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A Domenico Scarlatti Sonata that enables Finger and Forearm Staccato

It’s been decades since my beloved N.Y.C. piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich bestowed upon me the gift of Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas. And at the time, (while I was a student at the New York City H.S. of Performing Arts) I had no idea that those she had selected were permeated with the basics of technique bonded to musical expression.

lillianfreundlich  lil2

Yet, I have no specific recollection of my mentor having isolated finger staccato from that generated by the forearm. Similarly, wrist staccato was even more foreign to her musical vocabulary. (Nonetheless Mrs. Freundlich always checked for supple wrists, and for relaxingly suspended arms without a trace of tension)

Basically, Lillian Freundlich’s springboard was the singing tone, and how to phrase by building smaller measures to larger ones using a free fall relaxed arm and a progressive note-grouping approach. She also doted on the dotted 8th/16th rhythm to smooth out bumpy lines.

As years have passed, and more than one teacher has influenced me during an extended musical journey in and out of the Conservatory, I’ve come to the conclusion that identifying and isolating various types of staccato is part of the enriched piano learning cosmos–that such a physical/musical nexus is intrinsic to growing artistry.

Excuse my wordy introduction, but perhaps it’s a necessary prelude to a tutorial I prepared right after having resurrected Scarlatti Sonata in G, K. 14, L. 387 as part of my spiritual homecoming.

Scarlatti Sonata in G  p. 1

Having observed reams of detached notes in forte and piano dynamic ranges permeating the score, I realized how fortunate I was to have spent inordinate time with my adult students cultivating various kinds of staccato via scales and arpeggios around the Circle of Fifths. It clearly amounted to a common journey of infinite value!

Finally, to have reviewed a Baroque era composition that was exemplary of the Keyboard School of Virtuosity fathered by Domenico Scarlatti, afforded an opportunity to re-explore staccato playing in all its expressive facets.

Play Through:

Instruction:

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A “cool” dip into Quicktime for wrist, finger, and forearm staccato practice

Amazing how 90-degree temperatures in the East Bay can wreak havoc over Face Time transmissions. It nearly made Online mentoring come to a grinding halt yesterday! except that a Quick Time saving grace Lesson Preserver came to the rescue!

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In my Scotland travels, I’m accustomed to subbing in the iPhone for the iMac because of two-way computer Online Face Time/Skype irregularities, so from week to week, I’d been giving my back-up camcorder a 60-minute workout, snatching the whole lesson for a same day uploaded re-cap. But once I realized Quick Time on the Big Mac could be enlisted to simultaneously record selected lesson segments while glaring at the cell image of a Yamaha grand, I had the best of both worlds: Live iPhone transmission and a selective mouse clicked re-run in progress.

Here’s the set up: Call it an EMT piano teaching equivalent.

Naturally, the mechanics of Quicktime allow focus on well-measured lesson goals. For example, yesterday, I demonstrated a variety of Staccato approaches in scale and arpeggio framings using the overhead keyboard web cam view. (wrist, forearm, finger driven detached notes on display)

And once the day played out with cooler evening temps draping the East Bay, I had sufficiently “warmed up” my ‘finger’ staccato to demonstrate a fast 32nd-note romp.

In summary, being flexible and resourceful in this Online universe is a must to keep lessons up and running despite occasional annoying transmission problems.

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Piano Technique: Staying CONNECTED while playing staccato

I’ve picked the B Major Scale with 5 sharps distributed through double and triple black note sequence, to demonstrate wrist, forearm, and finger staccato. In these forays through detached notes, I emphasize how to stay “in touch” and not lose a basic connection to threads of notes.

Many ingredients contribute to the creation of a smooth, secure, and relaxed staccato. For one thing, the player cannot become panic-stricken at the thought of lifting off the keys. In reality, a relaxed and well-shaped LEGATO (where notes are connected) can be SNIPPED into a beautiful STACCATO–that is, if the legato has been well prepared through a series of baby steps.

In B Major, blocking out “chunks” of double and triple black notes with thumbs meeting in between is a good preliminary–with the thumbs nicely swiveling under the ebony tunnels without tension. It might be a good idea, therefore, to pivot toward the black note CLUSTERS or CHUNKS with a wrist forward motion. As far as the thumbs are concerned I think “LIGHT” so they don’t crash or interrupt the flow of a well spun-out scale in Legato.

SNIPPING out the legato scale, that should have undulating wrists on its journey through three octaves in TRIPLET 8THS, will produce a satisfying WRIST staccato.

For the Forearm generated staccato, I think more VERTICALLY in my approach to the keys, but I still stay CLOSE to them. If I want a big FORTE sound, I think heavier arms.(Note that my wrists are never locked even with forearm staccato) There’s always a spongy give to the wrists so they keep their flexibility.

For finger staccato, I lighten my arms, and think tips of fingers, knowing my fuel supply always comes down my arms while my wrists stay supple.

But above all, knowing in advance what one wants to hear before playing is intrinsic to a beautiful staccato outcome. In so many words, the musical merges with the physical in all well-shaped playing, regardless of articulation.

The video below models the staccato forms I’ve described above.

Shirley Smith Kirsten

Piano Technique: A styled staccato with a dipping wrist

I find that adding supple wrist dips to staccato within any dynamic range helps to style and shape lines, phrases, etc.

Here’s it’s first executed within a scale framework. A cat cameo appearance is the opener.

Now a sample of shaped staccato in the soft range, played after a nicely contoured legato. (just snip it out) This is preceded by a direct forearm staccato example.

Basically, staccato can be expressed in many shapes and forms depending upon what the music dictates.

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Piano Technique: Perfecting Staccato–playing basketball and ping pong ball (Video)

Everyone knows that elite athletes use mental imagery and relaxation techniques to enhance performance. The same applies to pianists. (And they don’t have to be entering the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition to practice refining staccato at varying intensity.)

I favor sports metaphors in the lesson environment.

Simply bounce a basketball using forearm impetus to produce a big, robust effect, and then substitute a ping pong ball to garner the lighter, but still lively rebound motion.

Regardless of dynamic level (loud or soft) the player must funnel energy through relaxed arms and supple wrists to PROJECT his staccato and make it worth the effort.

(A low impact bounce is always preferable to a clunk!)

The following Skype lesson-in-progress (Berkeley CA to Greece) demonstrates:

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Piano Technique: Teaching a 9-year old Staccato and weight application–Think bouncing a basketball vs. ping pong ball tapping (Videos)

Ilyana has been studying piano for two years. Currently, she’s working on various weight applications for staccato.

I found that imaging a basketball being bounced vs. a ping pong ball being tapped, helped the student with her overall physical approach.

The short video below illustrates. We ended up playing 8th notes, not being overly ambitious to tackle 16th notes as originally intended.

In this second video, I was exploring varying depths of staccato when I played through Scarlatti Sonata in G, K. 14

RELATED:

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/piano-technique-forearm-and-finger-emphasized-staccato-videos/

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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