Five-a-Side Team Events: Some Thoughts on Chord Playing

In my youth I was fortunate enough to have some lessons with Philip Fowke, the first one was on Rachmaninov’s rather overplayed Prelude in C sharp minor. I recall the lesson vividly. He showed me a way of practising the chords in the outer sections whereby, with the chord held down, you select a given finger, pair of fingers or group of fingers to lift back up and repeat. It is a good plan to exhaust all the permutations here. I practised in this way assiduously for the next week and noticed a dramatic improvement in my control of the chordal passages, my ability to voice them in the softer section and to play very fully and yet roundly in the fff section. In a nutshell, this way of practising chords helps them to fit like a glove! For the sake of convenience in my own teaching, I have given this a neat label – I call it “tapping”.

It is fashionable to rail against what is known as “mechanical practice” and yet tapping, while it is concerned with the mechanics of what the playing mechanism has to deliver at the keyboard, needs to be done mindfully in order to be of any value. We need to concentrate on the finger combinations we are using so that we can go through these systematically. We also need to make sure the holding fingers remain at rest at the bottoms of their keys without pressing, and to check in with our arm to make sure there is no tension building up. For me, mechanical practice is that sort of mindless, repetitive drill pianists used to be encouraged to do in the old days, while reading a newspaper, balancing pennies on the back of their hand, that sort of thing. Modern science teaches us that no permanent learning can take place without active concentration and focus of the mind and our critical faculties. And that, of course, includes the ear.

Recently, Erica Worth, the brilliant editor of Pianist Magazine, invited me to write a new series of articles and video demonstrations on aspects of piano technique. Based on requests from the magazine’s readership, advice on chord playing was at the top of this list. In the latest issue (Issue 65, out this week) I talk about the basics of chord playing and in the video (on the magazine’s home page and the YouTube channel) I demonstrate tapping and other exercises to help improve chord playing.


This blog has now been up and running for a year, and (apart from a week over Christmas), I have posted something every week. However, there will now follow a brief gap while I go on tour to Singapore and Australia to play and teach, so please talk amongst yourselves until I return. My next post will be towards the end of April, when I hope I will return with renewed vigour. Thinking of new directions for this blog in the coming year, I am certainly open to requests from my readers. Feel free to let me know if there is anything you would like me to write about specifically – I’m happy with questions, discussion, suggestions, etc. You can reach me directly at [email protected].

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I have been invited to teach this coming August at the Hereford Summer School for Pianists. A recent addition to the staff, my biographical information has not yet been added to the website (although I’m assured it will be soon!).