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Blog for 5 January 2009

Fundamentals of Piano Technique: Part 1

Every pianist needs to possess excellent technique. By “technique,” we principally mean finger strength, finger independence, and tonal control such that the pianist is able to play with accuracy, facility, and musicality. Good technique is like money in the bank. To paraphrase the great pianist Jozef Hofmann, a pianist without technique is like a starving and penniless man in a restaurant. He wants to eat the delicious food he sees on the menu, but he has no money to pay for it. Many would-be piano players love music and want to play their favorite pieces, but because they are bereft of technique, they will never be able to attain their goals.

Many people ask me for the “secret” to acquiring good technique. Unfortunately, there is no “secret.” Technique can only be attained through hard work. Sorry.

Every professional pianist also needs to be able to improvise. Again, I am frequently asked for the “secret” to improvisation. In fact, I have often been hired by other musicians to teach them how to improvise. They invariably hope that, in one easy lesson, I can impart to them the great secret that has somehow eluded them. Almost always, they are deeply disappointed when I inform them of the hard fact that the ability to improvise is the result of hard work, discipline, diligence, and determination. It seems that no one wants to be told that the key to improvisation is a thorough grounding in, intimate familiarity with, and capability to execute flawlessly all scales, arpeggios, and chords in all inversions. Far too many would-be jazz, ragtime, and popular pianists turned away from classical piano lessons because they vainly and wrongly assumed that jazz and ragtime would provide a refuge from the hard work of learning scales and arpeggios.

All pianists, regardless of the genre of music they play, must know and will benefit greatly from knowing all scales and arpeggios. More so than classical pianists who generally just stick to the printed note, jazz and ragtime pianists have an even greater need to know scales and arpeggios, for without these elements of technique, successful and clever improvisation is impossible.

The good news, however, is that both technique and improvisational ability are within the grasp of almost anyone. Furthermore, they can be acquired simultaneously through the same means: daily practice of scales and arpeggios in all keys.

A few points that the pianist should always bear in mind while practicing

Let me stress that the metronome is the pianist’s best friend. Every pianist -- especially a ragtime pianist -- needs to have perfect rhythm. An easy way to acquire perfect rhythm is to use the metronome not only when practicing pieces, but also when practicing technique. The metronome, therefore, should always be used for every technical exercise. Speed is never the goal. Slow practice means fast progress. For scales, I recommend a setting no higher than 96, that is, four consecutive notes for every beat of the metronome. For arpeggios, again, no more than 96 (three consecutive notes per beat for the major and minor arpeggios and four consecutive notes for dominant seventh, diminished seventh, and major sixth arpeggios) is more than sufficient.

The pianist should make every effort to avoid twisting the hand at the wrist. Training the thumb to cross under the palm without twisting the wrist is crucially important.

Practicing scales and arpeggios slowly will enable the disciplined pianist to monitor and to correct finger and hand position. For instance, the hand should be gently curved as if one were grasping a golf ball in the palm. The fingers should be curved in order to maximize the strength of the attack. The key should be touched with the fleshy pad just behind the nail. The fingernail should never touch the key. The first joint of the finger should always be curved. There are few things more detrimental to tonal control, speed, and accuracy than having the first joint bent backward. It is akin to trying to walk on the sides of your feet rather than on the soles of the feet.

As for fingering, there are certain basic principles that will determine the correct fingering. In the major and minor arpeggios, only use the first, second, fourth, and fifth fingers. Using the fourth finger may at times be more awkward than using the third finger, but will result in a stronger fourth finger. Jozef Hoffman was once asked how to strengthen the fourth finger. His answer was simply: "Use it!" Fingering major and minor arpeggios this way will force the pianist to "use it."

When playings arpeggios, the thumb is never used on a sharp key (black key) with the sole exception of the Gb major and Eb minor arpeggios, where the absence of naturals (white keys) in the triad necessitates the use of the thumb on a sharp key. Indeed, arpeggios consisting entirely of black notes (Gb major, Eb minor, and Gb major sixth), are fingered exactly as if they consisted entirely of white keys.

For dominant seventh, diminished seventh, and major sixth arpeggios, the fingering of the right hand never seems to be a problem, but the fourth finger of the left hand is frequently cheated of good exercise when "easier" fingerings are adopted. My rule for the fingering of the left hand is this: If the inversion begins with a white key, start with the fifth finger unless doing so would cause the thumb to play a black note (a "no no"), in which case, start with the fourth finger. If that, however, causes the thumb to play a black note, begin with the third finger, and so forth. Additionally, if the inversion begins with a black note, always start with the forth finger unless doing so would cause the thumb to play a black note. If this is the case, then begin with the third finger, etc. I think you get the formula by now.

Also, when playing octaves, remember that the fifth finger should never play a sharp (a black key). All sharps are played with the fourth fingers instead. The skillful alternation between the fourth and fifth fingers enables one to play double octave scales and arpeggios with legato and with increased speed.

Basic Daily Routine

I recommend the following basic daily practice routine for all pianist wishing to acquire good technique and wishing to learn how to improvise. The routine below is to considered the bare minimum. It is merely what every serious pianist should know and be able to execute flawlessly. It is the starting point rather than the totality of the pianist's daily pratice routine. Many very valuable points of technique and technical exercises can and should be added to the basic daily routine.

Scales an octave apart

  • All 12 major scales: four octaves up and down the keyboard.
  • All 12 harmonic minor scales: four octaves up and down the keyboard.
  • All 12 melodic minor scales: four octaves up and down the keyboard.
  • The chromatic scale: four octaves up and down the keyboard.

Arpeggios

  • All major arpeggios based on the major triad in all inversions in all 12 keys, four octaves up and down the keyboard
  • All minor arpeggios based on the minor triad in all inversions in all 12 keys, four octaves up and down the keyboard
  • All dominant 7th arpeggios based on the dominant 7th tetrad in all inversions in all 12 keys, four octaves up and down the keyboard
  • All major 6th arpeggios based on the major 6th tetrad in all inversions in all 12 keys, four octaves up and down the keyboard
  • All minor 6th arpeggios based on the minor 6th tetrad in all inversions in all 12 keys, four octaves up and down the keyboard
  • All three diminished 7th arpeggios based on the diminished 7th tetrad in all inversions, four octaves up and down the keyboard

Double Octaves

  • All 12 major scales in double octaves: three octaves up and down the keyboard
  • All 12 harmonic minor scales in double octaves: three octaves up and down the keyboard
  • All 12 melodic minor scales in double octaves: three octaves up and down the keyboard
  • The chromatic scale: four octaves up and down the keyboard.
  • All 12 major arpeggios based on the major triad in all inversions in every key, three octaves up and down the keyboard in double octaves
  • All 12 minor arpeggios based on the minor triad in all inversions in every key, three octaves up and down the keyboard in double octaves
  • All 12 dominant 7th arpeggios based on the dominant 7th tetrad in all inversions in every key, three octaves up and down the keyboard in double octaves
  • All 3 diminished 7th arpeggios based on the diminished 7th tetrad in all inversions, three octaves up and down the keyboard in double octaves

Scales with hands a tenth, a sixth, and a third apart

  • All 12 major scales: four octaves up and down the keyboard.
  • All 12 harmonic minor scales: four octaves up and down the keyboard.
  • All 12 melodic minor scales: four octaves up and down the keyboard.

Additionally, I highly recommend the following:

Scales in double thirds

  • All 12 major scales: four octaves up and down the keyboard.
  • All 12 harmonic minor scales: four octaves up and down the keyboard.
  • All 12 melodic minor scales: four octaves up and down the keyboard.
  • Chromatic scale in double major thirds: up and down the entire keyboard.
  • Chromatic scale in double minor thirds: up and down the entire keyboard.

Not every ragtime pianist will see the need to learn all scales in double thirds, but from my own experience, they open up a whole world of harmonically satisfying improvisation possibilities.

Yes, they are hard and take a long time to learn and perfect, but the results more than justify the hard work.

This then is the very minimum that every pianist should do every single day. This entire routine should take about an hour and a half once all scales and arpeggios  have been mastered.

Additional Exercises

Once the daily routine has been completed, any pianist serious about improving his technique should devote at least one additional hour every day to doing some, all, or a combination of the exercises in the following books:

  • Exercises for the Independence of the Fingers by Isidor Philipp, Part I.
  • The Little Pischna. Josef Pischna
  • Technical Studies: Sixty Progressive Exercises for the Piano. Josef Pischna.
  • Technical Studies for Piano. Three Volumes. Franz Liszt

The most valuable parts of Philipp’s book are the first five “series” in Part I of the first volume (“part”) of his book.
Philipp

Every exercise in The Little Pischna should be mastered before proceeding to Pischna’s larger work, Technical Studies: Sixty Progressive Exercises for the Piano. Anyone who masters Pischna will be well prepared to tackle even the most challenging of classical piano solos. Pischna is fantastic for building up the strength of the fourth and fifth fingers. Pischna also devised some wonderfully clever exercises that train the thumb to cross under the palm with greater ease and grace.
Little Pischna

Pischna

All three volumes of the Liszt Technical Studies are filled with wonderfully useful exercises. These volumes are very expensive, but worth every penny. After all, a couple hundred dollars is really a small sum to trade for the ability to play as well as Franz Liszt.

Liszt Technical Studies 

The best books for scales and arpeggios are:

Scale and Arpeggio Manual. by Walter Macfarren. G. Schirmer.
MacFarren
This wonderful book is indespensible. This book contains everything the pianist needs for his basic daily routine. In addition, it contains lots of useful things such as the chromatic scale in double major thirds, the chromatic scale in double minor thirds, double octaves, and scales in contrary motion.

The Manual of Scales, Broken Chords and Arpeggios for Piano. The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

 Manual of Scales, Broken
                        Chords, and Arpeggios

Use this book to obtain the best fingering for scales, especially the fingering for double thirds. Many different fingers have been devised for double thirds, but I strongly approve of the fingering provided in this book.


I am frequently asked about the value of Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises. I think that it is an excellent book, especially for beginning and intermediate piano students. Book Three of Hanon’s opus is exceedingly useful. Nevertheless, for the advanced pianist, Hanon should be used as a supplement rather than substitute for any of the exercises listed above. Also, in my view, Hanon’s book would be more useful if each of the first 38 exercises had been transposed into all 12 keys.

Hanon 

There are many other great books of technical exercises. Johannes Brahms, for instance, published a useful volume. Rafael Joseffy, Carl Tausig, and Alfred Cortot published very interesting and valuable volumes as well. Should I come across a book of technical exercises as wonderful as Philipp, Pischna, and Liszt, I will be sure to list it here. Nevertheless, what I have listed here is more than sufficient to build a world-class technique that will sustain the pianist for a lifetime.

Frederick Hodges

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Frederick Hodges