How to play the piano (Part 1/3 – the preparation)


Introduction into piano playing

A musical composition, however beautiful, however inspired, may be regarded as the sum of a number of sounds. When we talk about piano, we refer to the sum of the piano notes or keys. This piano notes must be played properly. This piano lesson is will do exactly this.

A piece of piano music may be regarded, from the point of view of the performer, as the sum of a number of separately produced sounds. A violinist can play many notes with a single movement of his bow; the player of a wind instrument can do the same with a single exhalation of the breath.

In a glissando the pianist, also, can include many notes in a single movement, but this method of playing is exceptional. Normally a succession of sounds needs a succession of separate movements.

The nature of the piano playing mechanism demands this. In order to achieve perfection in the playing of any piece of piano music, every sound must exactly fulfill our intentions. If we fully understand what is entailed in the playing of a single piano note and this means any and every note we wish to play we shall go far in our understanding of the principles of the piano playing technique. Let us consider this in some detail throughout this piano lesson which will extend over three parts..

The 3 stages of playing the piano

The playing of each note in every piece of piano music can usefully be divided into three stages. They are :

  1. The preparation,
  2. The actual descent of the key,
  3. The holding down of the key for as long as we want the sound to continue, and its subsequent release.

In extreme staccato there will, of course, be no holding down, and the same may be true of a sound prolonged by means of the sustaining pedal.

Naturally, when playing we cannot always think separately of these three stages, nor is it in the least desirable that we should be able to do so. In performance these stages may seem to become fused into one continuous movement. A quick succession of notes may even appear to the performer to be the result of one impetus covering the entire passage. But in the study of technique (and no pianist ever passes finally beyond this) it is helpful to consider each of these stages separately.

How to use your fingers

This analysis of touch will often reveal the exact cause of a technical difficulty, and point the way to its solution. By the preparation of a note is meant the act of bringing the finger concerned either into actual contact with the key or to a position immediately above it.

Preparation also includes the mental act or thought by which we imbue that finger with a feeling of anticipation of magnetism, of life. This feeling should result in our eventually applying to the key just that amount of force needed to produce the sound we want the sound which (it cannot be too often repeated) we already hear in the imagination. Of course we do not always prepare notes one by one.

The fingering of a passage should be chosen to enable us to place the fingers over several notes at once; thus speed of execution becomes possible.

But the important point to keep in mind is that the act by which we bring our fingers over the keys is quite distinct from the action of depressing them. In the course of playing the piano this preparation of the fingers over the keys in other words, finding the right notes necessitates movements in a sideways direction; sideways movements of the arm from the shoulder, of the fore-arm from the elbow, of the hand from the wrist and even sideways movements of the fingers themselves. And sideways movements are quite distinct, muscularly, from the downward movements by means of which the keys are moved.

In bringing the fingers into position in preparation for the actual sounding of the notes, the arm muscles those controlling the shoulder, elbow, wrist and finger joints should be as relaxed as possible; as relaxed, that is, as is consistent with our keeping the arm in the required piano-playing position. The only muscles which should be working with any vigor are those of the back and waist, and those which support the arm.

The former will ensure a good upright posture without any drooping forward of the shoulders, and the latter should create within the arm a feeling of lightness.

How to hold your elbow

In this condition the arm will feel as if it were floating in the air. The sensitive finger-tips should be able to locate the right notes largely by means of the sense of touch; they should feel their way on to the surface of the keys. This can be done with certainty if the fingers are held freely. Moreover, this precondition of relaxation will enable us sensitively to become aware of, and exactly to time, the more or less vigorous exertion of the finger, hand and perhaps the arm, which will be needed to swing the key down at the moment when the sound is due. In connection with this process of preparation, it is appropriate to consider the position of the body in relation to the keyboard, and the choice of fingering. Regarding the former, it may be said that many students sit on too high a stool.

Although a little individual variation may be desirable, the elbow should be approximately on a level with the white keys when the fingers are on the keyboard. To sit much higher than this may, strangely enough, be a contributory cause of nervousness and feelings of insecurity in playing; for in a high position it is less easy to obtain a good follow-through to the key-bed. (This is discussed in the next Section.) The player should sit well forward on the stool, which should be far enough away from the piano to allow the upper arm and the forearm, when in the playing position, to form a slightly obtuse angle.

Height of the piano and position

With these basic essentials in mind, each pianist must determine for himself the exact height and position of the piano stool in accordance with his own height and the length of his arms. Such a decision, once made, should be final. Any variation in these matters is liable to upset technique. In playing, the elbows should not be held too near to the sides of the body. If they are, the back of the hand, when the fingers are on the keys, will tend to slope downwards from the knuckle of the second finger to the knuckle of the fifth. Go to the piano and try to play a slow trill with the hand in this position, using the fourth and fifth fingers.

You will find that these fingers naturally the weakest are sloping towards their respective keys at an angle which makes playing with them very difficult indeed, and control of tone almost impossible. Now move your elbow a few inches away from the side of your body and tilt your hand slightly in the opposite direction, so that the back of the hand now slopes slightly down towards the knuckle of the second finger. Try playing again with the fourth and fifth fingers. You will find that with your hand in this position playing with these fingers is much easier, and the angle at which they fall on the keys makes control of tone possible.

The four fingers, on the keyboard, should usually adopt a naturally curved position, so that the nail phalanges are approximately perpendicular to the surface of the keys. The knuckles should be arched, the back of the hand and the fore-arm forming more or less a straight line.

The position of the arm described above (with the elbow a few inches away from the sides) and the hand (with the knuckle of the fifth finger slightly higher than that of the second) is the normal posture in piano playing.

Often, of course, in performance it becomes necessary momentarily to tilt the hand towards the fifth finger. Pianists with small hands, for example, may find it impossible to play even such a chord like this one:

Beethoven - Sonata in E

without sloping both hands in this direction. But such a departure should be followed as soon as possible by a return to the normal position which we have described.

Josef Hoffman recommendation

Josef Hoffman recommends a tilting of the hand towards the fifth finger in the playing of very rapid piano or pianissimo scales, but only when a good finger action with the hand in the normal position has been mastered. Generally, no departure from the normal position should take place when playing scales and arpeggios. In turning the thumb under the fingers this correct sloping of the hand may even be intensified. Try this. You will find that the thumb now plays with its nail in contact with the key.

It depresses the key by means of a movement away from the hand, and, having reached the key-bed, should, if the scale or arpeggio is to be continued, seem to lift the light, relaxed hand, bringing the fingers over the ensuing notes, still with the knuckle of the fifth finger slightly uppermost.

The choice of fingering is closely related to hand-position, and, it is repeated, the best fingering for any passage is usually that which will enable the fingers to be placed over several notes at once, Simple fingering is, as a rule, much more comfortable and much more efficient than the complications recommended by so many nineteenth-century editors of piano music.

Take, for instance, the following (from a well-known edition of Chopin’s Etudes) :

Chopin etude in F

Try this, and observe the constant sideways shifting of the right hand which this fingering necessitates. How much safer is the following, where the hand has to make no change of position at all (the last two notes can easily be reached by a lateral extension of the fourth and fifth fingers, leaving the hand undisturbed) :

Is there any reason at all, by the way, for playing the first two notes the repeated C with different fingers? In most editions, anyway, these notes are tied.

Or take the following example :

Beethoven Sonata op 57

Is not this much better?

Here a slight movement of the hand to the right must be made during the playing of the F and A flat in the first bar, in order to bring the fourth and fifth fingers into line with the C and D flat; and a movement to the left will occur immediately after the first note of the second bar to bring the fourth, third, second fingers and thumb over the remaining keys.

Far less lateral movement is required by the second fingering than by the first, and accuracy in the playing of the notes and in the control of their tone will consequently be found easier, provided that the player has a well-developed finger technique.

Another point in the choice of fingering is that, whenever possible, melodic sequences should be fingered similarly, and should this mean that you must occasionally play a black note with the thumb never mind! The following type of fingering, for example* is recommended:

Bach - two part invertion


It is by no means always necessary to regard editorial fingerings with suspicion, but by experimenting along these lines with the basic principles in mind, each student can decide upon the fingering which suits him best. Fingering must always remain to some extent a matter of individual adjustment, because of the almost infinite variations in the size and shape of the hands of different people.

The importance of this matter has been stressed here because, as will be seen in another piano lesson, it is essential to decide upon the fingering of any passage before practicing a note of it. This is a subject which belongs obviously to the process of ‘preparation’.

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