Q&A with PianoTV: Polyrhythm and Flying Pinkies

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Today we’ve got a fun set of questions – everything from polyrhythm to flying pinkies. As always, feel free to ask any questions you might have in the comments below – I try to do a Q&A video like this once a month or so.

Question 1: Polyrhythm

Drago Taunts asks:

Any tips for learning the “4-3” structure in Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, op. 66? I’m finding it difficult with the hands not being synchronized. Would a metronome help?

This is a really challenging piece, and one of the main challenges is the polyrhythm. Polyrhythm is when each of your hands is doing a different rhythm, or meter.

In this Chopin example, it means your right hand is playing 16th notes in groups of 4, while your left hand is playing sextuplets – notes in groups of 6 (3). This means that the hands aren’t going to neatly align on every note when you play it hands together.

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Other examples of this polyrhythm would be Debussy’s first Arabesque…

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Or, for an easier version in polyrhythm, one that is 3 vs. 2 instead of 4 vs. 3, check out this one by Max Richter:

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…or basically any Chopin piece ever.

How I learned to do polyrhythms was by literally drawing lines to visualize how the notes were matching up. Then, I played these match-ups, slowly and awkwardly. Once my fingers were able to coordinate it slowly, I gradually picked up speed, until it started feeling natural.

Once the polyrhythm feels natural at a slightly more brisk pace (not necessarily up to speed), I would then put on the metronome, play through, and focus first on the left hand, and then the right hand. Listening to the metronome while you play helps to tighten up the rhythm, and helps you “hear” where everything should be snapping together.

I can’t remember what my first polyrhythm piece was, but it was probably something by Chopin. My memory is that I just drilled a couple bars in this way, over and over. Eventually you’ll get the hang of it.

If this is your first polyrhythm piece, you might want to try something slightly easier first, like Debussy’s Arabesque – it isn’t much easier, but it is a little.

Question 2: Is piano fingering in the books the law?

The next question is from Charles Laine, and his question is about fingerings. To paraphrase, he’s asking:

“I’m learning Minuet in G, BWV Anh. 116. I’m having difficulty with the left hand, since every book marks the fingering as 5-4-2-1 on the arpeggio from G-B-D-G. It feels completely unnatural to me, and it’s much easier to play with finger 3 instead of finger 4. Are these fingerings merely suggestions that aren’t to be taken 100% literally? Or, is this a “learning piece” with the goal being to force the hand into a particular configuration with the intended purpose of training the muscle and building up the strength and flexibility to do it with ease and comfort?”

This is a great question! My personal rule is that I always try out the fingering that is written in the music. I assume that the person who made the fingering is smarter than me, and has a reason for marking it in a certain way.

So I’ll try it out, see if it makes sense, and if it does – great!

If it doesn’t, I’m entirely comfortable changing the fingering. In this case, I would say you can use finger 3 with no problems – the 5-3-2-1 stretch is much more natural and comfortable, like you said. I think that’s okay. Your fourth finger will have other challenges in other pieces.

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However, I want to say this with a caveat – I’m very leery of beginners changing finger patterns, since you probably don’t know what’s best for you when you’re just starting. If you’ve been playing a year or two, fine.

The main problem I see when students ignore the fingering on the page is

  1. Their playing becomes sloppy because they’re entirely ignoring finger markings
  2. They change the fingering in a way that seems easier at first, but when they have to speed it up, it becomes sloppy

So I know that’s a long answer, but yes – by all means, feel free to change the fingering from 4-3. Just be sure that any fingering changes you make in the future doesn’t cause one of the above to occur. The finger markings ARE just suggestions – they’re not absolute 100% law. But they are almost always worth serious consideration.

Thanks for a great question!

Question 3: Flying pinkie

Joseph 1 asked the question,

“I have a problem with my fifth finger in the right hand. It flies up and gets separated from the other fingers. It becomes a big problem when playing scales. Can you tell me what to do to avoid this ‘flying pinkie’?

Ha ha ha, flying pinkie.

This is a super common problem, and it’s really not a huge deal. When you’re starting out, your fingers aren’t going to be super coordinated – with time, I notice my students fingers begin to relax and curve more neatly.

Even now when I play, my pinkie lifts a little bit, and that’s totally fine as far as I’m concerned.

However, there is a point where the “flying pinkie” can become problematic. It can throw your hand out of whack, compromising your posture. This then impacts your ability to play without tension, since you end up awkwardly slanting your hands.

Here’s a simple finger exercise I learned a while back – possibly from Hanon, though I can’t remember anymore. You mush down all five of your fingers, and then lift and press one at a time, while keeping the others pressed down. This is surprisingly difficult, especially for the outer fingers.

I would also try to play 5-finger scales while maintaining the tips of your fingers on all of the keys. This isn’t the law of how we play piano – you don’t need to keep your fingers on the keys at all times – but it’s a good way to get used to the idea of keeping all of your fingers close to the keys.

Mainly I find this is an issue that resolves itself over time. Do some exercises to speed the process along, but don’t be concerned if your pinkie is lifting a little.

Question 4: My ear is way better than my reading

The last and final question comes from PinkKittyMusic, who says,

“I play songs well by ear, but I’m extremely slow at reading even though I know how to. I’m doing RCM Grade 8 and I need to learn not to rely on ear and memory.”

This is a question I get asked a lot, and I have some students who encounter the same thing. The problem is usually that your playing level far outweighs your reading level. But since your playing level is high (like Grade 8), you try to read pieces at a grade 8 level and really struggle.

Don’t stop relying on your ear and memory to learn challenging pieces. But to train your reading, it’s usually best to start much, much simpler. Go back to some grade 1, 2, 3-level material and practice reading every day.

I relate to this problem because I’ve always been a better ear player than sight reader. Teaching over the past decade has made me an infinitely better reader, because I’m constantly reading new music every day, and that’s all it takes – daily effort and practice. Even 10 minutes a day of reading simple music can go a long way.

And eventually you’ll find that you can gradually increase your reading level difficulty without it being as much of a struggle. But it’s a long, long process. Be patient with yourself.

We’ve done videos on this channel about sight reading before, so definitely check those out.

How to become better at sight reading, and the importance of sight reading.

Conclusion

Thanks for hanging out for another Q&A session! As always, feel free to ask any question you might have, and I’ll answer a new batch each month.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.