Piano Technique: Playing Lyrical Legato Octaves

I recall my beloved teacher, Lillian Freundlich, teaching me how to play singing tone, legato octaves through a process that separated the upper fingers, 4 and 5, from the lower thumb progressions. She would not advance to the actual octave spread until voicing between upper and lower notes was separately clarified and each line was practiced with shape and contour.

As it happened her approach to lyrical, Romantically framed octaves had direct application to several measures of Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No.1 where the composer elaborates the opening theme in octaves.

In short, through my slow practicing phase, I would imagine I had NO thumbs when I floated fingers 4, 5, 4 etc. in a horizontal direction, incorporating crescendo-s, diminuendo-s, etc. followed by a featherlight thumb journey imbued with rolling wrist forward motions.

When I finally played the octaves as notated, I prompted myself with an invisible thumb image, so I would relax my hand and not think of STRETCHING to the octave, or grabbing the octaves but, instead, I yielded to the upper voice in a floating modality.

While my hand easily navigates the eight note span, I still steer my attention to the upper fingers that can create a legato line autonomous of the thumbs. (Even small hands can learn a technique of relaxation that makes octaves feel smaller than they appear if the thumbs are not rigid or tense.) Yet there are instances where a student can feel comfortable using all 5’s in the octaves, and still create an ILLUSORY legato with a relaxed, thumb-lightened approach. He/she must above all thread the notes with a SINGING TONE.

If I fast forward to the present in my mentoring universe, I always add a bit of mental imagery to the mix.

“FLOATING” prompts assist smooth connections between notes, and in the case of the Chopin Nocturne, there’s no doubt that a seamless voyage in TWO, rather than 4, (with triplets as the underpinning), helps to avoid bumpy playing.

The pedal as a finishing touch, can obviously promote legato octaves but it cannot substitute for the technique of connecting the upper notes with horizontal, contoured, and relaxed transit.

For demonstration, I made a supplementary video for a student that focused on pertinent measures of the Chopin composition previously referenced.

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Piano Pedagogy article by Byron Janis in the Wall Street Journal


This latest piece on how to teach piano (creatively) is gathering attention far and wide, most notably as an eye-catching feature in the Wall Street Journal. And if I’m not mistaken, an article on the joys of returning to the piano as an adult accorded a similar flood of adulation and empathy in this same media universe.

The Janis contribution, packed with pedagogy-related shoulds and shouldn’ts, includes a tribute to Vladimir Horowitz as the ideal mentor. His imparted words of wisdom about how a pianist must evolve on his own terms, without copying, or God Forbid asking his teacher how to turn or shape a phrase can be framed on the wall as the ULTIMATE arrival of the individualized, ripened artist, of whom Mr. Janis might have exemplified. But by the time Janis had arrived at the door of Volodya, the pianist/virtuoso would have been well schooled in the ART of PIANO Technique integrated with the how-to of producing a singing tone. (Supple wrists, relaxed arms, bigger energies feeding the hands and fingers)

In addition he would have had continuous, deep exposure to the Theory of music with its invaluable application to phrasing as it’s wedded to harmonic rhythm: how Deceptive and other cadences/resolutions help shape a musical line; or what it means emotionally to transit from the MAJOR tonality to parallel minor. (Add in voicing, balance etc.) Compositional studies, without doubt, further enriched Byron’s musical passage. (Why not ask students to COMPOSE along their creative travels. Janis sadly omitted in his text.)

Basically, one does not play piano in a bubble of ignorance. And for this edification, a teacher is needed who TEACHES and does not necessarily send the student home with the vague prompt that something is NOT right, so go figure out what it is, and come back with the CORRECT PHRASING.

What fledgling does not hunger for direction in this vast universe of learning so he can begin to play expressively. Piano playing does NOT necessarily come NATURALLY. We are not born pianists. We come into the world with developmental hurdles to overcome in specific, graduated stages. We cannot be propped up on a piano bench and instinctively produce a beautiful set of tones.

Unfortunately, Janis goes to great lengths to eschew COPYING, as if our lives are in fact NOT copies of others who breathe through decades of existence. We might go to concerts, operas, etc. and subliminally internalize how great musicians and singers turn a phrase. If we have a favorite recording of the Brahms B Flat piano concerto as I have (Richter with the Chicago Symphony) we often find ourselves adopting in our own playing what was musically engaging. I certainly look for great recordings, and attend performances by pianists and singers who inspire me. And I dare say, I might warm up to the tempo of a Chopin Mazurka, and overall style communicated by Ashkenazy or Perahia, and borrow it as my own.

Does this mean I am NOT creatively driven as a player, and by association as mentor? Have I lost my individualism through exposure to many influences?

Since I deal mostly with adult students, even those who have returned to the piano years following their studies as children, need specific guidance in the basics of piano technique wedded to tone production. (Phrasing is an outgrowth of merged skills) Otherwise fledglings and beyond, are lost, and ask, rightfully, for direction.

Finally, each pupil has particular strengths and weaknesses that need to be sorted and addressed in a pedagogically sensitive environment without framing lessons with a bunch of cliches or doctrinaire assertions that the teacher and pupil must embrace.

And in this wrap-up, I embed a video that has experienced wide popularity. For me, this is the gold standard in teaching the singing tone. Go ahead and COPY. It’s the best thing you can do for your playing and ultimate development.

And here I’m helping a student phrase Robert Schumann’s “Curious Story,” Op. 15, no. 2. Both teacher and pupil learn from each other in the creative learning cosmos. (Sometimes the teacher might “copy” the way a student phrases a line, because it is beautifully rendered)

SINGING, SINGING and more singing is the best nurturance of gorgeously spun lines. Both mentor and student should SING expressively through a fulfilling piano learning journey.

And that’s where Janis and I wholeheartedly AGREE!

Here I’m singing through a lesson: Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72

My late, beloved teacher, Lillian Lefkofsky Freundlich drowned out my playing with her singing during our 3-year musical association.

Richard Goode profusely SINGS during his masterclasses while he DEMONSTRATES at the piano for a student, and it’s a joy to behold.

PS MY Comment at the WSJ article site
“This is a praiseworthy article where it concerns an ocean of repertoire study where a student is able to integrate the art of piano technique with aspects of interpretation. The challenge many piano teachers encounter, even with students returning to the piano as adults, is that the very basics of acquiring a singing tone with supple wrists, relaxed arms, and enlisting energies beyond the fingers, require down to earth emulation, demonstration and to a large extent, copying. At the level Janis addresses, it makes sense to harvest individual imaginations in phrasing, etc. but in my own experience with pupils of all levels, they are needing HANDS ON knowledge of how to create the singing tone–and what physical ingredients are involved. (Yes of course to mood-setting, emotional expression being intrinsic to the creative process, of which mental prompts and images can afford.)”

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Piano Technique: Finding a secure nesting ground on Black Notes

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In our Circle of Fifths journey through the ARPEGGIO universe, the one KEY that stands out as the most dreaded among adult students, is F# Major. A slippery slope of skinny raised BLACK notes, it often feeds separation anxiety from the more spacious WHITE notes.

In the face of such traumatic avoidance of ratted black keys that can poison the piano learning environment, a mentor has the challenge of neutralizing fears by using mental prompts to nurture a SAFE HAVEN for flighty fingers.

But part and parcel of this remedial undertaking, is an examination of a student’s FROZEN encounter with the blacks that prevents a necessary FREEDOM of the arms, wrists and hands. This is where my personal FLOP, FLOP approach has the wrist hanging off the arms, SHAKING OUT the staccato notes. While I encourage a BIG, if not EXAGGERATED Full Arm/Supple Wrist follow-through GESTURE, it will be sized down by increments to encourage centering on the blacks without feeling SKITTISH or INHIBITED.

Ideally a LEGATO contouring should precede the Staccato playing because the former is likely to allow a student to SETTLE IN, before he detaches notes. However, in both LEGATO and STACCATO, a CONNECTION to the BLACKS, both PSYCHOLOGICAL and PHYSICAL, must remain.

In my LIVE and virtual studio, I always start with the premise that BLACK KEYS are welcoming to hands and fingers. They provide a secure nesting ground, NOT a high-wire challenge over a steep decline. With this mental SAFETY NET, the BLACK-KEY ARPEGGIO should be DE-Charged in ALL articulations.


P.S. A student’s response to this posting that’s shared far and wide.

“And I thought I was the only one that was having trouble with that arpeggio in F# major! I’m glad you did not tell me ahead of time that it was the most dreaded.

“It’s better now, but remains the most awkward feeling of them so far as I find myself halfway around the circle! Hard to believe it’s only halfway….seems like I have been to the moon and back and I’m only half way??? Oh well,the journey continues to delight, and occasionally frustrate, but not for long with you rescuing us from the slippery slopes!”

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Piano Technique: Different Strokes for Different Folks

I’ve heard myself say a thousand times over, that each individual piano student deserves a custom designed plan of study.

In essence, there’s no instructional METHOD fixed in perpetuity that will fit every musical traveler. In fact, with a diversity of student personalities, backgrounds, and approaches to life/career (where adults, in particular, apply), some pupils for one reason or another, will lunge and grab at notes, while others have a more detached, laissez-faire, “tracing paper” relationship to the instrument. (excuse the mixed metaphor)

For those who transfer the ethos of a dog-eat-dog world of corporate competition to the piano, I become a Life Coach/Psychologist, de-emphasizing a DEEP, in the KEYS WARM-UP. Instead, I substitute a PARADOXICAL LIGHT-NESS of BEING APPROACH.

To the OVERDETERMINED, I say, Throw fate to the wind.

Don’t grab, stab, or capture the RIGHT notes. They’ll be there without op_PRESSIVE over-possession. (Shed the Napoleanic Banner!)


FlOAT, and gently roll your arms/hands into the scale. Think clouds, magic carpets, or whatever releases the body from enslaved tension.


“STATE of Mind,” always comes to MIND: An ever-evolving GLOSSARY of nonsense syllables and mental images feed the imagination, freeing the spirit. Students shuffle pads and take notes.

“How to undo a sweat and tears, Pain/gain, Battle-ready, rage against the 88 demonic finger traps?”

Simply, “LIGHTEN the strokes for these FOLKS.”

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A nine-year-old Piano student at the six-month juncture of study

It’s hard to believe how far “Liz” has come in her musical journey.

With a half year’s exposure to the piano, she composes, transposes, and approaches her practicing draped in the singing tone.

In a repertoire-based phase of learning (with a primer method book tossed asunder) the student is embedded in relaxation techniques, with supple wrist, and graceful arms as the centerpiece of her keyboard approach.

Riveted to Accent on Gillock Book 2, and having embarked upon the composer’s “Summertime Polka,” she can play the charmer in back tempo, (after 3 weeks), though nonetheless expressively and with dynamic contrasts. Having a natural hand position, that’s nourished by “weeping willow” prompts, she’s well on her way to growing her skills to a level of pleasing artistry, through it will be an incremental, baby-step progression over the long-term.

Today’s video illustrates the pupil’s passage since she had her very first lesson on February 18th, 2016. (A side interview about the child’s creative Legos universe is a companion treat.)



Included below is a flashback to Liz’s very first encounter with the piano. (Note that numerous blog postings have tracked the child’s studies at periodic intervals)



I started my pupil on the Primer, A Time to Begin (Frances Clark) having spent about 4 and 1/2 months poring through this material.

Concurrent to using this book, I nourished transpositions, and composing opportunities in the Major/Parallel minor spectrum.

Penta-scales divided between the hands were part of the pupil’s progressive technical regimen. (She understands the composite of Whole Step, Whole Step, Half-Step, Whole Step for the Major tonality, with the lowered third creating the MINOR.)

At this point she is dividing complete ONE-OCTAVE scales between her hands and has comprehension of RELATIVE MINORS (three forms), to the extent that she composed a piece, “EGYPT” in ‘A’ Harmonic Minor. (I created a Teacher SECONDO)

M's Piece cropped

Through the pupil’s six months of piano study, she has accrued a nice collection of her own pieces, that at first were rendered as floating notes, but are now properly realized on the Grand Staff.

Liz references and understands the CIRCLE OF FIFTHS, and has added a regimen of divided hands ARPEGGIOS in two octaves with a cross-over LEFT HAND using finger number 2, before the descent.

She has also been given theory assignments that I have devised along the way, but recently these have become formalized with a companion workbook. (Snell/Ashleigh Series)

The student is also directed to write reviews of performances that I tab on You Tube. (Some are my own.)

Her most recent report describes the Gershwin Prelude No. 2.

Title page Gershwin review

p. 1 Gershwin Review

p. 2 Gershwin review

Liz clearly loves her creative journey and I’m thrilled to be a companion mentor/traveler. What can be more gratifying!


Liz’s piece, “Egypt” was so beautifully composed that I experimented with creating a set variations on it. Someday, she’ll have the skills to embellish it in octaves, sixths, etc. or however she chooses.

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A Grand Piano with a captivating design!

Bluthner Modern

“GET THIS!” A piano with sleekness and significant musical dimension: an eye and ear-catcher with a respectable pedigree among keyboard giants.

Who can gloss over the Name Bluthner?

I won’t say more lest I spoil the uniqueness of the LOOKING and LISTENING experience.

So UP and AWAY with alacrity!

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Piano Technique: Energy-saving, Relaxed, Resting hands

It’s common for piano students to tense a hand that is not actively engaged in playing during measured rests.

Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” an aspirational piece for so many, is the perfect representation of interactive, woven hands, that flow across from Left to Right, with a spacious margin of relaxed breaths. (as rests are notated) This over-all legato line mosaic that permeates the opening section, should be responsive to an uninterrupted outpouring without intrusive tension in the hands, wrists and arms at any point.

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In beautifully phrased music-making, a basic underlying, hand-to-hand motion plays out simultaneously in the present and in the future. Therefore, if one hand stiffens while the other is sculpting a portion of the phrase, then extraneous energy is expended to the sacrifice of a well-shaped, continuous line. (In the outflow of “Fur Elise,” in particular, while one hand is not playing, it should gracefully move to its next destination.)

In the following lesson-in-progress snippet, an adult student exerted what was energy-draining in a perceived left hand tightening in Beethoven’s character piece.

In this second lesson sample, a youngster, having studied for 4 and 1/2 months, plays a duet with me with a nice interaction of her hands in relaxed motion. Having been trained from the start with the image of “weeping-willow arms” and supple wrists, she’s well imbued with an approach that will further her progress.


In this third and fourth example, an adult student is made aware of stiffness in her left hand as she practices the F-Sharp Major arpeggio. In the course of our lesson, I demonstrated ways to relieve tension and smooth out the broken chord progression.

Mime Practicing, both hands

Many students, often unconsciously, tense a hand that is not playing in synchrony with the other. By reinforcing the hanging hands off relaxed arms framing, and replaying videos of what needs amending, pupils will practice relaxation techniques that will foster improvement.

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