Zigzag Practice – Practising the Piano

The intermediate piano student who has enjoyed playing CPE Bach’s Solfeggietto in C minor will have learned how to convince the listener that the semiquavers passed back and forth between the two hands in fact make one seamless line. This should sound as though it were played with one all-encompassing hand. Mastering the piece depends on being able to release the one hand at the precise moment the other hand takes over, as well as matching up the tone so there is no bump. This little piece is excellent training for this important skill and relies on careful listening as much as coordination of the hands.

There are certain situations in our pieces that lend themselves to a type of practice I call zigzag practice. The thematic material wends its way from right to left, inviting us to explore the music in the way the composer conceived it. One such piece is JS Bach’s Fantasie in C minor:


Apart from his interest in numerology, Bach loves including cruciform shapes into his music and it is worthwhile practising it like this.

Here are two ways I suggest:

Bach zigzag 1


Bach zigzag 2

There are other instances when the interest passes back and forth in a similar but perhaps less obvious way, such as in this short example from Haydn’s B minor Sonata. Here, it is not so much a question of doing anything more than noticing the conversation between the hands and underlining this. We might practise this passage omitting every other note in the semiquaver passages (the repeated note) and listen to the parallel tenths that come out. We might also practise holding down the repeated note, so we anchor the thumbs on their respective keys. Needless to say in actual performance, the repeated notes should be very much lighter than everything else:


We often find compound lines in Bach’s music, where one line gives the illusion of two. In this example from the Allemande from the B minor French Suite, if we play the repeated Bs on the second beat RH on the same tonal level as the rising D-E-F sharp line, we will sound like a donkey. As in the Haydn example, the Bs need to be much softer:

Bach B minor

Taking our cue from the above examples, I have found it is excellentpractice to apply zigzag principle to any piece we are learning.

There are several ways we can do this.

  • Go through a section of  the piece systematically playing the first bar with the RH alone before passing over to the LH in the next bar. We stop literally on the last note of the RH bar before the LH takes over. Do this rhythmically and fluently, without skipping a beat. Often this will not make musical sense, especially if the first note in the next bar is the logical conclusion of the phrase but do it anyway – it is excellent practice to inhibit the impulse to play the strong beat. This stops us rushing in performance and strengthens our control enormously. Try it – it’s not easy at first!
  • Go back over the section the other way around, in other words begin with the LH. Repeat the section like this until it is flawless and absolutely rhythmical.
  • Instead of stopping on the very last note of the bar in one hand, go over the bar line so that both hands play together on the downbeat of the next bar. This overlap is an excellent way to link the two hands. (Obviously if there is a rest, we observe this. In the event of a tie, simply leave that out.)
  • Go back over your work, this time in units of two and then four bars.

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