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Practising Chords (Part Three): The Difficult Chord

I am sure we can all identify a particular chord in a piece that causes us to stumble or fumble (and, under our breath, mumble). This could be because the chord is an awkward or unfamiliar shape for the hand, or because the way the chord is spelled is hard to read. We end up needing more thinking and preparing time than the music allows. The solution is to get it into the head as well as into the hand.

The first thing to do is to analyse the chord, either theoretically or in simpler terms such as its shape, intervallic structure and patterns of black and white keys.

Here is an isolated chord from Robert Muczynski’s highly effective Toccata, op. 15:

There are two obvious ways of seeing this chord. Mentally changing the D flat in the LH to a C sharp, you can understand the shape as an augmented chord of A with two extra notes – a B flat in the LH and an E in the RH. Notice that the extra notes form a minor second, or a semitone with their neighbours. Alternatively, you can see it bitonally, as a chord of A major with an added minor sixth on top of a triad of B flat minor constructed on a bass A.

Having understood the chord in whichever way is meaningful to you, here are some suggestions for practice:

  • Play the three A’s, then fill in the rest of the chord
  • Play the semitones (the A/B flat [LH] together with the E/F [RH]) then fill in the rest of the chord
  • Play the LH B flat and the RH E then drop in the A augmented (and vice versa)
  • Play the white notes first, then (holding them down) add the black notes. Do this the other way round
  • Explore the tapping exercises I described in the last post on Rachmaninov
  • Remove the hands to the lap and visualise the chord. On command, go to the chord as directly as possible
  • Play the chord an octave lower than written, and then an octave higher, finally in the style of the Tchaikovsky concerto (low octave, written octave, high octave)

You will have gathered that I like to see a chord as a five-a-side team event rather than a fused cluster. Taking another example from the Muczynski Toccata, the very end, we see a journey from three low E flats to a ten-note chord higher up:

Following on from the previous example, we can practise using the E flats as a springboard and landing on selected components of the large chord. We are going to turn this into a three-event process: the E flats, our selection of notes from the chord, and (while holding down the selection), play the remaining notes. Change the selection each time, and exhaust all the possibilities. Involve the mind as much as possible. Thus, if your selection is the black notes in the chord, label it as a chord of G flat major.

I would like to end by demonstrating an extremely useful exercise for a difficult chord, which will make something initially awkward and uncomfortable fit like a glove! Holding all the notes of the chord down (without pressing), start from any finger you choose. Lift that finger up and take it for a walk. Move chromatically up and down as far in both directions as is comfortable. It is fine to move under or over other fingers, and to touch the keys being held by other fingers. It is also fine to play in the crack between the keys, it’s the stretch that counts more than the actual notes. Remember that stretches are good, contortions aren’t! Do this with each finger in turn, shake out the hand and see how easy the chord now feels when you go back to it.

 

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Transposing the Difficult Spot – Practising the Piano

Vocal accompanists and repetiteurs need to develop the skills to transpose virtually at sight in order to accommodate the different voice types and the vocal ranges of the singers they work with, but transposition is also a valuable practice tool for the solo pianist. We can use transposition to build and test the aural and analytic memory for those pieces we need to memorise, and we can also use it for refining motor control and coordination in difficult passages. I explore both these areas thoroughly in Chapter 7 from Volume 3 of my ebook series, but I wanted to give an example of the benefits of transposing from a lesson I gave this week on Bach’s Italian Concerto.

Having taught this piece dozens of times over the years, it comes as no surprise that I might have to help a student with the following bars (I have added my own performance suggestions, please excuse the absence of treble and bass clefs):

Italian Concerto_0001

This snippet occurs in three different guises in the first movement – the first time ending on the tonic, the second time on the dominant and the last time on the subdominant. Apart from a tied RH thumb and a modified LH in the last example, the notes and fingerings are the same. The RH seems to trip people up until its contents have been digested and the fingers organised, so how do we do this? Since Bach has been meticulous in showing the parts, we can at least do him the service of practising it thus. I especially like omitting the thumb and practising the upper two parts alone but playing the other combinations is valuable too. If we really want to take this a step further, we might practise these two bars not only in the three settings Bach has written but also in other keys. I suggest all twelve. It will test our ear and refine our coordination, and I can guarantee if you have the time and patience to do this for a few days you will know this spot infinitely better. Bach the educator would surely have approved, plus you’ll enjoy it!

How it Works

A distinguished colleague once told me a story of how in the middle of his career as an international concert pianist he suddenly became aware of a fact about the piano that he was unaware of before. I was intrigued as to what this might be. In a flash of insight, he told me he realised that the black keys were higher up and further away! When we play, we are constantly making micro adjustments within the hand and arm to accommodate the topography of the keyboard, the black-white terrain. Using our kinesthetic sense, we adapt our hand position by curving the long fingers (2, 3 and 4)  very slightly more when playing white keys, slightly less so when playing black keys. When the short fingers (thumb and 5) play black keys, our position is shifted to the back of the keys, with a tiny wrist and forearm adjustment to accommodate this. So when we transpose, we actually learn versions of the same passage that are essentially the same and yet subtly different. We end up by knowing twelve versions of the passage. This is like looking at a statue from many different angles rather than just viewing it from one vantage point. We build up a more complete picture.

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