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Horowitz's Octave Technique

piano technique

Question: Mr. Frantz,

I’d like to start by mentioning how impressed I am with your website. It is extremely informative and comprehensive.

My question pertains to correct octave technique. Some people have advocated using only the wrist, while others have insisted that use of the forearm is necessary. Interestingly enough, in this article Horowitz claimed that he uses only the wrist (with the movement stopping at the wrist) to play octaves and that if he used the arm, he would become fatigued and a harsh sound would result. However, in this slow-motion video, Horowitz clearly contradicts his own strictures. He obviously moves the forearm up and down on each octave, although a slight bounce of the hand can also be seen. I would assume that Horowitz’s method of playing octaves is the correct one, as he had the best octaves of any pianist.

How should octaves be practiced if one wants to emulate Horowitz’s physical approach? Should you practice bouncing the forearm on each octave, as Horowitz does? I would think that Horowitz was extremely loose in the hands and arms. I also noticed that there are reverberations in his upper back as he plays the octaves. That might be what Horowitz meant when he said that a powerful fortissimo comes from the back.

So what is the best way to practice octaves? Should you focus more on the wrist bounce, on the arm bounce, or perhaps both? Is use of the upper body (including the back) an integral part of octave technique? Perhaps if the back is firm, that takes pressure off of the arms and makes them freer.

Albert’s reply: This is a very advanced topic that I don’t believe can be adequately addressed in writing. I fear that any attempts to describe correct octave technique may only lead to confusion. I could do my best to describe each movement in careful detail, yet such descriptions are difficult to follow without personal guidance from an expert teacher. (Besides, suggestive statements that direct the student’s mental focus are nearly always more effective than overly precise details of physical movement.) Even when working one-on-one with advanced students, in my experience it takes a number of attempts before the student is indeed implementing proper octave technique.

It is important to note that fast octaves are not “plug-and-play” compatible with every pianist’s technique. There are strict prerequisites that involve meticulous control of tension and release of the elbow, forearm and wrist, without which control attempting to acquire speed in octave playing is a fruitless endeavor, and possibly a harmful one. Perfect freedom and conscious control of tension and release of the entire arm musculature – shoulders, elbows, forearms and wrists – is a prerequisite to playing octaves properly. If you’re not yet at this stage, which takes considerable professional training from an expert teacher, you shouldn’t consider attempting to perfect your octave technique. It’s not possible to skip prerequisites when developing an advanced technique.

If you are already at the stage at which you have total conscious control of tension and release in the individual muscles, you will find it quite easy to play octaves not only with great speed, but also with controlled sound at any dynamic level. However, the proper technique will almost certainly not come by itself. There are very specific points that need to be imparted by the teacher and observed by the student in order for octave playing to be truly effective and brilliant.

There are several different types of octave techniques, and each depends on the musical context. Repeated octaves, à la Schubert’s Erlking, require a different technique from interlocked octaves such as the chromatic scale in Liszt’s Mazeppa. Similarly, the staccato octaves in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 require a different technique from those in Chopin’s “Octave” Etude, Op. 25, No. 10, as the latter should sound more legato and also require holding a middle voice. Octave techniques also differ depending on the speed of the passage.

Some pianists are indeed blessed with seemingly inhumanly fast octaves, such as Horowitz, Argerich and Volodos. Needless to say, these are all exceptionally trained pianists, in addition to the extraordinary natural talent which they bring to bear on the virtuosic music they play. No one can guarantee that you will play octaves as brilliantly as they do, but the right technique, provided you advance far enough, will definitely allow you to play any octave passage with flair and virtuosity, in a way that does justice to the music.

If you’re an advanced pianist and wish to work on the specifics of your octave technique, feel free to contact me for one-on-one lessons.

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