teacher (a performing
soloist) uses bits and pieces from your method. However this teacher is a Czerny addict and never heard of
thumb over. You need to spend more attention to the thumb over, especially how to smoothly join parallel
sets. I gave a copy of the book to my teacher and I recommend it to everybody.
[A year later]
I already wrote you once more than a year ago about your fantastic book on the internet. The methods really
work. Using your methods I was able to learn and master some pieces much faster. Your methods really work
for pieces that are notoriously difficult to memorize, like some Mozart sonatas, and pieces of which my piano
teacher said are difficult to memorize like the Bach Inventions or some preludes of Chopin. Piece of cake
using your method. I am now tackling the Fantaisie Impromptu and this seemingly impossible piece appears
to be within my reach! I also like your contribution about the subconscious mind. I wonder whether you
know the book of J. D. Sarno: The Mindbody Prescription. This book treats the subconscious exactly like you
do. While working on my PhD thesis, I solved many seemingly unsolvable theoretical enigmas just like you
did. I fed it to my brain and some days later the solution just popped out. So what you write is dead right!
22. Your suggestions on how to memorize music by creating associations (a story, for example) sounded silly to
me. But when I was practicing, I couldn’t help asking what I could associate with a certain musical phrase
that had a problematic F chord. “Give yourself an F for failing” popped into my mind. I thought that was not
very encouraging thinking! But now every time I come to that phrase I remember the F. I’ve got it. Sheesh!
Thanks. Your book is very useful. It mirrors my teacher’s suggestions, but with more detail. When I can’t play
the piano nothing is more fun than reading about playing the piano . . . . . . . In the final weeks before my last
recital, my teacher suggested playing through my mistakes during practice. Then going back and working
on the problem measures, much as you suggest, though that was the only time that it came up. She says
most people will not even know the mistake was made unless it interrupts the music. Her point is to not
interrupt the music and to correct the problem at the source by going back to the measure. I find that I do
correct myself (stutter) a lot; I’m going to focus on not doing it. This advice is not intuitive, you know. One
corrects mistakes naturally when they happen. But I can see that constantly doing that is actually building
the mistakes in.
23. I stumbled on your online book on piano practice when I was searching for articles on absolute pitch. When
I read it, I was impressed by the scientific approach used. Especially the concept of “speed wall” and how to
overcome it helped me a lot. I found your book at just the right time. Many problems I encounter in playing
the piano are discussed in your book. Many piano teachers don’t seem to have a clear scientific concept on
how to handle specific problems of intermediate piano players. So I am working through the book, section
by section with good success. There are several things I am missing in your book. In some chapters, pictures
would be very helpful, such as correct hand position, thumb over, parallel set exercises. Something like a
chronological table for the practice routine might be useful. “Practicing cold” would be on position number
one, for example. You always mention the importance of WHEN to do WHAT. Could you order the exercises
you explain in a way that makes them most efficient? Anyway, I want to express my deep appreciation for
your project!
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24. All this winter, I continued my personal piano learning and I must say that every word in your book is true.
I have been studying piano for several years and made only average progress. Because I love piano and romantic music, that makes me sometimes crazy and deeply frustrated. After application of your methods from
about 1 year ago, I made tremendous progress. I am now working on several pieces at once, compositions I
never thought before that I can play. It’s wonderful. Today, I have a small repertoire that I can play with great
satisfaction.
25. I have ordered and received your 1st ed. book and have read sections of your 2nd ed. I have found your
information to be extremely valuable. I am sending you this email because I was hoping to get some advice
on my upcoming recital. I am extremely nervous but after reading your sections on recitals I understand their
importance. I wish I had your notes on memorizing when I started because it has taken me an extremely long
time to finally memorize it (the improper way). I am not sure how to perform the piece for the recital. On the
few occasions that I played for others I would stumble on certain sections because I would forget where I was
in the piece because of nerves. This is my first recital so I don’t know what to expect. Any tips or advice on
practice routines would be much appreciated.
[After a few exchanges about what he was playing, etc., I gave him a scenario of typical practice routines for
recital preparation and what to expect during the recital. After the recital, I received the following email.]
I just wanted to let you know that my recital went extremely well considering it was my first time. The advice
you gave me was very helpful. I was nervous starting the piece but then I became extremely focused (just
like you said would happen). I was even able to concentrate musically rather than just going through the
motions. The audience was impressed at my ability to do it from memory (just like you said they would).
You were right in saying that a positive experience like this would help me with my confidence. I feel great
about the experience! My teacher is from [a famous Conservatory], and teaches Hanon exercises and other
technique material. That is why your book was and is a gold mine for me. I want to be able to play the pieces
that I enjoy without having to spend 20 years to learn them. But I also feel that I need a teacher.
26. Finally, hundreds of communications of the type:
I must say that you book is excellent . . . . . . .
Since reading C. C. Chang’s Fundamentals of Piano Practice, I’ve been trying out his suggestions; thanks to
those who recommended it and to Mr. Chang for taking the time to write it and make it available.
I have found your web pages very useful for me in my work on playing the piano.
Your work is very wonderful!
This is helpful and encouraging as I go back to the piano after years of not having one available; thanks!
You have been of enormous help to me.
From what I have read so far it makes a lot of sense and I’m excited to start trying it.
Etc., etc.
Preface
This is the first book ever written on how to practice at the piano! The revelation of this book is that there are highly Updated:
August 11, 2004
efficient practice methods that can accelerate your learning rate, by up to 1,000 times if you have not yet learned the
most efficient practice methods. What is surprising is that, although these methods were known since the earliest
days of piano, they were seldom taught because only a few teachers knew about them and these knowledgeable
teachers never bothered to write them down (or let others in on their secret).
I realized in the 1960s that there was no good book on how to practice the piano. The best I could find, after a
literature search, was Whiteside’s book, which was an utter disappointment (see References section). As a graduate
student at Cornell University, studying until 2 AM just to keep up with some of the brightest students from all over
the world, I had little time to practice piano. I needed to know what the best practice methods were, especially
because whatever I was using wasn’t working although I had taken piano lessons diligently for 7 years in my youth.
How concert pianists could play the way they did was an absolute mystery to me. Was it just a matter of sufficient
effort, time, and talent, as most people seem to think? If the answer were “Yes”, it would have been devastating for
me because it meant that my talent level was so low that I was a hopeless case because I had put in sufficient effort
and time, at least in my youth, practicing up to 8 hours a day on weekends.
The answers came to me gradually in the 1970’s when I noticed that our two daughters’ piano teacher was
teaching some surprisingly efficient methods of practice that were quite different from methods taught by the majority of piano teachers. Over a period of more than 10 years, I kept track of these efficient methods and came to
the realization that the most important factor for learning to play the piano was the practice methods. Effort, time,
and talent were merely secondary factors! In fact, “talent” is difficult to define and impossible to measure; talent
might play some role in determining the winner of a Van Cliburn competition; however, for the majority of aspiring
musicians “talent” is a nebulous word we use frequently but it has no definable meaning. In fact, proper practice
methods can make practically anybody into a “talented” musician! I saw this happen all the time at the hundreds of
student recitals and piano competitions that I have witnessed. Every dedicated student who found the right teacher
became a “talented” musician.
There is now mounting evidence, some discussed in this book, that genius or talent may be more created than
born (see Olson) — Mozart is possibly the most prominent example of the “Mozart Effect” (http://parenting-baby.
com/Parenting-Baby-Music-Research/Music-Research.html). Some have renamed this “The Beethoven Effect” which might be more appropriate because Mozart had some personality weaknesses, etc., that sometimes
tainted his otherwise glorious music. Note that listening to music is only one component of the complex Mozart
Effect. For pianists, making music comprises the larger component. Thus good practice methods will not only
accelerate the learning rate but also help to develop the musical brain, especially for the young. The learning rate
is accelerated, not merely speeded up (it’s like the difference between an accelerating vehicle and one going at a
constant speed). Therefore, in a matter of a few years, students without proper practice methods will fall hopelessly behind. This makes those students with good practice methods appear far more talented than they really are
because they can learn in minutes or days what it takes the others months or years to learn. Thus the notion that
“piano technique is finger strength and dexterity” may be mostly a figment of the imagination with no supporting
evidence; technique is more brain/nerve development and improved music/memory ability.
Practice methods can make the difference between a lifetime of futility, and a concert pianist in less than
10 years for young, dedicated students. Using the right practice methods, it takes just a few years for a diligent
student at any age to start playing meaningful pieces from famous composers. The saddest truth of the past two
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centuries has been that, although most of these great practice methods were discovered and rediscovered thousands of times, they were never documented and each student either had to rediscover them by her/imself, or, if
lucky, learn them from teachers who had some of these methods in their heads. The best example of this lack of
documentation is the “teachings” of Franz Liszt. There are a dozen Franz Liszt societies and they have produced
hundreds of publications. Numerous books have been written about Liszt (see Eigeldinger, in References), and
thousands of teachers have claimed to teach the “Franz Liszt method”, complete with documented teaching lineages. Yet there is not one publication that describes what that method is! One reason for this lack of documentation may be that good teaching methods are the basis for the livelihood of most teachers and are therefore a form
of “trade secret”. There are endless accounts of Liszt’s accomplishments and technical prowess, yet there is not one
reference on the details of how he got that way. There is some evidence in the literature that Liszt himself could not
remember exactly what he did in his youth; this is understandable because he was probably experimenting and trying something different every day. Since piano pedagogy has succeeded in losing track of how the greatest pianist
of all time initially acquired his basic technique, it is little wonder that we have not had anything close to what we
might call a textbook on learning piano. Can you imagine learning math, physics, history, computer programming,
or anything else without a textbook, and (if you are lucky) only your teacher’s memory as a guide? Yet, when you
go to your piano lesson, the teacher never gives you a textbook on piano practice. Consequently, every teacher has
her/is own methods of teaching/practice, and each thinks that her/is method is better than anyone else’s. Without
textbooks and documentation, our civilization would not have advanced much beyond that of jungle tribes whose
knowledge base had been passed on by word of mouth. That’s basically where piano pedagogy has been for the last
200 years!
There are many books on learning piano (see References), but none of them qualify as textbooks for practice
methods, which is what students need. Many of these books tell you what skills you need (scales, arpeggios, trills,
etc.) and the more advanced books describe the fingerings, hand positions, movements, etc., to play them, but
none of them provide a systematic set of instructions on how to practice. Most beginner music books provide a few
such instructions, but many of those instructions are wrong — a good example is the amateurish advertisement
on how to “become a virtuoso in 60 exercises” in the introduction to the Hanon series, written by none other than
Hanon himself (see section 1.3.7.8). If you were to take a survey of recommended piano practice methods from a
large number of piano teachers who have not read this book, many of those methods would contradict each other,
so that we know immediately that they can’t all be correct. Not only that but, because there was no textbook, we
had no idea about what comprises a reasonably complete set of instructions. In piano pedagogy, the most essential
tool for the student — a basic set of instructions on how to practice, had been basically non-existent until this book
was written.
I did not realize how revolutionary the methods of this book were until after I finished my first edition book.
All I knew initially was that they were better than what I had been previously using. For years, I had been applying
them with good, but not remarkable, results. I experienced my first awakening after I finished that book. That
was when I really read my own book and followed the methods systematically, and experienced their incredible
efficiency. So, what was the difference between just knowing the parts of the method and reading a book? In
writing the book, I had to take the various parts and arrange them into an organized structure that served a specific
purpose and that had no missing essential components. As a trained scientist, I knew that organizing the material
into a logical structure was the only way to write a useful manual (see 3.2). It is well known in science that most
discoveries are made while writing the research reports, not when conducting the research. It was as if I had all the
parts of a terrific car, but without a mechanic to assemble the car and tune it up, those parts weren’t much good
for transportation. Whatever the exact reasons were for the effectiveness of the book, I became convinced of its
potential to revolutionize piano teaching (see “Testimonials” section) and decided to write this 2nd edition. The
1st edition wasn’t even a bona fide book; it didn’t have an index or a reference section. I had hurriedly written it
in four months when I had a little free time between jobs. Clearly, I had to conduct a broader research in order to
fill any gaps and do a thorough review of the literature; i.e., I had to satisfy the requirements for a truly scientific
approach to piano practice (see Chapter Three). I also decided to write this book on my web site, so that it could be
updated as my research progressed and whatever was written would be immediately available to the public. As we
all know by now, an internet book has many other advantages; one of them is that you don’t need an index because
you can do a word search. As it turned out, this book is becoming a pioneering effort in providing free education
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over the internet.
Why are these practice methods so revolutionary? For detailed answers, you will have to read this book and try
them out. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to present a few overviews of how these miraculous results are
achieved and to briefly explain why they work. Let me start by pointing out that I did not originate any of the basic
ideas in this book. They were invented and re-invented umpteen times in the last 200 years by every successful
pianist. The basic framework for the methods of this book was constructed using the teachings of Mlle. Yvonne
Combe, the teacher of our two daughters who became accomplished pianists (they have won many first prizes in
piano competitions and averaged over 10 recitals a year each for many years; both have perfect pitch, and now enjoy
composing music). Other parts of this book were assembled from the literature and my research using the internet.
My contributions are in gathering these ideas, organizing them into a structure, and providing some understanding of why they work. This understanding is critical for the success of the method. Piano has often been taught
like religion: Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith that, if you followed procedures suggested by a “master” teacher, you
will succeed; Hope that, “practice, practice, practice” will lead you to the rainbow, and Charity that your sacrifices
and paying your dues will perform miracles. This book is different — an idea is not acceptable unless the student
understands why it works and to adapt it to her/is specific needs. Finding the correct understanding is not easy because you can’t just pluck an explanation out of thin air (it will be wrong, and incorrect explanations are worse than
none at all) — you need enough expertise in that field of knowledge in order to arrive at the correct explanation.
Providing a correct scientific explanation automatically filters out the wrong practice methods. This may explain
why even experienced piano teachers, whose educations were narrowly concentrated in music, can have difficulty
in providing the proper understanding and will frequently give wrong explanations for even correct practice methods. Giving an incorrect explanation for a correct method can do more harm than good because it not only confuses
the student but also, an intelligent student would conclude that the method should not work. This is another quick
way for the teacher to lose all credibility. In this regard, my career/educational background in industrial problem
solving, materials science (metals, semiconductors, insulators), optics, acoustics, physics, electronics, chemistry,
scientific reporting (I have published over 100 peer-reviewed articles in major scientific journals), etc., have been
invaluable for producing this book. These diverse requirements might explain why nobody else was able to write
this type of book.
So, what are some of these magical ideas that are supposed to revolutionize piano teaching? Let’s start with
the fact that, when you watch famous pianists perform, they may be playing incredibly difficult things, but they
always make them look easy. How do they do that? Fact is, they are easy for them! Therefore, many of the learning
tricks discussed here are methods for making difficult things easy: not only easy, but often trivially simple. This is
accomplished by practicing the two hands separately and by picking short sections to practice, sometimes down to
only one or two notes. You can’t make things any simpler than that! Accomplished pianists can also play incredibly
fast — how do we practice to be able to play fast? Simple! By using the “chord attack” — this is a way of moving
all the fingers simultaneously so that, for certain combinations of notes, they can be played infinitely fast, even for
novice players. We certainly don’t need any speed faster than infinity! See section 1.2.11 on “parallel sets”. Although
I coined the phrase “parallel sets” for this application, it is just a fancy word for “chord” (here, I use “chord” loosely
to mean more than one note played simultaneously). However, “chord” was not as good a choice as “parallel sets”
because I needed a name more descriptive of how the fingers move (the connotation is that the fingers move in
parallel) and among musicians, “chord” has a more narrowly defined meaning. Of course, it takes practice to be able
to string fast parallel sets together to produce music but, at least, we now have a bio-physically sound procedure
for developing the necessary muscle/nerve configurations for playing fast. In this book, I have elevated parallel
set exercises to a very special level because they can be used both as a diagnostic tool to discover your technical
weaknesses and as a way to solve those specific weaknesses. That is, parallel set exercises can provide almost instant
solutions to a majority of technical deficiencies. Parallel set exercises are not finger exercises in the sense of Hanon
or Czerny; instead, they are the single most powerful set of tools for rapid technique acquisition. In summary, the
key to the success of the methods here is the use of ingenious “learning tricks” that are needed to solve specific
problems.
Even with the methods described here, you may need to practice difficult passages hundreds of times and,
once in a while, up to 10,000 times before you can play the most difficult passages with ease. Now if you were
to practice a Beethoven Sonata at, say, half speed (you are just learning it), it would take about an hour to play
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through. Therefore, repeating it 10,000 times would take 30 years, or half a lifetime, if you had, say, one hour per
day to practice and practiced only this sonata 7 days a week. Clearly, this is not the way to learn the sonata, although
many students use practice methods not too different from it. This book describes methods for identifying just the
few notes that you need to practice and then playing them in a fraction of a second (for example, by using parallel
set exercises), so that you can repeat them 10,000 times in just a few weeks (or even days for easier material),
practicing them for only about 10 minutes per day, 5 days per week. Of course, these arguments are greatly oversimplified but when all the complex factors are included, the final conclusions remain basically the same: good
practice methods can make the difference between a lifetime of frustration and wonderful rewards within a few
months (see Testimonials section).
This book discusses many more efficiency principles, such as practicing and memorizing at the same time.
During practice, you have to repeat many times and repetition is the best way to memorize; therefore, it doesn’t
make sense not to memorize while practicing. In order to be able to memorize a large repertoire, you need to practice memorizing all the time, in exactly the same way that you need to practice every day in order to be technically
proficient. Students who use the methods of this book memorize everything they learn, except for sight-reading
material. This is why this book does not recommend exercises such as Hanon and Czerny, that are not meant to be
memorized and performed; by the same token, the Chopin Etudes are recommended. Practicing something that
wasn’t meant to be performed is not only a waste of time but also degrades any sense of music you originally had.
Once you memorize, you are empowered to do many other things that most people would expect only from “gifted
musicians”, such as playing the composition in your head, away from the piano, or even writing the entire composition down from memory. If you can play every note in the composition from memory, there is no reason why
you can’t write them all down! Such abilities are not for show or bragging rights, but are essential for performing
without flubs or memory lapses and come almost as automatic byproducts of these methods, even for us ordinary
folks with ordinary memory. Many students can play complete compositions but can’t write them down — such
students have only partially memorized the composition in a manner that is inadequate for performances. Many
pianists are frustrated by their inability to memorize. What they don’t know is that, when learning new pieces, you
tend to forget previously memorized material. This means that trying to maintain a large repertoire while learning new pieces is not a fruitful endeavor. This knowledge, together with the arsenal of methods for progressively
implanting permanent memory discussed in this book, goes a long way towards eliminating the frustration and
restoring confidence so that you can build up your repertoire. Since students who use inefficient practice methods
must spend all their time learning new pieces, they can never develop a memorized repertoire and therefore encounter horrendous difficulties when they try to perform. They wonder why performing is such an impossible task
while Mozart could just sit down and play.
We will see that many “established fundamental techniques” are actually diabolical myths that can cause untold misery to the pianist. These include: the curled finger position, thumb under method of playing scales, finger
exercises, sitting high on the chair, “no pain, no gain”, slowly ramping up your speed, and liberal use of the metronome. We not only expose these myths by explaining why they are harmful but also provide the correct alternatives,
which are, respectively: flat finger positions, thumb over method, parallel sets, sitting lower on the chair, methods
for completely avoiding fatigue, quick acceleration by understanding “speed walls” and identification of specific
beneficial uses of the metronome.
Another example of helpful knowledge is the use of gravity. The weight of the arm is important not only as a
reference force for uniform and even playing (gravity is always constant), but also for testing your level of relaxation.
On a more fundamental level, I provide the explanation of why the piano was designed with gravity as the reference
force (section 1.2.10). Relaxation is another example. When we perform difficult physical tasks, such as playing
a challenging piano passage, our natural tendency is to tense up so that the entire body becomes one contracted
mass of muscle. Trying to move the fingers independently and rapidly under such conditions is like trying to run
a sprint with rubber bands wrapped around both legs. If you can relax all unnecessary muscles, and use only the
required muscles for just those instants at which they are needed, you can move extremely fast, effortlessly, for long
periods of time without fatigue. Another example is speed walls. What are speed walls, how many are there, what
causes them, and how do you avoid or eliminate them? Answers: they are the results of your attempts to do the
impossible (you erect speed walls yourself!), there are basically an infinite number of them, and you avoid them
by using the correct practice methods. One way of avoiding speed walls is not to build them in the first place, by
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knowing their causes (stress, incorrect fingering or rhythm, lack of technique, practicing too fast, practicing hands
together before you are ready, etc.). Another way is to come down in speed from infinite speed by using the parallel
sets, instead of increasing the speed gradually. If you can start at speeds above the speed wall, you will find that
there is no speed wall when you come down in speed.
Most of this book deals with one important point — namely, that the best piano practice methods are surprisingly counter-intuitive to all except a few of the brightest minds. This point is paramount in piano pedagogy
because it is the main explanation for why the wrong practice methods tend to be used by students and to be taught
by teachers. If they weren’t so counter-intuitive, this book may not have been necessary. Consequently this book
deals not only with what you should do but also with what you should not do. These negative sections are not
for criticizing people who use the wrong methods but are an absolutely necessary part of the learning process. I
have not yet found a satisfactory explanation for why intuitively logical methods of practice lead so frequently to
disaster except that, perhaps, the tasks are so complex, and there are so many ways to accomplish them, that the
probability of your hitting the right method is nearly zero if you randomly picked the simplest, obvious ones. Here
are four examples:
1. Separating the hands for practice is counter-intuitive because you need to practice each hand, then both together, so that it looks like you have to practice three times instead of just once hands together. Why practice
hands separately, which you will never use in the end? Approximately 80% of this book deals with why you
need to practice hands separately. Hands separate practice is the only way to rapidly increase speed and control without getting into trouble. It allows you to work hard 100% of the time at any speed without fatigue,
stress, or injury because the method is based on switching hands as soon as the working hand begins to tire.
It is more important to time the resting hand than the working hand because the resting hand must not be
allowed to cool off; when timed perfectly, the rested hand is still “warmed up” but not tired and can often
do incredible things. Hands separate practice is the only way in which you can experiment to find the correct hand motions for speed and expression and it is the fastest way to learn how to relax. Trying to acquire
technique hands together is the main cause of speed walls, bad habits, injury, and stress. Thus, it can be
beneficial to practice hands separately at speeds even faster than final speed (in fact, this is a necessity) but
practicing hands together too fast is almost always detrimental. The irony of hands separate practice is that
the ultimate objective of all those years of hard work, practicing hands separately, is to enable you to acquire
all essential techniques rapidly so that, eventually, you can play hands together quickly with a minimum of
hands separate work (or even none at all!).
2. Practicing slowly hands together and gradually ramping up the speed is what we tend to do intuitively, but
it turns out that that approach is one of the worst ways to practice because it wastes so much time and you
are training the hands to execute motions that are different from what you need at the final speed. Some
students compound the problem by using the metronome as a constant guide to ramp up the speed or to
keep the rhythm. This is one of the worst abuses you can make of the metronome. Metronomes should be
used only briefly to check your timing (speed and rhythm); if you over use it, you can run into all kinds of
problems (another counter-intuitive fact), such as loss of your internal rhythm, loss of musicality, and even
total confusion, not to mention bio-physical difficulties from over-exposure to rigid repetition (your brain
will actually start to counteract the metronome click). Therefore, it is important to know how to use the
metronome correctly and why. Knowing the optimum practice speed for all possible circumstances is a key
component of the methods of this book. Technique for speed is acquired by discovering new hand motions,
not by speeding up a slow motion; i.e., the hand motions for playing slowly and fast are different. This is why
trying to speed up a slow motion leads to speed walls — because you are trying to do the impossible. Speeding
up a slow play is exactly like asking a horse to speed up a walk to the speed of a gallop — it can’t. A horse must
change from walk to trot to canter and then to gallop. If you force a horse to walk at the speed of a canter, it
will hit a speed wall and will most likely injure itself by kicking its own hoofs to shreds. This book discusses
the most important hand motions; it is not possible to discuss all of them because of the incredible versatility
of the human hand and brain; most beginning students are totally unaware of the miracles that their hands
can perform. For example, in playing scales, you will have to learn the “glissando motion” and how to use the
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thumb which is the most versatile finger — piano playing as we know it today would be absolutely impossible
without the thumb. The numerous basic examples finger/hand motions described in this book will teach the
students how to discover new hand motions by themselves.
3. In order to memorize well, and to be able to play fast, you must practice slowly, even after you can play the
piece easily at speed. This is counter-intuitive because you always perform at speed, so why practice slowly
and waste so much time? Since you perform at speed, you would think that practicing at speed will help you
to memorize and perform it well. It turns out that playing fast can be detrimental to technique as well as to
memory. Thus practicing the recital pieces at full speed on recital day will result in a poor performance. How
often have you heard the refrain, “I played awfully during my lesson although I played so well this morning (or
yesterday)!”? Therefore, although much of this book is oriented towards learning to play at the correct speed,
it is the proper use of slow play that is critical in achieving the goals of strong memorization and performing
without mistakes. However, practicing slowly is tricky because you should not practice slowly until you can
play fast! Otherwise, you would have no idea if your slow play motion is right or wrong. This problem is
solved by practicing hands separately for acquiring technique and for getting up to speed. Therefore, it is
absolutely critical for the student to know when to practice slowly.
4. Most people feel uncomfortable trying to memorize something they can’t play, so they instinctively learn a
piece first, and then try to memorize it. It turns out that you can save a lot of time by memorizing first and then
practicing from memory (we are talking about technically challenging music that is too difficult to sight read).
Moreover, for reasons explained in this book, those who memorize after learning the piece never succeed in
memorizing well. They will be haunted forever by memory problems. Therefore, good memorizing methods
must be an integral part of any practice procedure; memorizing is a necessity, not a luxury.
These four examples should give the reader some idea of what I mean by counter-intuitive practice methods.
What is surprising is that the majority of good practice methods is counter-intuitive to most people. Fortunately,
the geniuses who came before us could see beyond the intuitive barriers and have found better practice methods.
Why does the fact, that the correct methods are counter-intuitive, lead to disaster? Even students who learned
the correct methods (but were never taught what not to do) can drift back into intuitive methods simply because
their brains keep telling them that they should use the intuitive methods (that’s the definition of intuitive methods).
This of course happens to teachers as well. Parents fall for it every time! Thus mere parental involvement can
sometimes be counterproductive; the parents must also be informed. This is why this book makes every effort to
identify and to point out the follies of the intuitive methods. Thus many teachers discourage parental involvement
unless the parents can also attend the lessons. Left to their own devices, the majority of students, teachers, and
parents will gravitate towards the intuitive (wrong) methods. This is the main reason why so many wrong methods
are taught today, and why students need good teachers and proper textbooks.
Piano teachers generally fall into three categories: (a) private teachers who can’t teach, (b) private teachers that
are very good, and (c) teachers at universities and conservatories. The last group is usually fairly good because they
are in an environment in which they must communicate with one another. They are able to quickly identify the
worst intuitive teaching methods and eliminate them. Unfortunately, most students at conservatories are already
quite advanced and so the teachers do not need to teach basic practice methods; therefore a novice student may
not get much help from such teachers. The (a) group teachers consists mainly of individuals that do not communicate well with other teachers and invariably use mostly intuitive methods; this explains why they can’t teach. By
choosing only teachers that have web sites, you can eliminate most of the poor teachers because these have at least
learned to communicate. Groups (b) and (c) are fairly familiar with the correct practice methods, though very few
know all of them because there has not been a standardized textbook; on the other hand, most of them know a lot
of useful details that aren’t in this book. There are precious few group (b) type teachers and the group (c) teachers generally accept only advanced students. The problem with this situation is that most students start with the
group (a) teachers and never progress beyond novice or intermediate level and therefore never qualify for the group
(c) teachers. Thus the majority of beginner students give up in frustration although practically all of them have the
potential to become accomplished musicians. Moreover, this lack of progress feeds the general misconception that
xix
learning piano is a lifetime of fruitless efforts; consequently, students of poor teachers do not realize that they need
a different teacher.
All piano teachers should use a textbook that explains practice methods; this will free the teachers from having
to teach the mechanics of practicing and allow them to concentrate on music where the teachers are most needed.
The parents should also read the textbook because parents are most susceptible to the pitfalls of intuitive methods.
There is an intimate relationship between music and mathematics. It is becoming clearer that music, in many
aspects, is a form of mathematics, and the great composers explored and exploited this relationship. Most basic
theories of music can be expressed using mathematical terms. Many basic rules of composition are simple exploitations of group theoretical concepts. Harmony follows the simplest of mathematical principles, and harmony
gives rise to the chromatic scale, which is just a logarithmic equation. All the music scales are subsets of the chromatic scale, and chord progressions are the simplest relationships between these subsets. I discuss some concrete
examples of the use of mathematics in some of the most famous compositions (section 1.4.4) and include all the
topics for future music research (mathematical or otherwise) in section 1.4. Of course, music is not math! Music is
art, which is explained in section 1.3.7.1. Math is simply a way of measuring something quantitatively; therefore,
anything in music that can be quantified (such as time signature, thematic structure, etc.) can be treated mathematically. Thus, although math is not necessary to an artist, music and mathematics are inseparably intertwined
and a knowledge of these relationships can often be useful (as demonstrated by every great composer), and will
become more useful as mathematics progressively catches up to music and as artists learn to take advantage of
mathematics.
Too many pianists are ignorant of how the piano works and what it means to tune in the temperaments, or what
it means to voice the piano. This is especially surprising because piano maintenance directly affects (1) the ability
to make music and (2) technical development. There are many concert pianists who do not know the difference
between equal and Well temperaments while some of the compositions they are playing (e.g. Bach) formally require
the use of one or the other. When to use electronic pianos, when to change to a higher quality (grand) piano, and
how to recognize quality in a piano are critical decisions in the career of any pianist. Therefore, this book contains
a chapter on how to tune your own piano.
As a scientist, I have agonized over how to define “science” and argued over this definition with other scientists
and non-scientists. Because the scientific approach is so basic to this book, I have included a chapter on The
Scientific Method in which I address common misconceptions regarding science. Science is not the theoretical
world of the brightest geniuses; it is the most effective way to simplify our lives. Therefore, I discuss the basic
ways in which science achieves this goal, in Chapter Three. We need geniuses to develop science; however, once
developed, it is the masses that benefit from these advances.
Music is an art. Art is a shortcut way of using the human brain to achieve concepts not achievable in any other
way. The scientific approach to music only deals with the simpler levels of music that can be analytically treated:
science supports art. You need both! It is wrong to assume that science will eventually replace art or, on the other
extreme, that art is all you need for piano. Historical accounts suggest that Franz Liszt may have approached piano
practice from a purely artist point of view. Because of his genius, he could use art as a shortcut way to achieve his
technique. Having acquired it, however, he could not explain it to his students; he could only demonstrate (Fay,
Jaynes). Today, we have a much better system!
Because we need both art and science, and art is obviously the more important component, the objective of
this book is to devote 10% of the practice time to acquiring technique analytically and 90% to making music. This
practice time ratio actually maximizes your technique acquisition rate because you can truly exercise your musical
fingers (rhythm, control, color, expression, speed, etc.) only by playing finished pieces (counter-intuitive?). Thus
practicing difficult material all the time is not the fastest way to acquire technique; i.e., technique and musicality
cannot be separated. This practice time ratio is the strongest argument for not trying to learn compositions that
are too far above your skill level.
In summary, this book represents an unique event in the history of piano pedagogy and is revolutionizing piano
teaching. Surprisingly, there is little that is fundamentally new in this book. Every method presented below had
been invented and re-invented by accomplished pianists. The amount of time and effort that has been wasted in reinventing the wheel and futilely repeating finger exercises with every generation of pianist staggers the imagination.
By making the knowledge in this book available to the student from day one of piano lessons, we are ushering in a
xx
new era in learning to play the piano.
This book is obviously my personal gift to society. The translators have also contributed their precious time.
Together, we are pioneering a web based approach for providing free education of the highest caliber, something
that will hopefully become the wave of the future. There is no reason why education can’t be free. Such a revolution
might seem to put some teachers’ jobs in jeopardy, but with improved learning methods, piano playing will become
much more popular, creating a greater demand for teachers who can teach. Thus improved learning methods
benefit everybody. It is clear that piano teachers can’t just keep on teaching the same old way anymore — they
must now obtain a broader education in order to be able to teach today’s better educated students. The economic
impact of this improved learning method is enormous. This web site was started in the summer of 1999. Since then,
I estimate that over 10,000 students have learned this method by year 2002. Let’s assume that 10,000 serious piano
students save 5 hours/week using these methods, that they practice 40 weeks/year, and that their time is worth
about $5/hour; then the total yearly savings are:
(5hrs/wk, per student)(40wks/yr)($5/hr)(10,000 students)
= $10,000,000/yr, in 2002.
This number will increase every year. $10M/yr is only the savings of the students, and we are just starting.
Whenever adoption of scientific approaches produced such quantum leaps in efficiency, the field has historically
flourished, seemingly without limit, and benefited everyone: in this case, mostly the students, parents, teachers,
technicians (tuners), and piano manufacturers. You can’t stop progress. Just as electronic pianos are already always
in tune, acoustic pianos must soon become permanently in tune, for example, by using the thermal expansion
coefficient of the strings to electronically tune the piano (see http://www.qrsmusic.com/Press/pr02032501.
htm). Today, practically all home pianos are out of tune almost all the time because it starts to go out of tune the
moment the tuner leaves your house or if the room temperature or humidity changes. That’s a totally unacceptable
situation. In future pianos, you will flick a switch and the piano will tune itself in seconds. When mass produced,
the cost will be small compared to the price of a quality piano. You might think that this would put piano tuners
out of work but that will not be the case because the number of pianos will increase, the self-tuning mechanism
requires maintenance and, for pianos in such perfect tune, frequent hammer voicing and regulation (that are too
often neglected today) will make a significant improvement in musical output. This higher level of maintenance
will be demanded by the increasing number of advanced pianists. The music from such pianos will sound like what
you hear in concert halls. You might suddenly realize that it was the piano, not you, that limited your technical
development and musical output (worn hammers will do it every time!). Why do you think concert pianists are so
fussy about their pianos?
This book is not the end of the road — it is just a beginning. Future research into practice methods will undoubtedly uncover improvements; that’s the nature of the scientific approach. It guarantees that we will never again lose
useful information, that we will always make forward progress, and that even the worst teacher will have access
to the same information as the best one. We still do not understand the biological changes that accompany the
acquisition of technique and how the human (especially the infant) brain develops musically. Understanding these
will allow us to directly address them instead of having to repeat something 10,000 times. Since the time of Bach,
piano pedagogy had been in a state of arrested development; we can now hope to transform piano from a dream
that was mostly out of reach to an art that more people can enjoy.
Contents
Testimonials
v
Preface
xiii
Contents
xxi
1 Technique
1.1 Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.1.1 Objective . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.1.2 What is Piano Technique? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.1.3 Technique and Music . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.1.4 Basic Approach, Interpretation, Musical Training, Perfect Pitch
1.2 Basic Procedures for Piano Practice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.1 The Practice Routine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.2 Finger Positions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.3 Bench Height and Distance from Piano . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.4 Starting a Piece: Listening and Analysis (Für Elise) . . . . . . .
1.2.5 Practice the Most Difficult Sections First . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.6 Shortening Difficult Passages: Segmental (Bar-by-Bar) Practice
1.2.7 Hands Separate Practice: Acquiring Technique . . . . . . . . .
1.2.8 The Continuity Rule . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.9 The Chord Attack . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.10 Gravity Drop, Chord Practice, and Relaxation . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.11 Parallel Sets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.12 Learning and Memorizing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.13 Velocity, Choice of Practice Speed . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.14 How to Relax . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.15 Post Practice Improvement (PPI) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.16 Dangers of Slow Play — pitfalls of the intuitive method . . . .
1.2.17 Importance of Slow Play . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.18 Fingering . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.19 Accurate Tempo and the Metronome . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.20 Weak Left Hand; Using One Hand to Teach the Other . . . . . .
1.2.21 Building Endurance, Breathing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.22 Bad Habits: A Pianist’s Worst Enemy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.23 Damper Pedal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.2.24 Soft Pedal, Timbre, and Normal Modes of Vibrating Strings . .
1.2.25 Hands Together: Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu . . . . . . . . .
1.2.26 Summary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3 Selected Topics in Piano Practice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
xxi
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1
1
1
1
3
3
5
5
6
6
7
7
7
8
9
10
10
12
13
14
15
17
18
19
20
20
21
22
23
24
25
29
33
33
xxii
CONTENTS
1.3.1 Tone, Rhythm, and Staccato . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.1.1 What is “Good Tone”? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.1.2 What is Rhythm? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.1.3 Staccato . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.2 Cycling (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.3 Trills & Tremolos . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.3.1 Trills . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.3.2 Tremolos (Beethoven’s “Pathétique”, 1st Movement) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.4 Hand, Body Motions for Technique . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.4.1 Hand Motions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.4.2 Playing with Flat Fingers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.4.3 Body Motions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.5 Playing (Fast) Scales and Arpeggios (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu and Beethoven’s Moonlight, 3rd Movement) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.5.1 Scales . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.5.2 Arpeggios . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.5.3 The Cartwheel motion Method (Chopin’s FI) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.5.4 Thrust and Pull: the two principal ways to play the arpeggio. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.5.5 Thumb: the most versatile finger, and Example of Scale/Arpeggio Practice Routine .
1.3.6 Memorizing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.1 Why Memorize? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.2 Who can, What to, and When to, Memorize. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.3 Memorizing and Maintenance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.4 Hand Memory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.5 Starting the Memorizing Process . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.6 Reinforcing the Memory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.7 Practicing Cold . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.8 Slow Play . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.9 Mental Timing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.10 Establishing Permanent Memory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.11 Maintenance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.12 Sight Readers versus Memorizers: Learning Bach’s Inventions . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.13 Human Memory Function . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.14 A Simple Method for Becoming a Good Memorizer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.6.15 Summary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7 Exercises . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7.1 Introduction : Intrinsic, Limbering, and Conditioning Exercises . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7.2 Parallel Set Exercises for Intrinsic Technical Development . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7.3 How To Use The Parallel Set Exercises . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7.4 Scales, Arpeggios, Finger Independence and Finger Lifting Exercises . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7.5 Playing (Wide) Chords, Palm Stretching Exercises . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7.6 Practicing Jumps . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7.7 Stretching and Other Exercises . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7.8 Problems with Hanon Exercises . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.7.9 Practicing for Speed . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.8 Outlining (Beethoven’s Sonata #1) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.9 Polishing a Piece — Eliminating Flubs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.10 Cold Hands, Illness, Hand Injury, Ear Damage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.10.1 Cold Hands . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.10.2 Illness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.10.3 Most Injury . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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CONTENTS
1.3.10.4 Ear Damage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.11 Sight Reading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.12 Learning Relative Pitch and Perfect Pitch (Sight Singing) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.13 Videotaping and Recording Your Own Playing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.13.1 Audio Recording . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.13.2 Camcorders . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14 Preparing for Performances and Recitals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14.1 Why Do Some Pianists Never Perform? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14.2 Benefits and Pitfalls of Performances/Recitals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14.3 Preparing for Performances/Recitals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14.4 Practicing for Performances and Playing Musically . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14.5 Casual Performances . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14.6 Preparation Practice Routines . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14.7 During the Recital . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14.8 That Unfamiliar Piano . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.14.9 After the Recital . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.15 Origin and Control of Nervousness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.16 Teaching . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.16.1 Types of Teachers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.16.2 Teaching Youngsters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.16.3 Memorizing, Reading, Theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.16.4 Some Elements of Piano Lessons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.16.5 Why the Greatest Pianists Could Not Teach . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.17 Upright, Grand & Electronic Pianos; Purchasing and Care . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.17.1 Grand, Upright, or Electronic? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.17.2 Electronic Pianos . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.17.3 Uprights . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.17.4 Grands . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.17.5 Purchasing an Acoustic Piano . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.17.6 Piano Care . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.18 How to Start Learning Piano: Youngest Children to Old Adults . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.18.1 Do You Need a Teacher? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.18.2 Starter Books and Keyboards . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.18.3 Beginners: Age 0 to 65+ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.19 The “Ideal” Practice Routine (Bach’s Teachings and Invention #4) . . . . . . . . .
1.3.19.1 Learning the Rules . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.19.2 Routine for Learning a New Piece (Invention #4) . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.19.3 “Normal” Practice Routines and Bach’s Teachings . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.20 Bach: the Greatest Composer and Teacher (15 Inventions and their Parallel Sets)
1.3.21 The Psycology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.3.22 Outline Summary of Entire Method . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.4 Mathematical Theory of Piano Playing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.4.1 Why do we need a Mathematical Theory? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.4.2 The Theory of Finger Motion for Piano . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.4.3 Thermodynamics of Piano Playing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.4.4 Mozart’s Formula, Beethoven and Group Theory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.4.5 Learning Rate Calculation (1000 Times Faster!) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1.4.6 Future Research Topics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
xxiii
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xxiv
2 Tuning Your Piano
2.1 Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.2 Chromatic Scale and Temperament . . . .
2.3 Tuning Tools . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.4 Preparation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.5 Getting Started . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.6 Tuning Procedures and Temperament . . .
2.6.1 Tuning the Piano to the Tuning Fork
2.6.2 Kirnberger II . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.6.3 Equal Temperament . . . . . . . . .
2.7 Making Minor Repairs . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.7.1 Hammer Voicing . . . . . . . . . . .
2.7.2 Polishing the Capstans . . . . . . . .
CONTENTS
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171
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3 Scientific Method, Theory of Learning and the Brain
3.1 Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.2 The Scientific Approach . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.3 What is the Scientific Method? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.4 Theory of Learning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.5 What Causes Dreams and Methods for Controlling Them
3.5.1 The Falling Dream . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.5.2 Inability-to-Run Dream . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.5.3 Late-to-Exams or Getting-Lost Dream . . . . . . . .
3.5.4 Solving My Long and Complex Dream . . . . . . . .
3.5.5 Controlling the Dreams . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.5.6 What these Dreams Teach Us about our Brain . . .
3.6 How to Use Your Subconscious Brain . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.6.1 Emotions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.6.2 Using the Subconscious Brain . . . . . . . . . . . .
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A References
203
B List of Abbreviations
217
Index
218
Chapter 1
Technique
1.1 Introduction
Updated:
August 11, 2004
1.1.1 Objective
The objective of this book is to present the best known methods for practicing piano. For students, knowing
these methods means a reduction in learning time that is a significant fraction of a lifetime and an increase in
the time available for making music instead of struggling with technique. Many students spend 100% of their time
learning new compositions and, because this process takes so long, there is no time left to practice the art of making
music. This sorry state is the greatest hindrance to acquiring technique because making music is necessary for fast
technical development. The goal here is to make the learning process so fast that we aim to allocate 10% of
practice time to learning and 90% to making music, thus maximizing technical development. Now, in the larger
picture, 10% is basically a negligible amount of time — therefore, what we are saying is that we must start making
music as soon as we possibly can.
Here, we define “learning a piece” as memorizing the notes and being able to play the composition basically at
speed. One might logically think that learning a piece, and acquiring the required technique to play it, are synonymous. For pedagogical purposes, it helps to define technique more narrowly as the ability to make music; therefore,
“technique” will be discussed in some detail below. The reason for this definition has to do with how to practice so
that you can perform for an audience, such as your teacher during lessons. Most students have no trouble practicing to play a piece to their satisfaction, yet run into terrible problems when performing. They tend to blame such
difficulties on nervousness, but it is much more fundamental — it is caused by inappropriate practice methods. If
we claim here that these practice methods work, then it should follow that nervousness should be greatly reduced
and performances should follow naturally. And everything hinges on just one thing — acquiring technique!
At this point, you can justifiably ask, “How can it be that simple?” Then consider this. Even students who have
terrible difficulties during recitals have much less problems performing for the teacher during lessons. The reason
for this is that you practice performing for the teacher about once very week. Obviously, if you practice it, you
will become good at it. The rest of this book is dedicated to showing you how to practice so that you are basically
performing every time you practice. In order to succeed in acquiring technique, you must quickly learn how to
make music.
1.1.2 What is Piano Technique?
We must understand what technique means because not understanding technique leads to incorrect practice
methods. More importantly, the correct understanding can help us to develop superior practice methods. The
most common misunderstanding is that technique is some inherited finger dexterity. It is not. The innate dexterity of accomplished pianists and ordinary folk are not that different. This means that practically anyone can
1
2
CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
learn to play the piano well. There are numerous examples of mentally handicapped people with limited coordination that exhibit incredible musical talent. Unfortunately, many of us are much more dexterous but can’t manage
the musical passages because of a lack of some simple but critical information. Acquiring technique is mostly a
process of brain/nerve development, not development of finger-moving muscles or strength.
Technique is the ability to execute a zillion different piano passages; therefore it is not dexterity, but an aggregate
of many skills. The task of acquiring technique thus boils down to solving the problem of how to acquire so many
different skills in a short time. The wondrous thing about piano technique, and the most important message
of this book, is that piano skills can be learned in a short time, if the correct learning procedures are applied.
These skills are acquired in two stages: (1) discovering how the fingers, hands, arms, etc., are to be moved, and
(2) conditioning the muscles and nerves to execute these with ease and control. This second stage is concerned
with control, not the development of strength or athletic endurance. Many students think of piano practice as hours
of intense finger calisthenics because they were never taught the proper definition of technique. The reality is that
you are actually improving your brain when learning piano! Acquiring technique is a process of developing faster
nerve connections, creating more brain cells for the proper movements and memory functions, and for “speaking
the language of music”. You are actually making yourself smarter and improving your memory; this is why learning
piano correctly has so many beneficial consequences, such as the ability to better cope with everyday problems
or the ability to retain memory longer as you age. This is why, in this book, memorizing is an inseparable part of
technique acquisition.
The above definition of technique tells us that, once you have learned something, like playing a scale, practicing
it over and over does not materially improve technique and can waste a lot of time. We must understand our own
anatomy and learn how to discover and acquire the correct technique. This turns out to be a nearly impossible
task for the average human brain unless you dedicate your entire life to it from childhood. Even then, most will
not succeed. The reason why it takes an entire dedicated lifetime is that, without proper instruction, the pianist
must discover the correct motions, etc., by trial and error. You must depend on the small probability that, as you try
to play that difficult passage faster, your hand accidentally stumbles onto a motion that works. If you are unlucky,
your hand never discovers the motion and you are stuck forever, a phenomenon called “speed wall”. Most beginning
piano students haven’t the foggiest idea about the complex motions that the fingers, hands, and arms can perform.
Fortunately, the many geniuses who came before us have made most of the useful discoveries (otherwise, they
wouldn’t have been such great performers) leading to efficient practice methods.
Another misconception about technique is that once the fingers become sufficiently skillful, you can play anything. Almost every different passage is a new adventure; it must be learned anew. Experienced pianists seem to be
able to play just about anything because (1) they have practiced all the things that you encounter frequently, and
(2) they know how to learn new things very quickly. Therefore, acquiring technique might at first appear to be a
daunting task because there is almost an infinite number of different piano passages — how are we to learn them
all? This problem has been mostly solved. There are large classes of passages, such as scales, that appear frequently;
knowledge of how to play these will cover significant portions of most compositions. But more importantly, there
are specific solutions for specific problems — these solutions are the main subject matter of this book.
Some of the most important solutions we will discuss are powerful learning tricks that allow you to acquire
difficult technique using general procedures that apply to almost any passage. These learning tricks provide the
fastest way for you to discover the optimum finger/hand/arm motions for playing that passage. There are two
reasons why you need to make your own discoveries. First, there are so many different passages that the methods
for playing them can’t all be listed here. Second, the needs of each individual are different, so that the set of rules
in this book should only serve as a starting point for each person who must adapt them to the individual needs.
Readers who truly understand the contents of this book will not only be able to immediately speed up their
learning rate, but also to accelerate it with each added skill. The degree of this acceleration will largely determine
how fast and how far you will advance as a pianist.
Unfortunately, many private piano teachers not associated with music institutions do not know these methods
and they teach most of the beginners. At the other extreme, the great masters and professional pianists have written
books on piano playing that discuss topics at a higher level on how to make music but do not deal with how to
acquire basic technique. That is why I wrote this book.
1.1. INTRODUCTION
3
1.1.3 Technique and Music
Although it is not easy to define music precisely, we can discuss how to play musically, as done at various points in
this book. The relationship between technique and music determines the way we practice for technique. Technique
is needed, and is used, to make music; therefore, we must always practice musically. If we concentrate only on
developing “finger technique” and neglect music during practice, we can pick up non-musical playing habits. This
is an insidious problem because practicing to acquire technique implies a lack of technique so, initially, there is no
way to make music. Then, how is the student supposed to practice musically? Of course, you start non-musically.
The error occurs when the students forget to add the music as soon as they are able to do so. One common symptom
of this error is the inability to play the lesson pieces when the teacher (or anyone else!) is listening. When an
audience is present, these students make strange errors that they didn’t make during “practice”. This happens
because the students practiced without regard for music but suddenly realized that music must now be added
because the teacher is listening. Unfortunately, until lesson time, they had never really practiced it!
There is an even more fundamental connection between technique and music. Piano teachers know that students need to practice musically in order to acquire technique. What is right for the ears and the brain turns out
to be right for the human playing mechanism. Both musicality and technique require accuracy and control. Practically any technical flaw can be detected in the music. At the very least, the music is the supreme test of whether
the technique is right or wrong. As we shall see throughout this book, there are more reasons why music should
never be separated from technique. Nonetheless, many students tend to practice neglecting the music and preferring to “work” when no one is around to listen. Such practice methods are detrimental to technique acquisition
and produce “closet pianists” who love to play but can’t perform. Once you become a closet pianist, it is extremely
difficult to reverse that psychology. If students are taught to practice musically all the time, this type of problem will
not even exist; performing and practice are one and the same. We provide many suggestions in this book for practicing to perform, such as video taping your practices from the very beginning. However, the single most important
concept is that of practicing musically.
Why is slow, musical play more effective than fast practice for increasing playing speed? There are three main
reasons. The first is that both require the same amount of accuracy and control. The second is that you can avoid
picking up bad habits and stress when playing slowly. The third is that you can concentrate on new or efficient
motions, relaxation, etc., and practice them more effectively when playing slowly. All these factors conspire to
produce a phenomenon called “fast play degradation” in which, one day, you suddenly find that you can’t play a
piece to your satisfaction although you played it very well (and fast) the previous day. Of course, methods for quickly
developing speed are equally important, and are discussed in great detail here. A judicious choice of practice speed,
alternating between slow and fast practice, is what enables you to optimize your practice efficiency.
1.1.4 Basic Approach, Interpretation, Musical Training, Perfect Pitch
Teachers play a critical role in showing students how to play and practice musically. There are some general and
useful principles of musicality. For example, most pieces of music begin and end with the same chord, a somewhat
mysterious rule which is actually a result of basic chord progression rules. An understanding of chord progressions
is very useful for memorizing. A musical phrase generally starts and ends with softer notes, with the louder ones in
between; when in doubt, this is a good default principle. There are many books that discuss musical interpretation
(Gieseking, Sandor), and we will encounter numerous pointers throughout this book. Clearly, education in music
theory, relative and perfect pitch, etc., will be very beneficial to the pianist.
Musical training of the very young can be extremely rewarding. Most babies exposed frequently to perfectly
tuned pianos will automatically develop perfect pitch — this is nothing extra-ordinary. Nobody is born with perfect
pitch, because it is a 100% learned skill (the exact frequencies of the musical scales are arbitrary human concoctions — there is no natural law that says that middle A should be 440 Hz). If this perfect pitch is not maintained,
it will be lost later in life. Piano training of young children can begin as early as age three to four. Early exposure of youngsters (from birth) to classical music is beneficial because classical music has the highest musical
content (deep, complex, logic) among all the different types of music. Some forms of contemporary music, by
over-emphasizing certain narrow aspects, such as loudness or simplistic music structures that do not stimulate the
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
brain, can detract from musical development by distancing the brain from music.
A person does not have to be especially gifted to be able to play the piano well. Although you need to be musically gifted to compose music, the ability to move the fingers is not that dependent on the musical brain. In fact,
most of us are more musical than we give ourselves credit for and it is the lack of technique that limits our musical
expression at the piano. We have all had the experience of listening to famous pianists and noticing that one is
different from the other — that is more musical sensitivity than we will ever need to start playing the piano. There
is no need to practice eight hours a day; some famous pianists have recommended practice times of less than an
hour. You can make progress practicing three or four times a week, one hour each. If you practice more, you will of
course make faster progress.
One of the most important lessons of this book is to play relaxed. What should you feel when you have learned
to play completely relaxed? Firstly, speed ceases to be an issue, not only because it isn’t that difficult, but also
because you have an automatic speed limit called music, which will limit your speed long before you encounter
any difficulties. You will feel that the fingers actually want to go faster, and you will often have to hold them back.
You develop “quiet hands” in which the hands move minimally while the fingers fly. You can play even moderately
difficult material and actually rest the hands on the piano and feel the fatigue decreasing as you play. Note that
relaxation applies only to the physical playing mechanism; the brain must never be shut off — it must always be
intensely focused on the music, even (or especially) when practicing. Thus mindless repetitions of exercises such
as the Hanon series is the worst thing you can do to develop stamina in your musical brain. If you don’t develop
brain stamina during practice, the brain will tire out part way through any performance and you will end up playing
like a robotic zombie with no active control over the performance. This type of situation is what naturally gives rise
to nervousness because, without proper preparation, your brain knows that the chances of success are slim.
Finally, total music education (scales, time signatures, dictation, ear training [including perfect pitch], dictation,
theory, etc.) should be an integral part of learning to play the piano because each different thing you learn helps all
the others. In the final analysis, a total music education is the only way to learn piano. Unfortunately, the majority
of aspiring pianists do not have the resources or the time to follow such a path. This book was designed to give
the student a head start by learning how to acquire technique quickly so that they can consider studying all the
other helpful subjects. Statistically, students who excel in playing the piano almost always end up composing
music of their own. Learning theory later in life is often not a viable option; for example, learning perfect pitch
becomes more difficult with age, see details in section 1.3.12. On the other hand, studying music composition is
not a prerequisite for composing. Some musicians frown on learning to much composition theory before starting
to compose your own music because that can prevent you from developing your own musical style.
What are some unique features of the methods of this book?
1. They are not overly demanding, like older methods that require students to commit to a dedicated lifestyle to
fit the piano instruction. In the methods of this book, students are given the tools to pick a specific procedure
that will achieve a defined objective. If the methods really work, they shouldn’t require a lifetime of blind faith
in order to achieve proficiency!
2. Every procedure of these methods has a physical basis (if it works, it always has one; the past problems have
been in identifying the correct explanations); it must further contain the following required elements: (a) Objective: what techniques to acquire, i.e., if you can’t play fast enough, or you can’t trill well, you want to memorize, etc., (b) Then do: i.e., practice hands separately, use chord attack, memorize as you practice, etc.,(c) Because: the physiological, psychological, mechanical, etc., explanations for why these methods work. For
example, hands separate practice allows quick acquisition of technique by making difficult passages simpler
(one hand is easier than two) and the chord attack enables instant acceleration to the final speed, etc., and
(d) If not: problems that arise if uninformed methods are used, i.e., acquiring bad habits from too many repetitions, developing stress from practicing with fatigued hands, etc. Without this “If not”, students can pick
any other method — why this one? We need to know what not to do because bad habits and wrong methods,
not insufficient practice, are the main causes of a lack of progress.
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
5
1.2 Basic Procedures for Piano Practice
This section contains the minimum set of instructions that you need before starting practice.
1.2.1 The Practice Routine
Many students use the following practice routine:
1. First, practice scales or technical exercises until the fingers are limbered up. Continue this for 30 minutes or
longer, if you have time, to improve technique, especially by using exercises such as the Hanon series.
2. Then take a new piece of music and slowly read it for a page or two, carefully playing both hands together,
starting from the beginning. This slow play is repeated until it can be performed reasonably well and then it is
gradually speeded up until the final speed is attained. A metronome might be used for this gradual speed-up.
3. At the end of a two hour practice, the fingers are flying, so the students can play as fast as they want and enjoy
the experience before quitting. After all, they are tired of practicing so that they can relax, play their hearts
out at full speed; this is the time to enjoy the music!
4. On the day of the recital or lesson, they practice the piece at correct speed (or faster!) as many times as
possible in order to make sure that they know it inside out and to keep it in top condition. This is the last
chance; obviously, the more practice, the better.
EVERY STEP OF THIS PROCEDURE IS WRONG! The above will almost guarantee that the students will not
progress beyond intermediate level even if they practice several hours daily. You will understand this as soon as
you read about the more efficient methods described below. For example, this method tells the students nothing
about what to do when they hit an impossible passage except to keep repeating, sometimes for a lifetime, with no
clear idea of when or how the needed technique will be acquired. This method leaves the task of learning the piano
completely to the student. Moreover, the music will come out flat during the recital and unexpected flubs will be
almost unavoidable, as explained below. The lessons of this section will demonstrate why the above procedures
are wrong. You will know why the recital will come out flat, and why the wrong method leads to flubs. But more
importantly, you will know the correct methods!
Lack of progress is the main reason why so many students quit piano. Students, especially youngsters, are
smart; why work like a slave and learn nothing? Reward the students and you will get more dedication than any
teacher could want. You can be a doctor, scientist, lawyer, athlete, or anything you want, and still become a good
pianist. This is because there are methods that let you acquire technique in a relatively short period of time, as we
shall soon see.
Note that the above practice routine is an “intuitive” method. If a person of average intelligence were marooned on an island with just a piano and decided to practice, that person would most likely devise a practice
method like the one above. That is, a teacher using this type of practice routine isn’t teaching anything — the
method is intuitive. When I first started to compile the “correct learning procedures” of this book, I was struck
most by how counter-intuitive many of them were. I will explain later why they are so counter-intuitive but this
offers the best explanation for why so many teachers use the intuitive approach. These teachers never really understood the correct methods and therefore defaulted naturally to the intuitive method. The trouble with counterintuitive methods is that they are harder to adopt than intuitive ones; your brain is constantly telling you that they
are not right and to get back to the intuitive ones. This message from the brain can become irresistible just before a
lesson or recital — try telling (uninformed) students not to enjoy playing their finished pieces before quitting practice, or not to practice full speed on recital day! It is not just the students or teachers. It is also any parents or friends
with good intentions that influence the practice routines of young students. Parents who are not informed will
always force their children to use the intuitive methods. This is one reason why good teachers always ask parents
to accompany their children to the lessons. If the parents are not informed, there is a virtual guarantee that they
will force the students to use methods that are in direct contradiction to the teacher’s instructions.
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
Students who started with the correct methods from the beginning are the apparently lucky ones. However,
they must be careful later in life because they don’t know what the wrong methods are. Once they leave the teacher,
they can stumble into the intuitive methods and have no idea why everything is falling apart. It’s like a bear that had
never seen a bear trap — it gets caught every time. These lucky ones often can’t teach either, because the correct
methods are second nature and they can’t understand why anyone would use any other method. They may not
realize that the correct methods need to be taught and that many intuitive methods can lead to disaster. Something
that is second nature is often difficult to describe because you never gave it much thought. You never realize how
difficult English is until you try to teach it to a Japanese. On the other hand, the apparently unlucky students who
first learned the intuitive methods and then changed over to the better ones have some unexpected advantages.
They know both the right and wrong methods and often make much better teachers. Therefore, although this
chapter teaches the correct methods, it is just as important to know what NOT to do, and why. This is why the
most frequently used wrong methods are extensively discussed in this book; they help us to better understand the
correct methods.
We describe the components of a proper practice routine in the following sections. They are presented in approximately the order in which a student might use them from start to finish of a new piece of music. Sections 1.2.1
to 1.2.4 are preliminaries; the really new material of this book starts in section 1.2.5.
1.2.2 Finger Positions
Everyone seems to have her/is own ideas about finger positions, so it is clear that there are no rigid rules. The only
guidance is that the fingers should be in the most relaxed and powerful positions. First, make a tight fist. Then
open your fingers and stretch them as far out as they will go. Now relax the fingers completely. In this relaxed state,
place the hand on a flat surface with all the fingertips resting on the surface and the wrist at the same height as the
knuckles. The hand and fingers should form a dome. All the fingers should be curved. The thumb should point
slightly down and bend very slightly towards the fingers so that the last digit of the thumb is parallel to the other
fingers. It is important to maintain this slight inward bend of the thumb when playing chords with wide spans. This
positions the tip of the thumb parallel to the keys making it less likely to hit adjacent keys. It also orients the thumb
so that the correct muscles are used to raise and lower the thumb. The fingers are slightly curled, curving down
and meeting the keys at angles near 45 degrees. This curved configuration allows the fingers to play between the
black keys. The tip of the thumb and the other fingertips should form an approximate semicircle on the flat surface.
This is a good starting hand position for playing the piano. You can then modify it to suit your playing style. If you
do this with both hands side by side, the two thumbnails should be facing each other. Use the part of the thumb
directly below the thumbnails to play, not the joint. For the other fingers, the bone comes very close to the outer
skin at the fingertips. Just inside the fingertip (away from the fingernail), the flesh is slightly thicker. This fleshy part
should contact the keys, not the fingertip.
This is just a suggested starting position. Once you begin play, these rules immediately go out the window. You
may need to stretch the fingers almost straight, or curl them more, depending on what you are playing.
1.2.3 Bench Height and Distance from Piano
The right height of the bench and its distance from the piano is also very much a matter of personal taste. A good
starting point can be determined in the following way. Sit at the bench with your elbows at your sides and forearms
parallel to the keys. With your hands on the keys in playing position, the elbows should be at the height of the
keys. Now place your hands on the white keys — the distance of the bench from the piano (and your sitting position) should be such that the elbows just miss your body as you move them in towards each other. Do not sit at the
center of the bench, but sit closer to the front edge. The bench height and location are most critical when playing
loud chords. Therefore, you can test this position by playing two black key chords simultaneously, as loudly as you
can. The chords are C2] G2] C3] (5, 2, 1) for the left hand and C5] G5] C6] (1, 2, 5) for the right hand. Press down
hard, leaning forwards a little, with the whole weight of your arms and shoulders, to make a thundering, authoritative sound. Make sure that the shoulders are totally involved. Loud, impressive sounds cannot be made using only
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
7
the hands and forearms; the force must come from the shoulders and the body. If this is comfortable, the bench
and sitting positions should be correct.
1.2.4 Starting a Piece: Listening and Analysis (Für Elise)
Look over the new piece and start sight-reading with it, so that you become familiar with how it sounds. The best
way to become familiar with a new piece is to listen to a performance (recording). The criticism that listening
first is some sort of “cheating” has no defensible basis. The purported disadvantage is that students might end
up imitating instead of using their creativity. It is impossible to imitate someone else’s playing because playing
styles are so individualistic. A mathematical “proof” of this impossibility is presented in section 1.4.3. This fact
can be reassuring and relieves some students from blaming themselves for the inability to imitate some famous
pianist. If possible, listen to several different recordings. They can open up all sorts of new vistas and possibilities.
Not listening is like saying that you shouldn’t go to school because that will destroy your creativity. Some students
think that listening is a waste of time because they will never play that well. In that case, think again. If the methods
described here will not make people play “that well”, I wouldn’t be writing this book! What happens most frequently
when students listen to many recordings is that they discover that the performances are not uniformly good; that
they actually prefer their own playing to some of those in the recordings.
The next step is to analyze the structure of the composition. This structure will be used to determine the
practice program. Let’s use Beethoven’s Für Elise as an example. The first 4 bars are repeated 15 times, so by just
learning 4 bars you can play 50% of the piece (it has 125 bars). Another 6 bars are repeated 4 times, so learning
only 10 bars enables you to play 70% of it. Using the methods of this book, therefore, 70% of this piece can be
memorized in less than 30 minutes, because these bars are quite easy. Application of this method automatically
commits those sections you practice to memory. Among these repeated bars, there are two interruptions that are
not easy. When you can play these interruptions satisfactorily, using the methods described below, join them with
the repetitions, and Voila! — you can play, and have memorized, the whole piece. Of course, mastering the two
difficult interruptions is the key to learning this piece, and we shall address that issue in the following sections. A
student with 2 years of lessons should be able to learn the required 50 different bars of this piece in 2 to 5 days
and be able to play the whole piece at speed and from memory. At this point, the teacher is ready to work with
the student on the musical content of the composition; how long that will take depends on the musical level of the
student. Musically speaking, you never really finish any piece.
This is the end of the preliminaries. We are ready to begin the real exciting lessons. The secret for acquiring
technique quickly lies in knowing certain tricks for reducing impossibly difficult passages to not only playable
but also to trivially simple ones. We shall now embark upon that magical journey into the brains of geniuses who
figured out incredibly efficient ways to practice the piano!
1.2.5 Practice the Most Difficult Sections First
Returning to our Für Elise, look for the difficult sections; there are two interruptions with 16 and 23 bars inserted
among the repeated material. These are the difficult sections. Start learning the piece by practicing the most
difficult sections first. The reason is obvious; it will take the longest time to learn these, so they should be given the
most practice time. If you practice the difficult sections last and then try to perform the piece, you will find that the
difficult part is the weakest and it will always give you trouble. Since the ending of most pieces is generally the most
exciting, interesting, and difficult, you will probably learn most pieces starting from the end. For compositions with
several movements, you will most frequently start with the end of the final movement.
1.2.6 Shortening Difficult Passages: Segmental (Bar-by-Bar) Practice
A most important learning trick is to choose a short practice segment. This trick has perhaps the largest effect on
reducing the practice time because of many reasons.
1. Within any difficult passage of say, 10 bars, there is typically only a few note combinations that stymie you.
There is no need to practice anything other than those notes. If there are 10 bars with 8 notes each but there
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
are only 4 difficult notes, then by just practicing those four, you can get to play all 10 bars, greatly cutting down
on practice time. Let’s revisit the two difficult interruptions in Für Elise. Examine them and find the most
troublesome bars. This may be the first bar or the last five bars of the first interruption, or the final arpeggio
in the second interruption. In all difficult segments, it is critically important to observe the finger markings
and to make doubly sure that you are comfortable with them. For the last five bars of the first interruption, the
difficulty is in the RH where most of the action is in fingers 1 and 5. Finger 2 plays a key role on certain notes,
but there is an option of using mostly finger 1. Use of finger 2 is the most conventionally correct way and
provides better control and smoother play. However, use of mostly finger 1 is easier to remember, which can
be a lifesaver if you haven’t played this piece for a while. It is very important that you choose one fingering
and stick to it. For the arpeggio in the second interruption, use the fingering 1231354321. . . Either thumb
under or thumb over (see section 1.3.5) will work because this passage is not overly fast, but I prefer thumb
over because the thumb under will require some elbow motion and this extra movement can lead to flubs.
2. Practicing only short segments allows you to practice the same segment dozens, even hundreds of times,
in a matter of minutes. Use of these quick, successive repetitions is the fastest way to teach your hand new
motions. If the difficult notes are played as part of a longer segment, the longer interval between successive
practice and the playing of other notes in between can confuse the hand and cause it to learn much more
slowly. This effect is quantitatively calculated in section 1.4.5, and that calculation provides the basis for the
claim in this book that these methods can be 1000 times faster than the intuitive methods.
3. We all know that playing a passage faster than your technique allows is detrimental. However, the shorter
a segment you choose, the faster you can practice it without ill effects. Initially, the most common short
segment you will choose is one bar or less, often just two notes. By choosing such short segments, you can
bring practically any difficult note combination up to speed in just minutes. Therefore, you can practice
most of the time at or beyond final speed, which is the ideal situation because it saves so much time. In the
intuitive method, you are practicing most of the time at slow speed.
1.2.7 Hands Separate Practice: Acquiring Technique
Essentially 100% of technique development is accomplished by practicing hands separately (HS). Do not try to
develop finger/hand technique hands together (HT) as that is much more difficult, time consuming, and dangerous, as explained in detail later.
Start practicing any difficult passage HS. Choose two short passages, one each for the right hand (RH) and the
left hand (LH). Practice the RH until it begins to tire, then switch to the LH. Switch every 5 to 15 seconds, before
either the resting hand cools and becomes sluggish, or the working hand becomes tired. If you choose the rest
interval just right, you will find that the rested hand is eager to perform. Don’t practice when the hand is tired,
because that will lead to stress and bad habits. Those unfamiliar with HS practice will generally have a weaker LH.
In that case, give the LH more work. In this scheme, you can practice hard 100% of the time, but you never practice
with fatigued hands!
For the two difficult sections of Für Elise, practice them HS until each hand becomes very comfortable, up to
speeds much faster than final speed, before putting the hands together. This may take from a few days to several
weeks depending on your level of play. As soon as you can play HS reasonably well, try HT to check that the fingering
works. It is best to try to use similar fingerings (or closely related fingerings) in the two hands; this will make the
task of playing HT simpler. Don’t worry at this point if you can’t play it satisfactorily, you just need to make sure that
there are no conflicts or better fingerings.
It should be emphasized that the HS practice is only for difficult passages that you cannot play. If you can
play the passage adequately HT, by all means, skip the HS part! The ultimate objective of this book is for you to be
able to quickly play HT with practically no HS practice after you become proficient. The objective is not to cultivate
a dependence on HS practice. Use HS only when necessary and try to reduce its use gradually as your technique
advances. However, you will be able to play HT with little HS practice only after you have become pretty advanced
— most students will be dependent on HS practice for 5 to 10 years, and will never completely abandon its use.
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
9
The reason for this is that all technique is most quickly acquired HS. There is one exception to this rule on avoiding
HS practice whenever possible. That is memorizing; you should memorize everything HS for several important
reasons (see “Memorizing” in section 1.3.6).
Beginning students should practice HS all the time for all pieces so as to master this critically important
method as quickly as possible. However, once the HS method is mastered, the student should start to explore the
possibility of playing HT without using HS. Beginner students should be able to master the HS methods in two to
three years. The HS method is not just separating the hands. What we will learn below are the myriad of learning
tricks you can use once the hands are separated.
HS practice is valuable long after you have learned a piece. You can push your technique much further HS
than HT. And it is a lot of fun! You can really exercise the fingers/hands/arms. It is superior to anything Hanon
or other exercises can provide. This is when you can figure out “incredible ways” to play that piece. This is when
you can really improve your technique. The initial learning of the composition only serves to familiarize your
fingers with the music. The amount of time spent playing pieces you have completely learned is what separates the
accomplished pianist from the amateur. This is why accomplished pianists can perform but most amateurs can
only play for themselves.
Finally, it should be understood that all finger technique is acquired HS because there is no method that is more
efficient. If you can play HT immediately, there is no need for HS practice. However, if you can’t quite play HT, how
do you tell if you can skip HS practice? There is a clear test for that — you can skip HS practice only if you can play
HS comfortably, relaxed, and accurately at faster than final speed. It is usually best to bring the HS speed up to
at least 1.5 times final speed. That is usually not difficult, and can be a lot of fun, because you can see the rapid
improvement in your skill level. For this reason, you might find yourself practicing HS a lot more than is absolutely
necessary, and will certainly use it all your life. Each hand must eventually learn its own set of skills independently
of the other (you certainly don’t want one hand to depend on the other). The quickest way to acquire these skills is
to learn them separately. Each alone is difficult enough; trying to learn them together will be much more difficult
and time consuming. In HS practice, you acquire finger/hand technique; then in HT practice you only need to
learn how to coordinate the two hands.
1.2.8 The Continuity Rule
Suppose that you want to play the (LH) “do-so-mi-so” quadruplet (“Alberti accompaniment”) many times in succession, very fast (as in the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata). The sequence you practice is CGEGC.
The inclusion of the last C is an application of the continuity rule: while practicing one segment, always include
the beginning of the following segment. This ensures that when you have learned two adjacent segments, you can
also play them together. The continuity rule applies to any segment you isolate for practice, such as a bar, an entire
movement, or even to segments smaller than a bar.
A generalization of the continuity rule is that any passage may be broken up into short segments for practice,
but these segments must overlap. The overlapping note or group of notes is called the conjunction. If you are
practicing the end of the first movement, then include a few bars of the beginning of the second movement; don’t
immediately jump back. During a recital, you will be glad that you had practiced in this way; otherwise, you might
suddenly find yourself stumped on how to start the 2nd movement!
We can now apply the continuity rule to those difficult interruptions in Für Elise. For the first interruption, the
8th bar (of this interruption) can be practiced by itself. Play the last note with finger 1. The conjunction is the
first note of bar 9 (finger 2), which is the same as the first note of bar 8, so by using this C as the conjunction, you
can cycle bar 8 continually for a good workout without any wasted time. This bar is said to be self-cycling — see
“Cycling”, section 1.3.2, for more details on cycling. Bars 9 and 10 as a unit are also self-cycling. Since all the difficult
sections are for the RH, find some LH material to practice, even from a different piece of music, in order to give the
RH periodic rests by switching hands.
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
1.2.9 The Chord Attack
Let’s return to the (LH) CGEG quadruplet. If you practice it slowly and then gradually speed it up (HS), you will hit a
“speed wall”, a speed beyond which everything breaks down and stress builds up. The way to break this speed wall
is to play the quadruplet as a single chord (CEG). You have gone from slow speed to infinite speed! This is called a
chord attack. Now you only have to learn to slow down, which is easier than speeding up because there is no speed
wall when you are slowing down. But — how do you slow down?
First play the chord and bounce the hand up and down at the frequency at which the quadruplet should be
played (say, between one and two times a second); it should be easier when played as a chord, but this may not be
simple if it is your first time. Note that the fingers are now positioned exactly correctly for fast playing. Try varying
the bounce frequency up and down (even beyond the required speed!), noting how to alter the wrist, arm, fingers,
etc., positions and motions as you go through the different speeds. If you feel fatigue after a while, then you are
either doing something wrong, or else you have not yet acquired the technique of bouncing the chords. You will
need to practice it until you can do that without tiring because if you can’t do it for a chord, you will never do it for
quadruplets. In other words, you have just identified a weakness in the technique that needs to be remedied before
you can progress to the next stage.
Play the chord with the most economical motions you can think of. Keep the fingers close to or on the keys as
you increase speed. Get your whole body involved; shoulders, upper and lower arms, wrist. The sensation is to play
from your shoulders and arms, not your fingertips. When you can play this softly, relaxed, fast, and without any
feeling of fatigue, you know that you have made progress. Make sure that you are playing perfect chords (all notes
landing at the same time) because, without this kind of sensitivity, you will not have the accuracy required to play
fast. It is important to practice the slow bounce because that is when you can work on the accuracy. Accuracy
improves faster at the slower speeds. However, it is absolutely essential that you get up to fast speeds (if only
briefly) before slowing down. When you slow down, try to maintain the same motions that were required at high
speed, because that is what you need to ultimately practice. If you think that this is the end of this simple chord
business, you are in for a surprise — this is only the beginning; read on!
1.2.10 Gravity Drop, Chord Practice, and Relaxation
Practicing to play accurate chords is the first step in applying the chord attack. Let’s practice the above CEG
chord. The arm weight method is the best way to achieve accuracy and relaxation; this approach has been adequately treated in the referenced books (Fink, Sandor) and therefore will be discussed only briefly here. Place your
fingers on the keys and position them correctly. Relax your arm (the whole body, actually), keep your wrist flexible,
lift the hand from 5 to 20 cm above the keys (the shorter distance in the beginning), and just let gravity drop your
hand. Let the hand and fingers drop as a unit, do not move the fingers. Relax the hands completely during the
drop, then “set” your fingers and wrist at the time of impact with the keys and let the wrist flex slightly to take the
shock of landing and to depress the keys. By letting gravity lower your hand, you are referencing your strength or
sensitivity to a very constant force.
It may seem unbelievable at first, but an under-weight 6-year-old and a gargantuan sumo wrestler dropping
their hands from the same height will produce sound of the same loudness. This happens because the speed of
gravitational fall is independent of mass and the hammer goes into free flight as soon as the knuckle leaves the jack
(the last few millimeters before hitting the strings). Physics students will recognize that in the elastic limit (billiard
ball collision), kinetic energy is conserved and the above statements do not hold. In such an elastic collision, the
piano key would fly off the fingertip at high velocity, somewhat like when playing staccato. But here, because the
fingers are relaxed and the fingertips are soft (inelastic collision), kinetic energy is not conserved and the small mass
(piano key) can stay with the large mass (finger-hand-arm), resulting in a controlled keydrop. Therefore, the above
statements hold as long as the piano is properly regulated and the effective mass for the key drop is much smaller
than the mass of the 6-year-old’s finger-hand-arm. Stiffening the hand at impact ensures that the entire arm weight
transfers to the key drop. Obviously, it is not possible to produce the full sound of the gravity drop if you do not
stiffen the hand at impact. You must take care not to add force during this stiffening; therefore, it takes practice
to be able to produce a pure gravity drop and this becomes more difficult with increasing height of the drop. Not
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
11
adding this extra force is a more difficult task for the sumo wrestler because he needs such a large force to stop the
momentum of his arm. The best criteria for the proper stiffening force are the loudness and tone of the sound.
Strictly speaking, the sumo wrestler will make a slightly louder sound because of momentum conservation, but
the difference will be quite small, in spite of the fact that his arm may be 20 times heavier. Another surprise is
that, once properly taught, the gravity drop may produce the loudest sound that this youngster has ever played
(for a high drop), and is an excellent way to teach youngsters how to play firmly. Start with short drops for small
youngsters because in the beginning, a truly free drop can be painful if the height is too high. For a successful
gravity drop, especially for youngsters, it is important to teach them to make-believe that there is no piano and
the hand should feel like it is falling through the keyboard (but is stopped by it). Otherwise, many youngsters will
subconsciously lift the hand as it lands on the piano. In other words, the gravity drop is a constant acceleration and
the hand is accelerating, even during the key drop. At the end, the hand is resting on the keys with its own weight
— this action is what produces pleasant, deep, “tone”. Note that it is important for the key drop to accelerate all the
way down — see section 1.3.1 on producing good tone.
The well-known Steinway “accelerated action” works because it adds acceleration to the hammer motion by use
of a rounded support under the center key bushing. This causes the pivot point to move forward with keydrop thus
shortening the front side of the key and lengthening the back side and thereby causing the capstan to accelerate
for a constant keydrop. This illustrates the importance piano designers place on accelerating the keydrop, and
the arm weight method ensures that we take full advantage of gravitational acceleration to control the tone. The
effectiveness of the “accelerated action” is controversial because there are excellent pianos without this feature.
Obviously, it is more important for the pianist to control this acceleration.
The finger must be “set” at the moment of impact so as to depress the key and decelerate the fall. This requires
a brief application of force to the finger. As soon as the key reaches the bottom of the keydrop, remove this force
and relax completely so that you can feel gravity pulling the arm down. Rest the hand on the key with only this
gravitational force keeping the key down. What you have just accomplished is to depress the key with the least
possible effort; this is the essence of relaxation.
Beginning students will play chords with too many unnecessary forces that can not be accurately controlled.
The use of gravity to lower the hand allows you to eliminate all forces or tenseness in the hand that are the causes
of certain fingers landing before the others. It might seem like a curious coincidence that the force of gravity is
just the right force for playing the piano. This is no coincidence. Humans evolved under the influence of gravity. Our
strengths for walking, lifting, etc., evolved to match gravity exactly. The piano, of course, was built to match those
strengths. Remember: the amount of force you need to play the chord is roughly equal to that supplied by gravity
— don’t bang those chords or tense the hands — a lot of things will start to go out of control! For beginners or those
who have developed a habit of tensing the hands to play chords, it is a good idea to practice the gravity drop for
several weeks, or even months, a little bit every time you practice. And of course, it must be incorporated into the
everyday practicing and playing. What this means is that when you are truly relaxed, you can actually feel the effect
of gravity on your hands as you are playing. Some teachers will emphasize relaxation to the point of neglecting
everything else until “total” relaxation is achieved; that may be going too far overboard — being able to feel gravity
is a necessary and sufficient criterion for relaxation.
The gravity drop also eliminates the need for momentum balance (see section 1.4.6). When the hand plays the
piano, the downward momentum of the key is supplied by the momentum of the hand. This downward momentum
must be compensated by the rest of the human playing mechanism which must provide an upward momentum if
the gravity drop is not utilized. Although we all accomplish this without even thinking, it is in fact quite a complex
feat. In the gravity drop method, this momentum is supplied by gravity, so that the piano is played with the absolute minimum action by the human playing mechanism. In this way, the gravity drop enables us to relax all the
unnecessary muscles and to concentrate only on those that are needed to control the chord.
Gravity drop is therefore much more than just a method to practice chords. More importantly, the gravity drop
is a method to practice relaxation. Once this relaxed state is achieved, it must become a permanent, integral
part of your piano playing. The guiding principle in the arm weight method is relaxation. In addition to the gravity
drop, it is important to learn to feel the effect of gravity as we play. We will treat relaxation in more detail below.
Finally, chord playing is an important component of piano technique. As such, it must be developed gradually in concert with your general skill level. There is no faster way of doing that than the use of the parallel sets
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described below. Also, see section 1.3.7 for more details; section 1.3.7.5 gives additional instructions on how to
practice playing even chords when the gravity drop does not solve the problem.
1.2.11 Parallel Sets
Now that the LH CEG chord is satisfactory, (try to) switch suddenly from the chord to the quadruplet at several
different bounce frequencies. You will now have to move the fingers but keep the finger motions to a minimum.
Here again, you will need to incorporate the proper hand/arm motions (see Fink, Sandor), but that’s advanced stuff,
so let’s back-track a little. You will be able to switch quickly after you have become proficient with this method but
let’s assume that you cannot, so that we can demonstrate a powerful method for solving this very common type of
problem.
The most basic way to learn how to play a difficult passage is to build it up two notes at a time, using the
chord attack. In our (LH) CGEG example, we start with the first two notes. A two-note chord attack! Play these
two notes as a perfect chord, bouncing your hand and fingers (5 and 1) together up and down as you did previously
with the CEG chord. In order to play these two notes rapidly one after the other, lower both fingers together, but
keep the 1 finger slightly above the 5 so that the 5 lands first. It is just a rapid two-note rolling chord. Since you
are bringing both fingers down at once and only delaying one slightly, you can play them as closely as you wish by
decreasing the delay. This is how you slow down from infinite speed!
Is it possible to play any combination of notes infinitely fast in this way? Of course not. How do we know which
ones can be played infinitely fast and which ones can’t? In order to answer this question, we need to introduce the
concept of parallel play. The above method of lowering fingers together is called parallel play because the fingers
are lowered simultaneously, i.e., in parallel. A parallel set is a group of notes that can be played as a chord. All
parallel sets can be played infinitely fast. The delay between successive fingers is called the phase angle. In a
chord, the phase angle is zero for all the fingers. These and related concepts are explained more systematically in
section 1.4.2. The highest speed is attained by reducing the phase to the smallest controllable value. This smallest
value is approximately equal to the error in your chord playing. In other words, the more accurate your chords, the
faster will be your maximum attainable speed. This is why so much space was devoted above to describing how to
practice perfect chords.
Once you have conquered the CG, you can proceed with the next GE (1, 3), then EG and finally the GC to complete the quadruplet and conjunction. Then connect them in pairs, etc., to complete the quadruplet. Notice that
CGE is also a parallel set. Therefore the quadruplet plus conjunction can be constructed from two parallel sets,
(5, 1, 3) and (3, 1, 5). This is a faster way. The general rule for the use of parallel sets is: construct the practice
segment by using the largest parallel sets possible that are consistent with the fingering. Break it up into smaller
parallel sets only if the large parallel set is too difficult. If you have difficulty with a particular parallel set, read
section 1.3.7 on parallel set exercises. Although, in theory, parallel sets can be played infinitely fast, that doesn’t
guarantee that you can play that particular parallel set with sufficient speed and control. You can play it only if
you have the technique. Therefore, parallel sets can be used to pinpoint your weaknesses. Section 1.3.7 discusses
details of how to practice playing parallel sets and how to quickly acquire technique by their use.
After you can play one quadruplet well, practice playing two in succession until you can do that comfortably,
then three, etc. Soon, you will be able to play as many as you want in succession! When you initially bounced the
chord, the hand moved up and down. But in the end, when playing the quadruplets in rapid succession, the hand
is fairly stationary, but not rigid. You will also have to add hand motions — more on this later.
The second difficult section in Für Elise ends with an arpeggio that is composed of three parallel sets, 123, 135,
and 432. First practice each parallel set individually, then add the conjunction, then connect them in pairs, etc., to
build up the arpeggio.
Now we have the necessary terminology and can summarize the procedure for using the chord attack to scale
speed walls (see sections 1.4.1 and 1.4.2 for discussions of speed walls). Decompose the segment into parallel
sets, apply the chord attack to these sets, and connect the parallel sets to complete the segment. If you cannot
play any of the needed parallel sets at nearly infinite speed, you will need the parallel set exercises of section 1.3.7.
Whew! We are done with speed walls!
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
13
In order for the segment to sound smooth and musical, we need to accomplish two things: (1) control the
phase angles accurately and (2) connect the parallel sets smoothly. Most of the finger/hand/arm motions described in the references are aimed at accomplishing these two tasks in the most ingenious ways. This is the most
direct connection between the concept of parallel sets and the references. Since those subjects are adequately covered in the references, they are only briefly treated here in section 1.3.4. Therefore those references are necessary
companions to this book. The material given here will get you started; the material in the references is necessary to
bring you to the next level of proficiency and musicianship. In order to help you decide which reference you should
use, I have provided (extremely brief) reviews for several of them in the Reference section. As you speed up the
parallel sets, experiment with hand rotation, wrist motion up and down (in general, lower the wrist when playing
the thumb and raise it as you approach the pinky), pronation, supination, cycling motion, thrust, pull, etc. These
are detailed in the references and briefly surveyed in section 1.3.4.
You will need to read section 1.3.7 in order to know how to use parallel sets to acquire technique quickly. The
above introduction to parallel play is just an abbreviated description and is in fact a little misleading. The parallel
play described above is what is called a “phase locked” parallel play and is the easiest way to start, but that is
not your ultimate goal. In order to acquire technique, you need complete finger independence, not phase locked
fingers. Completely independent finger-by-finger play is called serial play. Our objective therefore, is fast serial
play. In the intuitive method, you take a slow serial play and try to speed it up. Parallel play is not an objective in
itself, but is the quickest way to fast serial play. These issues are explained in the section on Parallel Set Exercises.
The idea of these exercises is to first test whether you can play “infinitely fast” — you will be surprised to find out
that you cannot always do so, even with just two notes. The exercises then provide you with a way to practice only
those sets that you need for that technique. You acquire the technique when you can play the parallel set with
control over each note at any speed.
Of course, proficient parallel play by itself does not guarantee correct play. It just gets you there faster by at least
getting you up to speed, so that you have fewer steps to take in order to arrive at the correct motions. That is, even
with successful parallel play, you will still need to perform quite a bit of further experimentation in order to be able
to manage the whole passage. Because the method described here allows you to try hundreds of trials in minutes,
this experimentation can be conducted relatively quickly. If you apply the bar-by-bar method, each bar will take
less than a second at speed, so in 5 minutes, you can practice it 300 times!
This is why you can’t beat having a good teacher, since s/he can steer you quickly to the correct motions and
bypass most of this experimentation. But having a teacher does not mean that you will stop experimenting — just
that the experimentation will be more effective. Experimentation should be a constant part of any practice routine. This is another reason why HS practice is so valuable — experimenting is difficult enough HS, it is practically
impossible HT!
Parallel play does not solve all problems; it solves mainly material containing runs, arpeggios and broken
chords. Another major class of problems is jumps. For this go to section 1.3.7.6.
1.2.12 Learning and Memorizing
There is no faster way of memorizing than to memorize when you are first learning a piece and, for a difficult
piece, there is no faster way of learning than memorizing it.Therefore memorize these sections that you are practicing for technique while you are repeating them so many times, in small segments, HS. Memorization is discussed
in more detail in section 1.3.6. The procedures for memorizing are almost exactly parallel to those for technique
acquisition. For example, memorization should be done HS first. This is why learning and memorizing should
be done simultaneously; otherwise you will need to repeat the same procedure twice. It might appear that going
through the same procedure a second time would be simpler. It is not. Memorizing is a complex task, even after
you can play the piece well. For this reason, students who try memorize after learning a piece will either give up
or never memorize it well. This is understandable; the effort required to memorize can quickly reach the point of
diminishing returns if you can already play the piece at speed.
Once students develop memorizing-learning routines that are comfortable for them, most of them will find
that learning and memorizing together takes less time than learning alone, for difficult passages. This happens
because you eliminate the process of looking at the music, interpreting it, and passing the instructions from the
Updated:
November 21, 2004
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
eyes to the brain and then to the hands. With these slow steps bypassed, the learning can proceed unencumbered.
Some might worry that memorizing too many compositions will create an unsustainable maintenance problem
(see section 1.3.6.3 for a discussion of maintenance). The best attitude to have towards this problem is not to worry
if you forget some pieces that are seldom played. This is because recalling a forgotten piece is very fast as long as
it was memorized well the first time. Material memorized when young (before about 20 years of age) is almost
never forgotten. This is why it is so critical to learn fast methods of technique acquisition and to memorize as many
pieces as possible before reaching the later teen years.
As you go through each step described in this section to acquire technique, memorize the music at that same
step. It is that simple. Section 1.3.6 also discusses the numerous benefits of memorization; these benefits are so
valuable that it does not make any sense not to memorize. It is much easier to memorize something if you can play
it fast; therefore, if you have difficulty memorizing it initially at slow speed, don’t worry; it will become easier as you
speed it up.
The major difference between practicing for technique and memorization is that for technique, you need to
start with the most difficult sections first, whereas for memory, it is usually best to start with sections that are
easy and repeated many times so that you can quickly memorize a large portion of the composition. Then, by
memorizing the remaining small sections, you can connect the long easy sections and thereby memorize the whole
piece quickly. In general, it is better to memorize first, and then practice for technique. That way, you can start to
practice for technique while memorizing. Obviously, all these many requirements are often contradictory, so you
must use your judgment on what to do first for each specific case.
1.2.13 Velocity, Choice of Practice Speed
Get up to speed as quickly as possible. Remember, we are still practicing HS. Playing so fast that you start to feel
stress and make mistakes will not improve technique because playing with stress is not the way it will be played
when you become proficient. Forcing the fingers to play the same way faster is not the way to increase speed.
As demonstrated with parallel play, you need new ways that automatically increase speed. In fact, with parallel
play, it is often easier to play fast than slowly. Devise hand positions and motions that will control the phase angle
accurately and that will also position everything in such a way that the coming transition to the next parallel set
is smooth. If you do not make significant progress in a few minutes, you are probably doing something wrong —
think of something new. Repeating the same thing for more than a few minutes without any visible improvement
will often do more harm than good. Students who use the intuitive method are resigned to repeating the same
thing for hours with little visible improvement. That mentality must be avoided when using the methods of this
book. There are two types of situations you will encounter when increasing speed. One involves technical skills you
already have; you should be able to bring these parts up to speed in minutes. The other involves new skills; these
will take longer and will be discussed below.
Technique improves most rapidly when playing at a speed at which you can play accurately. This is especially
true when playing HT (please be patient — I promise we will eventually get to HT practice). Since you have more
control HS, you can get away with much faster play HS than HT without increasing stress or forming bad habits.
Thus it is erroneous to think that you can improve faster by playing as fast as possible (after all, if you play twice as
fast, you can practice the same passage twice as often!). Since the main objective of HS practice is to gain speed, the
need to quickly attain speed and to practice at a speed optimized for technical improvement become contradictory.
The solution to this dilemma is to constantly change the speed of practice; do not stay at any one speed for too
long. Although it is best to bring the passage up to speed immediately, for very difficult passages that require skills
you don’t already have, there is no alternative but to bring it up in stages. For this, use speeds that are too fast as
exploratory excursions to determine what needs to be changed in order to play at such speeds. Then slow down
and practice those new motions. Of course, if you lack the technique, you must go back to shortening the passage
and applying the parallel set exercises.
To vary the speed, first get up to some manageable “maximum speed” at which you can play accurately. Then
go faster (using chord attacks, etc., if necessary), and take note of how the playing needs to be changed (don’t worry
if you are not playing accurately). Then use that motion and play at the previous “maximum speed”. It should
now be noticeably easier. Practice at this speed for a while, then try even slower speeds to make sure that you are
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
15
completely relaxed. Then repeat the whole procedure. In this way, you ratchet up the speed in manageable jumps
and work on each needed skill separately. In most cases, you should be able to play a new piece, at least in small
segments, HS, at the final speed during the first sitting. In the beginning, such feats may seem unattainable, but
every student can reach this objective surprisingly quickly.
1.2.14 How to Relax
The most important thing to do as you get up to speed is to relax. Relaxing means that you use only those muscles
that are needed to play. Thus you can be working as hard as you want, and be relaxed. The relaxed state is especially
easy to attain when practicing HS. There are two schools of thought on relaxation. One school maintains that, in
the long run, it is better not to practice at all than to practice with even the slightest amount of tension. This school
teaches by showing you how to relax and play a single note, and then advancing carefully, giving you only those
easy material that you can play relaxed. The other school argues that relaxation is just another necessary aspect of
technique, but that subjugating the entire practice philosophy to relaxation is not the optimum approach. Which
system is better is not clear at this time. Whichever system you choose, it is obvious that playing with stress must
be avoided.
If you adopt the methods described in this book and get up to final speed rapidly, some initial stress may be
unavoidable. Note that the whole idea of getting up to speed quickly is to enable you to practice at a slower speed,
completely relaxed. As pointed out throughout this book, high speed is nearly impossible to attain without complete relaxation and de-coupling of all the muscles (especially the large muscles) so that the fingers can gain their
independence.
Students who play with a lot of stress will know that the stress is gone when, all of a sudden, the playing
becomes easy at speed. Those who had not been taught to eliminate stress think that this is the point at which
they suddenly acquired a new technique. In reality, their technique had slowly improved to the point when they
could start to relax. The relaxation allowed the technique to improve more and the improvement allowed further
relaxation, and this feedback cycle is what caused such a magical transformation. It is obviously better to start with
zero stress. Although starting with zero stress might appear to hold you back in the beginning, you tend to acquire
technique faster starting with zero stress than rushing into a stressed state and then trying to eliminate the stress.
So, then, how do you relax?
There are numerous instances in many books, with instructions to “involve the whole body”, when playing the
piano with no further suggestions on how to achieve it. Part, or sometimes most, of this involvement has to be
relaxation. In many ways, the human brain is wasteful. For even the simplest tasks, the brain generally uses most
of the muscles in the body. And if the task is difficult, the brain tends to lock the body in a mass of tensed muscles.
In order to relax, you must make a conscious effort (involve the whole body) to shut down all unnecessary muscles.
This is not easy because it goes against the natural tendency of the brain. You need to practice relaxation just as
much as moving the fingers to depress the keys. Relaxing does not mean to “let go of all muscles”; it means that the
unnecessary ones are relaxed even when the necessary ones are working full tilt, which is coordination a skill that
requires a lot of practice to achieve.
Don’t forget to relax all the various functions of the body, such as breathing and periodic swallowing. Some
students will stop breathing when playing demanding passages because the playing muscles are anchored at the
chest, and keeping that part of the body still makes it easier to play. When relaxed, you should be able to conduct
all of the normal body functions and still be able to simultaneously concentrate on playing. Section 1.2.21 below
explains how to use the diaphragm to breathe properly. If your throat is dry after a hard practice, it means that you
had also stopped swallowing. These are all indications of stress.
The gravity drop method discussed above is an excellent way to practice relaxation. Practice this gravity drop
with one finger. Choose a different finger each time. Although there is never a need to actively lift the 4th finger,
don’t get into the habit of completely relaxing it, as that will cause it to hit some unwanted keys. This is because evolution has connected the last three fingers with tendons to facilitate grasping tools. Acquire the habit of maintaining
a slight upward tension on the 4th finger, especially when playing fingers 3 and 5. Again, the test for relaxation is
gravity: feeling the effect of gravity as you play is a necessary and sufficient condition for relaxation.
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
Relaxing is finding the proper energy and momentum balance as well as arm/hand/finger positions and motions that allow you to execute with the appropriate expenditure of energy. Therefore relaxing requires a lot of
experimentation to find those optimum conditions. However, if you had been concentrating on relaxation from
day one of your piano lessons, this should be a routine procedure that you can quickly execute because you have
done it many times before. For those who are new to relaxation, you can start with easier pieces you have learned,
and practice adding relaxation. The parallel set exercises of 1.3.7 can also help you to practice relaxation. However,
nothing can replace the daily experimentation you should conduct whenever you learn a new piece of music. You
will then gradually build up an arsenal of relaxed motions — this is part of what is meant by technique. One easy
way to feel relaxation is to practice one parallel set and accelerate it until you build up stress, and then try to relax;
you will need to find motions and positions of arms, wrists, etc., that allow this; when you find them, you will feel
the stress gradually draining from your hand.
Many people do not realize that relaxation is itself diagnostic tool in the experimentation. Assuming that you
have a certain arsenal of hand motions (see section 1.3.4), the criterion for “good technique” is one that allows
relaxation. Many students think that long repetitive practices somehow transform the hand so it can play. In reality,
what happens is that the hand accidentally stumbles onto the right motion for relaxation. This is why some skills
are acquired quickly while others take forever and why some students acquire certain skills quickly while other
students struggle with the same skills. The correct (and faster) way to learn is to actively search for the right motions
and to build up an arsenal of them. In this search, it helps to understand what causes fatigue and what biological
functions influence the energy balance (see section 1.2.21 on Endurance below). Relaxation is a state of unstable
equilibrium: as you learn to relax, it becomes easier to further relax, and vice versa. This explains why relaxation is a
major problem for some while it is completely natural for others. But that is a most wonderful piece of information.
It means that anyone can relax, if they are properly taught and constantly strive for relaxation!
The most important element in relaxation, obviously, is energy conservation. There are at least 2 ways to conserve: (1) don’t use unnecessary muscles and (2) turn off the necessary muscles as soon as their jobs are done.
Practice the art of turning off muscles quickly. Let’s demonstrate these with the one-finger gravity drop. (1) is the
easiest; simply allow gravity to completely control the drop, while the entire body is resting comfortably on the
bench. For (2) you will need to learn a new habit if you don’t already have it (few do, initially). That is the habit of
relaxing all muscles as soon as you reach the bottom of the key drop. During a gravity drop, you let gravity pull the
arm down, but at the end of the key drop, you need to tense the finger for an instant in order to stop the hand. Then
you must quickly relax all muscles. Don’t lift the hand, just rest the hand comfortably on the piano with just enough
force to support the weight of the arm. Make sure that you are not pressing down. This is more difficult than you
would think at first because the elbow is floating in mid air and the same muscles used to tense the finger in order
to support the arm weight are also used to press down. One way to test if you are pressing down is to take the arm
off the keys and rest your forearm on your legs in front of you, totally relaxed. Then carry over that same feeling to
the end of the gravity drop.
Few people bother to turn off muscles explicitly. You just tend to forget about them when their work is done.
This presents no problems when playing slowly, but becomes problematic with speed. You will need a new exercise
because the gravity drop has little to do with speed. You need to start with the key down and to play a quick,
moderately loud note. Now you have to apply extra downward force and turn it off. When you turn it off, you must
return to the feeling you had at the end of gravity drop. You will find that, the harder you play the note, the longer it
takes for you to relax. Practice shortening the relaxation time.
What is so wonderful about these relaxation methods is that after practicing them for a short time (perhaps a
few weeks), they tend to be automatically incorporated into your playing, even into pieces that you have already
learned, as long as you pay attention to relaxation.
The worst consequence of stress is that it gets you into a fight you can’t win because you are fighting an opponent who is exactly as strong as you are — namely, yourself. It is one of your own muscles working against another.
As you practice and get stronger, so does the opponent, by an exactly equal amount. And the stronger you get,
the worse the problem. If it gets bad enough, it can lead to injury because the muscles become stronger than the
material strength of your hand. That is why it is so important to get rid of stress.
Relaxation, arm weight (gravity drop), involving the whole body, and avoidance of mindless repetitive exercises were key elements in Chopin’s teachings, but Liszt advocated exercises “to exhaustion” (Eigeldinger). My
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
17
interpretation of the last apparent disagreement is that exercises can be beneficial, but are not necessary. Also, Liszt
did not have the benefit of this book — he probably had to practice a lot before his hands accidentally stumbled
onto the right motion. Of course, the piano makes a big difference. Chopin preferred the Pleyel, a piano with very
light action and small keydrop, and required less effort to play. Relaxation is useless unless it is accompanied by
musical playing; in fact, Chopin insisted on musical playing before acquiring technique because he knew that music and technique were inseparable. We now know that without relaxation, neither music nor technique is possible.
Technique originates in the brain. Non-musical playing apparently violates so many tenets of nature that it actually interferes with the brain’s natural processes for controlling the playing mechanisms. That is not to claim
that you can’t train yourself to become a machine, performing difficult acrobatics with blinding speed. The claim
here is that mindless repetitions is a long, roundabout way to learn piano.
1.2.15 Post Practice Improvement (PPI)
There is only a certain amount of improvement you can expect during practice at one sitting, because there are
two ways in which you improve. The first one is the obvious improvement that comes from learning the notes and
motions, resulting in immediate improvement. This occurs for passages for which you already have the technique
to play. The second one is called post practice improvement (PPI) that results from physiological changes as you
acquire new technique. This is a very slow process of change that occurs mostly after you have stopped practicing
because it requires the growth of nerve and muscle cells.
Therefore, as you practice, try to gauge your progress so that you can quit and go to something else as soon as
a point of diminishing returns is reached, usually in less than 10 minutes. Like magic, your technique will keep
improving by itself for at least several days after a good practice. Therefore, if you had done everything right, then,
when you sit at the piano the next day, you should discover that you can now play better. If this happens for just
one day, the effect is not that big. However, the cumulative effect of this occurring over weeks, months, or years can
be huge.
It is usually more profitable to practice several things at one sitting and let them all improve simultaneously
(while you are not practicing!), than working too hard on one thing. Over-practicing can actually hurt your technique if it leads to stress and bad habits. You do have to practice a certain minimum amount, perhaps a hundred
repetitions, for this automatic improvement to take effect. But because we are talking about a few bars played at
speed, practicing dozens or hundreds of times should take only about 10 minutes or less.
Therefore, don’t fret if you practice hard but don’t see much immediate improvement. This might be normal for
that particular passage. If, after extensive analysis and you can’t find anything wrong with that you are doing, it is
time to stop and let the PPI take over.
There are many types of PPI depending on what is holding you back. One of the ways in which these different
types manifest themselves is in the length of time over which they are effective, which varies from one day to many
months. The shortest times may be associated with conditioning, such as the use of motions or muscles you had not
used before, or memory issues. Intermediate times of several weeks may be associated with new nerve connections,
such as HT play. Longer times may be associated with actual growth of brain/nerve/muscle cells, and conversion
of slow to fast muscle cell types.
If you had developed certain bad habits, you may have to stop playing that piece for months until you lose
whatever bad habit you had developed, which is another form of PPI. In most cases of bad habits, it is not possible
to identify the culprit, so that the best thing to do is to not play the piece and to learn new pieces instead because
learning new pieces is one way to erase old habits.
You must do everything right to maximize PPI. Many students do not know the rules and can actually negate the
PPI with the result is that, when they play it the next day, it comes out worse. Most of these mistakes originate from
incorrect use of fast and slow practice; therefore, we will discuss the rules for choosing the right practice speeds
in more detail in the following sections. Any stress or unnecessary motion during practice will also undergo postpractice enhancement. The most common mistake students make to negate PPI is to play fast just before quitting
practice. The last thing you do before quitting should be the most correct and best example of what you want to
achieve. Your last run-through seems to have an inordinately strong PPI effect. The methods of this book are
ideal for PPI, mainly because they emphasize practicing on only those segments that you cannot play. If you play
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HT slowly and ramp up the speed for a large section of any piece of music, PPI is not only insufficiently conditioned,
but also becomes totally confused because you mix a large proportion of easy material with the small amount of
difficult ones. In addition, the speed, and probably the motions are also incorrect.
PPI is nothing new; let’s look at three examples: the body builder, the marathoner, and golfer. While lifting
weights, the body builder’s muscles don’t grow; he will in fact lose weight. But during the following weeks, the
body will react to the stimulus and add muscle. Almost all of the muscle growth occurs after the exercise. Thus the
body builder does not measure how much muscle he gained or how much more weight he can lift at the end of the
exercise, but instead concentrates on whether the exercise produces the appropriate conditioning. The difference
here is that for piano, we are developing coordination and speed instead of strength and endurance. Thus, whereas
the bodybuilder wants to grow the slow muscles, the pianist wants to convert the slow muscles into fast ones.
Another example is the marathon runner. If you had never run a mile in your life, and tried it for the first time,
you might be able to jog for a quarter mile before you need to slow down for a rest. After some rest, if you tried
to run, you will again tire out in a quarter mile or less. Thus the first run resulted in no discernible improvement.
However, the next day, you may be able to run a third of a mile before tiring — you have just experienced PPI. If you
run incorrectly, you can create problems; for example, you might develop a bad habit of stubbing your toe if you
push yourself too far and keep on running when you are too tired. This is the analogy to acquiring bad habits if you
practice the piano with stress. Golf presents another excellent example. Golfers are familiar with the phenomenon
in which they can hit the ball well one day, but terribly the next because they picked up a bad habit that they often
cannot diagnose. Hitting the driver every day tends to ruin your swing, whereas practicing with the #9 can restore
it. The analogy in piano is that playing fast, full tilt, tends to ruin the PPI whereas practicing short sections HS tends
to improve it. Clearly, the conditioning procedure must be well understood in order to assure the desired PPI.
Most PPI occurs during sleep. The sleep must be the normal, over-night type with all of its major components,
especially REM sleep. This is because most cell growth and repair occur during sleep. It is why babies and young
children need so much sleep — because they are growing rapidly. You will not get good PPI if you did not sleep well
that night. The best routine for using PPI is to practice in the evening for conditioning and then reviewing it the
next morning.
1.2.16 Dangers of Slow Play — pitfalls of the intuitive method
Repetitive slow play can be harmful when starting a new piece. We stated in section 1.2.1 that playing slowly, and
gradually ramping up the speed, is not an efficient way to practice piano. Let us examine this procedure to see why.
We are assuming that the student is just starting the piece and does not yet know how to play it. In that case, the slow
play will be very different from the way it should be played at speed. When you start, there is no way of knowing
whether the slow play motion you are using is right or wrong; in section 1.4.3, we show that the probability of
playing incorrectly is nearly 100%, because there is almost an infinity of ways to play it incorrectly but only one
best way. What is the probability of accidentally hitting that one correct way out of an infinity of possibilities?
Practicing this wrong play does not help the student to play correctly or faster. When this wrong motion is speeded
up s/he will hit a speed wall, resulting in stress. Assuming that this student succeeded in changing the playing so
as to avoid the speed wall and succeeded in increasing the speed in increments as the speed is ramped up, s/he
will then need to unlearn the old way and then relearn this new play, etc., and keep repeating these cycles for each
incremental increase in speed until s/he reaches the final speed. Finding all these intermediate methods of play by
trial and error can take a lot of time.
Let’s look at a concrete example of how different speeds require different motions. Consider the horse’s gait.
As the speed is increased, the gait goes through walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Each of these four gaits usually has
at least a slow and fast mode. Also, a left turn is different from a right turn (the leading hoof is different). That’s
a minimum of 16 motions. These are the so-called natural gaits; most horses automatically have them; they can
also be taught 3 more gaits: pace, foxtrot, and rack, which likewise have slow, fast, left, and right. All this, with only
four legs of relatively simple structure and a comparatively limited brain. We have 10 very complex fingers, much
more versatile shoulders, arms, and hands, and an infinitely more capable brain! Our hands are therefore capable
of performing many more “gaits” than a horse. Ramping up a slow play in piano is like making a horse run as fast
as a gallop by simply speeding up the walk — it just can’t be done because as the speed increases, the momenta of
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
19
the legs, body, etc., change, requiring the different gaits. Therefore, if the music requires a gallop, the student ends
up having to learn all the intervening “gaits” if you ramp up the speed. You can easily understand why inducing
a horse to walk as fast as a gallop would encounter speed walls and induce tremendous stress. But that is exactly
what many piano students are trying to do with the intuitive method. What happens in practice is that the student
does not end up acquiring the skill to walk as fast as a “gallop”, but accidentally stumbles on a trot as the walk is
accelerated.
Now a riding horse does not think, “hey at this speed, I have to canter”; it responds automatically to a rider’s
signals. Thus you can get a horse to make a left turn canter using right turn footing, and injure the horse. Therefore,
it requires the superior intelligence of a human brain to figure out the horse’s gait although it is the horse that is
executing it. It works the same way with the piano, and the student can easily get her/imself into trouble. Although
the human student is more intelligent than a horse, the number of possibilities that s/he faces is staggering. It takes
a superior brain to figure out which are the best motions among the almost infinite variety that the human hand
can perform. Most students with normal intelligence have little idea of how many motions are possible unless
the teacher points this out to them. Two students, left to their own devices and asked to play the same piece,
will be guaranteed to end up with different hand motions. This is another reason why it is so important to take
lessons from a good teacher when starting piano; such a teacher can quickly weed out the bad motions. The point
being made here is that, in the intuitive method, the student is guaranteed to pick up any number of bad habits
before getting up to speed. The entire practice procedure ends up as a disastrous experience that actually hinders
the student from progressing. This is especially true if the two hands have been locked together by extended HT
practice. Trying to un-learn a bad habit is one of the most frustrating, stressful, and time consuming tasks in
piano practice.
A common mistake is the habit of supporting or lifting the hand. In slow play, the hand can be lifted between
notes when the hand weight is not necessary. When speeded up, this “lift” coincides with the next keydrop; these
actions cancel, resulting in a missed note. Another common error is the waving of the free fingers — while playing
fingers 1 and 2, the student might be waving fingers 4 and 5 in the air several times. This presents no difficulties
until the motion is speeded up so fast that there is no time to wave the fingers. In this situation, the free fingers
do not generally stop waving automatically at faster speeds because the motion has been ingrained by hundreds or
even thousands of repetitions. Instead, the fingers are asked to do the impossible — wave several times at speeds
they cannot attain — this creates the speed wall. The trouble here is that most students who use slow practice are
generally unaware of these bad habits. If you know how to play fast, it is safe to play slowly, but if you don’t know
how to play fast, you must be careful not to learn the wrong slow playing habits or to end up wasting tremendous
amounts of time. Slow play can waste huge chunks of time because each run-through takes so long. The methods
of this book avoid all these pitfalls.
1.2.17 Importance of Slow Play
Having pointed out the dangers of slow play, we now discuss why slow play is indispensable. Always end a practice
session by playing slowly at least once. This is the most important rule for good PPI. You should also cultivate a
habit of doing this when switching hands during HS practice; before switching, play slowly at least once. This may
be one of the most important rules of this chapter because it has such an inordinately large effect on technique
improvement, but why it works is not totally understood. It is beneficial to both the immediate improvement and
to PPI. One reason why it works may be that you can completely relax (see section 1.2.14). Another reason may be
that you tend to pick up more bad habits than you realize while playing fast, and you can “erase” these with slow
play. Contrary to intuition, playing slowly without mistakes is difficult (until you have completely mastered the
passage). Thus slow play is a good way to test whether you have really learned this piece of music.
The effect of a final slow play to PPI is so dramatic dramatic that you can easily demonstrate it for yourself. Try
one practice session in which you only play fast and see what happens the next day. Then try one in which you play
slowly before quitting, and see what happens on the next day. Or you can practice a passage fast only and another
passage (of the same difficulty) slowly at the end and compare them the next day. This effect is cumulative, so that
if you were to repeat this experiment with the same two passages for a long time, you will eventually find a huge
difference in the way you can handle these passages.
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How slow is slow? That is a judgement call, and depends a lot on your skill level. If you play slower and slower,
it will lose its effect below a certain speed. It is important, when playing slowly, to maintain the same motion as
when playing fast. If you play too slowly, this may become impossible. Also, playing too slowly will take up too
much time, resulting in waste. The best speed to try first is one at which you can play as accurately as you want,
around 1/2 to 3/4 speed. Slow play is also needed for memorizing. The optimum slow speed for memorizing is
slower than that needed to condition the PPI, about 1/2 speed. As technique improves, this slow speed can become
faster. However, it is interesting that some famous pianists have often been observed to practice very slowly! Some
accounts document practice at one note per second, which sounds almost irrational.
An important skill to practice when playing slowly is to think ahead of the music. When practicing a new
piece fast, there is a tendency to mentally fall behind the music and this can become a habit. This is bad because
that is how you lose control. Think ahead when playing slowly and then try to maintain that distance when you
get back up to speed. When you can think ahead of what you are playing, you can sometimes foresee flubs or
difficulties coming and have the time to take appropriate action.
1.2.18 Fingering
You usually won’t go wrong by using the fingering marked on the music. Or, rather, if you don’t follow the indicated fingering, you will probably get into a lot of trouble. Except in beginners’ books, the basic fingerings are
usually obvious and are not indicated in music scores. Some indicated fingerings may feel awkward at first, but it
is there for a reason. This reason often does not become obvious until you get up to speed and/or you play HT. For
beginners, following the indicated fingering is an educational experience for learning the most common fingerings.
Another advantage of using the indicated fingering is that you will always use the same one. Not having a fixed
fingering will greatly slow down the learning process and give you trouble later, even after you have learned the
piece well. If you do change the fingering, make sure that you always stick to the new one. It is a good idea to mark
the change on the music; it can be very annoying to come back to this music months later and not remember that
nice fingering you had previously worked out.
However, not all suggested fingerings on the music score are appropriate for everyone. You may have large or
small hands. You may have gotten used to a different fingering because of the way you learned. You might have
a different skill set; e.g., you might be a better triller using 1, 3 than 2, 3. Music from different publishers may
have different fingerings. For advanced players, the fingering can have a profound influence on the musical effect
you want to project. Fortunately, the methods of this book are well suited to quickly changing fingerings. Part
of the “explorations” alluded to above involve making sure that the fingering is optimized. Once you have become
familiar with these methods, you will be able to change fingering very quickly. Make all the changes before you start
HT practice because once fingerings are incorporated into HT play, they become very difficult to change. On the
other hand, some fingerings are easy HS but become difficult HT, so it pays to check them HT before permanently
accepting any changes. Everybody should memorize the fingerings for all the scales and arpeggios (section 1.3.5),
as well as the chromatic scale, and to practice them until they become ingrained habits.
1.2.19 Accurate Tempo and the Metronome
Start all pieces by counting carefully, especially for beginners and youngsters. Children should be taught to count
out loud because that is the only way to find out what their idea of counting is. It can be totally different from the
intended one. You should understand the meter signature at the beginning of each composition. It looks like a
fraction, consisting of a numerator and a denominator. The numerator indicates the number of beats per measure
and the denominator indicates the note per beat. For example, 3/4 means that there are three beats per measure
and that each beat is a quarter note. Typically, each bar contains one measure. Knowing the signature is essential
when accompanying, because the moment that the accompanist starts is determined by the starting beat which
the conductor indicates with the baton.
An advantage of HS practice is that you tend to count more accurately than HT. Students who start HT often
end up with undetected mistakes in counting. Interestingly, these mistakes usually make it impossible to bring the
music up to speed. There is something about wrong counting that creates its own speed wall. It probably messes
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
21
up the rhythm. Therefore, if you run into problems with bringing it up to speed, check the counting. A metronome
is very useful for this.
Use the metronome to check your speed and beat accuracy. I have been repeatedly surprised by the errors I
discover when checked in this way. For example, I tend to slow down at difficult sections and speed up at easy ones,
although I think it is actually the opposite when playing without the metronome. Most teachers will check their
students’ tempo with it. But it should be used only for a short time. Once the student gets the timing, it should be
shut off. The metronome is one of your most reliable teachers — once you start using it, you will be glad you did.
Develop a habit of using the metronome and your playing will undoubtedly improve. All serious students must
have a metronome.
Metronomes should not be over used. Long practice sessions with the metronome accompanying you are
harmful to technique acquisition. This leads to mechanical playing. When used for more than about 10 minutes
continually, your mind will start to play mental tricks on you so that you may lose the timing accuracy. For example,
if the metronome emits clicks, after some time, your brain will create anti-clicks in your head that can cancel the
metronome click so that you will either not hear the metronome anymore, or will hear it at the wrong time. This is
why most modern electronic metronomes have a light pulse mode. The visual cue is less prone to mental tricks and
also does not interfere acoustically with the music. The most frequent abuse of the metronome is to use it to ramp
up speed; this abuses the metronome, the student, the music, and the technique. If you must ramp up the speed
gradually, use it to set the tempo, then turn it off and then keep on practicing; then use it again briefly when you
increase the speed. The metronome is for setting the tempo and for checking your accuracy. It is not a substitute
for your own internal timing.
The process of speeding up is a process of finding the appropriate new motions. When you find the correct
new motion, you can make a quantum jump to a higher speed at which the hand plays comfortably; in fact, at
intermediate speeds, neither the slow nor the fast motion applies and is often more difficult to play than the faster
speed. If you happen to set the metronome at this intermediate speed, you might struggle at it for long periods
of time and build up a speed wall. One of the reasons why the new motion works is that the human hand is a
mechanical device and has resonances at which certain combinations of motions naturally work well. There is little
doubt that some music was composed to be played at certain speeds because the composer found this resonance
speed. On the other hand, each individual has a different hand with different resonance speeds, and this partly
explains why different pianists choose different speeds. Without the metronome, you can jump from resonance to
the next resonance because the hand feels comfortable at those speeds, whereas the chances of your setting the
metronome at exactly those speeds is very low. Therefore, with the metronome, you are almost always practicing
at the wrong speed. This is a great way to build any number of speed walls.
Electronic metronomes are superior to the mechanical ones in every respect although some people prefer
the appearance of the old models. Electronics are more accurate, can make different sounds or flash lights, have
variable volume, are less expensive, are less bulky, have memory functions, etc., while the mechanicals always seem
to need rewinding at the worst possible times.
1.2.20 Weak Left Hand; Using One Hand to Teach the Other
Students who do not practice HS will always have a stronger RH than LH. This happens because the RH passages
are generally more difficult, technically. The LH tends to get passages that require more strength, but it often lags
behind in speed and technique. Thus “weaker” here means technically weaker, not strength-wise. The HS method
will balance the hands because you will automatically give the weaker hand more work. For passages that one
hand can play better than the other, the better hand is often your best teacher. To let one hand teach the other,
select a very short segment and play it rapidly with the better hand, then repeat immediately with the weaker hand,
one octave apart to prevent collisions. You will discover that the weaker hand can often “catch on” or “get the idea”
of how the better hand is doing it. The fingering should be similar but does not need to be identical. Once the
weaker hand “gets the idea”, gradually wean it off by playing the weaker hand twice and the stronger hand once,
then three against one, etc.
This ability of one hand to teach the other is more important than most people realize. The above example of
solving one specific technical difficulty is just one example — more importantly, this concept applies to practically
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every practice session. The basic reason for this broad applicability is that one hand always plays something better
than the other, such as relaxation, speed, quiet hands, and the innumerable finger/hand motions (Thumb Over,
Flat Finger, etc., see following sections) — anything new that you are trying to learn. Therefore, once you learn
this principle of using one hand to teach the other, you will be using it all the time. It can save you a tremendous
amount of time.
1.2.21 Building Endurance, Breathing
“Endurance” is a controversial term in piano practice. This controversy originates from the fact that piano playing requires control, not muscle power, and many students have the wrong impression that they will not acquire
technique until they grow enough muscles. On the other hand, a certain amount of endurance is necessary. This
apparent contradiction can be resolved by understanding exactly what is needed and how to get it. Obviously, you
can’t play loud, grandiose passages without expending energy. Big, strong, pianists can certainly produce more
sound than small, weak, pianists if they are equally skillful. And the stronger pianists can more easily play “demanding” pieces. Every pianist has enough physical stamina to play pieces at her/is level, simply because of the
amount of practice that was required to get there. Yet we know that endurance is a problem. The answer lies in
relaxation. When stamina becomes an issue, it is almost always caused by excess tension.
The most famous example of this is the LH octave tremolo in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique”.
The only thing over 90% of the students need to do is to eliminate stress; yet many students practice it for months
with little progress. The first mistake they make is to play it too loud. This adds extra stress and fatigue just when
you can least afford it. Practice it softly, just concentrating on eliminating stress, as explained in section 1.3.3.2. As
you practice, keep reminding yourself to look for hand positions that eliminate stress. In a week or two, you will be
playing as many tremolos as fast as you want. Now start adding loudness and expression. Done! At this point, your
physical strength and endurance is not any different from what it was when you started just a few weeks ago — the
main thing you did was to find the best way to eliminate stress.
Playing demanding pieces requires about as much energy as a slow jog, at about 4 miles per hour, with the brain
requiring more energy than the hands/body. Many youngsters cannot jog continuously for over one mile. Therefore, asking youngsters to practice difficult passages continually for 20 minutes would really strain their stamina
because it would be about equivalent to jogging a mile. Teachers and parents must be careful when youngsters
start their piano lessons, to limit practice times to under 15 minutes in the beginning until the students gain some
stamina. Marathon runners have stamina, but they are not muscular. You need to condition the body for stamina
for piano, but you don’t need extra muscles.
Now there is a difference between piano playing and running a marathon because of the need to condition
the brain for stamina in addition to the muscular conditioning. Therefore mindless practicing of scales and other
exercises for stamina does not work. The most efficient ways to gain stamina are to either play finished pieces and
make music, or to practice difficult sections HS continuously. Again using the jogging analogy, it would be very
difficult for most students to practice difficult material continuously for more than a few hours because 2 hours of
practice would be equivalent to jogging 6 miles, which is a terrific workout. Therefore, you will have to play some
easy pieces between the hard practice sessions. Concentrated practice sessions longer than a few hours may not be
that helpful until you are at an advanced level, when you have developed sufficient “piano stamina”. It is probably
better to take a break and restart practice after some rest. Clearly, hard piano practice is strenuous work and
serious practicing can put the student in good physical shape. HS practice is most valuable in this regard because
it allows one hand to rest while the other works hard, allowing the pianist to work as hard as s/he wants, 100% of
the time, without injury or fatigue. Of course, in terms of stamina, it is not difficult (if you have the time) to put in 6
or 8 hours of practice a day by including a lot of mindless finger exercises. This is a process of self-delusion in which
the student thinks that just putting in the time will get you there — it will not. If anything, conditioning the brain
is more important than conditioning the muscles because it is the brain that needs the conditioning for music. In
addition, strenuous conditioning of the muscles will cause the body to convert fast muscles to slow muscles that
have more endurance — this is exactly what you do not want.
What is stamina? It is something that enables us to keep on playing without getting tired. For long practice
sessions of over several hours, pianists do get their second wind just as athletes do. Can we identify any biological
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
23
factors that control stamina? Knowing the biological basis is the best way to understand stamina. In the absence of
specific bio-physical studies, we can only speculate. Clearly, we need sufficient oxygen intake and adequate blood
flow to the muscles and the brain. The biggest factor influencing oxygen intake is lung efficiency, and important
components of that are breathing and posture. This may be one reason why meditation, with the emphasis on
proper breathing using the diaphragm, is so helpful. Use of only the rib muscles to breathe over-utilizes one
breathing apparatus and under-utilizes the diaphragm. The resulting rapid pumping of the chest or exaggerated
chest expansion can interfere with piano playing because all of the piano playing muscles eventually anchor near
the center of the chest. Use of the diaphragm interferes less with the playing motions. In addition, those who do
not use the diaphragm consciously can tense it when stress builds up during play, and they will not even notice that
the diaphragm is tense. By using both the ribs and the diaphragm, and maintaining good posture, the lungs can be
expanded to their maximum volume with least effort and thereby take in the maximum amount of oxygen.
The following breathing exercise can be extremely helpful, not only for piano, but also for general well-being.
Expand your chest, push your diaphragm down (this will make your lower abdomen bulge out), raise the shoulders
up and towards your back, and take a deep breath; then exhale completely by reversing the process. When taking a
deep breath, breathe through your throat (you can open or close your mouth), not through your nose because any
effort to breathe through the nose will constrict the air passage way. If you have not done this for a long time, it
should cause hyper-ventilation — you will feel dizzy — after one or two such exercises. Stop if you hyper-ventilate.
Then repeat this exercise at a later time; you should find that you can take more breaths without hyper-ventilating.
Repeat this exercise until you can take at least 5 breaths in succession without hyper-ventilating. Now, if you go
to the doctor’s office and he checks you out with his stethoscope and asks you to take a deep breath, you can do
it without feeling dizzy! This exercise teaches you the basics of breathing. Keep these breathing elements in mind
as you practice piano, and make sure that you are using them appropriately, especially when practicing something
difficult. Breathing normally while playing something difficult is an important element of relaxation. Perform this
exercise at least once every several months.
The above types of methods for increasing the stamina can be learned mostly during practice, at the piano.
Other methods of increasing stamina are to increase the blood flow and to increase the amount of blood in the
body. These processes occur during PPI. In piano playing, extra blood flow is needed in the brain as well as the
playing mechanism; therefore, blood flow can be increased by making sure that both the brain and the body
are fully and simultaneously exercised during practice. This will cause the body to manufacture more blood,
simply because more blood is needed. Mindless repetitions of scales, etc., are harmful in this respect because you
can shut off the brain part, thus reducing the need for more blood. Practicing after a large meal also increase the
blood supply and conversely, resting after every meal will reduce stamina. Since most people do not have enough
blood to engage in strenuous activity with a full stomach, your body will rebel by making you feel terrible, but this
is just an expected reaction. Once the body manufactures the necessary extra blood, this terrible feeling will not
return. Therefore, you should stay as active as you can after a meal. Practicing immediately after a meal will require
blood for digestion, for the playing muscles, and for the brain, thus placing the greatest demand on blood supply.
Clearly, participation in sports activities, proper health, and exercise are also helpful for gaining stamina in piano
playing.
In summary, beginners who have never touched a piano previously will need to work up their stamina gradually,
because piano practice is strenuous work. Parents must be careful about the practice time of very young beginners;
allow them to quit or take a rest when they get tired. Never allow a sick child to practice piano, even easy pieces,
because of the risk of aggravating the illness and of brain damage. At any skill level, we all have more muscle than
we need to play the piano pieces at our level. Even professional pianists who practice 6 hours every day don’t end
up looking like Popeye. Franz Liszt was thin, not muscular at all. Thus acquiring technique and stamina is not a
matter of building muscle, but of learning how to relax and to use our energy properly.
1.2.22 Bad Habits: A Pianist’s Worst Enemy
Bad habits are the worst time wasters in piano practice. Most bad habits are caused by stress from practicing
pieces that are too difficult. Therefore be careful not to over practice a passage that is too difficult, especially HT.
This can even lead to injuries. HT practice is the greatest single cause of bad habits and speed walls. This is why,
Updated:
November 21, 2004
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in this section, the HT methods are described at the end. Many of the bad habits from HT practice are difficult to
diagnose, which makes them that much more perverse.
Another bad habit is the over-use of the damper or soft pedal, as discussed below. This is the surest sign of
an amateur student taking lessons with an unqualified teacher. Overuse of these pedals can only help a severely
technically deficient student.
Stuttering is caused by stop-and-go practice in which a student stops and replays a section every time there is
a mistake. If you make a mistake, always play through it; don’t stop to correct it. Simply make a mental note of
where the mistake was and play that section again later to see if the mistake repeats. If it does, just fish out a small
segment containing that mistake and work on it. Once you cultivate the habit of playing through mistakes you can
graduate to the next level in which you anticipate mistakes (feel their approach before they occur) and take evasive
action, such as slowing down, simplifying the section, or just maintaining the rhythm. Most audiences don’t mind,
and often don’t even hear, mistakes unless the rhythm is broken.
The worst thing about bad habits is that they take so long to eliminate, especially if they are HT habits. Therefore nothing accelerates your learning rate like knowing all the bad habits and preventing them before they become
ingrained. For example, the time to prevent stuttering is when a student first begins piano lessons. If playing
through mistakes is taught at this stage, it becomes second nature and is very easy. To teach a stutterer to play
through mistakes is a very difficult task.
Another bad habit is to bang away at the piano without regard to musicality. This often results because the
student is so engrossed with the practice that s/he forgets to listen to the sounds coming out of the piano. This can
be prevented by cultivating the habit of always listening to yourself play. Listening to yourself is much harder than
many people realize because many students expend all their effort playing, with nothing left for listening. Also, you
tend to hear what you think you want to play; therefore, what you hear may not be what you are actually playing.
One way to reduce this problem is to record your playing so that you can listen to it later in a mentally detached
way. Then there are those with weak fingers. This is most common among beginners and is more easily corrected
than those who bang too loud.
Still another bad habit is always playing at the wrong speed, either too fast or too slow. The right speed is determined by many factors, including the difficulty of the piece in respect to your technical ability, what the audience
might be expecting, the condition of the piano, what piece preceded or will follow this piece, etc. Some students
might tend to perform pieces too fast for their skill level, while others are timid and play too slowly. Thoses who
perform too fast can become very discouraged because they make too many mistakes and become convinced that
they are poor performers. Timid players can also be psychologically affected by their own music, which will make
them feel even more timid. These effects apply not only to performances but also to practices.
Poor tone quality is another common problem. Most of the time, during practice, no one is listening, so tone
doesn’t seem to matter. As a result, if the tone degrades slightly, it does not bother the student, with the result that
the tone is totally ignored after some time. Students must always strive for tone, no matter how good they think it
is. Listening to good recordings is the best way to wake up the student to the existence of good tone. If they only
listen to their play, they may have no idea what good tone means. On the other hand, once you pay attention to
tone and start getting results, it will feed on itself and you can readily learn the art of producing sounds that can
attract an audience.
The number of possible bad habits is so large that they cannot all be discussed here. Suffice it so say that a
rigorous anti-virus attitude towards bad habits is a requisite to rapid improvement.
1.2.23 Damper Pedal
Beginners often over-use the damper pedal. The obvious rule is, if the music doesn’t indicate a pedal, don’t use it.
Some pieces might seem easier to play with the pedal, especially if you start slowly HT, but this is one of the worst
traps a rank beginner can fall into that will truly hold back development. The action feels lighter with the damper
pedal down because the foot is holding the dampers up instead of the fingers. Thus the action feels heavier when
the pedal is released, especially for fast sections. This forms a trap that gradually sucks the beginner into using
more damper pedal for fast parts. What these students do not realize is that where pedals are not indicated, it is
impossible to play the music correctly at speed if you use the pedal.
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
25
Those who use HS practice will rarely fall into this trap because the method gets you up to speed so quickly that
you can immediately see that the pedal doesn’t belong there. This is another trap that frequently catches students
who use the intuitive method. Because they start playing slowly at first, use of the pedal doesn’t sound so bad and
they get into the habit of practicing with the pedal. Only when they get up to speed, do they realize that the notes
are all running into each other and they now have to get rid of a bad, established habit. For Für Elise, use the
pedal only for the large LH broken chords and the one RH arpeggio. Practically all of the two difficult interruptions
(except for this arpeggio) should be played without the pedal. Even the parts requiring the pedal should initially
be practiced without the pedal until you have basically finished the piece. This will encourage the good habit of
keeping the fingers close to the keys and discourage the bad habit of playing with too much jumping and lifting of
the hands, and not pressing firmly into the keys.
Coordinating the pedal and hands accurately is not an easy task. Therefore, students who start learning a piece
HT with the pedal will invariably end up with terrible pedal habits. The correct procedure is to practice HS first
without pedal, then HS with pedal, then HT without pedal, and finally HT with pedal. In this way, you can concentrate on each new element as you introduce it into your playing.
Another point about the pedal is that it must be “played” just as carefully as you play the keys with the fingers.
See the references for all the different ways to pedal, when to use them, and how to practice those moves. Make sure
that you master all these moves before using the pedal with an actual piece of music. There are some very helpful
exercises in the references for practicing proper pedaling. When you do use the pedal, know exactly which move
you are using and why. For example, if you want as many sympathetic strings to vibrate as possible, depress the
pedal before playing the note. If, on the other hand, you want just one clear note to sustain, press the pedal after
playing the note; the longer you delay the pedal, the fewer sympathetic vibrations you will get (clearer note — see
the following section for more detailed explanations). In general, you should get into the habit of depressing the
pedal a split second after playing the note. You can get a legato effect without too much blurring by rapidly lifting
and depressing the pedal every time the chord changes. It is just as important to know when to lift the pedal as
when to press it down.
Inattention to the pedal can slow down technical development much more than many students realize; conversely, attention to the pedal can help technical development by increasing the over-all accuracy of what you are
doing. When you do one thing wrong, it becomes difficult to do all the other things right. When the pedal is wrong,
you can’t even practice the correct finger technique because the music comes out wrong even when the fingers are
technically correct.
Most of the HS practice should be done without the pedal, even when the pedal is indicated. While practicing
HS, you are only trying to figure out how to move the fingers and manage the passage; you are not trying to make
music yet, so the pedal is just an unnecessary interference. The most important reason for not using the pedal at
this stage is that technique improves fastest without the pedal because you can hear exactly what you play without
interference from previously played notes. Also, the keys feel a little heavier without the pedal, as explained above.
This extra workout (without the pedal) makes the playing easier when the pedal is added later.
1.2.24 Soft Pedal, Timbre, and Normal Modes of Vibrating Strings
The soft pedal is used to change the mood of the sound from more percussive (without the soft pedal) to more
serene and gentle for grand pianos (soft pedal depressed). For uprights, it mostly makes the sound softer. For
grands, it should not be used solely to reduce the intensity of the sound because it will also change the timbre. In
order to play pianissimo, you will just have to learn how to play softly. Another property of the grand is that very
loud sounds can be made with the soft pedal depressed. The soft pedal on most uprights has only a negligibly small
effect on timbre. The upright cannot produce loud sounds with the soft pedal depressed. These changes in timbre
will be explained in more detail below. One difficulty with the use of the soft pedal is that it (una corda, or more
correctly due corda for the modern grand) is often not indicated, so the decision to use it is often left to the pianist.
A frequently overlooked point concerning the soft pedal is hammer voicing. If you tend to need the soft pedal
to play softly, or if it is distinctly easier to play pianissimo with the grand lid closed, the hammer almost certainly
needs voicing. See the subsection on “Voicing” in section 2.7.1. With properly voiced hammers, you should be able
to control soft playing to any desired degree without the soft pedal. With worn, compacted, hammers, playing softly
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is impossible and the soft pedal has much less effect in changing the tone. In that case, the soft pedal mostly helps
you to play softly and the sound will have a percussive component even with the soft pedal. Therefore, with worn
hammers, you lose both the ability to play softly and the truly wonderful timbre change of the soft pedal. In most
cases, the original properties of the hammer can be easily restored with simple voicing (re-shaping and needling).
The uncertainties concerning the condition of the hammer are partly responsible for why the use of the soft
pedal is so controversial, since many performing pianists do use it just to play softly. As shown in the section on
“Voicing”, energy transfer from the hammer to the string is most efficient when the string motion is still small. A
compacted hammer transfers most of its energy in this range. That is why you can find so many old large grands that
feel feather light. Soft hammers on the same piano (with nothing else changed), would make the action feel much
heavier. This is because, with the softer impact point of the hammer, the string is lifted far from its original position
before the hammer energy starts to transfer to the string. In this position, the energy transfer is more inefficient and
the pianist has to push harder to produce any sound. Clearly, the effective key weight is only partly controlled by the
force required to depress the key, since it also depends on the force required to produce a given amount of sound.
In other words, the piano technician must strike a compromise between voicing a hammer sufficiently soft so as to
produce a pleasant tone and sufficiently hard so as to produce adequate sound. For all except the highest quality
pianos, the hammer needs to be on the hard side in order to produce sufficient sound and to make the action feel
nimble, which makes it difficult to play softly. This in turn can “justify” use of the soft pedal where it otherwise
shouldn’t be used.
In most uprights, the soft pedal causes all the hammers to move closer to the strings, thus restricting hammer
motion and decreasing volume. Unlike the grands, loud sounds cannot be produced in an upright when the soft
pedal is depressed. One advantage of uprights is that a partial soft pedal works. There are a few uprights in which
the soft pedal works similarly to that of the grands.
In modern grands, the soft pedal causes the entire action to shift to the right by one-half string distance (the
distance between strings of the same note in the 3-string section). This causes the hammer to hit only two of the
three strings, causing a serendipitous transformation in the character of the sound. The horizontal motion must not
move one string distance because then the strings will fall into the grooves made by adjacent strings. Since string
distances cannot be controlled sufficiently accurately, this would cause some strings to fall exactly into the grooves
while others will miss, creating uneven sound. Also, by hitting the less used portions of the hammer between string
grooves, you get an even gentler sound. In order to understand the change in timbre with the soft pedal, we must
study the acoustical mechanics of coupled vibrating strings (see Scientific American reference).
Almost all of the piano sound we hear is produced by what is called normal modes in mechanics. This is the
reason why the piano sound consists mostly of the fundamental and its harmonics. Normal modes can always be
decomposed into components in two orthogonal planes; say, vertical and horizontal. Furthermore, these oscillations have wavelengths that are integer fractions of the string length. Why does the string oscillate in normal modes
instead of producing a whole jumble of every conceivable wavelength? At the instant that the hammer hits, it does
produce a lot of these. If you place your hand on the piano, you can feel the piano “shudder” for an instant. But this
is like “white noise”, energy spread over a wide frequency spectrum, and the component of that energy that is within
the auditory range is not sufficient to produce a significant amount of what our ears interpret as sound. What happens is that most of this energy quickly escapes out of the strings through the ends, after only a few vibrations. This
happens in milliseconds, too short a time for the ear to hear anything.
The only energies trapped in the strings are those in the normal modes. Why? Because in normal modes,
the ends of the strings are nodes: regions of the string that do not move. Since no transverse energy can be
transmitted across a string that is motionless, only the normal modes are trapped within the string. But not quite
— the ends of the piano string are not ideal (absolutely motionless) nodes. The bridge and hitch pins are designed
with just enough flexibility so that a controlled amount of energy is delivered to the soundboard. This is how the
piano produces the fundamental frequency and its harmonics. Only exact harmonics are trapped because these
are the only vibrations whose nodes coincide with those of the fundamental at the ends of the string. Since the
hammer strikes the string in the vertical plane, all the normal modes are, initially, also in the vertical plane. An
inexpensive piano is not constructed as rigidly or with as heavy material as an expensive piano and therefore has
looser nodes, allowing more energy to escape. Since energy escapes quickly, a cheap piano also has less sustain. A
larger piano can produce more sound because the longer strings, with more tension, can store more energy and,
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
27
at the same time, the more rigid nodes of the heavier, better built pianos allow less energy to escape, producing a
longer sustain.
What are the normal modes of three parallel strings whose ends are coupled by placing them close together
at the bridge? These strings can all move in the same direction, thus pulling the piano in that direction, or move
opposite to each other, in which case the piano does not move. The opposing motions are called symmetric modes
because the strings move symmetrically in opposite directions about the center of gravity of the three strings. The
center of gravity is stationary during these motions. Since it requires a lot of energy to move the piano, the nonsymmetric modes quickly dissipate, leaving only the symmetric modes as possible normal modes of a 3-wire system. There is only one vertical normal mode for a three string system: the center string moves in one direction
while the two side strings move in the opposite direction with half the amplitude. There are two horizontal normal
modes: the one in which the center string is stationary and the side strings move in opposite directions, and the
one in which the center string moves in one direction while the other two move in the opposite direction at half the
amplitude. For a two-string system, there is no vertical normal mode! The one in which one string moves up and
the other moves down is not symmetric; it twists the piano. The only possible horizontal mode for two strings is the
one in which they move in opposite directions. The lack of symmetric normal modes is one reason why the fundamentals are so weak in the two and one string sections in the bass; however, they can sustain strong harmonics.
The actual motion of the strings can be any combination of these normal modes. The different admixtures of the
normal modes determine the polarization of the oscillations. The polarizations change with time and this change
controls the nature of the piano sound, especially things like undesirable beats.
Now we can explain what happens when the hammer hits a three string system. It initially produces mostly the
vertical normal modes. Since these vertical modes couple efficiently with the soundboard (which is most flexible
in that direction; i.e., it is thinnest in this direction), a loud “prompt” sound is produced. Because of the high
coupling efficiency, the soundboard vibrates actively like a drum, producing a drum-like percussive sound. Now,
because the piano is not symmetrical on both sides of the strings, some sideways motions are created by the vertical
oscillations, which transfer energy from the vertical modes into the horizontal modes. These new modes transfer
energy poorly to the soundboard, which is “thickest” in the horizontal direction and cannot vibrate horizontally.
This also excites a different set of vibrational modes of the soundboard, thus changing the timbre of the sound.
Therefore the horizontal modes survive much longer than the vertical modes and produce the “after sound” which
has a longer sustain and a different character (Scientific American article, p. 120). Therefore, when the three strings
are struck, there will be a percussive prompt sound followed by a gentler after sound.
Note that the prompt sound has two components, the initial “noise bang” associated with the white noise of
the hammer strike that produces large numbers of travelling waves and anharmonic vibrations, and the following
prompt sound made principally by the normal modes. Because the instantaneous volume of this impact sound can
be so high, it is probably this initial sound spike that is most damaging to the ear, especially from worn hammers
that release most of their energies during the initial impact. See “Voicing” in section 2.7.1 for details of the interaction of worn hammers with the string. For pianos with such worn hammers, it may in fact be wise to close the lid
(as the majority of their owners probably do because of the painful effect on their ears). Of course, nothing beats
getting the hammers properly voiced.
The above explanations are obviously greatly oversimplified. Even the Scientific American article referenced is
totally inadequate in explaining the real workings of a 3-string system. That article deals mostly with the motions
of one string and discusses two string interactions for ideal, simplified cases. There is no treatment of a real 3-string
system. Most discussions on string vibrations are concerned with transverse motions of the strings because those
motions are the most visible and they explain the existence of the fundamental and harmonics. Although nodes
do not transfer transverse motions, they do transfer tensile forces. The discussions in the “Voicing” section make
it clear that tensile forces cannot be ignored since they are much larger than the transverse forces and might well
dominate the acoustics of the piano. Also, the conclusions of the normal mode discussions presented above depend
greatly on the coupling constant. For small coupling constants, the system becomes a superposition of coupled and
uncoupled motions which allows many more modes. Thus the above discussions give only a qualitative flavor of
what might be happening and give neither a quantitative, nor even a correct mechanistic, description of a real
piano.
This type of understanding of piano acoustics helps us find the proper ways to use the damper pedal. If the
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
pedal is depressed before a note is played, the initial “white noise” will excite all strings, creating a soft background
roar. If you place your finger on any string, you can feel it vibrate. However, octave and harmonic strings will
vibrate with higher amplitudes than the dissonant strings. This indicates that the initial “white noise” is not white
but favors the normal modes. This is expected because the ends of the string are held still while the hammer strikes,
thus discouraging the excitation of non-normal mode vibrations. Thus the piano not only selectively traps normal
modes, but also selectively generates them. Now if the pedal is depressed after the note is struck, there will be
sympathetic vibration in octave and harmonic strings, but the unrelated strings will be almost totally quiet. This
produces a clear sustained note. The lesson here is that, in general, the pedal should be depressed immediately
after striking the note, not before. This is a good habit to cultivate.
Many of the above explanations can be proven experimentally. The motions of the strings can be measured
directly by a number of readily available instruments. A second method is to make use of the fact that the string
vibrations are linear processes; i.e. they decay exponentially with time. Thus when the sound decay is plotted
on a logarithmic scale, you get a straight line (see Scientific American reference). However, when so plotted, one
gets two straight lines, an initial line with a steep slope (faster decay), followed by another one with a less steep
slope. These two lines coincide with our perception of prompt and after sounds. The fact that these lines are so
straight tells us that our linear model is very accurate. In linear systems, the existence of two straight lines also
proves that they originate from two distinct mechanisms (in this case, different types of vibration). Because the
string vibrations are not sufficiently violent to materially distort the piano, the transfer rate of vertical vibrational
energy to the horizontal vibrations is a constant. This explains why the ratio of prompt sound to after sound is
independent of loudness; i.e., you cannot change the timbre by just playing softly. However, there is one caveat.
Timbre is controlled by at least two factors: the prompt/after-sound ratio just discussed, and the harmonic content.
The harmonic content does depend on loudness. When the hammer strikes a string with higher force, the string
becomes more distorted, which creates more high frequency components in the sound. This higher harmonic
content makes the sound brighter or harsher. In practice, the condition of the hammer controls the harmonic
content much more than the loudness. Therefore, proper voicing is necessary in order to produce the pleasant
piano tone, especially for loud sounds.
The unstruck string plays an important role in producing the una corda sound. This string acts as a reservoir
into which the other two strings can dump their energy. Since the vibration of the 3rd string is in anti-phase (a
driven string is in anti-phase with the driver), it takes the edge off the initial prompt sound and at the same time,
excites vibrational modes that are different from those that result when all three are struck in unison. This is why
the soft pedal in uprights doesn’t work as well — all the strings are struck even when the soft pedal is depressed.
Can you use a half soft pedal on a grand? This should not be controversial, but is. If you use a partial pedal, you
will of course get a new sound. There is no reason why a pianist shouldn’t be allowed to do that, and if it produces
an interesting new effect, there is nothing wrong in that. However, this mode of play was not intentionally designed
into the piano and I know of no composer who composed for half soft pedal on a grand. Note that extensive use of
partial soft pedals on the grand will cause the string to shave off one side of the hammer. Also, it is impossible for
the piano technician to regulate the piano in such a way that the third string will always miss the hammer at the
same pedal travel for all the hammers at the same time. Thus the effect will be uneven, and different from piano to
piano. Therefore, unless you have experimented and are trying to produce some strange new effect, half-pedaling
is not recommended for the soft pedal on a grand. Nonetheless, anecdotal accounts seem to indicate that use of
partial soft pedal on a grand does occur, probably because of ignorance on the part of the pianist about how it
works.
In the double and single string sections, the strings have much larger diameters, so when the action moves
sideways, the strings hit the side walls of the grooves, thus giving them a horizontal motion and increasing the after
sound component. This mechanism is indeed fiendishly ingenious!
The need to excite large vertical normal modes for loud sounds explains why the loudest piano sounds are
produced by rapid double strikes. This is why so many pieces of music with loud endings frequently finish with
full, double strike, chords. Since the hammer hits the strings close to one end, the initial hit creates running waves
traveling down the string. If the hammer is struck again immediately after the first strike, a new wave of energy
is supplied, producing a louder sound. This second wave does not dissipate rapidly like the first wave because all
available oscillation modes have already been excited. Thus the second strike produces the loudest sound that a
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
29
piano can make. A third strike becomes unpredictable because the strings are now moving and the strings and
hammer can be out of phase, in which case the third strike can deaden the sound.
In summary, the name soft pedal is a misnomer for a grand. Its main effect is to change the timbre of the sound.
If you play a loud sound with the soft pedal depressed, it will be almost as loud as without the soft pedal. This is
because you have put roughly the same amount of energy into making the sound. On the other hand, it is easier to
play softly using the soft pedal on most pianos. Provided that the hammer is in good condition, you should be able
to play just as softly without the soft pedal. A partial soft pedal will produce all sorts of unpredictable, uneven
effects and should not be used for a grand.
1.2.25 Hands Together: Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu
We can now finally start putting the hands together (HT)! This is where some students encounter the most difficulties, especially in the first few years of piano lessons. Although the methods presented here should immediately help you to acquire technique faster, it will take about two years for you to be able to really take advantage
of everything that the methods of this book has to offer, especially for someone who has been using the intuitive
method. Therefore, work on learning the method as much as using it to learn a particular piece of music. The main
question here is, what must we do in order to be able to play HT quickly? In answering that question, we will learn
why we devoted so much of this section on HS practice. As we shall soon see, putting HT is not difficult if you know
how.
Playing HT is almost like trying to think about two different things at the same time. There is no known, preprogrammed coordination between the two hands like we have between our two eyes (for judging distance), our
ears (for determining the direction of oncoming sound) or our legs/arms (for walking). Therefore, learning to coordinate the two hands accurately is going to take some work. The preceding HS work makes this coordination much
easier to learn because we now only have to concentrate on coordinating, and not coordinating AND developing
finger/hand technique at the same time.
The good news is that there is only one primary “secret” for learning HT quickly (of course, there are numerous other tricks, such as the “adding notes” method, outlining, etc., discussed below). That “secret” is adequate
HS work. All technique acquisition must be done HS. Putting it another way, don’t try to acquire technique HT
that you can acquire HS. By now, the reasons should be obvious. If you try to acquire technique HT that you can
acquire HS, you will run into problems such as (1) developing stress, (2) unbalancing the hands (the RH tends to get
stronger), (3) acquiring bad habits, especially incorrect fingerings, that are impossible to change later on, (4) creating speed walls, (5) incorporating mistakes, etc. Note that all speed walls are created; they result from incorrect
play or stress. Therefore everybody has a different set of speed walls. Premature HT practice can create any number
of speed walls. Incorrect fingering is another major problem; some fingerings appear more natural when played
slowly HT but become impossible when speeded up. The best example of this is “thumb under” play (section 1.3.5).
What this boils down to is that you will need some criterion for deciding when you have done adequate HS
practice. The first criterion is HS speed. Typically, the maximum HT speed you can play is 50% to 90% of the slower
HS speed. This slower speed is usually the LH. Suppose that you can play the RH at speed 10 and the LH at speed 9.
Then your maximum HT speed may be 7. The quickest way to raise this HT speed to 9 would be to raise the RH
speed to 12 and the LH speed to 11. Don’t try to raise it HT. Raising the speed HT is probably the biggest cause
of problems with the intuitive method. As a general rule, get the HS speed up to about 50% above final speed.
Therefore, the criterion we were seeking above is this; if you can play HS at about 150% of final speed, relaxed, and
in control, then you are ready for HT practice. Do not take this “150%” too literally; it is not necessary to measure
the HS speed with a metronome. Just make sure that the HS speed is much faster than HT, then try HT. If you still
have trouble, go back to HS and raise its speed a little more. If you had done sufficient HS work, the HT play will
come very quickly.
There is a world of difference in how the brain handles tasks in one hand and tasks that require two-hand
coordination. HS practice improves your ability to manipulate one hand. It does not tend to form habits not
directly controlled by the brain because the brain controls each function directly. HT motions, on the other hand,
can be cultivated only by repetition, creating a reflex habit. One indication of that is the fact that HT motions take
longer to learn. Therefore, bad HT habits are the worst because, once formed, they take forever to eliminate.
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The best way to acquire technique quickly is to avoid this category of bad habits. This is why it is so important to
delay HT practice until you are sure that the HS preparation is adequate.
The ability to coordinate, yet independently control, the two hands is one of the hardest skills to learn in piano.
The flip side is that this makes HT habits nearly impossible to undo — nobody has yet figured out a way to erase
HT habits quickly. This is the main reason why so many students spend so much time trying to learn HT — they
transition to HT before they are ready and end up trying to acquire technique HT. Now, this does not mean that you
should never try HT in the beginning; you can start preliminary HT work at any time — just don’t try to improve
technique HT yet. HS practice is fundamentally different; you can change fingerings and hand motions relatively
quickly. You can increase speed with much less chance of picking up bad habits. But it is not enough to get up
just to final speed HS; you must be able to play much faster before you are ready for HT. Only by going to such
fast speeds can you guarantee that all your finger/hand/arm positions and motions are optimized. If you perform
enough preparatory HS work, you will find that HT play at final speed comes surprisingly quickly and easily. You
have effectively scaled all potential HT speed walls by avoiding the mistakes that create them. For example, you can
cultivate accurate chords and jumps best HS. It can be forbiddingly difficult to practice fast runs, accurate chords,
or jumps HT, and there is no need to create such difficulties.
So here is a suggested routine for ensuring adequate HS work. Suppose that the final speed is 100. First, memorize and learn HS to 80 or even 100 (whole piece, or a large section, at least several pages; doesn’t have to be perfect
at this stage). This may take two or three days. Then start HT at 30 to 50. The objectives are (1) memorize HT,
(2) make sure that the fingerings, hand positions, etc., work HT. This may take another day or two. You will in general need to make some modifications, such as when the two hands collide or one needs to cross over/under the
other, etc. Then work on the technically difficult sections HS to speeds over 100. When you can comfortably play at
speeds of 120 to 150, you are now ready to seriously start practicing HT. Vary HT practice speed; as soon as you start
to get confused HT, clear up the confusion using HS play. For difficult material, you will be alternating between HS
and HT for days, if not weeks, with the HT progressively taking over. As you improve HT play, always keep the HS
play well ahead of the HT speed, because this is the fastest way to improve HT.
Now we can understand why some students get into trouble when they try to learn pieces that are too difficult
by practicing mostly HT. The result is an unplayable piece full of stress, speed walls and bad habits that completely
block any improvement because the problem motions are locked in. If this happens, no amount of practice will
help. By contrast, there is nothing that is too difficult with the methods of this book (within reason). But it is
still not a good idea to tackle pieces that are too far above your skill level because of the tremendous amount of HS
practice that will be needed before you can start HT. Many people would become impatient, start HT or abandon
HS prematurely, and end up getting into trouble anyway.
There are more benefits to acquiring technique HS before HT, in addition to saving time and trouble. (1) You
will develop the independence of the two hands which is so necessary for controlling the expression. (2) You will
find that the piece will have a much more solid foundation than if you started HT too early, and you will feel that
there is better control. (3) You can more easily play through mistakes or hide them. If you had learned the piece HT
only and one hand makes a mistake, the other hand will stop. But if you had learned it HS first, then the other hand
can keep going; in fact, you can often change fingerings as you play. (4) You will memorize it much better with fewer
blackouts. (5) Best of all, you will acquire technique that you could not acquire by practicing only HT. Because you
can play much faster HS than HT, you can acquire technique HS that you cannot even dream of, playing HT. It is
this extra technique that builds a solid foundation for controlled HT playing. (6) If you can play accurately at 150%
of performance speed HS, you will find that nervousness during the performance will be greatly reduced because
of the increased confidence that you can handle the piece. In fact, using this method, you should eventually be able
to play the piece at far above performance speed, which is what you need to do in order to have adequate control.
Most of the HT practice procedures are similar to the HS methods (shorten difficult passages, continuity rule,
rules for fast and slow play, relaxation, etc.). Therefore, although there appears to be relatively few HT rules stated
here compared to the HS section, you already know many of them from the HS section. There is no need to repeat
them here because you will readily recognize their applicability if you had carefully studied the HS section.
As stated earlier, there are additional HT methods that can help. One is outlining, discussed in section 1.3.8.
Another is the method of “adding notes”. Suppose that you had followed all of the above procedures, but still have
trouble playing HT. That is, you can play HS at much faster speeds than final speed, yet HT does not work. Then
1.2. BASIC PROCEDURES FOR PIANO PRACTICE
31
try the following. Take a short segment of the difficult section. Then play the more difficult hand HS, repeating it
continuously (this is called cycling, see section 1.3.2). Now start adding the easier hand note by note; first add only
one note, until you can play it satisfactorily. Then add another, etc., until the segment is complete. Very often, the
reason why you cannot play HT although you can play HS is that there is an error in one hand. Frequently, this error
is in the rhythm. Therefore, as you add notes, try to find out if there is a rhythmic error in one hand.
Another source of HT difficulty is insufficient memorization. Note that HS memorization and HT memorization
is not the same thing. Therefore, just because you have it memorized HS does not mean that you have memorized
it HT. When you transition to HT, you need to memorize it all over again, although it should go much faster this
time. It is a mistake to assume that, because you know it inside out HS, you also know it HT.
Let us now proceed with a real life example of how to practice HT. I have chosen a non-trivial example to
illustrate HT methods, because if the method works, it should work with anything. This is Chopin’s FantaisieImpromptu, op. 66. This example is good because (1) everyone likes this composition, (2) without good learning
methods it can seem impossible to learn, (3) the exhilaration of suddenly being able to play it is unmatched, (4) the
challenges of the piece are ideal for illustration purposes, and (5) this is the kind of piece that you will be working
on all your life in order to do “incredible things” with it, so you might as well start now! In reality, this is a fairly
easy piece to learn! Most students who have difficulty do so because they can’t get started and the initial hurdle
produces a mental block that makes them doubt their ability to play this piece. There is no better demonstration
of the efficacy of the methods of this book than showing how easily you can learn this composition. For somewhat
easier pieces, see section 1.3.6.12 (Bach’s Inventions).
We start by making sure that you have done all the preliminary homework with HS practice. Although the last
page might be most difficult, we will break the rule about starting at the end and start at the beginning because
this piece is difficult to start correctly but, once started, sort of takes care of itself. You need a strong, confident
beginning. So we will start with the first two pages, up to the slow cantabile part. The LH stretch and continuous
workout makes endurance a major issue. Those without sufficient experience and especially those with smaller
hands, may need to work on the LH for weeks before it becomes satisfactory. Fortunately, the LH is not that fast,
so speed is not a limiting factor and most students should be able to play the LH HS faster than final speed in less
than two weeks, completely relaxed, without fatigue.
For bar 5 where the RH first comes in, the suggested LH fingering is 532124542123. You might start by practicing
bar 5, LH, by cycling it continually until you can play it well. See section 1.3.7.5 for how to stretch your palm — you
should stretch the palm during playing, not the fingers, which can lead to stress and injury. We all know that you can
spread the fingers to increase your reach. However, you also have a separate set of palm muscles just for spreading
the palm. Learn to use these two sets of muscles independently: the palm muscles for spreading only and the
fingers for playing.
Practice without the pedal. First a few bars, then the entire section (up to the cantabile), all memorized and up
to speed, HS.
Practice in small segments. Suggested segments are: bars 1–4, 5–6, 1st half of 7, 2nd half of 7, 8, 10 (skip 9 which
is the same as 5), 11, 12, 13–14, 15–16, 19–20, 21–22, 30–32, 33–34, then 2 chords in 35. If you cannot reach the
2nd chord, play it as a very fast ascending broken chord, with emphasis on the top note. After each segment is
memorized and satisfactory, connect them in pairs. Then play the whole LH from memory by starting from the
beginning and adding segments. Bring it up to final speed.
When you can play this entire section (LH only) twice in succession, relaxed, without feeling tired, you have the
necessary endurance. At this point, it is a lot of fun to go much faster than final speed. In preparation for HT work,
get up to about 1.5 times final speed. Raise the wrist slightly when playing the pinky and lower it as you approach
the thumb. By raising the wrist, you will find that you can put more power into the pinky, and by lowering the wrist
you avoid missing the thumb note. In Chopin’s music, the pinky and thumb (but especially the pinky) notes are
most important, so practice playing them with authority. The Cartwheel method, explained in section 1.3.5, may
be useful here.
When you are satisfied with it, insert the pedal; basically, the pedal should be cut with every chord change which
generally occurs either once every bar or twice every bar. The pedal is a rapid up and down (“cutting the sound”)
motion at the first beat, but you can lift the pedal earlier for special effects. For the wide LH stretch in the second
half of bar 14 (starting with E2), the fingering is 532124 if you can reach it comfortably. If not, use 521214. The
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thumb under method (see section 1.3.5) should be used here.
At the same time, you should have been practicing the RH, switching hands as soon as the working hand feels
slightly tired. The routines are almost identical to those for the LH, including the initial practice without the pedal.
Start by splitting bar 5 into two halves and learn each half separately up to speed, and then join them. For the rising
arpeggio in bar 7, use the thumb over method, not thumb under because it is too fast to be played thumb under.
Although you may not be playing it that fast now, you will eventually play it much faster. The fingering should be
such that both hands tend to play the pinky or thumb at the same time; this makes it easier to play HT. This is why
it is not a good idea to fool around with the fingerings of the LH — use the fingerings as marked on the score.
Now practice HT. You can start with either the first or second half of bar 5 where the RH comes in for the first
time. The second half is probably easier because of the smaller stretch of the LH and there is no timing problem
with the missing first note in the RH, so let’s start with that. The easiest way to learn the 3, 4 timing is to do it at
speed from the beginning. Don’t try to slow down and figure out where each note should go, because too much
of that will introduce an unevenness in your playing that you may have a hard time eliminating later on. Here
we use the “cycling” method — see “Cycling” in section 1.3.2 for more details. First, cycle the six notes of the LH
continually, without stopping (no pedal). Then switch hands and do the same for the eight notes of the RH, at
the same (final) tempo as you did for the LH. Next cycle only the LH several times, and then let the RH join in.
Initially, you only need to match the first notes accurately; don’t worry if the others aren’t quite right. In a few tries,
you should be able to play HT fairly well. If not, stop and start all over again, cycling HS. Since almost the whole
composition is made up of things like the segment you just practiced, it pays to practice this well, until you are
very comfortable. To accomplish this, change the speed. Go very fast, then very slow. As you slow down, you will
be able to take notice of where all the notes fit with respect to each other. You will find that fast is not necessarily
difficult, and slower is not always easier. Now add the pedal. This is when you should develop the habit of accurately
pumping the pedal.
If you are satisfied with the second half of bar 5, repeat the same procedure for the first half. Then assemble
the two halves together. You now have all the tools to learn the rest of this composition by yourself! It should be
clear from this example that the general methodologies for HT practice are essentially parallel to those for HS
practice. Therefore, the best way to learn HT practice is to learn the HS rules well. And it will pay handsomely if
you can put HT at final speed instead of slowly at first. But this is not an absolute rule. For some pieces it may be
better to slow down. In the above example, it was best to start HT at speed because of the 3, 4 timing problem.
The cantabile section is just the same thing repeated four times. Therefore, learn (and memorize) the 4th repetition first, and the rest will be easy. The quickest way to learn the 4th repetition is to first analyze and partially learn
the beginning (1st repetition) since it is simpler and easier to analyze. As with many Chopin pieces, memorizing
the LH well is the quickest way for building a firm foundation for memorizing because the LH usually has a simpler
structure that is easier to analyze, memorize and play. This is because Chopin will often create several versions of
the RH while repeating essentially the same notes in the LH.
The trill in the 1st bar (4th repetition), combined with the 2, 3 timing, makes the 2nd half of this bar difficult.
Practice it first without the trill. Since there are 4 repetitions, you might play it without the trill the first repetition,
then an inverted mordent the 2nd time, a short trill the 3rd, and a longer trill the last time around. This will make it
much easier to play than trying to trill it all four times.
The third section is similar to the first section, so if you managed to learn the first section, you are almost home
free. Note that in the final 20 bars or so, the RH pinky and thumb carry notes of major thematic value, all the way
to the end. This section may require a lot of HS practice with the RH.
The 3, 4 timing is a mathematical device Chopin used to produce the illusion of hyper-speed in this piece. The
mathematical explanations and additional salient points of this composition are further discussed under “Cycling”
in section 1.3.2. You will probably practice this composition HS for years after you initially complete the piece
because it is so much fun to experiment with this fascinating composition.
If you play any composition at full speed (or faster) too often, you may suffer what I call “fast play degradation”
(FPD). The following day, you might find that you can’t play it as well any more, or during practice, you can’t make
any progress. This happens mostly with HT play. HS play is more immune to FPD and can in fact be used to correct
it. FPD occurs probably because the human playing mechanism (hands, brain, etc) gets confused at such speeds,
and therefore occurs only for complex procedures such as HT play of conceptually or technically difficult pieces.
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
33
Easy pieces do not suffer FPD. FPD can create enormous problems with complex music like Bach’s or Mozart’s
compositions. Students who try to speed them up HT can run into all sorts of problems, and so the standard
solution is to simply keep practicing slowly. However, there is a neat solution to this problem — increase speed
using HS practice!
One disadvantage of the HS-HT approach is that practically all technique acquisition is accomplished HS, possibly resulting in poorly synchronized HT play. Therefore you should be aware of this possibility and practice HT
with the objective of attaining very accurate synchronization of the two hands.
1.2.26 Summary
This concludes the basic section. You have the essentials to devise routines for learning practically any new piece.
This is the minimum set of instructions you need to get started. However, note that the simplicity of each topic
belies the endless possibilities that they present. It is important to understand that each procedure may have a
myriad of uses and to constantly learn these new applications as you come across them, and to keep your eyes
open for new possibilities. Take HS practice, for example. It is not just a method for learning quickly, but is useful
for practicing as hard as you want without risking injury and it is used for removing hand memory and substituting
it with more permanent memory that you can depend on for recovering from blackouts. It helps you to analyze a
composition and its underlying simplifying concepts, it is used to balance the hands so that one is not weaker than
the other, it allows you to take advantage of the ability of one hand to teach the other, etc. In section 1.3, we shall
explore more uses for these basic steps, as well as introduce more ideas on how to solve some common problems.
1.3 Selected Topics in Piano Practice
1.3.1 Tone, Rhythm, and Staccato
1.3.1.1 What is “Good Tone”?
Tone is the quality of the sound; it is a subjective judgment of whether the sum total of all the properties of the
sound is appropriate for the music. There is controversy over whether a pianist can control the “tone” of each
note on the piano. If you were to sit at the piano and play one note, it seems nearly impossible to alter the tone
except for things like staccato, legato, loud, soft, etc. On the other hand, there is no question that different pianists
produce differing tones. Two pianists can play the same composition on the same piano and produce music with
very different tonal quality. Most of this apparent contradiction can be resolved by carefully defining what “tone”
means. For example, a large part of the tonal differences among famous pianists can be attributed to the particular
pianos they use, and the way those pianos are regulated or tuned. Controlling the tone of a single note is probably
just one minor aspect of a multi-faceted, complex issue. The most important distinction we must make initially is
whether we are talking about a single note or a group of notes. Most of the time, when we hear different tones, we
are listening to a group of notes. In that case, tone is easier to explain. It is mostly produced by the control of the
notes relative to each other. This almost always comes down to precision, control and musical content. Therefore,
tone is mainly a property of a group of notes and depends on the musical sensitivity of the pianist.
However, it is also clear that we can control the tone of a single note in many ways. We can control it by use of
the soft and damper pedals. We can also change the harmonic content (the number of overtones) by playing louder
or softer. These methods control the timbre and there is no reason why timbre should not be part of tone. The soft
pedal changes the timbre by reducing the prompt sound relative to the after sound. When a string is struck with
a higher force, more harmonics are generated. Thus when we play softly, we produce sound containing stronger
fundamentals. If the piano is played loudly with the soft pedal depressed, we hear an after sound with higher
harmonic content. The damper pedal also changes the timbre by adding vibrations from the non-struck strings.
The tone or timbre can be controlled by the tuner, by working on the hammer or by tuning differently. A
harder hammer produces a more brilliant tone (larger harmonic content) and a hammer with a flat striking area
produces a harsher tone (more high frequency harmonics). The tuner can change the stretch or control the amount
of detuning among the unisons. Up to a point, larger stretch tends to produce brighter music and insufficient
Updated:
November 9, 2003
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stretch can produce a piano with unexciting sound. When detuned within the sympathetic vibration frequency
range, all strings of a note will be in perfect tune (vibrate at the same frequency), but will interact differently with
each other. For example, the note can be made to “sing” which may be an after sound whose volume wavers. Note
that the importance of the after sound is often overblown because the prompt sound typically lasts over several
seconds and most notes are not held that long. Thus most of the “singing” quality of sound from good pianos must
be attributed to sustain, tone, and timbre, and not to the after sound.
Finally, we come to the difficult question: can you vary the tone of a single note by controlling the key drop?
Most of the arguments over tone control center on the free flight property of the hammer before it strikes the strings.
Opponents (of single note tone control) argue that, because the hammer is in free flight, only its velocity matters
and therefore tone is not controllable for a note played at a specified loudness. But the assumption of free flight has
never been proven, as we shall now see. One factor affecting tone is the flex of the hammer shaft. For a loud note,
the shaft may be significantly flexed as the hammer is launched into free flight. In that case, the hammer can have
a larger effective mass than its original mass when it hits the strings. This is because the force, F , of the hammer on
the strings, is given by F = Ma where M is the mass of the hammer and a is its deceleration upon impact with the
strings. Positive flex adds an extra force because, as the flex recovers after the jack is released, it pushes the hammer
forwards; when F increases, it doesn’t matter if M or a increases, the effect is the same. However, a is more difficult
to measure than M (for example you can easily simulate a larger M by using a heavier hammer) so we usually say, in
this case, that the “effective mass” has increased, to make it easier to visualize the effect of the larger F on how the
strings respond. In reality, however, positive flex increases a. For a note played staccato, the flex may be negative
by the time the hammer strikes the strings, so that the tone difference between “deep” playing and staccato may
be considerable. These changes in effective mass will certainly change the distribution of overtones and affect the
tone we hear. Since the shaft is not 100% rigid, we know that there is always a finite flex. The only question is
whether it is sufficient to affect tone as we hear it. It almost certainly is. If this is true, then the tone of the lower
notes, with the heavier hammers, should be more controllable because the heavier hammers will cause a larger
flex. Although one might expect the flex to be negligible because the hammer is so light, the knuckle is very close to
the hammer flange bushing, creating a tremendous leverage. The argument that the hammer is too light to induce
flex is not valid because the hammer is sufficiently massive to hold all of the kinetic energy required to make even
the loudest sounds. That is a lot of energy!
Note that the static hammer let-off is only several millimeters and this distance is extremely critical for tone.
Such a small let-off suggests that the hammer is designed to be in acceleration when it hits the string. The hammer
is not in free flight after the jack releases because for the first few millimeters after release the hammer is being
accelerated by the recovery of the shaft flex. The let-off is the smallest controllable distance that can maintain the
acceleration without any chance of locking the hammer onto the strings because the jack could not release. The
flex explains four otherwise mysterious facts: (i) the tremendous energy that such a light hammer can transfer to
the strings, (ii) the decrease in tone quality (or control) when the let-off is too large, (iii) the critical dependence of
the sound output and tone control on hammer weight and size, and (iv) the clicking sound that the piano makes
when the hammer shank bushing deteriorates. The clicking is the sound of the bushing snapping back when the
jack releases and the shank flex takes over — without the flex unwinding, the bushing will not snap back; therefore,
without flex, there will be no click. Since the clicking can be heard even for moderately soft sounds, the shank is
flexed for all except the softest sounds.
This scenario also has important implications for the pianist. It means that the tone of a single note can be
controlled. It also tells us how to control it. First of all, for ppp sounds, there is negligible flex and we are dealing
with a different tone from louder sounds. Pianists know that, to play pp, you press down with a constant velocity
— note that this minimizes flex because there is no acceleration at release. When playing pianissimo, you want
to minimize flex in order to minimize the effective mass of the hammer. Secondly, for maximum flex, key drop
should accelerate at the bottom. This makes a lot of sense: “deep tone” is produced by leaning into the piano
and pressing firmly, even with soft sounds. That is exactly how you maximize flex, which is equivalent to using a
larger hammer (larger effective mass, see above). This information is also critical for the piano technician. It means
that the optimum hammer size is one which is sufficiently small so that flex is zero somewhere around pp, but
sufficiently large so that flex is significant starting around mf. This is a very clever mechanical arrangement that
allows the use of relatively small hammers that enable rapid repetitions and can still transmit a maximum amount
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
35
of energy to the strings. It means that it is a mistake to go to larger hammers to produce more sound because you
will lose repetition speed and tone control. The clicking sound of worn bushings can now be explained. During the
key drop, the pin is pressed against the bottom of the enlarged bushing hole. Upon release, the flex recovery will
snap the bushing down, causing the pin to hit the top of the bushing hole with the familiar clicking sound.
Can the difference in tone of a single note be heard on the piano by playing just one note? Usually not; most
people are not sensitive enough to hear this difference with most pianos. You will need a Steinway B or better piano,
and you will start to hear this difference (if you test this with several pianos of progressively higher quality) with the
lower notes. Tone is more important for lower notes because the hammers are heavier and the lower notes contain
more harmonics than higher notes. When actual music is played, the human ear is amazingly sensitive to how the
hammer impacts the strings, and this tone difference can be easily heard, even with lesser pianos than the Steinway
B. This is analogous to tuning: most people (including most pianists) will be hard pressed to hear the difference between a super tuning and an ordinary tuning by playing single notes or even testing intervals. However, practically
any pianist can hear the difference by playing a piece of their favorite music. You can demonstrate this yourself.
Play an easy piece twice, in an identical way except for touch. First, play with arm weight and “pressing deeply”
into the piano, making sure that the key drop accelerates all the way down. Then compare this to the music when
you press shallowly so that there is complete key drop, but there is no acceleration at the bottom. You may need
to practice a little to make sure that the first time is not louder than the second. You should hear an inferior tone
quality for the second mode of play. In the hands of great pianists, this difference can be quite large. Of course, we
discussed above that tone is controlled most strongly by how you play successive notes, so that playing music to
test the effect of single notes is clearly not the best way. However, it is the most sensitive test.
In summary, tone is primarily a result of uniformity and control of playing and depends on the musical sensitivity of the player. Tone control is a very complex issue involving any aspect that changes the nature of the
sound and we have seen that there are many ways to change the piano sound. It all starts with how the piano is
regulated. Each pianist can control the tone by numerous means, such as by playing loudly or softly, or by varying
the speed. For example, by playing louder and at a higher speed, we can produce music consisting mainly of the
prompt sound. And there are innumerable ways in which to incorporate the pedal into your playing. We saw that
the tone of a single note can be controlled because the hammer shank has flex. It is small wonder that, as far as I
know, there has not been any definitive study of tone control, because the subject is so complex.
1.3.1.2 What is Rhythm?
Rhythm is the (repetitive) timing framework of music. When you read about rhythm (see Whiteside), it often
seems like a mysterious aspect of music that only “inborn talent” can express. Or perhaps you need to practice it
all your life, like drummers. Most frequently, however, correct rhythm is simply a matter of accurate counting,
of correctly reading the music, especially the time signatures. This is not as easy as it sounds; difficulties often
arise because most indications for rhythm are not explicitly spelled out everywhere on the music score since it
is part of things like the time signature that appears only once at the beginning (there are too many such “things”
to be listed here, such as the difference between a waltz and a mazurka). In many instances, the music is created
mainly by manipulating these rhythmic variations so that rhythm is one of the most important elements of music.
In short, most rhythmic difficulties arise from not reading the music correctly. This often happens when you try to
read the music HT; there is just too much information for the brain to process and it can’t be bothered with rhythm,
especially if the music involves new technical skills. That initial reading mistake then becomes incorporated into
the final music that you practice.
Definition of Rhythm: Rhythm consists of 2 parts: timing and accents, and they come in 2 forms, formal and
logical. The mysteries surrounding rhythm and the difficulties encountered in defining rhythm arise mainly from
the “logical” part, which is at once the key element and the most elusive. So let’s tackle the simpler formal rhythms
first. Just because they are simpler does not mean that they aren’t important; too many students make mistakes
with these elements which generally renders the music unrecognizable in terms of what it should sound like.
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
Formal Timing: The formal timing rhythm has a name, “Time Signature”, and is indicated at the very beginning
of any music score. The major time signatures are waltz (3/4), common time (4/4), “cut time” (2/2), and 2/4. The
waltz has 3 beats per bar (measure), etc.; the number of beats per bar is indicated by the numerator. 4/4 is the
most common and is often not even indicated, although it should be indicated by a “C” at the beginning (you
can remember it as “C stands for common”). Cut time is indicated by the same “C”, but with a vertical line down
the center (cuts the “C” in half). The reference note is indicated by the denominator, so that the 3/4 waltz has 3
quarter-notes per bar, and 2/4 is, in principle, twice as fast as 2/2 cut time.
Formal Accents: Each time signature has its own formal accent (louder or softer beats). If we use the convention
that 1 is the loudest, 2 is softer, etc., then the waltz has the formal accent 133 (the famous oom-pha-pha); the first
beat gets the accent. Common time has the formal accent 1323, and cut time and 2/4 have the accent 12. The
Mazurka has the accent 331, and a syncopation is a rhythm in which the accent is placed at an arbitrary (but fixed)
location within a bar; for example a syncopated 4/4 might be 2313 or 2331. Note that the 2331 rhythm is fixed
throughout the composition, but the 1 is at a non-conventional location.
Logical Timing and Accents: This is where the composer injects his music. It is a change in timing and loudness
from the formal rhythm. Although rhythmic logic is not necessary, it is almost always there. Well known components of timing rhythmic logic are accel. (to make things more exciting), decel. (perhaps to indicate an ending) or
rubato. Examples of dynamic rhythmic logic are increasing or decreasing loudness, forte, PP, etc.
An interesting composition in which the formal and logical rhythms can be discerned fairly easily is Beethoven’s
Tempest Sonata (Op. 31, #2), especially in the 3rd movement. For example, in the 3rd movement, the first 3 bars are
3 repetitions of the same structure, and they simply follow the formal rhythm. However, in bars 43–46, there are 6
repetitions of the same structure in the RH, but they must be squeezed into 4 formal rhythmic bars! If you make 6
identical repetitions in the RH, you are wrong! In addition, in bar 47, there is an unexpected “sf ” that has nothing
to do with the formal rhythm, but is an absolutely essential logical rhythm.
If rhythm is so important, what guidance can one use, in order to cultivate it? Obviously, you must treat rhythm
as a separate subject of practice for which you need a specific program of attack. Therefore, during the initial
learning of a new piece, set aside some time for working on the rhythm. A metronome, especially one with advanced features, can be helpful here. First, you must double check that your rhythm is consistent with the time
signature. This can’t be done in your mind even after you can play the piece — you must revisit the sheet music
and check every note. Too many students just play a piece a certain way “because it sounds right”; you can’t do
that. You must check with the score to see if the correct notes carry the correct accent strictly according to the time
signature. Only then, can you decide which rhythmic interpretation is the best way to play and where the composer has inserted violations of the basic rules (very rare); more often the rhythm indicated by the time signature
is strictly correct but sounds counter-intuitive. An example of this is the mysterious “arpeggio” at the beginning
of Beethoven’s Appassionata (op. 57). A normal arpeggio (such as CEG) would start with the first note (C), which
should carry the accent (downbeat). However, Beethoven starts each bar at the third note of the arpeggio (the first
bar is incomplete and carries the first two notes of the “arpeggio”); this forces you to accent the third note, not the
first note, if you follow the time signature correctly. We find out the reason for this odd “arpeggio” when the main
theme is introduced in bar 35. Note that this “arpeggio” is just an inverted, schematized (simplified) form of this
theme. Beethoven had psychologically prepared us for the main theme by giving us only the rhythm! This is why
he repeats it, after raising it by a curious interval — he just wanted to make sure that we recognized the unusual
rhythm (he used the same device at the beginning of his 5th symphony, where he repeated the 4-note motif at a
lower pitch). Another example is Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. The first note of the RH (bar 5) must be softer
than the second. Can you find at least one reason why? Although this piece is in double time, it may be instructive
to practice the RH as 4/4 to make sure that the wrong notes are not emphasized.
Check the rhythm carefully when you start HS. Then check again when you start HT. When the rhythm is
wrong, the music usually becomes impossible to play at speed. Thus, if you have unusual difficulty in getting
up to speed, it is a good idea to check the rhythm. In fact, incorrect rhythmic interpretation is one of the most
common causes of speed walls and why you have trouble HT. When you make an rhythmic error, no amount of
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practice will enable you to get up to speed! This is one of the reasons why outlining works: it simplifies the job of
correctly reading the rhythm. Conversely, when outlining, concentrate on rhythm. Also, when you first start HT,
you may have more success by exaggerating the rhythm. Rhythm is another reason why you should not attempt
pieces that are too difficult for you. If you don’t have sufficient technique, you will not be able to control the rhythm.
What can happen is that the lack of technique will impose an incorrect rhythm into your playing, thus creating a
speed wall.
Next, look for the special rhythmic markings, such as “sf ” or accent marks. Finally, there are situations in which
there are no indications on the music and you simply have to know what to do, or listen to a recording in order
to pick up special rhythmic variations. Therefore, as part of your practice routine, you should experiment with
rhythm, accenting unexpected notes, etc., so see what might happen.
Rhythm is also intimately associated with speed. This is why you need to play most Beethoven compositions
above certain speeds; otherwise, the emotions associated with the rhythm and even the melodic lines can be lost.
Beethoven was a master of rhythm; thus you cannot play Beethoven successfully without paying special attention
to rhythm. He usually gives you at least two things simultaneously: (i) an easy-to-follow melody that the audience
hears, and (ii) a rhythmic device that controls what the audience feels. Thus in the first movement of his “Pathétique” (op. 13), the agitated LH tremolo controls the emotions while the audience is preoccupied with listening to
the curious RH. Therefore a mere technical ability to handle the fast LH tremolo is insufficient — you must be able
to control the emotional content with this tremolo. Once you understand and can execute the rhythmic concept,
it becomes much easier to bring out the musical content of the entire movement, and the stark contrast with the
Grave section becomes obvious.
There is one class of rhythmic difficulties that can be solved using a simple trick. This is the class of complex
rhythms with missing notes. A good example of this can be found in the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique”.
The 2/4 time signature is easy to play in bars 17 to 21 because of the repeated chords of the LH that maintain the
rhythm. However, in bar 22, the most important accented notes of the LH are missing, making it difficult to pick up
the somewhat complex play in the RH. The solution to this problem is to simply fill in the missing notes of the LH!
In this way, you can easily practice the correct rhythm in the RH.
In summary, the “secret” of great rhythm is no secret — it must start with correct counting (which, I must reemphasize, is not easy). For advanced pianists, it is of course much more; it is magic. It is what distinguishes
the great from the ordinary. It is not just counting the accents in each bar but how the bars connect to create the
developing musical idea. For example, in Beethoven’s Moonlight (op. 27), the beginning of the 3rd movement is
basically the 1st movement played at a crazy speed. This knowledge tells us how to play the 1st movement, because
it means that the series of triplets in the 1st movement must be connected in such a way that they lead to the
culmination with the three repeated notes. If you simply played the repeated notes independently of the preceding
triplets, they will lose their real impact. Rhythm is also that odd or unexpected accent that our brains somehow
recognize as special. Clearly, rhythm is a critical element of music to which we must pay special attention.
1.3.1.3 Staccato
Staccato is defined as the mode of play in which the finger is quickly bounced off the key so as to produce a brief
sound with no sustain. It is somewhat astonishing that most books on learning piano discuss staccato, but never
define what it is! This paragraph gives a fairly complete definition. In staccato play, the backcheck is not engaged
and the damper cuts off the sound immediately after the note is played. There are two notations for staccato, the
normal (dot) and hard (triangle). In normal staccato, the jack is generally released; in hard staccato, the finger
moves down and up more rapidly and generally leaves the key before the jack is released. Thus in normal staccato,
the key drop may be about half way down, but in hard staccato, it is generally less than half way. In this way,
the damper is returned to the strings faster, resulting in a shorter note duration. Because the backcheck is not
engaged, the hammer can “bounce around”, making repetitions tricky at certain speeds. Thus if you have trouble
with rapidly repeated staccatos, don’t immediately blame yourself — it may be the wrong frequency at which the
hammer bounces the wrong way. By changing the speed, amount of key drop, etc., you may be able to eliminate
the problem. Clearly, in order to play staccato well, it helps to understand how the piano works.
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Staccato is generally divided into three types depending on how it is played: (1) finger staccato, (1) wrist staccato, and (3) arm staccato. (1) is played mostly with the finger in a pull motion, holding the hand and arm still, (2) is
neutral (neither pull nor thrust), played mostly with wrist action, and (3) is usually best played as a thrust, with the
playing action originating at the upper arm. As you progress from (1) to (3) you add more mass behind the fingers;
therefore, (1) gives the lightest staccato and is useful for single, soft notes, and (3) gives the heaviest feeling and is
useful for loud passages and chords with many notes. (2) is in between. In practice, most of us probably combine
all three. Some teachers frown on the use of wrist staccato, preferring mostly arm staccato; however, it is probably
better to have a choice of all three. For example, you might be able to reduce fatigue by changing from one to the
other.
Because you cannot use the arm weight for staccato, the best reference is your steady body. Thus the body plays
a major role in staccato play. Speed of staccato repetition is controlled by the amount of up-down motion: the
smaller the motion, the faster the repetition rate.
1.3.2 Cycling (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu)
Cycling is the best technique-building procedure for things like new or fast passages you cannot handle. Cycling
(also called “looping”) is taking a segment and playing it repeatedly; usually continually, without breaks. If
the conjunction needed for cycling continually is the same as the first note of the segment, this segment cycles
naturally; it is called a self-cycling segment. An example is the CGEG quadruplet. If the conjunction is different,
you need to invent one that leads to the first note so you can cycle without breaks.
Cycling is basically pure repetition, but it is important to use it almost as an anti-repetition procedure, a way
to avoid mindless repetition. The idea behind cycling is that you acquire technique so rapidly that it eliminates
unnecessary, mindless repetition. In order to avoid picking up bad habits, change the speed and experiment with
different hand/arm/finger positions for optimum play and always work for relaxation; try not to cycle the exact
same thing too many times. Play softly (even loud sections) until you attain the technique, get up to speeds at least
20% above final speed and, if possible, up to 2 times final speed. Over 90% of your cycling time should be at speeds
that you can handle comfortably and accurately. Then cycle down gradually to very slow speeds. You are done
when you can play at any speed for any length of time, without looking at the hand, completely relaxed, and with
full control. You might find that certain intermediate speeds give trouble. Practice these speeds because they may
be needed when you start HT. For segments with chords or jumps, make sure that you can cycle without looking
at the hand. Practice without the pedal (partly to avoid the bad habit of not pressing down completely through the
key drop) until the technique is attained. Change hands frequently to avoid injury.
If a technique requires 10,000 repetitions (a typical requirement for really difficult material), cycling allows you
to get them done in the shortest possible time. Representative cycle times are about 1 sec, so 10,000 cycles is less
than 4 hours. If you cycle this segment for 10 min. per day, 5 days a week, 10,000 cycles will take almost a month.
Clearly, very difficult material will take months to learn using the best methods, and much longer if you use less
efficient methods.
Cycling is potentially the most injurious of any piano practice procedure, so please be careful. Don’t over-do
it the first day, and see what happens the next day. If nothing is sore the next day, you can continue or increase the
cycling workout. Above all, whenever you cycle, always work on two at a time, one for the RH and another for the
LH so that you can switch hands frequently. For young people, over cycling can result in pain; in that case, just stop
cycling and the hand should recover in a few days. In older people, over cycling can cause osteo-arthritic flare-ups
that can take months to subside.
Let’s apply cycling to Chopin’s FI: the left hand arpeggio, bar 5. The first six notes cycle by themselves, so you
might try that. When I first tried it, the stretch was too much for my small hands, so I got tired too quickly. What
I did was to cycle the first 12 notes. The second, easier six notes allowed my hands to rest a little and therefore
enabled me to cycle the 12 note segment longer and at higher speed. Of course, if you really want to increase speed
(not necessary for the LH but might be useful for the RH in this piece) cycle only the first parallel set (the first three
or four notes for the LH).
Just because you can play the first segment does not mean that you can now play all the other arpeggios. You
will need to start practically from scratch even for the same notes one octave down. Of course, the second arpeggio
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
39
will be easier after mastering the first one, but you may be surprised at how much work you need to repeat when a
very small change is made in the segment. This happens because there are so many muscles in your body that your
brain can choose a different set of muscles to produce motions that are only slightly different (and it usually does).
Unlike a robot, you have little choice about which muscles your brain is going to pick. Only when you have done a
very large number of such arpeggios does the next one come easily. Therefore, you should expect to have to cycle
quite few arpeggios.
In order to understand how to play this Chopin piece, it is helpful to analyze the mathematical basis of the 3
versus 4 timing part of this composition. The RH plays very fast, say 4 notes per half second (approximately). At
the same time, the LH is playing at a slower rate, 3 notes per half second. If all the notes are played very accurately,
the audience hears a note frequency equivalent to 12 notes per half second, because this frequency corresponds to
the smallest time interval between notes. That is, if your RH is playing as fast as it can, then by adding a SLOWER
play with the LH, Chopin succeeded in accelerating this piece to 3 times your maximum speed!
But wait, not all of the 12 notes are present; there are actually only 7, so 5 notes are missing. These missing notes
create what is called a Moiré pattern, which is a third pattern that emerges when two incommensurate patterns are
superposed. This pattern creates a wavelike effect within each measure and Chopin reinforced this effect by using
a LH arpeggio that rises and falls like a wave in synchrony with the Moiré pattern. The acceleration of a factor of 3
and the Moiré pattern are mysterious effects that sneak up on the audience because they have no idea what created
them, or that they even exist. Mechanisms that affect the audience without their knowledge often produce more
dramatic effects than ones that are obvious (such as loud, legato, or rubato). The great composers have invented
an incredible number of these hidden mechanisms and a mathematical analysis is often the easiest way to flush
them out. Chopin probably never thought in terms of incommensurate sets and Moiré patterns; he just intuitively
understood these concepts because of his genius.
It is instructive to speculate on the reason for the missing 1st note of the measure (bar 5) in the RH because
if we can decipher the reason, we will know exactly how to play it. Note that this occurs at the very beginning of
the RH melody. At the beginning of a melody or a musical phrase, composers always run into two contradictory
requirements: one is that any phrase should (in general) begin softly, and the second is that the first note of a
measure is a downbeat and should be accented. The composer can neatly satisfy both requirements by eliminating
the first note, thus preserving the rhythm and yet start softly (no sound in this case)! You will have no trouble
finding numerous examples of this device — see Bach’s Inventions. Another device is to start the phrase at the end
of a partial measure so that the first downbeat of the first full measure comes after a few notes have been played (a
classic example of this is the beginning of the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata). This means that the
first note of the RH in this measure of Chopin’s FI must be soft and the second note louder than the first, in order to
strictly preserve the rhythm (another example of the importance of rhythm!). We are not used to playing this way;
the normal play is to start the first note as a downbeat. It is especially difficult in this case because of the speed;
therefore this beginning may need extra practice.
This composition begins by gradually drawing the audience into its rhythm like an irresistible invitation, after
calling attention to itself with the loud octave of bar 1 followed by the rhythmic arpeggio in the lower staff. The
missing note in bar 5 is restored after several repetitions, thus doubling the Moiré repeat frequency and the effective rhythm. In the second theme (bar 13), the flowing melody of the RH is replaced by two broken chords, thus
giving the impression of quadrupling the rhythm. This “rhythmic acceleration” culminates in the climactic forte of
bars 19–20. The audience is then treated to a breather by a “softening” of the rhythm created by the delayed RH
melodic (pinky) note and then its gradual fading, accomplished by the diminuendo down to pp. The whole cycle
is then repeated, this time with added elements that heighten the climax until it ends in the descending crashing
broken chords. For practicing this part, each broken chord might be individually cycled. These chords lack the 3, 4
construct and bring you back out from the mysterious 3, 4 nether-world, preparing you for the slow section.
As with most Chopin pieces, there is no “correct” tempo for this piece. However, if you play faster than about
2 seconds/bar, the 3×4 multiplication effect tends to disappear and you are usually left with mostly the Moiré and
other effects. This is partly because of decreasing accuracy with speed but more importantly because the 12× speed
becomes too fast for the ear to follow. Above about 18 Hz, repetitions begin to take on the properties of sound to the
human ear; at 2 sec/bar, the repetition rate is 12 Hz. Therefore the multiplication device works only up to a certain
speed; above that, you get a different effect, which may be even more special than simple speed. It is curious that
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Chopin chose a speed that is near the maximum range of the 12× effect for the human ear, almost as if he knew that
something special happened above this transition speed. It is quite possible that Chopin played it at speeds above
the critical transition. He may be have been sufficiently skillful to play it above the transition at which “speed” turns
into a new magical “sound”.
The slow middle section was described briefly in section 1.2.25. The fastest way to learn it, like many Chopin
pieces, is to start by memorizing the LH. This is because the chord progression often remains the same even
when Chopin replaces the RH with a completely new melody, because the LH mainly provides the accompaniment chords. Notice that the 4, 3 timing is now replaced by a 2, 3 timing played much more slowly. It is used for a
different effect, to soften the music and allowing a freer tempo rubato.
The third part is similar to the first except for the ending, which is difficult for small hands and may require
extra RH cycling work. In this section, the RH pinky carries the melody, but the answering thumb octave note is
what enriches the melodic line. The piece ends with a nostalgic restatement of the slow movement theme in the
LH. Distinguish the top note of this LH melody (G] — bar 7 from the end) clearly from the same note played by the
RH by holding it slightly longer and then sustain it with the pedal.
The G] is the most important note in this piece. Thus the beginning sf G] octave is not only a fanfare introducing
the piece, but a clever way for Chopin to implant the G] into the listeners’ minds. Therefore, don’t rush this note;
take your time and let it sink in. If you look throughout this piece, you will see that the G] occupies all the important
positions. In the slow section, the G] is an A[, which is the same note. This G] is another one of those devices in
which a great composer is “hitting the audience on the head with a two-by-four”, but the audience has no idea what
hit them. For the pianist, knowledge about the G] helps interpret and memorize the piece. Thus the conceptual
climax of this piece comes at the end (as it should) when both hands must play the same G] (bars 8 and 7 from the
end); therefore, this LH-RH G] must be executed with the utmost care, while maintaining the continuously fading
RH G] octave.
Our analysis brings into sharp focus, the question of how fast to play this piece. High accuracy is required
to bring out the 12-note effect. If you are learning this piece for the first time, the 12-note frequency may not be
audible initially because of lack of accuracy. When you finally “get it” the music will all of a sudden sound very busy.
If you play too fast and lose the accuracy, you can lose that factor of three — it just washes out and the audience
hears only the 4 notes. For beginners the piece can be made to sound faster by slowing down and increasing the
accuracy. Although the RH carries the melody, the LH must be clearly heard, or else both the 12-note effect and
the Moiré pattern will disappear. This being a Chopin piece, there is no requirement that the 12-note effect be
heard; this composition is amenable to an infinity of interpretations, and some may want to suppress the LH and
concentrate of the RH, and still produce something equally magical.
An advantage of cycling is that the hand is playing continually which simulates continuous playing better than
if you practiced isolated segments. It also allows you to experiment with small changes in finger position, etc., in
order to find the optimum conditions for playing. The disadvantage is that the hand movements in cycling may be
different from those needed to play the piece. The arms tend to be stationary while cycling whereas in the actual
piece, the hands usually need to move along the keyboard. Therefore, in those cases in which the segment does not
naturally cycle, you may need to use segmental practice also. First, cycle until you are comfortable; then change to
segmental practice. The segmental practice allows you to use the correct conjunction and hand motion. Segmental
practice is closer to the real thing, and you can join them to construct your piece.
The above treatment of cycling discussed it in its narrowest definition. The broader definition of cycling is any
practice routine that is repeated or looped. Thus you can cycle the cycling by cycling at differing speeds. Cycle
fast, then gradually slow down, then speed up again, and cycle the fast-slow cycle. It is useful to develop many
different types of cycling, so I will mention a few of them here (there are too many to list; your imagination is the
limit).
1. Cycle the speed (just mentioned).
2. It is useful to cycle between HT and HS when first struggling with passages that are difficult HT.
3. Another useful cycling is over a longer time frame — perhaps several weeks. When, after days of hard work,
you are clearly entering a stage of diminishing returns, it often pays to just ignore this piece for several days
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
41
or weeks, and then come back to it; i.e., cycling between hard practice and laying off. This laying off period can have unexpected advantages in that the needed technique tends to improve due to post practice
improvement, but the bad habits tend to fade because most bad habits develop from too much repetition.
4. Listening — practicing cycles: record your playing, listen to it, make changes, re-record, and see if your
changes have made any improvements. Listen particularly carefully for rhythmic errors.
5. Memory cycling: as part of your memory maintenance program, recycle your “finished” pieces, going back to
HS, and re-memorizing your old pieces after learning new pieces. Wait till you have partly forgotten a piece,
and then re-memorize.
6. Cycling between easy and difficult pieces; don’t fall into the trap of practicing only difficult, new pieces. Playing easy pieces is extremely important for developing technique, especially for eliminating stress. Most importantly, these easy finished pieces allow you to practice making music and playing at full speed.
These general concepts of cycling are important because how you practice and how you solve certain problems
depend on how you are cycling your practice routines. For example, if you want to answer the question “How long
should I practice this particular segment?”, the answer will depend on which part of what type of cycle you are at.
For type (i) above, it may be about 5 minutes; for type (ii), about a few days, and for type (iii) perhaps a few weeks.
It is important for each student to create as many of these cycles as possible in order to follow a structured learning
procedure that is optimally efficient, and to know which cycle to use in order to solve a particular problem.
1.3.3 Trills & Tremolos
1.3.3.1 Trills
There is no better demonstration of the effectiveness of the parallel set exercises (chord attack) than using them
to learn the trill. There are only two problems to solve in order to trill: (1) speed (with control) and (2) to continue
it as long as desired. The parallel set exercises were designed to solve exactly these problems and therefore work
very well for practicing trills. Whiteside describes a method for practicing the trill which, upon analysis, turns out
to be a type of chord attack. Thus use of the chord attack for practicing the trill is nothing new. However, because
we now understand the learning mechanism in more detail, we can design the most direct and effective approach
by using parallel sets.
The first problem to solve is the initial two notes. If the first two notes are not started properly, learning the
trill becomes a very difficult task. The importance of the first two notes applies to runs, arpeggios, etc., also. But
the solution is almost trivial — apply the two note parallel set exercise. Therefore, for a 2323. . . trill, use the first 3 as
the conjunction and get the first two notes right. Then practice the 32, then 232, etc. It’s that simple! Try it! It works
like magic!
Don’t just concentrate of parallel sets and speed because that will usually be insufficient. You must try different
hand motions, such as quiet hands, flat finger positions (see 1.3.4.2 below), etc.
Relaxation is even more critical for the trill than almost any other technique because of the need for rapid
momentum balance; that is, the parallel sets, being only two notes, are too short for us to rely solely on parallelism
to attain speed. Thus we must be able to change the momenta of the fingers rapidly. Stress will lock the fingers to
the larger members such as palms and hands, thus increasing the effective mass of the fingers. Larger mass means
slower motion: witness the fact that the hummingbird can flap its wings faster than the condor and small insects
even faster than the hummingbird. This is true even if the air resistance were ignored; in fact, the air is effectively
more viscous to the hummingbird than to the condor and for a small insect, the air is almost as viscous as water is
to a big fish. It is therefore important to incorporate complete relaxation into the trill from the very beginning, thus
freeing the fingers from the hand. Trill is one skill that requires constant maintenance. If you want to be a good
triller, you will need to practice trilling every day. The chord attack is the best procedure for keeping the trill in top
shape, especially if you had not used it for a while and feel like you might be losing it, or if you want to continue
improving it.
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Finally, the trill is not a series of staccatos. The fingertips must be at the bottom of the keydrop as long as
possible; i.e., the backchecks must be engaged for every note. Take careful note of the minimum lift necessary for
the repetition to work. Those who practice on grands should be aware that this lift distance can be about twice as
high for an upright. Faster trills require smaller lifts; therefore, on an upright, you may have to slow down the trill.
1.3.3.2 Tremolos (Beethoven’s “Pathétique”, 1st Movement)
Tremolos are practiced in exactly the same way as trills. Let’s apply this to the sometimes dreaded long octave
tremolos of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (opus 13). For some students, these tremolos seem impossible, and
many have injured their hands, some permanently, practicing them. Others have little difficulty. If you know how
to practice them, they are actually quite simple. The last thing you want to do is to practice this tremolo for hours
in the hopes of building endurance — that is the surest way to acquire bad habits and suffer injury.
Since you need the octave tremolos in both hands, we will practice the LH and alternate with practicing the
RH; if the RH catches on faster, you can use it to teach the LH. I will suggest a sequence of practice methods; if you
have any imagination, you should be able to create your own sequence that may be better for you — my suggestion
is just that: a suggestion for illustration purposes. For completeness, I have made it too detailed and too long.
Depending on your specific needs and weaknesses, you should shorten the practice sequence.
In order to practice the C2–C3 tremolo, first, practice the C2–C3 octave (LH). Bounce the hand up and down,
comfortably, repeating the octave, with emphasis on relaxation — can you keep bouncing it without fatigue or
stress, especially as you speed it up? If you get tired, find ways of repeating the octave without developing fatigue
by changing your hand position, motion, etc. If you still get tired, stop and change hands; practice the RH A[4–
A[5 octave that you will need later on. Once you can bounce the octave, 4 times per beat (i.e., include the correct
rhythm) without fatigue, try speeding it up. At sufficient speed, you will develop fatigue again, so either slow down
or try to find different ways of playing that reduces fatigue. Change hands as soon as you feel tired. Do not play
loud; one of the tricks for reducing fatigue is to practice softly. You can add dynamics later, once you have the
technique. It is extremely important to practice softly so that you can concentrate on technique and relaxation. In
the beginning, as you exert yourself to play faster, fatigue will develop. But when you find the right motions, hand
positions, etc., you will actually feel the fatigue draining out of the hand and you should be able to rest and even
rejuvenate the hand while playing rapidly. You have learned to relax.
Now add the parallel set exercises. First the 5, 1 parallel set. Start with the repeated octaves, then gradually
replace each octave with a parallel set. For example, if you are playing groups of 4 octaves (4/4 time), start by
replacing the 4th octave with a parallel set. Soon, you should be practicing all parallel sets. If the parallel sets
become uneven or the hand starts to tire, go back to the octave to relax. Or change hands. Work the parallel sets
until you can play the 2 notes in the parallel set almost “infinitely fast” and reproducibly, and eventually, with
good control and complete relaxation. At the fastest parallel set speeds, you should have difficulty distinguishing
between parallel sets and octaves. Then slow down the parallel sets so that you can play at all speeds with control.
Note that in this case, the 5 note should be slightly louder than the 1. However, you should practice it both ways:
with the beat on the 5 and with it on the 1, so that you develop a balanced, controllable technique. Now repeat
the whole procedure with the 1, 5 parallel set. Again, although this parallel set is not required to play this tremolo
(only the previous one is necessary), it is useful for developing a balanced control. Once both the 5, 1 and 1, 5 are
satisfactory, move on to the 5, 1, 5 or 5, 1, 5, 1 (played like a short octave trill). If you can do the 5, 1, 5, 1 right away,
there is no need to do the 5, 1, 5. The objective here is both speed and endurance, so you should practice speeds
that are much faster than the final tremolo speed, at least for these short tremolos. Then work on the 1, 5, 1, 5.
Once the parallel sets are satisfactory, start playing groups of 2 tremolos, perhaps with a momentary pause
between groups. Then increase to groups of 3 and then 4 tremolos. The best way to speed up the tremolos is to
alternate between tremolos and octaves. Speed up the octave and try to switch to the tremolo at this faster speed.
Now all you have to do is alternate hands and build up endurance. Again, building endurance is not so much
building muscle, as knowing how to relax and how to use the correct motions. De-couple the hands from your
body; do not tie the hand-arm-body system into one stiff knot, but let the hands and fingers operate independently
from the body. You should breathe freely, unaffected by what the fingers are doing.
In the end, you will be playing the tremolo mostly with hand rotation, which means that the hand will be
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
43
rotating back and forth around an axis through the forearm. That axis is a straight line extending through the
hand towards the fingertips. Therefore, the palm should extend straight out from the forearm and the three free
fingers (2, 3, 4) should stretch out like the spokes of a wheel and almost touch the keys; do not lift them up, except
to the extent that they move with the hand rotation. For those with small hands, the hand rotation should be
accompanied by a small sideways motion so that you can reach the keys without having to fully stretch the fingers.
This should help reduce stress.
For the RH, the 1 should be louder than the 5, but for both hands, the softer notes should be clearly audible, and
their obvious purpose is to double the speed compared to playing the octaves. Remember to practice softly; you
can play louder whenever you want later, once you have acquired the technique and endurance. It is important to
be able to play softly, and yet be able to hear every note, at the fastest speeds. Practice until, at the final speed, you
can play the tremolos longer than you need in the piece. The best way to develop this endurance is to practice at
even faster speeds. The final effect is a constant roar that you can modulate in loudness up and down. The lower
note provides the rhythm and the upper note doubles the speed. Then play the different successive tremolos as
indicated on the music. That’s it! You are done!
1.3.4 Hand, Body Motions for Technique
1.3.4.1 Hand Motions
Certain hand motions are required in order to acquire technique. For example we discussed parallel sets above, but
did not specify what types of hand motions are needed to play them. It is important to emphasize from the start
that the required hand motions can be extremely small, almost imperceptible. After you have become expert,
you can exaggerate them to any extent you desire. Thus during a concert by any famous performer, most of the
hand motions will not be discernible (they also tend to happen too fast for the audience to catch) so that most of
the visible motions are exaggerations. Thus two performers, one with apparently still hands, and one with flair and
aplomb, may in fact be using the same hand motions of the type we discuss here. The major hand motions are
pronation and supination, thrust (or push) and pull, claw and throw, flick, and wrist motions. They are almost
always combined into more complex motions. Note that they always come in pairs (there is a right and left flick,
and similarly for wrist motions). They are also the major natural motions of the hands and fingers.
All finger motions must be supported by the major muscles of the arms, the shoulder blades in the back, and
the chest muscles in front that are anchored to the center of the chest. The slightest twitch of the finger, therefore,
involves all of these muscles. There is no such thing as just moving one finger — any finger motion involves the
entire body. Stress reduction is important for relaxing these muscles so that they can respond to, and assist in,
the movement of the fingertips. The major hand motions are discussed only briefly here; for more details, please
consult the references (Fink, Sandor).
Pronation and Supination The hand can be rotated around the axis of the forearm. The inward rotation (thumbs
downward) is called pronation and the outward rotation (thumbs upward) is called supination. These motions
come into play, for example, when playing octave tremolos. There are two bones in your forearm, the inside bone
(radius, connecting to the thumb) and the outside bone (ulna, connecting to the pinky). Hand rotation occurs by
rotation of the inner bone against the outer one (hand position referenced to that of the piano player with palm
facing down). The outer bone is held in position by the upper arm. Therefore, when the hand is rotated, the thumb
moves much more than the pinky. A quick pronation is a good way to play the thumb. For playing the octave
tremolo, moving the thumb is easy, but the pinky can only be moved quickly using a combination of motions. Thus
the problem of playing fast octave tremolos boils down to solving the problem of how to move the pinky.
Thrust and Pull Thrust is a pushing motion, towards the fallboard, usually accompanied by a slightly rising wrist.
With curved fingers, the thrust motion causes the vector force of the hand moving forward to be directed along the
bones of the fingers. This adds control and power. It is therefore useful for playing chords. The pull is a similar
motion away from the fallboard. In these motions, the total motion can be larger than or smaller than the vector
component downward (the key drop), allowing for greater control. Thrust is one of the main reasons why the
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
standard finger position is curved. Try playing any large chord with many notes, first lowering the hand straight
down as in a gravity drop, then using the thrust motion. Note the superior results with the thrust. Pull is useful for
some legato and soft passages. Thus, when practicing chords, always experiment with adding some thrust or pull.
Claw and Throw Claw is moving your fingertips into your palm and throw is opening the fingers out to their
straight position. Many students do not realize that, in addition to moving the fingertips up and down, they can
also be moved in and out during play. These are useful additional motions. They add greater control, especially for
legato and soft passages, as well as for playing staccato. Just as for the thrust and pull, these motions allow a large
motion with a much smaller keydrop. Thus, instead of always trying to lower the fingers straight down for the key
drop, try experimenting with some claw or throw action to see if it will help. Note that the claw movement is much
more natural and easier to conduct than a straight down. The straight down motion of the fingertip is actually a
complex combination of a claw and a throw. The key drop action can sometimes be simplified by flaring the fingers
out flat and playing with only a small claw movement. This is why you can sometimes play better with flat fingers
than curved.
Flick The flick is one of the most useful motions. It is a quick rotation and counter-rotation of the hand; a fast
pronation-supination combination, or its reverse. We have seen that parallel sets can be played at almost any
speed. When playing fast passages, the problem of speed arises when we need to connect parallel sets. There is no
single solution to this connection problem. The one motion that comes closest to a universal solution is the flick,
especially when the thumb is involved, as in scales and arpeggios. Single flicks can be conducted extremely quickly
with zero stress, thus adding to the speed of play; however, quick flicks need to be “re-loaded”; i.e., continuous
fast flicks is difficult. But this is quite suitable for connecting parallel sets because the flick can be used to play the
conjunction and then be re-loaded during the parallel set. To re-emphasize what was pointed out at the beginning
of this section, these flicks and other motions do not need to be large and are in general imperceptibly small; thus
the flick can be considered more as a momentum flick than an actual motion.
Wrist Motion We already saw that the wrist motion is useful whenever the thumb or pinky is played; the general
rule is to raise the wrist for the pinky and lower it to play the thumb. Of course, this is not a hard rule; there are plenty
of exceptions. The wrist motion is also useful in combination with other motions. By combining wrist motion with
pronation-supination, you can create rotary motions for playing repetitive passages such as LH accompaniments,
or the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The wrist can be moved both up and down, and side-toside. Every effort should be made such that the playing finger is parallel to the forearm; this is accomplished with
the side-to-side wrist motion. This configuration puts the least amount of lateral stress on the tendons moving the
fingers and reduces the chances of injuries such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. If you find yourself habitually playing
(or typing) with the wrist cocked at a sideways angle, this may be a warning sign to expect trouble. A loose wrist is
also a pre-requisite for total relaxation.
Summary The above is a very brief review of hand motions. An entire book can be written on this subject. And
we did not even touch on the topics of adding other motions of the elbow, upper arm, shoulders, body, feet, etc.
The student is encouraged to research this topic as much as possible because it can only help. The motions just
discussed are seldom used alone. Parallel sets can be played with any combination of most of the above motions
without even moving a finger (relative to the hand). This was what was meant, in the HS practice section, with the
recommendation to experiment with and to economize the hand motions. Knowledge of each type of motion will
allow the student to try each one separately to see which is needed. It is in fact the key to the ultimate in technique.
1.3.4.2 Playing with Flat Fingers
We noted in section 1.2.2 that the starting finger shape for learning the piano is the partially curled position. Many
teachers teach the curled position as the “standard” position for playing the piano. However, V. Horowitz demon-
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
45
strated that the flat, or straight, finger position is also very useful. Here we discuss why the flat finger position is
not only useful but is also an essential part of technique and all accomplished pianists use it.
We will initially define “Flat Finger Position” (FFP) as the one in which the fingers are basically stretched straight
out from the hands, in order to simplify the discussions. We will later generalize this definition to mean specific
types of “non-curled” positions, which is a very important concept in piano playing because it is necessary for
acquiring some of the most basic as well as advanced technical skills.
The most important advantages of the FFP are that it simplifies the finger motion and allows complete relaxation; that is, the number of muscles needed to control the finger motion is smaller than in the curled position
because all you have to do is to pivot the entire finger around the knuckle. In the curled position, each finger must
uncurl by just the right amount every time it hits a note, in order to maintain the correct finger angle to the key top
surface. The motion of the FFP uses only the main muscles needed to depress the keys. Practicing the FFP can
improve technique because you are exercising only the most relevant muscles and nerves. In order to demonstrate the complexity of the curled position, try the following experiment. First, stretch the forefinger of your RH
out straight (FFP) and wiggle it up and down rapidly as you would when playing the piano. Now, keep this wiggling motion and gradually curl the finger in as far as you can. You will find that, as you curl the finger, it becomes
more difficult to wiggle the finger tip until it becomes impossible when completely curled. I have named this phenomenon “curl paralysis”. If you do succeed in moving the finger tip, you can only do it very slowly compared to
the straight position because you need to use a whole new set of muscles. In fact, the easiest way to move the finger
tip rapidly in the completely curled position is to move the entire hand.
Therefore, with the curled position, you need more skill to play at the same speed compared to the FFP. Contrary
to the beliefs of many pianists, you can play faster with flat fingers than with the curled position because any
amount of curl will invite a certain amount of curl paralysis. This becomes particularly important when the speed
and/or lack of technique produces stress while practicing something difficult. The amount of stress is greater in the
curled position and this difference can be sufficient to create a speed wall.
There are discussions in the literature (Jaynes, Chapter 6), in which it is claimed that the lumbrical and interossei muscles are important in piano playing, but there is no research to support these claims, and it is not known
whether these muscles play a part in FFP. It is generally believed that these muscles are used mainly to control the
curvature of the fingers, so that FFP uses only the muscles in the arms to move the fingers and the lumbricals simply hold the fingers in position (curled or FFP), thus simplifying the movement and allowing for greater control and
speed for FFP. Thus there is uncertainty today about whether the lumbricals enable higher speed or whether they
cause curl paralysis.
Although the FFP is simpler, all beginners should learn the curled position first and not learn the flat position until it is needed. If beginners start with the easier FFP, they will never really learn the curled position well.
Beginners who try to play fast with the flat position are likely to use fixed phase parallel set playing instead of finger
independence. This leads to loss of control and uneven speeds. Once these bad habits are formed, it is difficult
to learn finger independence. For this reason, many teachers will forbid their students to play with flat fingers,
which is a terrible mistake. Sandor calls the FFPs “wrong positions” but Fink recommends certain positions that
are clearly FFPs (we will discuss several different FFPs below).
Most pianists who learn on their own use mostly FFPs. Very young children (below 4 years of age) usually have
difficulty curling their fingers. For this reason, jazz pianists use FFPs more than classical pianists (because many
were initially self-taught), and classical teachers correctly point out that early jazz pianists had inferior technique.
In fact, early jazz had much less technical difficulty than classical music. However, this lack of technique resulted
from a lack of instruction, not because they used FFPs. Thus FFPs are nothing new and are quite intuitive and are
a natural way to play. Therefore, the road to good technique is a careful balance between practicing with curled
fingers and knowing when to use the FFPs. What is new in this section is the concept that the curled position is
not inherently superior and that FFPs are a necessary part of advanced technique.
The 4th finger is particularly problematic for most people. Part of this difficulty arises from the fact that it is the
most awkward finger to lift, which makes it difficult to play fast and avoid hitting extraneous notes inadvertently.
These problems are compounded in the curled position because of the complexity of motion and curl paralysis. In
the simplified flat finger configuration, these difficulties are reduced and the 4th finger becomes more independent
and easier to lift. If you place your hand on a flat surface in the curled position and lift the 4th finger, it will go up a
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
certain distance; now if you repeat the same procedure with the flat finger position, that finger tip will go up twice
as far. Therefore, it is easier to lift the fingers, and particularly the 4th finger, in the FFP. The ease of lifting reduces
the stress when playing fast. Also, when trying to play difficult passages fast using the curled position, some fingers
(especially fingers 4 and 5) will sometimes curl too much creating even more stress and the need to fling these
fingers out in order to play a note. These problems can be eliminated by using FFP.
Another advantage of the FFP is that it increases your reach because the fingers are stretched out straighter. For
this reason, most pianists (especially those with small hands) already use the flat position for playing wide chords,
etc., often without realizing it. However, such people can feel “guilty” about the lack of curl and try to incorporate
as much curl as possible, creating stress.
Yet another advantage of the FFP is that the fingers are pressing the keys with the part of the fingers with more
flesh than at the finger tips. The fleshy part is also more sensitive to touch, especially because there is less interference from the fingernails. When people touch anything to feel it, they always use this part of the finger, not the
fingertip. This extra cushion and sensitivity can provide better feel and control, and greater protection against
injury. For the curled position, the fingers are coming down almost vertically to the key surfaces so that you are
playing with the finger tips where there is the least amount of cushion between the bone and key top. If you injured
the fingertips by practicing too hard using the curled position, you can give the fingertips a rest by using the FFP.
Two types of injuries can occur at the finger tip when using the curled position and both injuries can be avoided
using flat fingers. The first is simple bruising from too much pounding. The second is the detachment of the flesh
from under the fingernail, which frequently results from cutting the fingernails too short. This second type of injury is dangerous because it can lead to painful infections. Even if you have fairly long fingernails, you can still play
using the FFP.
More importantly, with flat fingers, you can play the black keys using most of the large underside areas of
the fingers; this large surface area can be used to avoid missing the black keys that are easy to miss in the curled
position because they are so narrow. Thus it is a good idea to play the black keys with flatter fingers and the white
keys with more curled fingers.
When the fingers are stretched out flat, you can reach further back towards the fallboard. In this position, it
requires a little more force to depress the keys because of the lower leverage resulting from the shorter distance to
the key bushing (at the balance rail pin). The resulting (effectively) heavier key weight will allow you to play softer
pp. Thus the ability to move closer to the key bushing results in the ability to increase the effective key weight.
The heavier key weight allows more control and softer pianissimo. Although the change in key weight is small, this
effect is greatly magnified at high speed.
The FFP also allows louder fortissimo, especially for the black keys. There are two reasons. First, the area of the
finger available for contact is larger and there is a thicker cushion, as explained above. Therefore, you can transmit a
larger force with less chance of injury or pain. Second, the increased accuracy resulting from the larger contact area
helps to produce an authoritative and reproducible fortissimo. In the curled position, the probability of missing or
sliding off the narrow black keys is sometimes too high for full fortissimo.
The ability to play fortissimo more easily suggests that the FFP can be more relaxing than the curled position.
This turns out to be true, but there is an additional mechanism that increases the relaxation. With FFP, you can
depend on the tendons under the finger bones to hold the fingers straight when you push down on the keys. That is,
unlike the curled position, you need almost no effort to keep the fingers straight (when pressing down on the keys)
because unless you are multiple jointed, the tendons on the palm side of the fingers prevent them from bending
backwards. Therefore, when you practice FFP, learn to make use of these tendons to help you relax. Be careful
when you first start using FFP for playing fortissimo. If you relax completely, you can risk injury to these tendons
by hyper-extending them, especially for the pinky, because the pinky tendons are so small. If you start to feel pain,
either stiffen the finger during key drop or stop the FFP and curl that finger. When playing fortissimo with curled
fingers, you must control both the extensor and flexor muscles of every finger in order to keep them in the curled
position. In the flat position, you can completely relax the extensor muscles and use only the flexor muscles, thus
almost totally eliminating stress (which results from the two sets of muscles opposing each other), and simplifying
the operation by over 50% when pressing the key down.
The best way to start practicing FFP is to practice the B major scale. In this scale, all fingers play the black keys
except the thumb and pinky. Since these two fingers do not generally play the black keys in runs, this is exactly
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
47
what you want. The fingering for the RH is standard for this scale, but the LH must start with the 4th finger on B.
You may want to read the following section (1.3.5) on playing fast scales before going on with this practice because
you will need to know how to play thumb over and to use the glissando motions, etc. Practice only one octave
HS for fastest improvement. Keep the fingers close to the keys so that you can feel the keys before you play them.
Feeling the keys is easy because you can use the large surface areas of the undersides of the fingers. By feeling the
keys, you will never miss a single note because you know where the keys are ahead of time. For playing scales, the
forearms must point inward at an angle close to 45 degrees at middle C. This angle is created because of two effects.
Consider the RH; the right shoulder is to the right of middle C, so that the forearm naturally points inward (to your
left; the LH will point to the right at middle C) if you do not move the body. In addition, the pinky is a short finger
so that this angle allows the pinky to reach the black keys more easily when the fingers are stretched out flat. This
angle also facilitates the thumb-over motion. However, now the fingers are not parallel to the keys. This lack of
parallel alignment is actually an advantage because you can use it to increase the accuracy of hitting the black keys.
If one hand is weaker than the other, this difference will show up more dramatically with flat fingers. The flat finger
position reveals the technical skills/deficiencies more clearly because of the difference in leverage (the fingers are
effectively longer) and your fingers are more sensitive. In that case, use the stronger hand to teach the weaker one
how to play. Practicing with flat fingers may be one of the quickest ways to encourage the weaker hand to catch up
to the other because you are working directly with the main muscles relevant to technique.
If you encounter any difficulties playing the FFP, try the black key parallel set exercises. Play all five black keys
with the five fingers: the two-note group with thumb and forefinger and the three-note group with the remaining
three fingers. Unlike the B major scale, this exercise will also develop the thumb and pinky. With this exercise (or
with the B major scale), you can experiment with all kinds of hand positions. Unlike the curled position, you can
play with the palm of the hand touching the surface of the white keys. You can also raise the wrist so that the
fingers actually bend backwards (opposite to the curl direction), as in the cartwheel motion. There is also an
intermediate flat finger position in which the fingers remain straight, but are bent down only at the knuckles. I
call this the “pyramid” position because the hand and fingers form a pyramid with the knuckles at the apex. This
pyramid position can be effective for very fast passages because it combines the advantages of the curled and
straight positions.
The usefulness of these various positions makes it necessary to expand the definition of “flat finger” playing.
The straight FFP is just an extreme case, and there are any number of variations of positions between the totally flat
position we defined at the beginning of this section and the curled position. In addition to the pyramid position,
you can bend the fingers at the first joint from the knuckle. This will be called the “spider position”. The critical
point here is that the last joint (closest to the fingernail) must be totally relaxed and allowed to straighten out
when you press down on the key. Thus the generalized definition of FFP is that the third phalange is totally
relaxed and straight. Phalange (also called phalanx; plural is always phalanges) is the name for the small bones beyond the knuckle; they are numbered 1–3 (thumb has only 1 and 2), and the 3rd phalange is the “nail phalange”. We
shall call both the pyramid and spider positions “flat finger” positions because all three FFPs share two important
properties: the third phalange of the finger is never curled in and is always relaxed, and you play with the sensitive
palm side of the finger tip. From here on, we shall use this broader definition of FFP. Although the fingers are bent
in many of these positions, we shall call them FFP to distinguish them clearly from the curled position. Most of curl
paralysis comes from bending the third phalange. This can be demonstrated by bending only the third phalange (if
you can) and then trying to move that finger raidly. Note that total relaxation of the third phalange is now part of
the definition of FFP. The FFP simplifies the computation in the brain because you almost totally ignore the flexor
muscle of the third phalange. That is 10 fewer flexor muscles to control, and these are particularly awkward and
slow muscles; therefore, ignoring them can increase finger speed. We have arrived at the realization that the curled
position is outright wrong for playing advanced material. The generalized flat finger position is what you need
in order to play at the speeds needed by advanced players! However, as discussed below, there are certain situations in which you need to quickly curl certain individual fingers for reaching some white keys and to avoid poking
the fallboard with your fingernails. The importance of the generalized FFP cannot be over-emphasized because it
is one of the key elements of relaxation that is often entirely ignored.
The flat finger position gives much more control because the palm side of the finger tip is the most sensitive
part of the finger. Another reason for increased control is that the relaxed third phalange acts like a shock absorber
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
in the FFPs. If you have difficulty bringing out the color in a composition, using the FFPs will make it easier. Playing
with the fingertip using the curled position is like driving a car without shock absorbers, or playing a piano with
worn hammers. The tone will tend to come out harsh or non-legato. You are effectively restricted to one tone
color. By using FFP, you can feel the keys better and control tone and color more easily. Because you can completely
relax the third phalanges and also ignore some of the extensor muscles, the flat finger motions are simpler and you
can play faster, especially for difficult material such as fast trills.
We have therefore arrived at a most important general concept: we must liberate ourselves from the tyranny
of the single fixed curled position. We must learn to use all of the available finger positions because each has its
advantages.
You may want to lower the bench in order to be able to play with the flat part of the fingers. When the bench
is lowered, it usually becomes necessary to move it farther away from the piano so as to provide enough room for
the arms and elbows to move between the keyboard and the body. In other words, many pianists sit too high and
too close to the piano, which is not noticeable when playing with curled fingers. Thus the FFPs will give you a more
precise way to optimize the bench height and location. At these lower heights, the wrists, and even the elbows
might sometimes fall below the level of the keyboard while you are playing; this is perfectly permissible. Sitting
farther away from the piano also gives you more space to lean forwards in order to play fortissimo.
All the flat finger positions can be practiced on a table. For the totally flat position, simply place all the fingers
and the palm flat on a table and practice lifting each finger independently of the others, especially finger 4. Practice
the pyramid and spider positions by just pressing down with the fleshy underside of the finger tips contacting the
table and completely relaxing the third phalange so that it actually bends backwards. For the pyramid position, this
becomes something like a stretching exercise for all the flexor tendons, and the last 2 phalanges are relaxed. You
may also find that FFP works very well when typing on a keyboard.
The 4th finger in general gives everybody problems and you can perform an exercise to improve its independence using the spider position. At the piano, place fingers 3 and 4 on C] and D], and the remaining fingers on
white keys. Press down all five keys. The first exercise is to play finger 4, lifting it as high as you can. In all these
exercises, you must keep all the non-playing fingers down. The second exercise is to play fingers 3 and 4 alternately,
lifting 4 as high as you can, but lifting 3 only sufficiently to play the note, and keeping it always in contact with the
key top (quite difficult). Most people can lift the 4th finger highest in the spider position, indicating that this may
be the best position for general playing. During key drop, play finger 3 louder than 4 (accent on 3). Repeat using
fingers 4 and 5, with the accent on 5 and keeping it on the key as much as possible. In the 3rd and final exercise, play
(3, 4), (4, 3), (5, 4), and (4, 5) parallel sets. These exercises may seem difficult at first, but you may be surprised at
how quickly you will be able to play them after just a few days; however, do not stop just because you can do these
exercises, practice until you can do them very fast, with complete control and relaxation. These exercises simulate
the difficult situation in which you are playing fingers 3 and 5 while lifting 4 above the keys.
The extra reach, the large contact area, and the added cushion under the fingers make legato playing easier and
quite different from legato using the curled position. The FFP also makes it easier to play two notes with one finger,
especially because you can play with the fingers not parallel to the keys and use a very large area under the finger
to hold more than one key down. Because Chopin was known for his legato, was good at playing several notes with
one finger, and recommended practicing the B major scale, he probably used flat finger playing. Mlle. Combe, who
was the initial inspiration for this book, taught FFP and noted that it was particularly useful for playing Chopin.
One legato trick she taught was to start with FFP and then roll the finger up to the curled position so that the hand
can move without lifting the finger off the key. The reverse can also be done when moving down from black keys to
the white keys.
If you had been taught only the curl position all your life, learning the FFPs may appear awkward at first, but
playing the FFPs is a necessary skill. When you make the switch, you will:
1. Feel total relaxation because of the relaxation in the final finger phalange. This relaxation should feel “good”
and can even become addicting. It may be easiest to start practicing this position on a table by using the
spider position and pressing down with all fingers until all the third phalanges of fingers 2 to 5 are flared outwards, thus stretching the tendons to those phalanges. The most important consequence of this relaxation is
that you will be able to play faster.
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
49
2. Be able to play softer pianissimo because of the higher sensitivity of the fingertips and the extra shock absorber effect of the relaxed third phalange.
3. Be able to play louder and more authoritative fortissimo because of the larger finger area available for pressing the keys down. No more slipping off from the black keys!
4. Be able to play with most of the fingers and even the palm of the hands touching the keys for more precise
feel and control. Too much “feeling around” can result in too much legato when more agitated playing is appropriate. In such instances, the trick is to quickly feel the key to know exactly where it is, and then to bounce
up sufficiently to produce the agitated or forceful playing. Advanced pianists will perform this “feeling” operation so quickly that it is not visible to the untrained eye.
5. Be able to produce better tone color and expression because of the more sensitive control of each finger and
each key drop.
6. Be able to play a better legato — when playing Chopin, there is nothing like playing legato using techniques
that were almost certainly used by Chopin.
7. Eliminate a majority of mistakes; note that, if you had done everything else correctly, thumb-under and curl
paralysis cause almost all of your mistakes. Of course, just playing FFP is not enough for eliminating curl
paralysis mistakes; you must learn to feel the keys at all times, not only with the fingertips but also with the
entire finger and the palm. This is one of the reasons why quiet hands is so important. In the curl position, it
is difficult to feel the keys not only because the finger tip is less sensitive, but also because there is no shock
absorber — either the finger is on the key or off it. In the automobile, the purpose of the shock absorber is
not only to provide more comfort, but also to keep the tires in contact with the road.
8. When you use FFP, wide chords and runs are much more similar; they are both played with FFP, so that it
becomes easier to play when both are required. If you use curled fingers, then you have to use FFP for wide
chords (otherwise you can’t reach the notes) and then change to curled fingers to play runs.
9. In music with hand collisions, such as the Bach Inventions, you can play flat FFP with one hand and the
pyramid position with the other to avoid the collision.
10. The FFPs are more compatible with thumb-over and cartwheel methods than the curled position.
You can demonstrate the usefulness of the FFP by applying it to anything that is giving you difficulty. For example, I was running into stress problems with speeding up Bach’s inventions because they require finger independence, especially fingers 3, 4, & 5. While practicing with the curled position only, I felt that I was beginning to build
speed walls at a few places where I didn’t have enough finger independence. When I applied the flat finger position,
they became much easier to play. This eventually allowed me to play at faster speeds and with greater control. The
Bach Inventions are good pieces to use for practicing the FFPs.
A discussion of FFP would be incomplete without discussing why you need the curled position, and some of its
disadvantages. This position is not really an intentionally curled position but a relaxed position in which, for most
people, there is a natural curl. For those whose relaxed position is too straight, they may need to add a slight curl
in order to attain the ideal curled position. In this position, all the fingers contact the keys at an angle between 45
degrees and 90 degrees (the thumb might make a somewhat smaller angle). There are certain movements that are
absolutely necessary for playing the piano that require the curled position. Some of these are: playing certain white
keys (when the other fingers are playing black keys), playing between the black keys, and for avoiding poking your
fingernails into the fallboard. Especially for pianists with large hands, it is necessary to curl fingers 2, 3, and 4 when
1 and 5 are playing the black keys in order to avoid jamming fingers 2, 3, and 4 into the fallboard. Thus, the freedom
to play with any arbitrary amount of curl is a necessary freedom. One of the biggest disadvantages of the curled
position is that the extensor muscles are not sufficiently exercised, causing the flexor muscles to overpower them
and creating control problems. In FFP, the un-used flexor muscles are relaxed and not exercised; in fact, the
associated tendons are stretched, which makes the fingers more flexible.
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
The FFP is superior to the curled position in a majority of situations, especially for speed, legato, pianissimo,
fortissimo, relaxation, sensitivity, and accuracy. The mistaken perception that FFP is bad for technique arises from
the fact that it can lead to bad habits related to the incorrect use of parallel sets. This happens because with flat
fingers, it is a simple matter to lay the fingers flat and jam them all down on the piano to play parallel sets masquerading as fast runs. This can result in uneven playing and beginning students might use it as a way of playing
fast without developing technique. By learning the curled position first and learning how to use parallel sets correctly, we can avoid this problem. In my numerous communications with teachers, I have noticed that the best
teachers are familiar with the usefulness of the FFP. This is especially true of the group of teachers whose teaching
lineage traces to F. Liszt, because Liszt used this position. Liszt was Czerny’s student, but did not always follow
Czerny’s teachings, and used FFP to improve tone (Boissier, Fay, Bertrand). In fact, it is hard to imagine that there
are any advanced pianists who do not know how to use FFP. As proof, next time you attend a concert or watch a
video, see if you can spot these FFPs (totally flat, pyramid, spider positions and the totally relaxed third phalange) —
you will find that every accomplished pianist uses them extensively. It is gratifying that the most celebrated pianist
often chose to ignore his own teacher, Czerny, as recommended here.
It is now abundantly clear that we must learn to take advantage of as many finger positions as possible. One
natural question to ask is, “What is the order of importance of all these positions — which is the ‘default’ position
that we should use most often?”. The spider position is the most important. The insect kingdom did not adopt this
position without a good reason; they found out that it works best after hundreds of millions of years of research.
Note that the distinction between the spider position and the curled position can be subtle, and many pianists who
think they are using the curled position may in fact be using something closer to FFP. The second most important
position is the flat out position because it is needed for playing wide chords and arpeggios. The third position is
the curled position and the pyramid position comes in fourth. The pyramid position uses only one flexor muscle
per finger, the spider position uses two, and the curled position uses all three plus the extensor muscles during key
drop.
In general, you can use the following rule to decide which finger position to use: play the black keys using the
completely flat FFP, and use the curled or pyramid position for the white keys. The spider position is quite versatile
if you acquire it while young and can play both black and white keys. Note that if, within a group of notes, you
must play both black and white keys, it is usually advantageous to use two types of finger positions. This might
appear to be an added complication at first, but at high speed, this might be the only way. There are, of course,
numerous exceptions; for example, in difficult passages involving the 4th finger, you may need more FFPs than
curled positions even when most or all the keys are white.
The above discussions on FFP are substantial, but they are by no means complete. In a more detailed treatment,
we need to discuss how we apply FFP to specific skills such as legato, or playing two notes with one finger while
controlling each note individually. Chopin’s legato is documented to be particularly special, as was his staccato. Is
his staccato related to the FFP? Note that in all the FFPs, you can take advantage of the spring effect of the relaxed
third phalange, which might be useful in playing staccato. Clearly we need more research to learn how to use the
FFPs. In particular, there is controversy as to whether we should play mostly with the curled position and add the
FFP whenever necessary, as has been taught by most teachers, or vice versa, as Horowitz did, and as recommended
here. FFP is also related to bench height. It is easier to play with flat fingers when the bench is lowered. There are
numerous accounts of pianists discovering that they can play much better with a lower bench position (Horowitz
and Glen Gould are examples). They claim to get better control, especially for pianissimo and speed, but no one
has provided an explanation for why this is so. My explanation is that the lower bench height allowed them to use
more FFPs. However, there appears to be no good reason to sit overly low, as Glen Gould did, because you can
always lower the wrist to get the same effect.
In summary, Horowitz had good reasons to play with flat fingers and the above discussions suggest that part
of his higher technical level may have been achieved by using more FFPs than others. The single most important
message of this section is that we must learn to relax the third phalange of the finger and play with the touchsensitive part of the finger tip. The aversion to, or even prohibition of, FFP by some teachers turns out to be a
mistake; in fact, any amount of curl will invite some degree of curl paralysis. However, beginners must learn the
curled position first because it is necessary for playing the white keys and is more difficult than the FFPs. If students
learn the easier flat finger method first, they may never learn the more difficult curled position adequately. FFP is
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
51
a necessary skill for developing technique. It is useful for speed, increasing your reach, playing multiple notes
with one finger, avoiding injury, “feeling the keys”, legato, relaxation, playing pianissimo or fortissimo, and adding
color. Although the curled position is necessary, the statement “you need the curled position to play technically
difficult material” is a misleading myth. Playing with flat fingers liberates us to use many useful and versatile finger
positions. We now know how to play all those black keys and not miss a single note! Thank you, Mr. Horowitz and
Mlle. Combe.
1.3.4.3 Body Motions
Many teachers encourage “use of the whole body for playing the piano” (see Whiteside). What does that mean? Are
there special body motions that are required for technique? Not really; technique is in the hands and relaxation.
However, because the hands are connected to and supported by the body, you can’t just sit in one position and
hope to play. When playing the upper registers, the body should follow the hands and you might even extend one
leg in the opposite direction in order to balance the body, if it is not needed for the pedals. Also, even the smallest
motion of any finger requires the activation of a series of muscles that lead all the way to at least the center of the
body (near the sternum), if not all the way to the legs and other members that support the body. Relaxation is as
important in the body as in the hands and fingers, because of the shear size of the muscles involved. Therefore,
although most of the required body motions can be understood from simple common sense, and do not seem to
be that important, they are nonetheless absolutely essential to piano playing. So let’s discuss these motions, some
of which may not be totally obvious.
The most important aspect is relaxation. It is the same type of relaxation that you need in the hands and arms
— use of only those muscles required for playing, and only for the brief instants during which they are needed.
Relaxation also means free breathing; if your throat is dry after a hard practice, you are not swallowing properly,
a sure sign of tenseness. Relaxation is intimately related to independence of every part of the body. The first
thing you must do, before considering any useful body motions, is to make sure that the hands and fingers are
totally decoupled from the body. If they are not decoupled, the rhythm will go awry, and you can make all sorts
of unexpected mistakes. If, in addition, you don’t realize that the body and hands are coupled, you will wonder
why you are making so many strange mistakes for which you cannot find the cause. This decoupling is especially
important in HT play, because the coupling will interfere with the independence of the two hands. Coupling is one
of the causes of mistakes: for example, a motion in one hand creates an involuntary motion in the other through the
body. This does not mean that you can ignore body decoupling during HS practice; on the contrary, the decoupling
should be consciously practiced during HS work. Note that decoupling is a simple concept and easy to execute
once you learn it but, physically, it is a complex process. Any motion in one hand necessarily produces an equal
and opposite reaction in the body, which is automatically transmitted to the other hand. Thus decoupling requires
active effort; it is not just a passive relaxation. Fortunately, our brains are sufficiently sophisticated so that we
can easily grasp the concept of decoupling. This is why decoupling must be actively practiced. When you learn
any new composition, there will always be some coupling until you practice it out. The worst type of coupling is
the one acquired during practice, if you practice with stress or try to play something that is too difficult. During
the intense efforts needed to try to play difficult material, a student can incorporate any number of unnecessary
motions, especially during HT practice, which will eventually interfere with the playing as the speed increases. By
getting up to speed HS, you can avoid most of these HT coupling mistakes.
Another important use of the body is in playing softly or forte. Truly loud and authoritative sound can be generated only through the use of the shoulders. The body should lean forwards and the weight of the shoulders should
be used. Thus the sound is produced by a larger mass, and the audience can hear this. We all know that F = Ma
where “F ” is the force applied to the key drop, “M” is the mass of the finger, arm, etc., and “a” is the acceleration
of the key drop. Since you can humanly accelerate the finger tip by only a certain amount, the mass M determines
the force because M can be made very large by adding the body and shoulders. With this larger force, you can drive
the hammer to a higher velocity and with more hammer shaft flex, compared to if you just used the arm. A hammer hitting the strings with more force and shaft flex stays on the strings longer because it must wait for the flex to
unwind before it can bounce back. The larger force compresses the hammer felt more, which also contributes to
longer residence time on the strings. The longer residence causes the higher overtones to be attenuated more effi-
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ciently (because they have more chances to escape through the hammer, etc.), resulting in a “deeper” tone. In other
words, with more mass behind the key drop, you transfer energy to the strings more efficiently. A golf ball bouncing off a concrete wall at high speed will leave the wall with almost all of its initial kinetic energy, which means
that it transferred little energy to the wall. It also creates a high frequency pinging sound. A heavy wrecking ball,
on the other hand, has a larger mass, and although it may be traveling more slowly than the golf ball, can transfer
enough energy to destroy the wall. It also tends to create a deep, roaring sound. Although the piano hammer cannot
change its mass, the shaft flex produces an effect similar to that of a larger mass. This is why teachers tell students
to “press deeply into the keys” in order to produce a loud, authoritative sound. This motion results in maximum
mass behind the key drop, and maximum hammer shaft flex. The shaft flex is maximized by providing the greatest
acceleration near the bottom of the key drop, just at the time when the jack releases. If you don’t “press deeply”
you tend to stop the acceleration before reaching the bottom (this need to accelerate at impact is the reason why
the “follow through” is so important in golf). Note that the shaft flex starts to unwind as soon as the hammer goes
into free flight, even before the hammer hits the strings. Because of this effect, good piano tuners do their utmost
to minimize the let-off distance when regulating the action, so as to provide maximum tone control. Therefore, if
a few hammers stick in their upper position right after your tuner regulated the piano, don’t be angry at the tuner
because s/he made a much greater effort than most tuners to “get it just right” by minimizing the let-off distance.
Keep exercising those notes, and the leather at the knuckle will compress and those notes will soon start to play
normally.
The body is also used for playing softly because in order to play softly, you need a steady, constant platform
from which to generate those small, controlled forces. The hand and arm, by themselves, have too many possible
motions to serve as a steady platform. When attached securely to a steady body, you have a much more stable
reference platform. Thus the soft stillness of the pianissimo should emanate from the body, not the fingertips. And
in order to reduce mechanical “noise” from extraneous finger motions, the fingers should be on the keys as much
as possible. In fact, feeling the keys provides another stable reference from which to play. Once the finger leaves the
key, you have lost that valuable reference, and the finger can now wander anywhere, making it difficult to accurately
control the next note.
1.3.5 Playing (Fast) Scales and Arpeggios (Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu and Beethoven’s
Moonlight, 3rd Movement)
1.3.5.1 Scales
Updated:
January 25, 2004
Scales and arpeggios are the most basic piano passages; yet the most important method for playing them is
often not taught at all! Arpeggios are simply expanded scales and can therefore be treated similarly to scales; thus
we shall first discuss scales in detail and then note how similar rules apply to arpeggios. There is one fundamental
difference on how you must play the arpeggio (a flexible wrist) compared to the scale; once you learn that simple
difference, arpeggios will become much easier, even for small hands.
There are two ways to play the scale. The first is the well-known “thumb under” method (TU) and the second
is the “thumb over” method (TO). In the TU method, the thumb is brought under the hand in order to pass the
3rd or 4th finger for playing the scale. This TU operation is facilitated by the unique structure of the thumb, located
below the palm. In the TO method, the unique structure of the thumb is ignored and it is treated like the other
4 fingers. Both methods are required to play the scale but each is needed under different circumstances; the TO
method is needed for fast, technically difficult passages and the TU method is useful for slow, legato passages, or
when some notes need to be held while others are being played.
The TU method is more frequently taught probably (1) for historical reasons and (2) because the TO method is
not needed (though it may be preferable) up to the intermediate level. In fact, with sufficient effort and work, it is
possible to play fairly difficult passages using the TU method and there are professional and excellent pianists who
think that TU is the only method they need. In reality, for sufficiently fast passages, they have subconsciously
learned (through very hard work) to modify the TU method in such a way that it approaches the TO method.
This modification is necessary because for such rapid scales, it is physically impossible to play them using the TU
method and stress becomes unavoidable at high speeds. Therefore it is important for the student to start learning
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
53
the TO method as soon as they are past the novice stage, before the TU habit becomes ingrained into passages that
should be played TO.
Many students use the method of playing slowly initially and then ramping up the speed. They do fine using
TU at slow speed and consequently acquire the TU habit and find out, when they get up to speed, that they need
to change to the TO method. This change can be a very difficult, frustrating, and time consuming task, not only for
scales, but also for any difficult, fast passage — another reason why the ramping up method is not recommended in
this book. The TU motion is one of the most common causes of speed walls. Thus once the TO method is learned,
it should always be used to play the scale except when the TU method gives better results. Even with the methods
taught here, you will find that you can “get away with” certain motions at slower speeds while you cannot at higher
speeds. We show below how to find the necessary motions using parallel set exercises and to apply them at the
appropriate speeds.
The main piano playing muscles for the thumb are in the forearm, just as for the other 4 fingers. However,
the thumb has other muscles in the hand that are used to move the thumb sideways in the TU method. The involvement of these extra muscles for the TU motion makes it a more biologically complex operation, thus slowing
down the maximum speed attainable. The extra complication and stress at high speeds also causes mistakes. Some
teachers claim that for those who use TU exclusively, 90% of their flubs originate with the TU motion.
You can demonstrate the disadvantage of the TU method by observing the loss of thumb mobility in its
tucked-in position. First, stretch your fingers out so that all the fingers are in the same plane. You will find that all
the fingers, including the thumb, have mobility up and down (the motion needed to play the piano). Now, wiggle
the thumb up and down rapidly — you will see that the thumb can move 4 or 5 cm vertically with ease (without
rotating the forearm), quite rapidly. Then, while still wiggling at the same rapid frequency, gradually pull the thumb
under the hand — you will see that as it goes under, it loses vertical mobility until it becomes immobile, almost
paralyzed, when it is under the middle finger.
Now stop the wiggling and thrust the thumb down (without moving the wrist) — it moves down! This is because
you are now using a different set of muscles. Then, using these new muscles, try to move the thumb up and down as
fast as you can — you should find that these new muscles are much clumsier and the up and down motion is slower
than the wiggle rate of the thumb when it was stretched out. Therefore, in order to be able to move the thumb in
its tucked position, you not only need to use a new set of muscles but, in addition, these muscles are much more
awkward. It is the introduction of these clumsy muscles that creates mistakes and slows down the play in the TU
method. The objective of the TO method is to eliminate these problems. The obvious question is, “what price do
you pay for it?”
The TU method works well for slow scales. This is why scales (and arpeggios) are some of the most abused
exercises in piano pedagogy — novice students are taught the TU method and are frequently never taught the TO
method, leaving them unable to acquire proper techniques for runs and arpeggios. Not only that, but as the scale
is speeded up, stress begins to mysteriously build up. Beginners should be taught the TO method as soon as they
are ready. The TO method is no harder to learn than the TU method because it does not require the sideways
contortions of the thumb, hand, arm, and elbow. It is not harmful to teach beginners the TU method first and
then the TO method when faster scales are needed (within the first two years of lessons) because for a beginner,
the TU method is more complex and difficult to learn. Clearly, anyone beyond novice must learn the TO method in
order to avoid the trauma and wasted time trying to play fast scales TU. Worse still, the student could end up with
a large number of learned music with wrong habits that may need to be laboriously corrected later. For talented
students, the TO method must be taught within 6 months of their first lessons, or as soon as they master TU.
Because there are two ways to play the scale, there are two schools of teaching on how to play it. One school
is the TU school. In fact, a disproportionately large fraction of students are presently being taught only the TU
method because most private teachers (who account for the majority of beginning students) have students that are
not that advanced and therefore do not need the TO method. Many private teachers aren’t even aware of the TO
method. The TU school (Czerny, Leschetizky) claims that TU is the only way that legato scales can be played and
that, with sufficient practice, TU can play scales at any speed. The TO school (Whitesides, Sandor) is now taking
over and the more insistent adherents forbid the use of TU, under any circumstances. See the Reference section
for more discussions on TU vs. TO teaching. Both extreme schools are wrong because you need both skills.
The TO teachers claim that the TU method is the cause of a majority of flubs and that if you practiced each
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method the same amount of time, you will be playing far superior scales with the TO method. They are understandably angered by the fact that advanced students passed to them by private teachers often do not know the TO
method and it takes six months or more just to correct hours of repertoire that they had learned the wrong way.
One disadvantage of learning both TU and TO is that when sight reading, the thumb might become confused and
not know which way to go. This confusion is one reason why some teachers in the TO school actually forbid the
use of TU. I recommend that you standardize to the TO method and use the TU as an exception to the rule. Note
that Chopin taught both methods (Eigeldinger, p. 37). Thus learning TO is not just a matter of preference; it is a
necessity.
So, what exactly is the TO metion? Let us start by analyzing the basic fingering of scales. Consider the RH,
C major scale. We begin with the easier part, which is the RH descending scale, played 5432132, 1432132, 1 etc.
Since the thumb is below the hand, the 3 or 4 finger rolls over the thumb easily, the thumb naturally folds under
those fingers, and this descending scale fingering works well. This motion is similar to the TU motion; therefore,
for the RH descending scale, there is little apparent difference between the TU and TO methods. We will need
to make a slight but crucial modification to this below in order to make it into a true TO method, but that subtle
modification will be difficult to understand until we master the TO method. We shall postpone the discussion of
this modification till later.
Now consider the RH, C major ascending scale. This is played 1231234, etc. In the TO method, the thumb is
played just like the 3 and 4 fingers; i.e., it is simply raised and lowered without the sideways TU motion under the
palm. Since the thumb is shorter than the other fingers, it can be brought down almost parallel to (and just behind)
the passed finger without colliding with it. For scales such as the C major, both the thumb and passed finger are
on white keys and will necessarily crowd each other somewhat. In order to avoid any possibility of collision, the 3
or 4 finger must be quickly moved away as the thumb comes down. This is the operation that must be practiced in
order to play a smooth TO scale. In the TO method, it is not possible to hold the 3 or 4 finger down until the thumb
plays, unlike the TU method, and the thumb cannot pass over these fingers. For these reasons, some people object
to the name TO because it is misleading. When you first try the TO method, the scale will be uneven and there may
be a “gap” when passing the thumb. The trick in learning the TO method is to reduce the “gap” between playing
the 3 or 4 finger and the thumb so that the gap becomes inaudibly small. Therefore, the transition must be very
quick even in a scale played slowly. As you improve, you will notice that a quick flick/rotation of the wrist/arm is
helpful. It may be easier to learn the TO motion initially by playing staccato. We shall go into much more detail on
how to practice TO below.
The logic behind the TO method is the following. The thumb is used like any other finger; it is not unique. The
thumb only moves up and down. This simplifies the finger motions and, in addition, the hand, arms, and elbows
do not need to contort to accommodate the thumb movements. Without this simplification, technically difficult
passages can become impossible, especially because you still need to add new hand motions to attain such speeds,
and most of these motions are incompatible with TU. Thus the hand and arm maintain their optimum angle to the
keyboard at all times and simply glide up and down with the scale. Most importantly, the movement of the thumb
to its correct location is controlled mostly by the hand whereas in the TU method, it is the compound motion of
the thumb and hand that determines the thumb location. Because the hand motion is smooth, the thumb is positioned more accurately than with the TU method, thus reducing missed notes and hitting of wrong notes and at the
same time bestowing better tone control to the thumb. Also, the ascending scale becomes similar to the descending
scale, because you always roll the fingers over for passing. This also makes it easier to play hands together since all
fingers of both hands are always rolling over. Another bonus is that the thumb can now play a black key. It is this
large number of simplifications, the elimination of the stress that results from the paralyzed thumb, and certain
other advantages discussed below, that reduces the potential for mistakes and enables arbitrarily fast play. There
are, of course, exceptions: slow, legato passages, or some scales containing black keys, etc., are executed more comfortably with a TU-like motion. Acquiring the necessary techniques for the TO method is not automatic — it will
need a certain minimum of practice, otherwise it will initially yield only choppy scales. In fact, most students who
“grew up” using only TU will initially have a terrible time trying to understand how anyone can play anything
TO. This is the clearest indication of the harm done by not learning TO; for these students, the thumb is not “free”
as explained below. We shall see that the free thumb is a very versatile finger. But don’t despair, because it turns out
that all TU students already know how to play TO — they just don’t know it.
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
55
The LH is the reverse of the RH; the TO method is used for the descending scale. If your RH is more advanced
than the LH, perform the explorations to faster TO speeds using the RH until you decide exactly what to do, then
pick up that motion with the LH. You can save a lot of time this way. It is a good idea to get into the habit of using the
better hand to teach the other one. Naturally, if the LH is weaker than the RH, you will eventually need to practice
it more to let it catch up. The LH must be stronger than the RH because the hammers in the bass are larger and
the strings are more massive, which makes the action feel heavier at faster speeds.
We now discuss procedures for practicing fast TO scales. The RH C major ascending scale consists of the
parallel sets 123 and 1234. Parallel sets (see section 1.4.2) are groups of notes that can be played as a “chord” (all at
once). First, use the chord attack (see section 1.2.9) or the parallel set exercises (section 1.3.7) to attain a fast 123,
with 1 on C4. Then practice 1231 with the thumb going up and then coming down behind the 3, quickly moving the
3 out of the way as the thumb comes down. Most of the sideways motion of the thumb is accomplished by moving
the hand. The last 1 in the 1231 is the conjunction required by the continuity rule (see 1.2.8). Repeat with 1234,
with 1 on F4, and then 12341, with the last 1 rolling over, just behind the 4, and landing on C5. Make sure that you
can play these two combinations very rapidly and smoothly, completely relaxed. Play fingers 234 close to the black
keys in order to give the thumb more area to land on. Then connect the two parallel sets to complete the octave.
After you can do one octave, do two, etc.
When playing very fast scales, the hand/arm motions are similar to those of a glissando (but not identical).
Note that the thumb can be brought very close to the passed finger (3 or 4) if it is kept just behind all the other
fingers (almost like TU). The glissando type motion allows you to bring the thumb even closer to the passed fingers
because all the fingers 2 to 5 are pointing slightly backwards. You should be able to play one fast octave (about 1
octave/sec.) this way after a few minutes of practice (let’s not worry about evenness yet!). Practice relaxing to the
point where you can feel the weight of your arm. When you become proficient with TO, you should find that long
scales are no more difficult than short ones and that HT is not as difficult as TU. This happens mainly because the
contortions of the elbow, etc., for TU become more difficult at the high and low ends of the scales (there are many
other reasons). It is important to stress here that there is never any real need to practice scales HT and, until you
become quite proficient, HT practice will do more harm than good mainly because you can waste a lot of time
practicing HT at this stage. There is so much urgent material we must practice immediately HS, that there should
be little time left for HT practice. In addition, if you ask “What will I gain practicing HT?” the answer is “Almost
nothing”. Most advanced teachers (Gieseking) consider practicing fast HT scales to be a waste of time. However,
the ability to play great scales HS is a necessity.
In order to control the phase angle in the parallel set accurately, raise your wrist (ever so slightly) as you play
the parallel sets 123 or 1234. Then make the transition to the next parallel set by lowering the wrist to play TO.
These wrist motions are extremely small motions, almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, and become even
smaller as you speed up. You can accomplish the same thing by rotating the wrist clockwise (cw) to play the parallel
sets and cycling back by rotating ccw to lower the thumb. However, the up and down wrist motion is preferred over
the rotation because it is simpler, and the rotation can be reserved for other uses (Sandor). If you now try to play
several octaves, it may initially come out like a washboard. It might take several weeks to attain fast smooth scales
over 5 octaves up and down continuously HS, depending on your level.
The fastest way to speed up scale playing is to practice only one octave. One you are up to the faster speeds,
cycle 2 octaves up and down continually. At high speeds, these shorter octaves are more useful because it is easier
to learn the runs but it is more difficult to reverse direction at the top and bottom as the speed is increased. With
longer runs, you don’t get to practice the ends as often, and the added stretch of the arm to reach the higher/lower
octaves is just an unnecessary distraction from concentrating on the thumb. The way to play fast reverses at the
top and bottom is to play them with a single downward pressure of the hand. For example, to reverse at the top,
play the last parallel set, the conjunction, and the first parallel set coming down, all in one downward motion. In
this scheme, the conjunction is effectively eliminated by incorporating it into one of the parallel sets. This is one of
the most effective ways of playing a fast conjunction — by making it disappear!
Remember the glissando type of motion mentioned above. In the glissando, the hands are supinated or pronated
in such a way that the fingers point away from the direction of motion of the hand. In these hand positions, the
keydrop motions of the fingers are not straight down, but have a horizontal backward component that enables the
fingertips to linger a little longer on the keys as the hand moves along the keyboard. This is especially helpful for
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playing legato. In other words, if the fingers were coming straight down (relative to the hand) and the hand is moving, the fingers would not come straight down onto the keys. By rotating the hand slightly in the glissando direction,
this error can be compensated. Thus the glissando motion allows the hand to glide smoothly instead of moving up
in jerks. You can practice this motion by cycling one octave up and down; the hand should resemble the motion of
a skater, with alternate feet kicking sideways and the body alternately tilting while s/he skates forward. The hand
should pronate or supinate with each change of direction of the octave. As in skating, where you must lean in the
opposite direction before you can change the direction of motion, the rotation of the hand (reversal of glissando
hand position) must precede the change in direction of the scale.
Do not take the glissando analogy too literally, because there are differences. For playing scales, the fingers are
doing the work; therefore, it is important to keep the fingers parallel to the arm so as not to strain the tendons and
cause injury or create stress.
For the RH descending TO scale, practice the parallel set 54321, and the other relevant parallel sets, with and
without their conjunctions. You just need to make a small modification to avoid letting the thumb fold completely under the hand while the next parallel set is rolling over the thumb. Lift the thumb as early as possible
while keeping the scale smooth, by raising and/or rotating the wrist to pull the thumb up — almost the reverse of
what you did for the ascending scale. If you fold the thumb completely under the palm, it will become paralyzed
and difficult to move to the next position. This is the “slight modification” referred to above and is very similar to
the thumb motion for the ascending scale. For TU play, the thumb can be allowed to fold completely under the
palm. Because this motion is somewhat similar in TO and TU, and differ only in degree, it can be easily played
incorrectly. The difference becomes important in technically difficult passages.
For ultra-fast scales (over one octave per second), think not in terms of individual notes, but in units of parallel
sets. For the RH, naming 123=A, 1234=B, play AB instead of 1231234, i.e., two things instead of seven. For even faster
play, think in units of pairs of parallel sets AB,AB, etc. As you progress in speed and start thinking in terms of larger
units, the continuity rule should be changed from A1 to AB1 to ABA (where the final member is the conjunction).
It is a bad idea to over-practice fast, at speeds you can not comfortably manage. The forays into very fast play are
useful only for making it easier to practice accurately at a slightly slower speed. Therefore practice most of the time
at slightly slower than maximum speed; you will gain speed faster that way. Do not practice for long periods at
maximum speed because that will condition the hands to play the wrong way. And don’t forget to play slowly at
least once before you change hands or quit.
Try the following experiment in order to get the feel of truly fast scales. Cycle the 5 finger parallel set 54321 for
the RH descending scale, according to the scheme described in the parallel set exercises. Note that, as you increase
the repetition speed, you will need to orient the hand and use a certain amount of thrust or rotation in order to
attain the fastest, smooth, and even parallel play. You may need to study the arpeggio section below on “thrust”
and “pull” before you can do this correctly. An intermediate level student should be able to get up to faster than 2
cycles per second. Once you can do this rapidly, comfortably, and relaxed, simply continue it down one octave at
the same fast speed, making sure to play it TO. You have just discovered how to play a very fast run! How fast you
can play depends on your technical level, and as you improve, this method will allow you to play even faster scales.
Do not over practice these fast runs if they start to become uneven because you can end up with uneven playing
habits. These experiments are valuable mainly for discovering the motions needed at such speeds.
It is best not to start playing scales HT until you are very comfortable HS. The maximum HT speed is always
slower than the maximum HS speed of the slower hand. Start HT practice with one octave, or part of one, such
as one parallel set. For practicing by parallel sets, the C major scale is not ideal because the thumbs are not synchronized — see below for a better scale to use (B major). Cultivate the habit of transitioning to HT at a fast speed
(although it may seem much easier to start at slow speed and then gradually ramp up). To do this, play one octave
LH at a comfortable fast speed several times, repeat the RH at the same speed several times, and then combine
them at the same speed. Don’t worry if at first the fingers don’t match absolutely perfectly. First match the starting
notes; then match both the start and final notes; then cycle the octave continually; then work on matching every
note.
Suppose that you can play at speed 10 with your RH and 9 with the LH. Then your maximum speed HT may be
7. If you want to increase this HT speed to 9, don’t do it HT. Do it by increasing the RH speed to 12, then the LH
speed to 11. Now you can increase the HT speed to 9. In this way, you save a lot of time and will avoid picking up
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
57
bad habits and developing stress. That is, practically all technique acquisition should be conducted HS because
that is the fastest, most error-free way. Many students will need to practice the LH more than the RH, which is
another reason for practicing HS.
Before going too far with the C major scale, consider practicing the B major scale. See table below for scale
fingerings. In this scale, only the thumb and pinky play the white keys, except for the bottom finger (4) of the LH.
All other fingers play the black keys. This scale has the following advantages:
1. It is easier to play initially, especially for those with large hands or long fingers. Each key falls naturally under
every finger, the fingers never crowd each other, and there is plenty of room for every finger. For this reason,
Chopin taught this scale to beginners before teaching the C major scale.
2. It allows you to practice playing the black keys. The black keys are more difficult to play (easier to miss)
because they are narrower, and require greater accuracy.
3. It allows play with flatter fingers (less curled), which may be better for practicing legato and for tonal control.
4. TO play is much easier with this scale. This is the reason why I used the C major scale to illustrate the TO
method. With the B major, it is more difficult to see the difference between the TU and TO motions. However, for purposes of practicing the proper motions, B major may be superior, if you already understand the
difference between TU and TO because it is easier to get to the faster speeds without acquiring bad habits.
5. The thumbs are synchronized in this scale, making it possible to practice HT, parallel set by parallel set. Thus
HT play is easier than for the C major scale. Once you become proficient with this scale HT, learning C major
HT becomes simpler, thus saving you lots of time. You will also understand exactly why the C major is more
difficult.
This paragraph is for those who grew up learning TU only and must now learn TO. At first, you have acquired
might feel as if the fingers get all tangled up and it is difficult to get a clear idea of what TO is. The main cause of
this difficulty is the habit you have acquired playing TU which must be unlearned. The first obvious point is that
you must not try to learn TO HT; practice HS. It is a new skill you need to learn and is no harder to learn than a
Bach Invention. But the best news of all is that you probably already know how to play TO! Try playing a very
fast chromatic scale. Starting with C, play 13131231313 . . . The flat finger position may be useful here. If you can
play a very fast chromatic scale, the thumb motion is exactly the same as for TO because it is impossible to play a
fast chromatic scale TU. Now transfer this motion to the B major scale; think of this scale as a chromatic scale in
which only a few white keys are played. Once you can play the B major TO, transfer this motion to C major. This
scale is more difficult because the fingers are more crowded, you need more curl, and you cannot freely use the
flat finger positions. It might help to turn the hand/arm inwards slightly so that the thumb is already positioned
slightly ahead of where it would be if the arm were strictly perpendicular to the keyboard.
The emphasis in this section has been on speed because that is where the technical difficulties lie and where TO
becomes a necessity. It should be re-emphasized here that practicing fast all the time and pushing your fingers
to go faster is precisely the wrong way. Wait for the fingers to eagerly accelerate on their own instead of pushing
them. High speed practice is necessary in the sense that you must constantly vary the speed. The tendency is to
practice too long with one hand before switching. The resting hand must not be allowed to cool off; otherwise, its
eagerness will dissipate. If you are practicing 5 repetitions and then switching hands, it is usually best to play fastest
the first time, then gradually slow down, or play fast 4 times, and slower the final time.
Of course, learning scales and arpeggios (below) TO is only the beginning. The same principles apply to any
situation involving the thumb, in any piece of music, anywhere that is reasonably fast. Once the scale and arpeggios
are mastered, these other TO situations should come almost as second nature. For this to develop naturally, you
must use a consistent and optimized scale fingering; these are listed in the tables below.
Those who are new to the TO method and have learned many pieces using the TU method will need to go back
and fix all the old pieces that contain fast runs and broken chords. Ideally, all the old pieces that were learned using
TU should be redone so as to completely get away from the TU habit. It is a bad idea to play some pieces TU and
others TO for similar fingerings. One way to accomplish the switch to TO is to practice scales and arpeggios first so
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
that you become comfortable with TO. Then learn a few new compositions using TO. After about 6 months or so,
when you have become comfortable with TO, you can start converting all your old pieces.
It is obvious that we need both TO and TU. They should be considered as the extremes of two different ways to
use the thumb. That is, there are many other motions in between, half of them would be more TO and the other half
would be more TU. One unexpected benefit of learning TO is that you become much better at playing TU. This
happens because your thumb becomes technically more capable: it becomes free. And you gain the ability to use
all those in-between motions (between extreme TO and TU) that may be required depending on what other notes
are being played or what type of expression you want to create. The thumb is now free to use all of its available
motions and for controlling tone. This freedom, plus the ability to now play much more technically difficult
material correctly, is what transforms the thumb into a very versatile finger.
Repeating scales and exercises mindlessly is discouraged in this book. However, it is critically important to
develop the skill to play exquisite scales and arpeggios, in order to acquire some very basic technique and standard
fingerings for routine playing and sight reading. Scales and arpeggios in all the major and minor keys should be
practiced until you are very familiar with them. The standard fingerings should be practiced until they are like
second nature. They should sound crisp and authoritative, not loud but confident; just listening to them should lift
up one’s spirits.
The standard major scale ascending fingerings are 12312341 (RH), 54321321(LH) for C, G, D, A, E major scales
(with 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 sharps, respectively); these fingerings will be abbreviated as S1 and S2, where S stands for “standard”. The sharps increase in the order F, C, G, D, A, (G major has F], D major has F] and C], A major has F], C], and
G], etc.) and for the F, B[, E[, A[, D[, G[ major scales, the flats increase in the order B, E, A, D, G, C; every interval
between adjacent letters is a fifth. They are therefore easy to remember, especially if you are a violinist. Look at B or
G[ major scales in a music book and you will see how the 5 sharps or 6 flats line up. Thus 2 sharps will have sharps
at F, C, three sharps will be F, C, G, and so on. The flats increase in reverse order compared to the sharps. See table
below for the remaining ascending major scales (reverse the fingerings for descending scales):
RH
LH
Scale
Sharps/Flats
S1=12312341
S1
12341231
41231234
31234123
34123123
23123412
23412312
S2=54321321
43214321321
S2
32143213
32143213
32143213
32143213
43213214
C, G, D, A, E
B
F
B[
E[
A[
D[
G[
0, 1, 2, 3, 4 sharps
5 sharps
1 flat
2 flats
3 flats
4 flats
5 flats
6 flats
For the minor scales: (the last column designates the modified note for the minor scale)
RH
LH
Scale
Sharps/Flats
S1
S1
S1
34123123
34123123
34123123
S1
S1
S1
12341231
21231234
31234123
S2
S2
43214321
43213214
32143213
32143213
S2
S2
S2
S2
21321432
21432132
A
E
B
F]
C]
G]
D
G
C
F
B[
E[
0 sharps
1 sharps
2 sharps
3 sharps
4 sharps
5 sharps
1 flat
2 flats
3 flats
4 flats
5 flats
6 flats
G sharp
D sharp
A sharp
E sharp
B sharp
F dsharp
C sharp
F sharp
B nat.
E nat.
A nat.
D nat.
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
59
It is easy to get addicted to playing scales and arpeggios. Once you can play scales as fast as you want (which
will take many years), it is best not to use scales for warm-ups because of the addiction. We are all lazy to a certain
extent and playing scales endlessly requires relatively little mental effort once you become proficient — a classic
trap for the lazy brain.
On the other hand, we can never play the scale too well. When practicing scales, always try to accomplish
something — smoother, softer, clearer, faster. Make the hands glide, the scale sing; add color, authority or an air of
excitement. Quit as soon as you start to lose concentration. There is no such thing as a maximum speed in parallel
playing. Therefore, in principle, you can keep increasing the speed and accuracy all your life — which can be quite
a bit of fun, and is certainly addicting. If you want to demonstrate your speed to an audience, you can probably do
that using scales and arpeggios at least as well as with any piece of music.
1.3.5.2 Arpeggios
Playing arpeggios correctly is technically very complex. This makes arps particularly suitable for learning some
important hand motions, such as thrust, pull, and the “cartwheel motion”. “Arpeggio”, as used here, includes broken chords and combinations of short arpeggic passages. We shall illustrate these concepts here using Beethoven’s
Moonlight Sonata (3rd Movement) for the thrust and pull, and Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu (FI) for the cartwheel motion. Recall that suppleness of the hands, especially at the wrist, is critical for playing arps. The technical
complexity of arps arises from the fact that in most cases, this suppleness must be combined with everything else:
thrust, pull, cartwheel motion, and TU or TO. One note of caution: the Moonlight is difficult because of the required
speed. Many Beethoven compositions cannot be slowed down because they are so intimately tied to rhythm. In
addition, this movement requires a minimum reach of a 9th, comfortably. Those with smaller hands will have much
more difficulty learning this piece than those with adequate reach.
1.3.5.3 The Cartwheel motion Method (Chopin’s FI)
In order to understand this motion, place your left palm flat on the piano keys, with the fingers spread out as far as
you can like the spokes of a wheel. Note that the fingertips from pinky to thumb fall on an approximate semi-circle.
Now place the pinky above C3 and parallel to it; you will have to rotate the hand so that the thumb is closer to
you. Then move the hand towards the fallboard so that the pinky touches the fallboard; make sure that the hand is
rigidly spread out at all times. If the 4th finger is too long and touches the fallboard first, rotate the hand sufficiently
so that the pinky touches the fallboard, but keep the pinky as parallel to C3 as possible. Now rotate the hand like
a wheel counter clockwise (as viewed from above) so that each successive finger touches the fallboard (without
slipping) until you reach the thumb. This is the cartwheeling motion in the horizontal plane. If your normal
reach is one octave with your fingers spread out, you will find that the cartwheeling motion will cover almost
two octaves! You gain extra reach because this motion makes use of the fact that the center three fingers are longer
than the pinky or thumb. Now repeat the same motion with the hand vertical (palm parallel to fallboard), so the
fingers point downwards. Start with the pinky vertical and lower the hand to play C3. Now if you roll the hand up
towards C4, (don’t worry if it feels very awkward), each finger will “play” the note that it touches. When you reach
the thumb, you will again find that you have covered a distance almost twice your normal reach. In this paragraph,
we learned three things: (1) how to “cartwheel” the hand, (2) this motion expands your effective reach without
making any jumps, and (3) the motion can be used to “play” the keys without moving the fingers relative to the
hand.
In actual practice, cartwheeling is used with the hand somewhere between vertical and horizontal, and the
fingers will be slightly curved. Although this cartwheeling motion will add some keydrop motion, you will also
move the fingers in order to play. We apply this method to the LH broken chords of Chopin’s FI. In section 1.3.2, we
discussed the use of cycling to practice the LH. We will now add the cartwheel motion to the cycling. Cycle the first
6 (or 12) LH notes of bar 5 (where the RH first joins in). Instead of just translating the hand sideways to play each
note, add the cartwheeling motion. If you position the hand almost horizontally, then practically all the keydrop
must be accomplished by finger motion. However, if you raise the hand more and more towards the vertical, the
cartwheeling motion will contribute more keydrop and you will need less finger motion to play. The cartwheeling
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
motion is especially useful for those with small hands because it automatically expands the reach. Cartwheeling
also makes it easier to relax because there is less need to keep the fingers spread widely apart in order to reach
all the notes. This motion also releases the tension in the wrist because you can’t cartwheel with wrist tension.
These reductions in stress make the hand more supple. You will also find that your control increases because
the motions are now partly governed by the large motions of the hand which makes the playing less dependent
on the motion of each finger and gives more uniform, even results.
1.3.5.4 Thrust and Pull: the two principal ways to play the arpeggio.
For those who learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata for the first time, one of the most commonly encountered difficulties is the two-hand arpeggic ending of the 3rd movement (bars 196–198; this movement has 200 bars). By
illustrating how to practice this difficult passage, we can demonstrate how arpeggios should be played. Let’s try
the RH first. In order to simplify the practice, we skip the first note of bar 196 and practice only the following 4 ascending notes (E, G], C], E), which we will cycle. As you cycle, make an elliptical, clockwise motion (as seen from
above) of the hand. We divide this ellipse into two parts: the upper part is the half towards the piano and the lower
part is the half towards your body. When playing the upper half, you are “thrusting” your hand towards the piano,
and when playing the lower half, you are “pulling” the hand away from it. First, play the 4 notes during the upper
half and return the hand to its original position using the lower half. This is the thrust motion for playing these 4
notes. Your fingers tend to slide towards the piano as you play each note. Now make a counter clockwise motion
of the hand and play the same 4 ascending notes during the lower half of the ellipse. Each finger tends to slide
away from the piano as it plays each note. Those who have not practiced both motions may find one much more
awkward than the other. Advanced players should find both motions equally comfortable.
The above was for the RH ascending arp. For the RH descending arp, let’s use the first 4 notes of the next bar
(same notes as in preceding paragraph, an octave higher, and in reverse order). Here, the pull motion is needed for
the lower half of the clockwise motion, and the thrust is used for the upper half of the counter clockwise rotation.
For both ascending and descending arps, practice both thrust and pull until you are comfortable with them. Now
see if you can figure out the corresponding exercises for the LH. Notice that these cycles are all parallel sets and
therefore can eventually be played extremely fast. Clearly, this is the most efficient way to get up to speed quickly;
we will discuss more details below.
Having learned what the thrust and pull motions are, you might reasonably ask, “why do you need them?” First,
it should be pointed out that the thrust and pull motions use entirely different sets of muscles. Therefore, given
a specific application, one motion has to be better than the other. We will learn below that one motion is stronger
than the other. Students who are not familiar with these motions may randomly pick one or switch from one to the
other without even knowing what they did. This can result in unexpected flubs, unnecessary stress, or speed walls.
The existence of the thrust and pull is analogous to the situation with TU and TO. Recall that by learning both TU
and TO, you get to fully utilize all the capabilities of the thumb. In particular, at high speed, the thumb is used in
a way which is very close to midway between TU and TO; however, the important thing to keep in mind is that the
thumb motion must be on the TO side of dead center. If you are even slightly on the TU side, you hit a speed wall.
Just as with thrust and pull, TU and TO use two very different sets of muscles.
The analogy of thrust and pull to TU and TO go even further, because thrust and pull also have a neutral motion,
just as TU and TO have a range of motions in between. You get the neutral motion by reducing the minor axis of
the ellipse to zero; i.e., you simply translate the hand right and left without any elliptical motion. But here again, it
makes a big different whether you approach the neutral position from the thrust side or the pull side, because the
seemingly similar neutral motions (approached from thrust or pull side) are actually being played using a different
set of muscles. Let me illustrate this with a mathematical example. Mathematicians will be horrified if you tell them
that 0 = 0, which at first glance seems to be correct. Reality, however, dictates that we must be very careful. This
is because we must know the true meaning of zero; i.e., we need a mathematical definition of zero. It is defined
as the number 1/N, when N is allowed to go to infinity. You get to the “same” number zero, whether N is positive
or negative. Unfortunately, if you try to divide by zero: 1/0, you get a different answer depending on whether N
is positive or negative. 1/0 = +∞ when N is positive, and 1/0 = −∞ when N is negative! If you had assumed the
two zeros to be the same, your error after the division could have been as big as two infinities depending on which
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
61
zero you used! In a similar way, the “same” neutral position achieved by starting with TU or TO are fundamentally
different, and similarly with thrust and pull. That is, under certain circumstances, a neutral position approached
from either thrust or pull is better. This is why you need to learn both.
OK, so we have established that thrust and pull are both needed, but how do we know when to use which? In the
case for TU and TO, the rules were clear; for slow passages you can use either one, and for certain legato situations,
you need TU; for all others you should use TO. For arps, the rule is to use the strong motions as a first choice and
the weak motions as a secondary choice. Strong and weak are defined as follows:
Strong: for RH ascending, use pull; for RH descending use thrust, and
for LH ascending, use thrust; for LH descending use pull.
Weak: for RH ascending, use thrust; for RH descending, use pull, and
for LH ascending, use pull; for LH descending, use thrust.
Some students may initially find it difficult to follow this rule because of the way they had practiced previously.
For example, they may have learned a piece using one motion and changing it at a later time may not be worthwhile.
And there are situations under which these rules should be ignored. For instance, with the Moonlight Sonata
example here, with both hands ascending or descending together, some may find it easier to play both hands
thrust or both hands pull, instead of playing one thrust and the other pull. For advanced players, the difference
between strong and weak motions may be very small. For very fast play, the strong motions tend to produce better
results and the weak motions are more prone to the “collapsing pinky” syndrome.
Finally, one can ask the question, “why not always play neutral — neither thrust nor pull?” Or just learn one
(say thrust only), and simply become very good at it? Here again, we are reminded of the fact that there are two
ways to play neutral depending on whether you approach it from the thrust side or pull side, and for a particular
application, one is usually better than the other. As for the second question, note that the strong motions require
both thrust and pull. Not only that, but in order to play the strong motions well, you must know how to play the
weak motions. Therefore, whether you decide to use thrust or pull for a particular passage, you should always
practice the other one also. That is the only way that you will know which motion is best for you. For example,
as you practice this ending of Beethoven’s sonata, you should find that you make faster technical progress by
practicing every cycle using both thrust and pull. In the end, most students should end up playing very close to
neutral, although a few may decide to use exaggerated thrust or pull motions. Practice this ending of the sonata by
first practicing each cycle HS until you can play it comfortably and relaxed at final speed (or faster!). Remember,
these are parallel sets and therefore, speed is usually not a limiting factor. Then connect two cycles, then three, etc.,
to gradually build up the whole ending, first HS only, and then HT.
There is much more new material to practice in this 3rd movement before we should be playing HT, so at this
stage, you probably do not need to practice anything HT, except as experimentation to see what you can or cannot
do. In particular, trying HT at the highest speeds will be counter productive and is not recommended. However,
cycling a single cycle HT can be quite beneficial, but this also should not be over-practiced if you still cannot play it
satisfactorily HS. The main difficulties in this movement are concentrated in the arps and Alberti accompaniments
(“do-so-mi-so” type); once these are mastered, you have conquered 90% of this piece. For those without sufficient
technical skill, you should be satisfied with getting up to vivace speed. Once you can play the entire movement
comfortably at vivace, you might try to mount an effort towards presto. It is probably not a coincidence that with
the 4/4 signature, presto corresponds to the rapid heart beat rate of a very excited person. Note how the LH accompaniment of bar 1 actually sounds like a beating heart.
It should be clear by now that playing arpeggios is technically very complex. Thrust and pull also apply to
scales, and the rules for scales are the same as for the arps (the strong motion is the first choice but both strong
and weak should be practiced). However, with scales, the difference between thrust and pull is more difficult to
illustrate for novice players; this is why we demonstrated them using arps above. Note that both thrust and pull
become awkward when playing TU. This is another reason for avoiding TU. In fact, thrust and pull are very basic
motions and apply to practically anything you play, including parallel sets. Therefore, it pays to practice them
well, and to think about which one you are using whenever you play anything. The complexity of arps results
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CHAPTER 1. TECHNIQUE
from the fact that you can combine thrust, pull, the cartwheel motion, TU, TO, pronation, and supination in any
permutation. This is a mind boggling array of combinations. If you did not know the various components and
simply let your hand pick its own movement, the chances of hitting the optimum combination is practically zero.
The result is often a speed wall.
We shall now outline our plan of attack for learning this movement. We started with the most difficult part, the
two-hand arp at the end. Most students will have more difficulty with the LH than the RH; therefore, once the RH
is fairly comfortable, start practicing the RH arp of the first two bars of this movement, while still practicing the
LH part of the ending. One important rule for playing arps rapidly is to keep the fingers near the keys as much
as possible, almost touching them. Do not lift the fingers off the keys. Note that we are looking for short practice
segments for both hands so that we can alternate rapidly between the two hands. Do not cycle one hand for too
long because of the danger of injury. After some practice, you will be able to cycle one hand for long periods of time;
however, the effects of the injury are sometimes not felt until several days later, so it is a good insurance policy to
develop the habit of changing hands frequently even if you feel no fatigue or pain.
The pedal is used in only two situations in this piece: (1) at the end of bar 2, at the double staccato chord
and all following similar situations, and (2) bars 165–166. The next segment to practice is the tremolo type RH
section starting at bar 9. Make sure that you understand the fingering of this RH section. Then comes the LH
Alberti accompaniment starting at bar 21, and similar RH parts that appear later. The Alberti accompaniment can
be practiced using parallel sets, as explained starting at section 1.2.8. The next difficult segment is the RH trill of
bar 30. This first trill is best performed using 3, 5 fingering and the second one requires 4, 5. For those with small
hands, these trills are just as difficult as the ending, so they should be practiced from the very beginning, when you
first start learning this movement. These are the basic technical requirements of this piece. If you can learn these
skills, you can play the entire movement.
Start HT practice after all these technical problems are solved HS. There is no need to practice using the pedal
until you start HT. Note that bars 163, 164, are played without pedal. Then application of the pedal to bars 165, 166,
gives meaning to these last 2 bars. Because of the fast pace, there is a tendency to practice too loud. This is not
only musically incorrect, but technically damaging. Practicing too loud can lead to fatigue and speed walls; the key
to speed is relaxation. It is the p sections that create most of the excitement. For example, the ff of bar 33 is just a
preparation for the following p, and in fact, there are very few ff ’s in the entire movement. The whole section from
bar 43 to 48 is played p, leading to just one bar, #50, played F. Whereas the objective during HS practice was to get
up to speed (or faster) quickly, slow practice becomes paramount during HT play. Except when cycling HT, always
practice HT slightly slower than your maximum speed. You will make faster progress by practicing at a speed
at which your fingers want to go faster, than to force the fingers to play faster than they can. Thus the choice
of practice speed for HS and HT practice is diametrically opposite: the objective is speed for HS and accuracy for
HT. There is no need to push for speed HT because (if you had practiced correctly), that was already achieved HS,
so that HT speed will automatically come as soon as the two hands become coordinated. In HT practice, you are
working for coordination, not speed.
Finally, if you have practiced correctly, you should find certain speeds at which it is easier to play faster than
slower. This is completely natural in the beginning, and is one of the best signs that you have learned the lessons
of this book well. Of course, once you have become technically proficient, you should be able to play at any speed
with equal ease.
1.3.5.5 Thumb: the most versatile finger, and Example of Scale/Arpeggio Practice Routine
The thumb is the most versatile finger; it lets us play scales, arpeggios, and wide chords (if you don’t believe it, try
playing a scale without the thumb!). Most students do not learn how to use the thumb correctly until they practice
scales. Therefore it is important to practice scales as soon as possible. Repeating the C major scale over and over,
or even including the B major, is not the way to practice scales. It is important to practice all the major and minor
scales and arpeggios; therefore we will examine an example of a scale practice routine and point out what needs to
be done and what the benefits are.
For simplicity, we will consider only the major scales here, but you should devise similar exercises for the minor
scales and corresponding exercises with the arpeggios.
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
63
First, a reminder of fundamentals. Play with the tip of the thumb, not the first joint. This makes the thumb
effectively as long as possible, which is needed because it is the shortest finger from the wrist joint. In order to
produce a smooth scale, all the fingers need to be as similar as possible. In order to play with the tip, you may have
to raise the wrist slightly. You will find the tip helpful at high speeds and for better control. Playing with the tip is
absolutely necessary when playing arpeggios and chords. It is also important to cultivate the “glissando motion” in
which the fingers point away from the direction of motion of the hand. Do not exaggerate the glissando motion, you
only need a small amount. Play all scales TO; there is little need to practice TU. Playing with the tip also facilitates
TO. Three octaves is probably an optimum span to practice, and the RH span should be one or two octaves above
the LH span; in other words, choose a comfortable span for each hand. The optimum arm position is probably not
perfectly perpendicular to the keyboard, but pointed slightly inwards to compensate for the fact that the pinky is
short and to also help out with the TO motion. Practically all of your work will be done HS; HT is not necessary,
and can waste a lot of time; HT should be considered just an interesting option to try once in a while. Those who
practice scales HT all the time will develop a strong/weak hand syndrome; usually, the RH becomes stronger. The
objective of these exercises is to build these motions and hand positions into your playing so that they become
a permanent part of how you play anything. It is that basic. Thus these are some of the few exercises that must
be repeated many times, every day, until the motions and positions are habituated so that you don’t have to think
about them.
There are many ways to generate all the scales, but the simplest and one of the most interesting is to use the
circle of fifths. Start with C major, practice it a few times, then go up a fifth and practice G major. You will notice
that it has one sharp. If you go up another fifth, you will need two sharps, etc.; with every move up a fifth, you add
a sharp. Obviously, if moving up in fifths brings the span too high in the treble for comfort, go down one octave.
What is interesting is that when you add a sharp, you keep all the previously used sharps; not only that, but the
order in which they appear is the same as the order in which they are written on the music staff! The maximum
number of sharps comes at B major (5 sharps), and the next one is 6 flats at G flat major. These flats decrease with
successive fifths, again in the same orderly manner, until you return to C major. Thus the circle of fifths takes you
to every scale once and only once, in an orderly way, which is what you want.
Note that the black keys provide some special benefits. They allow play with flatter fingers. You may notice a
difference in the degree of control depending on whether the fingers are curled or flat. Flat fingers can provide more
control because you simply lower the finger to play; with a curled finger, you have to lower the finger and uncurl it
slightly, which is a more complex motion. Because the thumb never plays black keys, TO becomes particularly easy
when black keys are involved. They are also narrower, requiring higher accuracy. Practice keeping the fingers on the
keys; this is particularly easy when there are lots of black keys. Practice relaxation, especially with the fingers resting
comfortably on the keys. With electronic pianos, it is difficult to keep the fingers on the keys without inadvertently
depressing them; this is one of the advantages of acoustic pianos. Needless to say, correct technique is essential
at all times; for example, pay attention to when you lift the fingers as much as when you press down on the keys,
and experiment with tone, color, and any other attributes of musical play. Do not play loud; softer play requires
greater control and is more beneficial. Speed is not as much an issue as whether you can produce an authoritative
scale that marches along with purpose and vigor, with attention to tone, color, and musicality. When you can
satisfactorily control the musicality, you will find that the speed is already there because the accuracy required for
speed is less than the control required for musicality. Working for speed without musicality is a good way to start
erecting speed walls because of stress build-up. However, it can be very useful to use parallel sets to double the
speed once in a while to see what type of motions are needed at the next higher level of speed. It is also helpful to
use your imagination to produce musical scales. For very slow scales, they might sound like a marching army. For
the fastest scales, they sound like the doppler-shifted whistle of a fast train going by.
Now you can devise similar practice routines for the arps.
In summary, although most exercises are not worth using, scales and arps have a special place in piano technique acquisition. Because you can use them to learn so many fundamental technical skills, they must be part of a
pianist’s learning program. This section has provided a fairly complete compilation of the necessary skills.
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1.3.6 Memorizing
Updated:
September 23, 2004;
sections 1, 3–7
1.3.6.1 Why Memorize?
The reasons for memorizing are so compelling that it seems silly to try to justify memorization, but let me cite just
a few examples. Advanced pianists must play from memory because of the high level of technical skill that is
expected. For practically all students (including those who consider themselves to be non-memorizers) the most
difficult passages are played almost completely from memory. Non-memorizers may need the sheet music in front
of them for psychological support and for small cues here and there, but in fact, they are playing difficult passages
almost entirely from “hand memory” (if they are playing them well, see below). Because of this need to play from
memory, memorizing has developed into a scientific procedure that is inseparably woven into the piano study
process. Memorizing is not just repeating something until you can play without looking at the sheet music, it is a
complex process of creating associations within the brain with things that you already know.
Memorizing is a way for learning new pieces quickly. In the long run, you learn technically significant pieces
much faster by memorizing than by using the score. Memorizing allows the pianist to start playing from anywhere
in the middle of a piece, it is a method for recovering from blackouts or flubs, and it helps to develop a better
understanding of the composition. It enables “snippet playing” (playing small excerpts from a composition), a very
useful ability for casual performances, teaching, and for learning to perform. When you have memorized 10 hours
of repertoire, which is readily achievable, you realize the advantage of not having to carry all that music around
and to search through them for your piece or snippet. If you want to jump from snippet to snippet, searching for
them among a pile of sheet music would be impractical. For grand pianos, the music stand will interfere with the
sound, so that you will not be able to hear yourself play if the music stand is up. This effect is especially dramatic
in a concert hall or auditorium with good acoustics — the piano can become practically inaudible. But above all,
memorizing let’s you concentrate 100% on the music. Piano is a performing art, and a memorized performance
is more rewarding to the audience because they recognize the ability to memorize as an additional talent. Yes, if
you memorize, it is not that difficult to look like those genius artists that non-memorizers envy!
The rewards of this book accrue because it is a total package; i.e., the whole is much larger than the sum of its
parts. Memorizing is a good example. In order to understand this, let’s look at those students who do not memorize.
Once a new piece is “learned”, but not yet perfected, non-memorizers typically abandon the piece and go on to the
next one, partly because it takes so long to learn new pieces and partly because reading the score is not conducive
to performing difficult pieces. Students who do not memorize, therefore, never really learn any piece well. Now if
they were able to learn quickly and memorize at the same time, they will be making music with all their finished
pieces the rest of their lives! We are not just talking about memorizing or not memorizing a piece — we are talking
about a lifetime of difference in your development as an artist, and whether you really have a chance to make
music. It is the difference between a performing artist and a student who never has a performable piece. It is after
you finish a piece that you can even start thinking of truly playing it musically. What a pity that students who are
not properly informed miss out on the best part of what it means to be a pianist and miss out on the opportunity
to develop as an artist.
Finally, memorizing is a brain exercise that must certainly benefit brain development in youth and decelerate its deterioration with age. I believe that memorizing piano music will not only improve your memory in daily
life outside of piano playing but will also slow down memory loss with age and even improve the brain’s capacity to
memorize. At the very least, you will learn some of the methods used to improve memory and develop an understanding of the human memory function. You will become more of a “memory expert” which will give you more
confidence in your ability to remember things.
I used to subscribe to the “principle of least knowledge” which posits that the less information you stuff into
your brain, the better. This theory is analogous to that for disk memory in a computer: the more clutter you delete,
the more memory you have left for use. I now believe that this approach breeds laziness and an inferiority complex
that you are not a good memorizer, and is harmful to the brain because it is like saying that the less muscle you use,
the stronger you will be because there is more energy left over. The brain has more memory capacity than anyone
can jam into it in a lifetime but if you don’t learn how to use it, you will never benefit from its full potential. I suffered
a lot from my early mistake. I was afraid to go bowling because I could not keep score in my head like everyone
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65
else. Since I changed my philosophy so that now I try to memorize everything, life has improved dramatically. I
now even try to memorize the slope and break on every golf green I play. That can have a huge effect on the golf
score. Needless to say, the corresponding benefits to my piano career have been beyond description.
Memory is an associative function of the brain. Therefore it is almost diametrically opposite to the analogy with
the computer memory: the more you memorize, the easier it becomes to memorize more. Good memorizers never
seem to “saturate” their memory until the ravages of age take their toll. As more material is put into memory, the
number of associations increases geometrically which should improve memory. Thus everything we know about
memory tells us that memorizing can only benefit us.
1.3.6.2 Who can, What to, and When to, Memorize.
Anyone can learn to memorize if taught the proper methods. We show here that by combining the memorizing
with the initial learning of the composition you can reduce the time required to memorize to a negligible amount.
In fact, a proper integration of the memorizing and learning procedures can reduce the time required to learn,
in effect assigning a negative time to memorizing. It turns out that almost all of the required elements for memorizing are also the required elements for learning. If you separate these processes, you will end up having to go
through the same procedure twice. Obviously, the best time to memorize is when you first learn the piece.
This means that you should memorize just about every worthwhile piece you learn. Look upon memorizing as
a free byproduct of the process of learning a new piece of music, simply because there is no faster way to learn..
Thus in principle, the instructions for memorizing are trivial: simply follow the learning rules given in this
book, with the additional requirement that everything you do during those learning procedures be performed
from memory. For example, while learning a LH accompaniment bar-by-bar, memorize that LH bar. Since a bar
is typically 6 to 12 notes, memorizing that is trivial. Then you will need to repeat these segments 10, 100, or over
1,000 times, depending on difficulty, before you can play the piece — that is many more repetitions than needed to
memorize. You can’t help but memorize it!
We saw, in sections 1.1 and 1.2, that the key to learning technique quickly was to reduce the music to trivially simple subsets; those same procedures also make these subsets trivial to memorize. Memorizing can save
a tremendous amount of practice time. You don’t need to look for the music each time, so you can practice a
Beethoven Sonata RH segment and a Chopin Scherzo LH section HS, and jump from segment to segment as you
desire. You can concentrate on learning the technique without distractions from having to refer to the music every time. Best of all, the numerous repetitions you need, to practice the piece, will commit it to memory in a way
that no other memorizing procedure will ever achieve, at no extra cost of time. These are some of the reasons why
memorizing before you learn is the only way. Clearly, anything worth playing should be memorized.
1.3.6.3 Memorizing and Maintenance
A memorized repertoire requires two investments of time: the first is for memorizing the piece initially and a
second “maintenance” component for implanting the memory more permanently and for repairing any forgotten sections. During the lifetime of a pianist, the second component should be by far the larger one. Therefore,
any discussion of memorization would be incomplete without a discussion of maintenance. For example, maintenance limits the size of a repertoire because after memorizing, say, five to ten hours worth of music, the maintenance requirements may preclude memorizing any more pieces depending on the person. There are several ways
to extend your repertoire beyond the maintenance limit. An obvious one is to abandon the memorized pieces
and to re-memorize later as needed. It turns out that pieces that are sufficiently well memorized can be recalled
and re-polished very quickly, even if you haven’t played them for years. It is almost like riding a bicycle; once
you learn how to ride a bicycle reasonably well, you never need to re-learn it again. We will discuss below several
maintenance procedures that can greatly increase your memorized repertoire.
Memorize as many pieces as possible before the age of 20. Pieces learned in those early years are practically
never forgotten and, even if forgotten, are most easily recalled. This is why youngsters should be encouraged to
memorize all their repertoire pieces. Pieces learned after age 40 require more memorizing effort and maintenance,
although many people have no trouble memorizing new pieces past age 60 (albeit more slowly than before). Note
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the word “learn” in the preceding sentences; they do not have to have been memorized and you can still memorize
them later with better retention properties compared to pieces learned or memorized at an older age.
There certainly are times when you do not need to memorize, such as when you want to learn large numbers
of easy pieces, especially accompaniments, that would take too long to memorize and maintain. If you have a 5
hour repertoire and you practice only an hour a day, it will take 5 days just to play it once! Besides, you can’t do
maintenance by just playing it once. Pieces that you can sight read and play well without practice are candidates
for not memorizing. Clearly, pieces that are difficult, that you need to practice over and over, can be learned faster
by memorizing; however, easy pieces would require a significant investment of time to memorize. By not spending
time memorizing these, you can enlarge your repertoire, especially because you cut down on maintenance time.
Another class of music that should not be memorized is the group of pieces that you use to practice sight reading.
Sight reading is a separate skill that is treated in another section. Everyone should have a memorized repertoire
as well as a sight reading repertoire to hone the sight reading skills.
If you can play a piece well but had not memorized it, it can be very frustrating to try to memorize it. Too
many students have convinced themselves that they are poor memorizers because of this difficulty. This happens
because once you can play at speed, that part of the motivation to memorize, that derives from time savings during
the initial learning of the piece, is gone. The only remaining motivation is the convenience of performing from
memory. A suggestion I have for those who think they are poor memorizers is to learn an entirely new piece you had
never studied before by memorizing it from the beginning using the methods of this book. You may be pleasantly
surprised by how good you are at memorizing. Most cases of “poor memory” result from the method of learning,
not from the memory capability of the brain. Because of the importance of this topic of memorizers versus sight
readers, it will be revisited at the end of this section.
1.3.6.4 Hand Memory
A large component of your initial memory will be hand memory, which comes from repeated practice. The hand
just goes on playing without your really remembering each note. Although we will discuss all the known types of
memory below, we will start with analyzing hand memory first because everybody experiences this type of memory
first and the memorizing process becomes a process of diversification into the other methods of memory. “Hand
memory” has two components: a reflex hand motion that comes from touching the keys and a reflex in the brain
from the sound of the piano. Both serve as cues for your hand to move in a pre-programmed way. For simplicity,
we will lump them together and call them hand memory. We show below that hand memory is not the final form
of memory you want to keep. Hand memory is useful because it helps you to memorize at the same time that
you practice the piece. Therefore, when you start to memorize a new piece, there is no need to consciously avoid
hand memory. Once acquired, you will never lose hand memory, and we show below how to use it to recover from
blackouts.
The biological mechanism by which the hands acquire hand memory is not well understood but my hypothesis
is that it involves nerve cells outside the conscious brain, such as the nerve cells in the spinal chord, in addition to
the brain. The number of nerve cells outside the brain is probably comparable to the number in the brain. Although
the piano playing commands must originate in the brain, it is quite probable that the rapid playing reflexes do not
travel all the way up to the conscious brain. Thus hand memory must be a type of reflex that involves many types
of nerve cells. In response to playing the first note, the reflex plays the second note, which stimulates the third
note, etc. This explains why, when you get stuck, hand memory will not help you restart unless you go all the way
back to the first note. In fact, restarting a piece at some arbitrary place is an excellent test of whether you are playing
from hand memory or you have another backup memory method. Because it is just a conditioned response, hand
memory is not true memory and has several serious disadvantages.
When we talk about hand memory, we usually mean HT memory. Because it is a memory created by hardwired reflex nerve connections, it is one of the most difficult memories to erase or change. This is one of the
main reasons for HS practice — to avoid acquiring incorrect HT habits that will be nearly impossible to change.
Therefore, hand memory is clearly something you want to replace, once you have properly memorized, using
the methods described below.
HS memory is fundamentally different from HT memory. HS play is easier to change because it is controlled
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
67
more directly from the brain. The signal simply has to go from the brain to the hand. Thus HS memory takes little
time to establish, whereas HT memory takes much longer to learn, and is therefore hellishly difficult to change. In
HT memory, you need some kind of feedback in order to coordinate the hands (and probably the two halves of the
brain) to the accuracy needed for music. Most of this feedback is the sound from the piano, but the body probably
uses tactile and reflex feedback also. This explains why HT play is so much harder than HS play, especially because
it is not possible to separate technique from hand memory.
Note that it is not possible to draw a clear distinction between technique and memory. A pianist with more
technique can, in general, memorize faster. One reason you cannot separate memory from technique is that both
are needed to play, and unless you can play, you can demonstrate neither technique nor memory. Therefore, there
is a deeper biological basis (besides mere convenience of saving time, etc.) underlying the method of this book
by which memory and technique are simultaneously acquired. We are talking here about a practical matter of
memorizing so you can play; simply having a photographic memory of the score does not mean that you can play
it. This is why photographic memory may not be as useful a tool for memorizing as it might seem. Even those with
photographic memory probably end up using hand memory, etc., when it comes to playing technically demanding
material.
1.3.6.5 Starting the Memorizing Process
There is no question that the only truly effective way to memorize is to know music theory and to memorize
using a detailed musical analysis and a deep understanding of the music. With this type of memory, you will
be able to write down the entire score from memory. However, most students don’t have such advanced training.
Therefore we describe here some general procedures for memorizing that do not depend on music theory. There
are two components to memorizing. One is the step-by-step procedural recipe, and the second is the basis for the
memory, such as hand memory or photographic memory. We will first discuss the recipe.
Before starting to memorize, familiarize yourself with sections 1.1 and 1.2 on technique. If you had followed
those methods, you should have most of the piece memorized by the time you can play it satisfactorily. Because
the memorizing procedures are given in bits and pieces in different sections of this book, they are reassembled here
for those specifically interested in memorizing; you will notice that the “recipe” for memorizing reads like a rehash
of the learning procedures. You may also want to read section 1.3.6.10 on establishing permanent memory before
studying this section; in particular, the methods described here apply best to the “keyboard memory” discussed in
that section.
Start memorizing by separating the piece into easy and difficult sections. “Difficult” here means either difficult technically, or difficult for you to memorize. For example, a lot of Mozart’s music is technically easy to play but
often devilishly difficult to memorize well; that is, you may be able to memorize it so that you can play it during
practice, but you never know when it will suddenly escape you, especially during a performance. Good methods of
memorizing will help you to avoid or to recover from such incidents. Start memorizing the most difficult passages
first. Memorize the easy sections “for fun” later, at your leisure. In general, start memorizing from the end of the
music (difficult sections only), unless there is a particularly difficult section elsewhere. You may need to memorize
bar by bar. Follow the continuity rule, especially when memorizing phrases. It is also important to follow the
rule concerning slow play after each practice “session”, so make sure that you know the details of that procedure.
See sections 1.3.6.8 below and 1.2.17 for more details of slow play for memory enhancement. Slow play for memory
enhancement is slower than slow play for technique development.
Both the difficult and easy sections are memorized most quickly and permanently by memorizing HS. Notice how much easier it is to analyze the structure and to memorize HS than HT. “Analyzing” does not mean simply
decomposing the score into recognizable components — such an analysis is adequate for practice purposes and
may help you to memorize short term but will not help you to remember it forever. You must understand the reason/purpose of the structure. For example, we saw that the G] is a key note in Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu. This
G] changes to A[ in the slow section (which is still the same note!) because of a change in key; this understanding
of the role of the G] makes it virtually impossible to forget how to start the piece and how to start the slow section.
Let me illustrate the importance of understanding something when you want to memorize it. Suppose that
you want to memorize the Ten Commandments. It would be much easier if you memorized the meaning of the
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commandments than if you tried to memorize each letter of the alphabet that spells out the commandments. Thus
the knowledge of music theory can make a big difference in how quickly and how well a person can memorize.
Also, how you remember a piece depends on speed. As you play faster, you tend to remember the music at higher
levels of abstraction. At very slow play, you must remember it note by note. At higher speeds, you will be thinking
in terms of phrases. At even higher speeds you may be thinking in terms of relationships between phrases or entire
musical concepts. These higher level concepts are usually much easier to memorize. During slow HT practice, you
can concentrate on each note. Thus as you change speed, you will go through very different modes of memory.
During HS practice, you can go to very high speeds which will force the mind to view the music in a different
light. Memorizing the same music from many angles is what is needed to memorize well; thus practicing at different
speeds greatly helps memory. It is usually easier to memorize fast than slow. Therefore, when starting a new piece
and you can only play it slowly, don’t fret that you have difficulty memorizing it. As you speed it up, it usually
becomes easier to memorize. Because of this effect, bringing the speed up quickly using HS practice is the quickest
way to memorize.
Even if you can easily play a particular section HT, you should memorize it HS, as we will need this later on.
This is one of the few instances in which memorizing and learning procedures differ. If you can play a section
HT easily, there is no need to practice it HS. However, if you need to perform the piece, you must memorize it
HS because you will need it for recovering from blackouts, for maintenance, etc. For example, this rule applies to
a lot of Bach’s and Mozart’s music, which is often technically easy but difficult to memorize. Compositions from
these composers are at times more difficult to memorize HS because the notes frequently make no sense when the
hands are separated. That is precisely why HS memory is needed — it shows you how treacherous the music can
be, unless you had worked it out HS beforehand. If you test the memory (e.g., by trying to play from somewhere
in the middle), you will often find that you can not do it unless you had memorized it HS. We describe below, how
to “play” the music in your mind away from the piano as part of the memorizing process; this is also much easier
to do HS than HT because the mind cannot concentrate on two things at the same time. Therefore, it is almost
impossible to avoid HS memorizing, even for easy sections.
Memory is an associative process; therefore there is nothing as helpful as your own ingenuity in inventing
methods that help, and the more different methods you can think of, the better. So far, we saw that HT, HS and
playing at very different speeds are elements you can combine in this associative process. Any music you memorize
will help you memorize future pieces of music. The memory function is far more complex than what we know about
it now. The complex nature of memory is the reason why intelligent people are often also good memorizers. They
can quickly think of useful associations. By memorizing HS, you add two more associative processes with much
simpler organization. Once you have memorized a page or more, break it up into logical smaller musical phrases
and start playing these phrases randomly; i.e., practice the art of starting play from anywhere in the piece. If you
had used the methods of this book to learn this piece, starting randomly should be easy because you learned it in
small segments. It is really exhilarating to be able to play a piece from anywhere you want and this skill never
ceases to amaze the audience.
When you memorize something, it is first stored in temporary or short-term memory. It takes 2 to 5 minutes
for this memory to be transferred to long term memory (if it does at all). This has been verified innumerable times
from tests on trauma victims: they can remember only up to 2 to 5 minutes before the trauma incident. After
transferring to long term memory, the memory fades gradually unless there is reinforcement. If you repeat a passage many times within one minute, you are acquiring hand memory and technique, but the total memory is not
reinforced proportionately to the number of repeats. For memorizing, it is better to wait 2 to 5 minutes and to
re-memorize again. This is one reason why you should memorize several things at once during a memorizing
session. Therefore, don’t concentrate on just one thing for a long time, thinking that more repetitions will result in
better memory.
In summary, memorize in phrases or groups of notes; never try to memorize each note. The faster you play,
the easier it is to memorize because you can see the phrases and structure more easily at high speed. This is why
memorizing HS is so effective. Many poor memorizers instinctively slow down and end up trying to memorize
individual notes when they encounter difficulties. This is precisely the wrong thing to do. Poor memorizers can
not memorize, not because their memory is not good, but because they do not know how to memorize. The actual
reason why poor memorizers can’t memorize is because they get confused. This is why memorizing HT is not a
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
69
good idea; you cannot play as fast as HS and there is more material that can cause confusion. Good memorizers
have methods for organizing their material so that there is no confusion. Slowing down and trying to memorize
individual notes will cause the maximum amount of confusion. Memorize in terms of musical themes, how these
evolve, or the skeletal structure which is embellished to produce the final music.
1.3.6.6 Reinforcing the Memory
One of the most useful memory devices is reinforcement. A forgotten memory, when regained, is always better
remembered. Many people fret that they forget. The trick is to turn this adversity to advantage. Most people need
to forget and re-memorize three or four times before anything is permanently memorized. In order to eliminate the
frustrations from forgetting and to reinforce memory, try to purposely forget, for example, by not playing a piece
for a week or more and then re-learning it. Or quit before you completely memorize so you must start all over again
the next time. Or instead of repeating short sections (the method you used initially to memorize the piece), play
the entire piece, only once a day, or several times a day but several hours apart. Find out ways of making you forget
(like memorizing many things at once); try to create artificial blackouts — stop in the middle of a phrase and try to
restart. These are the kinds of things you need to practice in order to perform flawlessly, and to reduce nervousness.
Memorizing new material tends to make you forget whatever you had memorized previously. This is why
spending a lot of time memorizing a small section is not efficient. If you choose just the right number of things
to memorize, you can use one to control the “forgetting” of the other so that you can re-memorize it for better
retention. This is an example of how experienced memorizers can fine-tune their memorizing routines.
The frustration and fear of forgetting can be treated like the fear of drowning. People who cannot swim are
afraid of sinking and drowning. You can often cure this fear by using psychology. First, tell them to take a deep
breath and hold it, then hold them horizontally on top of the water face down, with both their face and feet in the
water. Stay close to them and support them firmly so that they feel secure (use of a snorkel will help, because then,
they don’t have to hold their breath). Then tell them to dive underwater, and let go. They will discover that they can’t
dive because the body tends to float. The knowledge that they can’t sink will go a long way towards alleviating their
fear of drowning. Thus by trying to forget, you will discover that it is not that easy to forget, and actually be happy
when you DO forget so that you can cycle the re-learning process more times to reinforce memory. Eliminating the
frustration caused by the natural process of forgetting can place your mind at ease and make it more conducive
to memorizing pieces. We now describe more methods of reinforcing/implanting memory. Of course, the most
important point is that forgetting is a natural process, and we should know that most people have to forget and
rememorize several times before anything is permanently memorized.
1.3.6.7 Practicing Cold
Practice playing memorized pieces “cold” (without warming up your hands); this is obviously more difficult than
with warmed up hands but practicing under adverse conditions is one way of strengthening your ability to play the
piece. This ability to just sit down and play cold, with an unfamiliar piano or environment, or just several times a
day when you have a few extra minutes, is one of the most useful advantages of memorizing pieces. And you can
do this anywhere, away from home, when your music score may not be available. You would waste a lot of time,
if you had to look for printed music every time you wanted to play cold. Practicing cold prepares you to play at a
gathering, etc., without having to play Hanon for 15 minutes before you can perform. Playing cold is an ability that
is surprisingly easily cultivated. This is a good time to find those passages that are too difficult to play with cold
hands and to practice how to slow down or simplify difficult sections. If you make a mistake or have a blackout,
don’t stop and backtrack, but try to keep at least the rhythm or melody and play right through the mistake.
The first few bars of even the simplest pieces are often difficult to start cold, and will require extra practice,
even if it is well memorized. Often, the more technically difficult beginnings are easier to start, so don’t get caught
flat footed by seemingly easy music. Clearly, it is important to practice the starts of all pieces cold. Of course,
don’t always start from the beginning; another advantage of memorizing is that you can play little snippets from
anywhere in the piece, and you should always practice playing snippets (see section 1.3.14, on “Performances and
Recitals”).
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1.3.6.8 Slow Play
The single most important way to reinforce memory is slow play, VERY slow play, less than half speed. Slow
speed is also used to reduce the dependence on hand memory and replace it with “real memory” (we will discuss
true memory below) because when you play slowly, the stimulus for hand memory recall is changed and reduced.
The stimulation from the piano sound is also materially altered. The biggest disadvantage of slow play is that it
takes a lot of your practice time; if you can play twice as fast, you practice the piece twice as often in the same time,
so why play slowly? Besides, it can get awfully boring. Why practice something you don’t need when playing full
speed? You really have to have a good reason to justify practicing very slowly. In order to make slow play pay off,
try to combine as many things as possible into your slow play so that it does not waste time. Just playing slowly,
without well defined objectives, is a waste of time; you must consciously seek certain benefits by knowing what
they are. So let’s list some of them.
1. Slow play is surprisingly beneficial to good technique, especially for practicing relaxation.
2. Slow play reinforces your memory because there is time for the playing signals to travel from your fingers
to the brain and back several times before succeeding notes are played. If you only practiced at speed, you
could be reinforcing hand memory and losing true memory.
3. Slow play allows you to practice getting mentally ahead of the music you are playing (next section), which
gives you more control over the piece and can even allow you to anticipate impending flubs. This is the time
to work on your jumps and chords (sections 1.3.7.5, 1.3.7.6). Always be at least a split second ahead and
practice feeling the keys before playing to guarantee 100% accuracy.
4. Slow play is one of the best ways to purge your hands of bad habits, especially those that you might have
unconsciously picked up during fast practice (FPD).
5. You now have time to analyze the details of the structure of the music as you play, and pay attention to all the
expression markings. Above all, concentrate on making music.
If you combine all the above objectives, the time spent playing slowly will be truly rewarding, and keeping all
these objectives going at once will be a real challenge that will leave no room for boredom. Associating all these
things with the music is what good memory is all about.
The recommendation to play slowly at least once before quitting is repeated many times in this book, for technique acquisition. For improving memory, you need to play even more slowly than the slow play for technique.
1.3.6.9 Mental Timing
When playing from memory, you need to be mentally ahead of what you are playing at all times so that you can
plan ahead, be in complete control, anticipate difficulties, and adjust to changing conditions. For example, you
can often see a flub coming, and use one of the tricks discussed in this book (see section 1.3.9 on polishing a piece)
to get around it. You will not be able to see a flub coming unless you are thinking ahead. One way to practice
thinking ahead is to play fast, and then to slow down. By playing fast, you force the brain to think more quickly, so
that when you slow down, you are now automatically ahead of the music. You cannot think ahead unless the music
is well memorized, so trying to think ahead really tests and improves the memory.
The best way to play very fast, of course, is HS. This is another valuable byproduct of HS practice; you will be
surprised at first, what the really fast playing will do to your brain. It is a totally new experience. Since you have
to go really fast in order to beat the brain, such speeds are not easily attainable HT. In general, cultivate the ability
to mentally detach yourself from those particular notes you are playing, and be able to mentally wander around
elsewhere in the music, as you play a given section.
Finally, you need to get rid of the dependence on hand memory. Each advanced pianist has a memorizing
procedure tailored specifically for that person. This might involve special practice methods such as transposing
a piece or even exchanging the LH and RH parts. There may be specific procedures for every composer (you might
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play Mozart slowly and Bach softly) and perhaps even every piece of music; these are called particular rules. Most
piano students do not spend sufficient time practicing and studying these methods to know the details of advanced
memory procedures or particular rules. They need to start with a few general rules. We now examine these general
rules.
1.3.6.10 Establishing Permanent Memory
Until now we discussed the memorizing procedures, but we have not discussed the basic principles upon which the
memory is based. In a computer, we know that memory is stored as bits and bytes on a memory disk. What do we
do for humans? Except for hand memory, most of the memory is in the brain, but what is it in the conscious brain
that we consider as our memory? There are at least five basic approaches to memory; they are: (1) hand memory,
(2) music memory, (3) photographic memory, (4) keyboard memory and (5) theoretical memory. Practically
everybody uses a combination of almost all of them. However, it is a good idea to pick one of them as your most
important memory principle.
We already discussed hand memory above. What we want to do now is to supplement it with more of the
others in order to establish a more permanent and reliable memory. Although there is no need to eliminate hand
memory, it should not be your most important memory principle because it is too unreliable. Any change in your
environment, nervousness, or the physiology of your body can alter the hand memory.
The second is music memory in which the memory is based on the music, the melody, the rhythm, expression,
emotion, etc. This approach works best for emotional and musical types of persons who have strong feelings associated with their music. Those with perfect pitch will also do well because they can find the notes on the piano just
from the memory of the music. People who like to compose also tend to use this type of memory.
The third general approach is the use of photographic memory. You memorize the entire sheet music and
actually picture it and read it in the mind. Even those who think that they do not have photographic memory, can
achieve it if they practice photographic memory routinely as they practice the piece from the very beginning. Many
people will find that, if they are diligent about this procedure from day one (of when they start the piece), there
will be only an average of a few bars per page that are not photographically memorized by the time they can play
the piece satisfactorily. One way to photographically memorize is to follow exactly the methods outlined here for
technique and memory, but to also photographically memorize the sheet music at the same time, hand by hand,
bar-by-bar, and section by section.
Another way to approach photographic memory is to start memorizing the general outline first, like how many
lines there are in the page and how many bars per line; then the notes in each bar, then the expression markings,
etc. That is, start with the gross features, and then gradually fill in the details. Start photographic memory by
memorizing one hand at a time. You really need to take an accurate photograph of the page, complete with its
defects and extraneous marks. If you have difficulty memorizing certain bars, draw something unusual there, such
as a smiley face or your own markings that will jolt your memory. Then next time you want to recall this section,
think of the smiley face first.
One advantage of photographic memorization is that you can work on it without the piano, anytime, anywhere.
In fact, once acquired, you must read it in your mind, away from the piano, as often as you can until it is permanently memorized. Another advantage is that if you get stuck in the middle of playing a piece, you can easily restart
by reading that section of the music in your mind. Photographic memory also allows you to read ahead as you play
which helps you to think ahead. Another advantage is that it will help your sight reading.
The main disadvantage is that most people cannot retain photographic memory for long periods of time because maintenance of this type of memory usually requires more work than other methods. Another disadvantage
is that picturing the music in the mind and reading it is a comparatively slow mental process that can interfere with
the playing. Thus for the majority of people, the use of photographic memory as the main basis for memory is not
a good idea. It is only for those who consider themselves good at photographic memory and enjoy cultivating it.
I don’t consciously work for photographic memory except for the first few bars to help me get started. I nevertheless end up with considerable photographic memory in the beginning, when I am learning a new piece, because
of the need to refer to the music frequently. Even for those who do not plan to acquire photographic memory, it
is a good idea to keep any photographic memory you acquire; i.e., encourage it, don’t throw it away. You might be
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surprised at how long and well it will stay with you, especially if you keep cultivating it. I don’t pressure myself to
memorize photographically because I know that I will end up mostly with the keyboard memory discussed below.
It is amazing how you can often do something much better if there is no pressure, and I naturally acquire quite a bit
of photographic memory that I end up keeping for life. I certainly wish that I had done more earlier in life because
I suspect that I would have become pretty good at it.
For those who think that they do not have photographic memory, you might try the following trick. First memorize a short piece of music, with as much photographic memory as you can readily achieve, but don’t worry if it
is only partial. Once each section is memorized, map it back onto the score from which you learned the piece;
that is, for each note you play, try to picture the corresponding note on the sheet music. Since you know each
part, HS, mapping it back from the keyboard to the sheet music should be possible. Then the only thing you need
to re-memorize is where the notes go on the page. You will need to look at the score from time to time to make
sure that every note is in the correct position on the right page. Even the expression markings should be mapped
back. Go back and forth, playing from photographic memory and mapping back from the keyboard to the sheet
music until the photograph is complete. Then you can amaze your friends by writing down the score for the entire
piece, starting from anywhere! Note that you will be able to write the whole music, forwards or backwards, or from
anywhere in the middle, or even each hand separately. And they thought only Wolfgang could do it!
The forth type of memory is keyboard memory. In this method, you remember the sequence of keys and the
hand motions, music, as you play. It is as if you have a piano in your mind, and can play it. Start the keyboard
memory by memorizing HS, then HT. Then when you are away from the piano, play the piece in your mind, again
HS first. Playing HT in your mind is not necessary, especially if you find it to be too difficult, because when you are
actually playing, you can usually see only one hand at a time. When playing in your mind, away from the piano,
take note of which sections you forgot, then re-memorize them the next time, or go to the music/piano and refresh
your memory. You might try photographic memory on parts that you tend to forget using keyboard memory. Note
that playing away from the piano is difficult not only because you have to have it memorized, but also because you
don’t have hand memory or the piano sound to help.
Keyboard memory has most of the advantages of photographic memory but has the added advantage that the
memorized notes are piano keys instead of tadpoles on a sheet of paper; therefore, you do not have to translate
from tadpoles to the keys. This allows you to play with less effort compared to photographic memory, since there
is no need to go through the clumsy process of reading the music. The expression markings are not markings on
paper, but mental concepts of the music (music memory). Every time you practice, the keyboard memory naturally
enhances itself, another advantage over photographic memory. You can rehearse it without a piano, and you can
play ahead, just as with photographic memory.
The most curious observation I noticed when I began consciously using keyboard memory was that I tended to
make the same mistakes, and get stuck at the same places, as when I was actually on the piano! Upon reflection,
this made sense because all mistakes originate in the brain, whether there is a piano or not. The piano never makes
the mistake, I do. I mention this because it suggests that we may be able to practice and improve certain aspects
of piano playing by practicing in our minds, without a piano. That would be a truly unique advantage of keyboard
memory! Most of the suggestions for memorizing given in this book apply best to keyboard memory. This is another
one of its advantages.
For those who are practicing sight singing and absolute pitch (sections 1.3.11 and 1.3.12 below), playing in
the mind will be a great help in further developing those skills. The keyboard method visualizes the keyboard,
which also helps in finding the right key for absolute pitch. Therefore, those interested in using this method of
memory might also consider practicing sight singing and absolute pitch, since they are already partly there. This is
a prime example of how learning one skill (memorizing) helps you to learn many others. Doubtless, this is one of
the ways by which the geniuses got to be what they are/were.
Finally, we must all strive to use as much theoretical memory as possible. This includes such things as key
signature, time signature, chord transitions, harmony, etc. True memory cannot be established without an understanding of the theoretical basis for that particular composition. Unfortunately, most piano students do not receive
sufficient theory training to perform such an analysis. However, this analysis can be replaced with a structural analysis that can serve a similar purpose. Every composition has structure: usually a beginning, a body, and an end. The
main theme is usually introduced in the beginning and developed in the body, leading to a climax at the end. This
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structural analysis will reveal various components of the composition and how they combine to create the music.
1.3.6.11 Maintenance
Many of the methods used for polishing a finished piece are applicable to memory maintenance. One obvious
maintenance chore is the restoration of forgotten sections. If you have forgotten a section, you might practice
using hand memory to recover from these to see if this method (use of hand memory) works for you. In order to encourage hand memory, play louder and slightly faster. For me, using hand memory to recover during a performance
does not work sufficiently reliably to make it worth while; therefore, I use it for recovery only during practice, when
I am too lazy to search for the music score. The best preparation for recovery from flubs during a performance is
HS practice, as discussed below. Maintenance time is a good time to revisit the score and check your accuracy, both
for the individual notes and the expression marks.
Another maintenance chore is to make sure that you still remember it HS. This can become a real chore for
major pieces, but is worth it, because you don’t want to find out that you need it during a performance. Note that
these HS maintenance sessions are not just for memory. This is the time to try new things, playing much faster
than final speed, and generally cleaning up your technique. Extended HT playing often introduces timing and
other unexpected errors and this is the time to fix them. Therefore, playing HS for both memory and technique
enhancement is a very worthwhile endeavor. This is one of the best times to use a metronome to check the accuracy of the rhythm and timing, for both HS and HT play.
The most effective memory maintenance procedure is playing the piece in your mind, away from the piano.
Those with photographic memory should picture the whole score. Those with keyboard memory will actually play
the piano in your mind. This is useful when you are first learning the piece as well as for later maintenance. Therefore, as soon as you start to learn a piece, make it a habit to play it in your mind whenever you can find time, in
bed, before falling asleep, or when you wake up in the morning, etc. This also serves as a true test of whether you
have really memorized it and are not playing from hand memory. As with memorization, for most people, it is too
late to start “playing in your mind” if you can already play the piece (with the help of the score). If you play in your
mind from the beginning, it becomes an easy, almost natural procedure, and is not as difficult as you might think
at first. With a little practice, you will be able to play in your mind at blinding speed, so it does not have to be a time
consuming chore. Also, playing it fast in your mind will actually help you play faster on the piano.
What is important for good memory is that you should not abandon “playing in your mind” after you have
completely memorized the piece. You only need to do this once in a while to maintain it, so it should not be such
a time consuming job.
An excellent test of true memory is to try to play the piece starting at any arbitrary place. Most pianists will not
be able to start just anywhere, such as in the middle of a phrase, but you should try to find as many good starting
points as possible. These are usually the beginnings of the short segments you used to learn the piece. After you
have broken a composition into these phrases, try playing it backwards, starting with the last phrase and working
towards the beginning. When you do this, you will often discover many interesting structural relationships that you
had not noticed before.
I hope the reader will get the message that memorizing a substantial repertoire (5 to 10 hrs), and playing them
is far, far, more rewarding than wasting time on finger exercises such as Hanon. If those students who perform a lot
of exercises used that same time to build up a repertoire instead, they can end up with quite an extensive repertoire
and even improve their technique and performance capability. Students who over-exercise are usually not good
performers. One obvious cure is to put more emphasis on memory and performance.
Maintenance is also required after you memorize a new piece, because memorizing new pieces makes you
forget old pieces. Thus, after you have gotten a new piece under your belt, go back over the old pieces to see if
they are still OK. In this way, you can identify certain compositions, such as Bach’s and Mozart’s music, that might
require more maintenance than others. This knowledge can alleviate a lot of frustration. Without this knowledge, a
person noticing that s/he had forgotten some older pieces after memorizing a new piece might wonder if something
happened to her/is memory. Don’t worry — this is a common, natural phenomenon.
You should find that compositions memorized using the methods of this book are much better memorized than
those that were learned using the intuitive methods, no matter how many years you had been playing them. If you
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want to improve the memory quality of those old pieces (that you had learned using intuitive methods), you will
have to go back and re-learn them HS, etc. This is quite rewarding from the points of view of finding mistakes,
improving the technique, and improving the memory. For difficult compositions, there is no choice but to relearn
both hands HS, but for simpler pieces, you might be able to get away with just learning one hand, usually the more
difficult one which is generally the RH.
In summary, maintenance has the following components:
1. Check with the music score for accuracy of every note and expression.
2. Make sure you can play the entire piece HS. You might practice HS very fast for polishing the technique.
3. Practice starting at arbitrary places in the piece. This is an excellent way to test the memory and your understanding of the structure of the composition.
4. Play slowly; there is no better way to enhance memory.
5. Play “cold”. It will greatly strengthen your performance capability.
6. Play “in your mind”, at least HS. If you start this from the beginning when you first learned the piece, and
maintain it, this is surprisingly easy. And the resulting benefits are really worthwhile.
7. For upcoming recitals, follow the detailed recital preparation routine discussed in section 1.3.14.
1.3.6.12 Sight Readers versus Memorizers: Learning Bach’s Inventions
Many good sight readers and good memorizers are good at one but not the other. This problem arises because
good sight readers initially find little need to memorize and enjoy sight reading, so that they end up practicing sight
reading at the expense of memorizing. The more they sight read, the less memory they need, and the less they
memorize, the worse memorizers they become, with the result that one day they wake up and conclude that they
are unable to memorize. Of course, there are naturally talented readers who have genuine memory problems, but
these comprise a negligibly small minority. Therefore, the difficulty of memorizing arises principally because of
a psychological mental block. Good memorizers can experience the reverse problem; they can’t sight read. But
most memorizers became non-readers because they are so good at playing from memory or by ear that they never
gave themselves a chance to practice reading. However, this is not a symmetric problem because practically all
advanced pianists know how to memorize, which indicates that poor memorizers also had the misfortune of never
having been taught how to memorize and to acquire difficult technique quickly; that is, the technical level of
poor memorizers is generally lower than that of good memorizers.
“Sight reading” is used loosely in this section to mean true sight reading as well as practicing music with the help
of the score. The distinction between sight reading a piece one had never seen and a piece that had been played
before is not important here. In the interest of brevity, that distinction will be left to the context of the sentence.
Memorizing, like sight reading or piano technique, requires not only a knowledge of how to memorize but also a
minimum dedicated regimen of practice. It is more important to be able to memorize than to sight read because
you can survive as a pianist without good sight reading ability, but you can’t become an advanced pianist without
the ability to memorize.
Memorizing is not easy for the average pianist who was not trained in memory. Sight readers who cannot memorize face an even more difficult problem. Therefore, poor memorizers who wish to acquire a memorized repertoire must do so by starting with a mental attitude that this is going to be a long term project with numerous
obstacles to overcome. As shown above, the solution, in principle, is simple — make it a practice to memorize
everything before you learn the piece. In practice, the temptation to learn quickly by reading the score is often too
irresistible. This tendency to rely on reading is the main reason why sight readers become poor memorizers, not
their lack of memorizing ability.
The most difficult problem encountered by sight readers is the psychological problem of motivation. For these
good readers, memorizing seems like a waste of time because they can quickly learn to play many pieces reasonably well by reading. They might even be able to play difficult pieces by using hand memory, and if they have a
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
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blackout, they can always refer back to the music in front of them. Therefore, they can manage without memorizing. After years of practicing piano this way, it becomes very difficult to learn how to memorize because the mind
has become dependent on the score. Difficult pieces are impossible under this system, so they are avoided in favor
of a large number of easier compositions. With this awareness of potential difficulties, let’s try to work through a
typical program for learning how to memorize.
The best way to start is to memorize a few short pieces. These should be new pieces you had never practiced
before. Once you successfully memorize a few pieces without too much effort, you can start building up your
confidence and improving the memorizing skills. When these skills are sufficiently developed, you might even
think of memorizing old pieces you had learned by reading.
A “short” piece means something between 2 and 4 pages. Such a piece can be started from the beginning,
progressing section by section till the end. Start by analyzing the structure of the piece. Good readers have an
advantage here because they are familiar with phrases and series of notes that appear frequently together and are
therefore good at analyzing the microstructures. Memorize phrase by phrase, as described above (HS, continuity
rule, etc.). As each successive phrase is memorized, play them from memory only. As soon as you memorize one
phrase, never look at the music again for this phrase unless you have to. This is, of course, the entire basis of the
method. Don’t worry if you can’t play it satisfactorily, just memorize it first.
Memorize the entire piece HS before even thinking of HT. Start HT only after you are very comfortable HS for
the entire piece. Work in short phrases of 2 to 10 bars. Begin every practice session with HS play, and then switch
to HT until you become comfortable HT. Memorizing becomes easier the faster you play. You will also need to
practice HT very slowly. The important thing is to vary the speed. If you start to get confused HT, go back to HS,
don’t keep struggling with HT. You will find that playing HS very fast (but within your control and relaxation limits)
is a lot of fun, good for technique, and helps your memory. If, after memorizing a long section (by memorizing
short sub-sections), you start to get confused when trying to play the entire section, don’t keep trying to memorize
it! Start all over again by memorizing it in short sections.
When I decide to memorize, I concentrate only on memorizing, and spend time on other practice only when
I get tired of memorizing and need a break. This is because playing other materials between memory sessions
will make me forget whatever I had recently memorized. Newly memorized material is extremely fragile. Thus my
piano sessions are either memorizing sessions or practice sessions. During practice sessions, I almost never need
the score. Even during memorizing sessions, I use the score only in the beginning and then put it away as soon as I
can.
Suppose that the piece is 3 pages long; for simpler pieces, you can memorize all 3 pages HS the first day. By the
end of a week, you should be able to play HT reasonably well without looking at the score. See example below. By
the second week, you should be practicing the piece HT most of the time. That’s it, you are done!
Up to here, we discussed memorizing new pieces. Memorizing a piece you can already play by reading is not
easier and can be quite frustrating, but the method is the same. Since you will not be repeating each section as
many times as you would when practicing a new piece, a newly memorized old piece will never be memorized as
well as a new piece memorized when you first learned it. You may discover that the fact, that it is already partly
memorized, doesn’t help very much. You will not become as frustrated if you go into it knowing that memorizing
a piece you can already play usually requires more motivation and mental effort than a new piece. Therefore, my
suggestion is, don’t start memorizing all your old pieces using this method, but begin with new ones, and to start
work on your old ones after you have learned the memorizing methods. In this way, you can compare the results
of pieces that were properly memorized from the beginning with your old pieces that were newly memorized. You
should find that you can play new pieces that were memorized correctly much better than old pieces that were
memorized after you were able to play them.
As an example of short pieces to memorize, let’s learn three of Bach’s 2-part Inventions. I will lead you through
one of them, and you should try the other two by yourself. Three of the easiest ones are #1, #8, and #13. I will
go through #8 with you. After learning #8, try #1 yourself and then start on #13. The idea is to learn all three
simultaneously, but if that proves too taxing, try two only (#8 and #1), or even just #8. It is important that you try
only what you think you can comfortably handle; that is why I am giving you these three choices. The schedule
given below is for learning all three at once. We are assuming that you have learned the material of sections 1.1
to 1.3, and that your technical level is such that you are ready to tackle the Bach Inventions.
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Bach’s Invention #8, day one. Start by memorizing bars 2 to 4 of the LH, including the first two notes (conjunction) of bar 5. It should take less than a minute to memorize; then start playing it at speed. Then do the same for
the RH, bars 1 to 4, including the first 4 notes of bar 5. Now return to the LH and see if you can play it without the
score, and similarly with the RH. If you can, you should never have to refer to this part of the score again, unless
you have a blackout, which will happen once in a while. Go back and forth between the LH and RH until you are
comfortable. This should take only a few minutes more. Let’s say that this whole procedure takes 5 minutes. A fast
learner will need less time.
Now learn bars 5 to 7, including the first 2 notes of the LH and the first 4 notes of the RH in bar 8. This should
be completed in about 4 minutes. These are all HS practices; we will not start HT until we finish memorizing the
whole piece HS. Once you are comfortable, connect bars 1–7, including the conjunctions in bar 8. It may take
another 3 minutes to do both hands.
Next memorize bars 8–11, and add them to the previous sections. Let’s assign another 8 minutes to this part,
for a total of 20 minutes to memorize bars 1–11 and to bring them up to speed, HS. If you have technical difficulties
with some parts, don’t worry about it, we will work on that later. You are not expected to play anything to perfection
at this time.
Next, we will abandon bars 1–11 (don’t even worry about trying to remember them), and work on bars 12–23
only. Break this section up into the following segments (the conjunctions should be obvious): 12–15, 16–19, and
19–23. Note that bar 19 overlaps because this provides extra time to practice the more difficult 4th finger in the LH.
Work only on bars 12–23 until you can play them all in succession, HS. This should take another 20 minutes or so.
Then finish off bars 24 to end (34). These might be learned using the following segments: 24–25, 26–29, and
30–end (34). This may require another 20 minutes, for a total of 1hr to memorize the whole thing. You can now
either quit and continue tomorrow, or review each of the three segments. The important thing here is not to worry
about whether you will remember all this tomorrow (you probably won’t), but to have fun, maybe even trying to
connect the three sections or to put the beginning parts HT to see how far you can go. Work on parts that give you
technical problems when you try to speed them up. Practice these technical workouts in as small segments as you
can; this frequently means two-note parallel sets. That is, practice only the notes you can’t play satisfactorily. The
total time spent on the first day is 1 hour.
Day two: review each of the three sections, then connect them. You might need the sheet music in some places.
Then put the music score away — you should never need them again except for emergencies and to double check
the accuracy during maintenance. The only requirement on the 2nd day is to be able to play the whole piece HS
from beginning to end. Concentrate on bringing up the speed, and go as fast as you can without making mistakes.
Practice relaxation. If you start to make mistakes, slow down and cycle the speed up and down. Note that it may
be easier to memorize playing fast, and you might get memory lapses playing very slowly, so practice at different
speeds. Don’t be afraid to play fast, but make sure that you balance this with sufficient intermediate speed and slow
play.
If you are completely comfortable HS on the 2nd day, you might start HT, using the same small segments used
to learn HS. However, the only requirement on day 2 is to be able to play the entire piece HS from memory. The
first note of bar 3 is a collision of the two hands, so use only the LH and skip the RH for this one note, and similarly
in bar 18. Play softly, even where “f ” is indicated, so that you can accentuate the beat notes to synchronize the two
hands. Don’t worry if you are slightly tense in the beginning, but concentrate on relaxing as soon as possible.
Moderate speed is often the easiest speed to play from memory because you can use the rhythm to keep you
going and you can remember the music in phrases instead of individual notes. Therefore, pay attention to the
rhythm from the very beginning. Now slow down and work on accuracy. To prevent the slow play from speeding
up, concentrate each individual note. Repeat this fast-slow speed cycle and you should improve noticeably with
each cycle. The main objectives are to completely memorize it HS and to speed up the HS play as much as possible.
Wherever you have technical difficulties, use the parallel set exercises to develop technique quickly. You should not
need more than 1 hour.
Day three: learn HT in the three major sections as you did with HS. As soon as you notice confusion setting in
HT, go back to HS to clear things up. This is also a good time to further increase the speed HS, up to about two
times final speed if possible (more on how to do this later). Of course, those with insufficient technical skill will
have to play slower. Keep in mind the reminder that relaxation is more important than speed. You will obviously
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be playing much faster HS than HT, and practically all attempts at increasing speed should be conducted HS. Since
the hands are not yet completely coordinated, you should have some memory lapses and it may be difficult to play
HT without mistakes unless you play slowly. From here on, you will have to depend on the slower post practice
improvement to gain any major improvement. However, in 3 hours over 3 days, you have basically memorized the
piece and can play, perhaps haltingly, HT.
Now start on the second piece, #1, while you polish up the first piece. Practice the two pieces alternately. Work
on #1 until you start to forget #8, then go back and refresh #8 and work on it until you start to forget #1. Remember
that you want to forget a little so that you can relearn, which is what is needed to establish long term memory. For
psychological reasons, it is best to use these types of “win-win” programs: if you forget, that is exactly what you were
looking for; if you can’t forget, that’s even better! This type of program will also give you a measure of how much
you can/cannot memorize in a given amount of time. Of course, this is only the beginning. Youngsters should find
that the amount you can memorize at one time increases rapidly as you gain experience and add more memorizing
tricks. This is because you have a run-away situation in which the faster you memorize, the faster you can play, and
the faster you play, the easier it becomes to memorize. Increased confidence also plays a major role. Ultimately, the
main limiting factor will be your technical skill level, not the memorizing ability. If you have sufficient technique,
you will be playing at speed in a few days. If you can’t, that just means that you need more technique. It does not
mean that you are a poor memorizer.
Day four: There is not much you can do to rush the first piece technically after two or three days. For several
days, start practicing #8 by playing HS, then HT, at different speeds according to your whim of the moment. As
soon as you feel ready, practice HT, but return to HS if you start making mistakes, have memory lapses HT, or if you
have technical problems getting up to speed. Practice playing the piece HT in segments, jumping from segment
to segment at random throughout the piece. Try starting with the last small segment and work backwards to the
beginning.
Some parts will be easier while others will give you trouble. Isolate the trouble spots and practice them separately. Since you originally learned in segments, this should be easy. Most people have a weaker LH, so bringing the
LH up to two times final speed may present problems. For example, the last four notes of the LH in bar 4, 4234(5),
where (5) is the conjunction, may be difficult to play fast. In that case, break it up into three parallel sets (there
are many more ways to do this): 42, 423, and 2345 and practice them using the parallel set exercises. First bring
them up to nearly infinite speed (almost a chord) and then learn to relax at those speeds, playing in rapid quads
(see section 1.3.7.2). 423 is not a parallel set, so you may have to play it slower than the others. Then gradually slow
down to develop finger independence. Then join the parallel sets in pairs and, finally, string them all together. This
is actual technique enhancement and therefore will not happen over-night. You may see little improvement during
practice, but you should feel a distinct improvement the next day, and a lot of improvement after a few weeks. On
the first day of technique enhancement, the only things you can really work on are relaxation and very fast parallel
set exercises.
As soon as you can play the whole piece HS, it is important to start playing the piece at least HS in your mind,
away from the piano. When you can play it HT, you might try playing HT in your mind, but the only requirement
is to be able to play it HS. Don’t stop until you can play the whole piece in your mind HS. This should take a day or
two. If you don’t complete this task now, for most people, you never will. But if you succeed, it may become a very
powerful memory tool for you. You should be able to quickly learn to play it very fast in your mind; this will exercise
your brain, foster true memory, and save time.
Some time around day 5 or 6, you should be able to start piece #13 so that you can subsequently practice all
three pieces every day. However, if this is too taxing, learn only two pieces. After all, the plan here is to achieve
easy success in memorizing a short piece so as to build confidence. Therefore do not try anything that you feel is
difficult. In fact, another approach is to learn only piece #8 well first, then after you have gone through the entire
procedure so that you are familiar with it, start #1 and #13. The main reason for learning several pieces at once is
that these pieces are so short that you will be playing too many repetitions in one day if you only practiced one.
Remember, from day one, you will be playing at speed, and from day two, you should be playing at least some
sections faster than final speed (HS). Also, it is more efficient to learn three at once. That is, it takes longer to learn
these three one at a time than three together.
Beyond day two or three, how fast you progress will depend more on your skill level than memory ability. Once
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you can play the entire piece HS at will, you should consider the piece memorized. This is because, if you are
above about intermediate level, you will be able to play it HT very quickly, whereas if you are not that advanced,
the technical difficulties in each hand will slow the progress. Memory is not the limiting factor. For HT work, you
will obviously have to work with coordinating the two hands. With Bach’s music, it is particularly difficult (and
necessary) to coordinate the two hands and yet play them independently.
Finally, a very important point concerning technique versus memory: as noted above, once memorized, how
well you can play from memory depends on your level of technique as well as how well you have memorized the
score. It is vitally important not to confuse lack of technique with the inability to memorize. Therefore, at this
point, you will need a method for both testing your technique to see if it is sufficient, and for developing technique
if it is insufficient. That test starts with HS play. If your technique is sufficient, you should be able to play very
comfortably, relaxed and perfectly, at about 1.5 times final speed, HS. For #8, the speed is about MM = 100 on the
metronome, so you should be able to play both hands at over 150 HS at a minimum, and perhaps up to 200. At 150,
you got Glenn Gould beat (albeit HS)! If you cannot do 150 HS, then you must further develop technique before you
can expect to play HT at anything close to 100.
Assuming that you encounter technical problems, let’s concentrate on practicing HS. Most people have a weaker
LH, so the difficulty will probably be in the LH. Bring the LH technique up as close to the RH level as possible. As
illustrated above for bar 4 of the LH, use the parallel set exercises to work on technique. All technique development work is done HS because with HT you cannot play sufficiently fast, or pay sufficient attention to detail, as
you can HS. Bach is particularly useful for balancing the LH and RH techniques because both hands play similar
passages. Therefore, you know immediately that the LH is weaker if it cannot get up to the same speed as the RH
for Bach. For other composers, such as Chopin, the LH is sometimes much easier and does not provide a good
LH test. Students with inadequate technique may need to work HS for weeks before they can hope to play these
inventions HT at speed. In that case, just play HT at comfortably slow tempos and wait for your HS technique to
develop before speeding up HT. HS practice is also the best time to change the fingering to fit your playing ability.
Once you “lock in” the playing HT, it will be much more difficult to change fingerings.
All three pieces discussed above should be completely memorized in one to two weeks and you should begin
to feel comfortable with at least the first piece. Let’s say that for two weeks, all you did was to concentrate on
memorizing these three pieces. You can play them HT, completely from memory, although they may not be perfect.
Now if you go back to old pieces that were memorized previously, you will probably find that you don’t remember
them as well any more. This is a good time to re-polish them and to alternate this maintenance chore with further
polishing of your new Bach pieces. You are basically done. Congratulations!
Bach’s music is notoriously difficult to play fast, and is highly susceptible to FPD (fast play degradation, see
section 1.2.25). The intuitive solution to this problem has been to patiently practice slowly so that your hands don’t
get tangled up and stressed, possibly creating permanent problems. You don’t have to play very fast to suffer FPD
with many of Bach’s compositions. If your maximum speed is MM = 50, whereas the suggested speed is 100, then
for you, 50 is fast and at that speed, FPD can rear its ugly head. This is why playing slowly HT and trying to speed
it up will only generate more confusion and FPD. Those who use the methods of this book already know that the
better solution is to use HS practice. You will be amazed at how quickly you can speed up play using HS practice,
especially when practicing small segments. For those who had never done this before, you will soon be playing at
speeds you never dreamed possible.
Quiet hands. Many teachers justifiably stress “quiet hands” as a desirable objective. In this mode, the fingers
do most of the playing, with the hands moving very little. Quiet hands is the litmus test for demonstrating that
you have acquired the technique necessary to play that passage. The elimination of unnecessary motions not
only allows faster play, but also increases control. Many of Bach’s music are particularly suited for practicing quiet
hands, almost certainly by design. Some of the unexpected fingerings indicated on the music score were chosen so
as to be compatible with, or facilitate, quiet hands play. Some teachers impose quiet hand playing on all students at
all times, even for beginners, but I think that such an approach is counter-productive. When playing slowly, or if the
student does not have sufficient technique, some extra motion is allowable, and may even be appropriate. Those
who already have quiet hands technique can add a lot of extra motion without detriment when playing slowly (or
fast). Quiet hands cannot be felt when playing slowly so that teaching “slow quiet hands” to a student teaches
her/im nothing, and the student can become completely confused. Only when playing beyond a certain speed
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79
does quiet hands become obvious to the pianist, and in fact, necessary. When you acquire quiet hands for the first
time, it is absolutely unmistakable, so don’t worry about missing it. When playing sufficiently fast so that you can
feel the quiet hands, is the best time to teach the student what quiet hands means, not when playing slowly or when
the student still doesn’t have the necessary technique, because without experiencing quiet hands the student has
no idea what to do. Once you have this technique, you can then apply it to slow play; you should now feel that you
have much more control and a lot more free time between notes. Thus quiet hands is not any specific motion of
the hand but a feeling of control and the near total absence of speed walls.
In the case of the Bach pieces discussed here, the quiet hands become necessary at speeds close to final speed.
Thus without quiet hands, you will start to hit speed walls at the recommended speeds. HS practice is important
for quiet hands because it is much easier to acquire and feel it in your hands when played HS, and because HS play
allows you to get to quiet hands speed more quickly than HT. In fact, it is best not to start HT until you can play in
the quiet hands mode because this will reduce the chances of locking in bad habits. That is, HT with or without
quiet hands is different, so that you don’t want to get into the habit of playing HT without quiet hands. Those
with insufficient technique may take too long a time to attain quiet hands, so that such students may have to start
HT without quiet hands; they can then gradually acquire quiet hands at a later time, by using more HS practice.
This explains why those with sufficient technique can learn these inventions so much faster than those without.
Such difficulties are some of the reasons for not trying to learn pieces that are too difficult for you, and provide
useful tests for whether the composition is too difficult or appropriate for your skill level. Those with insufficient
technique will certainly risk building up speed walls. Although some people claim that the Bach Inventions can
be played “at any speed”, that is true only for their musical content; these compositions need to be played at their
recommended speeds in order to take full advantage of the piano lessons that Bach had in mind.
For those with stronger RHs, quiet hands will come first with the RH; once you know the feel, you can transfer
it to the LH more quickly. Once it kicks in, you will suddenly find that you can play fast much easier. Parallel
set exercises can help you to transition into quiet hands quickly, but you must be careful not to use phase locked
parallel sets — that is a false form of quiet hands and the hands will move a lot. In true quiet hands play, you have
independent control over each finger, while the hands stay relatively motionless.
Bach clearly wrote these Inventions (and many others) with technical development in mind. Thus he gave both
hands equally difficult material; in fact this provides more challenges for the LH because the bass hammers and
strings are heavier. Bach would have been mortified to see exercises such as the Hanon series because he knew that
exercises without music would be a waste of time, as demonstrated by the effort he put into these compositions to
incorporate music. Practicing piano without music would be like practicing golf without a golf ball. The amount
of technical material he crammed into these compositions is incredible: finger independence (quiet hands, control, speed), coordination as well as independence of the two hands (multiple voices, staccato vs. legato, colliding
hands, ornaments), harmony, making music, strengthening the LH as well as the weaker fingers (fingers 4 and 5),
all major parallel sets, uses of the thumb, standard fingerings, etc. Note that the ornamentals are excellent parallel
set exercises and are not just musical ornaments but are an integral part of technical development. Using the ornaments, Bach asks you to practice parallel sets with one hand while simultaneously playing another part with the
other hand, and producing music with this combination!
Be careful not to play Bach too loud, even where F is indicated. Instruments of his time produced much less
sound than modern pianos so that Bach had to write music that is filled with sound, and with few breaks. One of the
purposes of the numerous ornaments used in Bach’s time was to fill in the sound. Thus his music tends to have too
much sound if played loudly on modern pianos. Especially with Inventions and Sinfonias, in which the student is
trying to bring out all the competing melodies, there is a tendency to play each succeeding melody louder, ending
up in loud music. The different melodies must compete on the basis of musical concept, not loudness. Playing
more softly will also help to achieve total relaxation and true finger independence.
If you want to learn one of the Sinfonias (3 part Inventions), you might try #15 which is easier than most of the
others. It is very interesting, and has a section in the middle where the two hands collide and play many of the same
notes. As with all Bach compositions, this one contains a lot more than first meets the eye, so approach it with care.
First of all, it is allegro vivace! The time signature is a strange 9/16, which means that the groups of six 1/32 notes
in bar 3 must be played as 3 beats, not 2 (three pairs of notes instead of two triplets). This time signature results
in the three repeat notes (there are two in bar 3) that have thematic value and they march across the keyboard in
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characteristic Bach fashion. When the two hands collide in bar 28, raise the RH and slide the LH under it, both
hands playing all the notes. If the thumb collision is problematic, you might eliminate the RH thumb and play only
the LH thumb. In bar 36, be sure to use the correct RH fingering: (5), (2, 3), (1, 4), (3, 5), (1, 4), (2, 3).
Finally, let’s discuss the last necessary step in memorizing — analyzing the structure, or the “story”, behind
the music. The memorizing process will be incomplete until you understand the story behind the music. We shall
use Invention #8. The first 11 bars comprise the “exposition”. Here, the RH and LH play basically the same thing,
with the LH delayed by one bar, and the main theme is introduced. The “body” consists of bars 12 to 28, where the
roles of the two hands are initially reversed, with the LH leading the RH, followed by some intriguing developments.
The ending starts at bar 29 and brings the piece to an orderly finish, with the RH re-asserting its original role. Note
that the ending is the same as the end of the exposition. Beethoven further developed this device of ending a piece
multiple times and raised it to incredible heights.
With this basic structure complete, you can start adding refinements. For example, a majority of bars require
a staccato in one hand and legato in the other. Once you have analyzed these structures, practice playing each
component separately. Then practice playing each in your mind, filling in more refinements as you memorize
more details.
We now present some explanations for why developing such a “story” is the best and perhaps the only reliable
way to memorize a composition permanently. I believe that is the way in which practically every great musician
memorized music.
1.3.6.13 Human Memory Function
The memory function of the brain is only incompletely understood. All research indicates that there is no such
thing as “photographic memory” in the strict sense of the phrase, though I have used this terminology in this
book. All memory is apparently associative. Thus when we visually “memorize” a Monet painting, we are actually
associating the subjects of the painting with something deeper in our memory, not just a two dimensional picture
composed of so many pixels. This is why great paintings or unusual photographs are easier to remember than
similar images of lesser significance. How about photographic memory of the music score? It is easy to prove that
this, too, is totally associative — in this case, associated with music. If you ask a musician with “photographic”
memory to memorize a full page of random music notes, he cannot, although he may have no trouble memorizing
an entire sonata quickly. This is why there is no better way to memorize music than from the standpoint of music
theory. All you have to do is to associate the music with the theory and you have it memorized. In other words,
when humans memorize something, they don’t store the data bits in the brain like a computer, but they associate
the data with a basic framework or “algorithm” consisting of familiar things in the brain. In this example, music
theory is the framework. Of course, a good memorizer (who may not be a musician) can develop methods for
memorizing even a random sequence of notes by devising an appropriate algorithm, as we now explain.
The best evidence for the associative nature of human memory comes from tests on good memorizers who
can perform incredible feats such as memorizing hundreds of telephone numbers in a phone book, etc. There
are numerous memory contests in which good memorizers compete. It turns out that none of them memorize
photographically, although the end result is almost indistinguishable from photographic memory. When queried
as to how they memorize, it turns out that they all use associative algorithms. The algorithm is different with each
individual, but they are all devices for associating the objects to be memorized with something that has a pattern
that they can remember.
The amazing thing is the speed with which they can map the object to be memorized onto their algorithm,
even for random numbers. It also turns out that these good memorizers are not born that way, although they
may be born with mental capabilities that can lead to good memory. Memorizers develop after much hard work
in perfecting their algorithms and practicing every day, just like pianists. This “hard work” comes effortlessly
because they enjoy it.
For example, if you want to remember the sequence of 14 numbers 53031791389634, you might use the following algorithm. “I woke up at 5:30 AM with my 3 brothers and 1 grandmother; the ages of my brothers are 7, 9, and 13,
and my grandmother is 89 years old, and we went to bed at 6:34 PM.” This is an algorithm based on life’s experience,
which makes the random numbers “meaningful”. What is so intriguing is that the algorithm contains 38 words, yet
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
81
it is much easier to remember than the 14 numbers. In fact, you have just memorized 132 letters and numbers with
greater ease than the 14 numbers! You can easily test this for yourself. First memorize both the 14 numbers (if you
can — it is not easy for me) and the above algorithm. 24 hours later, try to write down the numbers from memory
and from the algorithm; you will find the algorithm to be much easier and more accurate. Good memorizers have
all devised incredibly efficient algorithms and have cultivated the habit of rapidly transferring any memory job onto
their algorithms. You can do a similar thing with piano music by analyzing the structural story of the composition.
It is now possible to understand how memorizers can memorize many pages of phone numbers. They simply
end up with a story, instead of a single sentence. Note that a 90 year old man may not be able to memorize a
10 digit number, yet he can sit down and tell you stories for hours or even days. And he doesn’t have to be any kind
of memory specialist to do this.
So then, what is it about associations that actually enable us to do something we otherwise cannot do? Perhaps the simplest way to describe this is to say that associations enable us to understand the subject to be memorized. This is a very useful definition because it can help anyone to do better in school, or in any learning endeavor.
If you really understand physics or math or chemistry, you don’t need to memorize it, because you can’t forget it.
This might seem pointless because we just shifted our question from “what is memory?” to “what is association?”
and then to “what is understanding?”. It is not pointless if we can define understanding: it is a mental process
of associating a new object with other objects (the more the better!) that are already familiar to you. That is, the
new object now becomes “meaningful”. This explains why knowledge of music theory is the best way to memorize.
Music theory is the perfect algorithm for this purpose because theory helps you to understand the music.
It also explains why keyboard memory works: you associate the music with the particular motions and keys
that must be played to create the music. This also tells us how to optimize keyboard memory. Clearly, it is a mistake
to try to remember each keystroke; we should think in terms of things like “RH arpeggio starting from C, which
is repeated in the LH an octave down, staccato, with happy feeling”, etc., and to associate these motions with the
resulting music and its structure. You should make as many associations as possible: Bach’s music may have certain
characteristics, such as special ornaments and colliding hands. What you are doing is making the action of playing
“meaningful” in terms of how the music is produced and how the music fits into your mental universe. This is why
practicing scales and arpeggios is so important. When you encounter a run of 30 notes, you can remember it simply
as a section of a scale, instead of 30 notes to memorize.
This also tells us that learning perfect pitch or at least relative pitch will be very helpful for memory because
they can provide many more associations. These discussions suggest that your memory should improve as you
memorize more, and remove much of the mystery from why good memorizers are so good.
1.3.6.14 A Simple Method for Becoming a Good Memorizer
It is clear, from all of the above, that you cannot become a good memorizer without practice. The good news is that
practically anyone can become a good memorizer. Most students have enough desire to memorize and therefore
are willing to practice; yet many fail. Do we know why they fail, and is there a simple solution to the problem?
Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes!
The main cause for the failure to memorize is the fear of forgetting. Most of us instinctively try to retain in
our brains what we try to memorize — which sounds like a logical thing to do but is in fact, the worst thing to do
because it creates a nagging fear of forgetting that prevents us from mental relaxation. The constant presence of
this fear and the pressure to retain everything in memory make the memorizing process difficult and unpleasant.
We must realize that memory is a natural process that occurs whether we like it or not, and that creating a mental
attitude that we must retain what we memorize does not make us memorize better; in fact, it hinders us. This is
easy to prove by observing that good memorizers memorize effortlessly, and the only difference is that they have
no fear of memorizing. This situation is analogous to that of swimmers and non-swimmers. Non-swimmers fear
water, contract all their muscles tightly, which pushes all the air out of the lungs, they become heavier than water,
and sink. On the other hand, young kids with no fear of water will jump in and, after a few tries, are having fun
swimming.
Here, I describe a two step formula for learning to memorize. The first step is to convince ourselves that we
must forget in order to properly memorize. As a working rule, let’s say that we never really memorize anything
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well unless we have forgotten it three times. For example, in memorizing the Bach inventions above, we broke the
compositions into small “memorizable” chunks and worked on each one before proceeding to the next. The rule
we tried to follow there was that, once one chunk was memorized, we had to play that chunk from memory, never
to look at the music again. For those who consider themselves poor memorizers, that rule would create the fear of
forgetting, and there is the likelihood that they might give up at that point. This leads to the second step, in which
we realize that it is not a crime to forget, that some forgetting is a natural process (just as some memorizing is also
natural), and that we can proceed to the next chunk without worrying about making sure that we have completely
memorized the first chunk. Thus the two step process consists of (1) learning that forgetting is OK (we will try to
forget 3 times before committing to memory), and then (2) practicing memorizing with complete mental relaxation
and with no fear of forgetting; in fact, we would like to forget 3 times.
The original rule to memorize one chunk completely and never to look at the music again and the two step
memory process are contradictory. You can not let the two step process allow you to try to memorize too many
chunks at once, and forgetting them all too many times. First of all, there is an optimum number of 2 to 4 chunks
that you can use in the two step process. Secondly, the objective of the two step process is that it is a method for
learning how to memorize, how to relax mentally, and how to eliminate the pressure and fear of memorizing, so
that you will eventually be able to follow the original rule of learning one chunk completely the first time. However,
there is nothing wrong if you find that the two step process is most comfortable for you and you apply it to all
your memory work. Typically, those who are not good memorizers cannot memorize anything the first day — each
chunk may take several days to properly memorize. The two step process gives you the option of working on several
chunks at once. You turn the corner when you lose the fear of forgetting and start to mentally relax and enjoy the
memory process; that is when your journey to becoming a good memorizer starts. Obviously, for this to work, you
must adopt the policy of memorizing every significant composition that you learn.
1.3.6.15 Summary
To memorize, simply use the rules for learning, with the added proviso that you memorize everything before you
start to practice the piece. In this way, you are forced to practice from memory. It is this repetition during practice,
from memory, that automatically implants the memory with little additional effort compared to the effort needed
to learn the piece. The most important element is HS memorization. When you memorize something beyond a
certain point, you will almost never forget it. Conversely, if you don’t get it to that point, there really isn’t any point
to memorizing, since you will eventually lose it. The only way to maintain a memorized piece is to never go back to
sight reading again. HS play is also the main element in memory maintenance. You should have two repertoires; a
memorized one, and another for sight reading. Proper memorizing brings with it a whole new wonderful world of
musical capabilities such as playing a piece from anywhere in the middle or playing it in your mind. Memorizing is
necessary for learning a piece quickly and well, playing with expression, acquiring difficult technique, performing,
etc. A memorized repertoire will give you the confidence that you are a “real” pianist. Many of those miraculous
feats that Mozart is fabled to have performed are actually within reach of most of us.
1.3.7 Exercises
1.3.7.1 Introduction : Intrinsic, Limbering, and Conditioning Exercises
Updated:
July 11, 2004
Most published finger exercises are not useful because of an overwhelming number of disadvantages [see see
section 1.3.7.8]. One objection is that they waste a lot of time. If you are exercising so that you can play difficult
pieces, why not spend the time practicing the difficult pieces instead of the exercises? Another objection is that
most exercises are too repetitious, requiring no musical input so that you can play them with your musical brain
turned off which, according to any knowledgeable piano teacher, is the worst way to practice piano. Mindless
practice is harmful because exercises are supposed to increase stamina — however, since most of us have plenty
of physical stamina to play but insufficient brain stamina, mindless repetitive exercises can actually decrease our
total musical stamina. If the students are not carefully guided, they will practice these repetitions mechanically and
give piano practice the reputation as a punishment for anyone unfortunate enough to have to listen to it. It is one
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83
way to create closet pianists who can practice only when no one is listening because they never practiced making
music. Some accomplished musicians use such repetitive exercises for warming up, etc., but this habit arose as a
result of early training and concert pianists do not need them for their practice sessions.
Instead of these harmful exercises, I discuss here a whole different class of exercises that help you to diagnose your technical deficiencies, to acquire the technique needed to correct these deficiencies, and to play musically. In section 1.3.7.2 I discuss the exercises for acquiring technique, especially velocity. Section 1.3.7.3 discusses
when/how to use them. In sections 1.3.7.4 to 1.3.7.7, I discuss other useful exercises. I have assembled most of
the objections against the Hanon type exercises in section 1.3.7.8. Historically, the Hanon type repetitive exercises
became widely accepted because of several misconceptions: (i) that you can acquire technique by learning a limited number of simple exercises, (ii) that music and technique can be learned separately, and (iii) that technique
requires mostly muscular development without brain development. Such exercises became popular with many
teachers because, if they worked, the students could be taught technique with little effort from the teachers! This
is not the fault of those teachers because these misconceptions were passed down through the generations, involving such famous teachers as Czerny, Hanon, and many others. The reality is that piano pedagogy is a challenging,
time-consuming, knowledge-based profession.
Before we discuss specific exercises, we must understand the different categories of exercises and what they do
for us.
If we define technique simply as the ability to play, then it has at least three components. It has an intrinsic
technique component, which is simply your skill level. Having the skill, however, doesn’t mean you can play. For
example, if you haven’t played for several days and the fingers are frozen cold, you probably won’t be able to play
anything satisfactorily. So there is the second component of the degree to which the fingers are “limbered up”. There
is also a third component, which will be called “conditioning” here. For example, if you had been chopping down
huge trees for a week, or you had done nothing but knit sweaters for days, the hands may not be in a good condition
to play the piano. The hands have physically adapted to a different job. On the other hand, if you had practiced at
least three hours every day for months, your hands will do things that will astound even you. Conditioning involves
the entire body and probably the brain in a major way, so that it should not be called “hand conditioning” although
hands are obviously the most important parts involved.
Exercises can contribute to all three components of technique (intrinsic, warm-up, and conditioning) and students often confuse warm-up or other ineffective exercises with intrinsic technique acquisition. This confusion
arises because practically any exercise can contribute to warm-up and conditioning, but the students can easily mistake these for intrinsic improvement if they are not aware of the three components. This mistake can be
detrimental if, as a result of spending too much effort on exercises, the students do not learn all the other, more important, ways of developing intrinsic technique. Knowledge about the components of technique is also important
when preparing for recitals because, in that case, you need to ask: what are the best ways to warm up and condition
the hands?
The intrinsic skill level and limbering up or warming up of the hands are easy to understand, but conditioning is very complex. The most important factors controlling conditioning are the length and frequency of practice
and the state of the brain/nerve/muscle system. In order to keep the hands in their best playing condition, most
people will need to practice every day. Skip a few days of practice, and the conditioning will deteriorate markedly.
Thus, although it was remarked elsewhere that practicing a minimum of three days a week can yield significant
progress, this will clearly not result in the best conditioning. Conditioning is a much larger effect than some
people realize. Advanced pianists are always acutely aware of conditioning because it affects their ability to play
musically. It is probably associated with physiological changes such as dilation of blood vessels and the accumulation of certain chemicals at specific locations of the nerve/muscle system. This conditioning factor becomes more
important as your skill level rises and as you begin to deal routinely with the higher musical concepts such as color
or bringing out the characteristics of different composers. Needless to say, it becomes critical when playing technically demanding material. Thus each pianist must be conscious of conditioning in order to know what can be
played or practiced at a particular time.
A more elusive factor that affects conditioning is the state of the brain/nerve system. Thus for no obvious reason, you can have “good” days and “bad” days. This is probably analogous to the “slumps” that afflict athletes.
In fact you can have “bad days” for extended periods of time. With the awareness of this phenomenon and exper-
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imentation, this factor can be controlled to some extent. Just the awareness that such a factor exists can help a
student better cope psychologically with those “bad” days. Professional athletes, such as golfers, and those who
practice meditation, etc., have long known the importance of mental conditioning. Knowing the common causes
of such bad days would be even more helpful. The most common cause is FPD, which was discussed near the end
of section 1.2.25. Another common cause is deviation from fundamentals: accuracy, timing, rhythm, correct execution of expressions, etc. Playing too fast, or with too much expression, can be detrimental to conditioning. Possible
cures are to listen to a good recording, or enlist the help of a metronome or to revisit the music score. Playing a
composition slowly once before quitting is one of the most effective preventive measures against inexplicable
“bad playing” of that composition later on. Thus conditioning depends not only on how frequently you practice,
but also on what and how you practice.
We shall see below that parallel set exercises are useful for developing intrinsic skills, scales and arpeggios are
useful for warm-ups, and practically any playing can help conditioning.
1.3.7.2 Parallel Set Exercises for Intrinsic Technical Development
The main objective of exercises is technique acquisition which, for all intents and purposes, boils down to speed,
control, and tone. For exercises to be useful, you must be able to identify your weaknesses and use these exercises
to strengthen those skills. In order to accomplish this, we must have a complete set of exercises, and they must be
arranged in some logical order so that you can easily locate an exercise that addresses a particular need. Such
an exercise must therefore be based on some basic principle of piano playing that covers all aspects. Also, how do
we identify our specific weaknesses? Just the fact that you can’t play something doesn’t tell you why or how to solve
the problem.
I propose that the concept of parallel play provides the framework for devising a universal set of exercises
for technical development. This is because any arbitrary musical passage can be constructed from combinations
of parallel sets (groups of notes that can be played infinitely fast). I describe below a complete set of parallel set
exercises that satisfies all the requirements. See section 1.2.11 for an introductory discussion of parallel sets. Of
course, parallel sets alone do not comprise a complete set of exercises; conjunctions, repetitions, jumps, stretching,
etc., are also needed. These issues are also addressed below. Apparently, Louis Plaidy taught exercises resembling
parallel set exercises in the late 1800s.
All the parallel set exercises are HS exercises, so change hands frequently. However, you can practice them HT
at any time, and in any compatible combination, even 2 notes against 3, etc. In fact these exercises may be the
best way to practice such incommensurate RH-LH combinations. At first, just try a few of each exercise, then read
section 1.3.7.3 on how to use them. This is because, if expanded, there will be an infinite number (as they should
be, if they are complete), so you will never practice them all. You will never need all of them either, and probably
over half are redundant. Use these exercises only when you need them (you will need them all the time!), so that the
only requirement at this point is that you become sufficiently familiar with them so that you can instantly call upon
a specific, required exercise when the need arises. Therefore, you never waste time doing unnecessary exercises.
Parallel set exercises diagnose your weaknesses as well as build your technique. This means that you first use
them to test your technique. If you are a beginner with no technique, you should fail all of them. They will all be
basically impossible to play at the required speeds. Most students would initially have no idea how to play them
correctly. It would be very helpful if you can get someone to demonstrate a few for you if you had never done them
before. Intermediate students with 2 to 5 years of lessons should be able to play about half of them satisfactorily.
Thus these exercises provide a means for measuring your progress. This is total technique development and therefore involves tone control and musical playing, as will be explained shortly. Advanced students will still need them
but, unlike developing students, they will need them only briefly, often for just a few seconds of practice.
Exercise #1. This exercise establishes the basic motion that is needed for all following exercises. Play just one
note, for example, finger 1, e.g. thumb of RH, as four repetitions: 1111. In this exercise, we are not yet practicing
any parallel sets; we are just learning how to repeat them rapidly so that we can save time by playing as many
parallel sets as possible in a short time. The “parallel set” we are using here is the trivial set consisting of just one
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85
note. Another reason for this exercise is that the ability to play a parallel set rapidly for an indefinite amount of time
is the best test that you have acquired the skill to play it.
You can play the 1111 as quadruplets of equal strength, or as units of a 4/4 or a 2/4 measure. The idea is to
play them as fast as you can, up to speeds of over one quad per second. When you can play a quad to your
satisfaction, try two: 1111, 1111. The comma represents a pause of any arbitrary length, which should be shortened
as you progress. When you can do two, string four quads in rapid succession: 1111, 1111, 1111, 1111. You “pass”
this exercise at about one quad per second, 4 quads in succession, with no rest between quads. Play them softly,
completely relaxed, and not staccato, as explained in more detail below. You pass when you can play the quads
as long and as fast you want, with complete control and without fatigue. This seemingly trivial motion is much
more important than appears at first sight because it is the basis for all velocity motions, as will become apparent
when we come to parallel sets involving many fingers such as those in fast alberti accompaniments. That is why
we devote so many paragraphs below to this exercise. These paragraphs describe the methods for acquiring critical
skills for advanced technique.
If stress builds up as you string these quads together, work on this until you can play 4 quads rapidly stress free.
Note that every part of your body must be involved: fingers, hand, arm, shoulder, etc., not just the fingers. This
does not mean that every part of your body must move by a visible amount — they may appear stationary, but
must participate. A large part of the “involvement” will be conscious relaxation because the brain tends to use too
many muscles for even the simplest tasks. Try to isolate only the necessary muscles for the motion and relax all
others. The final motion may give the appearance that only the finger is moving. From more than several feet away,
few people will notice a 1 mm movement; if each part of your body moved less than one mm, the sum of those
motions can easily add up to the several mm needed for the key drop, even without finger movement. Therefore,
experiment with different positions of your hand, wrists, etc., for optimum play.
As your speed increases, the fingers/hands/arms will automatically go into positions that are ideal; otherwise,
you will not be able to play at those speeds. These positions will resemble those you see of famous pianists playing
at a concert — after all, that is why they can play it. Therefore it is important, when attending concerts, to bring
your opera glass and watch the details of the motions of professional pianists. The importance of hand/body positions/motions will be particularly true of the more advanced exercises given below, so begin now to train yourself
to identify these improvements. There may be several motions that work; many suggestions are given below. Try
them all; the more, the better.
Beginners, in their first year, will not be able to play at one quad per second and should be satisfied with slower
speeds. Do not force yourself to practice at speeds you cannot handle. However, periodic, brief, excursions into
your fastest playing are necessary for exploration purposes. Even students with over five years of lessons will find
parts of these exercises difficult. In order to save time, you might practice exercise #1 for a while, then practice both
#1 and #2 (below) simultaneously. This is because #2 uses the same motion as in #1. Since #2 is so simple, you can
combine it with #1 without running into difficulties.
Practice until all stress disappears and you can feel gravity pulling your arm down. As soon as stress builds
up, your sense of the gravitational pull will disappear. Don’t try too many quads at once if you don’t feel that you
have complete control. Don’t force yourself to keep practicing with stress because playing with stress can become a
habit before you realize it. If you keep practicing with stress, you will actually start to slow down. This is a clear sign
that you must either slow down or change hands. The material of sections 1.1 and 1.2 should have given you plenty
of weapons for attacking this speed/stress problem. Get one quad down very well before adding another one —
you will progress faster that way than by rushing many quads at once. The reason for stopping at four quads is that,
once you can do four, you can usually do any number in succession. However, exactly how many you need, before
you can play an indefinite number in succession, depends on the individual. Therefore, you should test yourself
frequently. If, after stringing two quads together, you can then play the quads indefinitely at any speed you want,
then you have passed the test for Exercise #1, and you never have to practice it again in your life. These exercises
are completely different from the Hanon exercises that you must repeat every day; once you pass, you move on to
something more difficult — that is progress!
For the first few days of practice, you should feel some improvements during practice because you are rapidly
learning new motions and eliminating wrong ones. In order to make further progress, you will need to use the
post practice improvement (PPI), because you are now causing nerve growth throughout your body and brain.
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Instead of pushing for speed during practice, wait for the hand to automatically develop quickness so that you play
faster the next time you practice; this can happen when you switch hands, or when you practice again the next day.
After the first week or two, most of the quickness will develop between practices, not during practice; therefore
if you don’t seem to improve very much even after a hard workout, don’t be discouraged — this is normal. Later
stages of PPI will develop mostly after a good night’s sleep. Most nerve growth seems to occur during sleep, when
the body’s resources are not needed for daytime activities. Over-practicing, in an attempt to achieve some visible
improvement during practice, is one of the major causes of injury, stress, and bad habits. Your task during practice
is to condition your hand for maximum PPI. Conditioning requires only a certain number of repetitions (generally
in the neighborhood of a hundred quads, which takes only a few minutes); beyond that, your gain per repetition
declines.
This is technique acquisition, not muscle building. Technique means making music and these exercises are
valuable for developing musical playing. Do not bang away, like a jack hammer. If you can’t control the tone
of one note, how can you control it with more? One key trick in controlling tone is to practice softly. By playing
softly you get yourself out of the mode of practice in which you totally ignore the nature of the sound and bang
away, just trying to achieve the repetitions. Press down on the key completely and hold it down momentarily (very
short — a fraction of a second). This ensures that the back check grabs the hammer and stops the oscillations that
the hammer picks up when it bounces off the strings. If these oscillations are not eliminated, you cannot control
the next strike. Read section 1.3.4.2 on flat finger playing; this is mandatory reading before you do any serious
parallel set exercises.
In order to increase speed and accuracy, and to control the tone, keep the playing finger near the key as much
as possible. If the finger does not touch the key once in a while, you lose control. Do not rest the fingers on the keys
all the time, but touch the keys as lightly as you can so that you know where they are. This will give you an added
feel for where all the other keys are, and when it comes time to play them, your fingers will not hit the wrong notes
because you know exactly where they are. Determine the minimum key lift needed for repetition and practice
playing with as little key lift as possible. The key lift is generally larger for uprights than grands. You can achieve
faster speeds with smaller key lifts. When all parts of your entire body: fingers, palm, wrist, arm, shoulder, back
and abdomen, etc., are coordinated, each part just has to move a millimeter or less to result in sufficient motion for
playing, since all you need to do is lift the key 3 or 4 mm.
The wrist is important in the repetition motion. The wrist governs all three goals we are seeking: speed, control, and tone. Remember, “getting the wrist involved” does not mean an exaggerated wrist motion; its motion may
be imperceptible, because it is the momentum, not the motion of the wrist, that you need.
Instead of always working on speed, work on control and tone. Repetitions practiced for control and tone
count equally towards conditioning for speed. Both control and velocity require the same skill — accuracy. In fact,
fast practice under stress will condition you for stressful playing, which will actually slow down the motion.
You must investigate and perform experiments all the time. If you keep your fingertip in one spot, or if you
slide it over the key, will you get a different tone? Practice sliding your finger forwards (towards the piano) and
backwards (towards your body). The thumb may be the easiest finger to slide. Play with the tip of the thumb,
not the joint; this will enable you to slide the thumb and to raise your hand, thus reducing the chances of the other
fingers accidentally hitting some keys. Playing with the tip also increases the effective range and speed of the thumb
movement; that is, for the same thumb movement, the tip moves farther and faster than the joint. Knowing how
to slide the fingers will free you to play with confidence regardless of whether the keys are slippery or if they get
wet from perspiration. Do not develop a dependence on the friction of the key surface for you to be able to play.
Playing with a raised wrist will cause the fingers to slide towards you as you press down. If you lower the wrist, the
fingers will tend to slide away from you, especially for fingers 2–5. Practice each of these sliding motions: practice
all five fingers with the wrist up for a while; then repeat with the wrist down. At an intermediate wrist height, the
fingers will not slide, even if the keys are slippery!
Experiment with controlling the tone using some intentional sliding. Sliding increases control because you are
creating a small key drop using a larger motion. The result is that any errors in the motion will be decreased by the
ratio of key drop to total motion, which is always less than one. Therefore, you can play more uniform quads by
sliding than by coming straight down. You can also play softer. Sliding also simplifies the finger motion because the
finger does not have to come straight down — any motion with a downward component will do, which increases
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87
your options.
Repeat with all the other fingers. Students who do this exercise for the first time should find that some fingers
(typically, 4 and 5) are harder than the others. This is an example of how to use these exercises as a diagnostic tool
to find the weak fingers.
The idea here, obviously, is to acquire the skill to play as many repeats for as long as you wish at any desired
speed. Only one finger is exercised because this is technique acquisition; in normal playing, repetitions are generally played by changing fingers. Repetition is the basic motion for practicing any parallel set. It is essential for
acquiring parallel set skills quickly, as further explained in section 1.3.7.3 below. Fast repetition is what enables
you to practice parallel sets quickly with a minimum of wasted time. Thus exercise #1 is not just an exercise in
itself, but something that you will need in all of the following exercises.
If you encounter difficulties in exercises #1 to #4, those difficulties should be easy to solve with the methods of
sections 1.1 to 1.3. You should be able to pass each one after a few weeks of practice. Since you can work on quite a
few at a time, the whole set from exercise #1 to #4 should not take more than a few months to bring up to speed, for
students with over two years of lessons, although this will naturally depend on your skill level. As mentioned above,
do not try to practice until you “pass” all of them because there are too many and you will have ample opportunity
to practice them while learning new compositions. Relaxation, control, and tone are more important than speed.
Try to make the best piano sound that you can achieve — a sound that will make a passer-by say, “That’s the sound
of a piano!” even if you are playing just one repeated note.
Obviously, the piano must be capable of producing such sound, and must be properly voiced, as explained in
section 1.3.14 (performances and recitals) and section 2.7.1. The voicing of the piano is critical to proper execution
of these exercises, both for acquiring new skills more quickly and for avoiding non-musical playing. This is because
it is impossible to produce soft (or powerful, or deep) musical tones with worn hammers that need voicing.
Exercise #2. The 2-finger parallel set exercises: play 12 (thumb followed by 2 of the RH on CD) as fast as you
can, like a grace note. The idea is to play them rapidly, but under complete control. Obviously, the methods of
sections 1.1 and 1.2 will needed here. For example, if the RH can do one exercise easily, but a related exercise is
difficult for the LH, use the RH to teach the LH. Practice with the beat on the 1 as well as with the beat on the 2.
When that is satisfactory, play one quad as in exercise #1: 12, 12, 12, 12. If you have difficulty with accelerating a
12 parallel set quad, play the two notes together as a “chord” and practice the chord quad just as you did the single
note quad in exercise #1. Again, bring the quad up to speed, about a quad per second. Then string 4 quads in
succession. Repeat the entire exercise with each of 23, 34 and 45. Then come down: 54, 43, etc. All the comments
about how to practice for exercise #1 apply.
All the notes in a parallel set must be played as rapidly as possible because parallel sets are used mainly for
developing velocity. The purpose of the parallel sets is to teach the brain the concept of extreme velocity, up to
almost infinity. It turns out that once the brain gets used to a certain maximum velocity, all slower velocities become
easier to execute.
In this and subsequent exercises, the comments in preceding exercises almost always apply to succeeding exercises and will not be repeated. Also, I will list only representative members of a family of exercises and leave it
to the reader to figure out all the other members of the family. The total number of exercises is much larger than
you would initially think. Furthermore, if you tried to combine different parallel set exercises HT, the number of
possibilities quickly becomes mind boggling. For beginners who have difficulty playing HT, these exercises may
provide the best way to practice HT play.
Perform all the exercises initially using only the white keys. Once all the white key exercises are done, work on
similar exercises including the black keys.
The objective here is not to do all of the exercises, but to get some idea of all the possible exercises, to identify
those that give you difficulty, and then to work on them. These are not exercises you play to limber up your fingers;
these are exercises for acquiring technique when the need arises. Thus, once you can do them satisfactorily, you
don’t need to come back to them again unless you encounter a new situation that requires even more improvement.
In the beginning, you may be able to play the 2 notes in succession very fast, but without much independent
control. You can initially “cheat” and increase speed by “phase-locking” the two fingers, e.g., holding the two fingers
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in a fixed position (locked phase) and simply lowering the hand to play the two notes. Recall that the phase angle
is the delay between successive fingers in parallel play. Eventually, you must play with finger independence. The
initial phase locking is used only to get up to speed quickly. This is one reason why some teachers do not teach
parallel play, because they think that parallel play means phase locking, which will destroy the music. After
practicing for a while with locked phase, the fingers should become more and more independent, freeing you to
create music. Thus the simple ability to play parallel sets fast isn’t sufficient. After you get up to speed, keep
practicing until you can feel the independent control of each finger. The best way to achieve this is to slow down
gradually, as explained in the next paragraph.
Once you can play the (2-finger) four quads very rapidly, test the finger independence by continually slowing
down to see if you have difficulties at some intermediate speed. If you encounter difficulties at slower speeds, there
is something wrong. Initially, the cause is usually phase locking. You have not yet gained finger independence. It
may also be an indication that you have some residual stress. Therefore, practice at different speeds.
Exercise #3. Larger parallel sets: e.g., 123 and its family, 234, etc. Repeat all of the procedures as in exercise #2.
Then work with the 1234 group, and finally, the 12345 sets. With these large sets, you may have to slow down the
quad repetition speed slightly. The number of possible exercises for these larger sets is very large. The beat can
be on any note and you can start on any note. For example, 123 can be practiced as 231 and 312. When coming
down, the 321 can be played 213 or 132; — all six are distinct because you will find that some are easy but some are
very difficult. If you include the beat variations, there are 18 exercises for just three fingers on white keys.
Exercise #4. Expanded parallel sets: start with the 2-note sets 13, 24, etc. (the 3rds group). These sets also include
the 14 (fourths), and 15 (fifth and octave), type groups. Then there are the 3-note expanded parallel sets: 125, 135,
145 (fifth and octave) groups. Here, you may have several choices for the middle note of the three.
Exercise #5. The compound parallel sets: 1.3, 2.4, where 1.3 represents a chord, i.e., CE played simultaneously.
Then do the 1.4, 2.5 group. I have often found sets that are easy going up but difficult coming down, or vice versa.
For example, 1.3, 2.4 is easier for me than 2.4, 1.3. These compound sets will require quite a bit of skill. Unless you
have had at least several years of lessons, do not expect to be able to play these with any proficiency.
This is the end of the repetitive quad exercises based on exercise #1. In principle, Exercises #1 to #5 are the only
exercises you need because they can be used to construct the parallel sets we discuss below. Exercises #6 and #7 are
too complex to be repeated in rapid quads.
Exercise #6. Complex parallel sets: these are best practiced individually instead of as rapid quads. In most cases,
they should be broken up into simpler parallel sets that can be practiced as quads; at least, initially. “Alternating
sets” are of the type 1324, and “mixed sets” are of the type 1342, 13452, etc., mixtures of alternating and normal
sets. Clearly, there is a large number of these. Most of the complex parallel sets that are technically important can
be found in Bach’s lesson pieces, especially his 2-part Inventions. This is why Bach’s lesson pieces (by contrast to
Hanon) are some of the best practice pieces for acquiring technique
Exercise #7. Now practice connected parallel sets; e.g., 1212, that contain one or more conjunctions. This can be
either a trill (CDCD) or a run (CDEF, where you must use thumb-over). The 1212 trill is different from exercise #2
because in that exercise, the 12 interval must be played as fast as possible, but the subsequent 21 interval can be
slower. Here, the intervals between notes must always be the same. Now these sets cannot be played infinitely fast
because the speed is limited by your ability to connect the parallel sets. The objective here is still speed — how fast
you can play them accurately and relaxed, and how many of them you can string together. This is an exercise for
learning how to play conjunctions. Play as many notes as possible during one motion of the hand. For example,
practice playing 1212 in one down motion of the hand. Then practice playing two of them in one down motion,
etc., until you can do 4 in succession in one motion.
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For fast play, the first two notes are the most important; they must start at the correct speed. It might help to
phase lock just the first two notes to make sure that they start correctly. Once the first two notes are started at a fast
speed, the rest tends to follow more easily.
For sets containing the thumb, use the thumb-over method for connecting them except for special situations
when the thumb-under is needed (very few). Explore various connection motions to see which ones work best. A
small flick of the wrist is one useful motion. For connecting sets not involving the thumb you almost always cross
over, not under. However, many of these non-thumb crossovers are of questionable value because you seldom need
them.
Connected parallel sets are the main practice elements in Bach’s 2-part Inventions Therefore, look into these
Inventions for some of the most inventive and technically important connected parallel sets. As explained in section 1.3.19.3, it is often impossible for many students to memorize certain Bach compositions and to play them
beyond a certain speed. This has limited the popularity of playing Bach, and limited the use of this most valuable
resource for acquiring technique. However, when analyzed in terms of parallel sets and practiced according to the
methods of this book, such compositions usually become quite simple to learn. Therefore, this book should greatly
increase the popularity of playing Bach. See section 1.3.19.3 for more explanations on how to practice Bach.
The nearly infinite number of parallel set exercises needed demonstrates how woefully inadequate the older
exercises are (e.g., Hanon — I will use Hanon as a generic representative of what is considered the “wrong” type of
exercise here). There is one advantage of the Hanon type exercises, however, which is that they start with the most
commonly encountered fingerings and the easiest exercises; i.e., they are nicely prioritized. However, chances are
nearly 100% that they will be of little help when you hit a difficult passage in an arbitrary piece of music. The parallel
set concept allows us to identify the simplest possible series of exercises that form a more complete set that will
apply to practically anything that you might encounter. As soon as these exercises become slightly complex, their
number becomes unmanageably large. By the time you get to the complexity of even the simplest Hanon exercise,
the number of possible parallel set exercises becomes intractably large. Even Hanon recognized this inadequacy
and suggested variations such as practicing the exercises in all possible transpositions. This certainly helps, but
still lacks whole categories such as Exercise #1 and #2 (the most fundamental and useful ones), or the incredible
speeds we can readily achieve with parallel set exercises. Note that exercises #1 to #4 form a complete set of purely
parallel (without conjunction) exercises. Nothing is missing. Intervals larger than what one can reach as a chord
are missing from the list of parallel sets described here because they cannot be played infinitely fast and must be
classified as jumps. Methods for practicing jumps are discussed in section 1.3.7.6 below.
It is easy to bring Hanon up to ridiculous speeds by using the methods of this book. You might try that just for
the fun of it, but you will quickly find yourself asking, “What am I doing this for?” Even those ridiculous speeds
cannot approach what you can readily achieve with parallel sets because every Hanon exercise contains at least
one conjunction and therefore cannot be played infinitely fast. This is clearly the biggest advantage of parallel set
exercises: there is no speed limit in theory as well as in practice, and therefore allows you to explore speed in
its entire range without any limitations and without any stress. As noted earlier, the Hanon series is arranged in
increasing order of difficulty, and this increase is created mainly by the inclusion of more conjunctions and more
difficult parallel sets. In the parallel set exercises, these individual “difficulty elements” are explicitly separated out
so that you can practice them individually.
As one illustration of the usefulness of these exercises, suppose that you want to practice a four-finger compound trill based on exercise #5 (e.g., C.E, D.F, C.E, D.F, . . .). By following the exercises in order from #1 to #7, you
now have a step-by-step recipe for diagnosing your difficulties and acquiring this skill. First, make sure that your
2-note chords are even by applying exercises #1 and #2. Then try 1.3, 2 and then 1.3, 4. When these are satisfactory,
try 1.3, 2.4. Then work on the reverse: 2.4, 1 and 2.4, 3, and finally 2.4, 1.3. The rest should be obvious if you have
read this far. These can be rough workouts, so remember to change hands frequently, before fatigue sets in.
It is re-emphasized here that there is no place in the methods of this book for mindless repetitive exercises.
Such exercises have another insidious disadvantage. Many pianists use them to “limber up” and get into great
playing condition. This can give the wrong impression that the wonderful playing condition was a consequence
of the mindless exercises. It is not; the limbered up playing condition is the same regardless of how you got there.
Therefore, you can avoid the pitfalls of mindless exercises by using more beneficial ways of limbering up. Sales are
useful for loosening the fingers and arpeggios are useful for loosening the wrists.
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1.3.7.3 How To Use The Parallel Set Exercises
Parallel set exercises are not intended to replace the Hanon, Czerny, etc., or any type of exercises. The philosophy
of this book is that time can be better spent practicing “real” music than “exercise” music. The parallel set exercises
were introduced because there is no known faster way to acquire technique. Thus, technical pieces like Liszt’s and
Chopin’s etudes or Bach’s Inventions are not “exercise music” in this sense. The parallel set exercises are to be used
in the following way:
1. For diagnostic purposes: by going through these exercises systematically, you can find many of your strengths
and weaknesses. More importantly, when you arrive at a passage you cannot play, they provide a method for
finding out exactly why you can’t play it. In hindsight, it seems obvious that if you are trying to improve
some technical aspect you will need a good diagnostic tool. Otherwise it will be like going to a hospital for
an operation without knowing what malady you have. According to this medical analogy, practicing Hanon
is somewhat analogous to going to the hospital to get the same simple, routine checkups every day. The diagnostic capability of parallel sets is most useful when practicing a difficult passage. It helps you to pinpoint
which fingers are weak, slow, uncoordinated, etc.
2. For acquiring technique: the weaknesses found in (1) can now be corrected using precisely the same exercises used to diagnose them. You simply work on the exercises that revealed the problems. In principle, these
exercises never end, because the upper limit of speed is open ended. However, in all practicality, they end
at speeds of around one quad per second because few, if any, music requires higher speeds. In most cases,
you can’t use these high speeds once you add even one conjunction. This demonstrates the beauty of these
exercises in allowing you to practice speeds that are faster than what you will need, thus giving you that extra
margin of safety and control. You should be using these exercises most during HS practice, as you bring the
speed up beyond final speed.
Procedures (1) and (2) are all you need to solve most problems in playing difficult material. Once you have
successfully applied them to several previously “impossible” situations, you will gain the confidence that nothing
is unconquerable, within reason.
As an example, consider one of the most difficult passages of the third movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata,
bar 63, the LH accompaniment to the climactic RH run, and similar, ensuing passages. If you listen to recordings
carefully, you will find that even the most famous pianists have difficulty with this LH and tend to start it slowly and
then accelerate it, or even simplify the score. This accompaniment consists of the compound parallel sets 2.3, 1.5
and 1.5, 2.3, where 1.5 is an octave. Acquiring the required technique simply boils down to perfecting these parallel
sets and then joining them. For most people, one of the above two parallel sets will be difficult, and that is the one
you need to conquer. Trying to learn this by just playing it slowly and accelerating it HT would take much longer to
learn. In fact, simple repetition brings no guarantee that you will ever succeed, because it becomes a race between
success and building a speed wall, if you try to speed it up. You must practice HS and change hands frequently
to avoid stress and fatigue. You also need to practice it softly in the beginning in order to learn to relax. Without
parallel sets, there is a high probability that you will develop stressful habits and create a speed wall. Once the speed
wall is erected, you can practice all your life without improvement.
Another cause of the speed wall is “forced playing”. It is easy to bring most of the rest of this movement up to
speed, so there is the tendency to play it at speed and then try to “force your way” through this difficult passage
without the required technique. The resulting stressed playing creates a speed wall. This example shows how
important it is to start practicing the difficult parts first. In this situation, a person who knows how to practice will
slow down so that s/he will not have to play beyond her/is ability.
In summary, the parallel set exercises comprise one of the main pillars of the methods of this book. They are
one of the reasons for the claim that nothing is too difficult to play if you know how to practice. They serve both
as diagnostic tools and as technique development tools. Practically all technique should be acquired using parallel
sets during HS practice to bring up the speed, to learn to relax, and to gain control. They form a complete set so that
you know that you have all the necessary tools. Unlike Hanon, etc., they can be immediately summoned to help
when you hit any difficult passage and they allow practice at any speed, including speeds higher than anything you
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will ever need. They are ideal for practicing to play without stress and with tone control. In particular it is important
to get into the habits of sliding the fingers over the keys and feeling the keys before playing them. Sliding the fingers
provides tone control and feeling the keys improves accuracy. Without breaking up a difficult passage into simple
parallel sets, it is impossible to incorporate these extra refinements into your playing. We now move on to several
other useful exercises.
1.3.7.4 Scales, Arpeggios, Finger Independence and Finger Lifting Exercises
Scales and arpeggios must be practiced diligently. They are not in the class of mindless repetitive exercises because of the numerous necessary techniques that are most quickly acquired using them (such as thumb over, flat
finger positions, feeling the keys, velocity, parallel sets, glissando motion, tone/color, how to reverse directions,
supple wrist, etc.). Scales and arpeggios must be practiced HS; practicing them HT all the time will place them in
the same category as Hanon. Two exceptions to this “no HT rule” are: (A) when you are using them for warm-ups
(before recitals, etc.), and (B) when practicing to make sure that the two hands can be synchronized accurately.
Learning to play them well is very difficult and you will certainly need parallel sets, see sections 1.3.4.2 and 1.3.5 for
more details.
The finger independence and lifting (see below) exercises are performed by first pressing all five fingers
down, e.g., from C to G using the RH. Then play each finger three to five times: CCCCDDDDEEEEFFFFGGGG.
While one finger is playing, the others must be kept down. Do not press down firmly as this is a form of stress, and
will cause fatigue very quickly. All the depressed keys must be completely down, but the fingers are just resting on
them with only enough downward force to keep the keys down. The gravitational weight of your hand should be
enough. Beginners may find this exercise difficult in the beginning because the non-playing fingers tend to collapse from their optimum positions or lift involuntarily, especially if they begin to tire. If they tend to collapse, just
try a few times and switch hands or quit; do not keep practicing in the collapsed position. Then try again after a
rest. One variation of this exercise is to spread out the notes over an octave. This type of exercise was already in use
during F. Liszt’s time (Moscheles). They should be done using the curled as well as all the flat finger positions.
For the finger independence exercise, try to increase the speed. Note the similarity to exercise #1, section 1.3.7.2;
however, for general technique development, exercise #1 is superior to this one. The main objective of exercise #1
was speed; the emphasis here is different — it is for finger independence. Some piano teachers recommend doing
this exercise once during every practice session, once you can play it satisfactorily. Until you can play it satisfactorily, you may want to practice it several times at every practice session. Practicing it many times at once and then
neglecting it in subsequent sessions will not work. Advanced players generally do not need this exercise.
All the practice methods and exercises discussed in this book deal mostly with the muscles used to press the
key down (flexors). It is possible for those muscles to become far more developed than the ones used to lift the
fingers (extensors), especially for those who practice loud all the time and never develop the art of playing fast, thus
causing control problems. As you grow older, the flexors can end up overpowering the extensors. Therefore, it is a
good idea to exercise the relevant extensors by performing lifting exercises. The flat finger positions are valuable for
exercising the extensors for lifting the fingers and, at the same time, relaxing the extensors at the fingertips. These
two extensors use different muscles.
For finger lifting exercises, repeat the above exercise, but lift each finger as high as you can, for two seconds
each, only one lift for each finger. Again, keep all the other fingers down with minimal pressure. This is a form of
isometric exercise for strengthening specific muscles. Therefore, you must give each lift your maximum effort, but
without causing pain. As usual, it is important to reduce stress in the fingers that are not being lifted. This needs
to be performed a maximum of three times a day. Because they are isometric, large numbers of repetitions are not
needed each day.
There has not been any systematic research on whether all these exercises work and whether some of them
might even be harmful. They are listed here because they have been used by many piano teachers in the past,
and there is some logical expectation of why they might be beneficial. Clearly, this is a potential topic for future
research.
Everyone has problems with lifting the 4th finger. There is a mistaken belief by many that we must be able to lift
the 4th finger as high as all the others and therefore they expend an inordinate amount of effort trying to achieve
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this. Such efforts have been proven to be futile and counterproductive. This is because the anatomy of the 4th finger
does not allow it to be lifted beyond a certain point. The only thing the 4th finger must not do is to depress a key
inadvertently, which requires much less lift. Therefore you can play at all times with the 4th finger just barely off
the keys or even touching them. Practicing difficult passages with inordinate effort at lifting this finger higher can
cause stress in fingers 3 and 5. It is more productive to learn to play with less stress as long as the 4th finger is not
interfering in any way. Therefore, you mainly need to lift the 4th finger independently of the others. The exercise for
lifting the 4th finger independently is performed as follows. Press all fingers down, CDEFG, as before. Then play 1,
4, 1, 4, 1, 4, etc., with the accent on 1 and lifting 4 as quickly and as high as you can. Finger 1 should stay as close to
the key as possible. Then repeat with 2, 4, 2, 4, 2, 4, etc. Then with finger 3, then 5 against 4. This is not an isometric
exercise and can be repeated any number of times and maximum effort is not needed because you are practicing
for control. You can also do this exercise with 4 on a black key.
Both the finger independence and lifting exercises can be performed without a piano, on any flat surface. This
is the best time to practice relaxing the extensor muscles of the last two phalanges (the nail phalange and middle
phalange) of fingers 2 to 5; see section 1.3.4.2 for more details. During the entire exercise, those two phalanges for
all the fingers should be completely relaxed, even for the finger being lifted.
1.3.7.5 Playing (Wide) Chords, Palm Stretching Exercises
We first deal with the problem of playing accurate chords in which all notes must be played as simultaneously as
possible. Then we address the problem of playing wide chords.
We saw in section 1.2.10 that the gravity drop can be used to improve your chord accuracy. However, if there
is still unevenness after using the gravity drop, then there is a fundamental problem that must be diagnosed and
treated using the parallel set exercises. Chords become uneven when the control over individual fingers is uneven.
Which fingers are weak or slow, etc., can be diagnosed and corrected using the parallel set exercises. Let’s take an
example. Suppose that you are playing a C.E chord against a G (in the LH) in octave 3. The C3.E3 and G3 are played
with the fingers 5.3 and 1. You are playing a series of 5.3, 1, 5.3, 1, 5.3, 1, etc., like a tremolo. Let’s further assume
that there is a chord problem with the 5.3. These two fingers do not land simultaneously, ruining the tremolo. The
way to diagnose this problem is to try the 5, 3 parallel set, to see if you can play it. Now test the reverse set, 3, 5.
If you have a problem with the chord, chances are that you have more of a problem with one of these two parallel
sets than the other, or you have problems with both parallel sets. Typically, 3, 5 is more difficult than 5, 3. Work on
the problematic parallel set(s). Once you can play both parallel sets well, the chord should come out much better.
There is a smaller possibility that your problem lies in the 5, 1 or 3, 1 parallel sets, so if the 5, 3 did not work, try
these.
The hand has two sets of muscles that stretch the palm to reach wide chords. One set mainly opens the palm
and the other mainly spreads the fingers apart. When stretching the hand to play wide chords, use mainly the
set of muscles that open the palm. The feeling is that of stretching the palm but with free fingers; i.e., spread the
knuckles apart instead of the fingertips. The second set of muscles simply spread the fingers apart. This spreading
helps to widen the palm but it interferes with the finger movement because it tends to lock the fingers to the palm.
Cultivate the habit of using the palm muscles separately from the finger muscles. This will reduce both stress and
fatigue when playing chords, and provide more control.
In order to test whether the palms are fully stretched, open your palm to its maximum and stretch the fingers
for maximum reach — if the pinky and thumb form an almost straight line, then you will not be able to stretch
much more. If they form a “V”, then you may be able to reach more by performing stretching exercises. Another
way to test this alignment is to place your palm on a table top at the edge of the table with the thumb and pinky
down the edge, so that only fingers 2, 3, and 4 are resting on the table top. If the thumb and pinky form a triangle
with the edge of the table, you may be able to stretch more. You can perform a stretching exercise by pushing the
hand towards the table so as to spread the thumb and pinky apart. Although the thumb-pinky alignment is a good
indication of maximum reach, the main objective in stretching is to widen the separation between the bones in the
palm. Most people have a slightly larger left hand than right hand, and some can reach more by using fingers 1.4
than 1.5.
Another way to stretch is to place the right palm over the back of the left palm, right arm pointing left and left
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arm pointing right, with the palms just in front of the chest. In this position, thumb meets thumb and pinky meets
pinky. Then push the hands towards each other so that thumbs and pinkies push each other back, thus stretching
the palm. In order to stretch the palms without bending the fingers, lock the fingers at the first finger bone at the
knuckle (proximal phalange), not the fingertips. Then repeat the same procedure with the left palm over the right
palm. Regular stretching when young can make a considerable difference in the reach when you get older.
You can save a lot of time by stretching one hand using the top edge of the piano while practicing HS with the
other hand.
When playing wide chords, the thumb should be curved slightly inwards, not fully stretched out. It is counterintuitive that, by pulling the thumb in, you can reach further; this happens because of the particular curvature of
the thumb’s fingertip. Some of the difficulties in playing chords accurately originate from positioning of the hand
rather than stretch or finger control. Especially for small hands, the orientation of the palm is critical. When playing
chords, you generally have to move the hand, and this motion must be very accurate; this is the “jump” motion
discussed below. You will need to develop proper jump motions as well as a habit of feeling the keys. You can’t
just raise your hand high above the keys, position all your fingers in the right position, smash it down, and expect
to hit all the correct notes exactly at the same instant. Great pianists often appear to be doing that, but as we shall
see below, they are not. Therefore, until you have perfected the jump movement and are able to feel the keys, any
problems with playing chords (missing and wrong notes) may not be caused by lack of reach or finger control. If
you have difficulty hitting chords, and have no confidence in your jumps, this is a sure sign that you have to learn
jumps before you can think of hitting chords.
1.3.7.6 Practicing Jumps
Many students watch famous pianists make these quick, wide jumps and wonder why they can’t do jumps themselves, no matter how hard they practice. These great pianists appear to jump effortlessly, playing notes or chords
smoothly from position to position no matter where they are. In reality, the pianists are making several motions
that are too fast and subtle for the eye to see unless you know what to look for. Jumps consist of two principal
motions: (1) a horizontal translation of the hand to the correct position and (2) the actual downward motion to
play. In addition, there are two optional motions, feeling the keys and the take-off motion; these will be explained
below. The combined motion should look more like an inverted “U” than an inverted “V”.
Students with no jump training tend to move the hand along an inverted V motion. With this type of motion
(no horizontal acceleration), it is awfully difficult to hit a note accurately because you are coming down at some
arbitrary angle. Note that this angle is never the same (even for the same passage played at different times) because
it depends on the distance of jump, your tempo, how high you lift your hand, etc. Practicing coming down straight
is hard enough; no wonder some students consider jumps impossible if they have to practice all these angles. Thus
it is important to come straight down (or feel the keys just before playing them) at the end of the jump.
Students with no jump training also do not generally realize that the horizontal motion can be greatly accelerated; therefore, the first skill to practice is to make the horizontal motion as quickly as possible so as to reserve
enough time to locate the keys after you get there. Locate the keys by feeling them before the actual playing. Feeling the keys is the 3rd component of a jump, This 3rd component is optional because it is not always necessary
and sometimes, there is not enough time for it. When this combination of motions is perfected, it looks as if it is
done in one motion. This is because you only need to get there a split second before playing the note. If you don’t
practice accelerating the horizontal motion, you tend to get there a split second later than you need to. This almost
imperceptible difference makes all the difference between 100% accuracy and poor accuracy. Make sure that you
practice rapid horizontal motions even for slow jumps.
Although feeling the keys before playing is optional, you will be surprised at how quickly you can do this. You
will have time to do it a majority of the time. Therefore, it is a good policy to always feel the keys when practicing
jumps slowly. When you learn all the skills listed here, there will be plenty of time to feel the keys even at the final
speed. There are few instances in which there is no time to feel the keys, and those few can be played accurately if
you had located most of the other jumps accurately by feeling them.
The fourth component of the jump is the take-off. Get into the habit of making quick takeoffs regardless of
the speed of the jump. There is nothing wrong with getting there way ahead of time. Even when practicing slowly,
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you should practice quick takeoffs so that the skill will be there when you speed up. Start the take-off with a small
downward and sideways kick of the wrist. Although it is necessary to come straight down for playing the notes,
there is no need to go straight up for the take-off. Obviously, the entire jump procedure is designed for the hand to
arrive at the destination quickly, accurately, and reproducibly so that there is plenty of time to play straight down
and feel the keys.
The most important element to practice once you know the components of a jump is to accelerate the horizontal motion. You will be surprised at how fast the hand can move horizontally if you concentrate only on that
motion. You will also be amazed at how much faster you can move it with just a few days of practice — something
some students never achieve in a lifetime because they were never taught to practice it. This speed is what provides
that extra time needed to ensure 100% accuracy and to effortlessly incorporate all the other components of the
jump — especially, feeling the keys. Practice feeling the keys whenever possible so that it becomes second nature,
and you don’t have to look at your hands. Once it is smoothly incorporated into your play, most people watching
you will not even notice that you are feeling the keys because you can do it in a small fraction of a second. Like an
accomplished magician, you will be moving your hands faster than the eye can see. The flat finger positions are
important for this because you can use the most sensitive part of the fingers for feeling the keys, and those positions
increase the accuracy of hitting the keys, especially the black keys.
Now that you know the components of a jump, look for them when you watch concert pianists performing. You
should now be able to identify each component, and you may be amazed at how often they feel the keys before
striking them and how they can execute these components in the blink of an eye. These skills will also enable to
play, and even make long jumps, without looking at the hands.
The best way to practice fast horizontal motions is to do it away from the piano. Sit down with your elbow
straight down. Quickly move the hand sideways by swinging the forearm around the elbow with the elbow stationary. Now point the forearm straight in front and shift it horizontally sideways (not in an upward arc), by
pivoting the upper arm around the shoulder socket and simultaneously moving the shoulder down. In an actual piano jump, these motions are combined in a complex way. Practice fast right and left motions, as fast as you
can with each of the two types of motion, and with a combination of the two. Do not try to learn these motions
in one day. It is possible to injure yourself, and most significant improvements will have to await post practice
improvement.
As you learn to accelerate the horizontal motion, jumps will immediately become easier. In order to reduce
stress, relax all muscles as soon as the horizontal motion is over. The same applies to the subsequent downward
motion — as soon as the notes are played, relax all muscles, and let the weight of the hand rest on the piano (do
not lift the hand/fingers off the keys). A good piece to practice this jump for the LH is the 4th variation in Mozart’s
famous Sonata in A, #16 (K.300). This variation has large jumps in which the LH crosses over the RH. One popular
piece you can use to practice RH jumps is the 1st movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (opus 13), right
after the LH octave tremolos, where the RH makes jumps crossing over the LH.
Practice accelerating the horizontal motion by playing at a slow tempo, but moving horizontally as quickly as
you can and then stopping over the correct position and waiting before playing. You will now have time to practice
feeling the notes before playing, in order to guarantee 100% accuracy. The idea here is to establish a habit of always
getting to the position ahead of time. Once you are satisfied that you have a quick horizontal motion, speed up the
tempo. All you have to do to speed up is to simply reduce the waiting time before playing the notes. As you become
proficient, you will always “get there at least a split second ahead of time”. Then gradually combine all four jump
motions into one smooth motion. Now your motion looks just like that of those great pianists you envied! Better
yet, jumps aren’t that difficult or scary, after all.
1.3.7.7 Stretching and Other Exercises
Most stretching exercises for the large muscles of the body are helpful (see Bruser). One stretching exercise for the
flexor muscles (for the fingers) can be performed as follows. With the palm of one hand, push the fingers of the other
hand back towards the top of the forearm. People have very different flexibility and some will be able to push the
fingers all the way back so that the fingernails will touch the arm (180 degrees from the straight forward position!),
while others may be able to push back only about 90 degrees (fingers pointing up with the forearm horizontal).
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The ability of the flexor muscles to stretch decreases with age; therefore, it is a good idea to stretch them frequently
throughout life in order to preserve their flexibility. For stretching the extensor muscles, press the back of the fingers
towards the bottom of the forearm. You might perform these stretching exercises just before “playing cold”.
There are numerous exercises in Sandor and Fink (see Reference). These are interesting because each exercise
is chosen to demonstrate a particular hand motion. In addition, the motions are often illustrated using passages
taken from classic compositions by famous composers.
1.3.7.8 Problems with Hanon Exercises
Since about 1900, Charles Louis Hanon’s (1820–1900) exercises have been used by numerous pianists in the hopes of
improving technique. There are now two schools of thought: those who think that the Hanon exercises are helpful
and those who do not. Many teachers recommend Hanon while others think they are counter-productive. There
is one “reason” many people give for using Hanon: that is to keep the hands in good playing condition from day
to day. This reason is most frequently cited by the type of person who wants to warm up the fingers with the brain
shut off. I suspect that this habit grew out of having learned Hanon early in the person’s piano career, and that this
same person would not be using Hanon if s/he were not so habituated.
I used Hanon exercises extensively in my youth but I am now firmly in the anti-Hanon school. Below, I list
some reasons why. Czerny, Cramer-Bülow, and related lesson pieces share many of these disadvantages. Hanon is
possibly the prime example of how intuitive methods can suck entire populations of pianists into using methods
that are essentially useless, or even harmful.
1. Hanon makes some surprising claims in his introduction with no rationale, explanation or experimental
evidence. This is exemplified in his title, “The Virtuoso Pianist, in 60 Exercises”. Upon careful reading of
his introduction, one realizes that he simply felt that these are useful exercises and so wrote them down. It
is another prime example of the “intuitive approach”. There is no experimental evidence or even any rational explanation for why these exercises might work as advertised. In fact, most advanced teachers reading
this introduction would conclude that this approach to acquiring technique is amateurish and would not
work. Hanon implies that the ability to play these exercises will ensure that you can play anything — this is
not only totally false, but also reveals a surprising lack of understanding of what technique is. Technique can
only be acquired by learning many compositions from many composers.
There is no question that there are many accomplished pianists who use Hanon exercises. However, all advanced pianists agree that Hanon is not for acquiring technique, but might be useful for warming up or
keeping the hands in good playing condition. I think there are many better pieces for warming up than
Hanon, such as etudes, numerous Bach compositions, and other easy pieces. The skills needed to play any
significant piece of music are incredibly diverse and numerous — almost infinite in number. To think that
technique can be reduced to 60 exercises reveals the naiveté of Hanon and any student who believes that
is being misled.
2. All 60 are almost entirely two-hand exercises, in which the two hands play the same notes an octave apart,
plus a few contrary motion exercises in which the hands move in opposite directions. This locked HT motion
is one of the greatest limitations of these exercises because the better hand cannot practice skills more
advanced than the weaker hand. At slow speed, neither hand gets much workout. At maximum speed,
the slow hand is stressed while the better hand is playing relaxed. Because technique is acquired mostly
when playing relaxed, the weaker hand gets weaker and the stronger hand gets stronger. The best way to
strengthen the weaker hand is to practice that hand only, not play HT. In fact, the best way to learn Hanon is
to separate the hands as recommended in this book, but Hanon never seems to have even considered that. To
think that by playing HT, the weaker hand will catch up to the stronger hand, reveals a surprising ignorance
for someone with so much teaching experience. This is part of what I meant by “amateurish” above; more
examples below.
Locking the two hands does help to learn how to coordinate the hands, but does nothing to teach independent control of each hand. In practically all music, the two hands play different parts. Hanon doesn’t give us
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any chance to practice that. Bach’s Inventions are much better, also teach independence of the two hands,
and (if you practice HS) will really strengthen the weaker hand. Of course, the two hands will also become
well coordinated. The point here is that Hanon is very limited; it teaches only a small fraction of the total
technique that you will need.
3. There is no provision for resting a fatigued hand. This generally leads to stress and injury. A diligent student who fights the pain and fatigue in an effort to carry out Hanon’s instructions will almost surely build up
stress, acquire bad habits, and risk injury. The concept of relaxation is never even mentioned. Piano is an
art for producing beauty; it is not a macho demonstration of how much punishment your hands, ears, and
brain can take.
Dedicated students often end up using Hanon as a way of performing intense exercises in the mistaken
belief that piano is like weight lifting and that “no pain, no gain” applies to piano. Such exercises might be
performed up to the limit of human endurance, even until some pain is felt. This reveals a lack of the proper
education about what is needed to acquire technique. The actual number of students who irreversibly injure
their hands playing Hanon is probably small. Besides, such students will likely use other pieces other than
Hanon that can be even more injurious. The wasted resources due to such misconceptions can mean the
difference between success and failure for a large number of students, even if they don’t suffer injury. Of
course, many students who routinely practice Hanon do succeed; in that case, they work so hard that they
succeed in spite of Hanon.
4. The simplified, schematic structure of these exercises takes all the music out of them so that students
can (and too frequently do) end up practicing like robots, totally devoid of artistry. It does not require a
musical genius to compile a Hanon type series of exercises. The joy of piano comes from the one-on-one
conversations with the greatest geniuses that ever lived, when you play their compositions. It makes no
sense to practice something devoid of music; remember, technique and music can never be separated. I do
recommend one-hand scales, arpeggios and chromatic runs, followed by some two-hand play. Scales and
arpeggios should provide more than enough “routine exercises” for everybody. For too many years, Hanon
has taught the wrong message that technique and music can be learned separately. Bach excels in this respect; his music exercises both the hands and the mind. The Hanon exercises are actually a small subset of
Bach’s 2 part Inventions. In fact, Hanon probably excerpted most his material from Bach’s famous Toccata
and Fugue, modified so that each unit is self cycling. The remainder was probably also taken from Bach’s
works, especially the Inventions and Sinfonias.
One of the greatest harm that Hanon inflicts is that it robs you of the time needed to make music playing
compositions that you have already learned and practicing the art of performance, or even just learning new
pieces. The student often ends up with insufficient time to develop their repertoire. Hanon can be harmful
to technique and performance!
5. Many pianists use Hanon routinely as warm-up exercises. This conditions the hands so that you become
unable to just sit down and play “cold”, something any accomplished pianist must be able to do, within
reasonable limits. Since the hands are cold for at most 10 to 20 minutes, “warming up” robs the student of
this precious, tiny, window of opportunity to practice playing cold. This habit of using Hanon for warm-ups
is more insidious than many realize. Those who use Hanon for warm-ups can be misled into thinking that
it is Hanon that is making their fingers fly, while in reality, after any good practice session, the fingers will be
flying, with or without Hanon. It is insidious because the main consequence of this misunderstanding is that
the person is less able to perform, whether the fingers are limbered up or not. It is truly unfortunate that the
Hanon type of thinking has bred a large population of students who think that you have to be a Mozart to be
able to just sit down and play, and that mere mortals are not supposed to perform such magical feats. If you
want to be able to “play on demand”, the best way to start is to quit practicing Hanon.
6. There is little question that some degree of technique is required to play these exercises, especially the final
10 or so. The problem is that Hanon gives no instructions on how to acquire these techniques. It is exactly
analogous to telling a penniless person to go earn some money if he wants to become rich. It doesn’t help. If a
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student used her/is “Hanon time” to practice a Beethoven sonata, the results will be better as far as acquiring
technique is concerned. Who wouldn’t rather play Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc., than Hanon exercises with
similar, or almost certainly better, results and end up with a repertoire you can perform?
Even if you can play all the Hanon exercises well, if you get stuck at a difficult passage in another composition,
Hanon will not help. Hanon does not provide any diagnostics for telling you why you can’t play a given
passage. The parallel set exercises are different. They provide both the diagnostics and the solutions for
practically any situation, including ornaments, etc., that Hanon does not even consider.
7. What little advice he does dispense, have all been shown to be wrong! So let’s look into them.
(a) He recommends “lifting the fingers high”, an obvious no-no for fast playing, since that will be the biggest
source of stress. I have never seen a famous pianist in concert lift the fingers high to play a fast run;
in fact, I have never seen anyone do that! This advice by Hanon has misled an enormous number of
students into thinking that piano should be played by lifting the finger and plonking it down onto the
key. It is one of the most non-musical and technically incorrect ways to play. It is true that the extensor
muscles are often neglected, but there are exercises for treating this problem directly.
(b) He recommends continuous practicing of both hands, as if piano technique is some kind of weight
lifting exercise. Students must never practice with fatigued hands. This is why the HS method of this
book works so well — it allows you to practice hard 100% of the time without fatigue, because one hand
rests while the other works. Stamina is gained, not by practicing with fatigue and stress, but by proper
conditioning. Besides, what most of us need most is mental stamina, not finger stamina. Furthermore,
stamina is a minor issue; what we really need are technique and relaxation.
(c) He recommends playing every day, regardless of skill level, all your life. But once you acquire a skill,
you don’t need to reacquire it over and over; you only need to work on technique that you don’t already
have. Thus once you can play all 60 pieces well, there is no need to play them anymore — what will we
gain? Does he think that our hands will mysteriously deteriorate once we stop playing Hanon in spite of
all the other lesson pieces?
(d) He is apparently aware of only the thumb under method, whereas the thumb over method is more
important.
(e) In most of the exercises, he recommends fixed wrists which is only partially correct.
(f) His recommendation reveals a lack of understanding of what “quiet hands” means.
There is no way to practice a majority of the important hand motions, although there are a few wrist
exercises for repetitions.
8. The Hanon exercises do not allow for practicing at the kinds of speeds possible with the parallel set exercises described above. Without the use of such speeds, certain fast speeds cannot be practiced, you cannot
practice “over-technique” (having more technique than necessary to play that passage — a necessary safety
margin for performances), and it takes unnecessarily long to acquire any technique.
9. The whole exercise is an exercise in waste. All the editions I have seen print out the entire runs, whereas all
you need are at most 2 bars ascending and 2 bars descending and the final ending bar. Although the number
of trees cut down to print Hanon is negligible in the broader picture, this reveals the mentality behind these
exercises of simply repeating the intuitively “obvious” without really understanding what you are doing, or
even pointing out the important elements in each exercise. “Repetition is more important than the underlying technical concepts” — this is probably the worst mentality that has hindered students most in the
history of piano. A person who has 2 hrs to practice every day, playing Hanon for 1 hr as recommended,
would waste half of his piano lifetime! A person who has 8 hours to practice, on the other hand, doesn’t need
Hanon.
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10. I have noticed that teachers can be classified into two schools according to whether they teach Hanon or
not. Those who do not teach Hanon tend to be more knowledgeable because they know the real methods
for acquiring technique and are busy teaching them — there is no time left for Hanon. Thus when you are
looking for a piano teacher, choose from among those that do not teach Hanon, and you will increase the
chances of finding a superior one.
1.3.7.9 Practicing for Speed
Speed is the second most difficult skill to acquire, after musicality. It is where too many students spend too much
time with too little to show for it. The most common intuitive misunderstanding is that you need to practice playing
fast in order to acquire speed. Experienced teachers know the futility of such a simplistic approach and have tried to
devise methods for acquiring speed, generally without much success. What success was achieved, depended on the
“talent” of the student. One common approach has been to discourage students from playing fast — this approach
will at least prevent all kinds of potentially irreversible damages: psychological, physical, musical, technical, etc.,
but does not address the speed problem directly and can slow down the learning process unnecessarily.
The key in understanding how to practice for speed is to ask the question, “Why is speed an inadequate criterion
for success?” The answer is that speed alone, without proper technique, will ruin the music. Therefore, we should
use music as our criterion for acquiring speed. That is, in order to acquire speed, we must play musically. However,
musicality is only a necessary condition; it is not a sufficient condition. Playing musically does not automatically
guarantee speed. But, at least, we are half way there! We now know that we can play fast, but only up to speeds
at which we can maintain musicality. After we succeed in playing musically, we must then add everything else
we know about speed in order to reach the end goal as quickly as possible. These two concepts, musicality and
knowledge, give us the framework for understanding how to practice for speed.
Let’s use this framework to design a practice routine for speed. An easy solution is to play only compositions
that are so easy that you can play them musically. This solution is impractical because the best students want to
play challenging pieces, and are willing to work for it. But perhaps more importantly, challenging pieces can help
you advance more rapidly. In that case, we must iterate: first, learn the piece at slower speed so that you can still
play it musically, then use parallel sets, etc., to enable faster speeds and then practicing to play musically at these
faster speeds, then iterate the entire procedure; that is, use the principle stated elsewhere of practicing at different
speeds. In addition, you will need to know how to make the best use of post practice improvements. In order to
execute this routine, we must know what musicality is and what those “parallel sets, etc.,” are.
Musicality cannot be defined in a few short sentences. This is not surprising in view of the fact that even the
concept of music is still not easily definable. The only thing we can do is to describe the implications of musicality
when we are practicing and learning new pieces. We all have sufficient musicality in the sense that we can judge
musical quality at very high levels — witness the frequent remarks we hear (even from non-pianists) about the
inadequacy of some concert performances of accomplished pianists and even famous artists. But when it comes
to making music ourselves, it is a different matter. Musicality won’t come easily, especially if you don’t have a
good teacher. One of the best methods of developing musicality is to record or video tape your playing and listening/watching it critically, using this high level of judgmental musicality that we all posses. Taping should start from
the very first year of lessons, regardless of age. Then, you must listen to professional recordings of pieces you are
playing. Beginners may have difficulty finding recordings of their simple lesson pieces; in that case, ask the teacher
to play them so that you can record them. Most pianists listen to an adequate mount of music but the critical point
here is that you must listen to performances of pieces that you are playing. The most basic part of musicality is
accuracy (time signature, etc.), and following the expression markings on the score. Errors in reading the music,
especially the rhythm, can make it impossible to bring it up to speed.
Because we all have sufficient musicality to appreciate and judge music that we hear, “I am not a trained musician” is never a valid excuse for not knowing what musicality is. In addition, music is personal — it is not possible to
define a universal musicality that applies in all cases. This lack of a definition actually opens up the musical world
into a limitless vista of possibilities that is the basis for the variety and excitement of music.
You do not understand how to practice musically unless you understand the difference between practice and
performing. Most people simply assume that when you practice, you are also practicing to perform. For the major-
1.3. SELECTED TOPICS IN PIANO PRACTICE
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ity of people, this is absolutely false. The mental states for practicing and for performing are two entirely different
states. For practicing, the mind wants simply to acquire technique and learn the piece. For performing, the mind’s
only task is to make music. It is extremely difficult to put your mind into the performing state when practicing,
because the brain knows that there is no audience.
This is why video taping or recording is so important; in addition, you can see and hear your own strengths
and weaknesses. Do not just make tapes for practice; tape for a permanent record of your accomplishments —
an album of all your finished pieces. If the recordings are not for permanent archiving, they become just another
practice recording, which is not much different from routine practice. All good piano teachers hold recitals of their
students; these recitals teach them the performing state of mind. You will be amazed at how rapidly you progress
when you must tape by a certain deadline, or play a recital. Most people ascribe this progress to the pressure of
having to perform, which is only partly true. A large component of the progress is attributable to the necessity
to play musically. This is proof that we all know what “playing musically” means. But we may lack the mental
discipline or energy to do it; this energy is what I call mental stamina. Therefore, the road to success in acquiring
technique is to duplicate the performing state of mind during routine practice — which is another way of saying,
“play musically”.
There are two extremes in the way people approach musicality. One is the “artist” approach in which a musical
expression is created in the mind and the hands “simply execute” to produce the desired effect. Unfortunately, most
people with normal intelligence can’t do that — it is called “talent”. The other extreme is the analytical approach
in which the person learns every detailed anatomical motion to produce the final effect. Unfortunately, we don’t
have a complete list of all those necessary motions. We are all somewhere between these extremes. Although the
great artists use mostly the “artist” approach, they are geniuses and can figure out the right hand motions, often in
great analytical detail. In other words, successful pianists from both extremes will end up doing basically the same
things in the end. These considerations again lead us to the same conclusion: that in order to acquire speed, we
must learn to play musically (artist approach, a necessary condition), and then add as much analytical knowledge
as possible to accelerate the process (to make it as sufficient as we can). We are approaching the point of finding
the necessary and sufficient conditions for speed.
One way to summarize the above is, “The road to speed is music”. When playing musically, you are doing
everything right. For example, you must lift the fingers at the exact right moments. This exercises the extensor
muscles and prevents the flexor muscles from over-developing. Having established the necessity to play musically,
the rest of this section will be devoted to the analytical side of how to practice for speed.
Relaxation is obviously the most important ingredient for speed. However, relaxation is a complex thing. Most
of us need to learn a lot before we can relax completely because total relaxation is not a natural state. Especially for
something like playing the piano, in which we tend to repeat things many times, we can develop unnoticed stress to
very high levels before we even notice it. Below are some suggestions for developing relaxation and adding speed.
Always practice softly, even loud sections. The mistaken notion that you must build piano muscles in order
to play well or fast has led many to practice louder than they need to. Speed is skill, not strength. Thus you need
to separate loudness from technique; for playing loud passages, acquire technique first, and then add loudness.
Difficult passages tend to cause stress and fatigue during practice. Playing softly reduces both, thereby accelerating
technique acquisition. If you play the piano for many years, you will get stronger every year, and can end up playing
correspondingly louder without knowing it. The louder playing also makes it difficult to play musically. There is
general agreement among pianists that it is difficult to play softly and fast. One of the reasons for this is that most
people practice fast passages too loud.
Good tone is produced by “pressing deeply” into the piano. That is, you must accelerate during the entire keydrop and make sure to engage the backcheck securely. However, you must relax immediately thereafter. There is
no need to keep pushing down. This constant down pressure not only wastes energy (causing fatigue) but also prevents the fingers from moving rapidly. There is often a tendency to lean into the piano in order to “play deeply” and
after many years of doing so, you can end up pressing down with a tremendous force (see item 6 in the Testimonials section) without realizing it. Even students of the arm weight method, which teaches the correct arm pressure,
sometimes end up with inappropriate down pressure. This is why arm weight teachers will always check your down
pressure by checking your arm relaxation. In spite of the “arm weight” terminology, the weight of the arm is not
always the correct down pressure — in fact, it usually is not. The requirement of the arm weight method is that you
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should be sufficiently relaxed so that you can feel the weight of the arm. The optimum down pressure depends on
many factors (speed, loudness, staccato-legato, etc.); therefore, you must learn to use the precisely correct down
pressure, and no more. One way to test the proper down pressure is to decrease it until you start to miss some
notes. Now add enough down pressure so that you do not miss any — this should be the correct value at which you
practice for technique. In almost all instances, you will find that your original pressure was too high.
Practicing too loud and too much down pressure are two of the most undiagnosed or misdiagnosed problems
in playing fast. Once you find the correct values, you will find that you can play faster. The trills and ornaments
will also become faster and clearer. Your piano and pianissimo will improve. Reducing the down pressure does not
mean play like staccato — the finger must stay down for the duration of the note even when playing fast. This is
what is meant by accuracy and technique. The “weak 4th finger” will be less of a problem because of the reduction
in stress and because the 4th finger does not have to constantly compete with the stronger fingers. Proper lifting of
the fingers, staccato, legato, etc., are all affected when you change the loudness and down pressure.
Rhythm is extremely important. Not only the rhythm of the music as played by the fingertips, but also the entire
body, so that one part does not move against another. Other problems are unnecessary motions and motions not
compatible with the rhythm. A required motion in one hand can cause an involuntary motion elsewhere in the
body. Many of these will be visible if you video tape yourself. Of course, you must have the correct rhythm in mind
to start with; don’t let the piano dictate the rhythm because it is as much a part of the music as the melody; you
must consciously control it. Rhythm is not only the timing, but also the control of tone and loudness.
Balance is another important factor. Not only the balance of your body on the bench, but also the center of
gravity of each playing hand and of the two hands. When practicing HS, watch to see where the center of gravity
of the hand is (where you apply your downward force). Try to place that center along the line straight out from the
arm. This is important only when playing very fast, because during slow play, all momenta are negligible and the
center of gravity is right at the finger performing the keydrop so that you can’t move it around.
Depending on circumstances, you will need all the other physical methods discussed elsewhere, such as TO,
cartwheel method, flat finger playing, outlining, etc. In order to be able to pay attention to all these factors, you will
need to practice at moderate or slow speeds frequently.
In conclusion, you cannot acquire speed by forcing the fingers to play faster than they can at their technical
level because you will lose relaxation, develop bad habits and erect speed walls. The best way to make sure that you
stay within your technical limitation is to play musically. You can briefly use parallel sets, cycling, etc., to quickly
increase speed with little regard to musicality, but you should make that an exception, not the rule. Therefore, if
you find the need to cycle for long periods, that should be practiced musically. Next, you must incorporate all the
analytical methods for increasing speed, such as relaxation, the different hand/finger positions, TO, correct down
pressure, etc. In the final analysis, practicing speed for speed’s sake becomes counter-productive; when playing the
piano, you must make music. This frees you from the speed demon and leads you into that magical realm of the
wonderful sound of music.
1.3.8 Outlining (Beethoven’s Sonata #1)
Updated:
October 6, 2003
Outlining is a method for accelerating the learning process by simplifying the music. It is a simplifying process just
like HS practice or practicing in short segments. Its main characteristic is that it allows you to maintain the musical
flow or rhythm, and to do this at the final speed almost immediately, with a minimum of practice. This enables you
to practice the musical content of the piece long before that segment can be played satisfactorily or at speed. It also
helps you to acquire difficult technique quickly by teaching the larger playing members (arms, shoulders) how to
move correctly; when this is accomplished, the smaller members often fall into place more easily. It also eliminates
many pitfalls for timing and musical interpretation errors. The simplifications are accomplished by using various
devices, such as deleting “less important notes” or combining a series of notes into a chord. You then get back
to the original music gradually by progressively restoring the simplified notes. Whiteside has a good description
of outlining on p. 141 of the first book, and pp. 54–61, 105–107, and 191–196 of the second book, where several
examples are analyzed; see the Reference section.
For a given passage, there are usually many ways to simply the score or to restore notes, and a person using
outlining for the first time will need some practice before s/he can take full advantage of the method. It is obviously
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easiest to learn outlining under the guidance of a teacher. Suffice it to say here that how you delete notes (or
add them back in) depends on the specific composition and what you are trying to achieve; i.e., whether you are
trying to acquire technique or whether you are trying to make sure that the musical content is correct. Note that
struggling with technique can quickly destroy your sense of the music. The idea behind outlining is that, by getting
to the music first, the technique will follow more quickly because music and technique are inseparable. In practice,
it requires a lot of work before outlining can become useful. Unlike HS practice, etc., it cannot be learned so easily.
My suggestion is for you to use it initially only when absolutely necessary (where other methods have failed), and
to gradually increase its use as you become better at it. It can be especially helpful when you find it difficult to play
HT after completing your HS work. Even after you have partly learned a piece, outlining can be used to increase the
precision and improve the memorizing.
I will demonstrate two very simple examples to illustrate outlining. Common methods of simplification are
(1) deleting notes, (2) converting runs, etc., into chords, and (3) converting complex passages into simpler ones.
An important rule is that, although the music is simplified, you generally should retain the same fingering that was
required before the simplification.
Chopin’s music often employs tempo rubato and other devices that require exquisite control and coordination
of the two hands. In his Fantaisie Impromptu (op. 66), the six notes of each LH arpeggio (e.g., C]3G]3C]4E4C]4G]3)
can be simplified to two notes (C]3E4, played with 51). There should be no need to simplify the RH. This is a good
way to make sure that all notes from the two hands that fall on the same beat are played accurately together. Also,
for students having difficulty with the 3–4 timing, this simplification will allow play at any speed with the difficulty
removed. By first increasing the speed in this way, it may be easier to pick up the 3–4 timing, especially if you cycle
just half a bar.
The second application is to Beethoven’s Sonata #1 (op. 2, no. 1). I noted in the Reference that Gieseking was
remiss in dismissing the 4th movement as “presenting no new problems” in spite of the difficult LH arpeggio which
is very fast. Let’s try to complete the wonderful job Gieseking did in getting us started on this Sonata by making sure
that we can play this exciting final movement.
The initial 4 triplets of the LH can be learned by using parallel set exercises applied to each triplet and then
cycling. The first triplet in the 3rd bar can be practiced in the same way, with the 524524 fingering. Here, I have
inserted a false conjunction to permit easy, continuous cycling, in order to be able to work on the weak 4th finger.
When the 4th finger is strong and under control, you can add the real conjunction, 5241. Here, TO is absolutely
required. Then you can practice the descending arpeggio, 5241235. You can practice the ensuing ascending arpeggio using the same methods, but be careful not to use TU in the ascending arpeggio, since this is very easy to do.
Remember the need for supple wrists for all arpeggios. For the RH, you can use the rules for practicing chords and
jumps (sections 1.3.7.5 and 1.3.7.6 above). So far, everything is HS work.
In order to play HT, use outlining. Simplify the LH so that you play only the beat notes (starting with the 2nd bar):
F3F3F3F3F2E2F2F3, with fingering 55515551, which can be continually cycled. These are just the first notes of each
triplet. Once this is mastered HS, you can start HT. The result should be much easier than if you had to play the full
triplets. Once this becomes comfortable, adding the triplets will be easier than before, and you can do it with much
less chance of incorporating mistakes. Since these arpeggios are the most challenging parts of this movement, by
outlining them, you can now practice the entire movement at any speed.
In the RH, the first 3 chords are soft, and the second 3 are forte. In the beginning, practice mainly accuracy
and speed, so practice all 6 chords softly until this section is mastered. Then add the forte. To avoid hitting wrong
notes, get into the habit of feeling the notes of the chords before depressing them. For the RH octave melody of bars
33–35, be sure not to play with any crescendo, especially the last G. And the entire Sonata, of course, is played with
no pedal. In order to eliminate any chance of a disastrous ending, be sure to play the last 4 notes of this movement
with the LH, bringing it into position well before it is needed.
For technique acquisition, the other methods of this book are usually more effective than outlining which,
even when it works, can be time consuming. However, as in the Sonata example above, a simple outlining can
enable you to practice an entire movement at speed, and including most of the musical considerations. In the
meantime, you can use the other methods of this book to acquire the technique needed to “fill in” the outlining.
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1.3.9 Polishing a Piece — Eliminating Flubs
Updated:
October 6, 2003
Is there a general principle that enables play without audible mistakes? Yes! It is the principle of increasing accuracy, which states that, in order to avoid a certain error, you must be able to control the next less serious level
of error. First classify all errors according to their level of seriousness, or skill level required. This hierarchy may be
different for each person. Typically, the worse mistake might be a complete blackout. Next might be stuttering and
wrong notes. Then pauses and missing notes. Then a whole slew of errors related to accuracy, timing, evenness,
expression, loudness, etc. Finally comes matters of color, each composer’s characteristics, special properties of a
particular composition, etc. Obviously, if you are having blackouts, the finer points of expression are out of the
question. But this argument also works in reverse: if you know the piece so well that you can concentrate on the
highest levels of music, then blackouts are the least of your worries.
Concentrating on correct expression, i.e., knowing all the fine details of the composition, trying to bring out the
color and other musical attributes, are the most important components of the highest skill level. The best way to
ensure correct expression is to go back to the music and review every expression mark, every staccato and every
rest. The notes that are held down, the lifting of the finger or the pedal, etc., are just as important as the keydrop.
Listening to recordings, in this respect, will greatly help your performance if you follow it up with proper practice.
Not only the hierarchy but also the weaknesses of each individual are different, and are usually not known to
that individual. A person whose timing is off usually cannot hear the incorrect timing. This is where a teacher
plays a key role in detecting these weaknesses, and why, without a teacher, a student can try very hard for years
and not succeed in becoming a good performer. No amount of practice will eliminate performance flubs if the
fundamental problems are not solved. All flubs originate in the brain. It might seem that it is possible to practice
an incorrect timing so much that it can be played without stopping or pressing wrong notes, but that is not so.
Incorrect timing (or other basic errors) will make the piece so difficult to play that it leads to flubs (in addition to
the loss of music).
Of course, experience is the final teacher — without experience you cannot find out your specific weaknesses. This is the reason behind the statement that you can’t really perform anything unless it had been performed at least three times. For those who have not had sufficient experience or for a new piece you had never
performed before, snippet playing (playing parts of a composition) is the easiest way to get started. With snippet
performance, you can stop at a mistake, skip a section that you are not confident with, etc., and nobody will know
whether you blacked out or just stopped. Have all kinds of stories ready to tell at such pauses in the playing, and
you can easily execute a satisfactory snippet performance. Every student should make it a policy to make snippet
performances at every opportunity. Whenever there is a group, wherever there is a piano, just sit down and play
for others. The real world is irrational and people often act diametrically opposite to what they should be doing —
most piano students will refuse to play informally even after some coaxing. What opportunities they are missing!
If you examine the circumstances of the average amateur, you will quickly conclude that flawless performances
are virtually impossible. At the same time, this exercise will teach us how to overcome those problems by explicitly
identifying them. Most of the amateur’s problems originate from a lack of time to properly execute all the necessary
preparations. So let’s examine the major problems and their solutions.
The most common mistake is that amateurs try to perform at practice speed. There should be a practice speed
(actually a range of practice speeds) and a performance speed. Clearly, the performance speed is slower than the
typical final practice speed. Therefore, the amateur must have a clear idea of what these speeds are before going
into the performance. If there is no consideration of a slower performance speed, the person will naturally have
insufficient practice at this speed, and is in the illogical situation in which the performance speed is the one that
was practiced the least! Another way of restating this simply is that it is not a good policy to always practice too
fast because you may end up unable to perform. This is why slow play is so important, so that you practice slowing
down from the faster practice speeds. Remember that the audience has not heard this piece hundreds of times like
you have during practice, and your final speed is usually too fast for them.
Most pianists have a practice speed they use for preparing for performances. This is a moderate speed that is
slightly slower than the performance speed. This speed allows for accurate practice without picking up unexpected
bad habits and for creating a clear picture of the music in the mind. It also conditions the hand for playing with
control at the faster performance speed and improves technique.
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Another common problem is that a student is always learning new pieces with little time to review “finished”
pieces. It is well known that learning a new piece is the best way to forget or become confused about finished
pieces. This happens because learning a new piece involves growing new nerve connections and this can alter
previously established connections. Thus, just after learning a new piece, trying to play a previously finished piece
error free is a risky game. Many students are perpetually learning new pieces, and are never in any shape to perform.
Therefore, if you have been working hard learning new pieces, don’t expect to perform a previously finished piece
well unless you have performed it many times before. This is why it is so important to play old, finished pieces
“cold” at the beginning of every practice session. This is also a good time to practice snippet performances.
We must also keep all the fundamentals of technique in mind; they are designed to build that margin of safety
for eliminating flubs. Some important fundamentals are: (1) feeling the keys before playing them, (2) getting into
position (jumps, chords, etc.) ahead of time, (3) practicing softly and with control, and (4) relaxing and feeling the
arm weight.
Finally, no amateur can be expected to perform well without a performance preparation routine, which is discussed in section 1.3.14 below. Key elements of that routine are: (1) play the piece slowly (at least medium speed)
after practicing it or playing it at speed, (2) make sure that you can still play it HS, (3) play very slowly (half speed or
slower) if you want to make sure that it is well memorized, (4) you should be able to play it in your mind, away from
the piano, (5) you should be able to begin play from anywhere in the piece, and (6) don’t play it more than once at
speed on the day of the performance.
It is clear from the above discussions that the inability to perform is not the fault of the student. The fault
lies in the way the student was taught. Thus if the student is taught or concentrates on performing without audible
errors from the first year of lessons, it will become just another routine matter. Notice that we started this section
by discussing playing without flubs and ended up discussing performing. There is just no way to really separate the
two.
1.3.10 Cold Hands, Illness, Hand Injury, Ear Damage
1.3.10.1 Cold Hands
Cold, stiff, hands, on a cold day, is a common affliction caused mainly by the body’s natural reaction to cold. A few
people certainly have pathological problems that may need medical attention. But the majority of cases are natural
body reactions to hypothermia. In that case, the body withdraws blood, mostly from the extremities, towards the
center of the body in order to conserve heat. The fingers are most susceptible to this cooling, followed by the hands
and feet.
For such cases, the solution is, in principle, simple. You just need to raise the body temperature. In practice, it is
often not that easy. In a cold room, even raising the body temperature so high (with extra clothing) that you feel too
warm does not always eliminate the problem. Clearly, any method of conserving heat should help, though it may
not completely solve the problem. Of course, it is best if you can raise the room temperature. If not, common aids
are: (1) soaking the hands in warm water, (2) use of a room heater, such as a portable radiant heater (about 1 KW)
that you can aim directly at the body, (3) thick socks, sweaters, or thermal underwear, and (4) gloves without fingers
(so you can play the piano with the gloves on). If you just want to keep the hands warm before playing, mittens are
probably better than gloves. Most hair dryers do not have sufficient power, are not designed to be used for more
than about 10 minutes without overheating dangerously, and are too noisy for this purpose.
It is not clear whether it is better to stay warm all the time or just when practicing piano. If you keep warm all
the time (such as by wearing thermal clothing), the body may not detect hypothermia and therefore will maintain
blood flow. On the other hand, the body may become more sensitive to cold and eventually start to react even when
the body is warm, if the room is cold. For example, if you wear the gloves without fingers all the time, the hands
may become accustomed to this warmth and feel very cold when you take them off. And the warming effect of
these gloves may wear off once the hands get accustomed to them. Therefore, it is probably best to wear them only
when practicing or just before practicing. The counter argument is that wearing them all the time will allow you
to play piano at any time, without warm-ups or having to soak the hands in warm water. Clearly, you will have to
experiment to see what works best for your specific circumstances.
Updated:
January 26, 2004
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Cold fingers of this type are clearly the body’s reactions to cool temperature. Many people have found that
soaking the hands in warm water helps. It might be of interest to experiment and soak the hands several times a
day in very cold water to acclimate the hands to cold temperatures. Then they may not react to cold at all. This
might provide a permanent solution. For example, you might cool them this way right after practice so that it does
not interfere with the practice. The objective of the cooling is to get the skin acclimated to cold temperatures.
Therefore, you should dip in cold water for no more than 5 to 10 seconds. You should not cool the entire hand
down to the bone. In fact what you might do is to first warm the hands in warm water, and then cool just the skin
in ice cold water. Such a treatment should feel good, without any cold shock or pain. In fact, this is exactly the
principle behind the Nordic practice of jumping into an opening in a frozen lake after a hot sauna. This seemingly
masochistic practice is in fact completely painless and has practical consequences, such as acclimating the skin to
cold temperatures and stopping perspiration that would otherwise cause your clothes to become soggy.
1.3.10.2 Illness
Some people might think that a harmless illness, such as a cold, might still allow them to practice piano. That is
usually not the case. It is particularly important for parents to understand that playing the piano involves significant
exertion, especially of the brain, and not treat piano as a relaxing pastime when illness strikes. Thus youngsters with
even mild colds should not be made to practice piano, unless the child is willing to do so on her/is own. If the person
is running a fever and then plays the piano, there may be some risk to brain damage. Fortunately, most people lose
the urge to practice the piano even when only mildly sick.
Whether one can play piano when sick is an individual matter. Whether to play or not is quite clear to the
pianist; most people will feel the stress of piano playing even before the symptoms of the illness become clear.
Thus it is probably safe to leave the decision to play or not to play to the pianist. It is useful to know that, if you feel
sudden fatigue or other symptoms that make it difficult to play, it might be an indication that you are coming down
with some illness.
The problem with not playing during an illness is that if the illness lasts for more than a week, then the hands will
lose a considerable amount of technique. Perhaps exercises that do not strain the brain, such as scales, arpeggios,
and Hanon type exercises, might be appropriate in such a situation.
1.3.10.3 Most Injury
Hand injury is generally not a major issue for students up to about the intermediate level. For advanced pianists,
it is a major issue because the human hand was not made to withstand such extreme use. Injury problems with
professional pianists are similar to those of professionals in sports, such as tennis, golf, or football. Therefore,
the limitations from possible injury may be the second most important limitation after availability of time to
practice. It might appear that, because relaxation is an essential component of piano technique, injury should not
occur. Unfortunately, the physical requirements of playing at advanced levels are such that (as in sports) injury is
likely to occur in spite of well known precautions and other measures that professionals take. Injury tends to occur
while practicing to acquire difficult technique. Students who use the methods of this book must be particularly
aware of the possibility of injury because they will quickly start practicing material that require high technical skills.
Thus is it important to know the common types of injuries and how to avoid them.
Most hand injury is of the repetitive stress injury (RSI) type. Carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis are common ailments. Anecdotal accounts suggest that surgery can do more harm than good and often does not solve
the problem. In addition, surgery is generally irreversible. Stress reduction methods of piano practice, such as
Taubman, Alexander, and Feldenkrais methods, can be effective both for preventing injury, and even for recovering
from injury. In general, it is best to keep the playing finger (except the thumb) in line with the forearm as much as
possible in order to avoid injury. Of course, the best preventive measure is not to over-practice with stress. The HS
method is especially beneficial because stress is minimized and each hand gets to rest before damage can occur.
The “no pain, no gain” approach is extremely harmful. Piano playing can require tremendous exertion and energy,
but it must never be painful. See the Reference section for some informative web sites on hand injury for pianists.
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Every injury has a cause. Although there are numerous documented accounts of injury and success/failure of
cures, definitive information on causes and cures has been elusive. The only cures mentioned are rest and a gradual
return to playing using stress-free methods. In my case, I injured the finger tendons in my left palm by using golf
clubs with worn, hard grips. My hand doctor immediately diagnosed the cause of my pain (a notch in my tendon),
but could not tell me how I injured my hand, so he could not really tell me how to cure it. The pressure of the grip
had created notches in my tendons, and these notches moved up and down in my hand during piano playing. The
doctor showed me how to feel these notches move by pressing on the tendon and moving my finger. The resulting
friction caused inflammation and pain after long piano practice sessions. Now I replace the grips on my clubs
frequently and have added pads in my golf glove (cut out from Dr. Scholl’s self-stick foot-pads), and my problem
has been eliminated.
Fingertips can be injured by playing too hard (loud). This condition can be somewhat alleviated with proper
bandaging. You can accidentally sprain certain muscles or tendons. The best approach here is caution — pianists
must be extra cautious and avoid such injuries because they can take years to heal. Stop practicing if you feel any
pain. A few days of rest will not harm your technique and may prevent serious injury. Of course, it is best to see a
hand doctor; however, many hand doctors are not familiar with piano injuries.
The curled finger position can cause bruising of the fingertips because there is minimum padding between the
bone and skin at the tip. In the curled position, you can also peel the flesh off from under the fingernail if you cut
the fingernail too short. You can avoid both of these types of injury by using the flat finger position (section 1.3.4.2).
1.3.10.4 Ear Damage
Ear damage generally occurs, as a function of age; hearing loss can start as early as age 40 and by age 70, most
people have lost some hearing. Hearing loss can occur from over-exposure to loud sounds and can also be caused
by infections and other pathological causes. The person may lose hearing in the low frequency or high frequency
range. This is often accompanied by tinnitus (ringing sound in the ear). Those who lose hearing in the low frequency range tend to hear a low, roaring or throbbing tinnitus, and those who lose hearing in the high frequency
range tend to hear a high pitched whine. Tinnitus may be caused by uncontrollable firing of the hearing nerves in
the damaged section of the ear; however, there may be many other causes. See the Reference section for information on the internet on hearing damage.
Although hearing loss is easily diagnosed by an audiologist, its cause and damage prevention are not well understood. For tests and treatments you need to see an ENT specialist (Ear Nose Throat). For non-pathological
cases, damage is generally attributed to exposure to loud sounds. Yet many people exposed to very loud sounds,
such as pianists who play every day for hours on concert grands, piano tuners who routinely use “pounding” during tuning, or members of rock bands, may not suffer hearing loss. On the other hand, some, who are exposed
to less sound, can lose their hearing, especially with age. Therefore, there is a wide difference in susceptibility to
hearing loss. However, there certainly is a tendency for those exposed to louder sounds to suffer more hearing
loss. Clearly, a definitive study on hearing loss would be useful for identifying the mechanisms of ear damage and
susceptible persons, and for finding ways to prevent hearing loss. It is quite likely that hearing loss by pianists
and piano tuners (as well as rock bands members, etc., and people who routinely listen to very loud music) is
much more widespread than is generally known because most of them go unreported. One of the reasons for the
under-reporting is that there are few known cures, so that documentation does not serve any useful purpose.
Tinnitus is present in essentially 100% of people 100% of the time, but is so soft in normal people that it cannot
be heard unless the person is in a soundproofed room. It is most frequently caused by spontaneous firing of the
hearing nerves in the absence of sufficient stimulus. That is, the human hearing mechanism automatically “turns
up the amplification” when there is no sound. Totally damaged regions produce no sound because the damage
is so severe that they cannot function. Partially damaged regions apparently produce tinnitus because they are
sufficiently damaged to detect no ambient sound which causes them to turn up the amplification and fire the
detectors. These detectors are piezo-electric material at the base of hairs inside the cochlea. Thus tinnitus may be
analogous to the speaker squeak you hear when you turn up the microphone amplification too high. Of course,
there are many other causes of tinnitus. Tinnitus is almost always an indication of the onset of hearing loss.
For those who do not have audible tinnitus, there is probably no need to avoid loud music, within reasonable
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limits. Thus practicing the piano at any loudness should be harmless up to about age 25. Those who already have
tinnitus should avoid exposure to loud piano. However, tinnitus usually “sneaks up” on you, so that the onset of
tinnitus often goes unnoticed until it is too late. Therefore, it is probably a good idea to wear ear protection after
age 40 during piano practice. Ear protection is an abhorrent idea to most pianists but when you consider the
consequences (see below), it is probably worthwhile. Before wearing protection, do everything possible to reduce
sound intensity, such as soundproofing the room (adding carpets to hard floors, etc.), closing the lids of grands,
and generally practicing softly (even loud passages — which is a good idea even without possibility of ear damage).
Ear protectors are readily available from hardware stores because many workers using construction or yard
equipment need such protection. For pianists, an inexpensive unit will suffice because you need to hear some
music. You can also use most of the larger headphones associated with audio systems. Commercial protectors
completely surround the ear and provide a better sound barrier. Since protectors available today are not designed
for pianists, they don’t have a flat frequency response; that is, the sound of the piano is completely altered. However,
the human ear is very good at adapting to different types of sound and you can get used to the new sound very
quickly. The piano sound will also be quite different when you take the protection off (as you will need to do once
in a while to see what the REAL sound is like). These different sounds can be quite educational for teaching us how
much the brain influences what sounds you hear or don’t hear and how different persons will interpret the same
sounds. It is worthwhile to try ear protection so that you can experience these different sounds. For example, you
will realize that the piano makes many strange sounds you never heard before! The differences in sound are so
startling that they cannot be expressed in words.
The brain automatically processes any incoming data, whether you want it to or not. This is, of course, part of
what music is — it is the brain’s interpretation of incoming sounds, and most of our reaction to music is automatic.
Thus when you wear ear protection, most of this stimulus disappears, and a large amount of the brain’s processing
power is freed to do other jobs. In particular, you now have more resources to apply to your HS practice. After
all, that is why you practice HS, and not HT — so that you can concentrate more energy on the difficult task of
playing with the one hand. Thus you may find that you progress faster HS when wearing ear protection! This is the
same principle behind why many pianists close their eyes when they want to play something with high emotional
content — they need all the resources available to produce the high level of emotion. When you close the eyes, you
eliminate a tremendous amount of information coming into the brain because vision is a two-dimensional, multicolor, moving source of high bandwidth information that must be immediately and automatically interpreted in
many complex ways. Therefore, although most audiences admire that a pianist can play with the eyes closed, it
is actually easier with the eyes closed when you must concentrate on every detail of expression. Thus, in the near
future, most piano students will probably wear ear protection, just as cyclers use helmets and construction workers
use ear protection today. It doesn’t make any sense for any of us to spend the last 10, 30, or more years of our lives,
without hearing.
How does piano sound damage the ear? Clearly, loud sound with many notes should be most damaging. Thus
it is probably not an accident that Beethoven became prematurely deaf. This also cautions us to practice his music
carefully. The specific type of piano is also important. Most uprights that do not produce sufficient sound are
probably least damaging. Large grands that transfer energy efficiently into the strings with long sustain probably
do not cause as much damage as medium quality pianos in which a large amount of energy is imparted into the
initial, instantaneous bang associated with the hammer striking the strings. Although much of this damaging sound
energy may not be in the audible range of the ear, we can detect it as an unpleasant or harsh sound. Thus the
medium size grands (6 to 7 ft) may be most damaging. In this regard, the condition of the hammer is important,
since a worn hammer can produce a much louder instantaneous sound than a properly voiced hammer. This is why
worn hammers cause more string breakage than new or well voiced hammers. With hardened hammers, probably
most pianos can cause ear damage. Thus the proper, periodic voicing of the hammer may be much more important
than many people realize, both from the points of view of being able to practice playing softly and with expression
as well as for protecting the ear. If you have to close the lid of a grand in order to play softly, or to reduce the sound
to a pleasant level, the hammers probably need voicing.
Some of the loudest sounds are produced by those small ear phones used to listen to music. Parents should
warn their youngsters not to keep turning up the volume, especially if they subscribe to the culture that plays very
loud music. Some youngsters will fall asleep with their ear phones blasting; this might be very damaging because
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the duration of exposure to loudness is also important. It is a bad idea to give gadgets with these ear phones to
youngsters — postpone it as long as possible. However, sooner or later, they will end up with one; in that case, warn
them before they suffer ear damage.
Except for some special cases of tinnitus (especially those cases in which you can alter the sound by moving
your jaws, etc.), there is no cure yet. Large doses of aspirin can cause tinnitus; in that case, stopping its use can
sometimes reverse the process. Small amounts of aspirin taken for cardiac purposes (81mg) apparently do not
cause tinnitus, and there are some claims in the literature that these small amounts may delay the onset of tinnitus.
Loud tinnitus can be extremely debilitating because it cannot be changed and is present all the time, and it only
increases with time. Many sufferers have been driven to thoughts of suicide. Although there is no cure, there are
remedies, and all indications are that eventually, we should be able to find a cure. There are hearing aids that reduce
our perception of tinnitus, for example, by supplying sufficient sound so that the tinnitus is either masked or the
amplification in the damaged area is reduced. Thus for tinnitus suffers, absolute quietness may be damaging.
One of the most annoying traits of hearing loss is not that the ear has lost its sensitivity (frequently, sensitivity
tests reveal very little deterioration), but the inability of the person to properly process the sound so as to understand speech. People with normal hearing can understand speech mixed with a large amount of extraneous sound.
Understanding speech is the first ability that is lost with onset of hearing loss. Modern hearing aids can be quite
helpful, both by amplifying only those frequencies needed to understand speech and for suppressing sounds that
are loud enough to cause damage. Another approach to tinnitus is to train the brain to ignore the tinnitus. The
brain is amazingly trainable, and part of the reason why tinnitus causes suffering is the inappropriate brain response of the person. The brain can choose to either concentrate on the sound, thereby driving you crazy, or to
ignore it, in which case you won’t hear it unless you are reminded of it. The best example of this is the metronome.
Most pianists do not know that if they practice with the metronome too long, the brain will play tricks so that you
either do not hear the click at all, or hear it at the wrong time, especially if the metronome click is sharp and loud.
This is one reason why modern metronomes have flashing lights; in addition to enabling you to time yourself without the sound, it allows you to check to see if what you hear matches the light flashes. Thus modern treatments of
tinnitus start with teaching the patient that others have succeeded in living with it with minimal discomfort. Then
the patient receives ear training in such a way as to be able to ignore the tinnitus. Fortunately, the brain is especially
adept at learning to ignore a constant sound that is always there.
If you read enough stories about tinnitus suffers, you will probably follow the advice to wear ear protection after
age 40, at least when practicing loud passages for long periods of time. At the first hint of tinnitus, it is imperative
that you start ear protection procedures because once the tinnitus starts, ear deterioration can proceed rapidly with
exposure to sound, with significant deterioration every year. Look for an ENT specialist immediately, especially one
experienced in tinnitus treatments. Ear protection applies to other members of the household; therefore, if at all
possible, isolate the piano room acoustically from the rest of the house. Most quality (glass) doors will be sufficient.
There are a few herbs and “natural” medications that claim effectiveness against tinnitus. Most of these do not
work, and the ones that seem to benefit some people have dangerous side effects. Although it is true that there are
precious few specialists treating tinnitus, the situation is rapidly improving and there are now many sites on the
internet with information on tinnitus. Therefore, although specialists may be few, the internet will enable to you
find them. The American Tinnitus Association also has a web site.
1.3.11 Sight Reading
It is useful to classify sight reading into three levels so that we know what we are talking about. At the novice sight
reading level, we are talking about playing compositions that we have not memorized, and which we play by looking
at the score. We may already be familiar with the melodies in the composition, and have played it before. At the
intermediate level, we can sight read music we have never seen or heard before and can sight sing it, although
we are not trained in music theory. This level is what is generally considered to be sight reading, and this type
of sight reading is the topic of this section. At the advanced level, we are able to apply basic music theory to the
sight reading and we are reading music at a much higher level of understanding. How pianists at each of these
levels approach sight reading is obviously different. Below, we discuss sight reading rules that are fairly generally
applicable.
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1. Keep the eyes on the music; do not look at the keyboard/fingers. You may glance at the hands when it
is absolutely necessary for large jumps. You can also develop a peripheral vision towards the keyboard so
that you have some idea of where the hands are while still looking at the score. Peripheral vision has the
advantage that you can keep track of both hands simultaneously. It is particularly beneficial to develop a
habit of feeling the keys before playing them. Although this rule applies whether you are sight reading or
not, it becomes critical in sight reading. It also helps to “get there ahead of time” for jumps, see section 1.3.7.5
and 1.3.7.6 above; therefore, you should practice the jump maneuvers in conjunction with the sight reading
practice.
2. Play through mistakes and make them as inaudible as possible. The best way to do this is to make it sound
as if you had modified the music — then the audience does not know whether you made a mistake or changed
it. This is why students with basic music theory training have such an advantage in sight reading. Three ways
to make mistakes less audible are (i) keep the rhythm intact, (ii) maintain a continuous melody (if you can’t
read everything, carry the melody and omit the accompaniment), and (iii) practice simplifying those parts
that are too complicated to sight read. The first thing that must be done is to eliminate the habits of stopping
and backtracking, or stuttering, at every mistake, if you already have those habits. The best time to develop
the skill of not stopping at every mistake is when you begin your first piano lessons. Once the stuttering
habit is ingrained, it will take a lot of work to eliminate it. For those with a stuttering habit, the best thing to
do is to decide that you will never backtrack again and try your best at every mistake — it will slowly start to
go away. Learning to anticipate flubs is a great help, and this will be discussed below. The most powerful tool,
however, is the ability to simplify the music. Eliminate ornamentals, fish out the melody from fast runs, etc.
3. Learn all the common musical constructs: major and minor scales and their fingerings as well as their
corresponding arpeggios, common chords and chord transitions, common trills, ornaments, etc. When
sight reading, you should recognize the constructs and not read the individual notes. Memorize the locations
of those very high and very low notes as they appear on the score so that you can find them instantly. Start by
memorizing all the octave C’s, then fill in the others.
4. Look ahead of where you are playing; at least one bar ahead, but even more, as you develop the skill at
reading the music structure. Try to read one structure ahead. By looking ahead, you can not only prepare
ahead of time but also anticipate flubs before they occur. You can also anticipate fingering problems and can
avoid painting yourself into impossible situations. Although fingering suggestions on the music are generally
helpful, they are often useless because, although they may be the best fingerings, you may not be able to use
them without some practice. Therefore, you should develop your own set of fingerings.
5. “Practice, practice, practice”. Although sight reading is relatively easy to learn, it must be practiced every
day in order to improve. It will take most students from one to two years of diligent practice to become
good. Because sight reading depends so heavily on recognition of structures, it is closely related to memory.
This means that you can lose the sight reading ability if you stop practicing. However, just as with memory, if
you become a good sight reader when young, this ability will stay with you all your life.
Of course, you should keep adding to the “tricks of the trade” as you improve. You can acquire the art of scanning
through a composition before sight reading it, in order to get some feel for how difficult it is. Then you can figure
out ahead of time how to get around the “impossible” sections. You can even practice it quickly, using a condensed
version of the learning tricks (HS, shorten difficult segments, etc.), just enough to make it sound passable. I have
met sight readers who would talk to me about some sections of a new piece for a while, then play through it with
no trouble. I later figured out that they were practicing those sections in the few seconds they had while they were
distracting me with their “discussions”.
In order to practice sight reading, you will need to gather several books with many easy pieces and read through
them. Because it is initially easier to practice “sight reading” with familiar pieces, you can use the same composition
to practice sight reading several times, a week or more apart. However, you should also practice with pieces that
you had never seen before in order to develop true sight reading skills. The most useful skill for help with true sight
reading is sight singing, which we now cover.
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1.3.12 Learning Relative Pitch and Perfect Pitch (Sight Singing)
Relative pitch is the ability to identify a note, given a reference. Perfect pitch (also called absolute pitch) is the
ability to identify a note without being given a reference note. People with good perfect pitch will instantly identify
10 notes played simultaneously as a chord. How good you are is determined by how accurately you can reproduce
a pitch, how quickly you can identify a note, and how many notes you can identify when they are played simultaneously. Nobody is born with relative or perfect pitch; they are learned skills. This is because the chromatic scale is
a human invention — there is no physical relationship between the pitches of the chromatic scale and nature. The
only physical relationship between the chromatic scale and the ear is that both operate on a logarithmic scale in
order to accommodate a large frequency range. The effect of the logarithmic human hearing is that the ear hears a
large difference in pitch between 40 and 42.4 Hz (a semitone or 100 cents), but hears almost no difference between
2000 Hz and 2002.4 Hz (about 2 cents), for the same difference of 2.4 Hz. The human ear responds to all frequencies
within its range and is not calibrated on an absolute scale at birth. This is in contrast to the eye, which responds to
color on an absolute scale (everyone sees red as red) because color detection is achieved using chemical reactions
that respond to specific wavelengths of light. Some people who can identify certain pitches with specific colors
can acquire perfect pitch by the color that the sound evokes. They are effectively calibrating the ear to an absolute
reference.
Perfect and relative pitch are best learned in very early youth. Babies who cannot understand a single word
will respond appropriately to a soothing voice or a lullaby or an angry sound, which demonstrates their readiness
for musical training. The best way to acquire perfect pitch is to be exposed almost daily to well tuned pianos
from birth. Therefore, every parent who has a piano should keep it tuned and play it for the baby from birth. Then
they should test the child from time to time for perfect pitch. This test can be performed by playing a note (when
the child is not looking) and then asking her/im to find that note on the piano. If the child can find it after several
tries, s/he has relative pitch; if s/he can find it the first time every time, s/he has perfect pitch. The particular
temperament to which the piano is tuned (equal, Well temperament, Pythagorean, etc.) is not important; in fact
most people with perfect pitch know nothing about temperaments and when notes on pianos tuned to different
temperaments are played, they have no trouble in identifying the notes. Perfect pitch and relative pitch can be
acquired later in life but becomes difficult after age 20 to 30. In fact, even those with perfect pitch will slowly lose
it starting around age 20, if it is not maintained. Many piano schools routinely teach perfect pitch to all their
students. Although the success rate is not 100%, a vast majority of the students generally succeed. The problem
with teaching a group of older students is that there is always a certain percentage of “pitch deprived” students who
had never been trained in pitch and who will have difficulty learning even relative pitch.
Babies can hear right after birth. Many hospitals routinely screen babies immediately after birth in order to
identify hearing impaired babies who will need special treatments immediately. If the hearing impaired babies do
not receive the sound stimuli, their brain development will slow down; this is another evidence that music can help
brain development. For babies, the memory of external sound in the brain is nearly empty. Thus any sound heard at
that stage is special, and all subsequent sounds are referenced to those initial sounds. In addition, babies (of most
species, not only humans) use sound to identify and bond to the parents (usually the mother). Of all the sound
characteristics that the baby uses for this identification, absolute pitch is probably a major characteristic. These
considerations explain why they pick up absolute pitch so readily, and why practically all babies should be able to
do so. Some parents expose babies to music before birth to accelerate the babies’ development, but I wonder if
this will help perfect pitch, because the sound velocity in amniotic fluid is different from that in air with a resultant
change in apparent frequency. Therefore, this practice might confuse the perfect pitch.
Having perfect pitch is clearly an advantage. It is a great help for memorizing, sight reading, and recovering
from blackouts, and for composing music. You can be the pitch pipe for your choir, and easily tune a violin or
wind instrument. It is a lot of fun because you can tell how fast a car is going by just listening to the tires whine,
you can tell the differences between different car horns and locomotive whistles, especially by noting whether they
use thirds or fifths. You can remember telephone numbers easily by their tones. However, there are disadvantages.
Music played off tune does not sound right. Since so much music is played off tune, this can present quite a problem. The person can sometimes react strongly to such music; physical reactions such as teary eyes or clammy skin
can occur. Transposed music is OK because every note is still correct. Out-of-tune pianos become difficult to play.
Updated:
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Perfect pitch is definitely a mixed blessing.
Start learning pitch identification by learning relative pitch first because it is easier and is needed for learning perfect pitch. Begin by learning the scales and chords. First learn the C major scale. Given C, can you sing all
the other notes in the octave in sequence? Given any note, can you sing another note, one full tone or a semitone
up or down? Next, learn the chromatic scale. Then learn the chords. Given C, can you sing a third, fourth, fifth, or
octave? Learning relative pitch is fairly easy for most piano students because they have heard the scales and chords
so many times.
You can now graduate to sight singing actual music. You might start with music you already know, to make
it easier to start. Then gradually practice on music you never played before. Congratulations (after a year or so
of practice)! You have just acquired a skill that is not only useful in its own right, but will also be helpful in sight
reading.
If you do not have perfect pitch, you should consider learning perfect pitch as a long term project of a year or
more. One way to start is by memorizing one note. You might pick A440 because you hear it every time you go to
a concert and can perhaps recall it most easily. However, A is not a useful note for getting to the various chords of
the C major scale, which is the most useful scale to memorize. Therefore, pick C, E, or G, whichever you tend to
remember best. Your accuracy may be atrocious in the beginning; you might be easily off by 3 or 4 semitones, but
it should improve with time. Devise ways of checking yourself. One way is to identify the highest and lowest notes
you can hum; for me, they are F3 and F5. In that case, F4 may be the best note to memorize. By trying to sing one
octave up or down, you can find out if your F4 is too high or too low.
Another way is to remember a favorite composition, such as a Bach Invention that you can play. It is memorized,
so you should be playing it in your mind from time to time (keyboard memory). Try singing it in absolute pitch, and
check with the piano. Memorizing a short piece of music at absolute pitch has the advantage that you memorize
many notes at once, and it does not require that much more work than memorizing one note. As with sight reading,
you must practice every day; otherwise, there may be little progress. For learning the absolute pitches of C, D, E,
F, G, you might use the beginning of Bach’s Invention #1, and #8 will provide F, A, B, and C, to complete the octave.
For example, I learned perfect pitch by using Bach’s Invention #1. I first memorized C4. I could test it by humming down to F3, which is the lowest note that I can hum. I then tested my C4 using C5 (obtained from C4 using
relative pitch) by humming up to F5, which is the highest note that I can hum. When I first started practicing perfect
pitch, I was frequently off by 3 semitones for several months (I was not practicing seriously, and did not practice
every day). After a few months, I was generally within one semitone. Then I tested all the other notes, randomly
across the piano. If I practiced diligently for a while, every note took on an individual characteristic so that I could
identify it without using relative pitch from the C4. This came as quite a pleasant surprise. I identify the notes of the
octave using the “do re mi” system instead of C D E, and when I press any C, it seems to say “do” to me. However, if
I stop practicing for a while, this ability disappears, and I need to start all over again, even when my C4 is still pretty
close.
1.3.13 Videotaping and Recording Your Own Playing
Updated:
December 5, 2001
One of the best ways to improve your musical playing and to practice for recitals is to videotape/record it and
watch/listen to it. You will be surprised at how good and how bad the different parts of your playing are. They
are often very different from what you imagine yourself to be doing. Do you have a good touch? Do you have
rhythm? What are you doing, that is breaking up the rhythm? Is your tempo accurate and constant? What are
your strengths and weaknesses? Do you clearly bring out the melodic lines? Is one hand too loud/soft? Are the
arm/hands/fingers in their optimum positions? Are you using the whole body — i.e., is the body in synch with the
hands or are they fighting each other? All these and much more become immediately obvious. The same music
sounds quite different when you are playing it or listening to its recording. You hear much more when you are
listening to a recording than when playing it. Video taping is the best way to prepare for recitals and can sometimes
eliminate nervousness almost completely.
Until recently, most pianists tried mainly to make audio recordings, thinking that the musical output was the
most important; in addition, the older camcorders could not adequately record music. Audio recording has the
disadvantage that proper recording of the piano sound is more difficult than most people realize and such attempts
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usually result in failure and abandonment of the effort. Camcorders have become so affordable and versatile that
videotaping is now unquestionably the better method. Although the resulting sound may not be CD quality (don’t
believe the claims of digital video camera manufacturers), you do not need such quality to achieve all the useful
pedagogical objectives. Only when you have a properly voiced, high quality grand piano (Steinway B or better) and
you become an advanced player, do you need the necessary equipment for satisfactory audio recording. Even then,
you will get better results more cost effectively by seeking out a recording studio.
Initially, start by making a one-to-one map between what you think you are playing and the actual output. That
way, you can modify your general playing tendencies so that the output will come out right. For example, if you are
playing faster than you think in easy sections and slower in difficult sections, you can make the proper adjustments.
Are your pauses long enough? Are the endings convincing? The recording is also helpful in deciding whether you
want or need a better piano; your inability to perform satisfactorily may in fact be caused by the piano, not you.
With old, worn hammers, you can’t play pianissimo. Once you become a good enough pianist, factors such as the
quality of the piano and proper voicing of the hammers will show up more obviously in the recordings.
There is no question that you must record your playing if you want to progress beyond just playing for yourself.
The recording session will test how you might react in an actual performance, for example, if you make a mistake or
have a blackout. Watching yourself react to mistakes will give you an opportunity to see what types of reactions are
“proper” and what types are “improper”. Also, during a performance, you tend to get blackouts, etc., at unexpected
places where you generally had no trouble during practice. Recording sessions will bring out most of these problem
spots.
In general, your pieces are not “finished” unless you can record them satisfactorily; that is, to the degree of
perfection that you desire. Videotaping turns out to be a very good simulation of playing in recitals. Thus, if you
can play satisfactorily during videotaping, you will have little trouble playing that piece in a recital. You will also
find that you are not nervous performing pieces that you can record with acceptable results; we will discuss this in
more detail in the section on nervousness (stage fright). Thus videotaping is one of the best tools for polishing a
piece and getting it ready for performing.
What are the disadvantages? The main disadvantage is that it will take a lot of time, because you must watch or
listen to the recordings. You might be able to save some time by listening while you are doing some other chore. The
recording session itself takes little extra time because that counts as part of practice time. However, every time you
correct a section, you must re-record and listen again. Thus there is no escaping the fact that watching/listening
to yourself is going to be a time consuming operation. However, it is something that every piano student must do.
Another disadvantage is that, without a really super recording system, you may need to use more pedal than you
would like because the percussive component of the piano sound is picked up more efficiently by the audio system
than by the human ear.
I describe some methods for audio and video recording below.
1.3.13.1 Audio Recording
Audio recording piano music is one of the most demanding of recording tasks. Things like portable cassette recorders
for recording voice will not do, because the volume and frequency ranges of the piano exceed the capabilities of
most inexpensive recording systems under about $1000.00. Modern equipment is sufficient to pick up most of
the frequency range, and what small distortions are introduced, are not generally bothersome. However, the frequency response is not sufficiently flat, the highest and lowest frequencies are missed, and the dynamic range is
insufficient. There is a surprising amount of audio power in ambient noise that the human ear/brain excludes (for
example, the ears are shaped in such a way as to act as a noise filter), which microphones will pick up. Therefore,
you will have to put up with some hiss for the softest playing and/or distortion for the loudest sounds, and all background noise (such as someone walking around or washing dishes) must be minimized. And unless you purchase
very good mikes and/or put a lot of effort into their proper placement, etc., the piano sound will not be faithfully
reproduced.
The following is an audio recording system that I have set up for myself. The components are:
1. Sony MiniDisc ($150).
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2. Small mixer ($150 to $250).
3. Boundary or PZM (Pressure Zone Microphone) mike ($50 to $300 each). You will need one for mono recording
and two for stereo.
4. Connecting cables.
I am assuming that you have a HiFi system into which you can plug the output; if not, use your TV (via the
mixer). The Sony MD is readily available at electronics stores. In the US, Sam Ash may be the best place to buy a
mixer, cables and mike, or you can get them at Radio Shack.
The MD is convenient because it is easy to edit, label, erase, and to quickly locate different recordings, is
portable (fits in a small pocket), operates on its own rechargeable battery and comes with headphones. You can
record 74 minutes on one disk, which can be rewritten any number of times. It also has many features such as
optical and analog input/output, and most of the important functions (volume [both for record and playback],
recording modes [mono/stereo], etc.), are programmable. The greatest disadvantage of the MD (I don’t know if
this has been corrected with the newer models) is that, although it is a digital device, it has no digital output.
Within its dynamic range, the sound quality is almost as good as a CD so that the sound quality will be limited by
the mike. Make sure to bring all the components with you when shopping around for the cables.
If you have a versatile HiFi system, you may not need the mixer. However, because the mixer allows you to try
many more options and to optimize the system, I highly recommend it. You might first set up the system without
the mixer and then buy it if necessary. The mixer has many built-in functions and just about any type of connector
you might have, allowing you to connect practically any device to any other device and perform some signal processing. It contains pre-amps, signal attenuators, equalizers, balancers, etc. It has inputs for mono and stereo so
that you can put in a mono signal and distribute it to both inputs of your stereo system. This is useful if you have
only one mike. However, stereo recording gives audibly better results. For example, one mike placed towards the
treble will not pick up sufficient bass sound; however, you can correct for this using the mixer. Most mixers will even
supply power to your mike. Since the MD has both a line-in and mike inputs, you can record either with or without
the mixer; however, you will usually sacrifice quite a bit of dynamic range, resulting in distortion or excessive noise.
For playback, the same mixer will allow you to plug the output into any HiFi system. For many HiFi systems, the
MD output may not have sufficient power.
1.3.13.2 Camcorders
Digital camcorders are better than the older analog types because you can make copies without degradation, they
provide more options for editing, etc., and you can copy them directly to CDs or DVDs. Once you start taping,
you may want to send the tapes to other people! However, analog camcorders are more affordable and are quite
adequate. The biggest problem with camcorders is that they all have motors that make noise which is picked up by
the built-in mike. Find a model with either an attachable mike of good quality, or a mike input and buy a separate
quality mike. This will produce better results than the built-in mike. Also, make sure that the AGC (automatic
gain control) can be turned off. Especially with classical music, you want to record the entire dynamic range of
your playing. Some AGCs in high end camcorders do such a good job that you barely notice them, but you should
make every effort to turn them off because the dynamic range is such an important characteristic of the piano.
Most camcorders have plugs for connecting to a TV, which makes viewing simple. You will also need a fairly sturdy
tripod; a light one might shake if you really pound away at the piano.
1.3.14 Preparing for Performances and Recitals
1.3.14.1 Why Do Some Pianists Never Perform?
Updated:
January 11, 2001
Many amateur pianists never perform. Even more surprisingly, many piano teachers never hold recitals of their
students. Why does this happen so frequently, when piano is a performing art? Clearly, there is something wrong
in the learning/teaching procedures when the main objective of the art is not attained. The obvious reason for
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non-performance is that the performance tends to be a disaster. If your playing is terrific, you will be playing to
audiences every chance you have. First of all, there shouldn’t be a reason why performances must turn disastrous
because no matter what your level, there are always pieces that are easy for you to play. Secondly, many students
do not realize that disasters don’t just happen, they are caused. You have to do something wrong to cause a disaster.
When anything happens, there is always a reason. Let me explain. Practicing to play a piece of music and practicing
to perform can be two entirely different things. Many students make the mistake of thinking that being able to
play automatically qualifies them to perform. Many teachers know only how to teach to play, but not to perform.
Moreover, just as the intuitive method of piano practice is one of the worst methods you can use, so the intuitive
methods of preparation for recitals are the reasons why performances end up as disasters. We devote the rest of
this section to learning how to perform, and how to avoid common pitfalls.
Of course, there are plenty of valid excuses for not being able to perform. Knowing these excuses is one of the
prerequisites for learning how to perform. Perhaps the most important excuse is that you are always learning new
pieces so that there is insufficient time to really finish a piece or maintain the finished pieces in playable condition.
We saw that learning a new piece is the best way to forget old pieces. For those who have never performed, the second most important reason is that they probably never really finished anything. There is always that one difficult
section you can’t quite manage in every “interesting” piece worth performing. If you haven’t performed the piece,
you have no idea whether it is finished or not. Another excuse is that pieces that are easy for you are somehow always uninteresting. Note that the learning methods of this book are designed to counter every one of these excuses,
mainly by accelerating the learning process and by encouraging memorization. The section on “Maintenance” in
the memory section is obviously important. If you make it a point to always practice musically, then no piece is
ever uninteresting, whether it is played slowly or fast. There are many other aspects of performance that we must
now learn.
1.3.14.2 Benefits and Pitfalls of Performances/Recitals
Knowledge of the benefits and pitfalls is important because this knowledge determines how we design our daily
piano learning program. For the amateur pianist, the benefits of performances, even casual ones, are immeasurable. The most important benefit is that technique is never really demonstrated until you can demonstrate it in a
performance. That is, music and technique are inseparable, so that if you perform successfully, it means that you
practiced correctly. This works both ways: if you practice correctly, performing shouldn’t be a problem. This point
draws a clear line between practicing musically, relaxed, on the one hand and, on the other, repeating mindlessly
just to be able to play a difficult passage, working like a dog, mistaking piano for some type of calisthenics.
For young students, the benefits are even more fundamental. They learn what it means to complete a real task,
and they learn what “making music” means. Most youngsters in protected environments don’t learn these skills
until they go to college; piano students must learn them at their first recital, regardless of age. Students are never as
self-motivated as when preparing for a recital. Teachers who have held recitals know the enormou benefits. Their
students become focused, self-motivated, and results oriented; they listen intently to the teacher and really try to
understand the meaning of the teachers’ instructions. The students become deadly serious about eliminating all
errors and learning everything correctly — it is capitalism at its best, because it is their recital. Teachers without
recitals often end up with students who practice maybe a few times just before lesson day — the difference is like
night and day.
Because the psychology and sociology of piano playing is not well developed, there are pitfalls that we must
seriously consider. The most important one is nervousness and its impact on the mind, especially for the young.
Nervousness can make recitals a frightful experience that requires careful attention in order to avoid not only unhappy experiences but also lasting psychological damage. At the very least, reducing nervousness will alleviate
stress and fright. There is not enough attention paid to making recitals a pleasant experience and reducing the tension and stress, especially for piano competitions. This whole subject will be treated more completely in the section
on nervousness. The point here is that any treatment on performing must include a discussion of stage fright. Even
great artists have stopped performing for long periods of time for one reason or another. Therefore, although good
piano teachers always hold recitals of their students and enter them into competitions, it is the job of the parents
to look out for the social and psychological welfare of their children, since piano teachers are not necessarily good
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sociologists or psychologists. It is important for any person guiding youngsters through recitals and competitions
to learn the fundamentals of what causes nervousness, how to deal with it, and its psychological consequences.
Therefore, the following section (section 1.3.15) on nervousness is a necessary companion to this section.
There are numerous other psychological and sociological implications of recitals and competitions. The judging systems in music competitions are notoriously unfair, and judging is a difficult and thankless job. Thus students
entered into competition must be informed of these shortcomings of the “system” so that they do not suffer mental damage from perceived unfairness and disappointment. It is difficult, but possible, for students to understand
that the most important element of competitions is that they participate, not that they win. There is too much
emphasis on technical difficulty and not enough on musicality. The system does not encourage communication
among teachers to improve teaching methods. It is no wonder that there is a school of thought that favors eliminating competitions. There is no question that recitals and competitions are necessary; but the present situation
can certainly be improved.
1.3.14.3 Preparing for Performances/Recitals
Even casual performances require preparation and practice. Recitals generally require a strict preparation routine. We shall start with discussions of casual performances and then describe the procedures for recitals, as the
way you approach casual and formal performances can be quite different. There are at least two stages to the
process of learning how to perform. The first is the initiation stage at which you get over the initial difficulties of
performing a given piece of music for the first time. In the second stage, in which you are now familiar with what is
involved in the preparations, you can concentrate on working on the details of the procedures.
In general, don’t expect to perform anything well, casual or otherwise, unless you have performed the piece at
least several times, and some claim, at least 5 times. Sections that you thought were simple may turn out to be
difficult to perform, and vice versa. Thus the first order of business is to lower your expectations and start planning
on how you are going to play this piece, especially when unexpected things happen. It is certainly not going to be
like the best run you made during practice.
A few mistakes or missed notes goes unnoticed in practice, and your assessment of how they sound during
practice is probably much more optimistic than your own assessment if you had played exactly the same way for
an audience. After a practice, you tend to remember only the good parts, and after a performance, you tend to
remember only the mistakes. Usually, you are your worst performance critic; every slip sounds far worse to you
than to the audience. Most audiences will miss half of the mistakes and forget most of what they do catch after a
short period of time.
Most students do not listen to themselves sufficiently during practice; they often practice as if on auto-pilot.
This does not mean that you can put yourself on auto-pilot for a performance in the hopes that you can perform
like you did during practice. You can’t just run with a piece of music and expect the audience to follow you; if you
did, you will lose them because they will sense that the music is not communicating. The correct way is to listen to
your own music (always) and to let your music lead you — that is the only way it is going to attract the audience’s
attention. During a performance, your music will always lead you, whether you let it or not; this is why students
who make mistakes become so depressed and this makes it so much harder to play well. On the other hand, if you
get a good start, the audience will be drawn in, and the music will feed on itself and the performance becomes
much easier.
This change from casual listening during practice to critical listening during a performance can change your
playing environment sufficiently to interfere with your memory and playing. That is why you must always listen to
yourself critically while practicing. This is the type of experience you need to go through for the first few times you
perform in order to know how to change your practice methods and to know to what extent these factors will affect
your playing. Lowering your expectations generally means playing a little slower than your practice speeds and
paying more attention to every note. As we saw earlier, playing slowly is not necessarily easier, and this illustrates
the importance of slower practice. Remember that the audience hasn’t heard this piece hundreds of times like you
have and so are not as familiar with every detail; chances are, it will sound much faster to them than to you. And
you will need to spoon feed every note to them or they won’t hear it. During practice you will probably even hear
notes that you missed, as if you had played it correctly, because you know that it is supposed to be there. Clearly,
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the science of performing is complex and experienced performers can give you plenty of useful advice. But let’s
not get too far ahead of ourselves and restart this discussion from the very beginning — how do you prepare for
performances during practice?
1.3.14.4 Practicing for Performances and Playing Musically
Although the ideas of this paragraph apply to all practice sessions, this is the most appropriate place to bring up
this subject. This is the subject of how musically you practice and how loud you practice, especially the more exciting loud, passages. Many students hate to practice when others are around to listen. Others are of the opinion
that piano practice is necessarily unpleasant and punishing to the ear. These are symptoms of a common misconception. If you are using the correct practice methods and making terrific progress, and quickly transitioning
to making music, there is nothing unpleasant about such practice sessions.
A common mistake is to practice loud passages loud all the time when learning a new composition. There is
no need to play a loud passage loud until you can play it satisfactorily; loudness is added later. By separating the
loudness from the technique, you acquire technique with less fatigue and learn to reduce stress faster. Once the
technique is attained with full relaxation, you can add much more power than you could before, without picking up
bad habits. Students who have not completely eliminated stress often practice everything too loud. Thus practicing
too loud is frequently an indication of some underlying problem. Of course, there are students who never play
sufficiently firmly to produce a solid, clear, tone, and these have the opposite problem of having to firm up their
playing. Both problems, either playing too loudly or too softly, can be helped by practicing the gravity drop. The
best criterion that you are practicing correctly is the reaction of others — if your practice sounds good to them,
or at least it doesn’t bother them, then you are probably doing it right.
Since technique is inseparable from music (even scales and arpeggios should be practiced musically, not mechanically) everything you practice and play must be musical. This type of practice will be of great help when it
comes time to perform. Looking at this another way, practicing without regard to musicality will certainly make
switching to “performance mode” an impossible task. But of course, this matter is much more fundamental; it is a
matter of what is the right and wrong way to acquire technique for difficult passages.
What does it mean to play musically? This question can only be answered definitively by application of the
myriad micro-rules that apply to specific passages of specific compositions. If you have incorporated all of the
musical notations and markings into your music, this should follow automatically. However, there are a few very
useful macro-rules, without which most performances would come out flat. Basically, during a performance, you
have to be able to play with confidence and authority. In order to achieve this, it is useful to keep the following rules
in mind:
1. carefully and consciously connect each bar to the preceding bar (or measure, or phrase). These bars/measures
do not stand alone; one logically flows into the other and they all support each other. They are connected
rhythmically as well as conceptually. You might think that this point is trivially obvious; however, when you
do this consciously, you might be surprised by a significant improvement in your music.
2. there must always be a conversation between the RH and LH. They don’t play independently. And they won’t
talk to each other automatically just because you timed them perfectly. You must consciously create a conversation between the two hands, or voices, in the music.
3. “cresc.” means that most of the passage should be played softly; only the last few notes are loud, which means
that it is important to start softly. Similarly, for other indications of this nature (rit., accel., dim., etc); make
sure that you have reserved space for the action to take place and don’t start the action immediately, wait
until the last moment.
4. strive more for accuracy than expressive rubato; rubato is often too easy, incorrect, and not in tune with the
audience. This is the time to use the metronome to check your timing and rhythm!
5. when in doubt, start and end each musical phrase softly, with the louder notes near the middle. It is usually
incorrect to have loud notes at the ends.
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Musical playing feeds on itself. Thus a good performance begets a better performance. This also applies to
practicing. Musicality also has no limit — you can improve no matter where you are on the scale of musicality.
The terrifying part of this is the flip side. If you do not pay attention, you can develop non-musical playing habits
that can keep on destroying your musicality. This is why it is so important to focus on musicality and not only on
technique; it can make the difference between whether you can perform or not. The above points (1 to 5) are not
trivial. If you focus on them, several things will automatically happen. Firstly, you will be so preoccupied by trying
to get them all to come out right that you will have less opportunity to make non-musical mistakes. Secondly, they
will set your playing on a sound basis from which to improve. As you hear the music coming out correctly, it will
become much easier to further enhance the music than if you had started it wrong.
1.3.14.5 Casual Performances
Now let’s talk about casual performances. Common types of casual performances are playing pieces for testing
pianos in stores or playing for friends at parties, etc. These are different from formal recitals because of their greater
freedom. There is usually no set program, you just pick anything you think appropriate for the moment, and it may
in fact be full of changes and interruptions midway through the playing. Nervousness is not even an issue. Even
with the alleviating factors, this is not easy in the beginning. One thing you can do to get an easy start is to play little
snippets (short segments from a composition) from various pieces you know. You can start with easy ones. You
can pick out just the best sounding sections. If it doesn’t work out too well, start on another one. Same, if you get
stuck. You can start and quit at any time. This is a great way to experiment and find out how you perform and which
snippets work. Do you tend to play too fast? It is better to start too slow and speed up than the other way round.
Can you adjust to a different piano? Can you keep track of the audience reaction? Can you make the audience react
to your playing? Can you pick the right types of snippets for the occasion? Can you put yourself in the right frame
of mind to play? What is your level of nervousness, can you control it? Can you play and talk at the same time? Can
you gloss over mistakes without being bothered by them?
Playing snippets has one interesting advantage which is that most audiences are very impressed by your ability
to stop and start anywhere in the middle of a piece. Most people assume that all amateur pianists learn pieces by
finger memory from beginning to end, and that somehow, the ability to play snippets requires special talent. Since
the methods of this book are based on practicing segments, this should be an easy thing to do. Start with short
snippets, and then gradually try longer ones. Once you have done this type of casual snippet performance on 4 and
5 different occasions, you should be ready to perform longer sections.
There are few special rules for preparing for snippet performances. Don’t perform a piece you had just learned.
Let it stew for at least 6 months; preferably one year. If you had just spent 2 weeks learning a difficult new piece,
don’t expect to be able to play snippets you had not played at all in those 2 weeks — be prepared for all kinds of
surprises, such as blackouts. In that case, try out the snippets at home before attempting to perform them. On the
other hand, if you had been polishing old pieces for the last 2 weeks, you can play any snippet you want; even ones
you hadn’t played at all for months. They will tend to come out fine. Don’t practice the snippets fast on the day on
which you might be performing them. Practicing them very slowly will help. It is a good idea to double check that
you can still play them HS. You can break a lot of these rules for very short snippets. You should experiment to see
which rules you need to follow for snippet performances.
Because casual performances are much more relaxed, it provides an avenue for easing your way gradually into
performing, in preparation for recitals. This is because recitals are often high pressure affairs with the attendant
nervousness. Students suddenly thrust into formal recitals often end up becoming nervous at any performance.
Nervousness is a purely mental thing and is a feedback mechanism that feeds on itself. Therefore it is quite possible that it can be mostly avoided depending on the person’s history. For example, by going through enough casual
performances without developing any nervousness, a person can get to perform at recitals with much less nervousness than if s/he were suddenly thrust into formal recitals. Thus one thing you should work on, is to learn how to
suppress nervousness during casual performances. Learning to enjoy the occasion, to use it as a way to demonstrate how you can express yourself, etc., will reduce nervousness, whereas fear of performing, making mistakes,
etc., will increase it.
Clearly, it is a mistake for a teacher to take a student and enter her/im into a recital without any preparation.
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Students must be gradually introduced to performing through a well planned program. They should be taught the
art of snippet playing at informal occasions. They should practice performing by videotaping. Students need to
take a course on nervousness. They should play very simple pieces for the first few recitals. Students and their
parents must know the details of the recital preparation routines (see below). In summary, even if we know the art
of making music, we can’t perform without training in the art of performing.
1.3.14.6 Preparation Practice Routines
As noted above, there are good reasons why all successful piano teachers hold recitals of their students. Therefore,
attending these recitals is a good way to find good teachers and to learn about how they teach. There is a direct
correlation between how good the teacher is and how many recitals s/he schedules. Obviously, the better teachers
hold more recitals, some as many as six or more a year. See the section on “Teaching” for how you can schedule
so many recitals a year. Have you noticed that student recitals tend to be either terrific or terrible? This happens
because some teachers know how to prepare their students for recitals while others do not. This explanation is
supported by the observation that, when the recital is good, all the students play well, and vice versa.
Even if a student can play perfectly during practice, s/he can make all kinds of mistakes during a recital if the
preparation is incorrect. Most students intuitively practice hard and at full speed during the week preceding the
recital, and especially on the day of the recital. In order to simulate the recital, they imagine an audience listening
nearby and play their hearts out, playing the entire piece from beginning to end, many times. This practice method
is the single biggest cause of mistakes and poor performance. The most telling remark I hear so often is, “Strange,
I played so well all morning but during the recital, I made mistakes that I don’t made during practice!” To an experienced teacher, this is a student practicing out of control without any guidance about right and wrong methods of
recital preparation.
Teachers who hold those recitals in which the students perform wonderfully keep a tight leash on their students
and control their practice routines closely. Why all this fuss? Because during a recital, the most stressed element is
the brain, not the playing mechanism. And this stress cannot be replicated in any kind of simulated performance.
Thus the brain must be rested and fully charged for a one-time performance; it cannot be drained by playing your
heart out. All mistakes originate in the brain. All the necessary information must be stored in an orderly manner
in the brain, with no confusion. This is why improperly prepared students always play worse in a recital than
during practice. When you practice at full speed, a large amount of confusion is introduced into the memory. It
is analogous to a computer that has been used for a long time without defragmenting the main disk and deleting
duplicate and useless files. In addition, the environment of the recital is different from that of the practice piano.
Therefore, you must have a simple, mistake-free memory of the piece that can be retrieved in spite of all the added
distractions. This is why it is extremely difficult to perform the same piece twice on the same day, or even on
successive days. The second performance is invariably worse than the first, although intuitively, you would expect
the second performance to be better because you had one extra experience performing it. As elsewhere in this
section, these types of remarks apply only to students. Professional musicians should be able to perform anything
any number of times at any time; this skill comes from continuous exposure to performing, and honing the proper
rules of preparation.
Through trial and error, experienced teachers have found practice routines that work for students. The most
important rule is to limit the amount of practice on recital day, so as to keep the mind fresh. The brain is totally unreceptive on recital day. It can only become confused. Only a small minority of talented students have sufficiently
“strong” musical brains to assimilate something new on recital day. By the way, this also applies to tests and exams.
Most of the time, you will score better in an exam by going to a movie the night before the exam than by cramming.
A typical recommended practice routine is to play nearly full speed once, then medium speed once and finally
once slowly. That’s it! No more practice! Never play faster than recital speed. Notice how counter intuitive this is.
Since parents and friends will always use intuitive methods, it is important for the teacher to make sure that any
person associated with the student also know these rules, especially for the younger students. Otherwise, in spite of
anything the teacher says, the students will come to the recital having practiced all day at full speed, because their
parents made them do it.
Of course, this is just the starting point. It can be altered to fit the circumstances. This routine is for the typical
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student and is not for professional performers who will have much more detailed routines that depend not only on
the type of music being played, but also on the particular composer or particular piece to be played. Clearly, for
this routine to work, the piece will have had to be ready for performance way ahead of time. However, even if the
piece has not been perfected and can be improved with more practice, this is still the best routine for the recital
day. If you make a mistake that you know is stubborn and which you are almost certain that it will occur during
the recital, fish out just the few bars containing the mistake and practice those at the appropriate speeds (always
ending with slow play), staying away from fast playing as much as possible. If you are not sure that the piece is
completely memorized, you can play it very slowly several times.
Since you are allowed only one practice at speed (or close to it), what do you do if you make a mistake? Play
right through! Don’t stop to correct it or even hesitate. Unfortunately, any mistake you make at this time has a
high probability of reappearing during the recital. Therefore, after you have finished the piece, go back and fish
out the phrase containing the mistake and play it slowly several times. That is all that can be done. The rest of the
procedure for avoiding this mistake must be conducted during the recital, see below.
Also, avoid extreme exertion, such as playing a football game or lifting or pushing something heavy. This can
suddenly change the response of your muscles to a signal from the brain and you can end up making totally unexpected mistakes when you play at the recital. Of course, mild exercise, stretching, calisthenics, Tai Chi, Yoga, etc.,
can be very beneficial.
For the week preceding the recital, always play medium speed, then slow speed, before quitting practice. You
can substitute medium speed for slow speed if you are short of time, the piece is particularly easy, or if you are a
more experienced performer. Actually, this rule applies to any practice session, but is particularly critical before
a recital. The slow play erases any bad habits that you might have picked up, and re-establishes relaxed playing.
Therefore, during these medium/slow plays, concentrate on relaxation. Sometimes, relaxation becomes difficult at
slow play, which is another valid reason for substituting it with medium speed. There is no fixed number such as
half speed, etc., to define medium and slow, although medium is generally about 3/4 speed, and slow is about half
speed. More generally, medium speed is the speed at which you can play comfortably, relaxed, and with plenty of
time to spare. Slow is the speed at which you need to pay attention to each note separately. If you make any mistake
while practicing, always play through them; do not stop and restart. Of course you should do this all the time, but it
is especially critical before a recital. After you have played the entire piece, go back and check to see if the mistake
is a habitual one. If so, practice just the segment containing the mistake. The best time to learn to play through
mistakes is from day one when you start your first piano lessons. Then playing through becomes second nature
and is not difficult at all. Once you get the habit of “stuttering” at every mistake, it becomes almost impossible to
correct, and you wonder how anyone can play through mistakes.
Blackouts are different from mistakes and must be dealt with differently. Never try to restart from where you
blacked out unless you know exactly how to restart. Always restart from a preceding section or a following section
that you know well (preferably a following section because mistakes cannot be corrected during the recital).
Up to the last day before the recital, you can work on improving the piece. But within the last week, adding new
material or making changes in the piece (such as fingering) is not recommended, although you might try it as a
training experiment to see how far you can push yourself. Being able to add something new during the last week
is a sign that you may be a strong performer. For working on the piece, avoid playing the entire composition many
times. It is best to chop it into short segments and practice the segments. Practicing HS is also an excellent idea.
Although playing too fast is not recommended in the last week, you can practice at any speed HS. Avoid learning
new pieces during this last week. That does not mean that you are limited to the recital pieces; you can still practice
any piece that you have previously learned. New pieces are unpredictable and will often cause you to learn new
skills that affect or alter how you play the recital piece. In general, you will not be aware that this happened until
you play the recital piece and wonder how some new mistakes crept in.
Make a habit of playing your recital pieces “cold” (without any warming up) when you start any practice session.
The hands will warm up after one or two pieces, so you may have to rotate the recital pieces with each practice
session, if you are playing many pieces. Of course, “playing cold” has to be done within reason. If the fingers are
totally sluggish from inaction, you cannot, and should not try to, play difficult material at full speed; it will lead to
stress and even injury. Some pieces can only be played after the hands are completely limbered up. It is part of your
job to play cold and to find out which ones you can play cold at full speed, and which ones you should not.
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Students should record or videotape their playing and listen to these recordings (see section 1.3.13 above). They
will be surprised at how different the recordings sound from what they intended to play. Frequently, they will catch a
slew of mistakes of which they were not aware. Recording is also a good way to practice playing before an audience.
Videotaping is far better than just audio recording and can produce some nearly magical effects. It is by far the best
way to simulate a performance; the only better way is to recruit a bunch of people to listen to you. Videotaping has
the advantage that you can alternate practicing with taping so that you can immediately correct any mistakes you
find. The magic of videotaping works in two ways. First, it is such a good simulation of the actual recital that, if you
can play satisfactorily during videotaping, you will have no trouble during the recital — you will gain the confidence
to perform. The second magic is that, if you gain sufficient confidence, the nervousness can be almost completely
eliminated. Of course, in order to eliminate nervousness, you must also follow all the other points discussed in
this book, starting with the attitude that you are a performing pianist and therefore is expected to perform. See the
following section (section 1.3.15) for more information on controlling nervousness using videotaping.
1.3.14.7 During the Recital
Nervousness is generally worst just before you start to play. Once you start, you will be so busy with the execution
that the nervousness will usually be forgotten, and from then on, things will get better. This knowledge can be quite
reassuring, so there is nothing wrong with starting play as soon as you sit down at the piano for the recital. Some
people will delay starting by adjusting the bench or some clothing item in order to have time to double check that
the starting tempo, etc., are correct; this procedure is also acceptable, as it reassures the audience that you are not
too nervous and is in no hurry to start. It is a good idea to practice starting, from several days prior to the recital.
Whenever you have time, just pretend that it is recital time, and play the first few bars. In particular, practice the
first few lines more than anything else. Most people become more nervous than they should be, because the level of
nervousness just before playing can be so high that they fear that if it gets any higher, they won’t be able to perform.
The knowledge that nervousness will subside as soon as you begin play will prevent this from happening.
You can’t assume that you won’t make any mistakes because that assumption can only get you into more trouble.
Be ready to react correctly with each mistake, or more importantly an impending mistake that you can avoid. It is
amazing how often you can feel an impending mistake before it hits. This happens because, chances are, you have
made this mistake many times before. The worst thing that most students do when they make a mistake or when
they anticipate one is to get scared and start playing more slowly and softly. This can lead to disaster. At this point
in the recital, you can use help from anywhere you can get it. Although finger memory is not something you want to
depend on, this is one time you can take advantage of it. Finger memory depends on habit and stimuli — the habit
of having practiced many times, and the stimuli of previous notes leading to succeeding notes. Therefore, in order
to enhance finger memory, you must play slightly faster and louder, exactly the opposite of what an anxious person
would do during a recital (another counter-intuitive situation!). The faster play makes better use of the playing
habit, and leaves less time for moving some wrong muscle that might derail you from the habit. The firmer play
increases the stimuli for the finger memory. Now playing faster and louder are scary things to do during a recital,
so you should practice this at home just as you practice anything else. Learn to anticipate mistakes and to avoid
them by using these avoidance methods. The important lesson here is that one trick for “playing through mistakes”
is to play it slightly faster and louder. Another method is to make sure that the melodic line is not broken, even at
the cost of missing some “accompaniment” notes. With practice, you will find that this is easier than it sounds; the
best time to practice this is when you are sight reading. Another is to at least keep the rhythm. The trick of playing
faster works particularly well with blackouts. For mistakes that occur because the passage is difficult, slowing down
might be a better approach.
1.3.14.8 That Unfamiliar Piano
Some students fret that the recital piano is a huge grand whereas they practice on a small upright. Fortunately,
the larger pianos are easier to play than the smaller ones. Therefore the issue of a different piano is usually not
something to worry about for the typical student recital. Larger pianos generally have better action, and both louder
and softer sounds are easier to produce on them. In particular, grands are easier to play than uprights, especially for
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fast, difficult passages. Thus the only time you may have to be concerned about the piano is when the recital piano
is decidedly inferior to your practice piano. The worst situation is the one in which your practice piano is a quality
grand, but you must play a low quality upright. In that case, technically difficult pieces will be very difficult to play
on the inferior piano and you may need to take that into account, for example, by playing at a slower tempo, or
shortening or slowing down the trill, etc. The actions of grands can be slightly heavier than those of uprights, which
may give some beginners problems, so it is advisable to practice on the grand before the recital. On average, the
key weight feel of grands and uprights is about the same because, although most grands have heavier action, they
produce more sound, and the two effects tend to cancel each other out. Of course, it is impossible to generalize
about pianos because there is so much variation from piano to piano, even within the same model piano from the
same manufacturer. Therefore, you should always try to practice on the recital piano. For advanced students, the
particular piano can be of paramount importance.
Another important factor is the tuning of the piano. Pianos in good tune are significantly easier to play than one
out of tune. Therefore, it is a good idea to tune the recital piano just before the recital. Conversely, it is not a good
idea to tune the practice piano just before the recital. In that case you might end up with the situation in which the
practice piano is in better tune than the recital piano, and you end up playing the recital on an inferior piano — a
difficult feat. An out of tune piano tends to cause flubs and blackouts. Therefore, if the recital piano is out of tune,
it may be best to play slightly faster and louder than you intended. Because of the tendency of out of tune pianos
to cause flubs and blackouts, the practice piano should always be in reasonable tune. Otherwise, the students may
develop a habit of stuttering or lose their confidence in their ability to memorize.
Proper voicing of the hammers (see 2.7.1) is more critical than most people realize. The importance of practicing
musically, and especially of being able to play softly, is mentioned repeatedly in this book. You can’t do any of
that without properly voiced hammers. Hammer voicing is too often neglected in practice pianos with the result
that musical playing becomes nearly impossible. How can you practice performing on a piano with which it is
impossible to perform? There are many students who think that they cannot perform, simply because their pianos
were not properly maintained. The folklore that a great pianist can produce great music using any piano is not true.
Please read the section on voicing.
1.3.14.9 After the Recital
Review the recital results and evaluate your strengths and weaknesses so that you can improve your recital preparation routine. In addition to your own evaluation, you need feedback from your teacher, the audience, etc. Everybody must develop a “recital preparation routine”, because that is the secret for a good performance. A few students
will be able to play consistently without audible mistakes. Most of the others will make several mistakes every time
they play. Some will tend to bang on the piano while others may be too timid. There is a cure for every problem.
Those who make mistakes probably have not yet learned to play sufficiently musically. Give them easier pieces to
perform, not because they are technically easier, but because that will allow them to work on musical playing and
to get out of the tendency to flub. Of course, they will still need to learn difficult pieces, in addition to the easier
recital pieces, for technical development.
As noted elsewhere, playing several recitals in succession is the hardest thing to do. But if you must, then you
will need to recondition the recital pieces immediately following the recital. Play them with little or no expression,
medium speed, then slow. If certain sections or pieces did not come out satisfactorily during the recital, you can
work on them, but only in small segments. If you want to work on the expression at full speed, do this also in
small segments. Experienced teachers know the difficulty of playing consecutively and will purposely use this to
strengthen the students’ performance ability by scheduling recitals on consecutive days. However, it is my personal
opinion that it is more important to train the student to enjoy performing than to give them too many difficult
tasks. The joy of performance should not emphasize “showing off” the technical skills of playing difficult pieces but
should instead concentrate on making music.
1.3.15 Origin and Control of Nervousness
Updated:
November 6, 2004
Nervousness is a natural human emotion just as happiness, fear, sadness, etc., are emotions. Happiness arises
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as a physical response to a mental perception of something good; fear arises from a perception of danger, etc. Nervousness arises from a mental perception of a situation in which performance is critical. Therefore, nervousness,
like all emotions, is a performance enhancing reaction to perceived critical situations. Happiness feels good,
so we try to create happy situations, which helps us; fear helps us to escape danger, and sadness makes us avoid
sad situations which tends to improve our chances of survival. Nervousness makes us concentrate all our energies
towards the critical task at hand and is therefore another beneficial survival tool of evolution. Most people dislike
nervousness because it is too often accompanied, or is caused, by fear of failure. However, it is important to realize
that nervousness is a natural response to critical situations and can be beneficial.
Emotions are basic, primitive, animal reactions, somewhat like instinct, and are not totally rational. Under normal circumstances, emotions guide our daily actions nicely. However, under extreme conditions, emotions can
get out of control, and it can then become a liability. Clearly, emotions were designed to work only under normal
circumstances. For example, fear makes the frog escape long before a predator can catch it. However, when cornered, the frog freezes in fear and this makes it an easier meal for the snake than if the overwhelming fear hadn’t
paralyzed it. Likewise, nervousness normally is mild and helps us to perform a critical task better than if we were
lackadaisical. However, under extreme conditions, it can spin out of control and hinder our performance. The requirement to perform a difficult piano solo flawlessly in front of a large audience eminently qualifies as an extreme
condition. It is no surprise that nervousness can grow out of control, unless our name is Wolfie or Franz (Freddy
apparently didn’t qualify, as he was a nervous wreck and disliked public performances). Thus, although violinists
do get nervous, it does not spin out of control when they are playing in an orchestra because the conditions are
not as extreme as for solo performances. Youngsters, who are too frightened to perform solo, almost always enjoy
performing in a group. This shows the over-riding importance of the mental perception of the situation.
Clearly, the way to control nervousness is to first study its cause and nature and to develop methods for
controlling it based on this knowledge. Since it is an emotion, any method for controlling emotions will work.
Some have claimed that, under a doctor’s supervision, medications such as Inderal and Atenolol, or even Zantac
will work to calm nerves. Conversely, you can make it worse by drinking coffee or tea, not getting enough sleep, or
taking certain cold medications. Emotions can also be controlled by use of psychology, training, or conditioning.
Knowledge is the most effective means of control. For example, experienced snake handlers do not suffer any of
the emotions most of us would experience when we come close to a poisonous snake because of their knowledge
of snakes.
By the time nervousness becomes a problem, it is usually a compound emotion spinning out of control. In
addition to nervousness, other emotions such as fear and worry, join in. A lack of understanding of nervousness also
creates fear because of the fear of the unknown. As the symptoms worsen, you worry that the extreme nervousness
will interfere with the performance. Thus just the simple knowledge of what stage fright is, can be a calming factor
by reducing the fear of the unknown.
How does nervousness grow out of control, and are there ways to prevent it? One way to approach this question
is to visit some principles of fundamental science. Practically anything in our universe grows by a process known
as the Nucleation-Growth (NG) mechanism. The NG theory states that an object forms in two stages, nucleation
and growth. This theory became popular and useful because it is in fact the way in which the majority of objects
in our universe form, from raindrops to cities to stars. It is amazing that this theory, which has many intricate
parts, describes the formation of so many things so accurately. Two key elements of NG theory are: (1) nucleation
— nuclei are always forming and disappearing. However, there is a thing called a critical nucleus which, when
formed, becomes stable — it does not disappear. In general, the critical nucleus does not form unless there is
a supersaturation of the material that aggregate to form it, and (2) growth — for the object to grow to its final
size, the critical nucleus needs a growth mechanism by which to increase its size. One of the most interesting
aspects of nucleation is that there is almost always a barrier to nucleation — otherwise, everything would have
nucleated a long time ago. Growth is a two-way street: it can be positive or negative.
Let’s examine one example: rain. Rain occurs when water droplets form critical nuclei in air that is supersaturated with water vapor (relative humidity greater than 100%). The oft misquoted “scientific truth” that relative
humidity never exceeds 100% is routinely violated by Nature because that “truth” is valid only under equilibrium
conditions, when all forces have been allowed to equilibrate. Nature is almost always dynamic, and it can be far
from equilibrium. This happens, for example, when the air cools rapidly and becomes supersaturated with water
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vapor. Even without supersaturation, water vapor is constantly forming water droplets, but these evaporate before they can form critical nuclei. With supersaturation, critical nuclei can suddenly form, especially if there are
hydrophilic dust particles in the air or a compressive disturbance such as a thunderclap that brings the molecules
closer together. The air filled with critical nuclei is what we call a cloud or fog. If the formation of the cloud reduces
the supersaturation to near zero, a stable cloud is created; if not, the nuclei will grow by several new mechanisms.
This is the second stage of the NG process. The nuclei can bump into each other and aggregate, or start to fall and
hit other water molecules and nuclei, until rain drops form.
Let’s apply NG theory to nervousness. In everyday life, your sense of nervousness comes and goes, without
becoming anything serious. However, in an unusual situation such as just before a performance, there is a supersaturation of factors that cause nervousness: you must perform flawlessly, you didn’t have enough time to practice
the piece, there is a big audience out there, etc. However, this still may not cause any problem because there are
natural barriers to nucleating nervousness, such as a flow of adrenalin, a sense of accomplishment, or even just
a lack of the realization that there is nervousness. But then, a fellow performer says, “Hey, I got butterflies in my
stomach,” and you suddenly feel a lump in your throat and realize that you are nervous — the critical nucleus has
formed! This may still not be that bad, until you start to worry that perhaps your piece is not yet ready to perform or
the nervousness might start to interfere with the playing — these worries cause the nervousness to grow. These are
exactly the processes described by NG theory. The nice thing about any scientific theory is that it not only describes
the process in detail, but also provides solutions. So how does NG theory help us?
First of all we can attack nervousness at the nucleation stage; if we can prevent nucleation, it will never form a
critical nucleus. Just merely delaying the nucleation will be helpful because that will reduce the time available for it
to grow. Playing easier pieces will reduce the supersaturation of worry. Mock recitals will give you more experience
and confidence; both will reduce the fear of the unknown. Generally, you need to perform a piece 3 or more times
before you know whether you can perform it successfully or not; thus playing pieces that had been performed
several times will also help. Nervousness is generally worst before a performance; once you start playing, you are
so busy with the task at hand that there is no time to dwell on nervousness, thus reducing the growth factor. This
knowledge helps because it alleviates the fear that things might get worse during the performance. Not dwelling on
nervousness is another way of delaying the nucleation as well as slowing the growth stage. Thus it is a good idea
to keep yourself occupied while waiting for the recital to begin. Keyboard memory is useful because you can check
your memory and keep yourself occupied at the same time by playing the piece in your mind. See the following
section on Teaching for suggestions on how teachers can provide performance training.
For an important recital, avoiding nucleation is probably not possible. Therefore we should also consider ways
to discourage growth. Since nervousness generally decreases after the performance starts, this knowledge can be
used to reduce the worry and therefore the nervousness. This can feed on itself, and as you feel more assured,
nervousness can often dissipate entirely, if you can reduce it below the critical nucleus. Another important factor
is mental attitude and preparation. A performance is always an interactive process, with yourself, and with the
audience. When the music comes out well, it is easier to perform well; conversely, if you make a mistake, it can feed
back psychologically and further degrade the performance. Thus it is important to be mentally prepared so as not to
be adversely affected by mistakes or perceived poor performance. Instead of grimacing at a mistake, you might put
on a smile. Remember that you are your worst critic and even casual playing sounds terrific to the audience. They
generally hear less than half of the mistakes and remember even less, whereas the performer remembers every
mistake. Inexperienced performers often try to play too fast which is almost always counterproductive. Playing
musically, of course, is always the answer — when you can involve your entire brain in the business of creating
music, there is very little brain resources left to worry about nervousness. These are all measures for reducing the
growth of nervousness.
It is not a good idea to pretend that nervousness does not exist, especially with youngsters who can more
easily suffer long term psychological damage. Kids are smart and they can easily see through the pretense, and
the need to play along with the pretense can only increase the stress. This is why performance training, in which
nervousness is discussed openly, is so important. For the case of young students, their parents and friends attending the recital need to be educated also. Statements like “I hope you aren’t nervous!” or “How can you perform
without getting nervous?” are almost certain to cause nucleation and growth. On the other hand, to completely
ignore nervousness and send kids out to perform with no performance training is also irresponsible and can even
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cause irreparable psychological damage.
There is no substitute for the proper mental attitude for controlling stage fright. If you can get into the frame
of mind that performing is a wonderful experience of making music for others and develop proper reactions when
you do make mistakes, nervousness will not be problematic. There is this huge difference between, for example,
creating humor out of a mistake or recovering nicely from it and letting that mistake look like a disaster that mars
the entire performance. Here again, we must know what not to do. That is why it is so important, early in a student’s
career, to play very easy pieces that can be performed without nervousness; even just one such experience can
provide the existence proof that performing without nervousness is possible. That single experience can influence
your performance attitude for the rest of your life.
In summary, stage fright is a form of nervousness that has spiraled out of control. A certain amount of nervousness is normal and beneficial. You can minimize nervousness by delaying its nucleation by keeping busy and
reducing its growth by playing musically. Thus it doesn’t make sense to ask “do you get nervous when you perform?”
Everyone does, and should. We only need to contain it so that it does not grow beyond our control. Thus realizing
that a certain amount of nervousness is normal is the best starting point for learning how to control it. See the
preceding section on preparing for recitals on how to practice performing. Gaining confidence in your ability to
perform can sometimes completely eliminate nervousness. Of course, nervousness is a very individual behavior
and there is a wide range of reactions from those who don’t get nervous, to those who suffer terribly from stage
fright. The best policy for nervousness is honesty — we must acknowledge its effect on each individual and treat it
accordingly.
1.3.16 Teaching
1.3.16.1 Types of Teachers
Teaching piano is a difficult profession because practically everything you try to do contradicts something else that
should be done. If you teach reading, the student may end up unable to memorize. If you teach slow, accurate play,
the student may not acquire sufficient technique in any reasonable amount of time. If you push them too fast, they
may forget all about relaxation. If you concentrate on technique, the student might lose track of musical playing.
You need to devise a system that successfully navigates through all these types of contradictory requirements and
still satisfies the individual wishes and needs of each student. Teaching piano is a Herculean task that is not for
the faint of heart.
Teachers generally fall into at least three categories, depending on whom they teach. There are teachers for
beginners, intermediate students, and advanced students. This makes it difficult for any one teacher to teach successfully, independently of other teachers. The most successful approach involves a group of teachers composed
of all three categories; the teachers are coordinated in such a way that their teachings are mutually compatible,
and the appropriate students are directed to the appropriate teachers. This assembly of different teachers into a
group is necessary today because teaching methods are not standardized. Thus many teachers of advanced students refuse to take students from certain teachers because the latter “do not teach the proper fundamentals”. This
should not happen if the fundamentals are standardized.
The three categories of teachers are needed because it is a waste of resources for teachers capable of teaching
intermediate students to be teaching beginners. In addition, advanced teachers are usually not good teachers of
beginners. However, all teachers must be coordinated in the sense that they must all teach the same methods,
philosophies, etc., so that when a beginner student graduates and is passed on to the intermediate teacher, this
transition goes smoothly. The last thing an advanced teacher wants is a student who was initially taught all the
“wrong” methods. Another reason for the need for the three levels of teachers is that the talents and objectives of
the students are diverse, so that some will advance rapidly while others will stay at a low level. Thus some students
who had taken lessons for years may still be inappropriate for a higher level teacher.
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1.3.16.2 Teaching Youngsters
The first lessons for beginners, especially young children 4 or 5 years old, should be brief, 10 to 15 minutes at
most. Increase the lesson time only as their attention time span and stamina increase. If more time is necessary,
divide the lesson into sessions with breaks in between (“cookie time”, etc.). The same rules apply to practice times
at home.
General comment: although specific methods are frequently cited for youngsters in this section on teaching,
the methods also apply to adults, except where noted.
It is important for youngsters to listen to recordings. Even if they can’t truly interpret Chopin until they demonstrate some maturity, they can listen to Chopin at any age. They should also listen to recordings of their own playing;
otherwise, they may not understand why you are criticizing their mistakes. Do not feed them music just because it
is classical or it was written by Bach. Play only what you and the youngsters enjoy.
Youngsters should learn counting by counting out loud — without hearing their counting, the teacher may have
no idea whether the child understands the concept. Youngsters develop in spurts, and they can only learn what they
are mature enough to learn. In other words, you can’t teach them something until they are ready for it. Therefore,
part of the teaching must consist of a constant testing of their level of maturity. On the other hand, most youngsters
are ready for many more things than most adults realize and once they are ready, the sky is the limit. Therefore, it
is also a mistake to assume that all kids are kids. They can be surprisingly advanced in many respects and treating
them as kids (for example, letting them listen only to “kiddie music”) only holds them back, and deprives them of
the opportunity to fulfill their full potential.
For at least the first five years of lessons, especially for youngsters, teachers must insist that the parents
participate in the teaching/learning process. The parents’ first job is to understand the methods that the teacher is
teaching. Since so many practice methods and recital preparation procedures are counter-intuitive, the parents
must be familiar with them so that they can not only help to guide the students, but also avoid negating the
teacher’s instructions. The parents must participate in deciding how long the students practice each day, since
they are most familiar with all the time demands of the students. The parents also know the students’ ultimate
objectives best — are the lessons just for casual playing, or for advancing to much higher levels? What types of
music do the students eventually want to play? Beginning students always need help at home in working out the
optimum routine for daily practice as well as keeping track of weekly assignments. Once the lessons start, it is
surprising how often the teachers need the parents’ help — where and how to buy sheet music, how often to tune
the piano, or when to upgrade to a better piano, etc. The teachers and parents need to agree on how fast the
students are expected to learn and to work towards attaining that learning rate. The parents need to be informed
of the students’ strengths and weaknesses so as to be able to match their expectations and plans with what is or is
not achievable. Most importantly, it is the parents’ job to evaluate the teacher and to make proper decisions on
switching teachers at the appropriate time.
Students need a lot of help from their parents, and the kinds of help change with age. When young, the students
need constant help with daily practice routines, whether they are practicing correctly and following the teacher’s
instructions. It is most important at this stage to establish correct practice habits. The parents must make sure
that during practice, the students make it a habit to play through mistakes instead of backtracking, which will
create a stuttering habit and makes the student mistake-prone during performances. Most youngsters will not
understand the teacher’s instructions given hurriedly during their lessons; the parents can more readily understand
those instructions. As the students advance, they need feedback on whether they are playing musically, whether
their tempo and rhythm are accurate or if they need to use the metronome, and whether they should stop practicing
and start listening to recordings.
Parental involvement should go much farther than just helping the teacher. Piano or music education can
start at home as soon as the child is born. Listening to the “right” kind of music, and listening to the sound of
well tuned pianos, can have the most profound effects on the child’s brain and its development. In addition to
supplying the musical stimuli, it is also the parents’ job to keep testing the child for when s/he becomes receptive
to the different stages of musical development. Is the child ready to start pressing piano keys? Can the child sing
or hum a tune? Is the child ready to start (music) reading lessons? Note that music notation is much simpler than
the alphabet. Does the child have rhythm? Does the child have perfect pitch? What kind of music or instrument
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does the child like? You never know until you test them. It is generally counterproductive to try to push children
into something for which they are not yet ready or do not show interest. You cannot just push children in some
direction; the only thing you can do is to arrange the environment so that they will develop an interest in that
direction. Familiarity, good, pleasant experiences, and success are factors that can lead a child in certain directions.
Before they are ready, the only thing you can do is to provide these environments and to test them; but if they are
ready, watch out! They can progress far faster than you ever dreamed.
Mental development is the main reason for letting youngsters listen to classics — the “Mozart Effect”. The
reasoning goes something like this. Assume that the average parent has average intelligence; then there is a 50%
chance that the child is smarter than the parents. That is, the parents cannot compete on the same intellectual
level as their baby! Mozart (or any other genius composer) is different — few babies will be able to challenge those
intellectual levels. In addition, music is a universal language; unlike the crazy adult languages that we speak, music
is inborn, so babies can communicate in music long before they can say “dada”. Therefore, classical music can
stimulate a baby’s brain long before the parents can communicate with the baby even on the most basic levels. And
these communications are conducted at the levels of the genius composers, something few parents can hope to do!
1.3.16.3 Memorizing, Reading, Theory
The teacher must choose, at an early stage, whether the student should be taught to play from memory or learn
to read music. This choice is necessitated by the fact that the details of the teaching program and how the teacher
interacts with the students depend on it. The Suzuki violin method emphasizes playing from memory at the expense of reading, especially for youngsters, and this is the best approach for piano also. It is easier to practice
reading after you can play reasonably well. The reason for this order of learning is simple; it is also the way children learn language: they first learn to speak, then to read. The abilities to speak and to make music are natural
evolutionary traits that we all have; reading is something that was added later as a consequence of our civilization.
Learning to speak is simply a process of memorizing all the sounds and logical constructs of each language. Therefore, reading is more “advanced” and less “natural”, and therefore cannot logical precede memory. For example,
there are many concepts in memory that can never be written down, such as color, playing with authority and
confidence, etc. A single “crescendo” indication can be played in a large number of ways.
However, reading should not be totally neglected in the beginning. It is only a matter of priority. Since music
notation is simpler than any alphabet, young children should be able to learn to read music even before they can
learn to read books. Thus reading should be taught from the very beginning, but only enough to read music for
practicing a piece and memorizing it. Reading should be encouraged as long as it does not interfere with playing from memory. This means that, once a piece is memorized, the music should not be used for daily practice.
However, the teacher must make sure that this lack of emphasis on reading does not result in a poor reader who
automatically memorizes everything but can’t read. There is a tendency in most beginners to become either good
readers (and poor memorizers) or vice versa, because when you become good at one, you need less of the other.
Thus the best outcome is a student who is both a good memorizer and a good reader. By monitoring the student
carefully, a teacher can prevent the student from becoming a poor reader or a poor memorizer. Because becoming a
poor reader or memorizer happens over a long period of time, usually many years, there is ample time to detect the
trend and correct it. A negligible number of people are born good or bad readers or memorizers. The vast majority
became good memorizers or good readers because of the way they learned throughout their life.
Reading is an indispensable teaching tool for teachers; the teacher’s job can be made easier if the student can
be taught to read. Teachers who emphasize reading are certainly justified because of the enormous amount of
information that is contained in even the simplest printed music, and practically every beginning student will miss
a large fraction of that information. Even advanced pianists often return to the music score to make sure that they
haven’t missed anything. Very often, you have to improve your skill to a certain level before you can fully execute all
the markings on the score so that, in the beginning, some of the markings may be effectively meaningless; thus you
need the score at every stage of development. Therefore, there is no question that reading is essential. In addition,
learning to read is not a simple task; not only do you have to learn the complex language of the music score, but you
also have to learn to recognize and execute the instructions in real time. This is why reading must be taught from
the very beginning. However, too many teachers depend too much on reading, which causes confusion among the
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students because the students are more interested in learning piano than simplifying the teacher’s task. Asking a
student to read the score is not the most efficient way to correct mistakes. All these conflicting factors cause great
confusion and controversy in piano pedagogy about whether is it better to teach memory or reading. Clearly, the
best program is one based on memory, but with enough reading training so that the student does not become a
poor reader.
How much reading training is enough? The normal amount of reading needed to learn your new pieces is generally sufficient. Especially for beginners, it does not pay to embark upon a reading program just to be able to read
(because your fingers can’t play them anyway), although the initial slow reading speed can be awfully frustrating.
A major learning trick in piano pedagogy is to learn several skills simultaneously, especially because many of them
take a long time to learn. Thus memorizing, reading, theory, etc., can all be learned simultaneously, saving you a
lot of time in the long run. When you first start a new piece, try to read without looking at the hands as much as
possible. However, there is nothing wrong with looking at the hands for large jumps, complex fingerings, etc. As
you memorize more, you will be looking at the music less and looking more at your hands. Once memorized, you
should practice practically all the time without the music score.
As students advance, a distinction should be made between compositions that they “sight read” and those that
they memorize. “Sight reading” is used here in a loose terminology to mean playing music by looking at the score,
without memorizing it. All significant lesson pieces should be memorized. These are pieces that the students
can be expected to perform for an audience. As the students advance, therefore, they will acquire two types of
repertoire; those they memorize and those they sight read, such as easy pieces and accompaniments. In later
stages, the student may decide to learn true sight reading (section 1.3.11 above), which is the ability to play music,
that they had never heard before, by reading a music score that they had not previously seen.
You can never teach too much music theory (solfege), notation, dictation, etc. Learning theory helps the students to acquire technique, memorize, understand the structure of the composition, and perform it correctly. It
will also help with improvisation and composition. It should be noted that, statistically, the majority of successful
piano students will end up composing music. Modern music (pop, jazz, etc.) nowadays uses very advanced musical
concepts and the underlying theory is helpful for understanding chord progressions, music structure and improvisation. Therefore, there are advantages to learning both classical and modern music. Modern music provides
contemporary theory and helps develop rhythm, and also appeals to a wider audience.
1.3.16.4 Some Elements of Piano Lessons
The piano lesson should not be a routine in which the student plays the lesson piece and the teacher assigns a new
piece. It is the teacher’s job, when starting a new piece, to go through it in segments, examining the fingerings,
analyzing the music, and basically bringing the student up to speed during the lesson, at least HS or in segments.
After a few lessons of this type, the job shifts into playing it musically — examining the musical content, bringing out
the expression, the attributes of the composer (Mozart is different from Chopin, etc.), the color, etc. A good teacher
can save the students a tremendous amount of time by demonstrating all the necessary elements of technique. It
should not be left to the student to try to find these out by trial and error. Because of these requirements, lessons
beyond beginner level can become quite intense and time consuming. Scales should be taught thumb-under for
beginners but, within a year, they should be taught thumb-over also. Although most exercises such as Hanon are
now considered unhelpful, it is very important to be able to play scales and arpeggios (in all transpositions) well;
this will require many years of hard work.
Practicing 30 minutes every 2 or 3 days is the absolute minimum necessary to make any progress. Half an hour
every day is adequate for significant progress for youngsters. As they get older, they will need progressively more
time. These are minimum practice times; more time will be needed for faster progress.
The best way to motivate students to practice, and the best way to teach the art of making music, is to hold
recitals. When the students must perform, all the teacher’s instructions, the necessary practice time, etc., take on
an entirely new meaning and urgency. The students will become self-motivated. These points were discussed
in detail in section 1.3.14 above. It is a mistake to teach piano without any program of performance. There are
numerous possibilities for such programs and experienced teachers will be able to design an appropriate one for
each student at every level. Formal recitals and music competitions are full of pitfalls and must be approached with
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care and a lot of planning. However, teachers can organize informal recitals using much less stressful formats, with
tremendous benefits to the students.
Although recitals and competitions are important, it is even more important to avoid their pitfalls. The main
pitfall is that recitals can be self-defeating because the stress, nervousness, extra effort and time, and sense of failure
after even small mistakes, can do more harm than good in molding the performance capability/psychology of the
student at any age. Therefore teachers must have a clearly defined program or approach to teaching the art of
performing in addition to the art of playing. The preparatory methods for recitals discussed in section 1.3.14
above should be part of this program. Popular, or “fun” music is especially useful for performance training. Above
all, the program must be designed to produce a rewarding atmosphere of accomplishment and not a competitive
one where anything short of miraculous perfection, playing the most difficult pieces the student can manage, is
a failure. In competitions, students must be taught early on that judging is never perfect or fair; that it is not the
winning, but the participatory process, that is most important for its pedagogical value. Given the same piece
of music to play, a relaxed and less nervous student will perform better, and develop a better attitude towards
performing. Students must understand that it is the process, not the final winning, that is the final objective of
having competitions. One of the most important components of this objective is to cultivate the ability to enjoy
the experience instead of becoming nervous. One of the worst pitfalls of most competitions is the emphasis on the
most difficult material that the student can play. The correct emphasis should be on the music, not the technique.
Of course we must aim to win competitions and play flawless recitals. But there are stressful and less stressful
approaches to these objectives. It is the teacher’s job to teach stress control. Unfortunately, the majority of teachers today totally ignore performance stress control or worse, parents and teachers frequently pretend that there
is no such thing as nervousness even when they themselves are nervous. This can have the effect of creating a
permanent problem with nervousness. See section 1.3.15 above for discussions on controlling nervousness.
It is important to first teach a student all about nervousness and stress and not to shove them out on a stage
to perform with no preparation in the vain hope that they will somehow learn to perform on their own. Such
action is quite analogous to throwing a person into the middle of a deep lake to teach them how to swim; that person can end up with a lifelong fear of water. Playing for the teacher at every lesson is a good start, but is woefully
insufficient preparation. Thus the teacher should design a “performance training” routine in which the student
is gradually introduced to performances. This training must start with the first piano lessons. Various skills, such
as recovering from blackouts, preventing blackouts, covering mistakes, sensing mistakes before they occur, snippet playing, starting from arbitrary places in a piece, choice of pieces to perform, audience communication, etc.,
should be taught. In this regard, we saw that HS practice, slow play, and “playing cold” are the most important components of preparation. Most students do not know which “finished” pieces they can perform satisfactorily until
they actually play them in recitals several times; therefore, even among finished pieces, every student will have a
“performable” and a “questionable” repertoire. One of the best ways to train for performances is to record the student’s finished pieces and produce an album of finished repertoire that is periodically updated as the student
advances This should be done from the very beginning of lessons so as to cultivate the skill as early as possible.
The first mistake most pianists make is to think that “I am still a beginner, so my playing is not worth recording”.
Once you buy that argument in the beginning, you will end up following it the rest of your life because it becomes
a self-fulfilling prophesy. That argument is false because music is supreme — easy compositions, played musically,
is as good as it gets; Horowitz cannot play “chopsticks” any better than a well-taught beginner.
Clearly, performance is a complex field and must be systematically taught before a student is asked to walk out
on a stage and play. Without such training, even good performers will not perform to their best ability, and the
majority of students will end up thinking that piano performance as a kind of hell that is associated with music or
piano. Once that attitude is ingrained in youth, they will carry it into adulthood. The real truth should be the exact
opposite. Performance should be the final goal, the final reward for all the hard work. It is the demonstration of the
ability to sway an audience, the ability to convey the grandest designs of the greatest musical geniuses that every
lived. Because of the need to control nervousness and student attitude, a teacher must become a psychologist in
order to teach performance skills. Many otherwise good piano teachers are ill prepared for such a task and must
work on correcting this deficiency. Some teachers completely ignore performance training while others simply
hold as many recitals as possible in attempts to teach the art of performing. The only real solution is to teach a
performance curriculum.
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One way to introduce students to performing at recitals is to hold mock recitals among the students themselves
and to have them discuss their fears, difficulties, weaknesses, and strengths to get them all acquainted with the
main issues. They will understand the issues better when they can actually feel them and then discuss them openly
with their peers. Any stress or nervousness they might feel becomes less scary when they realize that everyone
experiences the same things, that nervousness is perfectly natural, and that there are various ways to combat them.
In particular, once they go through the entire process from start to finish of a mock recital, the whole procedure
becomes much less mysterious and frightening. Students must be taught that learning to enjoy performing is
part of the art of piano. That “art of performing” also requires study and practice, just like finger technique. In a
group of students, there is always one that is good at performing. The others can learn by watching and discussing
how these good ones cope with each issue.
Another way to introduce students to performances and at the same time have some fun is to schedule an
informal recital in which the students play a game of “who can play fastest”. In this game, every student plays the
same piece, but the amount of practice time is limited, say, to three weeks. Note that in this ruse, the hidden agenda
is to teach the students how to enjoy giving recitals, not to teach them how to play fast. The students themselves
vote for the winner. At first, the teacher gives no instructions; students must choose their own practice methods.
After the first recital, the teacher holds a group lesson in which the winner describes her/is practice methods and
the teacher adds any useful information. Note that HS practice and parallel sets are major concepts that help to
play fast. Of course, clarity, accuracy, and music must be considered in choosing a winner. There will be wide
differences in the practice methods and achievements of the various students and, in this way, they will learn from
each other and will understand the basic teachings better. While the students are participating in a “contest”, it is
the teacher’s job to ensure that it is a fun experience, a way to experience the joy of performing, a way to completely
forget about nervousness. Mistakes evoke laughter, they are not to be frowned upon. And refreshments might be
served afterwards. The teacher must not forget to intersperse instructions for learning to perform, together with
the “contest” skills.
Once the students are taught the basics of performance, how should recitals be organized? They should be
designed to strengthen performance capability. One of the hardest things to do is to perform the same composition several times on the same day or on successive days. Therefore, such repeat performances provide the best
training for strengthening the performance capability. For teachers or schools with a sufficient number of students,
the following is a good scheme to use. Group the students into beginner, intermediate, and advanced. On Friday,
hold a recital of the beginners, with their parents and friends as audience. Beginners should participate in recitals
from their first year of lessons, as early as 4 or 5 years of age. At the end of this recital, the advanced students also
play, which makes it really worthwhile for the audience to attend. On Saturday, the intermediate students play,
with their parents and friends as audience; again, the advanced students play at the end. On Sunday, the advanced
students hold their recital, with their parents as the audience; some special guests might be invited. In this way,
the advanced students get to perform the same piece three days in a row. The Sunday recital of the advanced students should be recorded and copied onto CD’s, as they make great souvenirs. If this type of recital is held twice a
year, each advanced student will have six recitals under their belt every year. If these students are also entered into
competitions (typically involving an audition, a final, and, if they win, a winner’s concert), they will have adequate
performance training (at least 9 performances a year). Since most pieces are not “secure” until they are performed
3 times, this recital scheme will also serve to make the recital piece “secure” so that it can now be included in the
“performable” repertoire, after just one weekend of recitals.
Teachers should be willing to communicate with other teachers, exchange ideas, and learn from each other.
There is nothing as potentially damaging to a student as a teacher whose teaching methods are inflexible and frozen
in time. In this information age, there is no such thing as secret methods of teaching piano, and the success of the
teacher depends on open communications. An important topic of communication is the exchange of students.
Most students can benefit greatly by having been taught by more than one teacher. Teachers of beginners should
pass their students to higher level teachers as soon as they are ready. Of course, most teachers will try to keep their
best students and to teach as many students as they can. One way to solve this problem is for teachers to form
groups consisting of teachers with different specialties so that the group forms a complete school. This also helps
the teachers because it will make it much easier for them to find students. For students looking for good teachers,
it is clear from these considerations that it is best to look for groups of teachers rather than teachers who operate
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individually. Teachers can also benefit by banding together and sharing students and costs of facilities.
Starting teachers often have difficulty finding their first students. Joining a group of teachers is a good way to
get started. Also many established teachers often have to turn away students because of a lack of time, especially
if the teacher has a good reputation in that local area. Those teachers are good sources of students. One way to
increase the pool of potential students is to offer to go to the students’ homes to teach. For at least the first few
years when a new teacher starts to teach, this might be a good approach for increasing the potential student pool.
1.3.16.5 Why the Greatest Pianists Could Not Teach
Very few of the greatest pianists were good teachers. This is eminently natural because artists train all their lives to
be artists, not teachers. I experienced an analogous situation as a graduate physics student at Cornell University
where I took courses taught by professors who specialized in teaching, and where I also attended weekly lectures
by famous physicists including numerous Nobel Prize winners. Some of those renowned physicists could certainly
present exciting lectures that attracted great interest, but I learned most of the skills needed to find a job as a
physicist from the teaching professors, not the Nobel laureates. This difference in teaching ability between teaching
and practicing scientists pales in comparison with the chasm that exists in the arts world because of the nature of
the scientific discipline (see Chapter Three). Learning and teaching are an integral part of being a scientist. By
contrast, the greatest pianists were either reluctantly, or by economic necessity, pushed into teaching for which
they received no meaningful training. Thus there are plenty of reasons why the great performers may not have
been good teachers.
Unfortunately, we have historically looked to the famous artists for guidance, under the rationale that if they
can do it, they should be able to show us how. Typical historical accounts reveal that, if you were to ask a famous
pianist how to play a certain passage, s/he will sit at the piano and play it out because the language of the pianist
is spoken by the hands and the piano, not the mouth. That same great artist may have little idea about how the
fingers are moving or how they are manipulating the piano keys. In order to move the hands in the proper way,
you must learn to control thousands of muscles and nerves, and then train the hands to execute those motions.
There are two extremes among the ways to acquire technique. One extreme is the analytical one, in which every
motion, every muscle and every physiological information is analyzed. The other extreme is the artist’s approach,
in which the person simply imagines a certain musical output and the body responds in different ways until the
desired result is obtained. This artist’s approach can not only be a quick shortcut, but can also yield unexpected
results that may exceed the original idea. It also has the advantage that a genius without analytical training can be
successful. The disadvantage is that there is no assurance of success. Technique acquired in this way cannot be
taught analytically, except by saying that “you must feel the music this way” in order to play it. Unfortunately, for
those who do not know how to do it yet, this kind of instruction is of little help, except as a demonstration that it
can be done. Also, even knowing the practice methods isn’t enough. You need the correct explanation of why they
work. This requirement is often outside the expertise of the artist or piano teacher. Thus there is a fundamental
impediment to proper development of piano teaching tools: artists and piano teachers do not have the training
to develop such tools; on the other hand, scientists and engineers who may have such training have insufficient
piano experience to teach piano. One thing that only artists can teach us is how they achieve their objectives or
“shortcuts”. In many instances, in which the analytical solutions have not yet been found, that is the only way. In
fact that may be the most important lesson we would like to learn — however, what we must not forget is that,
especially for beginners, there is no faster way to learn than a well understood analytical approach.
The old masters were geniuses, of course, and had some remarkable insights and inventiveness as well as intuitive feel of mathematics and physics which they applied to their piano playing. Therefore, it is incorrect to conclude
that they had no analytical approaches to technique; practically every analytical solution to piano practice that we
know of today was re-invented many times by these geniuses or at least used by them. It is therefore unbelievable
that no one ever thought of documenting these ideas in a systematic way. It is even more amazing that there does
not seem to have been even a general realization by both teachers and students that practice methods were the key
to acquiring technique. The main difficulty seems to have been the inability of the artist approach to identify the
correct theoretical basis (explanation) for why these practice methods work. Without a sound theoretical explanation or basis, even a correct method can be misused, misunderstood, changed, or degraded by different teachers
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so that it may not always work and be viewed as unreliable or useless. These historical facts prevented any orderly
development of piano teaching methods. Thus the understanding, or the explanation of why a method works, is at
least as important as the method itself.
In addition, piano teachers tended to be poor communicators in the sense that they tended not to share teaching ideas. Only at large conservatories was there any significant mixing of ideas so that the quality of teaching at
conservatories was better than elsewhere. However, the problems of the preceding paragraph prevented any truly
systematic developments of teaching methods even at these organizations. An additional factor was the stratification of piano learning into beginners and advanced students. Conservatories generally accepted only advanced
students; yet, without conservatory type teaching, few students attained the advanced levels necessary to be accepted. This gave piano learning a reputation as something far more difficult than it really was. The bottleneck
created by a lack of good teaching methods was attributed to lack of “talent”. When all these historical facts are
assembled, it is easy to understand why the great masters could not teach, and why even dedicated piano teachers
did not have all the tools they needed.
Although I started writing this book as just a compilation of some remarkably effective teaching tools, it has
evolved into a project that deals directly with the historical deficiencies responsible for most of the difficulties
of acquiring technique. Fate has suddenly turned the future of piano into a wide, open unknown with limitless
possibilities. We are entering a brave, new, exciting era that can finally be enjoyed by everyone.
1.3.17 Upright, Grand & Electronic Pianos; Purchasing and Care
1.3.17.1 Grand, Upright, or Electronic?
Grands have certain advantages over uprights. However, these advantages are minor compared to the importance
of the skill level of the pianist. There are great pianists who became technically advanced practicing mostly on
uprights. There is no evidence that you need a grand for initial technical development, although a few piano
teachers will insist that any serious student must practice on a grand. An argument can be made in favor of uprights,
at least for beginners, because uprights require firmer playing and may be better for early finger development
(you need to press harder in order to make louder sounds). They may be superior even for intermediate students
because uprights are less forgiving and require greater technical skill to play. These arguments are controversial,
but do illustrate the point that, for students up to intermediate level, any differences among uprights and grands
are small compared to other factors such as student motivation, talent, quality of teachers, practice methods, and
proper piano maintenance. Another factor is piano quality: good uprights are superior to low quality grands (which
includes most grands under 5.2 feet). In general, students above intermediate level will need a grand piano.
Electronic (also called digital) pianos have capabilities that the acoustics (the mechanical uprights and grands)
cannot provide and therefore fill a niche of their own, as explained below. They cost much less, are easier to purchase, maintain and transport, and make excellent starter or second pianos. The electronics have basically rendered the uprights obsolete. Therefore, if you are buying your first piano, it is easiest if you start with a quality
electronic and then purchase a grand later on, when you are certain that the piano is going to be a big part of
your life. Thus the rule concerning uprights is simple: if you already have one, there is no reason to get rid of it
until you buy an electronic or a grand; if you don’t have a piano, there is no compelling reason to buy an upright.
1.3.17.2 Electronic Pianos
Today’s electronic pianos are still inferior to good grands for technical development but are improving rapidly. Even
the best electronics are inadequate for advanced pianists; their mechanical response is poorer, the musical output
and dynamic range are inferior, and fast, technically advanced material becomes difficult to execute. Most affordable speakers can not compete with the sound board of a grand. The electronic pianos do not allow the control of
tone, color, pianissimo, staccato, and the special manipulations of the damper and soft pedals, that good grands
provide. Thus there is no question that an advanced pianist will prefer a grand piano over an electronic. Most uprights do not provide sufficient advantage for technical development to warrant their use over quality electronics
that are readily available.
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The electronic pianos have some unique advantages, so we discuss them here. Because of these advantages,
most serious pianists will own both an acoustic and an electronic.
1. For less than half the price of an average acoustic upright, you can buy a new electronic piano with all the
features you need: headphone and volume control, touch control, organ, string, harpsichord, metronome,
recording and midi/analog out, transposition, different tunings and canned accompaniments. Most electronics provide much more, but these are the minimum features you can expect. The argument that an
acoustic piano is a better investment than an electronic is false because an acoustic piano is not a good investment, especially when the initial cost is so much higher. The electronic piano requires no maintenance,
whereas the maintenance costs of acoustics are substantial, since they require tuning, voicing and regulation
about twice a year, plus occasional repairs.
2. The electronics are always in perfect tune. Very young children exposed sufficiently to perfectly tuned pianos
acquire perfect pitch automatically, although most parents never discover this because, if it is not discovered
and maintained, it is lost during the teen years. The acoustic piano begins to go out of tune the minute the
tuner leaves your house, and some notes will be out of tune most of the time (in fact, most of the notes will
be out of tune most of the time). However, these small deviations from tuning will not affect the learning of
perfect pitch unless the piano is allowed to go way out of tune. Because too many acoustic pianos are inadequately maintained, the fact that the electronics are always in tune can be a huge advantage. The importance
of a well tuned piano for musical and technical development cannot be over-emphasized, because without
the musical development, you will never learn how to perform.
3. You can use headphones or adjust the volume so that you can practice without disturbing others. The ability
to turn down the volume is also useful for reducing ear damage when practicing loud passages: an important
factor for anyone over 60 years old, when many will start to suffer from hearing loss or tinnitus. If you are
an advanced player, even an electronic will create considerable “playing noise” (with the volume turned off)
that can be quite loud to anyone nearby and these vibrations can transmit through the floor to rooms under
the piano. Therefore it is a mistake to think that the sound from an electronic (or an acoustic with “silent”
feature) can be completely turned off.
4. They are more portable than acoustics. Although there are light keyboards with similar features, it is best for
piano practice to use the heavier electronics so that they do not shift while playing loud, fast music. Even
these heavier electronics can be easily moved by two persons, and will fit in many cars.
5. Variable touch weight is more important than many people realize. However, you have to know what “touch
weight” means before you can use it to advantage; see the following paragraphs for details. In general, the
touch weight of electronics is a little lighter than that of acoustics. This lighter weight was chosen for two
reasons: to make it easier for keyboard players to play these electronics (keyboards are even lighter), and
to make them easier to play compared to the acoustics. The disadvantage of the lighter weight is that you
may find it slightly more difficult to play an acoustic after practicing on an electronic. The touch weight of
acoustics needs to be heavier in order to produce a richer tone. One advantage of heavier weight is that you
can feel the keys of an acoustic while playing, without inadvertently playing some wrong notes. However, this
can also lead to careless playing with some inadvertent finger motions because you can lightly hit a key of an
acoustic without making any sound. You can practice getting rid of these uncontrolled motions by using an
electronic and choosing a light touch weight so that an inadvertent strike will produce a sound. Many people
who practice only on acoustics don’t even know that they have such uncontrolled motions until they try to
play on an electronic. The light touch is also useful for acquiring difficult technique quickly. Then, if you
need to play on an acoustic later on, you can practice with increased weight after you acquire the technique.
This two-step process is usually faster than trying to acquire technique at heavy key weight.
6. Recording piano music is one of the most difficult things to do using conventional recording equipment.
With an electronic piano, you can do it with the push of a button! You can easily build up an album of all the
pieces you learned. Recording is one of the best ways not only to really finish and polish your pieces but also
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to learn how to perform for an audience. Everyone should cultivate a habit of recording every finished piece
from the very beginning of their lessons. Of course, the initial performances will not be perfect, so you may
want to go back and re-record them as you improve. Too many students never record their performances,
which is the main reason for excessive nervousness and difficulties during performances.
7. Most pianists who follow good practice methods and become proficient when young will end up composing
their own music. Electronic pianos are helpful for recording these compositions so that you don’t need to
write them down, and for playing them in different instruments, as appropriate for each composition. With
some additional software or hardware, you can even compose entire symphonies and play every instrument
yourself. There is even software that will transcribe (though imperfectly) your music onto sheet music.
8. If you can acquire technique rapidly, there is nothing stopping you from broadening your horizon beyond
classical music and playing popular music, jazz, blues, etc. You will appeal to a wider audience if you can mix
music genres and you will have more fun. The electronic piano can help by providing the accompaniments,
drums, etc., for those types of music. Thus these extra capabilities of the electronic pianos can be very useful
and should not be ignored.
9. Buying electronic pianos is very simple, especially when compared to buying acoustics (see below). All you
need to know is your price range, the features you want, and the manufacturer. You don’t need an experienced
piano technician to help you evaluate the piano. There are no questions about whether the piano dealer made
all the proper “prepping”, whether the dealer will honor the agreements to ensure that the piano functions
after delivery, whether the piano was properly “stabilized” during the first year of ownership, or whether you
got one with good or inferior tone and touch. Many established manufacturers, such as Yamaha, Roland,
Korg, Technic, Kawai, and Kurzweil, produce electronics of excellent quality.
The touch weight of a piano is not a simple matter of adding or subtracting lead weights to the keys to change
the force required to depress them. The touch weight is a combination of the down weight, the inertia of the keys
and hammers, and the force required to produce a certain volume of sound. The down weight is the maximum
weight that the key will support before it will start to move down. This is the weight that is adjusted using lead
weights. The down weight of all pianos, including the “weighted key” electronics, is standardized at about 50 grams
and varies little from piano to piano regardless of touch weight. When playing a piano, this 50 gram weight is a
small fraction of the force required to play — most of the force is used to produce the sound. In acoustics, this is the
force needed to impart velocity to the hammer. In electronics, it is the electronic reaction to the key motion and a
fixed mechanical resistance. In both cases, you also have to overcome the inertia of the mechanism in addition to
supplying the force for producing the sound. For example, when playing staccato, most of the force required is for
overcoming the inertia whereas when playing legato, the inertial component is small. Electronics have a smaller
inertial component because they have only the inertia of the keys whereas the acoustics have the additional inertia
of the hammers; this makes the acoustics less sensitive to inadvertent hitting of the keys. Therefore, you will feel
the most difference between acoustics and electronics when playing fast or staccato and little difference when
playing legato. For the pianist, touch weight is simply the effort required to produce a certain volume of sound and
has little to do with down weight. For acoustics, touch weight is determined mostly by hammer mass and voicing
(hardness of the hammer). There is only a narrow range of hammer masses that is ideal because you want heavier
hammers for larger sound but lighter ones for faster action. Thus a lot of the touch weight can be adjusted by
the piano technician by hammer voicing, rather than by changing weights. For electronic pianos, touch weight is
controlled in the software in the following way, in order to simulate what happens in a grand. For heavier touch
weight, the sound is switched to that of a softer hammer, and vice versa. There is no mechanical change to the down
weight of the keys or the inertial component. Thus if you switch to the heaviest key weight, you might feel that the
sound is somewhat muffled and if you switch to the lightest weight, the sound might be too brilliant. In electronic
pianos, it is easier to decrease the touch weight without adversely affecting the sound because there is no hammer
to move. On the other hand, the maximum dynamic range of most electronic pianos is limited by the electronics
and speakers, so that for the loudest sounds, the grand piano can have a lighter touch weight. In summary, touch
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weight is a subjective judgment by the pianist about how much effort is required to produce a certain volume of
sound; it is not the fixed weight or resistance of the keys to the keydrop.
You can demonstrate this subjective judgment by turning the volume up or down using the electronic piano.
Thus if you practice on an electronic for a long time with the volume turned down, and then play an acoustic, the
acoustic can feel downright light. Unfortunately, things are a little more complicated because when you switch to a
heavier touch weight with the electronic piano, it also gives you the sound of a softer hammer. In order to reproduce
the sound of a properly voiced hammer, you need to strike harder. This adds to the perception of a heavier key
weight, and this effect cannot be simulated by changing the volume control. From these discussions, we can draw
the following conclusions: there are small differences in the touch weight between grands and electronics, with the
grands tending to be heavier, but those differences are not sufficient to cause major problems when switching from
one to the other.
1.3.17.3 Uprights
Acoustic uprights have their own advantages. They are less expensive than grands. They take up less space, and for
small rooms, large grands may produce too much sound so that they cannot be played full blast with the lid fully
open without hurting or even damaging the ears. Grands, with the lid open, are very sensitive to touch. Thus grands
require hammer voicing more frequently than uprights; otherwise, they become too “brilliant” or “harsh”, at which
point most owners will end up playing the grand with the lid closed. Many homeowners ignore voicing entirely.
The result is that such grands produce too much and too harsh sound, and are therefore played with the lid down.
There is nothing technically wrong with playing a grand with the lid closed. However, some purists will express
great dismay at such practice, and you are certainly throwing away something wonderful for which you made a
significant investment. Performances at recitals almost always require the lid to be open. Therefore you should
always practice with the lid open before a performance even if you normally practice with it closed. However, in
a larger room, or in a recital hall, there is much less multiple reflection of the sound so that you do not hear the
deafening roar that can result in a small room. A concert hall will absorb the sound from the piano so that, if you
are accustomed to practicing in a small room, you will have difficulty hearing your own playing in a concert hall.
Since uprights are essentially closed instruments, the neglect of voicing is less noticeable. Uprights also tend to be
less expensive to maintain, mainly because expensive repairs are not worthwhile and are therefore not performed.
Of course, there are quality uprights that are competitive with grands in feel and sound quality, but their number is
small.
Among uprights, spinets are the smallest and generally the least expensive pianos; most do not produce satisfactory sound, even for students. The small height of spinets limits the string length, which is the main limitation
on sound output. In theory, the treble should produce satisfactory sound (there is no limitation on string length
even for spinets), but most spinets are weak in the treble because of poor quality of construction; therefore, be sure
to test the higher notes if you are evaluating a spinet. Uprights larger than console size can be very good student
pianos. Old uprights with poor sound are generally not salvageable, no matter what their size. At such an age,
the value of the piano is less than the cost of restoring them; it is cheaper to buy a newer upright with satisfactory
sound.
1.3.17.4 Grands
The advantages of most grands are: greater dynamic range (loud/soft), open structure allowing the sound to escape
freely (which provides more control and expression), richer sound, faster repetition, smoother action (use of gravity instead of springs), a “true” soft pedal (see section 1.2.24), clearer sound (easier to tune accurately) and more
impressive appearance. An exception is the class of “baby” grands (less than about 5’ 2”) whose sound output is
usually unsatisfactory and should be considered mainly as decorative furniture. A few companies (Yamaha, Kawai)
are beginning to produce baby grands with acceptable sound, so for these very new pianos, don’t write them off
without testing them. Larger grands can be classified into two main classes, the “student grands” (those below
about 6 to 7 ft), and the concert grands. The concert grands provide more dynamic range, better sound quality, and
more tonal control.
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As an example of this “quality versus size” issue, consider the Steinway pianos. The baby model, model S (5’ 2”),
is essentially a decorative furniture and very few produce sufficient quality sound to be considered playable and are
inferior to many uprights. The next larger size group consists of models M, O, and L (5’ 7” to 5’ 11”). These models
are quite similar and are excellent student pianos. However, advanced pianists would not consider them to be true
grands because of poorer sustain, too much percussive sound, and notes with too much harmonic content. The
next model, A (6’ 2”), is borderline, and (6’ 10”), C (7’ 5”), and D (9’) are true grands. One problem with evaluating
Steinways is that the quality within each model is extremely variable; however, on average, there is a significant
improvement in sound quality and output with each increase in size.
One of the biggest advantages of grand pianos is the use of gravity as the return force of the hammer. In uprights
the restoring force for the hammer is supplied by springs. Gravity is always constant and uniform across the entire
keyboard whereas non-uniformities in the springs and friction can create non-uniformities in the feel of the keys of
an upright. Uniformity of feel is one of the most important properties of well-regulated, quality pianos. Many students are intimidated by the appearance of huge grands at recitals and competitions, but these grands are actually
easier to play than uprights. One fear that these students have concerning these grands is that their actions may
be heavier. However, touch weight is something that is adjusted by the technician regulating the piano and can be
adjusted to any number regardless of whether the piano is an upright or a grand. Advanced students will of course
find it easier to play demanding pieces on grands than uprights, mainly because of the faster action and uniformity.
Consequently, grands can save you a lot of time when you try to acquire advanced skills. The main reason for this
is that it is easy to develop bad habits when struggling with difficult material on uprights. Challenging material is
even more difficult on electronic pianos (and impossible on models without proper touch weight) because they do
not have the robustness and response to touch that are required at high speeds.
Some people with small rooms agonize over whether a large grand would be too loud in such a space. Loudness
is usually not the most important issue, and you always have the option of closing the lid to different degrees. The
maximum loudness of the medium and large grands is not that different, and you can play softer with the larger
grands. It is the multiple sound reflections that are most bothersome. Multiple reflections can be easily eliminated
by a carpet on the floor and sound-insulation on one or two walls. Thus if the piano physically fits into a room with
no obvious difficulties, then it may be acceptable from the sound point of view.
1.3.17.5 Purchasing an Acoustic Piano
Buying an acoustic piano can be a trying experience for the uninitiated, whether they buy new or used. If a reputable dealer can be found, it is certainly safer to buy new but even then the cost of the initial depreciation is large.
Many piano stores will rent you the piano with an agreement that the rental will be applied to the purchase price
in case you decide to keep it. In that case, make sure that you negotiate for the best purchase price before you even
discuss rental; after you agree to a rental, you will have very little negotiating power. You will end up with a higher
initial price so that, even after subtracting the rental, the final price is not a bargain. Even with expensive pianos,
many dealers find it too costly to keep them prepped and in tune. At such dealers, it is difficult to test the piano by
playing it. Thus buying a piano is usually a hit-or-miss proposition. For mass produced pianos such as Yamaha or
Kawai, the quality of their new pianos tends to be uniform, so that you know pretty much what you will get. The
sound quality of the more expensive “hand made” pianos can vary considerably so that buying these pianos is more
difficult if you want to pick a good one.
Good used acoustic pianos are difficult to find in piano stores because playable pianos sell first and most stores
are left with an excess inventory of unplayable ones. Obviously, the best bargains are to be found among the
private sales. For the uninitiated, you will need to hire a piano tuner/technician to evaluate the used pianos in
the private market. You will also need a lot of patience because good private sales are not always there when you
need them. However, the wait can be worthwhile because the same piano will cost only half as much at a private
sale compared to the store. There is a steady demand for good, reasonably priced pianos. This means that it is
not easy to find bargains at widely accessible sites, such as the internet piano markets, because good pianos sell
quickly. Conversely, such sites are excellent places to sell. The best place to find bargains is the classified section
of newspapers, especially at large metropolitan areas. Most such advertisements are placed on Friday, Saturday, or
Sunday.
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Only a few name brand pianos “hold their value” when kept for many years. The rest quickly lose their value so
that trying to sell them years after purchase is not a worthwhile alternative. “Hold value” means that their resale
value will keep up with inflation; it does not mean that you can sell them for a profit. Thus if you bought a piano
for $1,000 and sold it 30 years later for $10,000, you have made no profit if inflation is 10× during those 30 years.
In addition, you will incur the cost of tuning and maintenance of at least $2,000 for this example. It is cheaper to
buy a brand new 7 ft Yamaha grand every 50 years than to buy a new Steinway M and completely restore it every
50 years; therefore, the choice of which piano to buy does not depend on economics but on what type of piano you
need. With very few exceptions, pianos are not good investments; you have to be an experienced piano technician
in order to find bargains in the used piano market that can be resold for a profit. Even if you find such a bargain,
selling pianos is a time consuming, labor-intensive task. For more details on how to buy a piano, consult Larry
Fine’s book. Even with the most famous brands, a newly purchased piano will immediately lose 20% to 30% of its
purchase price upon delivery, and will in general depreciate to half of the price of an equivalent new piano in about
5 years. As a very rough “rule of thumb” a used piano will cost about half the price of the new one of the same model
in a piano store and about 1/4 at a private sale.
The price of pianos can be roughly classified according to whether they are worth rebuilding. Those worth
rebuilding tend to cost at least twice as much when new. Practically all uprights and all mass produced grands
(Yamaha, Kawai, etc), are not rebuilt because the rebuilding cost is about as high as the price of a new piano of
the same model. Rebuilding such pianos is often impossible because the rebuilding trade and necessary parts are
non-existent. Pianos worth rebuilding are Steinway, Bosendorfer, Bechstein, Mason and Hamlin, some Knabe, and
a few others. Roughly speaking, it costs about 1/4 of the price of a new piano to rebuild and the resale value is about
1/2 of new; this is why rebuilding such pianos can be cost effective, for both the rebuilder and the buyer.
1.3.17.6 Piano Care
All new pianos need at least a year of special care and tuning after purchase, in order for the strings to stop stretching and the action and hammers to equilibrate. Most piano dealers will try to minimize the cost of servicing the
new pianos after delivery. This is assuming that the piano was properly prepped prior to delivery. Many dealers
postpone a lot of the prep work until after delivery, and if the customer does not know about it, may omit some
steps entirely. In this regard, among the less expensive models, Yamaha, Kawai, Petroff, and a few others may be
easier to buy because most of the prep work is completed at the factory. A new piano will need at least 4 tunings
the first year in order to stabilize the stretching of the strings.
All pianos require maintenance in addition to regular tuning. In general, the better the quality of the piano,
the easier it is to notice the deterioration caused by normal wear and tear, and therefore the more maintenance it
should require. That is, more expensive pianos are more expensive to maintain. Typical maintenance chores are:
leveling the keys, reducing friction (such as polishing the capstans), eliminating extraneous sounds, re-shaping the
hammers and voicing them (needling), checking the innumerable bushings, etc. Voicing the hammer is probably
the most neglected maintenance procedure. Worn, hard, hammers can cause string breakage, loss of musical control (bad for technical development), and difficulty in playing softly. It also ruins the tonal quality of the piano,
making it harsh and unpleasant to the ear. If the action is sufficiently worn, it may need a general regulation job,
which means restoring all parts of the action to their original specifications.
For old pianos with visibly rusted strings, the sound can sometimes be improved significantly by replacing the
strings. If the bass wire-wound strings are very rusted, this can deaden those notes. Replacing these strings can
be quite worthwhile if those bass notes are weak and have no sustain. The upper, non-wound strings generally do
not need replacing. However, for extremely old pianos, these strings can be so stretched out that they have lost all
longitudinal elasticity. Such strings are prone to breakage and cannot vibrate properly, and should be replaced.
Pianists should familiarize themselves with some of the basic knowledge about tuning, such as the parts of a
piano, temperaments, stability of tuning, and effects of temperature and humidity changes, in order to be able to
communicate with the tuner and to understand what s/he needs to do. Too many piano owners are ignorant of
these basics; consequently, they frustrate the tuner and in fact work against her/im, with the result that the piano
is not properly maintained. Some owners get so accustomed to their deteriorated piano that, when the tuner does
a good job of restoring it to its original glory, the owner is very unhappy about the strange new sound and feel of
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the piano. Worn hammers tend to produce overly bright and loud sounds; this has the unexpected effect of making
the action feel light. Therefore, properly voiced hammers may initially give the impression that the action is now
heavier and less responsive. Of course, the tuner did not change the force required to depress the keys. Once the
owners become accustomed to the newly voiced hammers, they will find that they have much better control of
expression and tone, and they can now play very softly. With worn hammers, it is very difficult to play evenly and
softly.
Pianos need to be tuned at least once a year and preferably twice, during the fall and spring, when the temperature and humidity are midway between their yearly extremes. Many advanced pianists have them tuned even
more frequently. In addition to the obvious advantages of being able to create better music and to sharpen your
musicality, there are many compelling reasons for keeping the piano tuned. One of the most important is that it
can affect your technical development. Compared to an out-of-tune piano, a well-tuned piano practically plays
itself — you will find it surprisingly easier to play. Thus a tuned piano can actually accelerate technical development. An out-of-tune piano can lead to flubs and the stuttering habit of pausing at every mistake. Many important
aspects of expression can be brought out only on well-tuned pianos. Since we must always pay attention to practicing musically, it does not make sense to practice on a piano that cannot produce proper music. This is one of
the reasons why I prefer Well Temperaments (with their crystal clear chords) to the Equal Temperament, in which
only the octaves are clear. See Chapter Two for more discussions on the merits of various temperaments. Higher
quality pianos have a distinct edge because they not only hold the tuning better, but can also be tuned more accurately. Lower quality pianos often have extraneous beats and sounds that make accurate tuning impossible. In this
respect, good grands are far superior to run-of-the-mill uprights.
Those who have perfect pitch are very much bothered by pianos that are out of tune. If you have perfect pitch,
severely out of tune pianos can accelerate the gradual loss of perfect pitch with age. Babies and very young children
can automatically acquire perfect pitch if they hear the piano sound sufficiently frequently, even if they have no idea
what perfect pitch is. In order for them to acquire the correct perfect pitch, the piano must be in tune.
If you always practice on a tuned piano, you will have a difficult time playing on one that is out of tune. The
music doesn’t come out, you make unexpected mistakes, and have memory blackouts. This holds true even if you
know nothing about tuning and can’t even tell if a particular note is out of tune. Conversely, the best way to test
the tuning is to play a piece of music. Good tuning is like magic to any pianist. By playing a piece of music, most
pianists can readily hear the difference between a poor tuning and an excellent one, even if they cannot tell the
difference by playing single notes or test chords (assuming they are not also piano tuners). Therefore, along with
technical development, every pianist must learn to hear the benefits of good tuning. It may be a good idea to
practice on an out-of-tune piano once in a while in order to know what to expect in case you are asked to play on
one with questionable tuning. For recitals, it is a good idea to tune the recital piano just before the recital, so that
the recital piano is in better tune than the practice piano. Try to avoid the reverse case in which the practice piano
is in better tune than the recital piano. This is another reason why students who practice on inexpensive uprights
have little problem with playing recitals on large, unfamiliar grands, as long as the grands are in tune.
In summary, grands are not necessary for technical development up to about the intermediate level, although
they will be beneficial at any level. Above intermediate level, the arguments in favor of grands over uprights become compelling. Grands are better because their actions are faster, they can be tuned more accurately, have a
larger dynamic range, have a true soft pedal, can enable more control over expression and tone (you can open the
lid), and can be regulated to provide more uniformity from note to note (by use of gravity instead of springs). These
advantages, however, are initially minor compared to the student’s love for music, diligence, and correct practice
methods. Grands become more desirable for advanced students because technically demanding material is easier to execute on a grand. For such advanced pianists, proper tuning, regulation, and hammer voicing become
essential because if the piano maintenance is neglected, practically all of the advantages will be lost.
1.3.18 How to Start Learning Piano: Youngest Children to Old Adults
1.3.18.1 Do You Need a Teacher?
Updated:
November 6, 2004
Many beginners would like to start learning piano on their own, and there are valid reasons for this. However,
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there is no question that, for the first 6 months (and probably much longer), there is no faster way to start than
taking lessons from a teacher, even one who teaches the intuitive method. The only teachers to avoid completely
are those who cannot teach what you want (you may want pop, jazz, and blues while the teacher teaches only
classical), or those who teach strict, inflexible methods not appropriate for the student (one method might be
designed for very young children but you may be an older beginner). Why are teachers so helpful in the beginning?
Firstly, the most fundamental things that you do every time you play, such as hand position, sitting position, hand
movements, etc., are difficult to explain in a textbook, whereas a teacher can show you instantly, what is right and
what is wrong. You don’t want to pick up these wrong habits and have to live with them all your life. Secondly,
a beginner sitting down at the piano and playing for the first time is usually making at least 20 mistakes at the
same time (left-right coordination, volume control, rhythm, arm and body movements, speed, timing, fingering,
trying to learn the wrong things first, total neglect of musicality, etc., etc.). It is the teacher’s job to identify all the
mistakes and make a mental priority list of which ones must be corrected first, so that the worst offenders can
be eliminated quickly. Most teachers also know which basic skills you need and teach them to you in the correct
order. Teachers are also helpful in finding the appropriate teaching material for you. Teachers provide a structured
learning environment, without which the student can end up doing the wrong things and not realizing that they
are not making any progress. In short, teachers are definitely cost effective for beginners.
1.3.18.2 Starter Books and Keyboards
The first order of business when starting is to decide which lesson books to use. For those who want to start by
learning general technique (not specialties such as jazz or gospel), you can use any of a number of beginner books
such as Michael Aaron, Alfred, Bastien, Faber and Faber, Schaum, or Thompson. Of these, many people prefer
Faber and Faber. Most of them have beginner books designed for young children or adults. There is an excellent
piano site at:
http://www.amsinternational.org/piano_pedagogy.htm
which lists most of these teaching books and reviews many of them. Depending on your age and past musical
education, you can skip through these books at your pace and optimize your learning rate.
These starter books will teach you the fundamentals: reading music, various common fingerings such as scales,
arpeggios and accompaniments, etc. As soon as you are familiar with most of the fundamentals, you can start
learning pieces that you want to play. Here again, teachers are invaluable because they know most of the pieces
that you might want to play and can tell you whether they are at the level that you can handle. They can point
out the difficult sections and show you how to overcome those difficulties. They can play the lesson pieces to
demonstrate what you are trying to achieve; obviously, avoid teachers who cannot or refuse to play for you. After a
few months to about a year of such study, you will be ready to continue by following the material of this book. In
order to avoid the numerous pitfalls that await you, it is a good idea to read this book, at least quickly once through,
before you begin your first lesson.
At the very beginning, perhaps up to a year, it is possible to start learning using keyboards, even the smaller ones
with less than the 88 keys of the standard piano. If you plan to play electronic keyboards all your life, it is certainly
permissible to practice only on keyboards. However, practically all keyboards have actions that are too light to truly
simulate an acoustic piano. As soon as possible, you will want to transition to a 88-key digital piano with weighted
keys, see section 1.3.17 above.
1.3.18.3 Beginners: Age 0 to 65+
A frequent concern of many parents is “At what age can our children start piano?”, while the primary concerns of
older beginners are “Am I too old to learn piano? How proficient can I expect to be? How long will it take?” So let’s
briefly survey what we might be able to expect if you started piano at different ages. Of course, there are significant
differences in “talent” among individuals, so that you may not fit into any of the categories below. However, we
are increasingly beginning to recognize that what we had attributed to “talent” was in reality a result of our history.
In other words, “talent” was a way for us to hide our ignorance of what really happened. This relatively recent
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“discovery” is radically changing the landscape of piano pedagogy. The old, intuitive system followed the sequence
typified by: Beyer, Hanon, Czerny, small pieces, classics, and finally major pieces. In our new system, we eliminate
the first three; i.e., we are back to what Mozart, Beethoven, etc. did. Surprise! What they did was perfectly legitimate!
They may be the norm, not the exception, if you know what you are doing. Therefore, we can legitimately question
whether talent is such an important factor in how quickly you can learn to play. So then, what IS an important
factor? Age is one, because learning piano is a process of developing nerve cells, especially in the brain. The process
of nerve growth slows down with age. So let’s examine categories of beginners according to their ages, and the
consequences of slowing brain growth with age. In the classifications below, we assume that the practice methods
of this book are available to these individuals. It is still difficult to predict the learning rate because the methods
of this book have not been widely adopted until now, these methods allow students to learn practically anything
they want, within reason, at any skill level, and these methods have solved many problems that were traditionally
almost insurmountable.
Ages 0–6 Babies can hear as soon as they are born, and most maternity wards test babies for hearing right after
birth in order to detect abnormalities as early as possible. Up to about age 6, they acquire new skills in stepwise
fashion; that is, they suddenly acquire a new skill such as language and rapidly become good at it. But each individual acquires these skills at different times and in a different order. These skills will be discussed in the next section.
The most important topic in this age range is listening to music. Most parents make the mistake of giving the baby
only baby music. That might be appropriate for a very short time (a few months), but you should quickly transition
to adult music. It is not a good idea to expose them immediately to loud blaring trumpets and thunderous drum
rolls that can frighten the baby, but most babies can understand Bach, Chopin, etc. Music is an acquired taste;
therefore, how the babies’ brains develop musically will depend on the type of music they hear. Older classical
music started with simpler chord structures and harmonies that are easily and naturally appreciated by the human
brain. Then more complex chords and dissonances were added later on as we became accustomed to them over
the ages. Therefore, the older classical music is more appropriate for babies because they are more compatible with
the fundamental brain processes that produce music appreciation. The piano is particularly appropriate because it
is like an entire orchestra that is nonetheless based on a single chromatic scale that can lead to perfect pitch, which
babies can acquire without even trying.
Ages 3–12 Below age 3, most children’s hands are too small to play the piano, the fingers cannot bend or move
independently, and the brain and body (vocal chords, muscles, etc.) may not yet be sufficiently developed to deal
with concepts in music. Above age 4, most children are able to receive some type of music education, especially
if they have been exposed to music since birth; thus they should be constantly tested for their sense of pitch
(relative and perfect pitch; can they “carry a tune?”), rhythm, loud-soft, fast-slow, and reading music, which is
easier than any alphabet. This group can take full advantage of the enormous brain growth that takes place during
this age interval; learning is effortless and limited more by the ability of the teacher to provide the appropriate
material than by the student’s ability to absorb it. One remarkable aspect of this age group (there are many!) is their
“malleability”; their “talents” can be molded. Thus, even if they would not have naturally become musicians if left
alone, they can be made into musicians by proper training. This is the ideal age group for starting piano.
Ages 13–19, the “teen” ages. This group still has an excellent chance of becoming concert level pianists. However,
they may have lost the chance to become those super stars that the younger beginners can become. Although brain
development has slowed down, the body is still growing rapidly until about age 15, and at a slower rate thereafter.
The most important factors here are the love of music and the piano. This age group can achieve practically anything they want to, as long as they have an intense interest in music. However, they are not malleable any more;
encouraging them to learn piano does not work if they are more interested in cello or saxophone, and the parents’
role changes from giving direction to giving support for whatever the teens want to do. This is the age interval in
which the teens learn what it means to take responsibility and what it means to become an adult — all lessons that
can be learned from the piano experience. In order to influence them, you need to use more advanced methods,
such as psychology. This age group should not be considered “too late to start” for becoming concert pianists;
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they still definitely have a good chance. They will probably never forget anything they memorized at these ages
or younger. Above this age group, age classifications become difficult because there is so much variation among
individuals depending on their history.
Ages 20–35 Some individuals in this age group still have a chance of becoming concert level pianists. They can
use the experience they learned in life to acquire piano skills more efficiently than younger students. Those who
decide to learn piano in this age group generally have greater motivation and a clearer understanding of what they
want. But they will have to work very hard, because progress will come only after a sufficient amount of work.
At this age group, nervousness can start to become a major problem for some. Although younger students can
become nervous, nervousness seems to increase with age. This happens because severe nervousness arises from
fear of failure, and fear arises from mental associations with memories of terrible events, whether imagined or real.
These terrifying memories/ideas tend to accumulate with age. Therefore, if you want to perform, you should do
some research into controlling nervousness, by becoming more confident, or by practicing public performance at
every opportunity, etc. Nervousness can arise from both the conscious and subconscious brain; therefore, you will
need to deal with both in order to learn to control it. For those who just want to become sufficiently technically
proficient to enjoy playing major piano compositions, starting in this age group should not present any problems.
Although some maintenance will be required, you can keep anything you memorized in this age group, for life.
Ages 35–45 This age group cannot develop into concert level pianists, but can still perform adequately for simpler
material. They can acquire enough skill to play most famous compositions for personal enjoyment and informal
performances. The most demanding material will probably be out of reach. Nervousness reaches a maximum
somewhere between the ages of 40 and 60 and then often declines slowly. This might explain why many famous
pianists stopped performing somewhere in this age interval. Memorizing starts to become a problem in the sense
that, although it is possible to memorize practically anything, you will tend to forget it, almost completely, if not
properly maintained. Reading the music can start to become a problem for some who require strong corrective
lenses. This is because the distance from the eyes to the keyboard or music stand is intermediate between reading
and distant vision. Thus you may want a set of eye glasses for intermediate vision. Progressive lenses might solve
this problem, but some find them bothersome because of their small field of focus.
Ages 45–65 This is the age range in which, depending on the person, there will be increasing limitations on what
you can learn to play. You can probably get up to the level of the Beethoven Sonatas, although the most difficult ones
will be a huge challenge that will take many years to learn. Acquiring a sufficiently large repertoire will be difficult,
and at any time, you will be able to perform only a few pieces. But for personal enjoyment, there is still a limitless
number of compositions that you can play. Because there are more wonderful compositions to learn than you have
time to learn them, you may not necessarily feel a limit to what you can play. There is still no major problems in
learning new pieces, but they will require constant maintenance if you want to keep them in your repertoire. This
will greatly limit your playable repertoire, because as you learn new pieces, you will completely forget the old ones,
unless you had learned them at much younger ages. In addition, your learning rate will definitely start to slow
down. By re-memorizing and re-forgetting several times, you can still memorize a significant amount of material.
Ages 65+ There is no reason why you can’t start learning piano at any age. Those who start at these ages are
realistic about what they can learn to play and generally do not have unattainable expectations. There are plenty of
simple but wonderful music to play and the joy of playing remains just as high as at younger ages. As long as you
are alive and not terribly handicapped, you can learn piano and make satisfactory progress at any age. Memorizing
a composition you are practicing is not a problem for most. The greatest difficulty in memorizing will come from
the fact that it will take you a long time to get up to speed for difficult material, and memorizing slow play is the
most difficult memory work. Therefore, if you choose easy pieces that can be brought up to speed quickly, you will
memorize those more quickly. Stretching the hands to reach wide chords or arpeggios, and fast runs will become
more difficult, and relaxation will also be more difficult. If you concentrate on one composition at a time, you can
always have one or two compositions that can be performed. There is no reason to modify your practice methods
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— they are the same as those used for the youngsters. And you may not feel as much nervousness as you might have
in the middle ages. Learning piano, especially memory work, is one of the best exercises for the brain; therefore,
serious efforts at learning piano should delay the aging process, just as proper physical exercise is necessary to
maintain health.
1.3.19 The “Ideal” Practice Routine (Bach’s Teachings and Invention #4)
Updated:
December 14, 2003
Is there an ideal, universal practice routine? No, because each person must design her/is own practice routine
at each practice session. In other words, this book is all about designing your own practice routines. Some differences between a well designed routine and the intuitive routine of section 1.2.1 are discussed in the last paragraph
of this section. A good piano teacher will discuss the appropriate practice routines for the lesson pieces during the
lesson. Those who already know how to create practice routines might still find this section interesting, as we will
discuss many useful points (such as Bach’s teachings and specifics on how to practice his invention #4) in addition
to practice routines.
Many students who learn the numerous useful ideas of this book for the first time feel lost and wonder if there
are magical practice routines, like the magical practice methods described here. They would like some guidance
on typical practice routines that use these methods. Therefore, I describe a few sample practice routines below.
Practice routines depend on the skill level, what the person wants to accomplish, the composition being practiced,
what the person was practicing the day before, etc. A practice session for preparing for performances is different
from that for learning a new piece, which is different from that for polishing a piece that you have been practicing
for some time.
A universal routine, such as “Practice Hanon for 30 minutes, then scales/arpeggios for 20 minutes, then CramerBülow (or Czerny, etc.), followed by lesson pieces” does not make any practical sense; it is the epitome of the intuitive method and reveals a general ignorance of how to practice. The question “What is a good practice routine?”
is answered by “How do you design practice routines?” Instead of asking “What must I do?” you should ask
“What do I want to accomplish?” You design a practice routine by (i) defining your objective and (ii) assembling
the resources to accomplish it. In order to do this, you must first become familiar with all the practice methods.
Since there is so much material in this book, you should not wait until you understand the last page before applying
the methods. This book is written like a practice routine: you can pick a composition you want to play, and start
practicing it by reading from the beginning of Chapter One and applying each principle in the order in which it is
presented.
1.3.19.1 Learning the Rules
Therefore, the first “practice routine” you should use is to follow Chapter One, starting from the beginning and
applying the concepts to a composition you want to play. The objective is to become familiar with all the available
practice methods. You can choose a piece that you have never played before, but the best choice is probably a
composition that you have already practiced a little so that you can concentrate more on learning the practice
methods than learning the composition. Choose a piece that is not too long and not too difficult. Before you start
on the piano, read the entire Chapter One (or the whole book) once quickly. Don’t even try to learn anything the
first time because this book contains so many ideas, and they are described so concisely, that most people need to
read it several times. You will be surprised at how well the key ideas will register permanently in your brain when
you read something without trying to memorize everything in it. Read it the first time as if you are reading a novel
or some fun story and skip sections that you think have too much detail; after you pass all the major ideas through
your brain once, it will become much easier to understand the beginning of the book even if you don’t remember
most of what you read previously. You will also have a good idea of the outline of the book and how it is organized:
all the basics are presented in Chapter One, section 2, and the more advanced concepts are discussed in section 3.
There is no need to practice each method until you become good at it, before going on to the next one. The
idea is to try each one several times and to understand the purposes of the methods and to get a rough idea of how
the objectives are achieved. You will have plenty of time to practice them later on! Of course, you might have fun
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applying them and end up spending a lot of time on some particularly rewarding methods. There is nothing wrong
with that!
Once you have some familiarity with most of the practice methods, we are ready to design practice routines. In
order to design generally useful routines, we assume that you have had at least one year of serious piano practice.
Our objective is to learn Bach’s Invention #4.
1.3.19.2 Routine for Learning a New Piece (Invention #4)
In this book, “Learning a new piece” is synonymous with memorizing it. Therefore, without any warm-ups, etc.,
immediately start memorizing Bach’s Invention #4, RH first, starting with segments of one to three bars that make
up a distinct phrase, then the LH. Continue this process until you have memorized the entire piece, HS only. See
section 1.3.6 for more details on memorizing. Those already good at using the methods of this book should be
able to memorize the entire Invention (not perfectly), HS, on the first day, after one or two hours of practice (for an
average person with an IQ of about 100). Concentrate only on memorizing, and don’t worry about anything that
you “cannot play satisfactorily” (such as the 1, 3 trill in the LH), and play at any speed that is comfortable for you.
If you want to memorize this piece as quickly as possible, it is best to concentrate only on this piece and not play
other pieces. Instead of one long session of 2 hrs, you might practice 1 hr, twice during the day.
Memorizing is easier at faster speed. Therefore, as you memorize in segments, accelerate it as much as you can,
even if this makes the playing a little sloppy. However, play it slowly once before switching hands, making sure that
you play each note accurately. Play each segment just a few times, then switch hands. From the first day, try to play
HS in your mind, away from the piano; if you get stuck and have a complete blackout, don’t worry, this is normal.
You will re-memorize this part during the next practice session. Practice until you can play the entire composition,
each hand separately.
Play Thumb Over everywhere except for the 21 in 212345 of bar 1, and other similar places, where Thumb
Under is much easier. It is amazing how Bach found a way to make you practice Thumb Under in a fast passage; in
practically all fast passages, you need to play Thumb Over. The choice of Thumb Under or Over will become very
important later on, when we increase the velocity.
On the second day, start HT slowly, still in segments of a few bars, and then connecting them. Again, don’t
practice anything else; even playing finger exercises to warm up will cause you to forget some of what you just
memorized. Note that from the first day, you had started technique acquisition, which is inseparable from memory.
Technique acquisition/memory is almost a purely brain process (although many people call it “hand memory”),
and is composed of short term memory that is stored in a specific part of the brain, and several forms of permanent
memory that are permanent changes in the brain. Short term memory is almost instantaneous, but the first form
of permanent memory takes about 5 minutes to complete (even for those who can “instantly” memorize many
things), and after that, the memory is in your brain essentially forever. However, there is no guarantee that you can
recall it later on. This process of writing from “volatile memory” to “non-volatile memory” is automatic, and you
have no control over it. The difference between good memorizers and bad memorizers is that the bad memorizers
cannot recall what is already in their brain. Therefore, when you practice memorizing, you must practice recalling
information rather than inputting information into the brain. The second form of permanent memory is associated
with post practice improvement and actually changes your ability to play that segment, in addition to storing it in
memory — this is the technique acquisition part. Most of the permanent improvement in technique occurs during
sleep, and this is one of the reasons why we need to sleep — so that the brain can make the necessary repairs
and improvements to adapt to our changing environment. Our brain is more complicated than an automobile;
therefore, it is not surprising that you cannot make repairs or modifications until you bring it into a garage and shut
the engine off (sleep). A good night’s sleep, including REM sleep, is necessary for making maximum progress for
learning piano. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is an important stage of sleep in which the eyes move rapidly,
although you are asleep. This is why sleep is so important for babies — because there is so much construction going
on in their brains.
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1.3.19.3 “Normal” Practice Routines and Bach’s Teachings
After 3 or 4 days, you can return to your “normal” practice routine. For the “memorizing” routine, we basically did
nothing but memorize because mixing memorizing with other practice will slow down the memorizing process. In
the “normal” routine, we can take advantage of the beginning, when the hands are still “cold”. If you had never done
this before, you must practice playing your finished pieces “cold”. Of course, you cannot play difficult, fast pieces
cold. Either play easier pieces, or play the difficult ones slowly. A good procedure is to start with easier ones and
gradually play the harder ones. Once you become a strong enough performer so that you have no trouble playing
cold (this may take a year), this step becomes optional, especially if you play the piano every day. If you do not play
every day, you may lose the ability to play cold if you stop practicing it. Another thing that can be practiced during
this warming-up period is scales and arpeggios; see sections 1.3.4.2 and 1.3.5 for details on how to practice them.
You might also try the finger independence and lifting exercises of 1.3.7.5. Start practicing other compositions in
addition to the Bach.
By this time, you should be able to play the entire Bach Invention in your mind, HS, with no trouble. This
is a good time to conduct maintenance on pieces you had memorized previously, because learning a new piece
will often result in forgetting portions of previously learned pieces. Alternate practice between the Bach Invention
and your old pieces. You should practice the Bach HS most of the time until you have acquired all the necessary
technique. Increase speed as quickly as you can, to speeds faster than the final speed. Practice mostly those sections
that give you difficulty; there is no need to practice sections that are easy for you. Once you get to a certain speed
HS, start practicing HT at a slower speed. As soon as you feel comfortable HT at a slow speed, bring it up to a faster
speed. To increase speed (HS or HT), do not use the metronome or force your fingers to play faster. Wait until
you get the feeling that the fingers WANT to go faster, and then increase the speed by a comfortable amount.
This will allow you to practice relaxed and avoid all speed walls.
The most important function of HS practice is technique acquisition; therefore, do not try to acquire technique
HT, because you can waste a lot of time trying to do that. In order to transition successfully from HS to HT practice, cultivate the feeling that the two hands need each other in order to play. This will help you to find those
motions that help HT play. Thus HT play is not just a superposition of HS play, but a new mode of play. HS play is
useful even during HT play; for example, if you make a mistake playing HT, you can correct it without interrupting
the music by going back to HS play for the hand that made the error while continuing uninterrupted with the other
hand. Without extensive HS practice, such a feat would be impossible.
In order to acquire the specific techniques that Bach had in mind, we must analyze this Invention in some
detail. Bach’s Inventions were composed mainly as practice pieces for technique and each Invention teaches you
specific new sets of techniques. Therefore, we must know what types of skills this Invention is intended to teach us.
Bach teaches us not only specific skills, but also HOW TO PRACTICE THEM! That is, by analyzing the Inventions,
we can learn many of the practice methods of this book!!
The main theme of this Invention is given by the first 4 bars of the RH. This is then repeated by the LH. The
structure of these Inventions, consisting of 2 voices, has a dual purpose. The first is that it teaches us hand independence. The second, less obvious one, is that it is telling us to practice HS! Both hands play basically the same
things, giving us the opportunity to balance the technical levels of the two hands; this can only be achieved by HS
practice and giving the weaker hand more work. There is no better way to practice hand independence, the principal lesson of the Inventions, than by practicing the hands separately. The section where one hand is trilling would
be devilishly difficult to practice HT from the beginning, whereas it is quite easy, HS. Some students who do not
know HS practice will try to “match” the two hands by figuring out the trill notes ahead of time and then slowing it
down for HT practice. This may be appropriate for beginners or youngsters who have not yet learned to trill. Most
students should trill (HS) from the beginning, and work on accelerating the trill as soon as possible. There is no
need to mathematically match the two hands; this is art, not mechanics! Bach wants you to trill one hand independently of the other. The reason why you should not match the notes is that these trills are just a device to sustain
the notes for a long time, and the individual notes have no rhythmic value. What do you do, then, if you happen to
end up with the wrong trill note at the end? You should be able to compensate for that by either waiting briefly or
changing the speed of the trill near the end — that is the type of skill that this Invention teaches. Therefore, matching the trill to the other hand for practice defeats the lesson of this Invention. The staccato in bars 3 and 4 of the RH
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is another device for practicing hand independence; staccato in one hand versus legato in the other requires more
control than both legato. The staccato should be used throughout the piece although, in many editions, they are
indicated only at the beginning.
Most Bach lesson pieces teach not only independence between the hands but also independence of the fingers
within one hand, and especially the 4th finger. Thus in bars 11 and 13, there are 6 notes in the RH that can be
played as two triplets but are actually three doublets because of the 3/8 time signature. These bars can be difficult
for beginners because they require the coordination of three difficult motions: (i) the RH fingering symmetry is that
of 2 triplets (345345 rhythm), but it must be played as 3 doublets (345345), (ii) at the same time, the LH must play
something completely different, and (iii) all this must be accomplished using mostly the three weakest fingers, 3, 4,
and 5. Bach frequently used this device of forcing you to play a rhythm that is different from the fingering symmetry
in order to cultivate finger independence. He also tries to give the 4th finger as much work as possible, as in the
final 45.
The triplets are easier to play using 234 fingering instead of 345, especially for larger hands, and most editions
suggest the 234 fingering. Knowledge of parallel set exercises indicates that Bach’s original intent was 345 (for maximum technical development value), and it is a “musical license” to change it to 234 in order to facilitate musicality.
That is, in any composition other than these Inventions, 234 would be the correct fingering. Use of 234 can be
further justified here because it teaches the student the principle of choosing the fingering with the greatest control. Therefore, the student can justifiably choose either fingering. A similar situation arises in bar 38 where Bach’s
original intention for the LH was probably 154321 (a more complete parallel set) whereas musical license would
indicate 143212 which is technically less demanding. Without help from parallel set exercises, the obvious choice
is the musical license. By using parallel set exercises, the student can learn to use either fingering with equal ease.
The “triplets in 3/8 signature” is a good example of how reading the music incorrectly makes it difficult to get up
to speed and how speed walls form. When playing HT, you will encounter problems if you play the RH triplets in two
beats (wrong way) and the LH in three (correct). Even if you made a second mistake of playing the LH in two beats
in order to match the RH, there will be a problem with the rhythmic change from adjacent bars. You might manage
to play through these mistakes at slow speed, but when speeded up, they become impossible to play and you begin
to build a speed wall. This is an example of the importance of rhythm. It is amazing how many lessons Bach can
cram into something that looks so simple, and these complexities partly explain why, without proper practice
methods or guidance from knowledgeable teachers, many students find it impossible to memorize Bach or to
play his compositions beyond a certain speed. The lack of proper practice methods is the main reason why so
many students end up playing so few Bach pieces.
The Inventions are excellent technical lesson pieces. Hanon, Czerny, etc., tried to achieve the same ends using
what they thought were simpler, more systematic approaches but they failed because they tried to simplify something that is infinitely complex. By contrast, Bach squeezed as many lessons as he could into every bar, as demonstrated above. Hanon, Czerny, etc., must have been aware of the difficulties of learning Bach but were unaware
of good practice methods, and tried to find simpler methods of acquiring technique by following their intuitive
instincts. This is one of the best historical examples of the pitfalls of the intuitive approach.
Because the Inventions were composed for teaching specific skills, they can sound somewhat constrained. In
spite of this constraint, all of Bach’s lesson pieces contain more music than practically anything ever composed and
there are enough of them to satisfy the needs of students at any level, including beginners. If the inventions are too
difficult, consider studying the very large number of delightful (and eminently performable) simpler lesson pieces
Bach composed. Most of them can be found in the “Clavier Book of Anna Magdalena Bach” (his second wife).
Because there are so many, most books will contain only a small number of selections. Because the Inventions are
lesson pieces, almost every edition has the critical fingerings indicated. Therefore, figuring out the fingerings,
which is extremely important, should not be a problem.
The Inventions were composed by assembling well defined segments that are usually only a few bars long. This
makes them ideal for using HS segmental practice, another key element of the methods of this book. This, and
many other properties of Bach’s compositions make them ideal music to learn using the methods of this book, and
it is quite probable that they were composed with these practice methods in mind. Bach may have been aware of
most of the material of this book!
Another important lesson of Bach’s Inventions is parallel sets. The main technical lesson of this Invention #4
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is the parallel set 12345, the basic set needed to play the scale and runs. However, Bach knew that a single parallel
set is too dangerous from a technical point of view because you can cheat by phase locking without acquiring
technique. In order to prevent phase locking, he added one or two notes to the parallel set. Now if you tried to
cheat, you will be caught immediately because the music will not come out even: Bach has given you no choice but
to acquire the required technique if you want to play this musically! Here is another example of Bach teaching us
why music and technique are inseparable (by using music as a criterion for technique acquisition). Therefore, the
quickest way to learn to play this Invention is to practice the 12345 and 54321 parallel sets. As soon as you test your
fingers using these parallel sets, you will understand why Bach composed this Invention. If you can do these
parallel set exercises satisfactorily, this piece will be quite easy, but you will find that the parallel sets are not easy
at all, and will probably require lots of work even if you are at an intermediate level. First work on these sets using
only white keys; then work on others that include black keys, as suggested by Bach. A good example is the LH 12345
parallel set of bars 39–40, with the difficult 4th finger on a white key following 3 on black. Bach extracts the most
difficult part of this parallel set, 2345, and repeats it in bar 49.
Bach clearly saw the value of playing a small number of notes very quickly, such as ornaments and trills, for
developing technique (velocity). Thus his ornaments are another key device for acquiring technique, and they are
essentially a small assemblage of parallel sets. There are numerous discussions on how to play Bach’s ornaments;
these discussions are important from the point of view of correct musical expression, but we must not miss the
point that technically, ornaments in lesson pieces are an essential device for acquiring velocity, and are not just
musical ornaments. Play both the RH and LH trills with fingers 1 and 3, which will make the LH trill easier to learn.
Most students will be able to play the RH trill better than the LH trill in the beginning; in that case, use the RH
to teach the LH. This “technique transfer” from one hand to the other is easier if both hands use similar fingering.
Because the purpose of the trill is simply to sustain the notes, there is no specific trill speed that is required; however,
try to trill the two hands at the same speed. If you want to trill very fast, use the parallel sets to practice them as
described in section 1.3.3.1. It is extremely important to start the first two notes rapidly if you want to trill fast. The
easiest way to do this is to phase lock them. This phase-locked “non-musical play” will not be noticeable because
it comes so quickly at the beginning of the trill. In fact, if the first 2 notes are faster than the rest of the trill, the
audience will think that the entire trill is faster than it actually is. Watch the positions of fingers 2, 4, and 5 while
trilling. They should be stationary, close to the keys, and slightly curved.
Most students find it difficult to play these Inventions beyond a certain speed, so let’s visit a practice routine
for increasing speed. Using this type of routine, you should be able to eventually play at practically any reasonable
speed, including speeds at least as fast as those of Glen Gould and other famous pianists. We will learn to play bars
1 and 2 fast, and after that, you should be able to figure out how to accelerate the rest. Note that these two bars
are self-cycling (see section 1.3.2). Try cycling it rapidly. Chances are, you will fail because stress develops rapidly
with speed. Then just practice 212345 of bar 1 until it is smooth and fast. Then practice 154, then 54321 of the
2nd bar. Then connect them, and finally, cycle the two bars. You may not be able to complete everything the first
day, but the PPI will make it easier on the second day. Using similar methods, solve all your technical difficulties
in the entire piece. The key difficulty in the LH is the 521 of bar 4, so practice 521 parallel set until you can play
it at any speed, completely relaxed. Note that the 212345 of the RH and the 543212 of the LH are thumb-passing
exercises. Clearly, Bach recognized that thumb over and thumb under are critical technical elements at high speed
and created numerous ingenious opportunities for you to practice them. Before you can play HT fast, you must get
up to HS speeds that are much faster than the HT speed you want. “Getting up to speed” doesn’t mean just being
able to attain the speed, but you must be able to feel the quiet hands and have complete control of each individual
finger. Beginners may need months of HS practice for the higher speeds. Many students tend to extract more speed
from their fingers by playing loud; this is also not true speed, so play everything softly for these practice sessions.
When starting to play HT fast, exaggerate the rhythm — this might make it easier. You cannot really accelerate until
you can play musically; we will discuss this below. Although most Bach compositions can be played at different
speeds, the minimum speed for the Inventions is the speed at which you can feel the quiet hands when you acquire
the necessary technique, because if you don’t get up to that speed, you have missed one of his most important
lessons.
An intermediate level player should be able to conquer the technical difficulties of this Invention in about a
week. Now we are ready to practice playing it as a piece of music! Listen to several recordings in order to get an
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idea of what can be done and what you want to do. Try different speeds and decide on your own final speed. Videotape your own playing and see if the result is visually and musically satisfactory; usually, it is not, and you will find
many improvements you will want to make. You may never be completely satisfied even if you practiced this piece
all your life.
In order to play musically, you must feel each note before playing it, even if it is just for a split second. This
will not only give you more control and eliminate errors, but also allow you to accelerate continuously through the
keydrop so that the hammer shank is flexed by just the right amount when the hammer strikes the strings. Pretend
that there is no bottom to the keydrop and let the bottom of the keydrop stop your finger. You can do this and still
play softly. This is called “playing deeply into the piano”. You cannot “raise your finger high and plonk it down” as
Hannon recommended and expect to make music. Such a motion can cause the hammer shank to oscillate instead
of flexing and produce an unpredictable and harsh sound. Therefore, as you practice HS, practice for musicality
also. Use the “flat finger positions” of section 1.3.4.2. Combine these with a supple wrist. Play as much as possible
with the flat, fleshy part of the finger (opposite the fingernail), not the bony finger tip. If you video tape your playing,
the curled finger position will look childish and amateurish. You cannot play relaxed until you can completely relax
the extensor muscles of the first 2 or 3 phalanges of fingers 2 to 5. This relaxation is the essence of the flat finger
positions. At first, you will be able to include all these considerations only at slow speed. However, as soon as
you develop quiet hands, you will gain the ability to include them at higher speeds. In fact, because these finger
positions allow complete relaxation and control, you will be able to play at much faster speed. This is one of the
(many) reasons why quiet hands is so important. If you have not been paying attention to musicality, you should
hear an immediate change in the tonality of your music when you adopt these principles, even at slow speeds.
Tone and color: The improved tonality will be most clearly evident when playing softly; the softer play also
helps relaxation and control. The flat finger position is what enables softer play with control. How soft is soft?
This depends on the music, speed, etc., but for practice purposes one useful criterion is to play softer and softer
until you start to miss some notes; this level (or slightly louder) is usually the best for practicing softly. Once you
have control over tonality (sound of each individual note), try to add color to your music (effect of groups of notes).
Color for each composer is different. Chopin requires legato, special staccato, rubato, etc. Mozart requires the utmost attention to the expression markings. Beethoven requires uninterrupted rhythms that run continuously over
many, many bars; therefore, you need to develop the skill for “connecting” consecutive bars. Bach’s Inventions are
somewhat contrived and “boxed in” because they are mostly confined to simple parallel sets. You can easily overcome this handicap by emphasizing the multitude of musical concepts that give his music almost infinite depth.
The most obvious musicality comes from the harmony/conversation between the two hands. The ending of every
piece must be special, and Bach’s endings are always convincing. Therefore, don’t just let the ending catch up to
you; make sure that the ending is purposeful. In this Invention, pay special attention to bar 50, in which the two
hands move in opposite directions as you enter the authoritative ending. When you bring the music up to speed
and develop quiet hands, the 6-note runs (e.g., 212345, etc.) should sound like rising and falling waves. The RH trill
is bell-like because it is a full note, while the LH trill is more sinister because it is a half note. When practicing HS,
note that the RH trill is not just a trill but it comes crashing down at the end. Similarly, the LH trill is an introduction
to the ensuing counterpoint to the RH. You cannot bring out color unless you lift each finger at precisely the right
moment. Most of Bach’s lesson pieces contain lessons in lifting the fingers accurately. Of course, the coloration
should initially be investigated HS. Quiet hands is also most easily acquired HS; therefore adequate HS preparation
before HT practice is of critical importance for tone and color. Once the preparation work is done, you can start HT
and bring out the incredible richness of Bach’s music!
Tone and color have no limits in the sense that once you succeed, it becomes easier to add more, and the music
actually becomes easier to play. All of a sudden, you may discover that you can play the entire composition without
a single audible mistake. This is probably the clearest illustration of the statement that you cannot separate music
from technique. The act of producing good music actually makes you a better pianist. This provides one of the
explanations of why you have good days and bad days — when your mental mood and finger conditioning are just
right so that you can control the tone and color, you will have a good day. This teaches us that on bad days, you
may be able to “recover” by trying to remember the fundamentals of how you control tone and color. This ends the
discussions on Invention #4. We now return to the practice routine.
You have been practicing for over one hour by now, and the fingers are flying. This is the time when you can
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really make music! You must make every effort to practice making music during at least half of the total practice
time. Once you have built up a sufficiently large repertoire, you should try to increase this “music time” from
50% to 90%. Therefore, you must consciously set aside this portion of your practice routine for music. Play your
heart out, with all the emotion and expression you can muster. Finding musical expression is very difficult and
exhausting; therefore, initially, it will require much more conditioning and effort than anything you can do with
Hanon. If you don’t have a teacher, the only known ways to learn musicality are to listen to recordings and to attend
concerts. If you are scheduled to perform a particular composition in the near future, play it slowly, or at least at a
comfortable and fully controllable speed once, before going on to something different. Expression is not important
when playing slowly. In fact, it may be beneficial to purposely play with little expression when playing slowly before
noving on to something else.
Learning Bach is strongly emphasized in this book. Why? Because Bach’s music written for technical development is unique in piano pedagogy in its healthy, complete, efficient, and correct approach to technique
acquisition — there is nothing else like it. Every experienced teacher will assign some Bach pieces for study. As
mentioned above, the only reason why students do not learn more Bach pieces is because, without the proper practice methods, they seem so difficult. You can demonstrate to yourself the benefits of the Bach lessons by learning
five of his technical compositions and practicing them for half a year or more. Then go back and play the most difficult pieces that you had learned previously, and you will be amazed at the greater ease and control that you have
gained. Bach’s compositions were designed to create concert pianists with sound fundamental technique. Chopin’s
etudes were not designed for gradual, complete technical development and many of Beethoven’s compositions can
cause hand injury and ear damage if you don’t get proper guidance (they appear to have damaged Beethoven’s hearing). Neither of them teaches you how to practice. Therefore, Bach’s compositions stand out above all others for
technical development. With the practice methods of this book, we can now take full advantage of Bach’s resources
for technical development that has been sadly under-utilized in the past.
In summary, there is no magical practice routine for faster learning. Only practitioners of intuitive methods who do not know how to teach practice methods need the concept of a “standard practice routine” which
is a poor substitute for the missing practice methods. To those who know the practice methods, the concept of
a standard practice routine becomes a somewhat silly idea. For example, a typical standard routine might start
with Hanon exercises; however, you can easily bring the Hanon exercises up to ridiculous speeds by applying the
methods of this book. And once you accomplish that, you begin to wonder why you are doing this. Now, what will
you gain by playing these ridiculously fast Hanon pieces every day?? Instead of a standard practice routine, you
must define what your objective for the practice session is, and select the practice methods needed to achieve that
goal. In fact, your practice routine will constantly evolve during each practice session. Thus the key for designing a
good practice routine is an intimate knowledge of all the practice methods. How different this is, from the intuitive
routine described in section 1.2.1! No more extensive finger exercises, or Czerny and other pieces just for technical
work with no music. No more structured practice sessions with interminable repetitions with the brain shut off.
No more speed limits, speed walls, or the boring slow practice with the metronome. Our method is pure empowerment, freeing us to quickly master the technical material so that we can concentrate on music, and even to learn as
many Bach pieces as we desire.
1.3.20 Bach: the Greatest Composer and Teacher (15 Inventions and their Parallel Sets)
Updated:
February, 2004
In this section, we briefly analyze Bach’s fifteen 2-part Inventions (from simple structural points of view) in order
to explore how and why he composed them. The objective is to better understand how to practice and benefit
from Bach’s compositions. As a by-product, we can use these results to speculate on what music is and how Bach
produced such incredible music out of what (we will demonstrate) is basic “teaching material” that should be no
different from Czerny or Cramer-Bulow. Clearly, Bach used advanced musical concepts in harmony, counterpoint,
etc., that music theoreticians are still debating to this day, while others wrote “lesson music” mainly for their finger training value. Here, we only examine the Inventions at the simplest structural level. Even at this basic level,
there are some educational and intriguing ideas that we can explore and arrive at the realization that music and
technique are inseparable.
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There is a nice essay (http://www.music.qub.ac.uk/~tomita/essay/inventions.html) on Bach’s Inventions and their history, etc., by Dr. Yo Tomita of Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland. This is one of the best analysis
of the Inventions and what they contain. The name “Inventions” does not seem to have any specific meaning in
terms of the contents of the Inventions. Each Invention uses a different scale (in ascending order by key) that was
important in the Well Temperaments favored during Bach’s time. They were initially written for his oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach when Friedemann was 9 years old, around 1720. They were subsequently upgraded and
taught to other students.
The single most striking feature common to all the Inventions is that each one concentrates on a small number
of parallel sets, usually less than three. Now, you might say, “That’s not fair — since practically every composition
can be decomposed into parallel sets, of course, the Inventions must be all parallel sets, so what’s new?” The new
element is that each Invention is based on only one to three specific parallel sets that Bach chose for practice. To
demonstrate this, we list these parallel sets below for each Invention. In order to concentrate entirely on simple
parallel sets, Bach completely avoids the use of thirds and more complex chords (in one hand), that Hanon uses in
his highest numbered exercises. Thus Bach wanted his students to master parallel sets before chords.
Single parallel sets are almost trivial from a technical point of view. That is why they are so useful — they
are easy to learn. Anyone with a some piano experience can learn to play them pretty fast. The real technical
challenges arise when you have to join two of them with a conjunction in between. Bach obviously knew this
and therefore used only combinations of parallel sets as his building blocks. Thus the Inventions teach how to
play parallel sets and conjunctions — learning parallel sets is of no use if you can’t connect them. Below, I use
the term “linear” parallel set to denote sets in which the fingers play sequentially (e.g., 12345), and “alternating”
sets when alternate fingers play (132435). These joined parallel sets form what is normally called “motifs” in these
Inventions. However, the fact that they are created using the most basic parallel sets suggests that the “motifs” were
not chosen because of their musical content, but were chosen for their pedagogical value and the music was then
added with the genius of Bach. Thus only Bach could have achieved such a feat; this explains why Hanon failed.
Only one representative combination of parallel sets is listed below for each Invention; Bach used them in many
variations, such as reversed, inverted, etc. Note that Hanon based his exercises on essentially the same parallel
sets, although he probably accomplished this by accident, by extracting these motifs from Bach’s works. Perhaps
the most convincing evidence that Bach knew about parallel sets is the beautiful progressive complexity of the sets
he chose with increasing Invention number.
List of the parallel sets in each Invention (for the RH):
#1 1234 and 4231 (linear followed by alternating); in a later modification of this Invention, Bach replaced the 4231
alternating set with two linear sets, 432,321. This change is logical because it converts this Invention from one
that teaches two different types of parallel sets to one that concentrates on only one, since these inventions
are arranged in order of increasing parallel set complexity. Thus the alternating parallel set 4231 was out
of order for the first Invention. However, the order of difficulty of each Invention may not follow the same
order as parallel set complexity for most people, because the structural simplicity of the parallel sets does not
always equate to easier playing.
#2 Linear sets as in #1, but with a wider variety of conjunctions. An added complexity is that the same motif,
appearing at different times, requires a different fingering. Thus the first two inventions deal mainly with
linear sets, but the second one is more complex.
#3 324 and 321 (alternating followed by linear). A short alternating set is introduced.
#4 12345 and 54321 with an unusual conjunction. These longer linear sets with the unusual conjunction increase
the difficulty.
#5 4534231; full blown alternating sets.
#6 545, 434, 323, etc., the simplest example of the most basic 2-note parallel sets joined by one conjunction; these
are difficult when the weak fingers are involved. Although they are simple, they are an extremely important
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basic technical element, and alternating them between the two hands is a great way to learn how to control
them (using one hand to teach the other, section 1.2.20). It also introduces the arpegic sets.
#7 543231; this is like a combination of #3 and #4 and is therefore more complex than either one.
#8 14321 and first introduction of the “Alberti” type combination 2434. Here, the progression in difficulty is created
by the fact that the initial 14 is only one or two semitones which makes it difficult for combinations involving
the weaker fingers. It is amazing how Bach not only knew all the weak finger combinations, but was able to
weave them into real music.
#9 The lessons here are similar to those in #2 (linear sets), but are more difficult.
#10 This piece consists almost entirely of arpegic sets. Because arpegic sets involve larger finger travel distances
between notes, they represent another progression in difficulty.
#11 Similar to #2 and #9; again, difficulty is increased, by making the motif longer than for the preceding pieces.
Note that in all the other pieces, there is only a short motif followed by a simple counterpoint section which
makes it easier to concentrate on the parallel sets.
#12 This one combines linear and arpegic sets, and is played faster than previous pieces.
#13 Arpegic sets, played faster than #10.
#14 12321, 43234; a more difficult version of #3 (5 notes instead of 3, and faster).
#15 3431, 4541, difficult combinations involving finger 4. These finger combinations become especially difficult to
play when many of them are strung together.
The above list shows that:
1. There is a systematic introduction of increasingly complex parallel sets.
2. There tends to be a progressive increase in difficulty, with emphasis on developing the weaker fingers.
3. The “motifs” are, in reality, carefully chosen parallel sets and conjunctions, chosen for their technical value
just as in the Hanon series. However, Bach succeeded where Hanon failed because Bach understood the
difference between music and noise, and that music and technique cannot be learned separately.
The fact that motifs, chosen simply for their technical usefulness, can be used to create some of the greatest
music ever composed is intriguing. This fact is nothing new to composers. To the average music aficionado who
has fallen in love with Bach’s music, these motifs seem to take on special significance with seemingly deep musical
value because of the familiarity created by repeated listening. In reality, it is not the motifs themselves, but how
they are used in the composition that produces the magic. If you look simply at the barest, basic motifs, you can
hardly see any difference between Hanon and Bach, yet no one would consider the Hanon exercises as music. The
complete motif actually consists of the parallel sets and the attached counterpoint section, so-called because it acts
as the counterpoint to what is being played by the other hand. Bach’s clever use of the counterpoint obviously serves
many purposes, one of which is to create the music. The counterpoint (which is missing in the Hanon exercises)
might appear to add no technical lessons (the reason why Hanon ignored it), but Bach uses it for practicing skills
such as trills, ornaments, staccato, etc., and the counterpoint certainly makes it much easier to compose the music
and adjust its level of difficulty.
Thus music is created by some “logical” sequence of notes or sets of notes that is recognized by the brain, just
as ballet, beautiful flowers, or magnificent scenery is recognized visually. What is this “logic”? A large part of it
is automatic, almost hard-wired brain data processing, as in the visual case; it starts with an inborn component
(newborn babies will fall asleep when they hear a lullaby), but a large component can be cultivated (e.g., Bach
versus Rock and Roll). But even the cultivated component is mostly automatic. In other words, when any sound
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enters the ears, the brain instantaneously begins to process and interpret the sounds whether we consciously try
to process the information or not. An enormous amount of this automatic processing goes on without our even
noticing it, such as depth perception, eye focusing, direction of origin of sounds, walking/balancing motions, etc.
Most of that processing is inborn and/or cultivated but is basically out of our conscious control. The result of that
mental processing is what we call music appreciation. Chord progressions and other elements of music theory give
us some idea of what that logic is. But most of that “theory” today is a simple compilation of various properties of
existing original music. They do not provide a sufficiently basic theory to allow us to create new music, though they
allow us to avoid pitfalls and extend/complete a composition once you have somehow generated a viable motif.
Thus it appears that music theory today is still very incomplete. Hopefully, by further analyzing music from the
great masters, we can, slowly, step by step, approach that goal of developing a better understanding of music.
Finally, it is clear that the Inventions were created for technique development. However, Bach’s music has not
been utilized as much as they should have been in the past because of the difficulty of learning to play them for students unfamiliar with effective practice methods. The methods of this book should eliminate those difficulties and
allow more widespread use of this most valuable resource for healthy technique acquisition. Hopefully, this section
illustrates the synergy between Bach’s teachings and the methods of this book which will allow more students to
benefit from the world’s greatest music composed by the world’s greatest teacher.
1.3.21 The Psycology
We are all aware that psychology plays a major role not only in music, but also in piano learning. There are numerous ways for taking advantage of our understanding of psychology and we will discuss some of these methods in
this section. However, the more important immediate task is to uncover the psychological pitfalls that have created
seemingly insurmountable obstacles to learning piano, such as “lack of talent”, or “nervousness” when performing. Another example is the phenomenon of the great artists’ inability to teach discussed in section 1.3.16.5 above.
This phenomenon was explained in terms of the artists’ psychological approach to teaching which mirrored their
approach to composing music. Since the psychology of music is only minimally understood, composers simply
create music in their minds “out of nothing” — there is no such thing as a formula for creating music. They similarly acquired technique by imagining the musical output and letting the hands find a way to accomplish it. It is a
terrific shortcut to a complex result, when it works, and is still the only way for composing music. However, for most
students, it is a most inefficient way for acquiring technique and we now know that there are better approaches.
Therefore, an analysis of these psychological approaches is a necessary component of piano pedagogy.
Psychology is mostly controlled by knowledge and it is often difficult to distinguish between psychology and
knowledge. In most cases, it is knowledge that controls how we psychologically approach a subject. What we are
discussing here is clearly psychology because knowledge is not enough — you need to actually change the mental
approach in order to accomplish the objective. Knowledge makes this change possible, or even easy. It is now time
to examine some specific items.
Perhaps the most important one is how we view piano learning, or our general attitude towards the process of
learning to play. The methods of this book are diametrically opposite to most other older methods. For example,
when a student fails to learn, it was because of a lack of talent according to the old system, so failure was the
student’s fault. In the system of this book, failure is the teacher’s fault because the teacher’s job is to provide all the
information necessary for success. This new assignment of fault is possible only if there is sufficient information
so that all reasonably competent students (over 90% of the human population) can succeed; but that is indeed
the case with the material available here. Previously, the teacher was the master of the art, and the student had to
follow strict rules provided by the teacher. In our new system, the student is the employer and master of the learning
process and the teacher must provide what the student needs; in other words, the teacher supplies the necessary
information and the student designs her/is own practice routines using this information. Now the responsibility
for understanding the learning process falls on the student because s/he is in charge of the learning process —
there is no more blind faith that practicing Hanon for one hour every day will transform you into a virtuoso. In fact,
nothing should be taken on faith and it is the teacher’s responsibility to explain each method so that the student
understands it. This will require the teacher to be knowledgeable in a wide variety of disciplines, especially the
sciences. We have come to a point in history when art teachers cannot ignore science any more. Therefore, the
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psychology of piano learning requires profound changes in the requirements for both the student and the teacher.
In short, the old system was a system of rules based on historical practices; the new one is a system of methods
based on knowledge.
For the students, especially those trained in the old system with rules, the transition from the old to the new
ranges from “very easy” to complete confusion. Some students will instantly enjoy the new empowerment and
freedom and, within a week, are enjoying the full benefits of the methods. On the other extreme are those students
who don’t immediately realize that there are no more rules and are still looking for “new rules” to follow. They are
full of questions: When I cycle one hand, is 10 times enough, or do I need 10,000 times? Do I cycle as fast as I
can, or at a slower, more accurate speed? Is HS practice necessary, even if I can already play HT? For simple music,
HS practice can be awfully boring — why do I need it? Such questions reveal the extent to which the student has
adapted to the new psychology, or failed to adapt. To illustrate, let us psycho-analyze the last question. In order
to ask such a question, that person must have been practicing blindly because s/he read that it was necessary to
practice HS. In other words, s/he was blindly following a rule. That is not the method of this book. Here, we first
define an objective, and then use HS practice to achieve it. This objective might be more secure memory in order
to avoid blackouts during performances, or technical development so that when you play HT, you can hear that the
playing is based on superior technical skills. When these objectives are achieved, the practice is not boring at all!
For the teacher, there is no question that everything in modern society is based on broad education. There is
no need to become a scientist or to study advanced concepts in psychology. Success in the real world is not tied to
academic achievements; most successful business entrepreneurs don’t have an MBA. Perhaps the most important
advance of modern society is that all these concepts that used to be considered specialized knowledge in advanced
fields are becoming easier to understand, not because they have changed, but because a better understanding
always simplifies and the teaching methods are always improving. Moreover, we are becoming more familiar with
them because we need them more and more in our daily lives. This information age is also making such knowledge
more easily accessible. Thus a teacher simply needs to expend the necessary energy to explore, and the results
will follow automatically. What will not work is the attitude that a method has been developed for 30 years and
therefore should work indefinitely without modification. The teacher needs to adopt a new psychology of open
communications and perpetual learning.
Many of us need a psychological device to overcome the unfounded fear of the inability to memorize. In this
book, we are not talking about memorizing Für Elise only. We are talking about a repertoire of over 5 hours of
real music, most of which you can just sit down and play at a moment’s notice. Some people have no difficulty
memorizing, but most have preconceived notions that memorizing significant repertoires is only for the “gifted”
few. For them, accepting the idea that “memorizing large repertoires can be routine” will only come in stages.
The main reason for this unfounded fear is the past experience in which students are first taught to play a piece
well, then taught to memorize which, as explained in section 1.3.6, is one of the most difficult ways to memorize.
Because so many students were taught in this way, and had tremendous difficulties, there is a general perception
that memorizing is difficult. For students who were taught correctly from the beginning, memorizing is like second
nature; it is an integral part of learning any new composition. For those who have not learned to memorize, the first
stage is to incorporate the memorizing into the learning routine, and to understand the concept that learning and
memorizing at the same time is actually faster than learning alone — this concept is often a difficult psychological
barrier to overcome. The second stage is to develop a maintenance routine, such as practicing cold, and using
finished pieces to warm up your hands instead of exercises, or playing finished pieces for polishing your technique
and practicing musical playing. The third stage is to find ways to maintain a large repertoire without forgetting it,
such as making sure that you can still play them HS, that you can play them in your head, away from the piano, or
that you can play the piece from anywhere in the middle.
Note that with each stage, you will improve your psychological health. For example, the first stage tells you that
there is a better way, there is hope. In the second stage, you eliminate the fear of forgetting — after all, it is just
another stage in the memorizing process. In the third stage, you will feel a pride in your achievements and enjoy
the real fruits of your efforts — making music. Thus memorizing is just one example of how knowledge contributes
to the psychological health of the pianist.
Nervousness is a particularly difficult psychological barrier to overcome. In order to succeed, you must understand that nervousness is a purely mental process. The present system of railroading young students into recitals
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without proper psychological preparation is counter productive, and generally produces students that are more
prone to nervousness problems than when they started their lessons. Once a student experiences intense nervousness from their piano experience, it can negatively influence anything else that they do that is similar, such as
appearing in plays or any other type of public performance. Therefore, the present system is bad for psychological
health in general. As discussed in section 1.3.15 above, nervousness is an eminently solvable problem for most
people and a good program for overcoming nervousness will contribute to mental health because of the pride, joy,
and sense of accomplishment that you will feel.
In summary, this new method is devoid of faith (in rules), mystique (of great masters or established schools), or
even “talent” (so often fictitious or arbitrary); instead, it is based on psychological devices derived from knowledge.
These psychological devices help to nurture a healthy brain. For the student, a healthy psychological approach is
an important key to successfully learning to play the piano. A piano teacher must have a deep understanding of the
psychology of the piano.
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1.3.22 Outline Summary of Entire Method
This method is based on 4 major concepts: Hand Separate Practice (HS, 1.2.25), Segmental Practice (1.2.6), Parallel
Sets (1.2.11, 1.3.7.2, 1.4.2), and Memorization (1.3.6).
1. Learn only musical compositions, no Hanon, Czerny, etc., but Scales and Arpeggios (1.3.5) are necessary.
2. Listen to performances/recordings, but do not try to imitate them exactly.
3. Practice old finished pieces Cold (without warm-ups, 1.3.6.7).
4. When starting a new piece, sight read to identify difficult sections, and practice the most difficult sections
first; then
(a) Practice Hands Separate, in overlapping Segments (Continuity Rule, 1.2.8).
(b) Memorize first, HS, then start practice; the key to memorizing is to get up to speed as quickly as you
can. Memorizing slowly can be impossibly difficult.
(c) Use Parallel Sets to diagnose your weaknesses; Cycle (1.3.2) parallel sets to strengthen those weaknesses
and for getting up to speed quickly.
5. Play the last repetition of any repeated practice slowly before switching hands or moving to a new segment.
6. Practice Relaxation (1.2.10, 1.2.14) at all times, especially HS; this includes the entire body, including Breathing (1.2.21) and swallowing.
7. Play through all mistakes; do not stop to correct it. Correct it later using segmental practice only at the mistake.
8. Use the metronome to check the rhythm or speed briefly; do not use it for “slowly ramping up speed”.
9. Use pedal only where indicated; practice without pedal until satisfactory, then add pedal.
10. To learn Hands Together (HT, 1.2.25): practice HS until faster than final HT speed; then pick a short segment,
play the more difficult hand, and progressively add notes of the other hand.
11. Practice musically, softly but with authority and expression. Piano practice is not finger strength exercise; it
is the development of brain power and nerve cells for control and speed. Add forte after you have acquired
the necessary technique.
12. Before quitting practice, play everything you practiced (on this day) slowly for ensuring correct Post Practice
Improvement (PPI, 1.2.15), which occurs mainly during sleep. The last thing you want is to include your
mistakes (especially from Fast Play Degradation [1.2.25]) in PPI!
1.4 Mathematical Theory of Piano Playing
Updated:
August 25, 2003;
sections 1, 2, 3, 5, 6
This section is till under construction; it is just a preliminary draft.
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1.4.1 Why do we need a Mathematical Theory?
Any discipline can benefit from a basic mathematical theory if a valid theory can be formulated. Every field that
was successfully mathematized has inexorably advanced by leaps and bounds. This is because once the theory
is correctly formulated, the powerful mathematical tools and conclusions can all be applied with great certainty.
Below is my first attempt at such a formulation for piano. As far as I know, it is the first of its kind in the history of
man. Such virgin territory has historically yielded enormous benefits very quickly. I was surprised myself by how
many useful, and sometimes hitherto unknown, conclusions we can draw from some very rudimentary theories, as
you will see. Whatever math I use below is truly simple math. At this early stage, we can do a lot with the simplest
concepts. Further advances are obviously possible by application of higher mathematics. I will also discuss some
of those possibilities.
There is little question that the art of piano playing suffers from a total lack of mathematical analysis. In addition, no one doubts that speed, acceleration, momentum, force, etc., play critical roles in piano play. No matter
what genius lies behind the artist, the music must be transmitted, through flesh and bone, and via a mechanical
contraption consisting of wood, felt, and metal. Therefore, we are dealing with not only a mathematical, but also
a total scientific approach that involves human physiology, psychology, mechanics and physics that all tie together
to represent what we do at the piano.
The need for such an approach is demonstrated by the fact that there are many questions for which we still
have no answers. What is a speed wall? How many are there? What causes them? Is there a formula for overcoming
speed walls? What are pianists doing when they play harsh versus sweet, or shallow versus deep? Is it possible to
teach two different pianists to play the same passage in exactly the same way? Is there any way to classify different
finger motions like there is for the horse’s gaits? We answer all of these questions below.
The advantages of a mathematical theory are obvious. For example, if we can mathematically answer the question of what a speed wall is (or what they are — if the theory predicts more than one!), then the theory should
immediately provide us with possible solutions on how to break the speed wall(s). Today, no one knows how many
speed walls there are. Just knowing how many there are would be a terrific advance. It may be important to prove
mathematically that no two pianists (or one pianist) can ever play the same piece exactly the same way. This is
because, in that case, listening to someone else play may not be harmful because you cannot imitate it exactly anyway (assuming that exact imitation is not desirable), and trying to teach a student to imitate a famous artist exactly
is then proven to be impossible. This will clearly affect how teachers teach students using examples of recordings
from famous artists.
Until quite recently, chemists scoffed at physicists who were able to apply equations to lots of things but couldn’t
even come close explaining simple chemical reactions. Biology and medicine also initially developed in their own
ways, with little math and using methods that were far removed from fundamental science. Medicine, biology, and
chemistry, all started initially as pure art. Now, all three disciplines are intensely mathematical and rely on the
most advanced scientific principles. The ensuring accomplishments in these fields are too numerous to discuss
here. One example: in chemistry, the chemists’ most basic foundation, the periodic table of the elements, was
explained by physicists using quantum mechanics. As a result of becoming more scientific, all three disciplines are
enormously successful and are advancing in leaps and bounds. The “scientification” of any discipline is inevitable;
it is only a matter of time, because of the enormous benefits that can follow. The benefits of scientification will also
apply to music.
So how do we apply the exact science of mathematics to something that is perceived as art? Certainly, in the
beginning, it will be crude, but refinements are certain to follow. Already, piano technicians know that the piano
itself is a marvel in the use of basic physics in its design. Piano technicians must be familiar with an enormous
amount of science, math, and physics in order to ply their “art”. A mathematical theory of piano playing must
start with a scientific approach in which each item under discussion is clearly defined and classified; see “The
Scientific Method” in Chapter Three. Once this is accomplished, we search for all relevant relationships between
these objects. These procedures comprise the essence of Group Theory. It is elementary! Let us begin.
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1.4.2 The Theory of Finger Motion for Piano
Serial, Parallel Play
The finger motions for playing the piano can be classified at the most basic level as serial or parallel. In serial play,
each finger is lowered in succession in order to play. A scale is an example of something that can be played serially.
In parallel play, all fingers move together. A chord is an example of parallel play. As we shall see later, a scale can
also be played parallel.
Serial play can be described by any oscillatory function such as a trigonometric function of hyperbolic function.
It is basically characterized by an amplitude (the distance you move the finger up and down) and a frequency (how
fast you play). Except for chords and rapid rolls, most slow pieces can be played serially, and beginners tend to start
by playing serially. In parallel play, there is a well defined phase relationship between different fingers. Therefore,
we must now discuss phase in some detail.
Phase is a measure of where the finger is, in relation to the other fingers. Suppose that we use the trigonometric
function (sine, cosine, etc.) to describe finger motion. Then in its rest position, the finger is, say, at zero degrees in
phase space. Since we know how pianos should be played, we will build some of that knowledge into our definition
of phase. Since lifting the fingers off from the keys is in general not the correct way to play, we will define the zero of
the phase as the upper rest positions of the keys. Thus the zero phase position of the black keys will be higher than
the zero phase position of the white keys by the extra height of the black keys. Furthermore, we assume that if you
lift the fingers off the keys, this extra motion does not count as far as the phase is concerned. These conventions are
in accord with good technique and also simplify the mathematics. Then the phases of this motion can be defined
as: finger depressing half way down = 90 degrees; depressing to bottom position = 180 degrees, rising half way up =
270 degrees, and rising back to the original position = 360 degrees, which is also zero degrees again. Now in parallel
play, if the second finger starts its motion when the first finger is at 90 degrees, the third finger starts off when the
first finger is at 180 degrees, etc., then this parallel play will play notes 4 times faster than serial play at the same
finger speed. In this case the phase difference between fingers is 90 degrees. If you were to decrease the phase
difference to 9 degrees, the notes will be played 40 times faster — this example illustrates the power of parallel
playing for speeding up your play. In a chord, the phase difference is zero.
Serial play can be defined as parallel play in which the phase difference between successive fingers is about 360
degrees or larger, or in which the phases are not inter-related. Hand motion helps both serial and parallel play, but
in different ways. It helps serial play by adding to the amplitude. But it affects parallel play in a most important way
by helping you to control the phase. With these simple definitions, we can start to generate some useful results.
Speed Walls
Let’s assume that a person starts practicing a piece of music by first playing slowly, using mostly serial play, since
that is the easiest way (let’s ignore chords for the time being). As the finger speed is gradually increased, s/he will
naturally hit a speed wall because human fingers can move only so fast. Thus we have mathematically discovered
one speed wall, and that is the speed wall of serial play. How do we break this speed wall? We need to find a play
method that has no speed limit. That is parallel play. In parallel play, you increase the speed by decreasing the
phase difference. That is, speed is numerically proportional to the inverse of the phase difference. Since we know
that the phase difference can be decreased to zero (which gives you a chord), we know that parallel play has the
potential give you infinite speed and therefore it has no theoretical speed limit. We have arrived at a mathematical
foundation for the chord attack!
The distinction between serial and parallel play is somewhat artificial and oversimplified. In reality, practically
everything is played parallel. Thus the above discussion served only as an illustration of how to define or identify
a speed wall. The actual situation with each individual is too complex to describe (because speed walls are caused
by bad habits, stress and HT play), but it is clear that wrong playing methods are what create speed walls and each
person has her/is own mistakes that result in speed walls. This is demonstrated by the use of parallel set exercises
which overcome the speed walls. This means that speed walls are not always there by themselves, but are created
by the individual. Therefore, there is any number of possible speed walls depending on each individual and every
individual has a different set of speed walls. There are, of course common classes of speed walls, such as those
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created by stress, by wrong fingering, by lack of HS technique, lack of HT coordination, etc. It would be, in my
opinion, very counterproductive to say that such complex concepts will never be scientifically or mathematically
treated. We have to. For example, in parallel play, phase plays a very important part. By decreasing the phase to
zero, we can play infinitely fast, in principle.
Can we really play infinitely fast? Of course not. So then what is the ultimate parallel speed limit, and what
mechanism creates this limit? We know that different individuals have different speed limits, so the answer must
include a parameter that depends on the individual. Knowing this parameter will tell us how to play faster! Clearly,
the fastest speed is determined by the smallest phase difference that the individual can control. If the phase difference is so small that it cannot be controlled, then “parallel play speed” loses its meaning. How do we measure this
minute phase difference for each individual? This can be accomplished by listening to her/is chords. The accuracy
of chord play (how accurately all the notes of the chord can be played simultaneously) is a good measure of an
individual’s ability to control the smallest phase differences. Therefore, in order to be able to play parallel fast, you
must be able to play accurate chords. This means that, when applying the chord attack, you must first be able to
play accurate chords before proceeding to the next step.
It is clear that there are many more speed walls and the particular speed wall and the methods for scaling each
wall will depend on the type of finger or hand motion. For example you can attain infinite speed with parallel play
only if you have an infinite number of fingers (say, for a long run). Unfortunately, we have only ten fingers and
often only five are available for a particular passage because the other five are needed to play other parts of the
music. As a rough approximation, if serial play allows you to play at a maximum speed of M, then you can play at
2M using two fingers, 3M using three fingers, etc., serially. The maximum speed is limited by how rapidly you can
recycle these fingers. Actually, this is not quite true because of momentum balance (it allows you to play faster),
which will be treated separately below. Thus each number of available fingers will give you a different new speed
wall. We therefore arrive at two more useful results. (1) there can be any number of speed walls, and (2) you can
change your speed wall by changing your fingering; in general, the more fingers you can use in parallel before you
need to recycle them, the faster you can play. Putting it differently, most conjunctions bring with them their own
speed walls.
Increasing Speed
These results also provide the mathematical basis for explaining the well known trick of alternating fingers when
playing the same note many times. One might think at first that using just one finger would be easier and offer
more control, but that note can be played repetitively faster by playing parallel using as many fingers as you can for
that situation, than playing serially.
The need for parallel play also singles out trills as a particularly difficult challenge to play fast because trills
must in general be executed with only two fingers. If you tried to trill with one finger, you will hit a speed wall at,
say, speed M; if you trill with two fingers, the speed wall will be at 2M (again, ignoring momentum balance). Does
mathematics suggest any other way of attaining even higher speeds? Yes: phase truncation.
What you can do is to lower the finger to play the note but then raise the finger only sufficiently to reset the
repetition mechanism, before playing the next note. You may need to raise the finger by only 90 degrees instead
of the normal 180 degrees. This is what I mean by phase truncation; the unnecessary part of the total phase is
truncated off. If the original amplitude of finger travel for the 360 degree motion was 2 cm, with a 180 degree
truncation, the finger now moves only 1 cm. This 1 cm can be further reduced until the limit at which the repetition
mechanism stops working, at about 5 mm. Phase truncation is the mathematical basis for the fast repetition of the
grand and explains why the rapid repetition is designed to work with a short return distance.
A good analogy to gaining speed in this way is the dribbling action of a basketball, as contrasted to the swinging
action of a pendulum. A pendulum has a fixed frequency of swing regardless of the swing amplitude. A basketball,
however, will dribble faster as you dribble closer to the ground (as you reduce the dribble amplitude). A basketball
player will generally have a hard time dribbling until s/he learns this change in dribble frequency with dribble
height. A piano acts more like a basketball than a pendulum (fortunately!), and the trill frequency increases with
decreasing amplitude until you reach the limit of the repetition mechanism. Note that even with the fastest trill, the
backcheck is engaged for a correct trill, because the keys must always be depressed completely. The trill is possible
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because the mechanical response of the backcheck is faster than the fastest speed that the finger can achieve.
The trill speed is not limited by the piano mechanism except for the height at which the repetition stops working. Thus it is more difficult to trill rapidly with most uprights because phase truncation is not as effective. These
mathematical conclusions are consistent with the fact that to trill fast, we need to keep the fingers on the keys and
to reduce the motions to the minimum necessary for the repetition mechanism to work. The fingers must press
“deeply into the piano” and just lifted sufficiently to activate the repetition mechanism. Furthermore, it helps to
use the strings to bounce the hammer back, just as you bounce the basketball off the floor. Note that a basketball
will dribble faster, for a given amplitude, if you press down harder on it. On the piano, this is accomplished by
pressing the fingers firmly down on the keys and not letting them “float up” as you trill.
Another important factor is the functional dependence of finger motion (purely trigonometric, or hyperbolic,
etc.) for controlling tone, staccato, and other properties of the piano sound relating to expression. With simple
electronic instruments, it is an easy task to measure the exact finger motion, complete with key speed, acceleration, etc. These characteristics of each pianist’s playing can be analyzed mathematically to yield characteristic
electronic signatures that can be identified with what we hear aurally, such as angry, pleasant, boisterous, deep,
shallow, etc. For example, the motion of the key travel can be analyzed using FFT (fast Fourier transform), and it
should be possible, from the results, to identify those motion elements that produce the corresponding aural characteristics. Then, working backwards from these characteristics, it should be possible to decipher how to play in
order to produce those effects. This is a whole new area of piano play that has not been exploited yet. This kind of
analysis is not possible by just listening to a recording of a famous artist, and may be the most important topic for
future research.
1.4.3 Thermodynamics of Piano Playing
An important field of mathematics is the study of large numbers. Even when single events of a particular type
are not predictable, large numbers of such events often behave according to strict laws. Although the energies of
individual molecules of water in a glass may differ considerably, the temperature of the water can stay very constant
and can be measured with high accuracy. Does piano playing have an analogous situation that would allow us to
apply the laws of large numbers and thereby draw some useful conclusions?
Piano playing is a complex process because of a large number of variables that enter into the production of
music. The study of large numbers is accomplished by counting the “number of states” of a system. The grand
total of meaningful states so counted might be called the “canonical ensemble”, a meaningful assembly that sings
together a tune that we can decipher. Believe it or not, “canonical ensemble” (see Statistical Mechanics by Kerson
Huang, Wily, 1963, p. 75) is legitimate thermodynamic terminology! Therefore, all we need to do is to calculate
the canonical ensemble, and when finished, we simply apply the known mathematical rules of large systems (i.e.,
thermodynamics) and voila! We are done!
The variables in question here are clearly the different motions of the human body, especially those parts important in playing the piano. Our job is to count all the ways in which the body can be moved in playing the piano;
this is clearly a very large number; the question is, is it large enough for a meaningful canonical ensemble?
Since no one has ever attempted to calculate this canonical ensemble, we are exploring new territory here,
and I will attempt only a very approximate estimate. The beauty of canonical ensembles is that, in the end, if the
calculations are correct (a legitimate concern for something this new), the method used to arrive at it is usually
immaterial — you always arrive at the same answers. We calculate the ensemble by listing all the relevant variables,
and counting the total parameter space of these variables. So here we go.
Let’s start with the fingers. Fingers can move up and down, sideways, and be curled or straight (three variables).
Say there are 10 measurably different positions for each variable (parameter space = 10); counting only the number
of 10s, we have 4 so far, including the fact that we have 10 fingers. There are actually many more variables (such
as rotating the fingers around each finger axis) and more than 10 measurable parameters per variable, but we are
counting only those states that can be reasonably used to play the piano, for a given piece of music. The reason
for this restriction is that we will be using the results of these calculations for comparing how two persons play the
same piece, or how one person would play it twice in a row. This will become clearer later on.
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Now the palms can be raised or lowered, flexed sideways, and rotated around the axis of the forearm. That’s 3
more 10s for a total of 7. The forearm can be raised or lowered, and swung sideways; new total is 9. The upper arm
can be swung forward-backwards, or sideways; new total is 11. The body can be moved forwards-backwards, and
sideways: new total is 13. Then there are the variables of force, speed, and acceleration, for a total of at least 16.
Thus the total parameter space of a pianist has many more than 1016 states (one followed by 16 zeros!). The actual
number for a given piece of music is many orders of magnitude larger because of the above calculation is only for
one note and a typical piece of music contains thousands or tens of thousands of notes. The final parameter space
is therefore about 1020 . This is approaching the ensemble space for molecules; for example, one cc of water has
1023 molecules, each with several degrees of freedom of motion and many possible energy states. Since thermodynamics applies to volumes of water very much smaller than 0.0001 cc, the canonical ensemble of the pianist is
pretty close to thermodynamic conditions.
If the canonical ensemble of the pianist is nearly thermodynamic in nature, what conclusion can we draw? The
most important result is that any single point in this phase space is totally irrelevant, because the chances of your
reproducing this particular point is essentially zero. From this result, we can draw some immediate conclusions:
First Law of Pianodynamics: no two persons can play the same piece of music in exactly the same way. A
corollary to this first law is that the same person, playing the same piece of music twice, will never play it exactly
the same way.
So what? Well, what this means is that the notion that listening to someone play might decrease your creativity
by your imitating that artist is not a viable idea, since it is never possible to imitate exactly. It really supports the
school of thought which claims that listening to good artists play cannot hurt. Each pianist is a unique artist, and
no one will ever reproduce her/is music. The corollary provides a scientific explanation for the difference between
listening to a recording (which reproduces a performance exactly) and listening to a live performance, which can
never be reproduced (except as a recording).
Second Law of Pianodynamics: we can never completely control every aspect of how we play a given piece.
This law is useful for understanding how we can unconsciously pick up bad habits, and how, when we perform,
the music takes on its own life and in some ways, goes out of our own control. The powerful laws of pianodynamics
take over in these cases and it is useful to know our limitations and to know the sources of our difficulties in order to
control them as much as possible. It is a truly humbling thought, to realize that after a long, hard practice we could
have picked up any number of bad habits without ever even suspecting it. This may in fact provide the explanation
of why it is so beneficial to play slowly on the last run-through during practice. By playing slowly and accurately,
you are greatly narrowing the ensemble space, and excluding the “bad” ones that are far away from the “correct”
space of motions. If this procedure does indeed eliminate bad habits, and is cumulative from practice session to
practice session, then it could produce a huge difference in the rate at which you acquire technique in the long run.
1.4.4 Mozart’s Formula, Beethoven and Group Theory
There is an intimate, if not absolutely essential, relationship between mathematics and music. At the very least,
they share a large number of the most fundamental properties in common, starting with the fact that the chromatic
scale is a simple logarithmic equation (see section 2.2) and that the basic chords are ratios of the smallest integers.
Now few musicians are interested in mathematics for mathematics’ sake. However, practically everyone is curious
and has wondered at one time or other whether mathematics is somehow involved in the creation of music. Is
there some deep, underlying principle that governs both math and music? In addition, there is the established fact
that every time we succeeded in applying mathematics to a field, we have made tremendous strides in advancing
that field. One way to start investigating this relationship is to study the works of the greatest composers from a
mathematical point of view.
The following analyses contain no inputs from music theory. When I first heard of Mozart’s formula, I felt a
great excitement, because I thought that it might shed light on music theory and on music itself. You may at first
be disappointed, as I was, when you find out that Mozart’s formula appears to be strictly structural. Structural
analyses have so far not yet provided much information on how you come up with famous melodies; but then,
music theory doesn’t either. Today’s music theory only helps to compose “correct” music or expand on it once you
have come up with a musical idea. Music theory is a classification of families of notes and their arrangements in
Updated:
March 12, 2004
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certain patterns. We can not yet rule out the possibility that music is ultimately based on certain identifiable types
of structural patterns. I first learned of Mozart’s formula in a lecture given by a music professor. I have since lost
the reference — if anyone reading this book knows of a reference, please let me know.
It is now known that Mozart composed practically all of his music, from when he was very young, according to
a single formula that expanded his music by over a factor of ten. That is, whenever he concocted a new melody that
lasted one minute, he knew that his final composition would be at least ten minutes long. Sometimes, it was a lot
longer. The first part of his formula was to repeat every theme. These themes were generally very short — only 4
to 10 notes, much shorter than you would think when you think of a musical theme. These themes, that are much
shorter than the over-all melody, simply disappear into the melody because they are too short to be recognized.
This is why we do not normally notice them, and is almost certainly a conscious construct by the composer. The
theme would then be modified two or three times and repeated again to produce what the audience would perceive
as a continuous melody. These modifications consisted of the use of various mathematical and musical symmetries
such as inversions, reversals, harmonic changes, clever positioning of ornaments, etc. These repetitions would be
assembled to form a section and the whole section would be repeated. The first repetition provides a factor of two,
the various modifications provide another factor of two to six (or more), and the final repetition of the entire section
provides another factor of two, or 2×2×2 = 8 at a minimum. In this way, he was able to write huge compositions
with a minimum of thematic material. In addition, his modifications of the original theme followed a particular
order so that certain moods or colors of music were arranged in the same order in each composition.
Because of this pre-ordained structure, he was able to write down his compositions from anywhere in the middle, or one voice at a time, since he knew ahead of time where each part belonged. And he did not have to write
down the whole thing until the last piece of the puzzle was in place. He could also compose several pieces simultaneously, because they all had the same structure. This formula made him look like more of a genius than he really
was. This naturally leads us to question: how much of his reputed “genius” was simply an illusion of such machinations? This is not to question his genius — the music takes care of that! However, many of the wonderful things
that these geniuses did were the result of relatively simple devices and we can all take advantage of that by finding
out the details of these devices. For example, knowing Mozart’s formula makes it easier to dissect and memorize
his compositions. The first step towards understanding his formula is to be able to analyze his repetitions. They are
not simple repetitions; Mozart used his genius to modify and disguise the repetitions so that they produced music
and, more importantly, so that the fact of the repetition will not be recognized.
As an example of repetitions, let’s examine the famous melody in the Allegro of his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. This
is the melody that Salieri played and the pastor recognized in the beginning of the movie, “Amadeus”. That melody
is a repetition posed as a question and an answer. The question is a male voice asking, “Hey, are you coming?” And
the reply is a female voice, “OK, OK, I’m coming!” The male statement is made using only two notes, a commanding
fourth apart, repeated three times (six notes), and the question is created by adding three rising notes at the end
(this appears to be universal among most languages — questions are posed by raising the voice at the end). Thus
the first part consists of 9 notes. The repetition is an answer in a female voice because the pitch is higher, and is
again two notes, this time a sweeter minor third apart, repeated (you guessed it!) three times (six notes). It is an
answer because the last three notes wiggle down. Again, the total is 9 notes. The efficiency with which he created
this construct is amazing. What is even more incredible is how he disguises the repetition so that when you listen
to the whole thing, you would not think of it as a repetition. Practically all of his music can be analyzed in this
way, mostly as repetitions. If you are not yet convinced, take any of his music and analyze it, and you will find this
pattern.
Let’s look at another example, the Sonata #16 in A, K.300 (or KV.331, the one with the Alla turca ending). The
basic unit of the beginning theme is a quarter note followed by an eighth note. The first introduction of this unit
is disguised by the addition of the 16th note, which is followed by the basic unit. Thus in the first bar, the unit is
repeated twice. He then translates (in pitch) the whole double unit of the 1st bar and repeats it in the 2nd bar. The
3rd bar is just the basic unit repeated twice. In the 4th bar, he again disguises the first unit by use of the 16th notes.
Bars 1 to 4 are then repeated with minor modifications in bars 5–8. From a structural viewpoint, every one of the
first 8 bars is patterned after the 1st bar. From a melodic point of view, these 8 bars produce two long melodies
with similar beginnings but different endings. Since the whole 8 bars is repeated, he has basically multiplied his
initial idea embodied in the 1st bar by 16! If you think in terms of the basic unit, he has multiplied it by 32. But
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then he goes on to take this basic unit and creates incredible variations to produce the entire sonata, so the final
multiplication factor is even larger. This is what is meant by the statement that he uses repetitions of repetitions.
By stringing the repetitions of modified units, he creates a final melody that sounds like a long melody until you
break it up into its components.
In the 2nd half of this exposition, he introduces new modifications to the basic unit. In bar 10, he first adds an
ornament with melodic value to disguise the repetition and then introduces another modification by playing the
basic unit as a triplet. Once the triplet is introduced, it is repeated twice in bar 11. bar 12 is similar to bar 4; it is a
repetition of the basic unit, but structured in such a way as to act as a conjunction between the preceding 3 related
bars and the following 3 related bars. Thus bars 9 to 16 are similar to bars 1 to 8, but with a different musical idea.
The final 2 bars (17 and 18) provide the ending to the exposition. With these analyses as examples, you should now
be able to dissect the remainder of this piece. You will find that the same pattern of repetitions is found throughout
the entire piece. As you analyze more of his music you will need to include more complexities; he may repeat 3 or
even 4 times, and mix in other modifications to hide the repetitions. What is clear is that he is a master of disguise
so that the repetitions and other structures are not usually obvious when you just listen to the music without any
intent to analyze it.
Mozart’s formula was probably devised mostly to increase his productivity. Yet he may have found certain magical (hypnotic? addictive?) powers to repetitions of repetitions and he probably had his own musical reasons for
arranging the moods of his themes in the sequence that he used. That is, if you further classify his themes according to the moods they evoke, it is found that he always arranges the moods in the same order. The question here
is, if we dig deeper and deeper, will we just find more of these simple structural/mathematical devices, just stacked
one on top of each other, or is there more to music? Almost certainly, there must be more, but no one has yet put
a finger on it, not even the great composers themselves — at least, as far as they have told us. Thus it appears that
the only thing we mere mortals can do is to keep digging.
The music professor mentioned above who lectured on Mozart’s formula also stated that the formula is followed
so strictly that it can be used to identify Mozart’s compositions. However, elements of this formula are well known
among composers. Thus Mozart is not the inventor of this formula and similar formulas were probably used widely
by composers of his time. In particular, some of Salieri’s compositions follow a very similar formula; perhaps this
was an attempt by Salieri so emulate Mozart. Thus you will need to know some details of Mozart’s specific formula
in order to use it to identify his compositions.
There is little doubt that a strong interplay exists between music and genius. We don’t even know if Mozart was
a composer because he was a genius or if his extensive exposure to music from birth created the genius. The music
certainly contributed to his brain development. It may very well be that the best example of the “Mozart effect”
was Wolfgang Amadeus himself, even though he did not have the benefit of his own masterpieces. In these first few
years of the new millennium, we are just beginning to understand some of the secrets of how the brain works. For
example, until recently, we had it partly wrong when we thought that certain populations of mentally handicapped
people had unusual musical talent. It turns out that music has a powerful effect on the actual functioning of the
brain and its motor control. This is one of the reasons why we always use music when dancing or exercising. The
best evidence for this comes from Alzheimer’s patients who have lost their ability to dress themselves because they
cannot recognize each different type of clothing. It was discovered that when this procedure is set to the proper
music, these patients can often dress themselves! “Proper music” is usually music that they heard in early youth or
their favorite music. Thus mentally handicapped people who are extremely clumsy when performing daily chores
can suddenly sit down and play the piano if the music is the right type that stimulates their brain. Therefore,
they may not be musically talented; instead, it is the music that is giving them new capabilities. Of course, on a
broader scale, it is not only music that has these magical effects on the brain, as evidenced by idiot savants who can
memorize incredible amounts of information or carry out mathematical feats normal folks cannot perform. There
is a more basic internal rhythm in the brain that music happens to excite. I don’t know what this mechanism is, but
it must be somewhat analogous to the clock cycle of computer chips. Without the clock cycle, these chips would
not operate, and we measure their power by the cycle speed — 3 GHz chips are better than 1 GHz chips.
If music can produce such profound effects on the handicapped, imagine what it could do to the brain of a
budding genius, especially during the brain’s development in early childhood. These effects apply to anyone who
plays the piano, not just the handicapped or the genius. Have you ever had good days and bad days? Have you
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ever noticed that when you learn a new piece for the first time, you can suddenly play it incredibly well, and then
lose that as you keep practicing, or that you play much better when playing with good players as in a chamber
group? Have you found it difficult to perform when the audience consists of people who can play that piece better
than you can? Do you play better when the music comes out well, and worse as soon as you make mistakes? Most
probably, and answers to these questions lie in the relationship between music and the brain. Thus understanding
this relationship should help us greatly in overcoming some of these difficulties.
The use of mathematical devices is deeply embedded in Beethoven’s music. Therefore, this is one of the best
places to dig for information on the relationship between mathematics and music. I’m not saying that other composers do not use mathematical devices. Practically every musical composition has mathematical underpinnings.
However, Beethoven was able to extend these mathematical devices to the extreme. It is by analyzing these extreme
cases that we can find more convincing evidence on what types of devices he used.
We all know that Beethoven never really studied advanced mathematics. Yet he incorporates a surprising
amount of math in his music, at very high levels. The beginning of his Fifth Symphony is a prime case, but examples such as this are legion. He “used” group theory type concepts to compose this famous symphony. In fact,
he used what crystallographers call the Space Group of symmetry transformations! This Group governs many advanced technologies, such as quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and crystallography that are the foundations
of today’s technological revolution. At this level of abstraction, a crystal of diamond and Beethoven’s 5th symphony
are one and the same! I will explain this remarkable observation below.
The Space Group that Beethoven “used” (he certainly had a different name for it) has been applied to characterize crystals, such as silicon and diamond. It is the properties of the Space Group that allow crystals to grow defect
free and therefore, the Space Group is the very basis for the existence of crystals. Since crystals are characterized by
the Space Group, an understanding of the Space Group provides a basic understanding of crystals. This was neat for
materials scientists working to solve communications problems because the Space Group provided the framework
from which to launch their studies. It’s like the physicists needed to drive from New York to San Francisco and the
mathematicians handed them a map! That is how we perfected the silicon transistor, which led to integrated circuits and the computer revolution. So, what is the Space Group? And why was this Group so useful for composing
this symphony?
Groups are defined by a set of properties. Mathematicians found that groups defined in this way can be mathematically manipulated and physicists found them to be useful: that is, these particular groups that interested
mathematicians and scientists provide us with a pathway to reality. One of the properties of groups is that they
consist of Members and Operations. Another property is that if you perform an Operation on a Member, you get
another Member of the same Group. A familiar group is the group of integers: -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, etc. An Operation for this
group is addition: 2 + 3 = 5. Note that the application of the operation + to Members 2 and 3 yields another Member
of the group, 5. Since Operations also transform one member into another, they are also called Transformations.
A Member of the Space Group can be anything in any space: an atom, a frog, or a note in any musical space dimension such as pitch, speed, or loudness. The Operations of the Space Group relevant to crystallography are
Translation, Rotation, Mirror, Inversion, and the Unitary operation. These are almost self explanatory (Translation
means you move the Member some distance in that space) except for the Unitary operation which basically leaves
the Member unchanged. However, it is somewhat subtle because it is not the same as the equality transformation,
and is therefore always listed last in textbooks. Unitary operations are generally associated with the most special
member of the group, which we might call the Unitary Member; in the integer group noted above, this Member
would be 0 for addition and 1 for multiplication (5 + 0 = 5×1 = 5).
Let me demonstrate how you might use this Space Group, in ordinary everyday life. Can you explain why, when
you look into a mirror, the left hand goes around to the right (and vice versa), but your head doesn’t rotate down
to your feet? The Space Group tells us that you can’t rotate the right hand and get a left hand because left-right is
a mirror operation, not a rotation. Note that this is a strange transformation: although your right hand is your left
hand in the mirror, the wart on your right hand in now on your left hand image in the mirror. The mirror operation
is why, when you look into a flat mirror, the right hand becomes a left hand; however, a mirror cannot perform a
rotation, so your head stays up and the feet stay down. Curved mirrors that play optical tricks (such as reversing the
positions of the head and feet) are more complex mirrors that can perform additional Space Group operations, and
group theory will be just as helpful in analyzing images in a curved mirror. The solution to the flat mirror image
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problem appeared to be rather easy because we had a mirror to help us, and we are so familiar with mirrors. The
same problem can be restated in a different way, and it immediately becomes much more difficult, so that the need
for group theory to help solve the problem becomes more obvious. If you turned a right hand glove inside out, will
it stay right hand or will it become a left hand glove? I will leave it to you to figure that one out (hint: use a mirror).
Let’s see how Beethoven used his intuitive understanding of spatial symmetry to compose his 5th Symphony.
That famous first movement is constructed largely by using a single short musical theme consisting of four notes,
of which the first three are repetitions of the same note. Since the fourth note is different, it is called the surprise
note, and carries the beat. This musical theme can be represented schematically by the sequence 5553, where 3
is the surprise note. This is a pitch based space group; Beethoven used a space with 3 dimensions, pitch, time,
and volume. I will consider only the pitch and time dimensions in the following discussions. Beethoven starts his
Fifth Symphony by first introducing a Member of his Group: three repeat notes and a surprise note, 5553. After a
momentary pause to give us time to recognize his Member, he performs a Translation operation: 4442. Every note
is translated down. The result is another Member of the same Group. After another pause so that we can recognize
his Translation operator, he says, “Isn’t this interesting? Let’s have fun!” and demonstrates the potential of this
Operator with a series of translations that creates music. In order to make sure that we understand his construct,
he does not mix other, more complicated, operators at this time. In the ensuing series of bars, he then successively
incorporates the Rotation operator, creating 3555, and the Mirror operator, creating 7555. Somewhere near the
middle of the 1st movement, he finally introduces what might be interpreted as the Unitary Member: 5555. Note
that these are simply repeated, which is the Unitary operation.
In the final fast movements, he returns to the same group, but uses only the Unitary Member, and in a way that
is one level more complex. It is always repeated three times. What is curious is that this is followed by a fourth
sequence — a surprise sequence 7654, which is not a Member. Together with the thrice repeated Unitary Member,
the surprise sequence forms a Supergroup of the original Group. He has generalized his Group concept! The supergroup now consists of three members and a non-member of the initial group, which satisfies the conditions of
the initial group (three repeats and a surprise).
Thus, the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, when translated into mathematical language, reads just like
the first chapter of a textbook on group theory, almost sentence for sentence! Remember, group theory is one of the
highest forms of mathematics. The material is even presented in the correct order as they appear in textbooks, from
the introduction of the Member to the use of the Operators, starting with the simplest, Translation, and ending with
the most subtle, the Unitary operator. He even demonstrates the generality of the concept by creating a supergroup
from the original group.
Beethoven was particularly fond of this four-note theme, and used it in many of his compositions, such as the
first movement of the Appassionata piano sonata, see bar 10, LH. Being the master that he is, he carefully avoids
the pitch based Space Group for the Appassionata and uses different spaces — he transforms them in tempo space
and volume space (bars 234 to 238). This is further support for the idea that he must have had an intuitive grasp
of group theory and consciously distinguished between these spaces. It seems to be a mathematical impossibility
that this many agreements of his constructs with group theory just happened by accident, and is virtual proof that
he was somehow playing around with these concepts.
Why was this construct so useful in this introduction? It certainly provides a uniform platform on which to hang
his music. The simplicity and uniformity allow the audience to concentrate only on the music without distraction.
It also has an addictive effect. These subliminal repetitions (the audience is not supposed to know that he used
this particular device) can produce a large emotional effect. It is like a magician’s trick — it has a much larger effect
if we do not know how the magician does it. It is a way of controlling the audience without their knowledge. Just
as Beethoven had an intuitive understanding of this group type concept, we may all feel that some kind of pattern
exists, without recognizing it explicitly. Mozart accomplished a similar effect using repetitions.
Knowledge of these group type devices that he uses is very useful for playing his music, because it tells you
exactly what you should and should not do. Another example of this can be found in the 3rd movement of his
Waldstein sonata, where the entire movement is based on a 3-note theme represented by 155 (the first CGG at the
beginning). He does the same thing with the initial arpeggio of the 1st movement of the Appassionata, with a theme
represented by 531 (the first CA[F). In both cases, unless you maintain the beat on the last note, the music loses its
structure, depth and excitement. This is particularly interesting in the Appassionata, because in an arpeggio, you
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normally place the beat on the first note, and many students actually make that mistake. As in the Waldstein, this
initial theme is repeated throughout the movement and is made increasingly obvious as the movement progresses.
But by then, the audience is addicted to it and does not even notice that it is dominating the music. For those
interested, you might look near the end of the 1st movement of the Appassionata where he transforms the theme
to 315 and raises it to an extreme and almost ridiculous level at bar 240. Yet most in the audience will have no idea
what device Beethoven was using, except to enjoy the wild climax, which is obviously ridiculously extreme, but by
now carries a mysterious familiarity because the construct is the same, and you have heard it hundreds of times.
Note that this climax loses much of its effect if the pianist does not bring out the theme (introduced in the first bar!)
and emphasize the beat note.
Beethoven tells us the reason for the inexplicable 531 arpeggio in the beginning of the Appassionata when the
arpeggio morphs into the main theme of the movement at bar 35. That is when we discover that the arpeggio at the
beginning is an inverted and schematized from of his main theme, and why the beat is where it is. Thus the beginning of this piece, up to bar 35, is a psychological preparation for one of the most beautiful themes he composed.
He wanted to implant the idea of the theme in our brain before we heard it! That may be one explanation for why
this strange arpeggio is repeated twice at the beginning using an illogical chord progression. With analysis of this
type, the structure of the entire 1st movement becomes apparent, which helps us to memorize, interpret, and play
the piece correctly.
The use of group theoretical type concepts might be just an extra dimension that Beethoven wove into his
music, perhaps to let us know how smart he was, in case we still didn’t get the message. It may or may not be the
mechanism with which he generated the music. Therefore, the above analysis gives us only a small glimpse of the
mental processes that inspire music. Simply using these devices does not result in music. Or, are we coming close
to something that Beethoven knew but didn’t tell anyone?
1.4.5 Learning Rate Calculation (1000 Times Faster!)
Here is my crude attempt to mathematically calculate the piano learning rate of the methods of this book. The
result indicates that it is about 1000 times faster than the intuitive method. The huge multiple of 1000 makes it
unnecessary to calculate an accurate number in order to show that there is a big difference. This result appears
plausible in view of the fact that many students who worked hard all their lives using the intuitive method are
not able to perform anything significant, whereas a fortunate student who used the correct learning methods can
become a concert pianist in less than 10 years. It is clear that the difference in practice methods can make the
difference between a lifetime of frustration and a rewarding career in piano. Now, “1000 times faster” does not
mean that you can become a pianist in a millisecond; all it means is that the intuitive methods are 1000 times slower
than the good methods. The conclusion we should draw here is that, with the proper methods, our learning rates
should be pretty close to those of the famous composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Chopin. Remember
that we have certain advantages not enjoyed by those past geniuses. They did not have those wonderful Beethoven
sonatas, Liszt and Chopin etudes, etc., with which to acquire technique, or those Mozart compositions with which
to benefit from the “Mozart effect”, or books like this one with an organized list of practice methods. Moreover, there
are now hundreds of time-proven methods for using those compositions for acquiring technique (Beethoven often
had difficulty playing his own compositions because nobody knew the correct or wrong way to practice them). An
intriguing historical aside here is that the only common material available for practice for all of these great pianists
was Bach’s compositions. Thus, we are led to the idea that studying Bach may be sufficient for acquiring most basic
keyboard skills.
I will try to make a detailed calculation starting with the most fundamental precepts and progressing to the final
result without jumping over unknown gaps. In this way, if there are errors in this calculation, it can be refined as
we improve our understanding of how we acquire technique. This is, obviously, the scientific approach. There is
nothing new in these calculations except for their application to musical learning. The mathematical material is
simply a review of established algebra and calculus.
Mathematics can be used to solve problems in the following way. First, you define the conditions that determine
the nature of the problem. If these conditions have been correctly determined, they allow you to set up what are
called differential equations; these are accurate, mathematical statements of the conditions. Once the differentials
1.4. MATHEMATICAL THEORY OF PIANO PLAYING
163
equations are set up, mathematics provides methods for solving them to provide a function which describes the
answers to the problems in terms of parameters that determine these answers. The solutions to the problems can
then be calculated by inserting the appropriate parameter values into the function.
The physical principle we use to derive our learning equation is the linearity with time. Such an abstract concept
may seem to have nothing to do with piano and is certainly non-biological, but it turns out that, that is exactly what
we need. So let me explain the concept of “the linearity with time”. It simply means proportional to time. For
example, if we learn an amount of technique L (stands for Learning) in time T , then if we repeat this process again
a few days later, we should learn another increment L in the same T. Thus we say that L is linear with respect to
T in the sense that they are proportional; in 2T , we should learn 2L. Of course, we know that learning is highly
non-linear. If we practice the same short segment for 4 hours, we are likely to gain a lot more during the first 30
minutes than during the last 30 minutes. However, we are talking about an optimized practice session averaged
over many practice sessions that are conducted over time intervals of years (in an optimized practice session, we
are not going to practice the same 4 notes for 4 hours!). If we average over all of these learning processes, they tend
to be quite linear. Certainly within a factor of 2 or 3, linearity is a good approximation, and that amount of accuracy
is all we need. Note that linearity does not depend, to first approximation, on whether you are a fast learner or a
slow learner; this changes only the proportionality constant. Thus we arrive at the first equation:
L = kT
(1.1)
where L is an increment of learning in the time interval T and k is the proportionality constant. What we are
trying to find is the time dependence of L, or L(t ) where t is time (in contrast to T which is an interval of time).
Similarly, L is an increment of learning, but L(t ) is a function.
Now comes the first interesting new concept. We have control over L; if we want 2L, we simply practice twice.
But that is not the L that we retain because we lose some L over time after we practice. Unfortunately, the more we
know, the more we can forget; that is, the amount we forget is proportional to the original amount of knowledge,
L(0). Therefore, assuming that we acquired L(0), the amount of L we lose in T is:
L = −kT L(0)
(1.2)
where the k’s in equations 1.1 and 1.2 are different, but we will not re-label them for simplicity. Note that k has a
negative sign because we are losing L. Eq. 1.2 leads to the differential equation
dL(t )
= −kL(t )
(1.3)
dt
where “d” stands for differential (this is all standard calculus), and the solution to this differential equation is
L(t ) = K e −kt
(1.4)
where “e” is a number called the natural logarithm which satisfies Eq. 1.3, and K is a new constant related to k
(for simplicity, we have ignored another term in the solution that is unimportant at this stage). Eq. 1.4 tells us that
once we learn L, we will immediately start to forget it exponentially with time if the forgetting process is linear with
time.
Since the exponent is just a number, k in Eq. 1.4 has the units of 1/time. We shall set k = 1/T (k) where T (k)
is called the characteristic time. Here, k refers to a specific learning/forgetting process. When we learn piano, we
learn via a myriad of processes, most of which are not well understood. Therefore, determining accurate values
for T (k) for each process is generally not possible, so in the numerical calculations, we will have to make some
“intelligent guesses”. In piano practice, we must repeat difficult material many times before we can play them well,
and we need to assign a number (say, ”i ”) to each practice repetition. Then Eq. 1.4 becomes
ti
L(i , t , k) = K i e − T (k)
(1.5)
for each repetition i and learning/forgetting process k. Let’s examine some relevant examples. Suppose that
you are practicing 4 parallel set notes in succession, playing rapidly and switching hands, etc., for 10 minutes. We
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assign i = 0 to one parallel set execution, which may take only about half a second. You might repeat this 10 or 100
times during the 10 minute practice session. You have learned L(0) after the first parallel set. But what we need to
calculate is the amount of L(0) that we retain after the 10 minute practice session. In fact, because we repeat many
times, we must calculate the cumulative learning from all of them. According to Eq. 1.5, this cumulative effect is
given by summing the L’s over all the parallel set repetitions:
LTotal =
X
ti
K i e − T (k)
(1.6)
i
Now let’s put in some numbers into Eq. 1.6 in order to get some answers. Take a passage that you can play slowly,
HT, in about 100 seconds (intuitive method). This passage may contain 2 or 3 parallel sets that are difficult and that
you can play rapidly in less than a second, so that you can repeat them over 100 times in those 100 seconds (method
of this book). Typically, these 2 or 3 difficult spots are the only ones holding you back, so if you can play them well,
you can play the entire passage at speed. Of course, even with the intuitive method, you will repeat it many times,
but let’s compare the difference in learning for each 100 second repetition. For this quick learning process, our
tendency to “lose it” is also fast, so we can pick a “forgetting time constant” of around 30 seconds; that is, every
30 seconds, you end up forgetting almost 30% of what you learned from one repetition. Note that you never forget
everything even after a long time because the forgetting process is exponential — exponential decays never reach
absolute zero. Also, you can make many repetitions in a short time for parallel sets, so these learning events can
pile up quickly. This forgetting time constant of 30 seconds depends on the mechanism of learning/forgetting, and
I have chosen a relatively short one for rapid repetitions; we shall examine a much longer one below.
Assuming one parallel set repetition per second, the learning from the first repetition is e −100/30 = 0.04 (you have
100 seconds for forget the first repetition), while the last repetition gives e −1/30 = 0.97, and the average learning is
somewhere in between, about 0.4 (we don’t have to be exact, as we shall see), and with over 100 repetitions, we
have over 40 units of learning for the use of parallel sets. For the intuitive method, we have a single repetition or
e −100/30 = 0.04. The difference is a factor of 40/0.04 = 1, 000! With such a large difference factor, we do not need
much accuracy to demonstrate that there is a big difference. The actual difference in learning may be even bigger
because the intuitive method repetition is at slow speed whereas the parallel set repetition rate is at, or even faster
than, the final speed.
The 30 second time constant used above was for a “fast” learning process, such as that associated with learning during a single practice session. There are many others, such as technique acquisition by PPI (post practice
improvement). After any rigorous conditioning, your technique will improve by PPI for a week or more. The
rate of forgetting, or technique loss, for such slow processes is not 30 seconds, but much longer, probably several weeks. Therefore, in order to calculate the total difference in learning rates, we must calculate the difference
for all known methods of technique acquisition using the corresponding time constant, which can vary considerably from method to method. PPI is largely determined by conditioning, and conditioning is similar to the parallel
set repetition calculated above. Thus the difference in PPI should also be about 1,000 times.
Once we calculate the most important rates as described above, we can refine the results by considering other
factors that influence the final results. There are factors that make the methods of this book slower (initially, memorizing may take longer than reading, or HS may take longer than HT because you need to learn each passage 3
times instead of once, etc.) and factors that make them faster (such as learning in short segments, getting up to
speed quickly, avoiding speed walls, etc.). There are many more factors that make the intuitive method slower, so
that the above “1000 times faster” result may be an under-estimate. However, it is probably not possible to take full
advantage of the 1000 times factor, since most students may already be using some of the ideas of this book.
The effects of speed walls are difficult to calculate because speed walls are artificial creations of each pianist
and I do not know how to write an equation for them. Experience tells us that the intuitive method is susceptible
to speed walls. The methods of this book provide many ways of avoiding them. Moreover, speed walls are clearly
defined here so that it is possible to pro-actively avoid them during practice. Parallel sets are the most powerful
tools for avoiding them because speed walls do not generally form when you decrease speed from high speed.
Therefore, speed walls greatly retard the learning rate for intuitive methods. Some teachers who do not understand
speed walls adequately will prohibit their students from practicing anything risky and fast, thus slowing progress
even more, even when this slow play succeeds in completely avoiding speed walls. When all these factors are taken
1.4. MATHEMATICAL THEORY OF PIANO PLAYING
165
into account we come to the conclusion that the “up to 1000 times faster” result is basically correct. We also see that
the use of parallel sets, practicing difficult sections first, practicing short segments, and getting up to speed quickly,
are the main factors that accelerate learning. HS practice, relaxation, and early memorization are some of the tools
that enable us to optimize the use of these accelerating methods.
1.4.6 Future Research Topics
Every subsection in this section is incomplete; I am just putting down some initial ideas.
This book is based on the scientific approach, which ensures that errors are corrected as soon as possible, that
all known facts are explained, documented, and organized in a useful way, and that we only make forward progress.
The past situation of one piano teacher teaching a very useful method and another knowing nothing about it, or two
teachers teaching completely opposite methods, should not occur. An important part of the scientific approach is
a discussion of what is still unknown and what still needs to be researched. The following is a collection of such
topics.
Momentum Theory of Piano Playing
Slow play in piano is called “playing in the static limit”. This means that when depressing a key, the force of the
finger coming down is the main force used in the playing. As we speed up, we transition from the static limit to the
momentum limit. This means that the momenta of the hand, arms, fingers, etc., play much more important roles
than the force in depressing the keys. Of course, force is needed to depress the key, but when in the momentum
limit, the force and motion are usually 180 degrees out of phase. That is, your finger is moving up when your finger
muscles are trying to press it down! This happens at high speed because you had earlier lifted the finger so rapidly
that you have to start depressing it on its way up so that you can reverse its action for the next strike. The actual
motions a complex because you use the hand, arms, and body to impart and absorb the momenta. This is one of
the reasons why the entire body gets involved in the playing, especially when playing fast. Note that the swing of
the pendulum and the dribbling of the basketball are in the momentum limit. In piano playing, you are generally
somewhere between the static and momentum limits with increasing tendency towards momentum limit with
increasing speed.
In static play, the force vector and motion of the finger are in phase. As we transition to momentum play, a
phase difference develops, until, in the pure momentum regime, the phase difference is 180 degrees, as it is in the
pendulum.
The importance of momentum play is obvious; it involves many new finger/hand motions that are not possible
in static play. Thus knowing which motions are of the static or momentum type will go a long way toward understanding how to execute them and when to use them. Because momentum play has never been discussed in the
literature until now, there is a vast area of piano play for which we have very little understanding.
The Physiology of Technique
We still lack even a rudimentary understanding of the bio-mechanical processes that underlie technique. It certainly originates in the brain, and is probably associated with how the nerves communicate with the muscles, especially the rapid muscles. What are the biological changes that accompany technique? when fingers are “warmed
up”?
Brain Research (HS vs HT Play, etc.)
Brain research will be one of the most important fields of medical research in the near future. This research will
initially concentrate on preventing mental deterioration with age (such as curing Alzheimer’s disease). Then concurrent efforts at actually controlling the growth of mental capabilities will surely develop. Music should play an
important role in such developments because we can communicate aurally with infants long before any other
method, and it is already clear that, the earlier you start the control process, the better the results.
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We are all familiar with the fact that, even if we can play HS quite well, HT may still be difficult. Why is HT so
much more difficult? One of the reasons may be that the two hands are controlled by the different halves of the
brain. If so, then learning HT requires the brain to develop ways to coordinate the two halves. This would mean
that HS and HT practice use completely different types of brain functions and supports the contention that these
skills should be developed separately so that we work on one skill at a time. One intriguing possibility is that we
may be able to develop HT parallel sets that can solve this problem.
What Causes Nervousness?
In piano pedagogy, nervousness has been “swept under the rug” (ignored) for too long. We need to study it from
medical and physiological points of view. We need to know if some individuals can benefit from proper medication.
Moreover, is there a medical or psychological regiment whereby it can eventually be eliminated? Finally, from a formal psychological point of view, we must develop a teaching procedure that will reduce nervousness. Nervousness
is clearly the result of a mental attitude/reaction/perception, and is therefore very amenable to active control. For
example, pianists who play popular/jazz type music seem to be much less nervous in general than those who play
classical. There is no reason why we shouldn’t investigate why this is so, and take advantage of this phenomenon.
Causes and Remedies for Tinnitus
Cochlea structure, high and low frequency tinnitus.
There is evidence that moderate intake of aspirin can slow down hearing loss with age. However, there is also
evidence that aspirin, under certain conditions, can aggravate tinnitus. There does not appear to be any evidence
that tinnitus is caused purely by age; instead, there is ample evidence that it is caused by infection, disease, accidents, and abuse of the ear. Therefore, in most of these cases, the causes and the types of damage can be directly
studied.
What is Music?
Cochlea structure vs music scales and chords. Parameters: timing (rhythm), pitch, patterns (language, emotions),
volume, speed. Musical information processing in brain.
At What Age to Start Piano?
We need medical/psychological/sociological studies into how/when we should start youngsters. This type of research is already starting to be conducted in sports, at least informally, by individual sports organizations that have
developed methods for teaching youngsters down to about 2 years of age. In music, we can start as soon as the
babies are born, by letting them listen to the appropriate types of music. In music, we are probably interested more
in the development of the brain than in acquiring motor skills. Because we expect brain research to explode in the
near future, this is an opportune time to take advantage of that research and use the results for learning piano.
The Future of Piano
Finally, we look into the future. The “Testimonials” section gives ample evidence that our new approach to piano
practice will enable practically anyone to learn piano to her/is satisfaction. It will certainly increase the number
of pianists. Therefore, the following questions become very important: (1) can we calculate the expected increase
in pianists? (2) what will this increase do to the economics of the piano: performers, teachers, technicians, and
manufacturers, and (3) if piano popularity explodes, what will be the main motivation for such large numbers of
people to learn piano?
Piano teachers will agree than 90% of piano students never really learn piano in the sense that they will not
be able to play to their satisfaction and basically give up trying to become accomplished pianists. Since this is a
well known phenomenon, it discourages youngsters and their parents from deciding to start piano lessons. Since
serious involvement with piano will interfere materially with the business of making a living, the economic factor
1.4. MATHEMATICAL THEORY OF PIANO PLAYING
167
also discourages entry into piano. There are many more negative factors that limit the popularity of the piano
(lack of good teachers, high expense of good pianos and their maintenance, etc.), almost all of which are eventually
related to the fact that piano has been so difficult to learn. Probably only 10% of those who might have tried piano
ever decide to give it a try. Therefore, we can reasonably expect the popularity of the piano to increase by 100 times
if the promise of this book can be fulfilled.
Such an increase would mean that a large fraction of the population in developed countries would learn piano.
Since it is a significant fraction, we do not need an accurate number, so let’s just pick some reasonable number,
say 30%. This would require at least a 10 fold increase in the number of piano teachers. This would be great for
students because one of the big problems today is finding good teachers. In any one area, there are presently only a
few teachers and the students have little choice. The number of pianos sold would also have to increase, probably
by something in excess of 300%. Although many homes already have pianos, many of them are not playable. Since
most of the new pianists will be at an advanced level, the number of good grand pianos needed will increase by an
even larger percentage.
By using this book as a basic starting point for practice methods, piano teachers can concentrate on what they
do best: teaching how to make music. Since this is what teachers have been doing all along, there will be only minor
new changes needed in how teachers teach. The only new element is the addition of practice methods that take
very little time to learn. The biggest change, of course, is that teachers will be liberated from the old slow process
of teaching technique. It will be much easier for teachers to decide what to teach because technical difficulties will
be much less of an impediment. Within a few teacher/student generations, the quality of teachers will improve
dramatically which will further accelerate the learning rates of future students.
Is an increase of 100 times in the population of pianists reasonable? What would they do? They certainly can’t
all be concert pianists and piano teachers. The very nature of how we view piano playing will change. First of all,
the piano will, by then, become a standard second instrument for all musicians, because it will be so easy to learn
and there will be pianos everywhere. The joy of playing piano will be enough reward for many. The zillions of music
lovers who could only listen to recordings can now play their own music — a much more satisfying experience.
As anyone who has become an accomplished pianist will tell you, once you get to that level, you cannot help but
compose music. Thus a piano revolution will also ignite a revolution in composition, and new compositions will
be in great demand because many pianists will not be satisfied with playing “the same old things”. Pianists will be
composing music for every instrument because of the development of keyboards with powerful software and every
pianist will have an acoustic piano and an electronic keyboard, or a dual instrument (see below). The large supply
of good keyboardists would mean that entire orchestras will be created using keyboard players. Another reason
why the piano would become universally popular is that it will be used as a method for increasing the IQ of growing
infants. Brain research will certainly reveal that the intelligence can be improved by proper brain stimulation during
its early developmental stages. Since there are only two inputs into the infant’s brain, auditory and visual, and the
auditory is initially much more advanced than visual, music is the most logical means for influencing the brain
during early development.
With such huge forces at work, the piano itself will evolve rapidly. First, the electronic keyboard will increasingly intrude into the piano sector. The shortcomings of the electronic pianos will continue to decrease until the
electronics become indistinguishable from the acoustics. Regardless of which instrument is used, the technical
requirements will be the same. By then, the acoustic pianos will have many of the features of the electronics: they
will be in tune all the time (instead of being out of tune 99% of the time, as they are now), you will be able to change
temperaments by flicking a switch, and midi capabilities will be easily interfaced with the acoustics. The acoustics
will never completely disappear because the art of making music using mechanical devices is so fascinating. In
order to thrive in this new environment, piano manufacturers will need to be much more flexible and innovative.
Piano tuners will also need to adapt to these changes. All pianos will be self-tuning, so income from tuning will
decrease. However, pianos in tune 100% of the time will need to be voiced more frequently, and how hammers are
made and voiced will need to change. It is not that today’s pianos do not need voicing just as much, but when the
strings are in perfect tune, any deterioration of the hammer becomes the limiting factor to sound quality. Piano
tuners will finally be able to properly regulate and voice pianos instead of just tuning them; they can concentrate
on the quality of the piano sound, instead of just getting rid of dissonances. Since the new generation of more
accomplished pianists will be aurally more sophisticated, they will demand better sound. The greatly increased
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number of pianos and their constant use will require an army of new piano technicians to regulate and repair
them. Piano tuners will also be much more involved in adding and maintaining electronic (midi, etc.) capabilities
to acoustics. Therefore, the piano tuners’ business will extend into the maintenance and upgrading of electronic
pianos. Thus most people will either have a hybrid or both an acoustic and electronic piano.
The Future of Education
The Internet is obviously changing the nature education. One of my objectives in writing this book on the WWW
is to explore the possibilities of making education much more cost effective than it has been. Looking back to my
primary education and college days, I marvel at the efficiency of the educational processes that I had gone through.
Yet the promise of much greater efficiency via the internet is staggering by comparison. My experience thus far has
been very educational. Here are some of the advantages of internet based education:
1. No more waiting for school buses, or running from class to class; in fact no more cost of school buildings and
associated facilities.
2. No costly textbooks. All books are up-to-date, compared to many textbooks used in universities that are
over 10 years old. Cross referencing, indexing, topic searches, etc., can be done electronically. Any book is
available anywhere, as long as you have a computer and internet connection.
3. Many people can collaborate on a single book, and the job of translating into other languages becomes very
efficient, especially if a good translation software is used to assist the translators.
4. Questions and suggestions can be emailed and the teacher has ample time to consider a detailed answer and
these interactions can be emailed to anyone who is interested; these interactions can be stored for future use.
5. The teaching profession will change drastically. On the one hand, there will be more one-on-one interactions
by email, video-conferencing, and exchange of data (such as audio from a piano student to the teacher) but
on the other, there will be fewer group interactions where the group of students physically assembles in one
classroom. Any teacher can interact with the “master text book center” to propose improvements that can be
incorporated into the system. And students can access many different teachers, even for the same topic.
6. Such a system would imply that an expert in the field cannot get rich writing the best textbook in the world.
However, this is as it should be — education must be available to everyone at the lowest cost. Thus when
educational costs decrease, institutions that made money the old way must change and adopt the new efficiencies. Wouldn’t this discourage experts from writing textbooks? Yes, but you need only one such “volunteer” for the entire world; in addition, the internet has already spawned enough such free systems as Linux,
browsers, Adobe Acrobat, etc., that this trend is not only irreversible but well established. In other words,
the desire to contribute to society becomes a large factor in contributing to education. For projects that
provide substantial benefits to society, funding mechanisms (government, philanthropists, and sponsoring
businesses) will certainly evolve.
7. This new paradigm of contributing to society may bring about even more profound changes to society. One
way of looking at business as conducted today is that it is highway robbery. You charge as much as you
can regardless of how much or how little good your product does to the buyer. In an accurate accounting
paradigm, the buyer should always get his money’s worth. That is the only situation in which that business
can be viable in the long run. This works both ways; well-run businesses should not be allowed to go bankrupt
simply because of excessive competition. In an open society in which all relevant information is immediately
available, we can have financial accounting that can make pricing appropriate to the service. The philosophy
here is that a society consisting of members committed to helping each other succeed will function much
better than one consisting of robbers stealing from each other. In particular, in the future, practically all basic
education should be essentially free. This does not mean that teachers will lose their jobs because teachers
can greatly accelerate the learning rate and should be paid accordingly.
1.4. MATHEMATICAL THEORY OF PIANO PLAYING
169
It is clear from the above considerations that free exchange of information will transform the educational (as
well as practically every other) field. This book is one of the attempts at taking full advantage of these new capabilities.
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Chapter 2
Tuning Your Piano
2.1 Introduction
This chapter is for those who had never tuned a piano and who would like to see if they are up to the task. The
book, Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding, by Arthur Reblitz, will be a very helpful reference. The hardest part
of learning to tune is getting started. For those fortunate enough to have someone teach them, that is obviously
the best route. Unfortunately, piano tuning teachers aren’t readily available. Try the suggestions in this chapter and
see how far you can get. After you are familiar with what gives you trouble, you might negotiate with your tuner for
30 minute lessons for some agreed-upon fee, or ask him to explain what he is doing as he tunes. Be careful not to
impose too much on your tuner; tuning and teaching can take more than four times longer than simply tuning it
up. Also, be forewarned that piano tuners are not trained teachers and some may harbor unfounded fears that they
might lose a customer. These fears are unfounded because the actual number of people who succeed in displacing
professional tuners is negligibly small. What you will most likely end up doing is getting a better understanding of
what it takes to tune a piano.
For pianists, familiarity with the art of tuning provides an education that is directly relevant to their ability to
produce music and to maintain their instruments. It will also enable them to communicate intelligently with their
tuners. For example, the majority of piano teachers to whom I posed the question did not even know the difference
between equal temperament and historical temperaments. The main reason why most people try to learn tuning is
out of curiosity — for most, piano tuning is a baffling mystery. Once people are educated to the advantages of tuned
(maintained) pianos, they are more likely to call their tuners regularly. Piano tuners can hear certain sounds coming
from the piano that most people, even pianists, don’t notice. Those who practice tuning will become sensitized to
the sounds of out-of-tune pianos. It will probably take about one year to start feeling comfortable with tuning,
assuming that you have the time to practice for several hours at least once very one or two months.
Let me digress a little here to discuss the importance of understanding the plight of the piano tuner and proper
communications with her/im, from the point of view of getting your money’s worth from the tuner so that your
piano can be properly maintained. These considerations directly impact your ability to acquire piano technique as
well as your decisions on what or how to perform, given a particular piano to play. For example, one of the most
common difficulties I have noted with students is their inability to play pianissimo. From my understanding of
piano tuning, there is a very simple answer to this — most of these students’ pianos are under-maintained. The
hammers are too worn/compacted and the action so out of regulation that playing pianissimo is impossible. These
students will never even be able to practice pianissimo! This applies also to musical expression and tone control.
These under-maintained pianos are probably one of the causes of the view that piano practice is ear torture, but it
should not be.
Another factor is that you generally have no choice of a piano when asked to perform. You might encounter
anything from a wonderful concert grand, to spinets, to (horrors!) a cheap baby grand that was totally neglected
since it was purchased 40 years ago. Your understanding of what you can/cannot do with each of these pianos
171
Updated:
September 3, 2003
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CHAPTER 2. TUNING YOUR PIANO
should be the first input into deciding what and how to play.
Once you start practicing tuning, you will quickly understand why your spouse vacuuming the floor, kids running around, the TV or HiFi blaring away, or pots clanging in the kitchen is not conducive to accurate, quality
tuning. Why a quick, $70 tuning is no bargain compared to a $150 tuning in which the tuner reshapes and needles
the hammers. Yet when you query owners what the tuner did to their pianos, they generally have no idea. A complaint I frequently hear from owners is that, after a tuning, the piano sounds dead or terrible. This often happens
when the owner does not have a fixed reference from which to judge the piano sound — the judgement is based on
whether the owner likes the sound or not. Such perceptions are too often incorrectly influenced by the owner’s past
history. The owner can actually become accustomed to the sound of a detuned piano with compacted hammers
so that when the tuner restores the sound, the owner doesn’t like it because it is now too different from the sound
or feel to which he had become accustomed. The tuner could certainly be at fault; however, the owner will need to
know a minimum of tuning technicalities in order to make such a judgement stick. The benefits of understanding
tuning and properly maintaining the piano are obviously under-appreciated by the general public. Perhaps the
most important objective of this chapter is to increase that awareness.
Piano tuning does not require good ears, such as perfect pitch, because all tuning is accomplished by comparison with a reference using beats, starting with the reference frequency of a tuning fork. In fact a perfect pitch
ability may interfere with the tuning for some people. Therefore, the “only” hearing skill you will need is the ability
to hear and differentiate between the various beats when two strings are struck. This ability develops with practice
and is not related to knowledge of music theory or to musicality. Larger grands are easier to tune than uprights;
however, most baby grands are harder to tune than good uprights. Therefore, although you should logically begin
your practice with a lower quality piano, it will be more difficult to tune.
2.2 Chromatic Scale and Temperament
Updated:
August 19, 2003
Most of us have some familiarity with the chromatic scale and know that it must be tempered, but what are their
precise definitions? Why is the chromatic scale so special and why is temperament needed? We first explore the
mathematical basis of the chromatic scale and tempering because the mathematical approach is the most concise,
clear, and precise treatment. We then discuss the historical/musical considerations for a better understanding of
the relative merits of the different temperaments. A basic mathematical foundation for these concepts is essential for a good understanding of how pianos are tuned. For information on tuning, see White, Howell, Fischer,
Jorgensen, or Reblitz in the Reference section at the end of this book.
Mathematical Treatment
Three octaves of the chromatic scale are shown in table 2.1 using the A, B, C, . . . notation. Black keys on the piano
are shown as sharps, e.g. the ] on the right of C represents C], etc., and are shown only for the highest octave. Each
successive frequency change in the chromatic scale is called a semitone and an octave has 12 semitones. The
major chords and the integers representing the frequency ratios for those chords are shown above and below the
chromatic scale, respectively. The word chord is used here to mean two notes whose frequency ratio is a small
integer. Except for multiples of these basic chords, integers larger than about 10 produce chords not readily recognizable to the ear. In reference to table 2.1, the most fundamental chord is the octave, in which the frequency of
the higher note is twice that of the lower one. The interval between C and G is called a 5th, and the frequencies of
C and G are in the ratio of 2 to 3. The major third has four semitones and the minor third has three. The number
associated with each chord, e.g. four in the 4th, is the number of white keys, inclusive of the two end keys for
the C major scale, and has no further mathematical significance. Note that the word “scale” in “chromatic scale”,
“C major scale”, and “logarithmic or frequency scale” (see below) has completely different meanings; the second is
a subset of the first.
We can see from the above that a 4th and a 5th “add up” to an octave and a major 3rd and a minor 3rd “add
up” to a 5th. Note that this is an addition in logarithmic space, as explained below. The missing integer 7 is also
explained below.
2.2. CHROMATIC SCALE AND TEMPERAMENT
Octave
C D E F G A B
1
5th
C D E F
2
173
4th
G A B
3
Maj.3rd
C ] D ]
4
Min.3rd
E F ]
5
G ] A ] B
6
C
8
Table 2.1: Frequency Ratios of Chords in the Chromatic Scale
Chord
Min.3rd:
Maj.3rd:
Fourth:
Fifth:
Octave:
Freq. Ration
6/5 = 1.2000
5/4 = 1.2500
4/3 = 1.3333
3/2 = 1.5000
2/1 = 2.0000
Eq. Tempered Scale
semitone3 = 1.1892
semitone4 = 1.2599
semitone5 = 1.3348
semitone7 = 1.4983
semitone12 = 2.0000
Difference
+0.0108
-0.0099
-0.0015
+0.0017
0.0000
Table 2.2: Ideal Chords versus the Equal Tempered Scale
The “equal tempered” (ET) chromatic scale consists of “equal” half-tone or semitone rises for each successive
note. They are equal in the sense that the ratio of the frequencies of any two adjacent notes is always the same. This
property ensures that each note is the same as any other note (except for pitch). This uniformity of the notes allows
the composer or performer to use any key without hitting bad dissonances, as further explained below. There are
12 equal semitones in an octave of an ET scale and each octave is an exact factor of two in frequency. Therefore, the
frequency change for each semitone is given by
semitone12 = 2
or
1
(2.1)
semitone = 2 12 = 1.05946
Equation 2.1 defines the ET chromatic scale and allows the calculation of the frequency ratios of “chords” in
this scale. How do the “chords” in ET compare with the frequency ratios of the ideal chords? The comparisons are
shown in table 2.2 and demonstrate that the chords from the ET scale are extremely close to the ideal chords.
The errors for the 3rds are the worst, over five times the errors in the other chords, but are still only about
1%. Nonetheless, these errors are readily audible, and some piano aficionados have generously dubbed them “the
rolling thirds” while in reality, they are unacceptable dissonances. It is a defect that we must learn to live with, if
we are to adopt the ET scale. The errors in the 4ths and 5ths produce beats of about 1 Hz near middle C, which is
barely audible in most pieces of music; however, this beat frequency doubles for every higher octave.
The integer 7, if it were included in table 2.1, would have represented a chord with the ratio 7/6 and would
correspond to a semitone squared. The error between those two numbers 7/6 and a semitone squared is over
4% and is too large to make a musically acceptable chord and was therefore excluded from table 2.1. It is just a
mathematical accident that the 12-note chromatic scale produces so many ratios close to the ideal chords. Only
the number 7, out of the smallest 8 integers, results in a totally unacceptable chord. The chromatic scale is based
on a lucky mathematical accident in nature! It is constructed by using the smallest number of notes that gives
the maximum number of chords. No wonder early civilizations believed that there was something mystical about
this scale. Increasing the number of keys in an octave does not result in much improvement of the chords until the
numbers become quite large, making that approach impractical for most musical instruments.
Note that the frequency ratios of the 4th and 5th do not add up to that of the octave (1.5000 + 1.3333 = 2.8333
vs. 2.0000). Instead, they add up in logarithmic space because (3/2) × (4/3) = 2. In logarithmic space, multiplication becomes addition. Why might this be significant? The answer is because the geometry of the cochlea of the
ear seems to have a logarithmic component. Detecting acoustic frequencies on a logarithmic scale accomplishes
two things: you can hear a wider frequency range for a given size of cochlea, and analyzing ratios of frequencies
becomes simple because instead of dividing or multiplying two frequencies, you only need to subtract or add their
logarithms. For example, if C3 is detected by the cochlea at one position and C4 at another position 2 mm up, then
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CHAPTER 2. TUNING YOUR PIANO
C5 will be detected at a distance of 4 mm, exactly as in the slide rule calculator. To show you how useful this is,
given F5, the brain knows that F4 will be found 2 mm down! Therefore, chords (remember, chords are frequency
divisions) are particularly simple to analyze in a logarithmically constructed cochlea. When we play chords, we are
performing mathematical operations in logarithmic space on a mechanical computer called the piano, as was done
in the 1950’s with the slide rule. Thus the logarithmic nature of the chromatic scale has many more consequences
than just providing a wider frequency range. The logarithmic scale assures that the two notes of every chord are
separated by the same distance no matter where you are on the piano. By adopting a logarithmic chromatic scale,
the piano keyboard is mechanically matched to the human ear! This is probably one reason for why harmonies are
pleasant to the ear — harmonies are most easily deciphered and remembered by the human hearing mechanism.
Suppose that we did not know 2.1; can we generate the ET chromatic scale from the chord relationships? If the
answer is yes, a piano tuner can tune a piano without having to make any calculations. These chord relationships,
it turns out, completely determine the frequencies of all the notes of the 12 note chromatic scale. A temperament
is a set of chord relationships tha provides this determination. From a musical point of view, there is no single
“chromatic scale” that is best above all else although ET has the unique property that it allows free transpositions.
Needless to say, ET is not the only musically useful temperament, and we will discuss other temperaments below. Temperament is not an option but a necessity; we must choose a temperament in order to accommodate
these mathematical difficulties. No musical instrument based on the chromatic scale is completely free of temperament. For example, the holes in wind instruments and the frets of the guitar must be spaced for a specific
tempered scale. The violin is a devilishly clever instrument because it avoids all temperament problems by spacing the open strings in fifths. If you tune the A(440) string correctly and tune all the others in 5ths, these others
will be close, but not tempered. You can still avoid temperament problems by fingering all notes except A(440). In
addition, the vibrato is larger than the temperament corrections, making temperament differences inaudible.
The requirement of tempering arises because a chromatic scale tuned to one scale (e.g., C major with perfect
chords) does not produce acceptable chords in other scales. If you wrote a composition in C major having many
perfect chords and then transposed it, terrible dissonances can result. There is an even more fundamental problem.
Perfect chords in one scale also produce dissonances in other scales needed in the same piece of music. Tempering
schemes were therefore devised to minimize these dissonances by minimizing the de-tuning from perfect chords
in the most important chords and shifting most of the dissonances into the less used chords. The dissonance
associated with the worst chord came to be known as “the wolf”.
The main problem is, of course, chord purity; the above discussion makes it clear that no matter what you do,
there is going to be a dissonance somewhere. It might come as a shock to some that the piano is a fundamentally
imperfect instrument! We are left to deal forever with some compromised chords in almost every scale.
The name “chromatic scale” generally applies to any 12-note scale with any temperament. Naturally, the chromatic scale of the piano does not allow the use of frequencies between the notes (as you can with the violin), so
that there is an infinite number of missing notes. In this sense, the chromatic scale is incomplete. Nonetheless, the
12-note scale is sufficiently complete for the majority of musical applications. The situation is analogous to digital photography. When the resolution is sufficient, you cannot see the difference between a digital photo and an
analog one with much higher information density. Similarly, the 12-note scale apparently has sufficient pitch resolution for a sufficiently large number of musical applications. This 12-note scale is a good compromise between
having more notes per octave for greater completeness and having enough frequency range to span the range of
the human ear, for a given instrument or musical notation system with a limited number of available notes.
There is healthy debate about which temperament is best musically. ET was known from the earliest history
of tuning. There are definite advantages to standardizing to one temperament, but that is probably not possible
or even desirable in view of the diversity of opinions on music and the fact that much music now exist, that were
written with particular temperaments in mind. Therefore we shall now explore the various temperaments.
Temperament and Music
The above mathematical approach is not the way in which the chromatic scale was developed. Musicians first
started with chords and tried to find a music scale with the minimum number of notes that would produce those
chords. The requirement of a minimum number of notes is obviously desirable since it determines the number of
2.2. CHROMATIC SCALE AND TEMPERAMENT
175
keys, strings, holes, etc. needed to construct a musical instrument. Chords are necessary because if you want to
play more than one note at a time, these notes will create dissonances that are unpleasant to the ear unless they
form harmonious chords. The reason why dissonances are so unpleasant to the ear may have something to do with
the difficulty of processing dissonant information through the brain. It is certainly easier, in terms of memory and
comprehension, to deal with harmonious chords than dissonances. Some of which are nearly impossible for most
brains to figure out if two dissonant notes are played simultaneously. Therefore, if the brain is overloaded with
the task of trying to figure out complex dissonances, it becomes impossible to relax and enjoy the music, or follow
the musical idea. Clearly, any scale must produce good chords if we are to compose advanced, complex music
requiring more than one note at a time.
We saw obove that the optimum number of notes in a scale turned out to be 12. Unfortunately, there isn’t any
12-note scale that can produce exact chords everywhere. Music would sound better if a scale with perfect chords
everywhere could be found. Many such attempts have been made, mainly by increasing the number of notes per
octave, especially using guitars and organs, but none of these scales have gained acceptance. It is relatively easy to
increase the number of notes per octave with a guitar-like instrument because all you need to do is to add strings
and frets. The latest schemes being devised today involve computer generated scales in which the computer adjusts
the frequencies with every transposition; this scheme is called adaptive tuning (Sethares).
The most basic concept needed to understand temperaments is the concept of the circle of fifths. To describe
a circle of 5ths, take any octave. Start with the lowest note and go up in 5ths. After two 5ths, you will go outside of
this octave. When this happens, go down one octave so that you can keep going up in 5ths and still stay within the
original octave. Do this for twelve 5ths, and you will end up at the highest note of the octave! That is, if you start at
C4, you will end up with C5 and this is why it is called a circle. Not only that, but every note you hit when playing
the 5ths is a different note. This means that the circle of 5ths hits every note once and only once, a key property
useful for tuning the scale and for studying it mathematically.
Historical developments are central to discussions of temperament because the music of the time is tied to
the temperament of the time. Pythagoras is credited with inventing the “Pythagorean temperament” at around
550 AD, in which the chromatic scale is generated by tuning in perfect 5ths, using the circle of 5ths. The twelve
perfect fifths in the circle of fifths do not make an exact factor of two. Therefore, the final note you get is not exactly
the octave note but is too high in frequency by what is called the “Pythagorean comma”, which is about 23 cents (a
cent is one hundredths of a semitone). Since a 4th plus a 5th make up an octave, the Pythagorean temperament
results in a scale with perfect 4ths and 5ths, except at the end where you get a very bad dissonance. It turns out that
tuning in perfect 5ths leaves the 3rds in bad shape. This is another disadvantage of the Pythagorean temperament.
Now if we were to tune by contracting each 5th by 23/12 cents, we would end up with exactly one octave and that
is one way of tuning an ET scale. In fact, we shall use just such a method in the section on tuning. The ET scale
was already known within a hundred years or so after invention of the Pythagorean temperament. Thus ET is not a
“modern temperament”.
Following the introduction of the Pythagorean temperament, all newer temperaments were efforts at improving
on it. The first method was to halve the Pythagorean comma by distributing it among two final 5ths. One major
development was Meantone temperament, in which the 3rds were made just instead of the 5ths. Musically, 3rds
play more prominent roles than 5ths, so that meantone made sense, especially during an age when music made
greater use of 3rds. Unfortunately, meantone has a wolf worse than Pythagorean.
The next milestone is represented by Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in which he wrote music for various Well
temperaments (WT). These were temperaments that struck a compromise between meantone and Pythagorean.
This concept worked because Pythagorean tuning ended up with notes that were too sharp, while meantone is too
flat. In addition, WT presented the possibility of not only good 3rds, but also good 5ths. The simplest WT was
devised by Kirnberger, a student of Bach. Its biggest advantage is its simplicity. Better WTs were devised by
Werkmeister and by Young. If we broadly classify tunings as Meantone, WT, or Pythagorean, then ET is a WT
because ET is neither sharp nor flat. There is no record of the temperaments Bach used. We can only guess at the
temperaments from the harmonies in his compositions, especially his “Well Tempered Clavier”, and these studies
indicate that essentially all the details of tempering were already worked out by Bach’s time (before 1700) and that
Bach used a temperament not very different from Werkmeister
The violin appears to have taken advantage of its unique design to effectively circumvent these temperament
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CHAPTER 2. TUNING YOUR PIANO
problems. The open strings make intervals of a 5th with each other, so that the violin naturally tunes Pythagorean.
Since the 3rds can always be played just, it has all the advantages of the Pythagorean, meantone, and WT, with no
wolf in sight!
In the last 100 years or so, ET had been almost universally accepted. Thus all the other temperaments are
generically classified as “historical temperaments” (HsT), which is clearly a misnomer. The historical use of a WT
gave rise to the concept of key color in which each key, depending on the temperament, endowed specific colors
to the music, mainly through the small de-tunings that create “tension” and other effects. This greatly complicated
issues because now musicians were dealing not only with pure chords versus wolves, but with colors that were not
easily defined. The extent to which the colors can be brought out depends on the piano, the pianist, and the listener,
as well as the tuner. Note that the tuner can blend stretch (see “What is stretch?” near the end of section 2.4) with
temperament to control color. After listening to music played on pianos tuned to WT, ET tends to sound more
muddy and bland. Thus key color does matter. More important are the wonderful sounds of pure (stretched)
intervals in WT. On the other hand, there is always some kind of a wolf in the WTs which is reduced in ET.
For playing most of the music composed around the times of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, WT works best. As
an example, Beethoven chose chords for the dissonant ninths in the first movement of his Moonlight Sonata that
are least dissonant in WT, and are much worse in ET. These great composers were acutely aware of temperament.
Most works from Chopin’s and Liszt’s time were composed with ET in mind and key color is not a issue. Although
these compositions sound different in ET and WT to the trained ear, it is not clear that WT is objectionable because
pure intervals always sound better than detuned ones.
My personal view for the piano is that we should get away from ET because it deprives us of one of the most
enjoyable aspects of music — pure intervals. You will see a dramatic demonstration of this if you can listen to
the last movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein played in ET and WT. Meantone can be somewhat extreme unless
you are playing music of that period (before Bach), so that we are left with the WTs. For simplicity and ease of
tuning, you cannot beat Kirnberger. I believe that once you get used to WT, ET will not sound as good. Therefore,
the world should standardize to the WTs. Which one you choose does not make a big difference for most people
because those not educated in the temperaments will generally not notice a big difference even among the major
temperaments, let alone among the different WTs. This is not to say that we should all use Kirnberger but that we
should be educated in the temperaments and have a choice instead of being straight-jacketed into the bland ET.
This is not just a matter of taste or even whether the music sounds better. We are talking about developing our
musical sensitivity and knowing how to use those really pure intervals. One disadvantage of WT is that if the piano
is out of tune by even a small amount, it becomes audible. However, I would be very happy if all piano students
developed their sensitivity to the point at which they can notice that a piano is very slightly out of tune.
2.3 Tuning Tools
You will need one tuning lever, several rubber wedges, a felt muting strip, and one or two tuning forks and ear
plugs or ear muffs. Professional tuners nowadays also use an electronic tuning aid, but we will not consider it here
because it is not cost effective for the amateur and its proper use requires advanced knowledge of the fine points
of tuning. The tuning method we consider here is called aural tuning — tuning by ear. All good professional tuners
must be good aural tuners even when they make heavy use of electronic tuning aids.
Grands use the larger rubber muting wedges and uprights require the smaller ones with wire handles. Four
wedges of each type will suffice. You can buy these by mail order or you can ask your tuner to buy the whole set of
things you need for you.
The most popular muting strips are felt, about 4 ft long, 5/8 inch wide. They are used to mute out the two side
strings of the 3-string notes in the octave used to “set the bearings” (see below). They also come as ganged rubber
wedges but these don’t work as well. The strips also come in rubber, but rubber does not mute as well and is not as
stable as felt (they can move or pop out while tuning). The disadvantage of the felt strip is that it will leave a layer
of felt fiber on the soundboard after you are finished, which will need to be vacuumed out.
A high quality tuning lever consists of an extendable handle, a head that attaches to the tip of the handle, and an
interchangeable socket that screws into the head. It is a good idea to have a piano tuning pin which you can insert
2.4. PREPARATION
177
into the socket using a vise grip so that you can screw the socket into the head firmly. Otherwise, if you grab on the
socket with the vise grip, you can scratch it up. If the socket is not firmly in the head, it will come off during tuning.
Most pianos require a #2 socket, unless your piano has been re-strung using larger tuning pins. The standard head
is a 5 degree head. This “5 degree” is the angle between the socket axis and the handle. Both the heads and sockets
come in various lengths, but “standard” or “medium” length will do.
Get two tuning forks, A440 and C523.3 of good quality. Develop a good habit of holding them at the narrow
neck of the handle so that your fingers do not interfere with their vibrations. Tap the tip of the fork firmly against a
muscular part of your knee and test the sustain. It should be clearly audible for 10 to 20 seconds when placed close
to your ear. The best way to hear the fork is to place the tip of the handle against the triangular cartilage (ear lobe)
that sticks out towards the middle of your ear hole. You can adjust the loudness of the fork by pressing the ear lobe
in or out using the end of the fork. Do not use whistles; they are too inaccurate.
Ear muffs are a necessary protection device, since ear damage is a tuner’s occupational hazard. It is necessary
to hit the keys hard (pound the keys — to use a tuners’ jargon) in order to tune properly as explained below, and the
sound intensity from such pounding can easily damage the ear, resulting in hearing loss and tinnitus.
2.4 Preparation
Prepare for tuning by removing the music stand so that the tuning pins are accessible (grand piano). For the following section, you need no further preparation. For “setting the bearings”, you need to mute all the side strings
of the triplet strings within the “bearings octave” using the muting strip so that when you play any note within this
octave, only the center string will vibrate. You will probably have to mute close to two octaves depending on the
tuning algorithm. Try out the entire algorithm first to determine the highest and lowest notes you need to mute.
Then mute all the notes in between. Use the rounded end of the wire handle of the upright mute to press the felt
into the spaces between the outer strings of adjacent notes.
2.5 Getting Started
Without a teacher, you cannot dive right into tuning. You will quickly lose your bearing and have no idea how
to get back. Therefore, you must first learn/practice certain tuning procedures so that you don’t end up with an
unplayable piano that you cannot restore. This section is an attempt to get you to the level at which you might try
a real tuning, without running into those types of difficulties.
The first things to learn are what not to do, in order to avoid destroying the piano, which is not difficult. If
you tighten a string too much, it will break. The initial instructions are designed to minimize string breakage from
amateurish moves, so read them carefully. Plan ahead so that you know what to do in case you break a string. A
broken string per se, even when left for long periods of time, is no disaster to a piano. However, it is probably wise to
conduct your first practices just before you intend to call your tuner. Once you know how to tune, string breakage
is a rare problem except for very old or abused pianos. The tuning pins are turned by such small amounts during
tuning that the strings almost never break. One common mistake beginners make is to place the lever on the wrong
tuning pin. Since turning the pin does not cause any audible change, they keep turning it until the string breaks.
One way to avoid this is to always start by tuning flat, as recommended below, and to never turn the pin without
listening to the sound.
The most important consideration for a starting tuner is to preserve the condition of the pinblock. The pressure of the pinblock on the pin is enormous. Now you will never have to do this, but if you were to hypothetically
turn the pin 180 degrees very rapidly, the heat generated at the interface between pin and pinblock would be sufficient to cook the wood and alter its molecular structure. Clearly, all rotations of the pin must be conducted in slow,
small, increments. If you need to remove a pin by turning it, rotate only a quarter turn (counter clock-wise), wait a
moment for the heat to dissipate away from the interface, then repeat the procedure, etc., so as to avoid damaging
the pinblock.
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I will describe everything assuming a grand piano, but the corresponding motion for the upright should be
obvious. There are two basic motions in tuning. The first is to turn the pin so as to either pull or release the
string. The second is to rock the pin back towards you (to pull on the string) or rock it forwards, towards the
string, to release it. The rocking motion, if done to extreme, will enlarge the hole and damage the pinblock. Note
that the hole is somewhat elliptical at the top surface of the pinblock because the string is pulling the pin in the
direction of the major axis of the ellipse. Thus a small amount of backwards rocking does not enlarge the ellipse
because the pin is always pulled into the front end of the ellipse by the string. Also, the pin is not straight but
bent elastically towards the string by the pull of the string. Therefore, the rocking motion can be quite effective
in moving the string. Even a small amount of forward rocking, within the elasticity of the wood, is harmless. It is
clear from these considerations that you must use the rotation whenever possible, and use the rocking motion
only when absolutely necessary. Only very small rocking motions should be used. For the extreme high notes (top
two octaves), the motion needed to tune the string is so small that you may not be able to control it adequately by
rotating the pin. Rocking provides much finer control, and can be used for that final miniscule motion to bring it
into perfect tune.
Now, what is the easiest way to start practicing? First, let’s choose the easiest notes to tune. These lie in the
C3–C4 octave. Lower notes are harder to tune because of their high harmonic content, and the higher notes are
difficult because the amount of pin rotation needed to tune becomes smaller with higher pitch. Note that middle
C is C4; the B just below it is B3 and the D immediately above middle C is D4. That is, the octave number 1, 2, 3,
. . . changes at C, not at A. Let’s choose G3 as our practice note and start numbering the strings. Each note in this
region has 3 strings. Starting from the left, let’s number the strings 123 (for G3), 456 (for G]3), 789 (for A3), etc. Place
a wedge between strings 3 and 4 in order to mute string 3 so that when you play G3, only 1 and 2 can vibrate. Place
the wedge about midway between the bridge and agraffe.
There are two basic types of tuning: unison and harmonic. In unison, the two strings are tuned identically. In
harmonic tuning, one string is tuned to a harmonic of the other, such as thirds, fourths, fifths, and octaves. The
three strings of each note are tuned in unison, which is easier than harmonic tuning, so let’s try that first.
Engaging and Moving the Tuning Lever
If your tuning lever has adjustable length, pull it out about 3 inches and lock it in place. Hold the handle of the
tuning lever in your RH and the socket in your LH and engage the socket over the pin. Orient the handle so that it
is approximately perpendicular to the strings and pointing to your right. Lightly jiggle the handle around the pin
with your RH and engage the socket with your LH so that the socket is securely engaged, as far down as it will go.
From day one, develop a habit of jiggling the socket so that it is securely engaged. At this point, the handle is
probably not perfectly perpendicular to the strings; just choose the socket position so that the handle is as close
to perpendicular as the socket position will allow. Now find a way to brace your RH so that you can apply firm
pressure on the lever. For example, you can grab the tip of the handle with the thumb and one or two fingers, and
brace the arm on the wooden piano frame or brace your pinky against the tuning pins directly under the handle. If
the handle is closer to the plate (the metal frame) over the strings, you might brace your hand against the plate. You
should not grab the handle like you hold a tennis racket and push-pull to turn the pin — this will not give enough
control. You may be able to do that after years of practice, but in the beginning, grabbing the handle and pushing
without bracing against something is too difficult to control accurately. So develop a habit of finding good places
to brace your hand against, depending on where the handle is. Practice these positions making sure that you can
exert controlled, constant, powerful pressure on the handle, but do not turn any pins yet.
The lever handle must point to the right so that when you turn it towards you (the string goes sharp), you
counteract the force of the string and free the pin from the front side of the hole (towards the string). This allows
the pin to turn more freely because of the reduction in friction. When you tune flat, both you and the string are
trying to turn the pin in the same direction. Then the pin would turn too easily, except for the fact that both your
push and the string’s pull jam the pin against the front of the hole, increasing the pressure (friction) and preventing
the pin from rotating too easily. If you had placed the handle to the left, you run into trouble for both the sharp
and flat motions. For the sharp motion, both you and the string jam the pin against the front of the hole, making it
doubly difficult to turn the pin, and damaging the hole. For the flat motion, the lever tends to lift the pin off from
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the front edge of the hole and reduces the friction. In addition, both the lever and string are turning the pin in the
same direction. Now the pin now turns too easily. The lever handle must point to the left for uprights. Looking
down on the tuning pin, the lever should point to 3 o’clock for grands and to 9 o’clock for uprights. In both cases,
the lever is on the side of the last winding of the string.
Professional tuners do not use these lever positions. Most use 1–2 o’clock for grands and 10–11 o’clock for
uprights and Reblitz recommends 6 o’clock for grands and 12 o’clock for uprights. In order to understand why,
let’s first consider positioning the lever at 12 o’clock on a grand (it is similar at 6 o’clock). Now the friction of the
pin with the pinblock is the same for both the sharp and flat motions. However, in the sharp motion, you are
going against the string tension and in the flat motion, the string is helping you. Therefore, the difference in force
needed between sharp and flat motions is much larger than the difference when the lever is at 3 o’clock, which is
a disadvantage. However, unlike the 3 o’clock position, the pin does not rock back and forth during tuning so that
when you release the pressure on the tuning lever, the pin does not spring back — it is more stable — and you can
get higher accuracy.
The 1–2 o’clock position is a good compromise that makes use of both of the advantages of the 3 o’clock and
12 o’clock positions. Beginners do not have the accuracy to take full advantage of the 1–2 o’clock position, so my
suggestion is to start with the 3 o’clock position, which should be easier at first, and transition to the 1–2 o’clock
position as your accuracy increases. When you become good, the higher accuracy of the 1–2 o’clock position can
speed up your tuning so that you can tune each string in just a few seconds. At the 3 o’clock position, you will need
to guess how much the pin will spring back and over-tune by that amount, which takes more time. Clearly, exactly
where you place the lever will become more important as you improve.
Setting the Pin
It is important to “set the pin” correctly in order for the tuning to hold. If you look down on the pin, the string
comes around the right side of the pin (grands — it is on the left for uprights) and twirls around it. Therefore if you
rotate the pin cw (clockwise), you will tune sharp and vice versa. The string tension is always trying to rotate the
pin ccw (counter clock-wise, or flat). Normally, a piano de-tunes flat as you play it. However, because the grip of
the pinblock on the pin is so strong, the pin is never straight but is always twisted.
If you rotate it cw and stop, the top of the pin will be twisted cw with respect to the bottom. In this position, the
top of the pin wants to rotate ccw (the pin wants to untwist) but can’t because it is held by the pinblock. Remember
that the string is also trying to rotate it ccw. The two forces together can be sufficient to quickly de-tune the piano
flat when you play something loud.
If the pin is turned ccw, the opposite happens — the pin will want to untwist cw, which opposes the string force.
This reduces the net torque on the pin, making the tuning more stable. In fact, you can twist the pin so far ccw
that the untwisting force is much larger than the string force and the piano can then de-tune itself sharp as you
play. Clearly, you must properly “set the pin” in order produce a stable tuning. This requirement will be taken into
account in the following tuning instructions.
Tuning Unisons
Now engage the tuning lever on the pin for string 1. We will tune string 1 to string 2. The motion you will practice is: (1) flat, (2) sharp, (3) flat, (4) sharp and (5) flat (tune). Except for (1), each motion must be smaller than
the previous one. As you improve, you will add or eliminate steps as you see fit. We are assuming that the two
strings are almost in tune. As you tune, you must follow two rules: (a) never turn the pin unless you are simultaneously listening to the sound, and (b) never release the pressure on the tuning lever handle until that motion
is complete.
For example, let’s start with motion (1) flat: keep playing the note every second or two with the LH, so that there
is a continuous sound, while pushing the end of the lever handle away from you with the thumb and 2nd finger.
Play the note in such a way as to maintain a continuous sound. Don’t lift the key for any length of time, as this will
stop the sound. Keep the key down and play with a quick up-and-down motion so that there is no break in the
sound. The pinky and the rest of your RH should be braced against the piano. The required motion of the lever
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is just a few millimeters. First, you will feel an increasing resistance, and then the pin will start to rotate. Before
the pin begins to rotate, you should hear a change in the sound. As you turn the pin, listen for string 1 going flat,
creating a beat with the center string; the beat frequency increasing as you turn. Stop at a beat frequency of 2 to 3
per second. The tip of the tuning lever should move less than one cm. Remember, never rotate the pin when there
is no sound because you will immediately lose track of where you are with respect to how the beats are changing.
Always maintain constant pressure on the lever until that motion is completed for the same reason.
What is the rationale behind the above 5 motions? Assuming that the two strings are in reasonable tune, you
first tune string 1 flat in step (1) to make sure that in step (2) you will pass the tuning point. This also protects
against the possibility that you had placed the lever on the wrong tuning pin; as long as you are turning flat, you
will never break a string.
After (1) you are flat for sure, so in step (2) you can listen to the tuning point as you pass through it. Go past it
until you hear a beat frequency of about 2 to 3 per second on the sharp side, and stop. Now you know where the
tuning point is, and what it sounds like. The reason for going so far past the tuning point is that you want to set the
pin, as explained above.
Now go back flat again, step (3), but this time, stop just past the tuning point, as soon as you can hear any
incipient beats. The reason why you don’t want to go too far past the tuning point is that you don’t want to undo
the “setting of the pin” in step (2). Again, note exactly what the tuning point sounds like. It should sound perfectly
clean and pure. This step assures that you did not set the pin too far.
Now conduct the final tuning by going sharp (step 4), by as little as you can beyond perfect tune, and then
bringing it into tune by turning flat (step 5). Note that your final motion must always be flat in order to set the pin.
Once you become good, you might be able to do the whole thing in two motions (sharp, flat), or three (flat, sharp,
flat).
Ideally, from step (1) to final tune, you should maintain the sound with no stoppage, and you should always be
exerting pressure on the handle; never letting go of the lever. Initially, you will probably have to do this motion by
motion. When you become proficient, the whole operation will take just a few seconds. But at first, it will take a
lot longer. Until you develop your “tuning muscles” you will tire quickly and may have to stop from time to time to
recover. Not only the hand/arm muscles, but the mental and ear concentration required to focus on the beats can
be quite a strain and can quickly cause fatigue. You will need to develop “tuning stamina” gradually. Most people
do better by listening through one ear than through both, so turn your head to see which ear is better.
The most common mistake beginners make at this stage is to try to listen for beats by pausing the tuning
motion. Beats are difficult to hear when nothing is changing. If the pin is not being turned, it is difficult to decide
which of the many things you are hearing is the beat that you need to concentrate on. What tuners do is to keep
moving the lever and then listening to the changes in the beats. When the beats are changing, it is easier to identify
the particular beat that you are using for tuning that string. Therefore, slowing down the tuning motion doesn’t
make it easier. Thus the beginner is between a rock and a hard place. Turning the pin too quickly will result in all
hell breaking loose and losing track of where you are. On the other hand, turning too slowly will make it difficult
to identify the beats. Therefore work on determining the range of motion you need to get the beats and the right
speed with which you can steadily turn the pin to make the beats come and go. In case you get hopelessly lost,
mute strings 2 and 3 by placing a wedge between them, play the note and see if you can find another note on the
piano that comes close. If that note is lower than G3, then you need to tune it sharp to bring it back, and vice versa.
Now that you have tuned string 1 to string 2, reposition the wedge so that you mute 1, leaving 2 and 3 free to
vibrate. Tune 3 to 2. When you are satisfied, remove the wedge and see if the G is now free of beats. You have tuned
one note! If the G was in reasonable tune before you started, you haven’t accomplished much, so find a note nearby
that is out of tune and see if you can “clean it up”. Notice that in this scheme, you are always tuning one single string
to another single string. In principle, if you are really good, strings 1 and 2 are in perfect tune after you finish tuning
1, so you don’t need the wedge any more. You should be able to tune 3 to 1 and 2 vibrating together. In practice this
doesn’t work until you become really proficient. This is because of a phenomenon called sympathetic vibration.
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Sympathetic Vibration
The accuracy required to bring two strings into perfect tune is so high that it is a nearly impossible job. It turns out
that, in practice, this is made easier because when the frequencies approach within a certain interval called the
“sympathetic vibration range”, the two strings change their frequencies towards each other so that they vibrate
with the same frequency. This happens because the two strings are not independent, but are coupled to each other
at the bridge. When coupled, the string vibrating at the higher frequency will drive the slower string to vibrate at a
slightly higher frequency, and vice versa. The net effect is to drive both frequencies towards the average frequency
of the two. Thus when you tune 1 and 2 unison, you have no idea whether they are in perfect tune or merely within
the sympathetic vibration range (unless you are an experienced tuner). In the beginning, you will most likely not
be in perfect tune.
Now if you were to try to tune a third string to the two strings in sympathetic vibration, the third string will bring
the string closest to it in frequency into sympathetic vibration. But the other string may be too far off in frequency.
It will break off the sympathetic vibration, and will sound dissonant. The result is that no matter where you are,
you will always hear beats — the tuning point disappears! It might appear that if the third string were tuned to the
average frequency of the two strings in sympathetic vibration, all three should go into sympathetic vibration. This
does not appear to be the case unless all three frequencies are in perfect tune. If the first two strings are sufficiently
off, a complex transfer of energy takes place among the three strings. Even when the first two are close, there will
be higher harmonics that will prevent all beats from disappearing when a third string is introduced. In addition,
there are frequent cases in which you cannot totally eliminate all beats because the two strings are not identical.
Therefore, a beginner will become totally lost, if he were to try to tune a third string to a pair of strings. Until you
become proficient at detecting the sympathetic vibration range, always tune one string to one; never one to
two. In addition, just because you tuned 1 to 2 and 3 to 2, it does not mean that the three strings will sound “clean”
together. Always check; if it is not completely “clean”, you will need to find the offending string and try again.
Note the use of the term “clean”. With enough practice, you will soon get away from listening to beats, but
instead, you will be looking for a pure sound that results somewhere within the sympathetic vibration range. This
point will depend on what types of harmonics each string produces. In principle, when tuning unisons, you are
trying to match the fundamentals. In practice, a slight error in the fundamentals is inaudible compared to the
same error in a high harmonic. Unfortunately, these high harmonics are generally not exact harmonics but vary
from string to string. Thus, when the fundamentals are matched, these high harmonics create high frequency
beats that make the note “muddy” or “tinny”. When the fundamentals are de-tuned ever so slightly so that the
harmonics do not beat, the note “cleans up”. Reality is even more complicated because some strings, especially
for the lower quality pianos, will have extraneous resonances of their own, making it impossible to completely
eliminate certain beats. These beats become very troublesome if you need to use this note to tune another one.
Making that Final Infinitesimal Motion
We now advance to the next level of difficulty. Find a note near G5 that is slightly out of tune, and repeat the above
procedure for G3. The tuning motions are now much smaller for these higher notes, making them more difficult. In
fact you may not be able to achieve sufficient accuracy by rotating the pin. We need to learn a new skill. This skill
requires you to pound on the notes, so put on your ear muffs or ear plugs.
Typically, you would get through motion (4) successfully, but for motion (5) the pin would either not move or
jump past the tuning point. In order to make the string advance in smaller increments, press on the lever at a
pressure slightly below the point at which the pin will jump. Now strike hard on the note while maintaining the
same pressure on the lever. The added string tension from the hard hammer blow will advance the string by a
small amount. Repeat this until it is in perfect tune. It is important to never release the pressure on the lever and
to keep the pressure constant during these repeated small advances, or you will quickly lose track of where you are.
When it is in perfect tune, and you release the lever, the pin might spring back, leaving the string slightly flat. You
will have to learn from experience, how much it will spring back and compensate for it during the tuning process.
The need to pound on the string to advance it is one reason you often hear tuners pounding on the piano. It is
a good idea to get into the habit of pounding on most of the notes because this stabilizes the tuning. The resulting
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sound can be so loud as to damage the ear, and one of the occupational hazards of tuners is ear damage from
pounding. Use of ear plugs is the solution. When pounding, you will still easily hear the beats even with ear plugs.
The most common initial symptom of ear damage is tinnitus (ringing in the ear). You can minimize the pounding
force by increasing the pressure on the lever. Also, less pounding is required if the lever is parallel to the string
instead of perpendicular to it, and even less if you point it to the left. This is another reason why many tuners
use their levers more parallel to the strings than perpendicular. Note that there are two ways to point it parallel:
towards the strings (12 o’clock) and away from the strings (6 o’clock). As you gain experience, experiment with
different lever positions as this will give you many options for solving various problems. For example, with the
most popular 5-degree head on your lever, you may not be able to point the lever handle to the right for the highest
octave because it may hit the wooden piano frame.
Equalizing String Tension
Pounding is also helpful for distributing the string tension more evenly among all the non-speaking sections of
the string, such as the duplex scale section, but especially in the section between the capo bar and the agraffe.
There is controversy as to whether equalizing the tension will improve the sound. There is little question that the
even tension will make the tuning more stable. However, whether it makes a material difference in stability may be
debatable, especially if the pins were correctly set during tuning. In many pianos, the duplex sections are almost
completely muted out using felts because they might cause undesirable oscillations. In fact, the over-strung section
is muted out in almost every piano. Beginners need not worry about the tension in these “non-speaking” sections
of the strings. Thus heavy pounding, though a useful skill to learn, is not necessary for a beginner.
My personal opinion is that the sound from the duplex scale strings does not add to the piano sound. In fact,
this sound is inaudible and is muted out when they become audible in the bass. Thus the “art of tuning the duplex
scale” is a myth although most piano tuners (including Reblitz!) have been taught to believe it by the manufacturers,
because it makes for a good sales pitch. The only reason why you want to tune the duplex scale is that the bridge
wants to be at a node of both the speaking and non-speaking lengths; otherwise, tuning becomes difficult, sustain
may be shortened, and you lose uniformity. Using mechanical engineering terminology, we can say that tuning the
duplex scale optimizes the vibrational impedance of the bridge. In other words, the myth does not detract from
the tuners’ ability to do their job. Nonetheless, a proper understanding is certainly preferable. The duplex scale is
needed to allow the bridge to move more freely, not for producing sound. Obviously, the duplex scale will improve
the quality of the sound (from the speaking lengths) because it optimizes the impedance of the bridge, but not
because it produces any sound. The facts that the duplex scale is muted out in the bass and is totally inaudible
in the treble prove that the sound from the duplex scale is not needed. Even in the inaudible treble, the duplex
scale is “tuned” in the sense that the aliquot bar is placed at a location such that the length of the duplex part of
the string is a harmonic length of the speaking section of the string in order to optimize the impedance (“aliquot”
means fractional or harmonic). If the sound from the duplex scale were audible, the duplex scale would have to be
tuned as carefully as the speaking length. However, for impedance matching, the tuning need only be approximate,
which is what is done in practice. Some manufacturers have stretched this duplex scale myth to ridiculous lengths
by claiming a second duplex scale on the pin side. Since the hammer can only transmit tensile strain to this length
of string (because of the rigid Capo bar), this part of the string cannot vibrate to produce sound. Consequently,
practically no manufacturer specifies that the non-speaking lengths on the pin side be tuned.
Rocking It in the Treble
The most difficult notes to tune are the highest ones. Here you need incredible accuracy in moving the strings and
the beats are difficult to hear. Beginners can easily lose their bearing and have a hard time finding their way back.
One advantage of the need for such small motions is that now, you can use the pin-rocking motion to tune. Since
the motion is so small, rocking the pin does not damage the pinblock. To rock the pin, place the lever parallel to
the strings and pointing towards the strings (away from you). To tune sharp, pull up on the lever, and to tune
flat, press down. First, make sure that the tuning point is close to the center of the rocking motion. If it is not, rotate
the pin so that it is. Since this rotation is much larger than that needed for the final tuning, it is not difficult, but
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remember to correctly set the pin. It is better if the tuning point is front of center (towards the string), but bringing
it too far forward would risk damaging the pinblock when you try to tune flat. Note that tuning sharp is not as
damaging to the pinblock as tuning flat because the pin is already jammed up against the front of the hole.
Rumblings in the Bass
The lowest bass strings are second in difficulty (to the highest notes) to tune. These strings produce sound composed mostly of higher harmonics. Near the tuning point, the beats are so slow and soft that they are difficult to
hear. Sometimes, you can “hear” them better by pressing your knee against the piano to feel for the vibrations than
by trying to hear them with your ears, especially in the single string section. You can practice unison tuning only
down to the last double string section. See if you can recognize the high pitched, metallic, ringing beats that are
prevalent in this region. Try eliminating these and see if you need to de-tune slightly in order to eliminate them.
If you can hear these high, ringing, beats, it means that you are well on your way. Don’t worry if you can’t even
recognize them at first– beginners are not expected to.
Harmonic Tuning
Once you are satisfied with your ability to tune unisons, start practicing tuning octaves. Take any octave near
middle C and mute out the upper two side strings of each note by inserting a wedge between them. Tune the upper
note to the one an octave below, and vice versa. As with unisons, start near middle C, then work up to the highest
treble, and then practice in the bass. Repeat the same practice with 5ths, 4ths, and major 3rds.
After you can tune perfect harmonics, try de-tuning to see if you can hear the increasing beat frequency as
you deviate very slightly from perfect tune. Try to identify various beat frequencies, especially 1 bps (beat per
second) and 10 bps, using 5ths. These skills will come in handy later.
What is Stretch?
Harmonic tuning is always associated with a phenomenon called stretch. Harmonics in piano strings are never
exact because real strings attached to real ends do not behave like ideal mathematical strings. This property of
inexact harmonics is called inharmonicity. The difference between the actual and theoretical harmonic frequencies
is called stretch. Experimentally, it is found that most harmonics are sharp compared to their ideal theoretical
values, although there can be a few that are flat.
According to one research result (Young, 1952), stretch is caused by inharmonicity due to the stiffness of strings.
Ideal mathematical strings have zero stiffness. Stiffness is what is called an extrinsic property — it depends on the
dimensions of the wire. If this explanation is correct, then stretch must also be extrinsic. Given the same type of
steel, the wire is stiffer if it is fatter or shorter. One consequence of this dependence on