On Passagework – Practising the Piano

There are innumerable examples in the piano repertoire of what is commonly known as “passagework”, a string of fast notes that lasts either a few bars, a whole section, or an entire piece. The function of this passagework may be decoratively melodic (rather like the singer’s coloratura), but is most often associated with bravura display.

Even though I don’t really like the term, let’s stick with it as we all know what we mean by it. It is hardest to bring off at either extreme of the dynamic spectrum, loud or soft, but I think the difficulties are compounded by the sameness of the rhythmic value. If the passage were interspersed with slower or faster note values, this would act as terrain in an otherwise flatter landscape. Extended passages played fast and loud, or fast and soft, demand considerable control.

I think immediately of two opposite examples from Chopin, the finale of the Funeral March Sonata (fast and soft, the difficulties compounded a hundredfold because both hands are in unison for the entire movement):

and the Prelude in B flat minor (the right hand would be hard enough, but Chopin adds insult to injury with the left hand leaps):

As a guiding principle, the finger plays from the surface of the key and releases to the surface (and not a squilimeter higher). The exception to this is martellato or when the passage (or elements of it) is controlled by forearm rotation. While the end result is that the fingers should be extremely close to the keys – in contact with the key surface – the practising dictates that we might regularly and deliberately use a raised finger.

In the central nervous system, reciprocal relations exist between flexors (bending muscles) and extensors (straightening muscles). The intense excitation of flexors will call forth intense inhibition of extensors, and vice versa. Since the inhibitory process is weaker than the process of excitation, a slight raising of the fingers (intense excitation of extensors) before their descent into the keys appears to be a valuable means for strengthening weak inhibition of flexors. The tendency to rush, to accelerate passages is observed mostly among students who are not used to raising their fingers while practicing. Now we see one more reason for the requirement of raising fingers in slow practicing. (George Kochevitsky: The Art of Piano Playing, p. 27)

This will have been passed down to all of us in one form or other, it’s one of those things that piano teachers tell their students. And yet, in the 21st century, piano pedagogues are generally looking to counteract the shadow side of raised finger playing – tendonitis, RSI, and so on – the shadow side of THAT being “no fingers” and a weak and insipid sound. I am convinced a happy medium is possible here.

Looking at the pictures in those old method books of a finger raised in that crooked way makes me cringe, this is surely as tension-producing as a deep-fried Mars bar is calorific, but many pianists were trained in this way (it often makes me wonder how many of the great pianists succeeded despite their training, rather than because of it). If we are going to raise our fingers, there is an alternative way that is much more natural (concomitant with the body’s mechanics, rather than opposed to them). We lift the finger straight (naturally rather than militarily so) and bring it down curved. (It goes without saying that the result will be LOUD! As any piano student will be able to tell you, the faster the key speed, the louder the sound.) This was the method preferred by at least two of the great piano teachers in the modern age, Maria Curcio and Adele Marcus. We need to make sure that finger raises as independently as possible from the other fingers. Thus, if we are preparing the 2nd finger to play from a raised position, thumb, 3, 4 and pinky remain (ideally) on their respective keys, or at key surface.

The secret is to release effort instantaneously, the moment we feel the key bed. This lightning-fast reaction needs to be developed early on, and the principle of effort-release is the cornerstone of an advanced piano technique. Like any motor skill, it first needs to be very conscious before being relegated to the status of reflex. As fast as the photographer’s flashgun, it is over as soon as it has started; release follows effort in the blink of an eye. I like to train this by having the student play the passage quite extraordinarily slowly, where the semiquaver of the passage in question is mentally expanded into a semibreve. The muscular expenditure happens on the first crotchet beat, the remaining three beats having to do with consciously releasing all effort in the hand, arm and body, sensing the minimum requirement needed to hold the key(s) – very often the natural weight of the finger(s) in equilibrium with the rest of the body. I devote a whole three beats to this so we can command this state of affairs as well as relish the physical sensations and enjoy the feeling of control over our body and the instrument. In the ensuing stages we shorten the amount of time allowed for the effort to a semihemidemisemiquaver (apologies to my American readers, I much prefer the logic of your system) which will, hopefully, mean that our recovery time can be shortened as well.

The whole point of this is to aim to send each key down extremely fast, with a range of motion deliberately in excess of what we are going to use. The tempo is very slow, yet the speed (of finger, of key, of mind) very fast. We need to content ourselves with doing this for a while, over the course of a few days.

Next comes the process not of doing this incrementally faster as common sense might dictate (although this is a ploy open to us also), but of grouping the notes from atoms to molecules to cells. Here is where the traditional approach to practising in rhythms comes in. Think about it – a dotted rhythm equates to two notes played fast, each pair separated by a long note. If, during this long note, we can consciously command the effort/release principle our results will be infinitely greater than if we had managed a perfunctory and mechanical “dah de-dah de-dah”, etc., with the mind somewhere else. Thus the “effort” part of the equation comprises two notes, but my gripe is that people ignore the “release”, probably because seemingly nothing happens on it. Do not assume that pausing on a note and luxuriating in the sensations of muscular and mental looseness equates to sloth. Instead of the usual dotted quaver-semiquaver dotted rhythm, I prefer to start this ball rolling with double dotted crotchet-semiquaver:

From a cell of two quick notes, you can progress to three quick notes, one paused note and so on. As I outlined in my previous post on this (related) subject, think of a note with a fermata prefaced by an acciaccatura (then with two acciaccaturas, then three, etc.):


Another way of practising is to play evenly in time, but placing accents on the main beats. Thus, in a passage in semiquavers in common time, we can firstly accent every other note, then the first note of every beat, then every half bar, then every bar, etc., gradually filleting these out until we play with none.

Finger Staccato

It is great practice to take each note of the passage and play it as staccato as possible, from the fingertip with no involvement of the arm (this is a pulling or flicking motion of the finger towards the palm of the hand). The tempo can be very slow, but the key speed will be extremely fast. I recommend this wholeheartedly as a supplement to the above.




More on Passagework – Practising the Piano

Last week’s post on passagework dealt with a fair amount of mechanics. Here, I would like to outline a process which strengthens everything – the ear, the memory and the muscles (more accurately, the reflex arc) and provides some variety in the practising routine.

Let us take this section from Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca (the last movement of the Sonata in A, K.331). I am choosing this example because it is very simply constructed – the right hand spinning patterns made from turns and scale passages over a left hand chord progression, oom-cha-cha-cha style. Assuming we have already done a certain amount of the mechanical work I discussed last week, and plan to return to this regularly, we can include other forms of practising.

The process I am suggesting involves playing the LH intact and complete at all times, impeccably shaped and articulated, and up to speed. Thus, there will be a feeling of a bass line (the first note in each bar), lightness in the repeated chords and a sense of the harmonic direction (the relative intensity level of each chord in the progression). Once we have built the LH to our satisfaction, we then add pre-selected parts of the RH.

We might start with the upbeat to every other bar, stopping on the first beat of the next bar:

Then either add a few more notes to this:

…or do something different, thus:

There is one thing to be aware of, and that is the finger you will be starting on each time. This might not be written in the score, either by the editor or by you, because it would be obvious in the context. However, if you are deliberately interrupting the flow like this, it might be worth writing in additional fingering so you don’t confuse your muscular memory by doing something different or arbitrary. It is my firm belief that we always practise with the fingering we’re going to use in performance, the exception to this is when we make a two-handed version of a one-handed passage (see my post on this).

This way of practising not only allows us to see different aspects in the landscape of the passagework, but gives wonderful security in performance. Should the unthinkable happen and we break down, we will have practised carrying on with the other hand,  rejoining it at strategic points along the route.