judi

Pedalling by Hand – Practising the Piano

I first published this article in 2016. Now that I have made a new video demonstrating the differences between the Couperin piece in his original notation versus what we see in the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, I decided to republish. I hope this subject will be food for thought, leading to some experimentation with finger pedalling as an added means of creating resonance.

***   ***   ***

Pianists have always felt that the music of J S Bach is accessible to them. The Early Music Movement (1970s wave) did put some pressure on those of us who presented Bach’s music to do so in particular ways that were perhaps more suitable to the instruments of his day than our mighty grand pianos, but fortunately the greatness of the music transcends the medium – harpsichord, piano, synthesiser, whatever.

The perennial question of pedal always comes up when discussing Bach style on the piano. The argument goes that, because Bach’s instruments were not equipped with any sustaining mechanism, we should steer clear of our right pedal (for some players this means completely).

The pedal is to the piano as the vibrato is to string players. Both must be applied with care, control and in moderation. Clarity is essential with Bach, the purity of counterpoint and voice leading must be self-evident, never muffled or confused. Thus a discreet use of the pedal is not forbidden as long as these rules are observed. The question remains whether it is beneficial to the music to look for easier solutions. A perfect legato on the piano is an impossibility, and one can only create an illusion of achieving it. To attempt this with the hands alone is much more difficult but it’s well worth trying. Bach certainly didn’t want his music to sound easy; it’s demanding for players and listeners alike.” – Sir András Schiff.

Here is Sir András discussing the subject with Arie Vardi in a television interview (watch from 1:17).

How interesting to discover that, in his remarkable performance of the Goldberg Variations in last year’s Promenade concerts, Sir András did make discreet use of pedal in the cavernous space of London’s Royal Albert Hall (you can watch the performance here).

When I was a harpsichord student, one of the first things I learned was overlapping touch – or “finger pedalling” – and this opened up a whole new world of sound possibilities for me when I came back to the piano. We pianists have been taught to hold notes for their written duration – and no longer! However, harpsichord players control the dampers (yes, harpsichords absolutely have dampers) by their fingers, since this is the only means at their disposal to add resonance to their sound. Thus in a harmonic texture and even in melodic lines, they hold notes beyond their written value. It’s not only a good idea, it’s a necessity.

Here is the opening of Bach’s Partita no. 6 in E minor as notated by Bach.

OA_Spread_Chords_Baroque_0017

And here is how it would be notated if we transcribed the finger strokes of a typical harpsichordist. Way too cumbersome to write it out fully in this way – and unnecessary, since overholding was an aspect of style players in Bach’s day (and well beyond) would have completely understood.

OA_Spread_Chords_Baroque_0018

For a video demonstration of this opening, please follow this link to my Online Academy article on spread chords in the Baroque period.

Have a look at F. Couperin’s Les Bergeries and Anna Magdalena Bach’s copy of it in her famous notebook. Couperin writes the LH in what looks like two voices, using complex double stems and ties, whereas Frau Bach dispenses with such intricacies of notation.

fullsizeoutput_1763
Couperin’s notation
fullsizeoutput_1764
Anna Magdalena Bach’s notation

Couperin and other French composers of the period were control freaks in matters of notation, German composers assumed the player would know what to do. However, it gets a little confusing when you compare places in Bach’s music where he does indeed write in such overholdings in a more deliberate way, such as the LH of the Goldberg Aria. This compositional technique has come to be known as style brisé – broken up in imitation of the lute. Sometimes Bach writes in style brisé, other times not – but the execution is undoubtedly the same (check out the first and second endings of the Allemande from the Partita no. 1 in B flat – the first ending written in overlapping style, the second ending in simple notation).

A great piece for pianists who wish to develop their finger pedalling skills is F. Couperin’s miniature masterpiece Les Baricades Mistérieuses, from the Ordre 6ème de clavecin. When I play it, I trick listeners into believing that I must be using the pedal – but I use none! All of the resonance is created by my fingers alone.

Click here for the score

I find myself using finger pedalling in music from all periods, including in this example from Liszt’s Concert Study, La leggierezza. 

fullsizeoutput_1766I tend to hold on by hand to the first note of each beat in the LH, producing a legatissimo touch. This frees me up from relying solely on the pedal for resonance. I keep my foot in contact with the pedal, adding short, shallow dabs to my sound to liquify – being careful not to drench it.

For more on finger pedalling, follow this link to my video series on pedalling for the Online Academy

judi

Do We Need Special Exercises for the Left Hand?

I am often asked about what to practise to make the left hand feel strong, and equal in technical ability to the right hand. Are special exercises necessary?

In 2011, researchers in Germany published an article which showed a surprising fact:

Whether the pianist identified as right- or left-handed, the performance of the right hand always displayed a higher degree of evenness between notes, and therefore a higher degree of motor control, than did the left hand. And the more practice time that a left-hander had accumulated, the better the performance of his or her right hand.

Another statistic that came up is perhaps more understandable and obvious – we often listen more to the right hand, because in most music from 1750 onwards it assumes greater importance. The melodic interest tends to be more on the top, the left hand in a supporting role. Not that I’ve counted them up myself, but in Beethoven’s sonatas there are apparently 122,650 notes in the left hand and 133,064 in the right! If we really want to develop our left hand, perhaps we should always be working on contrapuntal music – especially fugues, where both hands are completely equal in terms of input.

German Romantic composer, Hermann Berens published his Training of the Left Hand in 1870, at a time when mechanical exercises were especially lauded. I have noticed that many players seem to enjoy practising technical exercises and studies. As I always stress, it is how you do them that is important and if you follow a middle path and do them mindfully and in small doses, Berens’ left hand exercises can certainly be of some value. 

But why not include one or two pieces of music written for the left hand in your practice regime? There are many beautiful and completely worthy pieces in the repertoire. One of the best-loved is Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne, op 9. Like all the best music written for left-hand alone, the listener is fooled into believing both hands are being used, and this piece is absolutely ravishing.

Follow this link to the Petrucci Library for music for left hand alone

If you are looking for something very special, I highly recommend Frank Bridge’s Three Improvisations. Written in 1918 for pianist Douglas Fox, who lost his right arm during the First World War, these three miniatures are exquisitely written and unjustly neglected.

No post on left hand piano music would be complete without mention of Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian pianist who lost his right arm at the age of 27, while serving as an officer in the First World War. Determined to continue his career, he commissioned some of the best-known music for left hand, including Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand in 1929. Wittgenstein published his own School for the Left Hand, comprising exercises, studies and transcriptions. Here is his version of Schubert’s Imprompu op. 90 no. 4, worth practising in this arrangement even if you are playing the original.

judi

Tips for a Natural Hand Position

My approach to piano technique is based on using movements that are most natural to the body, movements that are free, loose and that feel good. It is most important that we are in touch with physical sensations as we play – our feet in contact with the ground, freedom in the legs and thighs, support from the piano stool, mobility in the torso, looseness in the shoulders and arm, and not least the absence of tension from our wrists, hands and fingers. Touching the keyboard can feel delicious and sensual, or strong and energetic. It should never feel tight or awkward.

Hand position

I have read elaborate descriptions for the correct hand position for piano playing, but finding the position is actually surprisingly simple. If you stand up and allow your arm to swing freely from your shoulder, you will discover your palm is facing behind you. Swing your arm up to a table or your piano keyboard and land there. Provided you have not tensed up or done anything to change the hand shape, you will have found your ideal hand position. There will be a natural curve in the fingers, and all the knuckles will be aligned and supported. 

Finding your natural hand position

Curved, not curled

We avoid the two extremes, flat fingers and overly curled fingers because they tend to lead to tension. The natural curve is the best default position for piano playing as it encourages the best coordination. 

Don’t isolate the fingers

Traditional pedagogy supplied the pianist with copious finger exercises in which each finger was to be lifted high in isolation from the other fingers, which were to remain on the surface of the keyboard. Modern thinking has moved on, and we don’t do this any longer. The fingers lift together as a unit, often assisted by rotational movements from the forearm. 

Stretching out

I inherited the tradition of extension exercises (stretching between the fingers) but as I have  evolved as a pianist and teacher I consider these not only unnecessary but potentially harmful. I no longer use such exercises nor would I recommend them. The hand can open quite wide between the thumb and the 2nd finger, but not so far between the other fingers. As a general guideline, we close the hand up as soon as possible after a stretch.

Online Academy Technique Library

I have recently launched the first few modules of a technique library that will expand over time (further information on these resources is available here). In this brief video, I look at some of the points I cover on hand position in the Elementary Technique – Introduction & Basics module:

***

Elementary Technique – Introduction and Basics is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the module index if you are already a subscriber.

Be sure to sign-up to our newsletter for further updates and subscribe to our YouTube channel for previews and video excerpts!

judi

Improving Your Left Hand Technique

Do you feel that your left hand is weaker than your right hand and is holding you back in your piano playing? We all have a dominant hand, and for most of us it is the right hand. However, research has shown that even in left-handed players, the right hand still shows a higher level of motor control!

The left hand is often neglected in our practising for various reasons. Our ear can be so focussed on the right hand that we don’t always listen attentively to what is going on in the left. Even if we do try to listen, we cannot be sure we are able to hear whether our left hand is playing in a controlled way. Perhaps we are playing unevenly, or missing some notes – we can’t quite figure out what’s wrong, but know something is amiss. 

Focussing on the left hand

Practising the left hand by itself is of course an option, and something I recommend doing regularly anyway. However, this won’t show us what is actually going on when we add our right hand. I have another solution for addressing this problem which involves playing a passage with the left hand on the keyboard as normal but with the right hand mining its notes on the surface of the keys.

By miming the right hand in this way, we are effectively playing both hands together still, but since we won’t hear any of the sounds the right hand would be making, we are able to really hear what the left hand is actually getting up to (rather than what we think it is doing). The process can be very revealing!

Miming to develop left hand technique

Exercises and studies

A secure left hand technique is essential for pianistic development, and special exercises and studies can be very beneficial. We listen only to our left hand, which is now responsible all by itself for maintaining the pulse, and playing rhythmically and expressively with nuances. 

On my shelves I have an ancient copy of Herman Berens’ The Training of the Left HandI have never really given it much attention before, but decided to take a closer look after being commissioned to write an article on the left hand for Pianist Magazine.

The subject of whether pianists need to practise technical exercises at all is a contentious one, but doing specific exercises in particular ways for a good reason can be excellent groundwork for technical development alongside studies and repertoire. However, doing exercises without such a focus, or in ways that create tension not only waste time but can also be positively harmful. As with any exercise or indeed any practice activity, it’s how you do it that counts!

Video Series on the Online Academy

Because the left hand is so often a weak link for many pianists, I am in the process of creating a video series on the Online Academy on the the left hand. This will start with videos on a selection of the Berens exercises and studies and include ideas on using symmetrical inversion to build up left hand technique by calling on the strengths of the right hand for assistance.

The series will also feature some of Paul Wittgenstein’s exercises and some of his transcriptions for the left hand of well-known repertoire. Who would have thought Bach’s first prelude from the ’48 could be played by the left hand alone!?

Practising this is not only a terrific test of memory but if we can play the left-hand transcription sensitively, with expression and full rhythmical control, we can be sure we are developing our left hand technique in ways that are perhaps even better than dry, mechanical exercises.

left hand transcription of Bach's Well Tempered Klavier

Further Links & Resources

  • Berens Training of the Left Hand (Op. 89) – Click here to view video walk-throughs of selected exercises and studies by Berens showing how to use the studies effectively to develop left hand technique.
  • Online workshop – In this online workshop, Graham Fitch presented a range of exercises, studies, repertoire and practice techniques designed to improve left hand skills. Click here to purchase access to recordings and workshop resources.
  • A Cello Suite for the Left Hand – Click here to find out more about our study edition featuring an arrangement of JS Bach’s Cello suite No. 1 in G major for the left hand.
judi

A Cello Suite for the Left Hand

Pianists tend to complain that their left hands don’t feel as strong as their right, and students often ask me if they should be practising special exercises for the left hand alone to help their weaker hand catch up. Is it possible, though, to develop the left hand to be as agile as the right?

In 2011, Psychology Today published some interesting research that showed that whether a pianist identified as right- or left-handed, the performance of the right hand always displayed a higher degree of evenness and motor control than did the left hand. Also, the more practice time a left-handed player had accumulated, the better the performance of their right hand. 

There are many exercises, studies and repertoire pieces specifically composed for the left hand. Hermann Berens’ The Training of the Left Hand, op. 89 contains both exercises and studies (please see “further links & resources” below for my new video series on these exercises and studies), and there are many other resources listed on this Petrucci Library page.

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major

As a further option, I decided to create a lightly edited version of Bach’s magnificent Cello Suite No. 1 in G major. This gives pianists an opportunity to familiarise themselves with a great work of art while developing their left hand technique. The edition contains several annotations, fingering and a few pedalling suggestions for each of the seven movements.

JS bach cello suite for developing left hand

How to Access It?

The full version of this study edition is available as part of our Annotated Study Editions bundle or with an annual subscription to the Practising the Piano Online Academy. If you already have an annual subscription to the Online Academy or own our study edition bundle then this new edition will be automatically added to your library.

Alternatively you can also sign-up here for a download of a free excerpt featuring the Allemande (2nd movement)!

Further Links & Resources

  • Berens Training of the Left Hand (Op. 89) – Click here to view video walk-throughs of selected exercises and studies by Berens showing how to use the studies effectively to develop left hand technique.
  • Online workshop – In this online workshop, Graham Fitch presented a range of exercises, studies, repertoire and practice techniques designed to improve left hand skills. Click here to purchase access to recordings and workshop resources.
  • Improving Your Left Hand – Click here to view a blog post with further exercises, practice tips and repertoire suggestions for the left hand.
judi

Chopin, Left Hand Evenness, Runs and Trills

In this month’s practice clinic, Graham Fitch answered questions on works by Chopin, Mozart, Clementi and Grieg. Topics discussed included practising trills and runs, achieving evenness in the left hand, tone production and addressing problems with coordination and tension.

practice clinic with Graham Fitch

Practice clinic questions

  • WA Mozart – Sonata in F Major, K332 1st mvt – I’m having trouble with bars 86-89 as I’m finding the trills tricky to coordinate with the left hand. I would love some practice suggestions for bringing this section up to speed.
  • Chopin – Nocturne in B-flat Minor, Op. 9 No. 1 – Please could you help me with the runs in bar 4 and the similar run near the end.
  • Clementi – Gradus Ad Parnassum, No. 1 – The tempo is marked Veloce or a half note = 80. What speed should it be played at?
  • Chopin – Waltz in B Minor, Op. 69 No. 2 – I’m having a little trouble with keeping the left hand even in terms of tone and was wondering if you had any tips on technique to produce the soft, even tone I’m looking for throughout the piece?
  • Grieg – Butterfly, Op. 43 No. 1 (Bars 7 – 9) – I’m struggling to coordinate my fingers in Grieg’s in bars 7 – 9. I end up feeling very tense, and dissatisfied that my playing is lumpy and out of control. I would appreciate any help you can give me here.

Next practice clinic

Our next practice clinic takes place on Wednesday 20th October on our Facebook page at 12:00 BST. Please sign-up to our mailing list here for updates on future practice clinic dates.

Watch previous clinics

Recordings of past practice clinics are posted up on our Facebook page and YouTube channel shortly after each event. You can also view our full archive of previous events via these links!

How they work?

Online Academy subscribers can submit questions for practice clinics up to two weeks before each session. This can be done using the link provided on the Online Academy dashboard under “subscription benefits” (click here to sign-in and visit your dashboard).

Further information on how our practice clinics work is available here or please click here to find out more about the Online Academy.

judi

Berens’s The Training of the Left Hand

Most people are right-handed and it is not uncommon to find piano pieces where the right hand has complex passages with the left hand doing relatively little. While the right-hand part might feature flourishes, cadenzas and virtuosic passages, the left hand is often relegated to playing a supporting role accompanying the right.

This can lead to a disparity between the development of the hands from the early stages of playing and the left hand ends up being less proficient. When faced with technical difficulties in a left-hand part, pianists often find themselves severely hindered by the deficiencies in their left-hand technique.

Improving left-hand technique

Although there is much debate surrounding the merits of technical exercises and studies, an ideal use for them is to target specific issues, such as left-hand development. Herman Berens’s Training of the Left Hand (Op.89) is an collection of exercises and studies intended to assist pianists in doing just this.

As part of a project dedicated to developing the left hand, I’ve created a video series featuring a selection of studies and exercises from this collection. Published in instalments, this series is now complete and shows how these works can be used as effective vehicles for focussing on specific challenges and improving overall left-hand technique.

Video on using Berens's The Training of the Left Hand to improve left-hand technique

Studies vs exercises and how to approach them

There is a clear distinction between studies and exercises which has been made by Berens in this collection. Exercises are generally more mechanical in nature, whereas studies have a more musical element to them. However, it’s always best to practise even the exercises in a musical manner as the ultimate objective of any technical work is to develop skills required for music making.

Hanon, who published his famous set of exercises at around the same time, instructed to “lift the fingers high and with precision”; but this is a relic of a bygone era in piano teaching and is notorious for creating tension. Instead, more natural movements such as lateral and circular movements in the wrist can be used for greater precision, velocity and ease (I demonstrate these types of movements throughout the series using an additional overhead camera).

In this introductory excerpt I explain this distinction and show how the first study can be choreographed in a more natural way:

Specific aspects of technique

The studies and exercises I’ve selected cover a a range of technical aspects and challenges, including:

  • Articulation, velocity, evenness of touch
  • Scales and passage work
  • Repeated chords
  • Legato octaves
  • Arpeggios
  • Double notes and thirds

In each video I share throughs on interpretation and methods for how these pieces can be practised for the best results. In this video excerpt I demonstrate methods for practising and executing legato arpeggios in Study No. 18:

Preparing for music

These exercises and studies will prove most beneficial if we think about learning and playing them musically. Not only will it make practising more enjoyable, but will also help when applying these techniques to our playing. The technical aspects covered in these works appear regularly throughout the repertoire, making them excellent preparatory activities. For example, Exercise No. 35 features passages with very similar characteristics to the left-hand parts in Chopin’s Aeolian Harp etude (Op. 25 No. 1) or his Nocturne in C-sharp minor (Op. 27 No.1):

EBerens Exercise No. 35 for left-hand technique
Berens – The Training of the Left Hand (Op. 89) – Exercise No. 35
Chopin – Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor (Op. 27 No. 1)

I hope that these studies and exercises will provide you with a useful and enjoyable way to improve your left-hand technique, thereby helping you to overcome any obstacles to expressing your musical intentions.

The full set of videos is now available to Online Academy subscribers or for once-off purchase from our store. Click here to view the series index on the Online Academy (including several free video previews) or click here to purchase from our store.

Further Links & Resources

  • Berens Training of the Left Hand (Op. 89) – Click here for open domain editions of The Training of the Left Hand (external link).
  • Online workshop – In this online workshop, Graham Fitch presented a range of exercises, studies, repertoire and practice techniques designed to improve left-hand skills. Click here to purchase access to recordings and workshop resources.
  • A Cello Suite for the Left Hand – Click here to find out more about our study edition featuring an arrangement of JS Bach’s Cello suite No. 1 in G major for the left hand.
  • Tips for Using Technical Exercises & Studies – Click here to read another blog post on using exercises by Berens and Hanon effectively.