Category: Technique

“External” forces

J.M. playing Debussy’s “Reverie”

#1 Provoking the larger muscle groups to take action.

At the change of key signature to four shapes.

If the fingers delay their letting go from the key surfaces of one chord, and yet the time is coming due for the next chord to start sounding, you automatically force the larger muscle groups to take action to produce the next chord. This is the goal we are trying to provoke.

If the student needs help in enacting this “struggle”, then the teacher can come around behind the student and try to lift their arms up off the keyboard, but so measure out the degree of this upward motion so that it never actually raises the fingers off the keys, the goal just being for the student to experience an inexorable force upwards whenever their fingers are in contact with the keys.  This is an example of application of an  external” force, which here serves to coerce a certain delayed action to  occur, which when it does occur will be less conscious and prompt the  unconscious action of the larger muscle groups.

#2 External forces can be imaginary

Another example of an external force applied from outside the pianist’s  body. This one, however, involves no contact between the teacher’s body and the student’s body, but rather relies on the imagination of both people. Situation: the student is playing a continuously descending group of pitches. It can be a scale, an arpeggio, or any other downward configuration of notes.

I attached an imaginary tether, or rope, connecting my hands to J.M.’s right shoulder. I took a position at least five feet to the left of that shoulder. Then, as if I were pulling a barge from alongside a canal on the tow path, I pulled  lowly but unrelentingly on the rope to cause her body to move continuously leftwards despite any bumps, or eddies, or inconsistencies that her fingers (the part of the barge in contact with the water) experienced where they made contact with the keyboard (the surface of the water).

Since I was situated on her left, in those cases where she was playing an ascending group of pitches such as a scale or arpeggio, I changed my action to one of pushing rather than pulling. The pushing tended to be more literal than imaginary.

I held onto her forearm, whichever belonged to the arm playing the ascending notes. I stabilized it, urged it to the right, sometimes inhibiting it, but always with the goal of pushing it at a steady rate rightwards. This, too, forced the fingers and the hands to do whatever they had to do relative to the keyboard to insure that the fingers maintain contact with the  keyboard the entire time. Never deviating from its rightwards course. All the body parts, from one moment to the next, did unconsciously, whatever they had to do in order to make the current note connect with the next note,  legato.

Sometimes I changed my point of contact with her from her forearm to her wrist, or her elbow, shoulder, etc..

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Some examples of teaching legato

More examples of teaching legato

J.M. playing Debussy’s Reverie

I waited for a long note in her right hand. I waited for the second half of that note while as it was beginning to lay dormant. Even though we were not sitting close, I “picked” up, took over, her note with my arm and made a strong gesture of crescendo and expectancy to the right, until it burst  through the onset of her next note.


The middle part of the piece, that begins with a four voice chorale of D Minor chords interleafing with E Major chords.

We deconstructed it tonally. I had her start by playing just one of the four voices making up the chorale: | d4 e4 e4 d4 | d4 e4 e4…  Her main goal was to work on making each note independently resonant, and in no need of any of the other three voices. It was to be fully expressive on its own. As if we entered the “Way Back Machine” (, and Polyphony had not been invented yet.

We did the same procedure for the upper of the two voices in the left hand (the tenor voice). Same goal. To free it in its resonance from the presence of any of the other three voices.

Next the alto voice and then the soprano voice (the two right hand voices). And then immediately put the four voices together. It was my hope, which she successfully realized, that for at least a few fleeting moments, or  hopefully several moments, the self-sufficiency of each voice would still stand out clearly against the smothering influence of the other three voices and the grasping chords they formed.


A couple of measures later, as one of the four voices starts to move faster than the other three (playing a triplet).

The key to phrasing the triplet and choosing an appropriate loudness for each of its notes, lies in the lower three sustaining voices. Our ear must go to the latter and track the decay, or more positively speaking, the present remains of their resonance. It is easy to loose track of what those voices are doing if our ear is captivated by the triplet on top. And if it is captivated by the top voice, it is only due to ‘time’: in the form of the relative quickness of the notes.

If, though, you follow the evolution of the quarter notes, as you play the second and third triplet notes, you will find that the question of how loud to play each of these two latter notes, is fully decided, and determined automatically, by the mid courses of the sounds of the held notes. The result is that, if not exactly balanced in decibels, the attention given to the static notes causes the four voices, including the more rapidly moving voice, to stay well blended throughout the quarter note.


These are some of the final touches of sound artistry at the piano that can be subsumed under the idea of ‘legato’. While the “Platonic Idea” of legato may be conceptually simple, and while the listener hears the constancy of the effect of this Idea, to achieve it as an ongoing phenomenon in time, the pianist must constantly be varying what they are doing with their bodies and their ears to suit the to allow the legato effect to arise within the current details of the matrices of the notes.

Different situations require a different working plan to achieve the effect of legato. Rather than assume that a simple, or constant, effect is the result of the application of a constant physical cause, each connection between sounds often requires an entirely different physical solution. Here are some more examples, not spoken about above. sometimes you want to ‘push’ the arm ahead of the hand.  sometimes the elbow needs to flow more in abstract space while remaining attached to the body at the shoulders. sometimes the hand has to go through some unexpected, in between, shapes and stances on the way between one note and the next. “Legato” is the common result
of these many different physical techniques, each one suited to the particular notes and fingers you are playing.

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Subtleties of physical coordination

Lesson with A.B.: Grieg: Holberg Suite: I : measure 30…

When things arise that depend on control of our physical actions, there are then two considerations that are equally important. One is the scale or  degree of the motion. The second is the exact timing of when the motion occurs.

The first is concerned with the strength, energy and ambit of the motion, and exactly which muscles in which parts of the body are doing the moving. We have to learn how to vary these parameters and not get locked into one setting. By varying we can experiment until the production of the sounds becomes easy.

The second is concerned with timing – down to fine subdivisions of seconds. A finger that lingers an instant too long on a note impeding the the motion to the next note. a finger that comes off of a key an instant (or more) too soon. We have to get used to controlling this timing (its instant of onset and instant of termination) and experimenting with varying this timing  until any difficulty in the motions between the notes goes away.

These principles apply everywhere.   Applying these principles to the  passage starting in measure 30, we create a feeling of little bounces within bigger bounces, that develop out of  experimenting with changing the subtle values of the timings and motions until the passage flows as we would like.

As for the “bigger” bounces, they are formed by

#1   fs5 on the fourth beat of measure 30, tripping over to g5 at the beginning of measure 31.

#2  e5 on the fourth beat of measure 31 hopping / swinging over to fs5 on the  first beat of measure 32.


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The physical act of playing the next note arises out of the release of the previous note.

I may be being unrealistic, but I’m trying to bring my technique and velocity back to its former state when I was younger.

Stumbled on something today while playing the A Minor fugue from Book

I rotated my hands outwards, about 90 degrees, so that only the pinkies were making contact with the keys. But unlike previous instances where I started to do something like this, today I flexed a little more than usual the second through the fifth fingers. Not extremely more. Not as if the finger  tips were reaching over into the well of the palm. I flexed them only so that the now downward lateral side of each pinkie had a nice, comfortable contact and coverage with several adjacent white notes at once.

From this alignment, I started making repeated clusters, initiated by the  arms and transmitting their power to the keys via the sideways pinkies. Once I got the feeling for it in my body, I started migrating the clusters pitch-wise a step at a time, upwards or downwards.

One important change that I made from anything like this I had done before, is that I used the momentum of sounding the current cluster, but just as importantly the energy with which the key mechanism pushed me back up as I stopped sounding the cluster, as the energy by which I pushed down the next cluster. This way there was a tangible connection from one cluster to the next that I hadn’t felt before.  When I switched back to playing normally it meant that there was a single mechanical (reciprocal) action  between each pair of two succeeding fingers, caused by a physical unity that was larger than just one finger (or the other) but which linked them both  into a single pivotal action. It resembles the effect I would get if I juxtaposed the tips of the two fingers in question, and then rotated my forearm back  and forth by ninety degrees in sudden motions that paused momentarily as  it reached either end of the ambit covered.

I came to the conclusion that, historically, I may have always waited too  long, by just an instant, before pushing down the next key. And that this prevented the connection, in this case physical, that I wanted to achieve between the current and the next note, which in turn affected the sound  profile of the connection.

So when playing today’s clusters I had to keep moving my hand laterally, and not staying in any place relative to the keyboard for too long as I intoned the currently depressed keys. That this was to help insure that when going into a new lateral position, I did not simply repeat another instance of  the same type of mechanical stroke that gave rise to the previous cluster, but used the momentum of lifting off the previous cluster like a trampoline. A feeling of lift that I felt in both my arms and in the action of the piano  mechanism pushing upward when a note is released (something we usually don’t attend to consciously).  The chief result was that the next sound,  physically, came out of the previous sound rather than being the result of a   new physical initiation. When I do these clusters, I’m not always moving the two hands towards each other or away from each other, but rather both hands are travelling laterally in one and the same direction at the same  time. I feel that this increases, rather than decreases the tendency of the  ‘lift’ from one of the keys to be the cause of the depression of the next key. This differs from many other cluster exercises I’ve devised where the hands move in opposite directions, towards or sometimes away from each other., so as to be more in keeping with the symmetry of the body.  But these  previous cluster exercises had a somewhat different purpose.

As for my saying I flexed or curved my fingers a little more than I usually do when I am working with a ‘sideways’ hand, it seemed to change the whole feeling of the pinkie fingers on the notes – it increased their mechanical advantage somehow.

I also noticed that when I went back to playing the piece normally, I  continued trying to feel as if the fingers were still flexed in the same plane as before when they were in the practicing stage, as if the hands were still oriented sideways and pinkies-down.  And that changed the natural alignment of my body, in and around the hand. Its effect was not limited to the pinkies but all the fingers. This falls under the rubric of trying to ‘preserve’ state “A” (practice state) into state “B” (performance state).

The most important thing I noticed was that I my playing was more  ‘note to note’ rather than one note and then another note. This increased  my  accuracy and my speed in a most pleasing way. I hope it does so  tomorrow again.

Remember that this process is a circle, in that the effect (the next finger) becomes the cause, via the mechanics of the key’s release, of the sound initiation that follows it. Each sound in general was a reciprocating effect of its own preceding cause. When playing like this I sensed a much greater degree of reciprocity between the two fingers, whichever two fingers, that were now under the moving spotlight of time.

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4 short entries : “tapping”; underarms; always forming a larger ‘whole’.

practice notes 7-10-21


I’m playing from the Well Tempered book one.

I got sparkle, evenness, and consistent sound production (no dropped  notes) by returning to a previous idea about “tapping”.  A tap is one finger  flexing to produce a light but resonant sound on a surface.  These can be one directly onto the key surfaces without causing the piano strings to vibrate.  Although each indivdiual tap is with but one finger, all five fingers go  downwards together by virute of the wrist hinge.


There is a set of musclrs of which often I am unaware but which, when I do become aware of them, gives coherence and brilliance to the sound. These are the muscles within the underarms. The sensations they produce when moving are often lost in the symphony of other movements in the arms and  shoulders, and can be confused with particular the latter.

First we want to isolate the feeling of these muscles moving alone.  Then  when we resume our normal activity playing, they will not be submerged and lost to our consciousness.

Elevate the arms a few inches from the keyboard and every second or two try to bring your attention back to the underarms, until you can feel  muscles in the ‘pit’ of the underarm shrink further into the armpit, while at the same time the adjacent muscles, still within the underarms, try to  tretch the upper arm so that it elongates the upper arm away from shoulder.

If you have difficulty sensing this, try sending the elbows a little bit upwards and to the sides of the body. Allow the upper arms to stretch (elongate) a little bit away from the shoulders, but most importantly let the muscles where te underarm curves inwards to the chest feel like they are trying (if not succeeding – for there will be little action in the arms) to bring to animate and bring to life the entire arm.

If you raise the arms higher, not by a lot, you want to feel that the muscles of the underarms are doing the lifting and not the musdcles in the arm.


A trick to activate the first three fingers when they alone are being used to play a fast group of notes within a local measure.

Tap the five fingers, rapidly, very rapidly, on a resistant surface, a desk or solid horizontal surface on the piano (even the keyboard itself). Tap from finger one to finger five, initially puasing fgor a brief moment on five, and then coming back to one again. Eventually eliminating the pauses, and running the fingers from 1 to 5 to 1 in a repeating non-stop action. The mechanical sounds of the tappings actions should form an even whole, though the sound of each indiviudal tap should be distinct. Like an, allbeit quite, rapid drum roll:  each finger equally timed, no matter how fast you do the exercise, working up until a speed where it finally turns into a pulsating, vibratory blur.

Now see if you can do the same thing on a group of localized notes on the  keyboard, producing at first a hint, a waft of sound, and then increasing the  sound until it has reached a dynamic of piano (or mezzo piano at most).

Even though the passage on which you are focusing does not at that time  involve all five fingers, but onl the first three, we bring those three fingers alive becuase we have completed the “whole” of which is just a part.   Weilding a ‘whole’ is always more secure, reliable, and ‘alive’, than trying  o deal with just a part of a whole. The whole in this case, the hand, remains  balanced within itself, I.E. throughout the five fingers, no one or several  fingers loosing connection all the fingers.


Extending the idea of the ‘whole’ to mean something about time rather than about space.

An example. Every time the wrist makes a vertical motion up or down to assist the production of one or more notes, we can abstract that motion by lifting the hands off the keyboard and shaking the entire arm so as to cause the wrist to vibrate up and down at an extremely fast speed combined together with the lengthiest distance motion up and down.

The “whole” in this case comes less from adding in space (for instance additional notes from the keyboard) but from a consideration of time (tempo).   The idea is that a slower motion can sometimes be energized by a faster motion.

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