Good piano technique is invaluable to your progress as a pianist. Yet so many students neglect the basics of technique in favor of jumping in and ‘just playing.’ While this may be more satisfying in the short term, it will hinder your progress in the long term. Without proper technique, your skill will be limited and it will take longer for you to get better. You may also be at a higher risk for injury. You may think, how could I get injured playing piano? But as you attempt to play more difficult music, good technique becomes more important. Your fingers are muscles and just like other muscles in your body, you can strain them if you try to do things they haven’t been ‘trained’ to do. In this article we will cover some basic techniques that every pianist should know to help maintain good dexterity and avoid injury.
Regardless of what you are playing with your fingers, there are certain guidelines you should always follow when seated at the piano with your hands on the keys.
Relax Your Forearms
You may think, I play piano with my hands, why should I pay attention to my arms? Try this. Hold your forearm out bent at the elbow, like you would at the piano. Put your other hand on top of your forearm just below the elbow. Now wiggle the fingers of the hand you are holding out. Do you feel the muscles in your arm moving? That’s because the muscles that control your fingers are connected all the way up through your forearm. This is why it is important to be aware of your arm and not to tense them while playing.
Play With The Padded Tips Of Your Fingers
Try to keep a relaxed, rounded shape in your hand. Not rigid, but not collapsing on the keys. Be sure not to tense your fingers or flatten them on the keys. There are times when you may use a flatter or more vertical finger to produce a certain sound, but most of the time they should be in a relaxed position fairly perpendicular to the keys.
Keep Your Wrist Above The Keyboard
As you try to focus on your fingertips hitting the right notes, the wrist may have a tendency to fall below the keyboard. Make sure to keep it parallel to the keyboard and inline with your elbow.
Use Your Forearm To Guide Your Hand, Not The Other Way Around
As you move up and down the piano, make sure the rest of your arms follow your hand. Avoid bending at the wrist by keeping your wrist aligned with your forearm. Think of your arm bringing your hand to where it needs to be, instead of your arm catching up to whatever your hand is doing. Also, most of the energy to play should come from your arm, not your fingers. Your fingers are the directors of the energy coming from your arm, sending it into the keys in precise ways to produce a certain tone. To practice feeling this sensation, stand with your forearms extended from the elbow as they would be at the piano, and let them drop down to your sides. Hold them out and then completely relax to let them fall. Be aware of their weight as they fall. Then sit at the piano and feel how their weight is channeled into the keys.
There are several specific keyboard techniques that you should strive to be proficient in so that you can develop and maintain finger mobility, dexterity, speed, and musicality. A pianist should aim to be comfortable with their technique so that when they play, they can focus on interpreting the piece and playing musically, regardless of difficulty.
Here are seven techniques all pianists should practice.
Often one of the first exercises pianists learn is how to play scales. They are essential for learning finger independence, mobility, and evenness of tone. They are also helpful for internalizing the geography of the piano and fingering patterns in each key. It is helpful to pick 1-2 different scales to practice every day. For information on how to play the major and minor scales, you can find an article here.
Chromatic scales are scales that ascend or descend by half steps only. It requires careful finger coordination to play with the fingers so close together and not trip over each other. Your fingers will easily tense up as they cross over and avoid each other so be sure to relax and follow precise fingering.
Blocked chords are an important part of music theory and occur often in repertoire. It is also very easy to hold tension in your hand when playing blocked chords because your fingers are all trying to play different notes at once. Try to play a few sets of triads and tetrachords (four-note chords) during every practice session and focus on only engaging the muscles of your fingers when they are actually playing the chord, remaining relaxed the rest of the time. Use your arm to put weight into your fingers to play, rather than tensing your fingers individually to produce the tone.
Arpeggios are simply broken chords. Arpeggios are helpful for learning the geography of the piano and learning hand positions in different keys. It is important to be able to play them for different chords and inversions across multiple octaves. As you play them, be sure to move your fingers quickly to where they need to be and not ‘hang on’ to notes you’ve already played, as this will create tension and keep your fingers from moving to the next notes.
Octaves have a similar potential for tension as chords, but not quite as much since fewer notes are involved. However, the notes are still quite far apart as they span eight notes and there is a higher chance of octaves being played at speed in repertoire than blocked chords. It may have been said many times here, but truly the key to easy octaves is to relax. Stretch your fingers a bit before starting. Make sure the only point of muscle engagement is when you are playing the actual octave. Try playing a scale of octaves staccato to practice this. Make sure that the power comes from your arm and not your fingers, as this will tire your fingers quickly.
Trills are the quick alternating between two notes to produce a light, sparkling sound. Without practice, it is easy for trills to come out clumsy or uneven. Be sure to keep a light touch and use the rotation from your wrist to alternate between the notes, not the movement of your individual fingers.
Repeated notes are almost always played with alternating fingers. This helps reduce tension in the fingers and allows repeated notes to be played faster. If you used the same finger, you would have a lot of tension in that individual finger from trying to play the same note over and over. If you tap your fingers on a flat surface, you can get a lot more taps in if you use multiple fingers than if you only use one. As you repeat the notes, let your hand and finger ‘bounce’ slightly off each note to allow the next finger to play the note.
Piano technique is extremely important for the development of beginners and advanced pianists alike. To neglect it is to add many hours to your practice, which may have been avoided if you had a good technical foundation. There are many resources available for technical practice. One of the most popular books of technical exercises is ‘The Virtuosic Pianist’ written by Hannon. Czerny is also one of the most renowned instructors from the classical period who wrote hundreds of pieces for technical development. For more advanced technique, Chopin and Liszt wrote several virtuosic etudes. There are also many modern method books available today for beginners. Whichever you choose, be sure to fit it in to your practice sessions daily, as practicing technique exercises every day will set you up for success and quicken your progress at the piano.