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).

Do you have any advice on how to practice the octaves to achieve the fast tempo (my aim is about 138 quarter notes per minute)?

Thanks for your reply in advance.

– Marcel (Ireland)

Albert’s reply: Those octaves are murderous! I wish Schubert had been kinder to pianists and rewritten the passage. (If I recall correctly, he actually did that in measure 15 of the “Wanderer” Fantasy, in which the chromatic scale was originally in octaves.)

The important thing about octaves is that they serve a musical purpose. Personally, I’m not entirely puritanical when it comes to technique’s sole purpose always being to serve art, since, let’s face it, some composers really did write some passages more as crowd pleasers than to service a higher musical purpose. Composers do integrate feats of virtuosity into their music, and these should be accomplished with ease and beauty.

I don’t believe Schubert ever put technical display above artistic expression. Liszt famously did, but in his greatest music such as the Sonata in B minor, showing off how fast octaves can be played always strikes me as distasteful and unsuited to the music, however brilliant the music may be.

That said, the coda of Schubert’s A minor Sonata, D. 784, is one of those places in which we really just have to serve the music, and slowing down noticeably would interfere with the musical intent.

Here are some pointers for solving this passage and playing fast octaves in general. First, your elbow must be free of all tension and operate independently of the wrist.

Next, shape your hand so that the thumb and 5th finger are bent towards one another. In the all-white keys passages, keep your hand at the outside end of the keys (i.e., closest point on the keyboard to your body, away from the black keys). Aim for the inside edges of the keys: For the A octave in the right hand, the thumb should be close to B and the 5th finger close to G.

Since the left hand passage has black keys, keep the hand close to the black keys when playing the white keys. Use 4 for the black keys, except for the F-sharps on the downbeats since there’s a change in direction. Thus, finger the left hand passage starting on E 5 4 4 5 4 5 5.

The forearm should be at or slightly lower than the level of the white keys, not higher. The hand is an extension of the forearm and hence level with the forearm. The wrist should not be high or low.

These are wrist octaves, not forearm octaves, so the forearm should only move laterally. While playing with one hand, place fingers 2 and 3 of the other below your wrist. The tendons should not tense up at all. If they do, you’re trying to play too fast too soon.

Bounce up off the keys: Think “up,” as though the keyboard were a hot stove. The wrist will descend from gravity alone. Bounce from one octave to the next.

Practice piano to pianissimo only to free the wrist and forearm of any unnecessary tension.

Practice the three-note groups, landing on the fourth note of each pattern. Thus, in the right hand you would practice A B C B, resting on the B (play it as a quarter note), then repeating the pattern.

Next, practice the four-note groups: B C D E in the right hand and F-sharp G-sharp A B in the left. Add one preceding note at a time.

Practice slowly. This is a passage in which practice with the metronome makes sense. Set it to a relatively slow tempo, and stick with that tempo or slower for the entire practice session. You cannot and must not force the tempo, since this strategy will only backfire and you’ll never achieve great speed along with a beautiful tone.

Play only at those tempos in which your tendons in the forearm, beneath the wrist, are perfectly free from tension. Use the fingers of the opposite hand to check as you practice. To understand the tension I’m referring to, place your fingers on a table and press down. With the fingers of your other hand touching the wrist that’s pushing down, you’ll immediately feel the tendons become very tense. This is what you must avoid during practice if you are to achieve fast octaves.

This is, incidentally, how I solved Schubert’s two infamous octave passages, in the “Wanderer” Fantasy and especially “Erlking.”

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