Most piano students can begin playing five finger major and minor positions between the 6th and 9th month of lessons, if not sooner. Young children learning the basic symbols of notation and rhythm may need a longer period before embarking upon these exercises, although in Faber’s “Piano’s Adventures,” Primer level, a five finger warm-up appears with floating notes, (not on the staff) in step-wise sequence. (p. 24, Lesson Book, “C-D-E-F-G March”) Naturally, I take this opportunity to insert a flat on the third above the root to imbue a consciousness of the PARALLEL MINOR mode. (E pulled down to Eb) I do not however, at this early point in study, choose to have the student begin a transposition process, taking him/her into different keys. I wait until the pupil is reading notes on Treble and Bass staffs.
NOTE that the parallel minor is NOT the relative minor. In the parallel minor the root is the same as in the MAJOR. So C Major’s Parallel minor is C minor. They both come to rest on C.
For these five finger positions or Pentachords, I use A Dozen a Day, “Walking and Running.”
While the first exercise is written in the key of C Major from Quarters to 8ths to 16ths, I don’t hesitate to teach the PARALLEL minor, C minor by inserting a flat next to E. And I do stereotype bright or happy for Major, with sad or somber for minor. These associations are pretty much programmed into our consciousness since early childhood by exposure to jingles, movie tracks, nursery rhyme tunes, etc.
I make the point that MAJOR tonality can be sad, melancholy as communicated in some of the great masterworks of Chopin, Brahms, Liszt etc. For example the Chopin Etude in E Major, no. 3 is melancholy,
as is the gorgeously haunting theme of “Liebestraume.” I feel the same about the Brahms Intermezzo in C Major, Op. 119.
Back to pentachords or five finger positions.
Using C Major as a model. (C, D, E, F, G)
The half and whole step content is taught by diagramming the five notes. But a demonstration of what a half step and whole step are precedes the visualization on paper.
C D E F G
w w 1/2 w
In practicing the warm-up, initially in the MAJOR, I ask the student to subdivide the quarter note and count 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and etc.
and to play the first time through at a MF, medium loud dynamic. I set the tempo with a measure of 4/4 (Moderately slow) I sub-divide that introductory measure.
The 8ths then fill in the ANDS very evenly (with teacher prompting)
The 16ths are double the tempo of the 8ths so I say
double eedle twodeleedle threedeleedle fourdeleedle.. that precisely fits the 16ths to a tee..
This syllabic intoning seems to help students of all levels.
The next step is asking the student to play the whole exercise again at an mp (medium soft) dynamic level. Sub-divided counting is still recommended. The opportunity to practice at a contrasting dynamic level can’t be over-emphasized. It gives the student a chance to explore tonal possibilities and a palette of colors.
Continue to Contrary Motion
With CONTRARY motion the student starts with finger 5 in each hand. This means the exercise will end on 5’s simultaneously in each hand.
The methodical steps used in parallel motion and contrary motion, is repeated for the minor but first the student sees the diagram of Whole and half step content.
C D Eb F G
w 1/2 w w
And he/she learns to appreciate the tonal and emotional differences between MAJOR and minor.
In the video I offer an approach for more advanced students, where 32nd notes are added in legato and staccato pairs to extend the exercise.
Once students embark upon the study of five finger positions in Major and PARALLEL minor, they will learn to TRANSPOSE these going around the Circle of Fifths.
To acquire sharps, we proceed clockwise, GOING up in fifths
Here is an example of the cycle on the sharp side:
C Major/minor to G Major/minor to D Major/minor to A Major/minor
to E Major/minor to B Major/minor to F# Major/minor to
Some teachers might ask if a beginning student of 8 or 9 has a capacity to learn all these transpositions in the course of study. I would say for the most part yes, with one reservation, that not all do well with contrary motion. So I make individual decisions about that particular avenue of practice.
For the flat side of the Circle, the student has to be able to count backwards in the musical alphabet to acquire the new starting point for a flat content pentachord.
This pre-supposes what the 1/2 and whole step content of a complete Major scale is:
Using C Major as an example: Half steps occur between scale degrees
3,4 and 7,8
C D E F G A B C
To find the starting note of the first flat content 5 finger position the student goes DOWN five notes from C following the trail of half steps and whole steps. The teacher should help the student along.
C to F Major/minor to Bb Major/minor to Eb Major/minor to
Ab Major/minor to Db Major/minor Gb Major/minor Cb Major/minor
As far as the technique of playing these positions around the Circle, singing tone legato is encouraged, but in the course of studying these exercises, I add a pair of staccato FORTE (Big tone) 16ths, followed by a pair of PIANO (soft) 16ths.
As previously mentioned the more advanced student will add 32nds legato and staccato.
There is also the rotational aspect of playing these that is best demonstrated in the video. Note my reference to “mashed potatoes” a form of clumping and rotation of the hands across the five finger positions.
Basically, I want the student to have a grasp of these positions as a pattern or grouping not as verticalized note progressions. A horizontal rendering of these warm-ups is preferred, at legato and staccato levels.
More Piano Technique blogs with embedded videos: