Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mastering Piano Technique - Practice in Chords

With this post, I will begin a series of articles which will present my technical ideas. Many people feel that good piano technique is the playing of glittery piano passages cleanly, quick and speedy playing, and big sound. On the other hand, interpretation of the piece is also an important component of performance mastery. In addition to finger dexterity, elements of tone production, rhythm, pedaling, dynamics, and musicality must be taken into consideration.

In my own experience, true mastery of technique came when I suddenly had the control to reproduce with my fingers what I heard in my mind. I will begin a series in this blog called “Mastering Piano Technique” which will help you and your students do the same. I will even discuss the teaching of a number of favorite student pieces from a technical standpoint.

A Simple Exercise

As I had mentioned in a previous post, one of my favorite exercises is to practice passages in chords. Passages that lend themselves well to practice in chords include Alberti base passages; similar passages with the right hand, passages consisting primarily of broken chord patterns, and of course, arpeggios.

Some of the advantages of practice in chords include:

1) Establishing a good set of fingering patterns – When you block a passage out in chords, chances are that the way your fingers fall into the chords will be the correct fingering to use for these passages.

2) Proper positioning of the fingers – By practicing in chords, you teach your fingers where they need to be placed to perform the passage accurately.

3) As an aid to memorization – Learning the chordal patterns found in the music is an aid to memorization.

4) Mastering Arpeggios – Arpeggios, are basically an extended chord, for example, a C Major chord repeated over 2 or 3 octaves. Practicing in chords will help you gain the accuracy and speed needed to play arpeggios cleanly which can be difficult to achieve. Rather than trying to connect each chord, after practicing in chords, play the arpeggio by just quickly hopping over to the next chord while keeping the fingers close to the keys to make it sound connected. Also, be sure to keep the thumb pointing down in a slightly diagonal position rather than flat to keep the arpeggio smooth and even. The result will be a very clean and well articulated arpeggio.

5) An Easy Exercise for Students to do – Practicing in chords is a very simple exercise for the student to do, yet this practice technique always yields results.

Here are some examples where practicing in chords is effective:

Advanced Elementary

Little Song by Robert Schumann –Have students practice the left hand in 2 note chords e.g. c-g, d-g, e-g f-g, etc. Than have the student play the left hand quietly and evenly maintaining the position of the chords. Have the student practice the right hand with good tone, since this is the melody. After each hand is mastered, have the student perform the piece hands together.

Waltz by Shostakovich – I find that having the students practice the left hand in chords for this piece is very effective towards gaining mastery. Have the student play the entire left hand in chords using single notes in the non-chordal passages.


Clementi Sonatinas – The Clementi and Kuhlau Sonatinas immediately come to mind with all of the Alberti bass passages.

Solfeggietto by K.P.E. Bach –This is another one of my favorite intermediate teaching pieces. There are many passages that lend themselves to practice in chords.


Schubert Impromptu op. 90 #4 in A-flat – One of my favorite short pieces, the cascading broken chords in the right hand of the A section of this piece must sound smooth, sparkling, even, and effortless. Practicing these passages in chords will teach your brain the proper placement of the fingers. You will want to supplement the practice in chords with additional exercises. Another problem is the smooth transition between the broken chords. On the switch of fingers on the repeated note, be sure to never leave the feel of the key as you make the switch in fingering. Another useful exercise for mastering this beautiful piece, is to practice a beat and a note e.g. Cb-Eb-Cb-Ab-Ab several times followed by Ab-Cb-Ab-Eb-Eb, etc.

You will find many other passages in the pieces that you perform or teach that will lend themselves well to this simple but effective exercise.