The Trouble With Ornaments (Part Two)

Thank you for all your feedback from the first part of this post. Your comments are most appreciated, and I will respond to them all (please click here if you’d like to read the previous post).

Here, I want to get into how to make the ornaments into chameleons that blend into and enhance their surroundings, rather than sounding like a series of detonations dutifully and clumsily tacked onto the surface of the music in the style of punk jewellery, self-consciously drawing attention to themselves while taking away from the line.

Isn’t it funny what stands out from one’s past? As a child, I was preparing my grade 3 exam and there was a baroque piece (Richard Jones, I think it was) with the realisations of the ornaments helpfully (?) printed as footnotes at the bottom of the page. I wish I had understood then that the scary-looking notation of the ornaments, with its array of demisemiquavers and double dots (all in footnote-size font) was only supposed to show the basic design and that, actually, there were a few different realisations that were possible. Because each was written out in full (and therefore had to conform to the arithmetic of the time signature), it made it look military and precise and theoretical. In fact, the whole point of the ornament is to sound free, spontaneous and personal. That you are lead to believe you need a calculator to work the darned things out detracts somewhat.

I wish there were another way of indicating the design by having a schemata that was not, like the ornaments themselves, subject to the captivity of conventional staff notation. (Shall we brainstorm? Answers on a postcard…)

OK, back to the subject of how we manage the ornaments at the piano. I am going to surprise a few of you here when I suggest that we try not to use our fingers. Or rather we use them in conjunction with motions and gestures that come from further back, from the arm. This may seem perverse, but for me the fingers are just the points of contact between us and the instrument, and that playing the piano is a holisitic activity involving body (the whole body), mind and spirit.

I spend quite a bit of time with new students correcting problems, tensions and even the beginnings of dystonia and tendonitis caused by early training that presupposes it is our fingers that play the piano. Things have moved on from the days of Clementi balancing pennies on the back of students’ hands, and I simply don’t accept it when commentators say “so-and-so plays with the fingers alone!”.

Don’t get me wrong – of course we need strong fingers to play well. Playing with just fingers can get us up to a very high level, but we will never achieve virtuosity without a blend of activity from finger to wrist, wrist to forearm, forearm to upper arm, etc. I think it goes right down to our toes.

I feel a song coming on:


(No religious significance intended there, by the way… shame they stopped at the neck bone.)

In my Piano Teaching Method lectures, I have always encouraged students to question the traditional five-finger middle C approach to learning. Why restrict the beginner to a few white notes in the middle of the keyboard, playing only the notes they can read? I am advocating instead as natural a way as possible of using ourselves (our bodies) at the keyboard.

I often try to think of day-to-day physical activities that call for the use of the fingers in isolation and (apart from artificial ones like typing) I draw a blank. Even threading a needle (not that I do much sewing) demands superfine control of the fingers, but not without a lot of balanced, poised cooperation from the arm and eye. And I doubt that someone who is slouching can thread a needle efficiently…

Nobody teaches us how to do these things, we are incredible machines! I find that traditional piano teaching encourages a shutting off of our innate finely tuned kinaesthesia and replaces it with something we aren’t actually going to end up using in the advanced stages. A famous colleague tells me that she has to undo the damage caused by a finger-based childhood training by conscious thought every time she practises. And believe me, she is right at the top of the tree.

Rant over.

In order to play trills and mordents, we have to be able to manage repeated notes skillfully. Mechanically, a trill is two notes that repeat rapidly in alternation with each other, an activity that can easily cause the hand to tire and the muscles to seize up.

My recipe for repeated notes is:

  • to find the place in the lower part of the key’s descent (around the sounding point) where the escapement mechanism takes effect, and to stay there. We don’t need to bring the key all the way back up to its surface to replay it (upright pianos don’t work this way, unfortunately). To see a graphic demonstration of this, visit this page and click on “Action Animation” under “Related Links”.  (With thanks to Chris Smit for permission to link to his site.)
  • to aim to use the full length of the key, using different spots on the key surface for each repetition. This will keep us mobile and will encourage a gentle undulation in the arm, thus keeping us free.
  • to use a rotary movement of the forearm (rather than use “piston fingers”).
  • to ensure that the other fingers not involved in this process do not tense up. This is a big subject in itself, and I would like to devote a whole post to training independence of the fingers (soon).



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