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Sunday, 10 January 2021

Prevention of the slow practice plateau- Why excessive slow practice can make for as little deeper progress as the piano-playing chicken

Slow practice- what is it good for and what is it not so good for?

If we were to take the most common piece of advice regarding piano playing, it would almost certainly relate to the value of slow practice. If you observe questions on forums, virtually any request for help (no matter how specific) will likely be met with at least one generic recommendation to simply practise slowly and be patient- as if that is supposed to amount to some unbelievable revelation. Now, let's be clear, there are plenty of situations in which thoughtful slow work may be what is missing. Those who don't regularly use it are not doing themselves any favours. However, there are also plenty of common problems that are actively caused by excessive amounts of generic slow practice! The main body of this post illustrates the basic premise that defines truly productive practice. However, given how devoted some are to a mantra that slower is always better, it's also necessary to start with appreciation of the severe problems that can also ensue. 

The myth is that when starting with repeated slow work, you are using the best available approach with which to build foundations for eventually playing at full speed. If someone tries to go faster and makes a mistake, they may wrongly believe that this means that they weren't ready for any faster practice at all, and that they must clearly stick solely with slow work for longer. This might seem like an excellent display of "discipline" and a sensible way to ensure that a foundation is built. In truth, such situations might more accurately be viewed as an unhelpful retreat from necessary steps, back into a comfort zone in which there is little meaningful progress left to make. I will show you why truly efficient practice should always include some elements of faster playing, from the very first session of learning a piece. For absolute beginners, it makes sense to allow a little more leeway (so they can get used to the basic feelings of playing the instrument and listening through sounds), but that still doesn't call for exclusive slow work. I'll give examples of how a more balanced approach to practice can be applied both to very basic examples and to advanced study. To start with narrow slow work risks setting up far greater frustrations further down the line. This will surprise many, but I'll explain why the time for the most extensive use of slow practice is in the intermediate and later stages of learning a piece- and not at the very beginning!

Before going to that, let's just acknowledge another common trend amongst amateur pianists. I'm talking of the kind of player who essentially "practises" almost solely in the spirit of performance style sightreading, rather than ever slow things down. They basically just approximate a performance rendition as best as they can. This involves playing through a whole piece (or substantial section) at a tempo in which there is insufficient time to pay attention to finer detail. While they may have a sense of the main features, issues will inevitably be glossed over- including notes, fingerings and control over sound etc. The results of this could be anywhere from a reasonable enough impression of the work, to the kind of playing that would see most listeners running to buy a pair of noise cancelling headphones. Either way, the results won't improve notably further by repeating in a full performance spirit, and neither is this what I'll be recommending as the alternative to a "slow is best" approach. Although these are two opposite poles of imbalanced practise, they actually share very similar underlying problems. Anyway, if you browse around Youtube, you'll particularly come across enthusiastic amateurs (as well as some supposed "prodigies") trying to force their way through the Flight of the Bumblebee, without having been through the groundwork that would prepare for a deeper sense of success. I don't wish to make an example of anyone, so here is a deliberately ropey simulation of the kind of playing I'm speaking of:

I show first a "proper" version (although, this too contains a tiny degree of imprecision- relative to the highest standard). Then there are couple of thoroughly "faked" versions. The second is the kind of thing that might be enough to fool a few listeners, but it is clearly far too approximate to be of any real value. The third is a little more subtle. On an off day, it certainly wouldn't be the worst thing that could happen in an actual performance. Nevertheless, this is really a plan B for surviving worst case scenarios. "Practising" mainly this way does not build towards reliability, but merely guarantees the need to fake at least that much in an actual performance. I was very much this way, before I realised quite how much easier I could make things. Such a learner is exactly the type who most needs to involve good quality slow practice. So why is that only one aspect of building strong foundations, and how can excess slow work cause problems?

Where slow practice equals bad practice

it's much less obvious when it comes to the problems associated with too much slow work. In order to understand this, let's start from a slightly silly exaggeration, before looking at what happens in real life. Supposing that we take a single finger and practise the Bumblebee, using only that one finger. Anyone who is capable of sufficient patience and mental focus should be able to get the part I showed with accuracy, if they slow things down enough. Even if you couldn't read the music, you could program a keyboard to light up the keys, and then peck at them like this chicken.

If you were to offer a substantial cash prize for full accuracy at any old low speed, there would be every reason to think that concentration could lead to a positive result after a single sitting. However, what would happen if you did this many times over and then tried to speed things up to a reasonable performance speed? Well, it obviously would never work. Even though every detail will have been understood mentally, you'd have to go back to square one and start again, with movements that would make it possible to flow through those same notes.

Imagine if you'd already spent a couple of weeks practising before you first tried it quicker! In this particular case, I doubt whether anyone would have wasted so much time without becoming suspicious. However, the foundation that is produced by normal slow practise can be as problematic. Arguably, the dangers are only greater in real life situations, because the flaws that you would waste time on would not yet be easy to spot. If you only go slow, you just won't find out what is wrong. It might not involve only a single finger, but it can still be based on fingerings or movements which could be unusable at even a slightly moderate performance speed. For instance, at a slow tempo you can afford to bob the whole arm on each note, without necessarily having any trouble. At a fast speed, the same style of movement will simply become frantic and lead to a sense of locking up. There are far more styles of movement that are good enough for slow speeds, than those which are also suitable to play faster.

You might notice that my camera work starts to resemble something out of a Jason Bourne film, by the end. All those jolts of the arm send corresponding jolts back through the whole body, via the force of the reactions that come back from the piano. Not only are such movements slower but they are vastly more physically stressful. All that hard work only serves to produce a low speed (scarcely higher than the maximum for one finger) and also a lumpy sounding performance. When a technique is based on individual prods, it's actually possible to get by up to an intermediate stage of learning. An equally common fault for slow practisers is to lock the arm in a static position- causing severe tension. You can get away with either fault for a time. However, you will eventually start repertoire for which your entire technique is unsuitable- both in terms of playing the notes and giving musical expression. This is why I try never to let even beginners get stuck in a "slow practice only" mindset to a new piece. Advanced technique doesn't come from using your arm to peck at notes like a chicken. Although doing so can have occasional value as one type of practice exercise, the primary role for the arm is to produce smooth horizontal movement that guides between the fingers as they play. Far from being the easiest place to learn this, slow practice is initially the hardest place of all to learn this technique- especially if you are going slow because you don't yet know the notes well enough to go any faster. 

Closely related here is also the concept of mental grouping. When we do the disciplined slow practise, it might confirm a mental grasp of details, but it doesn't mean that we are organising them into patterns. Although some will instinctively start to make larger groups, there's no guarantee. Obsessive slow practisers have a tendency to fall into the trap of simply repeating a large number of isolated thoughts, on a note by note basis. Although slow work offers plenty of time to get ready for each note, it may not be used wisely. Think of the guy at university who is the last to arrive at 11am lectures, because he lives a couple of minutes away and thus sets his alarm for 10.55. When you press a key, do you yet have any more idea about what comes next than the chicken did? Often the mind only wakes up at the last possible moment, before an urgent thrust at the next key. When the tempo is slow, you could still survive this with both full accuracy and rhythm. Raise the tempo, however, and you now have a mental and physical frenzy that will not hold together under the stress of speed- thus triggering a desire to retreat straight back to slower work. Far from creating the best foundation, retreating to a long period of slow practise may produce scarcely more learning than will be achieved by the chicken, when it pecks at individual lights. It's specifically when we step out of the comfort zone and try going faster, that we gain the necessary feedback to start improving on our thinking- especially if that causes a concealed problem to come to the surface. This is where we finally get presented with a need to plan patterns. Which raises the question:

Why waste time slowly repeating hidden flaws that you are not even aware of, for an extended period? Why not find out about possible problems as early as possible, in order to solve them before they ever turn into difficult habits?

Targeted exploration of musical units- the important precursor to repetitive slow practice

Yes, I'm afraid that the only time you can guarantee that slow practice is likely to be useful is after you could also play a particular passage faster. This is what proves that you have the sense of larger thoughts and smoother motions, to start making the slow practise meaningful. It now becomes a chance to explore details within their required context, rather than only as isolated events. If this sounds back to front (like a Catch 22 that means only the super-talented might have access to this approach) I can assure you that it isn't. When we start by targeting moderate sized musical units (and save slow work on longer sections for the second phase of our practice), we can meaningfully compare fast and slow playing side by side, from the start. This has nothing in common with the player who fakes through longer sections. The units will always be small enough to both plan precisely and then easily monitor for quality. When we make mistakes, we will revert back to a slower version for immediate corrections, before varying speeds as required. The key is to start with units that you can reliably hold in your short term memory, as a single mental image. I'll come back to how to build the Bumblebee in the final section, but let's start with a relatively easy example of this targeted style of practice. 

We'll look at the basic groups for the right hand, in bars 1-4. I have drawn square brackets at the top, which show our physical groups ie groups of notes that lie under the fingers all at once. Incidentally, I generally mark the majority of my fingerings via this method- so as to force thinking in groups rather than individual fingers. In this case, each group spans five notes between the lowest and highest pitches. Assign five fingers to five notes and any detail of fingering comes automatically, based on context in a bigger thought. In the film I first play two five-note clusters to reflect this- as the most global perspective possible for those four bars. Now, it wouldn't necessarily be "wrong" to start by breaking the music into two bar groups, based on these positions, and practise them separately from each other. However, it would leave out an important rhythmic join. In this case, our primary groups also require bridging across the two physical groups. Good early work will find the important musical groups and assemble them in the very first session. The primary musical joins in the score are shown with phrase marks. There are two particular principles here that are more important than the physical positions:

1. Musical units rarely finish either at the ends of beats or bars. The natural conclusion of a musical unit is almost always on the start of a beat, and most typically the first beat of a bar. Typical groups would be a bar of music plus a note, or a beat worth of semiquavers (16ths) plus a note etc. If unsure, it's usually better to add one extra note, just in case, rather than risk cutting off an important link. By aiming towards the main rhythmic features, even work on small fragments will contribute positively to your general sense of pulse.

2. A run of shorter notes can almost never be regarded as completed until they arrive directly into the destination of longer note. When short notes continue non-stop for a significant time, it is best to introduce temporary stopping points after (*never before*) arriving at strong rhythmic moments. This divides up the work into smaller journeys towards the main rhythmic divisions, with the lowest possible risk of causing habits of hesitation.

These probably won't make sense as abstract ideas yet. However, it should clarify the premise when I show how our practice groups come directly from these. Firstly, the most common early mistake is to play the four descending semiquavers and then freeze at the bar line. I show this first in the film, before connecting them to their destination. The next note is harder to find, of course. Also, the nature of beaming in music is problematic. In theory work it is convenient to distinguish beats and bars from neighbouring notes, with clear visual separations. In practical performance, linking across beats and bars needs to be the standard way of thinking, otherwise the pulse will break down. The notes which look most separated out (due to beaming and bar lines), often require the tightest rhythmic connections of all. Seeing as the the look of printed music is something that actively hinders our instincts, we have to be constantly mindful of the need to attend to these joins.

To play the four beamed semiquavers and then pause will defy both of the above principles for building coherent musical units. The last semiquaver does not establish itself as being a semiquaver unless the next note arrives in correct time. We might have played all four notes, but the last has no rhythmic meaning yet. It won't feel remotely complete, even as a smaller idea, because the notes just vanish into nothing when a strong beat would be due. The physical movement is equally incomplete, with no sense of being aimed at any major destination. If we either go slow or allow a separation there, we may have little sense of how to produce the needed motion. The link therefore needs to be built both into our earliest mental conception of the music and into the movement that we apply.  In the video I show it first with a gap. It's okay if you do that once, but only if you immediately work on connecting up the whole unit (of four short notes to a long note) before going onward to the next unit. Generally, the destination of a musical group should be the first to plan, as the primary point of focus. If you understand it well, you'll be able to try it both slow and relatively fast. Compare both until it feels familiar and easy. "Fast" is a relative concept and need not immediately be extreme. However, you have to at least go fast enough to be sure that you have got it down to a sense of one fully premeditated action. If you are figuring things out halfway through playing, you haven't yet organised your thoughts. The arm should lead downwards and then back up to the high note, in one sweep. If you feel separate thoughts or movements (or if you make a mistake) always slow the playing down to take back control. Just don't go on to the next unit until you can get both get a very directed fast version and an equally directed slow version. Neither has value unless referenced against the other. The arm needs to guide us clearly through both versions- not by pressing down on individual fingers but by drifting steadily towards them. This drift of the arm is what makes the whole unit feel like a single process, rather than a series of conscious decisions. 

The second time we get the run of descending notes, the destination is much harder to get to. The trick here is not to fixate on that note alone, but on the whole shape we are moving to. I don't start by pressuring myself to play the note itself, but simply make room to align to the overall hand shape. Again, pauses are okay before a trickier note, as long as we build in a true rhythmic join during the same session. The notes have to be able to lead to the F sharp as a rhythmic destination, otherwise our units will be full of holes. Again, going slow is okay for working out/correction, but you should check the same unit fast, to see if you have truly understood it yet. It's the slightly quicker executions that tell us where we stand. This piece is certainly not so hard that to just slowly muddle through couldn't eventually work. It's just a lot quicker to learn when we work to an active plan for covering the necessary difficulties.

Notice that the semiquavers are still going as we proceed into bar 3. The strictest application of our second principle would suggest we shouldn't stop until landing into the longer quaver A. However, we don't need to be so strict here. This is a great example of how we can use a strong rhythmic moment as a point of overlap, in order to keep our initial units small and manageable. Our previous group ended in the F sharp on a clear beat. Our next group will begin here. Because it is included in both, no connection has been left out! Just a single note of overlap is enough to ensure that our rhythmic connections are being set, even in this slightly fragmented early work. Because the main thoughts are directed towards dealing with all of the trickier connections, we will achieve much more than by just going slow or by hoping to do everything all at once. 

The last thing I show is how the final two bars break down. Again, we should be acutely aware of the risk of stopping before the bar line and thus robbing ourselves of the most important link. A key difference this time, is that we should not even begin with a pause before the bar line! I show first on the film with a break between bars, but as an illustration of what not to do! Previously, we had particular difficulties that would make it initially forgivable. First there was a large interval and then there was a whole change of hand position, as we passed the bar lines. Taking the pressure off these makes sense at first, as long as we attend to the missing link. This time, notice that the note across the bar line is nothing more than a continued descent through adjacent notes. If we should stop in the middle of such a simple pattern, it is not caused by any difficulty. It can only be seen as a sign of operating much like the chicken ie in isolated events, without a sense of the pattern. We have to resist any tendency to allow our units to be dictated by bar lines, unless we are happy to progress slowly and with more difficulty!

Notice that if we do divide into bars, the last bar looks more complex. Nothing could make the second bar seem much more difficult, than freezing before playing the E. When we treat the strong first beat as being the natural conclusion of the previous idea, the notes we are left with form a very neat descent through a D major chord. I have marked these with a smaller bracket, inside the larger one. We aren't changing the basic alignment of the hand from before, so the original bracket stands. However, it's a good time to calibrate the hand into the more specific shape of those particular three notes. That's why I initially play it as a single chord, on the film, before doing the literal version. If the D major shape is already felt, the arm need merely guide us down through the three fingers of the existing shape. Although it would probably have been manageable to do the whole two bars in one go, breaking them into these two memorable concepts actually makes it even easier to assemble the two bar idea.

Following these preparations, it should now be easy to assemble the whole four bars in a slow tempo  Note that the bars do work rather nicely here as a self-contained idea. However, if you should worry about connecting to bar 5, you could join the final D major unit to the first note of that bar- to fully comply with our two principles from before. Anyway, when we reassemble the music, this is where the traditional style of slow practise can now be done in a truly meaningful fashion- ie to explore the details (both musical and physical) of a fully mapped out journey. High quality slow practise is like deliberately slowing down a familiar walk to make a point of looking closely at the scenery. If we go slow because we frequently have no idea as to where we are really going, this doesn't even truly count as practising yet- let alone high quality practice. Many would fall into the trap of doing a slow trudge through a whole piece or section. Doing this many times over wouldn't guarantee a sense of how to truly join even the semiquavers to the downbeat of bar 2, let alone the other important links. It is vastly more productive to take smaller units and target them for early mastery, than to simply read through slowly. The sole way to be sure that your slow practise will count for something, is if you have already been through some of those focused bursts of quicker playing. 

Extended slow practise should never be treated as a display of true discipline, before this varied work has been undertaken. If you can't yet do anything quicker, I'm afraid that slow-only practise should best be regarded as "chickening" out. I hope you'll forgive the awful pun, but you may indeed be operating more like that chicken than a good practiser, if you are avoiding difficulties out of fear. You're not likely to actually avoid the deepest and most meaningful mistakes. All you'll avoid is knowing about them. This is where slow practisers and the sloppier performance style practisers are opposite poles of the same problem. Both amount to repeating much the same broadly familiar experience over and over, generally in rather long sections and with minimal active intervention to fix things up. The only difference is that the performance style practisers are constantly exposing all their faults (before doing little about them) whereas the slow practisers are constantly keeping most of them concealed (before doing equally little about them). Yes, it's a simplistically harsh categorisation and analysis, but if you want to improve your progress then it's essential to be realistic about the likely results of any narrow practice style. What good practisers do is to take units and sculpt them into a desired form. 

A way to summarise good practice would be to say that it is based on constant alternation between greater risk-taking (in order to check for faults to be attended to) and extreme comfort (in order to go ahead and attend to those faults). You have to be extreme at both ends. It's like having two completely contradictory personalities that you can switch on and off at a moment's notice. Indeed, there isn't necessarily any advantage to be being someone who falls somewhere in the middle. Balance is not obtained here by being neither quite one thing nor the other. That might give slightly better results than having an extreme tendency towards one side. However, you can also get stranded in middle ground. Such a practiser might be someone who neither truly explores their limits, nor ever slows down enough to fully solve problems. The balance of good practice is chiefly earned by being sufficiently extreme at both ends. Anyway, once you have checked that you can do any unit at various speeds (with both a few wild mistakes and patient corrections along the way), that's the first moment at which slow practice of an extended passage is something that you should genuinely want to congratulate yourself for. At this point you are indeed demonstrating self control- by restraining yourself from letting the fingers fly, and instead making time to listen to every detail (as if fascinated by the quality of each musical interval) within that established bigger picture. Slow practice of a bigger idea can now become a truly musical process and a chance to cement good quality movements.

Building the Bumblebee from basic principles

The Bumblebee might be a more difficult and advanced piece. Nevertheless, if anything it actually breaks down even more simply than the Bach example. Even if you don't consider yourself anywhere near advanced enough to play it, please continue reading anyway- if you want to appreciate how relatively simple the units can be, in advanced music.

The running semiquavers of the bumblebee offer no natural stopping points, so our 2nd principle of earlier is applied here- via points of overlap. These are assigned to the beats, in order to apply the principle of working past beamed groups of four notes. Our groups are always four beamed semiquavers plus one extra- to land directly on a clear pulse division. Our first group starts on E and consists of four descending chromatic notes, before they change direction back up to D. I descend from 5 but then go back up to 4 on D, for the change of direction. I show it slowly first, with minimal arm movement and only finger movement. Not because you should do this, mind. Rather, this is one of the most common faults to watch for in slow practise. This is exactly sort of problem that this method is out to catch to solve at once. Because I do it fast straight after, it makes it much easier to feel the need to place those finger movements into a bigger sweep of the arm. The forearm now follows along with the fingers and rotates back to the right for the change of direction. Some will describe this as if the arm does the fingers' work for them, which is another great reason for alternating slow and fast. This is an illusion that you can only hope to access through having access to efficient and precisely delivered finger movements. For many, it would simply be an unhelpful image to work from. The arm motion is there to organise and keep you free, but cannot possibly replace basic movement of the fingers. Again, this is exactly why we will try it faster at once. If attempting a flawed pattern of pushing the arm through lifeless/stiff fingers, we need to expose the fact that it is going to be of little use. If you do simply jam up under arm pressure, then you'll know that the fingers must first learn to move better via the slower version. Don't just slow down however, but actively concentrate on moving the fingers freely- with the arm serving as a guide rather than some steamroller-like pressure. Get this and you should also be able to go faster again without jamming up. Even if you do get a great fast version early on, slow down anyway and check that you can pace the same smooth guiding arm movement at a slower rate. Constant comparison helps both faster and slower executions to improve.

The other thing to note is that after reaching the destination, we also need to find a new group of fingers- ready for the following unit. Again, this is exactly the kind of thing that is easily missed from general slow practise of a longer passage. The location of our arrival note is perfectly placed for the moment of reorganisation of the other fingers. I didn't include this in my first executions, but once I was satisfied by a couple, I gave equal attention to finishing into a shape that is perfectly poised. I might not be playing them yet, but I still need to think about ending in readiness for them. This has to be a very quick adjustment, by the time we stitch things together- so start to include it in the very first sitting! Playing the D should flick the other fingers out and into a state of readiness. If you think of it as a place to "relax" then this will be a real non-starter. The goal is neither relaxation nor stiffness, but a state of alert readiness in which fingers feel primed for movement. I often like to tap the newly ready fingers against the surface of the keys, while giving equal attention to the support that they receive from the held note. We don't want to be rummaging in the dark for some magical balance of tension/relaxation. Focus on being ready to move freely and the sense of purpose will give the best clues. Comfort is a must, but don't mistake aimless relaxation for being a positive quality! That fourth finger needs to stay positively active, in order to assist the shift of position. Relaxation that doesn't prime for movement is only a bill for more severe future tensions!

Going through the following units, the idea is much the same. From the D we go down from 4 and reverse back up to a 4 on C. Again, the arm leads and we can do various speeds. Note that although the fast ones are most dependent on guiding arm movements, those movements actually become smaller at speed. Don't be fooled into thinking that you can get the same from a tightly held arm. When this happens, tension in the wrist will stop the tendons sliding freely, to move the fingers. This will negatively effect both fast and slow playing, unless we keep the arm free via motion. Slower executions are a chance to rehearse smooth arm movements in the most visible form. However, to go really fast, you have to appreciate the difference between reducing movement and replacing it with stiffness. We need that sideways movement- to avoid either locking into place, or jamming into the keys with awkward arm pressure. 

Our third group may seem more different than it really is. This time the notes go all the way down from 4 on C, before 4 crosses over the thumb. Here's the slightly weird thing though. When we went to finger 4 before, we rocked to the right. We need to do the same again, even though the notes continue to the left. This reversal will allow the hand to throw open into the new position. Imagine rocking a little bit too far to the left and you will then be able to end by rocking back a little to the right. The note may be to the left, but the finger itself is still more to the right side of the hand, relative to the previous thumb. With this, it should feel pretty effortless to open up again. On the final group we'll pass 3 over- but again rock to the right while it plays. Every unit works in the same movement pattern- of four notes to the left and then a rotation back to the right, during the extra note.

With all of our little journeys mapped out and rehearsed, it's now time to put the whole thing together. Think of the destination notes from the smaller units as being like mini-landmarks within a now larger journey. We should have an excellent balance between very conscious references and notes that can be taken a little more on trust, in between those landmarks. When going slow, concentrate again on constant arm guidance. If that works out, you even have the option of trying them all fast. I show this next, but I would frequently recommend avoiding this until you have already done a few sessions- involving both the individual units (fast and slow) as well as the bigger segment at slow or medium speeds. The traditional idea of pacing the speed increase becomes very sensible- once we have already built the basic units and begun work at a larger segment. It takes some settling in of the foundations before we'd normally hope to do a significantly large unit quickly. Although you should understand the importance of early fast and slow work upon basic units, please don't try to force early speed upon larger passages that clearly aren't ready!

Anyway, this wasn't the first time I'd ever practised this so it went fine at speed. But what if you did start making errors? Well, had it not gone well, it wouldn't have been a big concern. This would merely have been taken as a sign to back off for now and do more with the building blocks first. Most likely the failed attempt would reveal that specific ones need further attention. To have a go at something and fail once isn't a big deal, if you respond sensibly. As I suggested earlier, to retreat to slow only practise is best regarded as an overly cautious and counterproductive approach. However, it's a very different matter to return to perfecting those musical building blocks, with both slow and fast versions of the manageable units. Do slow work on the longer passage only after refreshing those units at various speeds, or you will be likely to retreat to the wrong kind of comfort zone.

I finished on one final slower rendition and I can't stress enough the value of generally ending on slower and more exploratory practise. You might note that I didn't just play slowly but also flexibly. A strict tempo tends towards causing mindless and more mechanical practice. I was not running a mechanical routine here, but playing out of a specific desire to observe as much as possible. This is designed to refresh the conscious understanding of all the details, not just to repeat a routine. It feels more like "improvisation" than drilling. The notes may be fixed but you can explore the sound and the pacing, live in the moment. This wouldn't be possible with slow metronomic drilling. Stricter slow practise can take away from the smoothness and fluidity of movement and make for a less musical experience. The slowness doesn't even come from thinking directly about speed, but simply from desire to pay attention. When that desire is strong, the slowness comes organically.  Because all the units have been very well mapped out and paced, the risk of this breaking the sense of flow is now very small. Thanks to the quality of the groundwork, it becomes possible to place finer details of the journey under a microscope- without that ever meaning isolated and awkward movements on separate notes. I can't stress enough that however much wilder practise we might be doing, you should never lose touch with the ability to consciously slow down a familiar journey. It's a chance to look at the tiniest little things, and listen to the intervals with a sense of fascination. This is where slow practise starts to take on a genuinely meaningful role.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Major and minor arpeggios in all inversions- a comprehensive explanation of how to understand patterns via fingering groups, for efficient practice


Quite a few years back I wrote a post breaking down scale fingering. When it comes to scale fingering resources, we are typically treated to reams of details, on a note by note basis. The normal approach is to simply read these off and repeat by rote until the scales are fluent. Instead of working that way, my post was designed to show a small number of defining features based on relationships between hands. With understanding of merely two basic unifying relationships, all major and minor keys (excepting only B flat and E flat major) can be covered within a simple premise, that will easily allow you to find any smaller detail by association. This saves a huge amount of time, that can be wasted when swamped in the least relevant details. Although nothing can altogether replace rote practise, the process is more efficient when we have a clear and simple vision of the foundation which holds lesser details together- ie thumb locations (particularly those where both thumbs coincide). 

In a sense, arpeggio fingering is so much more straightforward that it doesn't actually require a similar post. I'll give a brief summary. When an arpeggio begins from a white key you should start with the lowest available finger. That will be the thumb in the right hand and the 5th finger in the left hand (which leaves no spare fingers unused beneath the starter note, in either hand). However, this 5th finger is a one off substitute, on what would usually be the thumb's note. In following octaves, both thumbs land here as your chief reference (until the right hand uses 5 at the top- again as a substitute for the usual thumb). You then just need to decide on the other fingers. All major/minor arpeggios are built on a basic hand shape of 1235 or 1245. Your sole choice is between 3 or 4. Looking at the width of the spaces between notes should usually make it easy to tell which fits a chord shape best. However, if the arpeggio starts on a black key, you must look to see if there is a white key included in the chord.  If there are none, you can still apply the original principle- as if the black keys are really white keys. When white keys are available, however, you will assign your thumbs here, rather than to the starting black key. You can build the basic hand shape around this primary thumb location- in the same manner as if the arpeggio had begun here.

I've skimmed over a couple of extra details and that may be a little too condensed to make sense to all, right away (especially if you haven't already learned a few arpeggios to reference back to this). You may first want to start from a fingering chart and relate the details there back to this logic. Nevertheless, once you start to recognise the mechanics of this deeper premise, you really won't need much more. However, this post also runs far beyond which fingers go on which keys. Although studying this should soon ensure that you would never need to check an arpeggio manual again, the main focus is on making logical groupings of arpeggios for practice purposes- based on physical similarity. When putting similar arpeggios alongside each other, you will quickly come to understand them on a far deeper level. In fact, if you're the kind of person who doesn't particularly enjoy scales and arpeggios (but grudgingly recognises that they have value) you might assume that this post isn't particularly for you. Actually, you're exactly the kind of person who needs this- so you can get the basics ingrained permanently, with as little fuss as possible and only a bare minimum of drilling. The groups I'm going to show are extremely logical, yet far from obvious. It wouldn't be easy to stumble upon this approach for yourself. While plenty of the background is common knowledge elsewhere, I'm not aware of any other source that offers these groupings. Feel free to skip to the end section for the lists, if you don't find anything new to you in the middle section.

Chord positions vs hand positions

Before showing the specific organisations into groups, I'm just going to show how the number of black/white keys within a chord directly contributes to the features that determine which group a chord belongs in. Although an arpeggio can be played in the shape of the three different chord positions (ie root position, first inversion, or second inversion), only some of these are what I'll refer to as a "physically natural" shape, from which the thumb can pass. While some chords are best served by having a different hand placement for each of the three possible shapes, elsewhere we must recycle a single hand placement for two or more shapes. You'll see what I mean through the following examples.

Basic arpeggios with only white keys/only black keys:

In the key of C major, say, C is the lowest note in root position, with E as the lowest for first inversion, or G as the lowest for second inversion. In traditional approaches, as I said earlier, the standard fingering for any of these shapes starts from the thumb in the right hand and 5 in the left hand, as long as the lowest note is a white key. Seeing as every note of C major is a white key, we thus have three physically natural chord shapes to fit the hand directly upon. Our chord positions and hand positions are one and the same thing.

I show all of these at the start of the film above. Before practising the arpeggio in each shape, I first get my hand used to that shape by playing it as a four note chord. Then I go quickly up and down the notes of that chord, using plenty of side to side arm movement to keep everything free. Do this as the norm for every arpeggio you practise until you have such a good sense of the shape, that you can imagine it in full detail. There's no sense in even trying to play through a whole arpeggio, unless you can easily go up and down the basic chord shape within an octave. Once the hand feels fully "tuned in" to the shape, I execute the actual arpeggio by passing the thumb. Each of the three chord shapes has a new placement of the hand to match. Notice how the thumb always defines which shape we are aligned to. Rather than demonstrate super-slow, to save both your time and mine I only went moderately slow. However, you don't need to try to watch every small detail closely. I want you to put almost all of your attention on where the thumbs occur, and notice how this governs the shapes.

As an alternative, we could also take the way the hand was set to the root position shape and simply recycle that. Root position fingering (in terms of which finger was assigned to which key) can now be applied to the inversions of the chord. I show this next in the film. Although this might sometimes be an option, I'd have to stress that it can't truly replace what I showed before. Particularly when doing the first inversion arpeggio, it becomes awkward to turn around rapidly on 1 and 2 at the top. To prove this, I show a 1st inversion run right up the piano, similar to one that features in a Pletnev arrangement from the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker. I first match my hand to the first inversion shape and then try it with the hand set to a root position shape. It should be very clear how much more sweep is possible when you start and finish from a full open hand shape, by matching the hand position to the chord shape. I can survive it when I use root position fingering but the awkward reversal at the top stops it coming alive. It's physically more fiddly at both top and bottom, which causes greater caution and restraint. To truly master white key arpeggios, you absolutely need a fingering for each position. 

Aside from the many arpeggios with only white keys, G flat major and E flat minor exist upon three black keys. Seeing as we have no choice but to place the thumbs on a black key, here we treat them no differently to if they were on white keys. With three available keys to put the thumb on, we again have three chord shapes to match with three hand shapes.

Arpeggios starting from a black key, with at least one white key

However, lets look now at E flat major (E flat, G, B flat). There are always three different positions available for a chord, as defined by the lowest note. However, according to the premise of traditional arpeggio fingering, we need to avoid taking the thumb on a black key- as long as there is a white key available. This is because the thumb is shorter than the fingers and it is generally more awkward to have to reach forward into the black keys, during thumb passing (I should point out that this rule is occasionally broken in advanced piano playing, although this lies outside of the standard foundations). In the following video, I start by including these "wrong" fingerings, just for illustration purposes.

Again, I start by getting the hand used to the shape of the chord. Notice that there's nothing awkward about merely being on any of the basic shapes. It's solely when going on to pass the thumb, that the thumb on a black key is seen to be a problem (I'm not bad at these, but you might notice my loss of legato on the 2nd inversion). Seeing as there is only one white key, we only have one superior option available. Regardless of which chord position we play the arpeggio in, our hand will be built around the thumb note G- in a first inversion shape. By the way, I show with my right hand, but the left hand will be building positions around the exact same notes. Our premise is universal, not specific to either hand. Unlike C major, it makes no difference as to which which note the arpeggio begins from. Instead of matching the hand position to the specific chord position that starts the arpeggio, we take the one physically natural shape (via the white key) and base everything upon it.

When we base fingering around thumb awareness, it's easy to find the other details from there. It's important to recognise that the thumb is always the main unifying feature of arpeggios and thus needs to be given far more attention than any mere starter note. For black key arpeggios where we have a white key available for the thumb, the finger for the first note is an extremely minor detail. The first note is only the most meaningful in our thoughts, if it also happens to be a thumb note. Giving more attention to a starting black key than to the thumb location will radically slow down understanding and progress. In fact, it doesn't even matter what finger you take on the first note. I took 2 on E flat, but any finger is fine- as long as it gives control over the sound and leads you comfortably towards the thumb and the following shape. 

I have always found it rather odd that the ABRSM introduces the E flat major arpeggio in root position early on, yet waits until the advanced grades to include even a single first inversion arpeggio. It makes little sense to start E flat major in root position, if your prior experience is only of white key arpeggios in root position. They may both be root position chords, physically speaking, but the physical foundations have nothing in common. To go straight to root position conceals the true simplicity of the arpeggio, by prematurely throwing the student into the deep end. The natural course of events would be to first learn a white key first inversion arpeggio, such as C major. This prepares for the basic feel of a similar physical inversion. The next step is to also learn E flat major in the physically natural first inversion. The final step is to go back to play the arpeggio in root position- with an existing feel for the 1st inversion position you are headed towards. When a student doesn't begin with the fundamental physical shape for an arpeggio, the movement is bound to be awkward. This is simply due to feeling mentally and physically disoriented- not because the technique includes any remarkable demands. 

Just a final point for this mixed group- B flat major is the only root position arpeggio that starts on a black key, where there are two white notes available. This means that when playing it in root position, you have two locations available for the thumbs. There are two physically natural shapes to form, around either the D or the F. As long as you practise the arpeggio in both of these inversions, it doesn't necessarily matter which note you choose to place the thumb on, when returning to root position. In this video I practise a B flat arpeggio in both available inversions. 

Once these shapes are familiar, I can use either arrangement of the hand to execute the root position arpeggio. When using two hands at once, I recommend matching both thumbs to the same white key. However, note that many scale books put one thumb on F and the other on D. For me, this is the fingering equivalent of wearing odd socks ie if you're happy and comfortable with it then feel free, but it wouldn't be my idea of a default style. Don't do it just because a book says so! Take control over your thumb options and find your own preference. The same applies with first inversion arpeggios on a chord that has one black key in the middle eg. D major. There are two physically natural shapes based on each of the white keys. I show both from the thumb notes and then show the first inversion D major based on both possible hand shapes.

That covers the general concept of building everything directly from the physically natural shapes (ie. those in which thumb passing is convenient), before reusing them for other chord positions. What's left is how to organise the arpeggios together into logical practise groups via...

The 3 Groupings

We have three categories to practise, corresponding to the three basic chord shapes. This isn't quite as it might seem, however. As I said earlier, a root position chord of E flat major has nothing physically in common with a root position C major. When we practise in relation to the physically natural groups, E flat major would go into our first inversion group, even if we execute it starting directly from the root. The only physically natural way to use the hand is in the first inversion shape- thus it's in the first inversion category where E flat belongs. We get consistency when we work from the shapes built around our thumbs on the white keys. Getting the pattern is more complicated than merely taking every chord of a particular inversion and thinking we can therefore lump them in together. However, the root position group has the fewest surprises. We basically just omit those that would start on a black key (other than the two in group c, in which every black key functions as a "virtual" white key). Every arpeggio we'll look at throughout is built on the thumb/5th finger. The simplest way to order this is as follows.

Group 1- root positions

1a C maj, D min, E min, F maj, G maj, A min, B min

1b C min, D maj, E maj, F min, G min, A maj, B maj

1c G flat maj, E flat minor

I show what is happening in the following video.

However, I didn't want to waste your time by playing every arpeggio for you. I just play the chord shapes to show the same order as above. First, play open fifths ascending on the white keys, from C and G. Each of these will go on to create two root position chords- one minor and one major. Every fifth is on two white keys until we arrive at B. For B, the needed fifth is an F sharp, thus making it the odd one out. Group a is found by filling in the third as a white key and working through. Group b is slightly more complex. If the one in Group a was a minor chord, raise the third by a semitone and get a major chord. If it was a major chord, lower the third and get a minor chord. I show the process of adjustment first, but then play straight through the order of group b on its own. Every one of these chords now has a black key in the middle. Whereas the whole of the first group is literally identical physically (aside for the unique B minor), there are more subtle differences here. The minor chords have the black key very slightly lower than for the majors. The physical shape is not identical but merely very similar. To go deeper into fingering now, you might include this into your consideration for the left hand. Every right hand shape here is 1235, beyond question. In the left you may use 4s or 3s. You might consider 4 for such chords as C minor and 3 for such chords as A major. This naturally corresponds with those subtle differences of distance between keys. For myself, I mostly use 4s with occasional 3s, although with no particular consistency. I have practised them all both ways and can do either, so I'm now happy enough to simply do what feels right in a given moment- as long as my hand is properly set to the arpeggio shape. Whatever you should choose, putting these subtly different arpeggios side by side is a quick way to build a feel for them all. Finally, group c is the very small group of the two black key only chords. 

I'd spend at least a week or so practising Group 1 alone (you might want to get that done first, before reading on, and then return for another group). That will mean you have worked at every single arpeggio in which the hand is physically matched to a root position shape. Those chords that were omitted don't feature ever feature in root position setup, for arpeggios. We instead see them in the other groups.

Group 2- 2nd inversions

2a C maj, D min, E min, F maj, G maj, A min, B flat maj

2b C min, D maj, E maj, F min, G min, A maj, B flat min

2c G flat maj, E flat minor

I show second inversion next, because it's mostly rather similar to what we already did. However, notice the one difference in the fifths. Remember that the premise is always based on narrowing down to chords with a thumb on a white key (excepting our "virtual" white keys in of group c). The thumb needs to be on F, so we get our perfect fifth by adding a B flat to it. Also, this time the left hand will definitely need to take a 5321 fingering to fit to all chord shapes. It's now the right hand that can choose between 3/4. We can carry similar reasoning over from the last group (although it's now in major chords the right hand has the smaller gap between a black key and the top, whereas in minor chords the bigger gap might suggest a 3). One extra thing of note is that this group contains the only physically natural position for B flat minor- so the other two forms for the arpeggio are built from this same second inversion hand shape.

Group 3- 1st Inversions

3a C maj, D min, E min, F maj, G maj, A min, B min

3b C sharp min, D flat maj, E flat maj, F sharp min, G sharp min, A flat maj, B flat maj

3c G flat maj, E flat minor

The good news on this one is that the fingering is very easy. Both hands should always be based on 1245. The widest interval is in the centre for each hand, so the spare 3rd finger is best left 'spare' in that gap. The bad news is that this is probably the single most difficult group to understand conceptually. You may want to read through the written chords quite a few times, before you start to practise the arpeggios in the sequence. However, there is still a pattern here that you can get used to. For the first group, there's another chance to merely cruise along on the white keys until you get to B minor- again the odd one out. For group b, what you need to remember is that our thumb note will always be marking the third of a major or minor chord, which has to have a black key as its root. Where E had been the 3rd of a C major chord in group a, the only other chord it can be the 3rd of is a C sharp minor chord. Note also the adjustment to get from group a to group b. If you come from a major chord, the middle notes slide up a semitone. If you come from a minor chord then they both slide down a semitone. You need to know your basic chords very well before this becomes easy to remember. However with a certain amount of repetition, it will become familiar. It's worth the effort, because even a relatively small amount of practise in this highly organised setup can give rather quick results.

Remember that this is truly comprehensive in setting the physical foundations for all inversions of any major or minor chord. We didn't directly practise all of these here, but we covered every hand shape that might serve as a foundation for the remaining ones. I've been working this way for many years and I can assure you that I checked every possibility. It's all there. With these down, you'll be ready to try using the common orders in method books, which can require you to dart between physical positions without the same consistency. By then it won't matter, as you should have the tools to cope with this. 

All that remains for the other chords or inversions is to picture one of the practised shapes and either begin somewhere in the middle of it, or use a substitute finger to lead into it. For example in D flat major right hand we usually take 4 on D flats, but we can begin from 2 or 3, as long as there is a strong sense of the first inversion shape that we are headed for.  If you do work through these groups systematically, you should find that it would barely take a moment's thought to picture the two different chord shapes around which you could arrange the hand for a B minor 2nd inversion, say. Also, I won't list them right now, but I also apply a similar formulaic breakdown of all the diminished 7th and dominant 7th chords- again arranging the thumb for every possible white key based inversion of these chords. You can take it further still into plenty of chromatic chords and ones that you might make up for yourself. Once you appreciate thumb anchors in just about any context, a very wide number of possibilities open up. Fitting your hands around the shapes of the keyboard becomes incredibly fluent, as if it were nothing more than some inborn natural instinct. Perhaps some pianists really do get there that way, but it's a lot easier to cheat your way there via systematic practise.