Thursday, September 19, 2013

Chopin, Opus 10/2: The answer is in the palm of your hand...

If you really wanted to simplify the matter, you could consider there to be two broad categories of movement (or techniques) in piano playing: those of the arms and those of the fingers. These compliment and re-enforce each other; and although such a distinction can be misleading, I do think that talking about them separately can be constructive.

Rapid trills of neighboring notes, for example, depend more on factors involving the fingers (clear articulation and proper alignment) than the arms. Trills therefore, can -- and in my view, should (though there are those who will disagree with me on this) -- be treated as a function of finger technique.  Conversely, large rolled chords, such as can be found in Chopin's étude op. 10/11, generally call for more active participation of the arm as weight is rolled, so to speak, over passive but firm fingers. Arm technique.

Five-finger figures, repeated notes, mordants, and (to a lesser degree) scales and arpeggios are all more or less functions of finger technique; while octaves, chords, tremolos of all types, repeated chords, and glissandi are of arm movement.

To say nothing of how to move in an efficient and coordinated way, perhaps the most basic prerequisite to successful execution is identifying (instinctively for some) which technique is best suited to a given musical trait.* 

This brings me to Chopin's flighty a minor étude. As anyone who has played the piece knows, the first difficulty to overcome is the continuous right-hand chromatic scale. It's difficult enough to learn to "run" on the keys as it is; here it has to be done with the weak fingers (the linked 3rd and 4th, and the stunted 5th). Opus 10 n.2 is thus a work aimed at developing finger dexterity in the most unequal of fingers.

Now the easy part's done...

Fast single-note chromatic scales are a function of finger technique. Fine. But how do you play one with the weak fingers? There's no quick nor fully sufficient answer. It's like explaining what music is, or why your water glass, fresh from the dishwasher, smells like wet dog.

Still, there are answers to be had. In part, it's a matter of simply getting in the habit of using the weak fingers, in scale patterns or trill exercises. Also, of getting used to the overlapping feel of the chromatic scale. Beyond that, I've found that certain general notions, central to any effective finger technique, regardless of the fingers used, can be quite helpful.

The first of these, I would say, is more psychological in nature. Namely, that finger movement is principally a downward action -- and should be thought of that way. Since the unplayed key is already elevated vis-à-vis the played key, it's entirely possible (though not recommended) to play an entire piece without any upward movement of the fingers at all. While finger lift is necessary, it's never a finality in itself. As with walking, you don't lift your foot for its own sake, but rather to put it back down on the ground again to continue forward.

A good way to improve finger technique then is to gain an understanding and awareness of how to lower your fingers.

And that's the second notion. In so far as pure finger technique is concerned (if such a thing really exists), the fingers should be activated from their departure points under the knuckles. I've come across this idea expressed in a variety of ways.

Seymour Fink uses the term "finger snaps" to describe going from a relaxed hand position to what he calls "palm position" where all fingers are extended forward (imagine making an alligator shadow puppet with your hand, mouth closed). Paul Barton, who has a popular Youtube channel, talks in one of his tutorials about an exercise he once learned of playing a note, then rubbing the finger back towards the front edge of the key, effectively bringing the hand into Fink's palm position. Finally -- to cite just these three pianists -- the French pedagogue Monique Déchaussées talks about awakening the sensation of the finger's base in the palm of the hand (Pour la technique de doigts, il est donc avant tout nécessaire de réveiller cette sensation de départ du doigt dans la paume.). 

In her book L'homme et le piano, Déchaussées talks about the necessity of developing speed in the lift and fall of the finger from this point.  But what I've found most helpful is her imagery of la voûte (or arch) of the hand, calling to mind the structural strength of a vaulted cathedral ceiling. 

Acquiring these two sensations -- of activating the finger from its base and of a solid arch -- goes a long way in resolving what I've come to think of as The plight of the Pinky (indulge me, please), so central to our Chopin étude.

The pinky's problem is principally due to its shortness compared with the other fingers; cause for instability, tension and/or weak tone quality. Because of its size, compensation has to happen on some level. It can happen in the arm position (i.e. Alfred Cortot's mouvement tiroir where the hand and arm travel on a horizontal plane to the back or front of the keys like a drawer opening and closing) or in the wrist (which can change its angle to accommodate the 5th finger). Yet as a general rule -- and especially in the case of our étude in which the 5th falls  almost exclusively on white keys -- the angle of the pinky itself at the moment of attack must compensate for what it lacks in length.

Its attack is more frank and direct. In other words, steeper -- almost vertical -- and more fully extended than the other fingers. As long as the nail joint (the one closest to the tip) doesn't collapse, this assures solid tone quality without strain (the bottom of the key might otherwise feel too "deep" and difficult to reach). Because of this, it ends up closer to the edge of the keyboard than the other fingers. 

This becomes especially clear in these stills of three pianists -- Valentina Lisitsa, Evgeny Kissin and Ingolf Wunder -- playing this very étude:

Incidentally, the arch has broader implications, as it also applies to octaves, among other things. Only in this case there are two important structural arches, one from the thumb to the 5th or 4th, and another under the wrist, both of which are sometimes accentuated by raising the wrists:

But I'm getting off track...

I'll sum up with this. To successfully manage the chromatic scale in the op10/2 étude it's important to be aware of how the fingers -- the 5th above all -- move, how they strike the keys and how to compensate for their differing lengths all the while navigating the uneven topography of the keyboard.

The next technical hurdle is playing the chromatic scale in the same hand as the accompaniment. Two roles roles in one hand.

That's for another post.

* Factors such as tempo, dynamics, character and time period (the role of the arm is much more pronounced in late romantic and contemporary works than in Baroque or Classical ones) are also important in deciding which "technique" is the most effective. 

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