Friday, September 4, 2009

Mastering Piano Technique - Clean and Articulate Runs

One thing that I pride myself on is that my students are able to play clean and articulate runs in their performances. By following a logical sequence of pieces with each piece progressively more challenging technically while still within the student’s level, every student can achieve the goal of clean, sparkling, and brilliant runs.

The Sonatinas

Intermediate students can gain practice in performing runs by studying the Clementi and Kuhlau Sonatinas. These Sonatinas are charming, delightful pieces which will give your students a sense of accomplishment and mastery. By studying the Sonatinas, piano students gain mastery of technique without the need to practice boring exercises while furthering their reading, phrasing and interpretive skills. The skills gained through a study of these Sonatinas will ease the student into later study of Sonatas by Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart.

After studying a sequential group of the easy piano classics such as those found in Schumann’s Album for the Young, the delightful pieces in the Anna Magdalena Book of J.S. Bach, and other selections found in some of the excellent early classical piano collections, the student is ready to begin Sonatina in C Major opus 36 #1 by Clementi. The student is introduced to in runs in a 1 or 2 octave range with turns on the 3rd and 4th finger. By introducing gradually more advanced Sonatinas, the student gains proficiency in performing increasingly difficult runs and scale passages.

One of my favorite Sonatinas is the charming Sonatina op. 20 #1 in C Major by Kuhlau. One of the reasons that I am particularly fond of this piece is that it is one of the few Sonatinas with runs in the left hand. Both hands must be equally developed to play the more advanced music to come. I find that when a student can accomplish all three movements of this Sonatina, he or she is can easily make the transition to the Mozart Sonata in C Major, k545.

Mozart Sonata in C Major, k545, First Movement

Many students will experience some difficulty with the runs in this movement. The first set of runs occurs in bars 5 through 10 in the right hand. To master these runs, I have students do the following:

1) First have the student play each run slow, heavy, digging in. Repeat 3 to 5 times with the right hand alone. I usually do the first repetition with the student. I play along emphasizing playing loud, slowly and with evenness of touch. The weight of each finger must be evenly placed. Make sure that the fingers of the hand are rounded similar to grabbing a tennis ball or shaking a hand. Weight must be distributed on the fleshy part of the finger tip, not on the nail. Give special attention to turns. As you make the turn, keep your thumb raised at a 45 degree angle. This will help keep your runs smooth and even. A flat thumb will create a bumpy sound.

2) After the student has practice the run slow, heavy, and digging in, I have the student play the run 3 times in a natural manner. I have the student play the run in tempo and lighter. Sometimes I add a bit of bounce to my own 16th note passages to help gain clarity, evenness, and articulation.

3) If the hand gets tired during the slow, heavy, digging in practice, have the student practice the left hand chords. The better the student knows the accompaniment, the more he or she can concentrate on the more difficult right hand.

4) Students should pay extra attention to accuracy of fingering. Remember that the surest way to mess up the run is to be careless about fingering. With this particular piece, make sure that you hold the eight note that begins each run passage for the correct time. I sometimes have students count 1234 for each beat rather than 1 and to help get perfect timing.

In the development section of this sonata, short runs occur in both the right and left hands. The same practice methods apply. One of the most problematic sections in this piece for students is the runs that occur in the left hand. Again, use these same practice techniques and give special attention to learning the correct fingers. Learning the correct fingering will go a long way in achieving mastery of this difficult section.

Another Exercise to Achieve Smooth and Even Runs

The most difficult part of the run occurs right at the turn. The student can create an exercise practicing just the turns. In fact,the exercise can be called turns or before and afters. Simply play the note before the thumb, the thumb note, and the note occurring after the thumb.

For example, if the fingering or the run or scale looked like this:


Practice the following:

Play the 3-1-2 combination 5 times slowly and then 5 or more additional times gradually increasing the speed. Do the same for the 4-1-2 combination. Be sure to stand your thumb up at a 45 degree angle to create a smooth and even turn.

These exercises are applicable to a wide variety of pieces at various levels of difficulty. E-mail me or leave a comment if you have any questions on how to perform the exercises in this blog. Happy practicing. :-)


Learn Piano said...

I wish I had begun playing piano with Clementi's sonatinas and Mozart's sonatas. I taught myself to play by diving into Chopin's preludes and nocturnes. Music that I really loved, but not exactly the best pieces for learning to play in a "clean" style. Since Bach's keyboard works are grounded in counterpoint I felt they would be a great way to improve my fingering and eveness of touch. I should've started with him or the above examples in the first place. Anyway, great advice in your post!

lyungling said...

Thank you for the guidance. I'm a piano teacher in Brooklyn with a studio of 25. Some young and some older. I also liked the approach to play slowly. I posted in my blog a nice "prescription" from Helen Marlais that helped me with my students who were just being exposed to "slow" practicing. Especially those who just love playing fast....this was a lifesaver. I'd like to share it. You can find it at Yungling Piano Studio Blog.

Thank you again for your great sharing and contribution!

Play Piano said...

I'm in total agreement as it relates to your postings regarding piano technique. But I think it is just as important to understand there are two types of technique relative to piano performance. There's a Jazz piano technique and then there's a Classical piano technique.

not too old 2 play piano said...

I can't agree more with you about variations of practicing methods. No method alone can give the piano student the perfect technical skills, but playing slowly is still my favorite. Thank you for great piano learning tips :)

Helene said...

To: Play Piano
I agree. Jazz piano is a study in itself and obviously one must adjust the finger technique to get the desired sound.

Helene said...

To: Not too old 2 play piano

I always tell my students to play slowly at first so that they can get all the details and fingering down and the speed will take care of itself.

David The Go To Learn Piano Guy said...

Learn To Play piano is fun and entertaining. The exercises in this post enjoys me to play piano.

Tripp Hanson, MS, LAc said...

Oh, Helene! Where were you when I needed you?! I was such an ambitious young pianist way back when, in the 70's as I went through junior high and high school!

I was a professional musician for many years, but have since traded one art form for another, and am a licensed acupuncturist and nutritional consultant in NYC.

BUT- I digress...

In addition to your piano instruction, I just wanted to also comment on the fact that I noticed that you use Genewize Life Sciences. I do too! I'm such a fan of their DNA Customized Nutrition!!

So maybe I should say, If only I'd had you AND Genewize when I was a youngster!

Best wishes, and thank you again for sharing your music with us. I think maybe it's time to start playing again...

Linea said...

Great exercises! Useful no matter how experienced you are.

Helene said...

Thanks, Linea. These exercises are helpful from the earliest Sonatina runs through difficult passages in a Chopin Ballade. :-)

Anonymous said...

I am studying mozart piano sonata k280 now, and the problem I have with playing it slowly is that I lose the focus on the piece. If I play the 1st movement too slow so I can play the 16th notes accuratly, the rest of the movement sound boring, draggin and I lose focus and instead of playing it as a whole movement, I play it as a collection of unrelated phrases. If I speed up, I play with more consistency, focus and musicality, but when the 3 or 4 measures full of 16th notes come, I make a complete mess, since my left hand cannot keep up with my right hand. I have to play with a metronome of 80 for my left hand to be accurate on those measures, and with a metronome of a 96/100 to play it like a work on its own instead of just random phrases. :(

Helene said...

Sorry I took so long on getting back to your question about the Mozart K280. What I can suggest doing is the following:

1) Before you even play the piece through as a whole, create exercises out of the 16th note passages as follows:

2) Practice these 2 handed 16th note passages slow, heavy, digging in so they are exactly even and together. (I always tell my students that you must learn something slowly and then increase the speed. You can gradually increase your speed. In other words, practice those difficult parts first and isolated from the rest of the movement.

3) Another exercise is to practice 1 beat and a note hands together, first slowly and then in tempo. In other words practice hands together the 4 note grouplet but add the next note. Then start where you left off and do the next 16th note grouplet and the beginning note of the next grouplet so they overlap.

4) After you have practiced the difficult parts and have done the exercises, then play the entire movement in tempo. Eventually you should see some improvement.

If you still need some help, message me on Facebook. You can find me under Helene Zemel.

Heather said...

And today's Internet based society, a lot of pianists want quick gratification without warning the fundamentals. Popular music, classical music, jazz and all others need to be explored. Your sentence rings true that: following a logical sequence of pieces with each piece progressively more challenging technically while still within the student’s level, every student can achieve the goal of clean, sparkling, and brilliant runs.Great article.

Audrey Frazier said...

Thank you so much! I'm trying to master Mozart's Sonata 545 right now and am having difficulty in those sections. My runs sound sloppy. I wasn't sure what I was doing wrong because practice wasn't making it better. Thanks...I'm going to be a regular visitor to your blog. :)