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Accuracy on Black Keys

piano technique

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 often wondered whether this is connected with age. This difficulty first became apparent when I started learning the G-flat and the E-flat minor arpeggios. I struggled for months to get them fast enough for my upcoming ABRSM Grade 7 exam (June 2012) and secure enough and attempted lots of “strategic” techniques suggested by my teacher (doubling notes, rhythmic variants; i.e. two slow and two fast notes and vice versa, very slow practice and so on) but handling these arpeggios especially in the left hand is still a problem and I’m sort of overcome by uncertainty every time I play them, especially if this is what I do at the beginning of my practice sessions. Do you have any tips to improve on this?

– Juan Carlos (Padua, Italy)

Albert’s reply: Fortunately, accuracy in chord and arpeggio playing is not a function of age. Rather, it is simply a matter of knowing the keyboard’s geography.

Try the following exercise:

First practice it hands separately, only going up and down two octaves. Once you have achieved perfect accuracy, expand it to three octaves, then four.

When you can play each hand separately over the full four octaves, practice hands together, again starting with just two octaves.

Once you have mastered this G-flat major arpeggio exercise, do the same with E-flat minor. These exercises should teach you that the distance between G-flat and B-flat on the piano keyboard is different from that of B-flat to D-flat by about 8 millimeters! They are played with the same fingers, but the fingers must be shaped quite differently. This is almost certainly the reason for your difficulty with these two arpeggios.

I cannot overemphasize the need to grasp the minutest details of each hand position independently of the keyboard. The more accurately you know each hand shape without having to touch the keys, the more accurate your playing will be. This is why the exercise is to be played staccato: Do not attempt to prepare the fingers on the keys before playing them! For this exercise, the only time your fingers should ever touch the keys is at the exact moment you press them – not the slightest moment in advance.

One of the reasons that scales and arpeggios are practiced hands together is to increase your proprioception – the awareness of your body in space. It is impossible to focus your eyes on both hands at the same time when they are an octave apart. Therefore, when you play hands together, one hand is forced to play blindly.

Like learning the exact shapes of the hand independently of contact with the keyboard, it is also essential to familiarize yourself with the keyboard without relying on your eyes. The more you are able to play without having to look at your hands, the more secure you will be.

It is a very good idea first to notice which hand you tend to look at most when practicing arpeggios, and second to force yourself to look at the other hand. (The same holds for scales as well.) You’ll invariably find this task to be exceedingly difficult, which is what makes it so valuable.

The next step is to play the arpeggios (and scales) without looking at your hands at all. Try fixing your gaze elsewhere or closing your eyes altogether.

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