Preparing to Play Octaves – Practising the Piano

Having great octave technique is an essential hallmark of virtuosity – how fast, how loud and for how long can you play that octave passage while wowing your audience and getting them to their feet as they applaud, rapturously? So what’s the secret of octave technique, and how do we develop it? 

Voicing and fingering

Composers write in octaves when they want to reinforce either a melodic line or a bass line, or both. The musical texture becomes richer, fuller or brighter as a result. Therefore we need to start by thinking of octaves as two voices (or a line that is doubled) and consider the tonal balance between the lower and upper notes.

For example, in the opening of Schumann’s Papillons, Op. 2, we voice the upper RH line more firmly and play the thumb as lightly as possible (the thumb creates a shadow of the upper line):

Octaves in Schumann's Papillions

Octaves can present challenges for players with smaller hands who will likely need to use thumb and 5th finger whenever playing them. Where a legato effect is desired, much can be achieved with the pedal. Those with larger hands might be able to use combinations of 5th (white keys), 4th fingers (black keys) and possibly 3rd fingers in legato contexts. However, where a fixed hand position from octave to octave is required, using thumb and 5th in certain types of octaves (e.g. forearm, whole-arm) might feel stronger.

Types of octaves

There are several different types (or species) of octaves and the choice of which to use is dependent on the musical context. The following are some of the main examples:

  • Legato
  • Wrist
  • Forearm
  • Whole arm

Other types of octaves such as broken octaves and repeated octaves also exist with a particularly challenging example of the latter being Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Erlkönig. These can be approached by repeating  from inside the keys at the sounding point (escapement) and using small up and back motions along the surface of the keys. This tends to feel like a vibration in the wrist, using tiny motions to avoid tension and fatigue:

Repeated octaves in Schubert#s Erlkonig

Preparatory exercises

Octaves should only be introduced when the hand is large enough or sufficiently developed, the knuckles strong enough to support the octave span. A good starting point before embarking upon octave work is to play scales in sixths and a few studies in sixths using a mixture of wrist staccato (when soft) and forearm staccato (when mf or above). The following are some exercise to develop essential components for octave technique:

The thumb

This preparatory exercise for the thumb should be played with a firm 5th finger (holding onto the key with a firm contact but without pressing) and a loose, mobile thumb that plays pp. Aim for flexibility in the tip of the thumb – more curved when playing white keys, slightly less so when playing white keys:

Preparatory exercise for playing octaves

Fifth finger

Next, a similar exercise for the 5th finger. Do this slowly with a firm tenuto, which should feel like a gentle squeeze. It is most important that all the joints of the finger remain supported, with no buckling in any of the three knuckle joints, and that there is no twisting of the hand outwards. In order to avoid twisting, use a sliding movement along the length of the key. You can slide the thumb in and out while holding the key down with zero pressure:

Freedom in the Wrist

Wrist flexibility is essential for avoiding fatigue, accuracy and good tone quality. The following exercise is very useful for avoiding tension in the wrist. Do this very slowly on any scale, ascending and descending over one octave. While holding the octave position with the thumb and fifth finger, gently raise the wrist up and down. As you move from one octave to the next, keep the fingers extremely close to the keyboard and allow the wrist to put the keys down:

More on octaves!

A detailed, step-by-step guide to building octave technique is available in Graham Fitch’s new module on the Online Academy. Getting to Grips with Octaves covers everything from the start through to mastering the different types of octaves found in the repertoire with numerous musical examples, exercises and video demonstrations.

This module is available for once-off purchase from our store as a stand-alone product or as part of our Ultimate Technique Bundle. It is also included with an Online Academy subscription and can be viewed here.

More Advanced Technique!

If you’d like to get a live demonstration on developing octaves and other aspects of advanced technique, join Graham Fitch online on Saturday 28th October @ 11:00am – 12:15 BST for a presentation on octaves, double notes and chord playing at the advanced level.

Tickets cost £40 (£24 for Online Academy subscribers) and can be purchased here. Alternatively you can also purchase a ticket which includes access to the recordings of all five sessions from the Technique Day for £100 (£60 for subscribers) here.