Piano technique is the ability to get the right sound at the right time out of the piano. It is the ability to realize music, how we interact with our instrument. It is the ability to say what we want to say, to speak through music. Like our instruments themselves, technique is but a means to an end: music. An instrument, after all, is merely a tool without which we cannot accomplish a given task: Medical instruments allow us to practice medicine, scientific instruments give us access to facts the unaided senses are unable to perceive, and musical instruments enable us to make music that could not otherwise exist.

As a means, not an end, "technique" implies a musical object. Whenever we play any notes in succession we express a musical thought. Whether that thought is a coherent musical idea depends on the notes themselves and on their delivery. This latter is technique.

Piano technique could be thought of as the "interface" between a musical idea and the music that comes out of the piano:

piano technique 2

Piano technique is our control over our instrument. After all, the most sophisticated airplane in the world is useless if you don't know how to fly it. So it is with the piano.

It would seem to be the case that, ideally, we would eliminate this link in the musical chain altogether, and that ought to get us one step closer to the music. There have indeed been attempts to realize pieces of music on mechanically or electronically controlled pianos, and even whole pieces composed for them. There is great irony, however, in this approach: Machines sound mechanical, and music seems to need the human, which is to say emotional, component in the form of... dare I say imperfection?

It is tragic that piano technique gradually has tended to become more and more mechanical. It seems that as machines were invented to do the work of humans, humans in turn aspired to become machines, setting mechanical perfection as their standard. Mechanical perfection is only desirable insofar as it serves to express music more perfectly.

Indeed, there is even a musicologist who has publicly made the claim that one day machines will be better interpreters of Beethoven's music than humans. I fear that nightmare might actually come true, though not for the reason this musicologist suggested. The tragic irony, as I see it, is that we've come so far from Beethoven's world of sound that one day machines, with their artificial souls, may indeed come to decipher Beethoven's foreign musical language better than humans as the aesthetic and culture that created this music recede into the black hole of history.

Instrumental technique is indeed akin to vocabulary in language: The better one's technique, the more one is capable of expressing. A singer who struggles to hit the high notes or a person stuttering and stumbling in a foreign language is unable to deliver his or her message clearly. Yet a repertory of words by no means guarantees that one has something to say. Technique is mere expressive potential, the way IQ is not actual knowledge (and certainly not wisdom) but the mere potential to learn and to solve problems.

There is a hidden danger to piano technique. Rather unlike expanding one's vocabulary, practicing "technique" all by itself is not only a contradiction in terms, it is almost always outright harmful. All too often piano technique is pursued as an end in itself. Students diligently practice their scales, arpeggios and octaves without regarding the sounds they're making and they then go on to do damage to etudes and sonatas. It is exceedingly difficult to restore musical order in these pianists and teach them how to listen, which is to say to acquire a musical technique.

On the other hand, I do not count myself among those purists who believe that any display of piano technique is inherently distasteful. A lot of piano music, particularly from the 19th century, makes enormous demands upon a pianist's technical equipment. Let's face it: Virtuosity is thrilling. We enjoy witnessing feats of human accomplishment in athletics, dance and music. Indeed, part of what makes great art truly great is that it is an accomplishment. What distinguishes music from a circus show is that it is (or ought to be) performed in the service of an artistic message and not for mere display.

Technique is a necessary concomitant of art, for art without technique, as the past century of art has proven, is limited in its communicative power at best, and empty at worst. Part of the beauty of great music lies in the synthesis of brain, feeling and fingers in executing demanding music with seeming ease. Beautiful music is so much more than mere athletics, but athletic accomplishment should also not be discounted. What makes it meaningful (and in fact paradoxically more "athletic") is when it is done with elegance and finesse.

I am reminded of the wise words of Nadia Boulanger, perhaps the greatest music teacher of the twentieth century, in reply to a pianist's unsuccessful attempt to exceed her ability: "Technique is a veeeery little thing. [long pause] But without it... you have nothing."

These words should cure any budding pianist attempting to obtain the world's fastest octaves at the expense of mastering the critical musical fundamentals. I cannot say how many times I have heard nominally advanced students attempt to play complicated repertoire without knowing their musical ABCs.

Principles of piano technique

Before discussing actual elements of piano technique it is necessary to consider its principles, particularly as these have become endangered (even amongst professionals):

Listening

Every motion is connected to a musical thought. Proper piano technique, as opposed to mere Fingerfertigkeit, is a feedback loop between the ear and fingers. The ear always directs the fingers, which trigger a sound, which influences the next sound, which itself is directed by the ear:

piano technique 3

$$The hardest task for any instrumentalist is learning to listen to ourselves.$$

("Fingerfertigkeit" is a wonderful German word for which we have no equivalent in English, save for perhaps "prestidigitation" of which British reviewers are fond. That's a shamelessly pretentious word which in my opinion ought to be replaced by what it really means: fast fingers. In any case, "Fingerfertigkeit" simply means "finger ability.")

The primary distinction between proper piano technique and "Fingerfertigkeit" is that the latter is entirely independent of actual sound, which after all is the very musical object. John Cage's nonsense experiments notwithstanding, without sound there is no music. Technique therefore need always have an aural referent: In other words, we always need to hear the proper sound in our mind's ear first. Making the actual sound match what we want to achieve is piano technique—whereas Fingerfertigkeit might as well be typing proficiency.

It is unfortunate that piano technique does not involve sound production the way it does with melody instruments. In fact, it is possible, particularly on so purely mechanical an instrument as a piano, to remove half of the equation altogether and still produce sound. String players, by contrast, require years of careful training before they are even able to produce the right pitches accurately. Yet anyone or anything could press a key on a piano and the correct pitch will be heard (assuming the piano is in tune). This convenience is really quite a double-edged sword, as it obviates the need to fine-tune the ear to pitch. This lack of fine-tuning is compounded by the fact that pianos are out of tune most of the time. (Even when they are freshly tuned, the pitches themselves are the products of compromise since tuning a piano so that any one key—C major, B-flat minor, etc.—is perfectly in tune would cause all others to be significantly out of tune. Therefore, on modern pianos all keys are equally out of tune!) In practice, what so often happens is that students get good at moving their fingers but fail to develop adequate listening skills.

This does not mean that tone production at the piano—touch—is not highly involved. The good news is that, at least in principle, it is incredibly simple. The modern piano has one and only one variable, and that is the volume of a note, which is determined not by how hard but by how fast we strike the key. How fast we strike the key determines how hard the hammer hits the string. (The "hard and fast" rule states that hardness is itself a function of speed.) Yet there are many factors that influence how we accelerate the key, and these are the domain of touch.

Efficiency

Efficiency is the principle of least effort. It is generally better to use less effort rather than more effort to achieve the same result.

A corollary of this principle is that all our muscles should be as relaxed as possible at all times. A free technique implies that we move only as much as is necessary to achieve a given sound at a given time. (It is possible to be extremely tense and move little, but this defeats our purpose.) Tense playing leads to ugly sounds, fatigue and injuries. Yet more often than not tension will go unnoticed for years, often until it is too late.

At this juncture I wish to remark that if you are a pianist in pain, stop immediately. Pain is a sign that you are doing something wrong. I know of competition pianists who rely on prescription medications to play, and they are terrified of their pain becoming known to concert agents or the public for fear that they will be replaced by able pianists. Let me advise that no performance is worth risking your long-term health.

Elements of piano technique

Much of piano technique can be broken down into a handful of categories: single notes, double notes, changes of hand position, touch and the pedal. Single notes include piano scales, broken chords, repeated notes, trills and tremolos. Double notes are most common as double thirds, double sixths and octaves. Changes of hand position can involve going to an adjacent one (often passing the thumb, as in scales and arpeggios) or a remote one (leaps). Touch includes both the many ways to strike the key and articulation, which is what to do between the notes (legato, staccato and all degrees thereof). And pedal technique deserves a chapter unto itself. (These elements of technique will be dealt with in separate articles or lessons, as they are far too involved to be discussed in detail in this article.)

May these principles accompany you as you develop and refine a truly musical piano technique.


Piano Technique Lessons

    Accuracy on Black Keys
    Question: As an adult (aged 54) student of the piano, I have encountered lots of difficulty achieving stability (and/or a firm grip) on black keys and have...
    Becoming a Confident Performer
    Question: Hi, I am a pianist and also a student, and I wonder every day in my life, why don't I 'get there'? I mean, I play the pieces, I play recitals and...
    Brahms 51 Exercises
    Question: Any fingering suggestions for Exercise 1a and 1b? Albert's reply: This exercise is designed to be played with a consistent fingering, even though...
    Building an Advanced Piano Technique
    Question: My technique goes just so far and then I get stuck. What can you offer in the way of determining fingerings, being able to move about the keyboard...
    Changing Hand Positions Without Looking
    Question: I am trying to learn how to move from octave to octave without looking at my hands. For example, I begin with both hands on the keyboard with the...
    Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 4
    Question: Hi, I would like to have some explanation about the third measure of the Chopin Etude, Op. 10, No. 4. I already play it up to tempo, but only on...
    Chromatic Minor Thirds
    Question: I am in urgent need of the finger settings for the following scale: A-sharp chromatic major—double note thirds for both hands. Can you please...
    Chromatic Sixths Fingering
    Question: Hello Albert, It's good of you to help me, thanks. Like you, I am an extremely 'late starter' but I feel this is my time now to achieve my dreams....
    Collapsing 5th Finger Joint
    Question: As I depress the piano key using the 5th finger, the 2nd knuckle (middle knuckle) collapses and the first knuckle (nail knuckle) over-curls to...
    Developing Fingering Confidence
    Question: I am a senior citizen who has dreamed of learning to play the piano since childhood. I have learned a lot on my own, and started taking lessons two...
    Dynamic Balance and Voicing
    Question: Whats the best way of practicing to make the left hand give a lower sound than your right hand? And to make a lower sound in one finger of another...
    Fast Octaves
    Question: I have problems with playing the fast octaves at the end of the third movement of Schubert's Sonata in A minor D. 784 (Op. 143).
    Finger Speed
    Question: I've read a few times on your site about how everyone has a limit to how fast they can play. This really bothers me. Like I know it's about playing...
    Finger Staccato
    Question: Hi Albert, My question relates to staccato double notes played softly. Is finger staccato the best technique for this? Albert's reply: It's not...
    Finger Suppleness
    Question: Hello Albert, Firstly, thanks for the lessons and advice coming in regularly, it certainly is a great help and also scary to realize how much I...
    Fingering Myths or Facts?
    Question: My question is, how important is 'correct' fingering when playing? I recently downloaded (THANK YOU) your scales reference, which showed all twelve...
    Hand Span and Technique
    Question: Hello. I too am a late beginner—started just before I turned 18. So far I have managed to play Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca and some other easy...
    Horowitz's Octave Technique
    Question: Mr. Frantz, I'd like to start by mentioning how impressed I am with your website. It is extremely informative and comprehensive.
    How to Play Fast
    Question: I have problems with fast, scale-like, semi-quaver (16th notes) passages, which are typical in Mozart sonatas for example. I can't control them at...
    How to Play Piano
    Question: Dear Albert, The seems a pretty dumb question, but it's one of my major problems playing the piano: How do I play piano, without losing security?...
    Improving Piano Technique
    Question: I have been playing piano since childhood. I am a mediocre jazz player, strong harmonically, but weak technically. I don't play classical music....
    Legato Octaves
    Question: In bars 5-7 of the Capriccio in D minor by Brahms, the right hand is supposed to play legato octaves (the melody) while holding down a middle voice...
    Non-legato Scales
    Question: Hello, Have you any tips on developing a non-legato touch when playing, for example, Mozart's C major Sonata K. 545? I can only manage a very...
    Piano Chord Voicings
    Question: Hello Albert, Often bringing out or emphasizing particular notes within a chord is required, as in e.g. Schubert's Moment Musical, Op. 94 (D.780), ...
    Piano Exercises for Finger Independence
    Question: Hello Albert, Firstly, many thanks for the positive feedback you have given me to my questions which is a tremendous help. My question today...
    Piano Exercises for the Left Hand
    Question: I would like to know what exercises I can do to strengthen and train my left hand. I have been searching the internet and have only found a few,...
    Piano Exercises
    There is no more necessary evil in piano playing than piano exercises. I would love to be a musical idealist and deem all such exercises superfluous, as what...
    Piano Fingering
    Piano fingering is one of the most crucial aspects of learning the instrument, yet it is among the most overlooked. Here are seven of the most important...
    Piano Hand Position
    Question: How should you place your hand while you're playing the piano? Albert's reply: The hand should be curved in a smooth arc, roughly forming a...
    Piano Hand Positions
    Question: Where do your hands go when you are beginning to play a song? Albert's reply: You're referring primarily to hand position here, and secondarily to...
    Piano Pedal Problem
    Question: How would you stop a pupil lifting their heel when using the pedal? Albert's reply: To resolve this pedal problem you'll need to show your student...
    Piano Scales: 10 Expert Tips
    New: Major Scales for Piano for free download! A thorough study of piano scales is vital to playing musically and with confidence. Nonetheless, while...
    Piano Technique
    Piano technique is the ability to get the right sound at the right time out of the piano. It is the ability to realize music, how we interact with our...
    Piano "Wall" (Fallboard)
    Question: Hello Albert, First of all, thank you so much for this website I appreciate the work you put into all this just to help us!
    Playing Chords Together
    Question: I wonder how I can practice playing chords with both hands so the notes sound together. I'm talking about complex chords which need to be played...
    Playing Without Looking at One's Hands
    Question: How does a pianist learn to play the piano without always having to look at his hands as he plays as well as make those octave leaps on the piano...
    Practicing Technique vs. Music
    Question: Can give us an idea how to go about the mastery of technique? Is practicing technique more important that practicing songs?
    Practicing Technique vs. Music
    Question: Can give us an idea how to go about the mastery of technique? Is practicing technique more important that practicing songs?
    Scales in Thirds and Sixths
    Question: Hello Albert, Thank you for your reply mail regarding 'the fingering' for playing descending chromatic minor 6ths. It is most helpful and is going...
    Small Hands
    Question: Hi Albert, I am a retired female who has returned to the piano about three months ago. Haven't found a teacher yet so don't have access to answers...
    Strengthening the Left Hand
    Question: Hello Albert, Since I started playing the piano, I've mostly played Romantic-era music, where the left hand is just accompanying. In January I...
    The Most Important Rule of Piano Technique
    There is a rule of piano technique that is sure to do more to advance your piano playing than any other. All amateur pianists I have ever witnessed break...
    The Role of Piano Exercises
    Question: I am in my early 50's, an amateur pianist of intermediate skill level (e.g. I can play Grieg's Holberg suite; I doubt if I could play Beethoven's...
    "Thinking Fingers" Piano Exercises
    Question: Do you know of Guy Maier? If so do you know the piano exercises he and Bradshaw co-authored, 'Thinking Fingers?' The authors advocate practicing...
    Thumb Accuracy
    Question: Hello Albert, Thank you so much for the lessons. I am practising the scales as you suggested, e.g., started with B major and want to ask you for a...
    Wrist and Forearm Tension
    Question: I've been having some tightness and tension in my wrists and forearms lately. I'm aware that you struggled through similar problems with...

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