Practising Chords (Part Four): Odds and Ends

Unless anyone cares to contact me with further suggestions, this will be the last of my posts on chords. It’s a selection of a few unrelated odds and ends which I might add to if I think of more!


In a progression of chords, it is very useful to practise losing the hand position completely between each chord. Do this by drawing the fingertips together so they touch lightly, or by making a loose fist. This might go against the grain, especially if you are worried you won’t find the next chord position in time. On face value it would seem more logical to try and preserve an open hand position, yet the reverse is true: the looser you are, the more flexible you remain and the quicker you are able to move. In actual performance, we are not able to close up like this or to completely relax, of course, but there will a residue of this intention – enough to make all the difference.


There are occasions when you want to retain the grip in the hand in chord playing, when to relax it would be inefficient, counterproductive or downright impossible. The opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in C, op. 2 no. 3 is a good example. Whether you play this from a springy wrist, or using a jackhammer motion of the forearm (or – better – a blend of the two), the hand needs to retain the position:

The repeated chords in the slow movement of Schumann’s F sharp minor Sonata will need a firm hand and wrist, plus the feeling of contact with the key beds (releasing the keys each time only as much as is necessary, certainly no more than halfway). If the hand were floppy in any way, control would be compromised:


This mechanism can be thought of as grabbing when the chords are full, strong and not too fast; when faster, or lighter, I prefer the terms “scratching” or “plucking”. Flexion is anatomically very natural and strong from birth. Notice the strength of the grip in the hand of a new-born baby! If we do this the whole way (by which I mean go through the whole range of the motion) we make a staccato, if we stop the grab when we reach the bottom of the key, and hold onto the chord, we will have produced a very strong sound easily and naturally (the faster the grab, the louder the chord). If the grab is done slowly, it will feel more like a kneading. In most instances, we will use a small arc from the whole range of the motion, which might be imperceptible.

A great exercise to build up strength and stamina is to play chords in all keys, major then minor, in all inversions. I did this each day when I was a student – it is far more than a warm-up exercise, it is a real technique builder. That’s four-note chords in each hand, an octave apart, up two octaves and back down. I play major, then minor, then move up chromatically to the next key, etc. I like to do this forte staccato, each chord equalling approximately 80-100 on a metronome. This uses a very strong grab involving only the hand and fingers (don’t allow the arm to pull back into the body). Remember the principle of effort and release: a very strong effort followed by an instantaneous release of the effort. Do this also faster and lighter.


You will recall the tapping exercise from the post on the Rachmaninov Prelude (here is the link to that demonstration). The tremolo exercise is a variation on this, which I use for variety, and (because it is rather mechanical) sparingly. Play the chord and release two fingers. Now alternate those two fingers in a triplet subdivision (so that each note gets equal stress), or play in a rhythm such as “slow, quick-quick, slow”. It is also good to release three notes and repeat the above, playing two of the notes together. I am using a short excerpt from Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie:

Watch it here.