Tag: Scales

5 Shorter Blogs on General Technique and Jazz

How to start a run (#1).       Scales can help us execute arpeggios and vice  versa (#2).    Symmetric motions in  the hands (#4)    Jazz improvisation (#4).    A deeper meaning to a group of notes (#5)

#1   How to start a run

It’s the second note that precisely defines the tempo of the run.

How quickly does a listener determine the tempo of a piece.  Not by the first note, but they can judge the tempo by hearing the first two notes.  It is the precise duration from the beginning of the first note to the beginning of the second note that is the clue.  This proves to be important for the pianist when starting a run, a scale, etc., any series of notes that are all share the same rhythmic value.  If we are careful to play the second note at exactly the right moment after the first note, then we know what precise duration to give to each of the notes follow.

#2   Using arpeggios to help play scales, and vice versa.

When I am playing a scale, and it isn’t coming out the way I want, I play instead an arpeggio starting on the tonic note of the scale.

For instance, instead of:    C D E F G A B c

I play                                          C     E     G      c

If at that point, without any time taken off in between, I play the scale again, the scale sounds more evenly and controlled.

The arpeggio in effect seems like a scale that has been sped up.  I just have to fill parenthetically the notes the arpeggio left out.

The reverse situation applies as well.  When I am playing an arpeggio, if it isn’t coming out the way I want, I play stead a scale whose tonic is implied tonic in the arpeggio.

For instance, instead of:     C  E  G  c

I play                                             C D E F G A B c

This slows down the arpeggio because I am filling in the notes between the notes of the arpeggio.  It now takes longer to get from one note of the  arpeggio to the next.  I just have be aware of the notes that I’m leaving.  Especially the interval is more than a third, as well as when I bring over thumb, or come under the thumb.

#3  Mirror motions.  The “target hand” and the “helping hand”

Symmetric motions:

The body is freest and happiest when the two bilateral side of the body (the arms in particular) are moving in opposite directions.  The physical sensation in the arm when moving away from the a central position (I.E. rightwards with the right hand, leftwards with the left hand) is different than the physical sensation in the arm when moving towards a central position (I.E. leftwards with the right hand, rightwards with the left hand).  The body is happier when the two sensations are more alike.  This is one of the reason that scales played in opposite motion in two hands seems easier than the usual practice of both hands moving rightwards, or both hands moving leftwards.

One hand helps the other: the helping hand and the “target” hand

In my playing, if I feeling awkward playing a passage or group of notes in the right hand,  In what follows the right hand is the “target” hand and the left hand is the “helping” hand.  The situation can be reversed if one is having difficulty with a passage in the left hand.

I will take the helping hand and move it in the empty space above the keyboard in a course that is a mirror image of the the directions that the right hand is going.  It goes leftwards when the target hand goes rightwards, It goes rightwards when the target hand goes leftwards.  As i said, the helping hand traces in empty space, just above the keyboard, the mirror motion of the target hand.

After doing this for a brief time, I go back to having the helping hand play the notes indicated for it in the score.  The helping hand can retain the sensations of trying to mirror the target hand even though it is restrained from doing it fully by the notes it has to play that are in the score.  But that doesn’t stop it from “trying” to start making such motions to mirror the other.  Muscles can contract as if attempting a motion in one direction even if the hand at the same time busy playing notes that go in a different direction.

#4.  Jazz improvisation

Not stopping the flow of notes every once in a while simply because you are not sure where to go to next.

During one year I had a jazz pianist come for lessons.  He thought he would gain some additional perspectives on jazz by working with a classically trained teacher.

At first I showed stuff about classical music.  It went OK.  However, then I decided that it would be more interesting to work with him while he was improvising.  My absence of technical knowledge in jazz would not prevent me from evaluating his improvisation on more general musical grounds such as sound, musicality, and motion.

I asked him to improvise for me on a standard tune.  What I noticed was that when he would begin to play a series of rapid notes, after a certain number of notes went by he paused, but then went on.  The pause to me always sounded artificial: not done for a musical reasons.  I was curious to determine whether the pause was for stylistic reasons or occurred because his fingers were momentarily ‘stumped’ as to what to do next.  It turned out to be the latter.  Ideally he would have preferred continuing the series of notes in the improvisation.

I invented a curious exercise, one that is good for classical as well as jazz pianists.    I had him wiggle his fingers rapidly in the air and simply do so without stopping.  That set up the notion that the note-stream does not ever need to stop.  The next step was to bring that finger motion to the keyboard and to play random notes.  The notes need not have any musical significance.  It was purely for him to get used to the idea that it was technically possible to generate an indefinite series of notes.  In the last stage he applied that technique to improvising on a standard melody and, every time he was on the verge of stopping because he hadn’t yet figured out the following notes, he was to use stage two and to continue playing notes they were random notes.  This opened up for him the possibility of creating a stream of fast notes at any speed, one that would last as long as he chose.

#5. A deeper meaning to a group of notes.

Sometimes it is not enough for me to play through a group of notes, just once, a part of a theme or a motive.  It is as if I am taking a cursory swipe at what I think is contained in those notes: looking especially for something that is consistent with all the notes around it.  But with repeated swipes I begin to unmask what is really going on in that group of notes.  And that something is often easily glossed-over by me to make it seem like it is just another neutral, undifferentiated part of the whole nexus of notes of which it is a part.

By the second or third time I repeat the target group of notes (usually anywhere from 2 – 8 notes), I begin to see that it has a life of its own, one that is easily submerged in the general flow of the measure.  Would I be encouraging anarchy on the part of those notes to give special care to bring out its authentic properties independently of what the rest of the surrounding passage is trying to state musically.

The answer I find is usually that bringing out the individuality of a group of notes, based on its shape, rhythm and harmonic implications, only adds, and does not detract, from the general flow of the piece; that it enriches meaning in the passage and not goes off on a tangent.

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Playing in Extreme Speed

Play a passage slowly, then play it in extreme speed, and you will notice that the motions the body makes have changed.  Faced with speed, the body abandons the muscular coordination that worked in the slower tempo. Suddenly, almost instinctively, the body invokes or brings into play other group of muscles that it didn’t previously use.

To discover these alternative motions for speed, it is rarely of use to start practicing the passage slowly and gradually increase speed.  The body gives us little prior indication of what it will do in speed when we are playing more slowly.


The origin of an arpeggio, from the point of view of time, is a simultaneous chord and not a sped-up melody.

How to “riffle” through a chord:

Example: to play C E G at extreme speed.  First, play it as a simultaneous chord (C-E-G).  As before, after playing the chord several times, “tilt” things a little so that the chord, in spite of the pianist’s “best intentions,” (sic) comes out slightly skewed: for instance, with the C first sounding just ahead of the E which in turn sounds just ahead of the G.  A slight change of inclination will cause the sounds to come out in the order G E C, or, E C G, or E G C.  Regardless of the order in which the notes sound, the important thing is for the pianist to feel that she is playing a (simultaneous) triad.  If one holds each note into the others, the result, a moment after the last note begins sounding, is the same simultaneous sounding chord.

The result of this procedure is an arpeggiation that is at an extreme speed, a speed beyond any one that could be obtained by trying intentionally to play the notes sequentially.


The origin of a scale, from the point of view of time, is a simultaneously sounding diatonic cluster and not a sped-up group of single notes.

How to riffle through a cluster:

Example: to play C D E F G at extreme speed (using all five fingers).  First play it as a simultaneous cluster (C-D-E-F-G).  After doing this once or twice, try it one more time but this time a little more haphazardly so that the notes come out in a quick sequence.  The intent is still to play the cluster simultaneously, except one “misses” by a fraction of a second, so that the notes in rapid succession.  If one holds each note into the others, the result, a moment after the last note begins sounding, is the same simultaneous sounding cluster.

The intent remains to play the notes simultaneously.  Even though the result is sequential the hand retains the feeling of playing the notes simultaneously.  The result of this procedure is a scale in an extreme speed, a speed beyond any that could be obtained by trying intentionally to play the notes sequentially. By being this ‘sloppy’ in articulating the cluster, the result is a scale, but one that is so quick that it cannot be matched by moving the separate fingers.

Moral of the story:

Speed is better attained by starting even faster and slowing down than starting slower and speeding up.  There is a speed-barrier which resists being approached from the slower side, but offers little resistance to being approached by the fast side.  One simply jumps over the barrier.

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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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Originally published on Facebook on 2.21.16

The principle at work here is that of creating in our body the replication of a sensation that it previously experienced.

First, the hand has to experience the sensation of a very smooth and effortless transition when putting the thumb under within a scale. This is done by using the other hand in such a way as to literally and physically push the thumb gradually under the 2nd, 3rd (4th) fingers. It does not matter if this is done off the keyboard or while sounding notes.

The other hand functions as a ‘helping’ or ‘driving’ hand. It is performing the role of an “external” force that appears out of someplace in space, and does something ‘to’ us. Pushes and molds the hand so that, without much initiative on its own, the hand playing the scale makes all the necessary motions for a smooth scale. This includes motions that it wouldn’t think of doing on its own, or which it thinks the hand cannot do on its own.

It makes no difference if we are using our other hand or a second person does it to us. It is ‘happening’ to our thumb. Now we know what it feels like in our hand and thumb when it happens.

Once we have felt it internally in the hand we can ‘recall’ that feeling whenever we play a scale. And our hand now acts in a way that it undergoes all the same physical and aesthetic (felt) details of as when the external force was literally present in time. If the ‘hand’ forgets, we can always reawaken the memory of the sensation by literally applying the external force again.

The principle here is the same one at work when watching a dance. Let’s hear it for the ‘mirror neurons’. By following this procedure the ‘problem’ of passing the thumb under the third or fourth finger disappears or becomes trivial. I’m glad of this because I am among those pianists who have short thumbs and who don’t have usefully shaped hands for playing the piano.

P.S. This basic principle works just as well for passing the 3rd or 4th finger over the thumb. The ‘helping’ hand will need to pull whether than push.

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