I was at Steinway Hall here in London yesterday making another series of video demonstrations for Pianist Magazine. One of the demonstrations was on how to manage trills. If we investigate the mechanics of a trill, we find it is two repeated notes in rapid alternation with each other. Releasing the key each time fully up to the top would cause the trill to become slower and more obtrusive, so managing trills is dependent on managing repeated notes. Keeping both fingers in contact with the escapement (at the bottom of the key) makes for a faster and lighter trill, and even powerful rotary trills can happen inside the keys in this way.
I put a homemade video up on YouTube about this some time ago – apologies for the poor quality.
Taking this a stage further, we can apply the idea of not releasing the key fully in repeated notes by actually practising them as tied notes. In other words, instead of playing the note twice (or however many times the note is repeated), we change finger at the bottom of the key in the manner of a finger substitution. After doing this a few times, experience the repetitions by lifting the key only a fraction each time, only as much as necessary. (I should add that this is not possible on most upright pianos because of their design, but manufacturers are onto this. I recently played a wonderful Steingraeber upright with an escapement that felt like a grand.)
Try it with Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K.141. As for fingering, you might use 432131, or even 313131 and have it feel like a rotary trill (instead of trilling between adjacent notes, we can “trill” on the same note).
I was recently practising Chopin’s Ocean Etude, and found that tying the repeated notes kept me very connected to the keyboard. I had the sense of a real physical legato in the repeated notes and this made for greater ease, speed and power. Plus, the syncopated rhythms that came out added a little pep to the relentless “sea” of semiquavers. I use a thumb over approach in this study – the thumb swings into the note the 5th finger is holding as a result of a forearm rotation (the same feeling the other way round, when changing from 5th to thumb on the way down RH, or on the way up LH). It is very possible for the next finger to catch the key before it has had a chance to come back up to the very top.
As for finger substitutions such as we find in contrapuntal music (and elsewhere of course), I find it very helpful to make the substitution rhythmically rather than randomly. Choose an exact moment to change finger so that it is precise. In this example from Bach’s D major Sinfonia, change from 4th to 5th either on the second semiquaver of the beat, or on the third.
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I am presently busy writing Part 2 of my ebook series, Practising the Piano. This is the part that deals with technique and it will be ready within the next few weeks. Until then, you can still get hold of Part 1 (Practising Tools) at the reduced price.
Here are details of how to order:
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