Tag: Practice Techniques

Arpeggios: a musical state that lies somewhere between melody and chord

Consider on the one hand playing the notes of a melody in a slow, leisurely fashion and, on the other hand, sounding all the notes of the same melody simultaneously, mush-ing the melody into a single chord or cluster.   In between these two extremes there are many intermediary possibilities, each one blending insensibly into the next, and forming thereby a continuous spectrum.

At one end of this spectrum, the notes of a melody go by so fast that, like a rapidly arpeggiated chord with the pedal held down, the effect barely departs from that of a simultaneous chord.  The previous sounds spontaneously congeal behind the most recent sound to start, like the ice trail of a jet airliner.  At the other end of the spectrum, the melody slows down so much, that each of its notes sound for so long that we lose even the awareness that we are in a melody.*  We lose track of the current note’s relation with the previous one, and we cease to anticipate that another note might show up after the current.**  In other words, we are locked in the frozen presence of the current note.  This would be like observing a glacier in order to detect its movement.

If I were looking for a position on this spectrum that best combined the qualities of these two ends, I might choose a fluid, somewhat rapid arpeggio.   My choice is based on the fact that an arpeggio is already suggestive of the single phenomenon of a chord, but still retains the order of the single pitches.

One of my favorite practice techniques is to disregard the actual rhythm of the written notes, and convert the pitches into an arpeggio of notes of equal duration, undulating up and down on the keyboard, extending the arpeggio upwards and  downwards past the written notes and into adjacent octaves as suits my fancy.

* The music of Morton Feldman from the 1960s to me seems to gravitate towards the end of the spectrum where a single note of the melody lasts for an unusually long time. Here is an example in his piece ‘Last Pieces’

** At both extremes things become as it were frozen.  Either the melody loses its implied order of notes inside a frozen chord, or all we are conscious of in the melody is the one frozen note sounding currently.

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Smooth scales

Is there a motion, that lies entirely in the hand, which transcends the particular order in which the fingers articulate the notes of a scale?

Every time we play a scale, sooner rather than later, we come up against the physical limitation of there being only five fingers in the hand.  Either a thumb will have to cross under some other fingers, or a finger other than the thumb has to cross over the thumb.

We spend a lot practice time trying to iron out these periodic wrinkles in the flow of the sound of a scale.  What would be nice, short of growing extra fingers, is a tangible model for focusing the flow of energy in the hand so that nothing can interrupt its horizontal course.

Fortunately the body is constructed so that the small motions of the fingers can be absorbed or subsumed within the larger motions of the hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder, and back.

Here is a rather enjoyable procedure for creating that sense of ongoing motion that transcends the particularities of which finger is being used after which other finger.

Rolling a ball along the keyboard:

Cup a ball in either hand and roll it left and right along the keyboard.  See if the ball can cause glissando like sounds to occur as the hand moves.  The motion of the ball will proceed most smoothly if, periodically, you relax the grip of the hand on the ball so that, as much of the time as possible, the ball is actually rotating while it is moving horizontally along the keys.  The result should approximate that of a ball rolling down a hill with no force but gravity causing the work.

It’s a lesson for the body:

Let the body be “instructed” by the feeling that results, learning that it is possible to move left and right in a scale without any resistance; without encountering places in the scale where the notes don’t connect as smoothly as in other places.

The feeling of the ball rolling over the keys is easily internalized; until the ball itself becomes an unnecessary prop.

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The largest possible ambit of motion

The muscular movements used in piano playing, in particular of the fingers which are at the extremities of the body, tend to be limited in scope and range.  However there is an advantage to exploring the full range of motion that is possible with every joint – be it a knuckle, a wrist, an elbow, a shoulder, or the body as a whole.

For purposes of illustration, consider the example of the third knuckle of the second finger.  We can ask what sort of mobility is available to this finger when the motion of the finger stems just from the flexibility in the third knuckle, unaided in any special way by the other two knuckles.

We find that flexing at the third knuckle allows the finger:

1) to move vertically up and down, and

2) to move horizontally, (touching the third finger on one side and reaching in the direction of the thumb on the other side).

What are the limits to these two motions?  Can these limit be exceeded through hyper extending?

What if we combine the linear movements of the finger up and down and side to side, and try to move the tip of the finger around in a circle?

We have no difficulty describing a true circle.  A little exploration though shows us that at some points along the circumference of the circle, the body allows the radius of the circle to increase, though at other points in the circle the body will only tolerate a smaller radius to the circle.  If, at each point around the circle, we move the finger to the maximum possible distension from the implied center of the circle, the result is a rather erratic looking circle, one whose perimeter bulges and contracts.

Another way to envision this same motion is in three dimensions.  The length of the finger sweeps out a three dimensional volume.  Instead of a wobbly circle, we get a wobbly cone.

Is it worth exploring the full mobility of a joint when we rarely use it in practice at the piano?

Before using it to play a note, the finger will be at rest relative to the rest of the hand.   However, there is a difference in feeling between a finger at rest which is “ignorant” of all its possible motions, and a finger, even while at rest, that feels within it, immanently, all the motions and directions in which it can move.

There is an advantage for the finger to know its full potentiality of motion.   If the finger at rest holds its position stiffly, there is little potential of action.  If the finger at rest is ready to move in any and all possible directions and degrees, it will respond with the greatest alacrity and control when playing.

We want to cultivate a state of the a finger that, though not at the moment moving, feels that the most vagrant breeze could set it into motion.  Just a breeze; just a thought, just a whim, is sufficient to set the finger into motion when, because there is no inertia to overcome before it starts moving.  We want as little resistance to motion in any direction.

Though the limit of the range of the finger’s ambit, when it comes time to play, may not be fulfilled, it will retain the feeling of the momentum of the entire potential of movement.  This will be a more confident, well directed and energetic finger.

Generalizing to all parts of the body:

What we have said here about the second finger, and its third knuckle, can be applied to every articulation point in the playing mechanism, (including rotational motions*).

Regardless of the part of the body, if it can move, we should actively explore every plane of motion of which is capable, every plane in all three dimensions and to every permittable degree. This is a healthy body part, ready to move, who knows how far, at the bidding of least, vagrant stirring of a breeze of intent.

A genus is more robust than a species:

Every time we flex the finger the same way, we are digging a deeper ditch into which the finger is constrained to move (like a slave only allowed to move only in one direction and to an extent).  However, the finger which is no longer being coerced into a single type of motion and can move in all ways, when the moment comes to play a note, will have the freedom to make one choice among many.  One choice is a compulsion, two choices is a dilemma.**  Three or more is robust and free.

It is like the difference between knowing just one species in a genus, and knowing the full ramifications of the genus to which it belongs.  If you know just the species then you have a limited idea of the underlying whole, the whole that is here expressing itself in some individual way.  Connecting the species to the genus gives a richer, informed, and liberated identity to the species in question.

At the piano, all motions should be possible at the next instant in time.

* yes, even a finger by itself can rotate slightly around its longitudinal axis.

**thanks to my friend Roy for this interpretation

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  1. Joe,
    I love this post because it reminds us of the nuances that can make big differences. In thinking about freedom in the finger joints, one could also tune in to the freedom in the corresponding elbow, shoulder joints, and even the jaw. Maximum freedom in the finger is related to maximum freedom in the rest of the body. It’s difficult to move your finger freely if your breath is held or your jaw is clenched.

“Anchor” fingers

Maintaining equilibrium in the hand.

Any finger of a hand can act as an anchor to stabilize the motion of any other finger in the same hand.

Example: a C Major scale upwards in the right hand.

When I’m on the E with my third finger, I let the third finger “take root” on the keyboard, anchor-like, so the muscles in that finger, and in it alone, can act to raise the thumb, move it to the right, and then lower it down back onto the F.  By doing so I never lose, even for a split second, the balance and equilibrium in the hand.

Example: a C Major arpeggio downwards in the right hand.

When I’m on the C with my thumb, I let the thumb “take root” on the keyboard, anchor-like, and use the muscles in that finger alone to lift up the entire hand (like the arms doing a ‘push up’), draw the third finger over it, and place the third finger on the G.  Once again the advantage in this procedure is that there is not a moment during the passing over of the third finger that throws my hand out of equilibrium.

I am not advocating using this anchoring system in every chord or arpeggio, only when the stability of the hand needs to be maintained throughout the course of a sudden gesture.


In principle, every time we use one finger and then another, there is the potential, if we so choose, to use the first of the fingers to anchor the motion of the next finger until it is on its note.  This next finger, once it has settled down on its note, can in turn become an anchor for the next finger to play.  And so on.


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The hand can act like a bouncing ball

Release a rubber ball so it falls to the ground.  It does not remain on the ground but bounces back up and then repeats the same cycle over again a number of times until it is finally still. If we treat our hand as if it were imitating a bouncing ball, then the impetus we need to repeat a note a second (third, fourth…) time originates from what we did to play the first note: no additional energy is required.

The use of this effect isn’t limited to repeating the same note, it can apply to any series of notes or chords of equal duration.  Our physical intent can be limited to playing the first of the series, and simply allow the others to happen.

If the arm is in motion horizontally at the same time that the hand is bouncing, then the effect is like skipping stones at a lake.  The stone makes contact with the water (keyboard) then leaves the keyboard to make contact again, further in the same direction.  The only intentional motion required is the one initiating the process, the rest happens as if on its own.

The most useful way to apply this at the piano is to do it simultaneously in both arms, in a motion that begins near the extremes of the keyboard and works its way inwards towards the center of the keyboard.*  This puts the two sides of the body into symmetric harmony with each other, one side aiding and advancing the progress of the other.

* in some cases there is enough momentum left for the hands actually to cross each other.


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