Handling wide chords or arpeggios (especially if the pianist has a small hand)
January 9, 2019
The opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto
The following can be considered a universal procedure, utilizable whenever one hand plays any number of notes simultaneously or is negotiating a widely spread out arpeggio.
It bypasses certain difficulties that result from stretching and straining the hand. If a chord, it avoids the tension in the hand that results from having the fingers cover all the notes of an upcoming chord before sounding those notes.
It is a basic tenet of my approach to piano playing that simultaneous and sequential are not firmly opposed features of time. They can cross-fertilize each other, blend one into the other in an ongoing, continuous, fluid action.
In keeping with that tenet, I feel the best way to play any chord that either has wide spans between its notes or contains more than just a couple of notes, is to ’tilt’ the arrow of time and turn the chord into a melody. – subjectively.
Even when the listener hears all the notes of a chord start simultaneously, it does not mean that the pianist may not feel the chord, subjectively, as being the separate notes of an implied arpeggio, based on a gentle, and continuous valve-like opening and closing of the hand.
We will use this chord as our example: C2-G2-C3-E3 –C4 G4 E5
The left pinkie plays c2. As it does this, the hand is in a neutral, closed and comfortable position. There should be no anticipation in the hand of the, let us say the third, finger intending to play the g2. Rather the hand gradually opens up until the fingers are spaced so that the third finger is on the g2. This opening up of the hand should be experienced as begin very gradual and fluid, and not a sudden faction.
Although the final result of this process when completed will sound like the notes have all started simultaneously (or nearly simultaneously – like a very rapid arpeggio) all the motions that are described here are felt subjectively by consciousness and experienced by the body as occurring over a prolonged duration, and flowing one into the other, without anything sudden happening. One “step” flows insensitively into the next.
The energy in the hand shifts from the pinkie to the third finger and the g2 is sounded.
What happens next, though seemingly a redundant part of the process, is perhaps the most important, and the one most apt to be skipped over. The hand, currently in a relatively more open position now closes again and relaxes. The hand will now seem similar to how it appeared in step one when the c2 was first sounded with the pinkie. The only difference is that the third finger is found to be resting on the g2 and the pinkie no longer resting on the c2.
Step one and two is now repeated, starting with the third finger sounding the g2 and the second finger sounding the c3. The hand is found to be in a closed position, the second finger resting neutrally near the third finger. The hand then dilates open again, the spaces between adjacent fingers growing, until the second finger finds itself comfortably on the c3.
And so on, setting up a continuous fluxion of opening and closing (or closing and opening) the hand occurs, setting up a pulsation in the hand the expanding and contracting hand that supervenes upon the action of playing the single notes, one then another, and facilitates with ease the overall motion from the bottom note to the top note of the chord.
Though the focus of the dilation is between the two fingers playing the current and the next note, it is the hand as a whole that feels like it is opening. If there was an overhead camera aimed downwards at the hand, and if it tracks rightwards at a rate that keeps it vertically in tandem with the successive notes on the keyboard, then the rightwards motion of the hand will seem to disappear and all we would see is the rhythmic expansion and contraction of the fingers of the hand that otherwise remains still. This is a good way of experiencing the process, de-emphasizing traveling rightwards and emphasizing growth and contraction of the hand.
In the middle of the process, the left thumb will yield its note to the right thumb so that the series of pitches is completed with the right hand. At this midpoint, it is the space between the two thumbs that is felt to grow, as if one hand had momentarily merged with the other and it is this ‘composite’ entity, of two hands, that expands relative to itself.
When the top note of the chord is reached, and the hand has re-relaxed, or re-closed around the finger playing the top note in the chord. There should be no sort of gesture, flourish or final gesture, the hand simply finds itself at rest again as it was, or should have been, before playing the lowest note.
The entire process is gradual: as if the various fronds of a sea plant separate and come back together, not under their own initiative, but as the passive result of the motion or current of the water passing between them.
By way of a reminder: the pace of the hand when it opens or when it closes is ‘gradual’, almost at what subjectively feels like a snail’s place. No sudden or rapid motion to ‘get’ the next finger to its note. We feel like we have all the time in the world: in direct contrast to the rapidity with which this technique allows up to arpeggiate through the chord. It is a continuous, fluid wave or slow vibration, like watching a slinky toy, that moves through one hand and then continues into the other.
It is the ease of this process, physically, that is the most striking thing about it. There is no special thing to be done for one chord versus another, or with one finger versus another. Nothing different occurs when adjacent notes of the chords lye closer to each other on the keyboard or further apart.* It is always about the same gentle opening of the hand, without resistance or tension from one note (or finger) to the next.
Playing a chord is no more difficult or different than playing harmonic intervals from one note to the next. It is the re-relaxation, the re-closure of the hand upon reaching the upper note of each ‘interval’ within the chord, that ensures that the opening up to the next note is just as relaxed, confident, and gentle as for reaching the previous note. It is a simple, gentle, confident, pulsating, vibration or rhythm in the hand as a whole.
A general objection to this entire process would be to say that
Rachmaninoff hoped that the pianist’s hands were wide enough to play the chords at the opening of the concerto so that all the notes of each chord begin simultaneously. It simply doesn’t matter. What is possible can be done, what is not possible needs to turned into something as close as possible to it that is doable, and in a way that doesn’t detract, but even adds, to the effect of sounds as they join together in each chord. The proof that the procedure, though perhaps counterintuitive in nature, is working, is the glowing sound that results from the piano.
Here is a condensed exercise that demonstrates in a more systematically arranged way the idea of the varying apertures in between the fingers.
We will use the right hand as an example. Play the following sequences of five notes. In each case use the fingers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
c cs d ds e (mutual distance between succeeding notes is one half step)
now dilate the apertures between the fingers and play the sequence:
c d e fs gs (the notes are now spaced by two half steps)
again, dilate the apertures between the fingers and play:
c ef gf a c (notes are spaced by three half steps).
c e gs c e (four half steps between notes)
Before going on notes separated by fourths, tritones and fifths, consider the possibility that the two adjacent fingers that are next to be used cannot physically separate as far from each other as the previous two fingers. All that is necessary to do in such a case is to gradually separate the finger to the right from the finger currently on the left until the latter can no longer remain on the lower note without causing strain, stretching and stress in the finger muscles. At that instant, very gently, the finger on the lower note simply floats off that note, which allows the next finger in turn to float onto its next note.
Bearing this in mind, then by maintaining constant ease and comfort, do any of the following:
c f bf ef af (5 half steps at a time)
c fs c fs c (6 half steps at a time)
c g d a e (7 half steps at a time)
In principle you can go on doing this the same way regardless of how many half steps separate the current note from the next note.**
The overall sensation in all these cases is one of a pleasant massage being given to the hand by the keyboard. The principle is invariable and ubiquitously applicable.
* Even if the notes in the chord are very close together, there is an advantage to letting the hand expand to the right beyond the point which places the next finger on the next note, and at that point, instead of after playing the next note, let the hand contract again around the new note. If, for example I am playing c4 then d4 with the right hand, with fingers 1 and 2, I keep the hand closed and relaxed while playing the c, then gradually let the hand breathe open until the second finger is any number of half steps above d4, and the allow the hand to reclose, which action results in the 2nd finger very effortlessly (with even less effort than if the 2nd finger started out next to the d4) playing the d4.
** A fun example along these lines is to play:
c d e f g with the fingers 1 2 3 4 5
but play each next note one octave plus one step higher than the previous one. There is no question of it being doable by stretching the fingers apart from each other. So why bother reaching apart at all. Simply ‘transport’ the hand – as a whole – to the next octave range on the keyboard in order to continue your “major scale”. Sometimes I will tell the student that their hand does not move at all while playing these notes, but rather some unseen force, behind the scenes, a helpful genie, slides the entire piano and its keyboard underneath the hand, leftwards by an octave, between when one finger is playing and the next finger is playing. That way the next finger finds itself mysteriously in the next octave higher. There is no difference then physically or subjectively between playing c3 d3 e3 f3 g3 and playing c3 d4 e5 f6 g7.