Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California

Piano Technique: Contrary motion scales without side-to-side head tracking

Most piano students insist on playing contrary motion scales like they’re watching a tennis match: heads rolling to either side of the net with well orchestrated rows of synched sports aficionados.

When applied to the piano, however, this capo paced hyperactivity will most likely impede fluidity and encourage note errors.

One of my adult students, by example, took a short journey with me through C Major, (thumbs at middle C) fanning out three octaves and back: rolling through triplet 8th notes, to 16ths (Legato to Staccato in Forte and piano-soft)

In various playings, we explored the following novel approaches to improve phrasing and accuracy.

1) Look at the Left Hand only for the scale’s duration.
2) Don’t look at either hand, but “feel” the progressions across shorter and longer “tunnels” with thumbs meeting in the body of the progression. (Blocking out synchronized, MIRRORED tunnels is a valuable practice routine)
3) Lean toward the piano at the final octave. (where the notes are off the “radar screen”)
4) Roll the eyeballs, without side-to-side head movements.
5) In steps 1-4, BREATHE natural, relaxed breaths.

RE: Staccato

We applied a forearm driven staccato for forte playing, and a lighter arm weight approach for piano (soft) while thinking toward the fingers in the lower dynamic range. (I tend to use a slightly lower wrist in my staccato playing, which allows closer contact with the keys.) The releases must nonetheless, be crisp and defined.

It’s easy for students to lose vitality and definition in the soft staccato range, so attentive listening from note to note is a must.

Each must be bouncy and buoyant, springing into the next. (Think “UP” but stay close to the keys) Make sure there are breezy, air spaces between the notes. (Avoid crowding or bunching)

The video below demonstrates:

FOR BEGINNING STUDENTS–a one-octave contrary motion C Scale using rhythms (dotted 8th/16th)

For the advancing student, I recommend ROLLING into the Contrary motion scale in 3-octaves legato, having a rotational curve around at the very last note in the journey back down to middle C. This takes the pokey angularity out of the upper and lower most C’s. Aim for ROUNDNESS in the turnaround.

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