Q&A: The Perfect Play-Through, Leaping Hands and more

Hi and welcome to today’s Q&A session. We’re going to look at 4 questions you guys have asked, answer them in turn, and if you have any questions that are bugging you right now, feel free to leave them in the comment section.

Today’s batch of questions is very technical – we’re going to be talking about doing hand leaps, staccatos, playing without mistakes, and then finish with a discussion on key signatures.

Question #1: Leaping octaves

Ahh, the jumping cat. I’ve been in your shoes, friend!

For my grade 10 exam, I learned Liszt’s Liebestraum #3, which has this really intense middle section where both hands are leaping octaves. I found the left hand particularly brutal to execute. It seemed like my accuracy was entirely random – sometimes I would hit the note, and sometimes I wouldn’t. I just felt like I was flying on the seat of my pants.

So I hit a point where “enough was enough”. I wanted to improve my accuracy from 50%! So I started reading about it and testing out some things. Here’s what worked for me:

  • Move your arm in an arc, not a line.

This is a big one. It’s much more natural and fluid to move your arm in a semi-circle as you leap, instead of quickly flinging it to the side. When your arm just slides in a line, it’s a really hard movement to “memorize”, but with an arc, you can start to memorize the distance of the movement.

Kind of like how when you learn to throw a ball, you start memorizing the force and arc of your arm as you throw, and get better and better at estimating throw distances.

  • Train your tactile memory (ie play eyes closed)

This is along the same lines as moving your arm in an arc, but I found eyes-closed practice to be extremely effective. Instead of relying on my eyes, I practiced relying only on my body’s movement. If you can make a leap with your eyes closed the vast majority of the time, then once you get everything hands together it’ll be much more natural, and your hands won’t be doing “the scramble”, where they fly across the keys in search of the right note.

  • Don’t allow yourself to land on the wrong note

I realize now that all my suggestions are purely tactile, or based on touch – that’s what helped me the most.

You really want to avoid practicing hitting the wrong note. We can be particularly vulnerable to this when our hands are leaping – we leap, we miss, it sounds bad, and then repeat. The problem with this is, especially if you’re only hitting the right note 50% of the time, you’re actually training yourself to be inaccurate.

Think about it – if you’re hitting the wrong note as often as the right note, you’re not training your hand to be precise and hit the right note. So start catching yourself – right before you land, make sure you’re landing in the right spot. Play extremely slow if need be. It’s better to play slow and accurate than fast and sloppy.

Question #2: the perfect play-through

I really wanted to tackle this question because it’s something I experience, along with practically all of my older students (teenager to adult).

So why, when we know a piece really well and have it memorized, do we still make mistakes when trying to play it from top to bottom?

There is so much that goes into this, but I have a few ideas.

First, I think you’re completely right about the brain getting into the way – it’s almost like your brain is saying “You’re going to mess up! You’re playing perfectly, but the mess up is coming!”, and then sure enough, you mess up. So the important question here is, how do you get your brain out of your way?

One thing I do when I’m recording piano parts for videos is reverse psychology myself. My internal dialogue will be something like, “You have all the time in the world to make this recording, so mess up all you want, it doesn’t matter. The more you mess up, the more you get to practice, and practice is a good thing. So I encourage you, self, mess up! Play this horribly!”

It’s amazing how as soon as I switch on that video camera, my fingers freeze up and the self-consciousness begins. The same thing happens when we play for a teacher, or perform. All of a sudden, there are stakes. Those stakes might be “Everyone’s watching so don’t make a fool of yourself”, or the stakes might be “play this through with no mistakes”.

When there are stakes, there’s pressure, and when there’s pressure, our minds start getting into the way.

Take the “no big deal” approach, as in “it’s no big deal if I don’t play this without mistakes. I’ll just try again. Even if it takes 5 years, it doesn’t matter, who cares.”

Letting a piano piece marinate

The second part to this answer that I want to address quickly is the idea of “marinating”. Sometimes when our pieces are really fresh and new (and 8 days is pretty fresh), we might be able to play them well, but they haven’t yet had time to marinate and really soak them in the back of our mind.

If you can play a piece great after a week, you still might find little slips sneaking up on you, but those same slips should largely disappear after a month or so. Even if you’re only practicing the piece for a few minutes each day! I don’t really get it, but there’s some mental magic that happens when you let a piece cool down on the mental backburner.

A more drastic approach, but a really effective one, is when you learn a piece and then put it away. For a long time – a few months to a year. When you pick it up and re-learn it, you’ll find it’s familiar like an old friend, and little hiccups you used to have are now non-existent. This becomes even more apparent if you put it away a second time, and revisit it a third time.

A final point – it could just be that there are tiny pockets in the piece you’re not as comfortable with. Take those little slips as awesome opportunities! Every time you make a mistake, isolate it to the bar or two where it occurred, and practice just that bar until it’s comfortable. When you do another full play-through, and you have a slip somewhere else, do the same thing.

It’s like musical ironing. Playing a piece reveals its wrinkles. Sometimes the wrinkles are in different spots, or disappear/reappear at random. Keep ironing and soon you’ll have a smooth shirt.

question #3: playing quiet staccatos

Playing quiet staccatos is one of the most challenging piano techniques, especially when they’re fast too!

The thing I notice my students do the most often when attempting quiet staccatos is barely flicking the key, so it doesn’t fully press down, or presses down at random – some notes make a noise, and others don’t.

We do have to press lightly to make a staccato sound, but that shouldn’t be confused with pressing in a shallow way. Playing the keys “shallowly” is when your fingers only press the keys about halfway down, so that even if they are making a sound, it’s a really wimpy sound.

You have to make sure your fingers are hitting the bottom of the keys, or playing “deeply”. You can literally feel the bottom of the key when you press it – it’s important you get a feel for this so that when you play staccato, you can still press the key just as deeply, but lighter.

Practice this with simple scales or triads, really focusing on playing deeply, not shallowly. You can really hear (and feel) the difference when you flick the keys, as opposed to really press them (while lifting quickly for that staccato sound).

Question #4: What are key signatures?

Basic questions are good too – I’m sure there are lots of people who wonder what the point of key signatures are. I’m always careful to explain this in detail in my lessons, because it’s an important thing to understand.

There are 12 different individual keys on the piano – and then they just start repeating themselves at a higher pitch. There’s a scale associated with each of these keys – so you can play a C scale, a Db scale, a D scale, and so on.

To sound right, each of these scales has its own unique pattern of sharps or flats (or none, in the case of C). They all follow the same shape and formula, but no two scales are alike. Some have lots of sharps. Some have lots of flats.

So what key signatures are telling us is what scale a piece is written in. So if you look at this key signature, there are no sharps and flats. That means this piece is based off the scale with no sharps or flats – C!

Or if you see one sharp floating in the key signature – what scale only has one sharp? The key of G! So this piece would be based in the G major scale.

So key signatures, aside from alerting us to sharps and flats in a piece, are also giving us a critical piece of information – what scale the piece is based on.

Four flats might look scary on the page, but if you’re familiar with Ab scale and can play it easily, then a piece written in Ab scale isn’t going to phase you. You already know the key, and the pattern of notes.

It’s not always this simplistic (sometimes keys are minor – a whole other story – and sometimes a piece changes keys), but this is the basic idea. Hopefully this gives you some perspective!

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s Q&A session! As always, feel free to leave any questions you might have in the comments (on this page or YouTube), and I’ll look through them for next month’s session.

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.