More often than not, pianists acquire insights about piano technique through self-exploration and analysis. (trial and error attempts) Others have had mentors who demonstrated physical approaches to the piano that paved a learning path for the next generation of students. And finally, pupils, themselves have always provided a window for teachers to clarify their own ideas about the technical side of playing.
Above all the nit-picking, observation, and analysis, the alliance of technique and phrasing in a musical frame propels satisfying playing with physical relaxation at its core.
In my personal staccato driven expedition, I scanned a popular Online Piano Forum and found this riveting set of quotes:
“Finger staccato is used to produce a plucked, sharp sound (like a guitar). You simply ‘pluck’ the keys by quickly touching the keys– snapping your finger back towards your wrist.
“Wrist staccato is used for light staccato (no arm weight). You simply let your finger drop into the key, using your wrist as a hinge.
“Forearm staccato is used for heavy staccato. You can’t use wrist staccato for this because you don’t have the arm weight needed to drop your finger heavily into the key. For this technique, the wrist has to be locked.” (I immediately RED FLAGGED the word, LOCKED)
I pondered these assumptions and their relationship to the practical hands-on knowledge I had acquired in my own analytical excursions and through student observations.
Some clarification was necessary.
Forearm and Finger Staccato
By coincidence, I had an up close, over the shoulder view of an adult student playing his A minor scales during a Skyped lesson yesterday. His web cam was so well angled that I felt like a scientist looking through a microscope at his arms, fingers, and wrists. It afforded a lab assisted opportunity that was imported in “real time” from Sydney, Australia, though we were 14 hours apart, and he was well into the next day.
As the student cycled from triplets to 16ths, in moderately fast tempo, he braved 4 octaves ascending and descending, first in Legato Forte followed by Forte (loud) Staccato and piano (soft) staccato. Through his staccato phase, he relied on his fingers, and though he had a semblance of wrist pliancy, his energy reserves ran out quickly. The contrast from Forte to piano staccato was absent, and over repeated renderings, it became clear that two dynamic polarities (F and P) required a “weight” applied variation, generated beyond the finger tips.
So I decided to revisit the same set of scale octaves in 16ths staccato and convinced myself that FORTE was achieved with a dead weight forearm application and slightly lowered wrist. (The wrist was not “firm,” or “stiff” but it had a different status, as compared to my playing, light, “finger-driven” staccato in the soft range.)
I thought about basketball players rapidly dribbling a ball around the court which was no light object. It had to have crisp, movement generated bounces. A push into the ball came from the forearm, backed up by the whole arm, so tightening the wrist was to no avail. The wrist belonged to the total anatomical assembly– a source of fuel to spur smooth motor movements.
Forearm staccato, regarded as an isolated physical universe separated from the wrist and fingers was for me, counter-intuitive. All levers and muscles worked together, but one might be enlisted with particular emphasis in various musical contexts.
When I played the A minor Natural form scale in rapid 16ths, staccato, soft (piano) I released the dead weight of the forearm to my imagined finger tips, but I still had the support of my whole arm, a relaxed, wrist and forearm behind my fingers. This energy supply back-up may not have been thoroughly visible, but it was my overall sense of “feel” that counted. “Feel” that translated into desired phrasing and dynamics. The imagination played no small role.
The short video below demonstrated the unity of muscles and physical levers as I played staccato scales in a contrasting dynamic range, but specifically juxtaposing the forearm versus finger emphasized staccato.
and another video zeroing in on a WOODPECKER STACCATO, with focus on Left Hand development