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Trills and Domenico Scarlatti (Video)

In a separate writing about crossed hands, large leaps, and other keyboard acrobatics, I’d discussed trills which permeate Domenico Scarlatti’s music. Perhaps these precious ornaments evoked the gypsy wails in the surrounding Madrid countryside, or they were part of the performance practice of the Baroque period. I would hedge my bets that hunting horns, in K. 159 enter center stage as soon as the music begins and the trills decorate a progression of harmonic 3rds, 4ths and 6ths. The same applied to Scarlatti Sonata, K. 96, tagged “La Chasse.”

From having studied a small portion of Bach and Scarlatti’s works, I’ve come to the conclusion that Domenico liked trills more than J.S. In the Inventions, Bach had shorter decorations like mordants, and if he trilled, it was a slower, prolonged affair, not requiring the player to have a man size dose of adrenaline.

Most of my piano students avoid trills like the plague, particularly the long ones found in Mozart’s C Major “Drawing Room” sonata, first movement. They are confounded by how to precisely end them, and besides, it’s hard for these kids to coordinate the trill figure in the right hand with what’s happening in the left. I can commiserate.

I tend to believe that the ability to produce a very rapid, crystal clear trill is genetic, though that doesn’t mean it can’t be learned if a student commits to a form of trill related rehab. It takes, time, patience and dose of disciplined practicing.

Scarlatti probably handed players the most challenging trills in the Baroque literature by floridly decorating principle notes in short intervals as are found in his Sonata, K. 159 in C Major. For God sakes, every few notes, there’s a trill.

Perhaps a musicologist would refuse to categorize these quick splashes of color as bona fide trills since they may be brief and “ornamental,” but in the last analysis, a trill is a trill is a trill, and it’s a big order for the performer, regardless of label.

At the Oberlin Conservatory, Professor Freeman Koberstein, was obsessed with trills and various ornaments to the point of being POSSESSED. “Kobie,” (not to be confused with the basketball player) spent the whole class time lecturing about how to execute intricate figures with silly looking symbols. He’d even banter with students about performance practice as he turned red in the face if anyone disagreed with him.

In the universe of trills, there was always the question of whether to begin them on the primary note, or the note above. Add to the mix, the distance departure above or below what was being decorated. That issue could ignite a full-blown controversy about which way to turn. Oh and “turns” are another type of ornament, that differ from trills. Truly dizzying!

So depending on the composer, and historical era, trills, ornaments, turns, you name it, followed a certain set of rules, until someone came along in the musicology field with a revolutionary new theory.

In Scarlatti Sonata K. 159, the performer might be left to his own devices, having to make difficult choices that could offend a vast body of scholars who’d torn their hair out concerning the last find in a remote Spanish mission or castle.

But in the last analysis who cares? I say, just play the darn sonata as best you can, and dig deep down to your adrenaline reserves. There’s nothing worse than a trill dying on the vine before its time.

Post script: I discovered a Texas University professor, Stephen Slottow who published a paper on this very C Major sonata and I asked him a few pointed questions about the hunting horn entrance, no less.

His answer:

“I’m sure that Scarlatti was aware of the hunting horn motif, as it was in wide practice, but I don’t know if he personally added “Chasse.” I think that you would need to look at the earliest printed sources.” (More of the same?)


In conclusion, Sonata, K. 159 has a lot of substance, and I’ve only skimmed the surface by examining the trills. The middle or B section transitions to the minor key, with a brief exposure to sobbing gypsies. A stream of fiery 16th notes preceded by an ear catching dissonance embody the Spanish style along with its native flamenco elements. While Scarlatti may have been Italian, he had lived and worked in Madrid for most of his life so we can all feel lucky that he produced 550 sonatas to fuss over.

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Piano Technique: Forearm and finger emphasized staccato (Videos)

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