Ask Me a Piano Question!

Hello everyone!

Since I created this website about one year ago, I have received many wonderful comments from you guys – thanks a lot for your support! At the same time, some of your comments contained interesting questions which have guided me in choosing the subjects for my recent posts.

This page will be dedicated to your questions!

What’s frustrating you about your practice? Is there something you need help with? Are you worried about a certain piano issue and you can’t find a satisfying solution? Do you have problems with your posture, your wrist, the quality of your sound, your health, your repertoire, or maybe you have a certain fear that you can’t overcome by yourself?

It doesn’t have to be a serious, scientific, 100% piano-related question. It may touch other aspects of a musician’s life – physical exercise, diet, attitude, motivation, balance, concentration, exams, philosophy, history of music, etc. and so on.

No matter what it is, we’ll explore it together! :)

You can post your question in the comments below. Also, feel free to reply to other comments – you can help each other by sharing your experience and your personal strategies for dealing with specific piano problems.

I will try to focus my future articles and videos (yes, videos are coming soon!) on these questions.

I will also place an easy-to-access link to this page on the right sidebar of my site – so you’ll be able to ask questions as often as you want!

I believe that piano playing should be an enjoyable lifestyle, not a stressful struggle – yes, even if you’re a professional pianist who’s facing difficult challenges on a daily basis! The good news is that we can make such a lifestyle come true – we just need to have an open mind, to let go of stereotypes and not be afraid to look at familiar things from new, unexpected angles.

I also have a big dream: to create a community of pianists and musicians (professionals and amateurs) who are willing to look at their practice and their career from a new perspective in order to make their musical experience as enjoyable and meaningful as possible.

I respond to every comment and I am happy to help you however I can!

Have an inspired day and enjoy every step of your piano quest!

Ilinca

P.S. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter and to stay updated!

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350 Responses to “Ask Me a Piano Question!”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. Rodney James says:

    Hi Ms Vartic!

    It’s been a while. I really hope that you are doing well! How is everything going..I have another quick qu
    estion. I’m now working on Beethoven’s op90 in e minor. I started with the second movement. I have been working on the first 4 measures for a week. I can’t connect that lovely melody and keep the accompaniment in the background. How would you work on those first 4 measures? I am sure that the solution is in the fingering and a skillful use of the pedal. I don’t want to make the bass notes longer than written. I don’t want to muddy the sound with the pedal. Please help!!! Never really had one phrase to catch me like that. I know what want,but no idea how to get the sound!
    Thank you in advance,
    Rodney

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rodney!

      The fragment you’re mentioning (the first 4 bars of the 2nd movement from Beethoven’s Sonata op. 90) are a classical example of ‘one hand’ polyphonic structure.

      Of course, fingering and pedal are important for playing these bars properly.

      However, the secret for bringing out the melody on a beautiful legato and at the same time keeping the middle voice in the background has nothing to do with pedal or fingering: you simply have to master the polyphonic trick of differentiated key attack in the same hand.

      It means channeling the entire weight on your arm into the fingers playing the melody, and at the same time making sure that the fingers playing the accompaniment are touching the keys in a light, ‘weightless’ manner.

      Basically, you have to learn how to create simultaneously, in the same hand, two different dynamics. The melody has to sound on a beautiful, deep mf while the accompaniment – on p.

      Usually, we learn how to master this special technique by playing polyphonic music, where there are often two different voices in the same hand – and, of course, they have to be played with a different sound intensity and a different character.

      Practice suggestions: practice the right hand separately. At first, you can even play without pedal. Start slowly, and monitor carefully how the weight of your hand goes ONLY into the fingers playing the melody. The pressure applied by these fingers into the keyboard should be really powerful, gradual and relaxed (not hitting the key, but pressing it!). At the same time, you have to get used to playing all the sixteenth notes in the middle voice with a very light touche – without pressure and without arm weight. The keys have to produce the softest sound possible – but, again, without tension.

      At the same time, for achieving a good legato, focus on how the weight of the arm is flowingly transferred from one note of the melody into the other – even when you play two consecutive notes with the same finger (for example, the pinkie). The pedal will help you connect these notes (by the way, you have to use half pedals and change them every half of the bar) – but it cannot help you make the melody sound deeper than the accompaniment! Here, only your ability of creating different dynamics in the same hand can make a difference!

      Also, make sure that all the notes in the melody are played on a downward movement – and don’t release the keys too soon (again, even if you play two consecutive notes with the same finger!).

      I hope this helps! It is not an easy technique, but the results it offers are truly amazing: the melody will be expressive, deep and nicely connected, ‘hovering’ above the soft harmonic background provided by the middle voice and the bass.

      Good luck and keep us posted on your progress! ;)
      Ilinca

  2. Ilinca says:

    Hello everyone!

    As you can see, we reached the third page of ‘Ask Me a Piano Question’! :) Thank you for all your interesting questions and comments!!!

    Don’t forget that you can read all the previous questions and answers (pages 1 and 2) by clicking on ‘Older Comments’.

    (By the way, Andy – this is how you can read older replies – by clicking on the ‘Older Comments’ link or on the specific link I provide in my answers).

    Alexandra, click here for reading my reply to your last question about the ‘memorization dilemma’.

    Andy, click here for my reply to your last comment!

    Rodney, I hope to answer your question tomorrow! :)

    Also, please post all new questions on this new page (not as a reply on page 2), so they will be more accessible to everyone.

    Thank you and have a wonderful weekend!
    Ilinca

  3. Pauline says:

    Hi Ilinca

    Appreciative thanks again for an in depth explanation of mindful practice and memorizing to Alexandra. I’m feeling somewhat dense in that I don’t fully understand the difference between ‘mindful playing’ and ‘mindful mechanical playing’, i.e. playing with your MIND, not your FINGERS and guiding your fingers with your mind. I would be grateful if you could elaborate more on this, please, if you have time. Many thanks.

    Best as always

    Pauline

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Pauline!

      Just as you mentioned recently in one of your comments – awareness is extremely important in everything we do. One of the biggest traps in playing any instrument is mechanical practice – when the performer is relying solely on the automated movements of his/her arms and fingers, not involving awareness, mindfulness and objective hearing in the playing process.

      This usually means allowing your fingers to play the memorized notes (you’re only relying on your muscle memory) while your mind is ‘drifting’ to other subjects, not being ‘in the moment’ and not guiding the fingers. This problem affects all beginners: their practice looks like this:

        -’deciphering’ the text;
        -learning the text mechanically;
        -memorizing the text mechanically;
        -integrating in the performance their teacher’s advice without fully understanding WHY they are doing it;
        -performing the piece on a satisfactory technical level, but without any meaning, without sending a message.

        After all, how could they send a message if they don’t have any idea what this piece is all about? They simply play the notes (one bar at a time) without connecting the dots, without integrating these bars into a bigger picture, without understanding how phrases are built or how each dynamic expresses a certain emotion or a certain musical conflict.

        Well, I know this sounds bad – but it’s not!!! It’s simply normal! LOL We’ve all been there during our first years of practice – and maybe only geniuses manage to skip the ‘mechanical practice’ step in their musical quest.

        We have to understand one thing: awareness and mindful playing come with practice and experience. Nobody is born with it, especially when we talk about complex music!

        For adults, this process is easier and faster: their mind is stronger and more ‘conscious’ than the intuitive mind of children.

        Children, on the other hand, have a better finger velocity because their joints are more mobile and easy to ‘model’ according to the necessities of the instrument. So, as you see, each age group has its strengths and weaknesses!

        My experience tells me that Alexandra has reached the phase where real awareness begins to awaken – and just as you mentioned – such changes and transformations can sometimes cause discomfort.

        Her phrase ‘mindful mechanical playing’ was simply a joke – it is certainly not an official term! LOL She simply meant that before she thought that she is playing mindfully, when in fact she was still playing mechanically, relying on her muscle memory instead of being truly aware of all the elements of the text and their meaning.

        This is a normal transition: as we grow more experienced in a certain field, we reach new levels of understanding and we look at familiar things with new eyes. Often, we may think: “Wow, how could I not notice this before? Now I can finally see what this is all about!” LOL

        Let me make a metaphor: imagine that you’re lost in a forest. Each tree seems so big and frightening, you stumble on tree stumps and you have no idea where you’re heading. This is mechanical practice and the trees are all the elements of the musical text: notes, rhythm, fingering, dynamics, rests etc. You can see them, one or two at the time, but you have no idea what they mean and where do they lead to.

        Then, after wandering through the forest for a little while (and only if you start using your mind for analyzing the landscape!), you begin to feel more familiar – you notice trails, you recognize the species of the trees and you even know where you’re headed. This is the beginning of the awakening process – when awareness and a deeper understanding begin to take control.

        Then, at a certain point in your practice, you learn how to fly. You spread your wings and you hover above the forest. Suddenly, everything makes sense! You can still see in detail all the trees, but you can also see the bigger picture and you understand perfectly well how each detail is an indissoluble part of a whole, unbreakable structure. In terms of piano practice, it means being with your mind always several steps ahead of your fingers; it means being aware of WHY you play in a certain way and HOW you play – and also keeping in front of your ‘mental eyes’ the message of the piece, that red line that connects bars and fragments for forming an indissoluble whole.

        Of course, sensitivity and inspiration are important parts of this process – but this is the subject for another article or reply! :)

        In fact, I talk about the best way to avoid mechanical practice in my report about piano phrasing :). There I describe how we can simplify your practice by creating a clear mental image of the piece FIRST, and only then starting to learn it. This method is not suitable for small children, but it works perfectly well for teenagers and adults :).

        Of course, this is an endless subject – and there is so much more to be said about awareness, mindful practice and deep musical understanding! I will simply say again that mindfulness comes with experience – and there are no limits to what we can achieve! :)

        Ilinca

      • Pauline says:

        Hi Ilinca

        I’m speechless again! I must stop this unusual occurrence!! LOL

        Thank you so much for your ‘mindfulness’ explanation of being mindful while practising and playing. I never realised how complex, but thoroughly fascinating it all is. I’m in awe of your invaluable and inspiring teaching, because you always manage to simplify complicated subjects into conceptual learning that I can comprehend. That is truly an art in itself.

        Although I’m no longer feeling dense, I realise that it will take some time for me to fully grasp all what you’ve said. I also need to integrate it into my body and that’s what takes time. I hope you’ll write more on this subject, because there’s so much to assimilate and I’m eager to learn more about the sensivity and inspiration part that you say is for another article, or reply.

        Of course experience counts for a lot in any subject and there are no short cuts. But it seems from your message that experience needs to be combined with awareness, inspired creativity with musical understanding and mindful playing.

        I realise that I have much to learn in the art of playing piano and that’s fine; but what is brilliant is that your site has opened my eyes to many facets of knowledge. Your readers questions are always invaluable and we are extremely fortunate to be able to communicate our difficulties to you. Like Alexandra, I can’t wait to see what next year brings. We await eagerly to more of your fascinating video tutorials, articles and replies and whatever else you choose to do.

        Grateful thanks Ilinca for replying to my questions with much thought and clarity. I’ve now become obsessed with checking in, not only for myself, but with insights that you share with other readers. There is always something new to learn and it’s wonderful.

        I wish you a very happy and healthy Christmas with love and light. Take care.

        Pauline

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi Pauline!

          Thank you for this wonderful warm reply – it is always extremely rewarding to be able to help! ;)

          In fact, mindful practice is one of my favorite piano subjects – because the way we practice is directly responsible for the way we play! LOL

          By the way, I have some interesting plans for developing this subject – I’ll begin working on it in the beginning of January! :)

          Enjoy the holiday season and have a wonderful Christmas! (But I’m sure we’ll talk some more until then!).

          Warm wishes,
          Ilinca

  4. Dick says:

    Hello Ilinca,

    I wanted to thank you for your excellent and informative website, that you have provided for so many of us, whom love the piano. I benefited from your statements of “relaxation” while studying and especially performing. I don’t like to perform, it is so hard on my nerves however, given what you have provided, it makes a lot of sense, I now see that, I have what, I will refer to as a “phobia” for failure. With this realization and also, your advice on meditating, will most certainly assist me, in the performing field. Your website is the best I have seen, for piano instruction and I certainly will be using it, for my studies and I will inform others, of this excellent website. You come across as very intelligent and also, very kind and!…I say this with the utmost respect and that is, you are a very “beautiful” woman.

    Thanks again!

    Dick

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Dick!

      Thank you for your comment and welcome to PianoCareer.com! ;) It’s really nice to have you here!

      I’m happy that you found my articles and tutorials helpful! Thanks again for your appreciation – it means a lot to me to be able to help!

      Yes, performing on stage is never easy – but it’s something we can ‘train’ ourselves to do and enjoy! We just need a positive attitude, patience, perseverance, calmness and correct information about the entire process.

      Good luck in your practice and I hope to hear from you soon! ;)
      Ilinca

  5. Henrik says:

    Hi!

    I’ve played piano (well, to be honest it´s not a piano, its a keyboard. But I play on it like it is a piano) for over one year now, and I’ve just began using the pedal. Your tutorials helped a lot. The technice you teached works in a lot of cases, but there is one piece that is harder.

    If I record myself playing Chopins Nocturne op. 9 no. 2, and send the soundfile to you, can you then listen to it and give some tips to help me make it sound better?

    And I have another, maybe a little weird, question. Is there an limit of how many pieces you can archive in your head?

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Henrik!

      Welcome to PianoCareer.com and to our “Questions and Answers” page! ;)

      Wow, you can play a Nocturne by Chopin after only a year of playing piano? That’s impressive!

      Yes, of course you can send me your recording – I’m looking forward to hearing you play and I’ll be happy to give you some practice tips!

      In the meantime, you can listen to these two wonderful recordings of the mentioned Nocturne: Arthur Rubinstein and Valentina Lisitsa.

      To answer your second question: no, there are no limits to the ‘archiving’ capacities of our mind. As we become more experienced in piano playing, our memory develops as well. Of course, if we don’t practice a piece for some time we tend to forget it – but it’s much easier to remember a piece that you previously learned! Professional pianists can keep ‘in their fingers’ many hours of music – not to mention all the hundreds (and even thousands) of pieces that they learned during their entire lifetime and that can be easily ‘restored’ and remembered in just a few days.

      A little tip: don’t concentrate on memorizing! Concentrate on a quality practice instead – memorizing will come naturally! Playing well, in a relaxed and mindful manner is much more important than simply playing ‘by heart’.

      Have a great Sunday and talk to you soon!
      Ilinca

      • Henrik says:

        Hi Ilinca!!

        Thank you for your answer!

        Yes, I´ve listen to Arthur Rubensteins version a few times before and its wonderful. Never heard Valentina Lisitsas version thought.

        Okey, I will record my version of Nocturne op. 9 no. 2 this week, when I’ve got the time. Thank you, Im very glad you wanna listen to it and help me. Means alot!!

        Where should I send it? :)

        Do you have an email I can send it to?

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi again!

          You can send your recording to my email address: ilinca.vartic at gmail.com. I’m writing ‘at’ here instead of @ to protect my email from automatic spam messages. However, you should write the address correctly, with @ :).

          We can connect on Facebook as well, if you have an account.

          Have a good week!
          Ilinca

  6. Rachel says:

    About finger lifting when playing scale for example, should the fingers be touching the keys when the arm weight transfer from one finger to the next, or should the fingers be lifting up a little bit??

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rachel!

      Welcome to PianoCareer.com! ;)

      Generally, the fingers have to be lifted – especially when playing scales and technical exercises. “How high” depends on the character of the music and on the intended dynamic level. We should NEVER keep all our fingers touching the keyboard if we’re playing consecutive notes with different fingers!

      Lifting our finger before playing a certain note and after playing it ensures a good articulation: the keys are not ‘glued’ together and we can control very well the quality of the sound; and, of course, a good articulation is the key to a good finger velocity!

      Imagine that you’re walking. You’re transferring the weight of your body from one leg to the other. At the same time you have to lift each foot for taking the next step. Otherwise, you would be ‘gliding’, not walking! LOL

      In piano playing, there are some cases when a minimal lifting of the fingers is appropriate. However, this technique is an exception and it should be used only for creating a very soft, transparent, ‘foggy’ sound. For developing a brilliant technique and a quality sound, on the other hand, we need to learn how to ‘articulate’ each sound by lifting our fingers.

      You can also compare this with the speaking process. Imagine that you’re an actor on stage and that the public has to understand what you’re saying. If you have a good diction and you’re pronouncing each word correctly, than it will be easier to send the message of the play! If, on the other hand, you’re mumbling under your nose (which can be compared with ‘not lifting the fingers enough’) – nobody will understand a word!

      Good luck! ;)
      Ilinca

  7. Maximo says:

    Hi Ilinca
    Sometimes I find myself watching videos like this one on youtube:
    Valentina Lisitsa
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2X_hOY6tEvM&feature=g-all-u&context=G277a563FAAAAAAAAJAA

    and I ask myself, HOW???? She is amazing. I’ve talk to her via twitter (yes, she is really sociable), but I don’t like to ask questions like how do you practice? or how did you get play that piece like that way in such a sort time? (considering she learned it in a month or something, because that is information we don’t really know. Maybe she took more time) because I know I’ll never get an answer lol. But you get my point. I know it takes years of “correct”practice to reach that kind of level, and I know is was really hard even for her to get there (beacuse I’m a huge believer that talent is the result of hard work), but in the end I’m still asking my self, HOW????

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Maximo!

      For centuries, people are trying to find an exact formula that would explain extraordinary achievements and success. At the same time, most people believe that some questions will always remain unanswered. Among these questions, we can name just a few: “What is talent?”, “What is inspiration?”, “What is creativity?” and so on.

      Personally, I think that we can explain much more than we have been taught. Maybe it’s not possible to find an exact formula – bu it’s certainly possible to identify, understand and apply the main ingredients for being what we feel that we are meant to be.

      Of course, each great personality has his/her own approach to what they do. The only way of finding out how exactly they practice is asking them personally :). At the same time, when we read books and watch interviews with great musicians/painters/actors/businessmen etc. we see that a certain pattern is forming:

      They are all passionate about what they do (can you see how much Valentina Lisitsa is enjoying every note of her amazing performances?); they know what they want from life; they are not afraid of making their passion become a reality; they take action instead of simply contemplating their dreams; they think positive and they know that the power of their mind is limitless; if they fall 7 times, they get up 8 times; they see failures as useful lessons, not as obstacles; they don’t forget that they are not separate entities, but an organic part of this universe – and they know/feel that letting go of their grip is sometimes more effective than trying too hard; yes, they work hard – but there is a big difference between ‘passionate hard work’ and ‘working hard out of duty’; experience is extremely important, of course – becoming a good pianist never happens overnight!; they are never selfish – a big part of their motivation is bringing light and positive energy to the public, of sharing the amazing beauty of the pieces they play; they are brave (remember the interview with Arthur Rubinstein!), noble and they are dignified without losing their simplicity and modesty; they are always eager to learn something new and they are never satisfied with their current level of mastery :); they never give up, but they always remember to take things easy and smile more often; they are not afraid of being themselves and they are not imitating anyone (do you remember what Rubinstein said about uniqueness in his interview? Nobody will ever remember the 2nd Rubinstein or the 2nd Lisitsa! They are great because they are unique!); what else? I’m sure there are many other things besides the ones I mentioned here – but you get the general picture :).

      One more thing: I always noticed that hard work without passion is the shortest road towards depression and un-fulfillment; on the other hand, working the same 5-10 hours per day and enjoying what you do will help you progress many times faster!

      Let me give you an example: imagine that the parents of a young man/woman insist that they become a lawyer or a doctor. At the same time, this person is extremely passionate about playing piano and he/she knows that music is what they love the most. In such circumstances, if this person continues to pursue the dream of his/her parents, he/she will become a good doctor/lawyer at best. On the other hand, if they pursue their true passion with perseverance and dedication and they never give up (no matter how hard it gets) – then they have all the chances of becoming an amazing musician!!!

      And let’s not forget that this works the other way around as well: if you ‘re not passionate about music but your parents/caretakers/teachers consider that you should pursue this career – no matter how hard you practice, you’ll never be truly amazing! How can you be a great musician, when deep down in your heart you dream about being a good cook, or a good athlete, or maybe a good doctor and saving lives? :)

      Being ‘in tune’ with one’s essence, with one’s biggest passion is what yields the best results.

      So, as you can see, the ultimate secret is not ONLY in how much you practice or how many years of experience you have behind you (though this is extremely important as well); the ultimate secret is in our mind, our passion, our attitude, our faith!

      Merry Christmas and have an amazing week! ;)
      Ilinca

  8. Drew says:

    How does one go about approaching speed on piano?

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Drew!

      Speed (the ability to play in fast tempo on the piano by developing the strength and velocity of one’s fingers) can be develop gradually, with regular correct practice.

      It’s impossible to play very fast if you’re taking piano lessons for only a month or two. It usually takes at least 3-4 years of constant practice (at least 2-3 hours per day, and at least 5 days a week) to be able to play a scale/etude/piece in a relatively fast tempo.

      Also keep in mind that speed is relative. It’s always possible to play a little faster than yesterday! :) For a piano student in the 1st grade, playing a simple Etude by Czerny in a moderate tempo is a fantastic, unreal achievement! On the other hand, for a professional or even for someone in the 8th grade the same Etude will seem very slow and easy! LOL

      At the same time, don’t forget that for achieving a good technique and a good finger velocity we have to practice in a relaxed manner, by using the entire weight of our arms behind each note; our shoulders, elbows and wrists should never be tensed – they should be mobile and flexible. If you’re tensed and rigid, you’ll never be able to achieve speed in your playing (not to mention that your sound will never be beautiful and expressive)!

      When you practice, always begin to play in a slow tempo. Only after feeling relaxed and comfortable in a slow/moderate tempo, you can gradually increase the speed until you reach the needed one.

      And, the most important thing – have patience! If you enjoy what you do and you practice correctly and mindfully – progress is inevitable! ;)

      Good luck and Happy Holidays!
      Ilinca

      P.S. I could give you a more exact answer if I would know what exact piece you’re currently practicing :).

  9. Neil says:

    Hi Ilinca, I am currently working on Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique 1st movement and I am having trouble playing those tremelos in the left hand without getting wrist pain and shoulder pain, can you give me any tips to prevent this?

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Neil!

      As you surely know, we can avoid wrist pain by making sure that we keep our entire arms (including the wrists) as relaxed and flexible as possible when we practice. Also, we have to use the entire weight of our relaxed arms in the playing process, channeling it through the fingers into the keyboard.

      However, there are fragments (as the octave tremolo from the Sonata Pathetique) which are still challenging even if we play in a relaxed manner. The truth is that playing tremolos in a fast tempo for a long time will inevitably make our arms get tired. BUT we can certainly reduce the tension and increase our comfort by paying more attention to a proper elbow and wrist relaxation.

      Practice slowly at first, left hand only, and make sure that there is no tension in that tempo. Even if your discomfort is concentrated in the wrist and shoulder, make sure your elbow is not rigid – a stiff elbow can be directly responsible for wrist pain! Feel how your arm is entirely relaxed – from shoulder to fingertips. When playing the tremolo, don’t exaggerate your movements – keep them as economical as possible, reducing them to a necessary minimum. Earlier this year one of my readers compared this kind of motion with a slight rotation of a doorknob – I think it’s a good comparison! :) However, even with this type of rotation, don’t fall into the trap of keeping your wrist immobile.

      Gradually increase the tempo without losing the feeling of relaxation and comfort. If you feel that you get tired, go back to a slower tempo.

      Also, pay attention that Beethoven wrote the tremolos in a very wise manner: they never go on for too long! The first tremolo lasts for only 16 bars. Then, you have to take advantage of the 8 measures break for relaxing your arms and wrists entirely!

      In such cases, we have to be smart and look for logical ways out (as the one I described above). Beethoven was a pianist himself and even if many of his works are very complicated, we can often see that the solutions to all the technical problems are ‘encoded’ in the text as well.

      One more thing: in Beethoven’s time, the keys were a little lighter than the ones on modern pianos. Of course, it’s much easier to play tremolos on light keys. The heavier the keys – the faster our arms will get tired. Yes, it’s impossible to change the weight of the keys – but it’s possible to acquire the needed playing habits that will make such technical difficulties easier to overcome. And, of course – correct practice makes perfect!

      Good luck and Happy Holidays! ;)
      Ilinca

  10. Ilinca says:

    Hello everyone!

    Thank you for all the new questions! ;)

    The Christmas season is the busiest of all for musicians – we had a full-day TV recordings yesterday with the orchestra (check my Facebook page – I posted some pictures taken during the recordings!), and now we’re rehearsing for tomorrow’s big Christmas concert.

    We have only one day off – on 25th! – and I’ll try to reply to as many questions as I can!

    Henrik - I received your recording and I’ll write you a detailed email as soon as I find time to listen to it carefully! ;)

    Merry Christmas everyone and those who are on vacation – enjoy your rest!

    Talk to you very soon!
    Ilinca

  11. Andy says:

    Hello Ilinca,
    Just wanted to tell you how nice is your Christmas video!
    I wish you a very beautiful and magical Christmas!
    Andy

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Andy!

      Thank you for your wishes – I hope you had a wonderful Christmas as well! ;)

      Best wishes,
      Ilinca

  12. Speedy D25 says:

    Thanks for writing me back on Facebook, i hope you had a good Christmas, I sure did/always great gift from my family, and if i may ask….I don’t see the answer of what you wrote on your site [pianocareer.com], unless if it’s on youtube…sorry if i was being rude but i was wondering if you can please re-write what you wrote [it doesn't matter if it's on here or on Facebook, when you write again]…thanks again, and hey?!!

    Speedy D25

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Speedy!

      Yes, I had a great Christmas, even if it was only 1 free day :).

      It’s very easy to check the newest answers on PianoCareer.com simply by visiting the site whenever you have time ;).

      Good luck and have a great week!
      Ilinca

  13. Speedy D25 says:

    You too, i figure it out on this site, thank again, and hey!

    Speedy D25

  14. Hello Ilinca!

    First of all, i want to tell you that i speak spanish, so it’s a little bit hard to write in english, but your website and your lessons worth for it.

    Ok, then.
    I’m 17 years old and i love to play music on my keyboard, i really do. Also i have some another instruments, but nothing sounds too nice as a piano.
    I have never took any class of music, or piano, and all i know i learned by watching videos on youtube (like yours, that helps a lot); and using websites.
    Nowadays i’m not a beginner, but neither a skilled pianist. Even i have teached some very basic things to my friends.

    But now Youtube is not enough, website pages are not enough. Those are very helpful, but now i need lessons from a teacher on a real life. I still haven’t found anyone, but i’m still looking for it.

    I just want to thank you a lot. You helped me alot.
    Thanks to you, i think that i’m ready for the next step.

    Thank you so much :)
    Greetings from Mexico.

    :)

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Alfonso!

      Welcome to PianoCareer.com! ;)

      Thank you for your nice comment and for sharing with us your piano experience! It feels great to know that my site and my tutorials helped you to improve your piano skills and also to understand that you need a real piano teacher. I totally agree with that!

      For becoming good pianists, we have to combine the useful information that we learn from books and websites with the experience that only a real teacher can give us :).

      I wish you good luck and I certainly hope to ‘see’ you soon on PianoCareer.com! If you have any questions about your practice, don’t hesitate to ask!

      Best wishes and Happy New Year!!!
      Ilinca

  15. Natalie says:

    Dear Ms. Vartic,

    What physical approach was Horowitz using to produce his massive fortissimo? He mentioned something about using the entire body to play loudly, although I’m not exactly sure what that entails. Would Horowitz have had to have been very relaxed in the arms to channel so much weight into the keys?

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Natalie!

      Happy New Year and welcome to PianoCareer.com!!!

      The only way of producing a massive, deep, resonating and at the same time noble fortissimo (as opposed to a strident, ‘mechanical’ one) is using the force of our entire body (just like Horowitz said).

      In many of my articles and replies I often describe the basics of a correct posture and how we have to channel the force coming from our back into the keyboard – by keeping our arms and wrists extremely relaxed.

      For more information on this subject, you can read my article The Piano Posture and The Energy of the Sound, and you can also watch my video tutorials The 5 Basic Elements of a Correct Piano Posture and The Secrets of a Correct Piano Key Attack.

      For being able to create a wide variety of dynamics at the piano (including fortissimo), we have to play by using the entire weight of our relaxed arms. At the same time, we have to keep in mind that this weight is coming from our shoulders, our back and ultimately – from our entire body.

      On the other hand, if we play incorrectly, in a tensed manner, ‘only with our fingers’, than it’s impossible to produce a good forte, to create a beautiful sound or to develop a good finger velocity.

      The ‘whole arm action’ principle is necessary not only for making a powerful fortissimo – it is the foundation of a correct piano playing habit!

      Don’t forget to read the recommended articles! You can also explore the other ‘Questions and Answers’ from this page (click on Older Comments below for seeing the first 2 pages) – I often describe how to practice correctly by using the relaxed weight of our entire arms.

      Good luck and if you have other questions, please ask! ;)
      Ilinca

  16. Natalie says:

    Thank you, Ilinca. The recommended material was very helpful. In one video, you mentioned that you should be aware of the heaviness of the arms. Should the arms feel heavy when they are completely released, because I have heard that tensed muscles have a heavy feeling while free ones feel light? Is that a misconception on my part?

    I believe you are saying that to create a bigger sound, you need to release even more arm weight into the key. What does it feel like to release more weight? Does the arm become even more relaxed then when you were playing softly? I think that the some people have the habit of applying more muscular force when they try to release more weight into the key, which is probably a misapplication of the concept. I have noticed that if I keep my hands very close to the keys (striving to be as free as possible throughout the entire body) and then rapidly thrust the hand and arm upward into the key (while the fingers go down, the arch of the hand moves up), aiming to dig into the keys as much as possible, I obtain a very loud and sonorous sound, although I sometimes become tense in the arms after landing.

    Perhaps I was using the “fast-key” attack that you warned against, instead of the process of gradually depressing the key. I found that the faster I depressed the key, the louder it would sound, and I wasn’t sure how to make it sound just as loud with a gradual key depression. Perhaps the technique of quickly depressing the keys can give you a loud sound, but one that sounds harsh and ugly, as opposed to the sonorous fortissimo that Horowitz produced. Is there a way that one can go about depressing the key gradually, but still generating maximum sonority? Do you think that attacking the keys extremely quickly can give you even louder sound than Horowitz (even though it would sound ugly), as the volume is determined by the speed with which the hammer strikes the string?

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Natalie!

      The heaviness of our arms when playing piano comes from the fact that they are totally, completely relaxed. If you tense them, they will become lighter – because their weight will get ‘trapped’ in the tensed point – may it be your shoulder, your elbow or your wrist.

      In playing louder, we don’t need to tense our arms, we simply need to channel more weight into the keyboard (taking it from our back).

      In his book “The Art of Piano Playing” the great Russian piano professor Heinrich Neuhaus used to say that the loudness of the piano sound is determined by three variables: the force, the speed and the height of the key attack. The higher you lift your arm before pressing the key – the louder it will sound; the faster you make the ‘landing’ – again, the bigger the sound; the heavier you arm is (the more force you place behind the touch) – the louder the instrument will respond.

      However, there is a big catch here, in the form of the fourth variable: RELAXATION. Yes, you’re right – the faster you hit the key, the louder it will sound. However, if during the key attack your arms are tensed and the fingers are hitting the keys in a brutal manner – you’ll obtain a tensed, percussion-like sound. On the other hand, if your arms are relaxed and your wrists and elbows are flexible, the sound will be ‘cushioned’: it will keep its volume, but the harsh ‘edges’ will be softened and the sonority will become noble and beautiful.

      As you can see, relaxation makes the difference between a beautiful, deep, expressive sound and a harsh, ugly one (regardless of its volume!)

      This is the most important secret when it comes to piano playing – that’s why I dedicated an entire video tutorial to this topic (and I always mention it in all my articles and replies). You can also read my article The Piano Sound and the Technical Trap – there I describe as well a few aspects of this subject.

      I compare such a powerful yet relaxed and ‘noble’ sound with driving a very good new car: it is powerful, but smooth, because it has a good buffer! Or, we can compare it with the way a cat runs or jumps: the animal is really powerful and has force, but it lands softly on its paws, because the paws are relaxed.

      Now let’s return to your questions: “How do we release more weight into the keys“? It’s difficult to explain this only with words (my teacher used to take my arms, show me the proper gestures so that I would feel the difference between a rigid and a relaxed sound), but I will try to describe it in a few sentences:

      Sit at the piano and keep your arms at your sides. Keep your spine straight, but relax all the arm muscles. Feel the natural heaviness of your arms and enjoy their freedom – and then place them on the keyboard. Feel how the weight of the arms comes from your back – you should feel how the arms are literally ‘pulled’ from your shoulders by the gravity force :). Now lift your arms as high as possible (yes, it’s impossible to create a beautiful, noble forte if you’re not taking a breath before creating the sound; as you probably know, we breathe at the piano by relaxing the wrist AND lifting the arms; the height depends on the desired sound volume – the higher you lift your arm – the bigger the sound, as I already explained).

      For creating a powerful forte, lift your arm (arms) approximately until the level of your shoulders. The gesture should be flowing and relaxed (like a paw of a cat or the arm of a good dancer or Yoga practitioner). The wrist goes up first, followed by the relaxed fingers (and don’t forget to keep the elbow relaxed as well!).

      Now lower your arm to the keyboard. At first, you can practice with slower gestures which will produce a beautiful mf (the ideal practice dynamic). Yes, you should apply some force, BUT – and here is another important secret: the force should come from your back (not from your forearms or even worse – from your fingers); AND, no matter how much force (pressure) you apply, you should NEVER tense your joints: your shoulders, your elbows and your wrists. From the second when your finger makes first contact with the key, the wrist has to continue to go down, slightly below the key level, softening the sound even more and ‘cushioning’ the impact.

      I will say again that flexible joints (especially the wrist) are like a good new car buffer: they can soften any bumps!!! LOL

      The fingertips are the only elements of a pianist’s arms which should be crisp and precise – like the claws of a cat! Please pay attention – I’m not saying ‘the fingers’, I’m saying ‘the fingertips!’. I hope you see the difference! ;)

      The bottom line is: yes, we should press the keys in a fast manner if we want to create a bigger sound. However, in order to avoid a brutal sound, we have to soften the landing of our arm by keeping all the joints relaxed and by ‘diving’ into the keyboard instead of hitting it.

      Of course, this technique cannot be mastered overnight. It takes practice and patience to teach your muscle memory all the needed gestures for creating a quality piano sound.

      I hope that my answer covers your question. I will certainly describe this principle again in my future tutorials – because it is the foundation of the Russian piano school, being the skill that allows us to make the piano SING – no matter how soft or loud our sound is.

      Good luck and talk to you soon!
      Ilinca

      • Natalie says:

        Hi Ilinca,

        Thank you for the detailed and insightful reply. Perhaps the challenge is adding more force without becoming tense. Many people equate muscular tension with “force”, but that is probably a misconception. “Force” should be an efficient use of the muscles, not an exertion of unnecessary effort.

        If the arm is perfectly relaxed, does more power automatically get channeled into the key? Or is relaxation only the first step in achieving a big sound, the second being the release of more power? Perhaps when you are relaxed, it is very easy to apply more power without forcing. I have noticed that when pianists noticeably tense their arms, it often prevents them from playing loud, as the tension slows the arm down and prevents it from quickly transferring force into the key.

        Some pedagogues have argued that loud playing demands greater relaxation than soft playing. The logic behind that is that to play loud, you release the full weight of the arm into the key, which relieves the musculature of all pressure- as all the weight is resting on the key. However, if you want to play softly, you have to release less weight, which means that the musculature has to exert a certain amount of pressure to prevent the full weight of the arm from releasing into the key.

        Do you feel that it is difficult to apply more force from the arm without becoming tight? Perhaps that is what the muscles of the back are for. If you use the back as the source of power, the arms can remain relaxed. If you want to release more power from the back, what should that feel like? Should it feel like a relaxed back or a muscularly active back (which some people may equate with tension)?

        As to the key speed, perhaps the speed of the key descent has to be fast enough to create a loud sound, but not so fast that it creates a harsh sound. The balance is something that perhaps can only be found through experimentation.

        When you talk about the fingertips being crisp and precise, is it difficult to achieve that without pushing too hard with the fingers? I think that many pianists have the habit of pushing too hard with their fingers, instead of using the arm. Perhaps firm fingers are an issue of being able to securely feel the keys, without exerting any unnecessary pressure. Exponents of the Taubman method have suggested that you should play lightly with the fingers, but use a lot of arm weight. Do you think that light fingers can obtain the necessary crispness?

        Perhaps piano playing is an issue of not doing what you shouldn’t do (relaxation would allow that), and then doing what you should do. Relaxation may only serve to prevent unnecessary tension from getting in your way. Even without the tension, there are certain things that you must do on your own to achieve the best sound, such as releasing more power for a fortissimo. Presumably, if you are relaxed to begin with, it becomes very easy to apply more or less power.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Natalie!

      For giving you exact and detailed answers, I’ll quote your questions and write my replies below each one :).

      Perhaps the challenge is adding more force without becoming tense. Many people equate muscular tension with “force”, but that is probably a misconception. “Force” should be an efficient use of the muscles, not an exertion of unnecessary effort.

      Yes, you’re partially right. As I already said, for achieving a powerful forte we have to press (not hit!!!) the keys by using the force coming from our back (literally, from our entire body). Then, just as I described in my previous answer, when our fingers meet the keyboard, we have to compensate and soften this pressure by making sure that all our joints are completely relaxed and flexible. A flexible joint acts like the buffer of a good car, or like the paws of a cat :). So this is how we can add force to our playing without becoming tense.

      I can also give you an example from martial arts: a kick in karate or jiu-jitsu does not come from tensed force or from muscular effort. Moreover, if you’re kicking with your leg (for example), the force does not come from the leg. In fact, there is no force in the classical sense involved. There’s just the impulse which originates from the hip! It functions like a whip – the hip gives the impulse and the leg is literally shot forward or backwards. Advanced martial arts practitioners know that if you’re tensed, your kick will be really weak. When you’re relaxed and you take your energy from your core and your hips – the hit will be really powerful, flexible and unstoppable! The same can be said about piano playing!

      If the arm is perfectly relaxed, does more power automatically get channeled into the key?

      Not necessarily. You can be totally relaxed and play very soft. However, it’s impossible to create a powerful sound without proper relaxation!

      Or is relaxation only the first step in achieving a big sound, the second being the release of more power?

      Relaxation is the foundation of correct piano playing. Without relaxed arms and wrists, it’s impossible to play expressively OR to develop a good technique. For creating a big sound, just as I explained, we have to make good use of the laws of physics: allow our arms to land on the keyboard from a higher distance, at the same time feeling how we channel through our relaxed joints the energy (you can call it The Force, like in Star Wars LOL) coming from the back AND simultaneously soften the attack with the flexible wrist!

      So, it’s more about allowing your relaxed arm to land on the keyboard from a higher distance than applying muscular force and effort. Again, just like in martial arts, we have to use smartly the energies of our body and the surrounding universe instead of applying tiring (and detrimental) effort! Why apply muscular effort when the force of gravity can naturally attract your relaxed arms towards the keys? :) If you tense your arms, the landing speed (and resulting power) will be greatly diminished – that’s why, just like you noticed, pianists who are tensed cannot create a big sound.

      I know it’s not easy to understand this technique only by reading written words. That’s why I’m planning to make many videos in the near future – including on this subject. Now I simply have to figure out all the site-building features that will allow me to create the community – I describe this project in the article which I posted yesterday (click here to check it out and tell me what you think!).

      Perhaps when you are relaxed, it is very easy to apply more power without forcing. I have noticed that when pianists noticeably tense their arms, it often prevents them from playing loud, as the tension slows the arm down and prevents it from quickly transferring force into the key.

      Exactly! It’s what I just wrote above! ;)

      Some pedagogues have argued that loud playing demands greater relaxation than soft playing. The logic behind that is that to play loud, you release the full weight of the arm into the key, which relieves the musculature of all pressure- as all the weight is resting on the key.

      I agree that you have to be relaxed for creating a big sound. However, I disagree that loud playing demands MORE relaxation than soft playing. Relaxation should ALWAYS be present, no matter how loud/soft you play!

      However, if you want to play softly, you have to release less weight, which means that the musculature has to exert a certain amount of pressure to prevent the full weight of the arm from releasing into the key.

      No, there should be no pressure involved in soft playing! You simply have to channel less force into the keyboard, but you should keep your arms totally relaxed as well. Of course, we should never allow our arms to be totally limp and without tonus – this way they will simply hang by our sides! :) We have to smartly keep our arms in the needed position – but without tensing the arms muscles and especially the joints!!!

      Do you feel that it is difficult to apply more force from the arm without becoming tight?

      It’s not difficult at all – it’s simply a special technique that you have to get used to! By the way, have you ever seen how a cat kneads? Even better, have you ever felt how a cat kneads (for example, many cats like to knead on the knees of their owners LOL)? Did you notice how soft and relaxed their paws are? At the same time, did you feel how much power they have in their touch? The same principle applies to piano playing!

      Perhaps that is what the muscles of the back are for. If you use the back as the source of power, the arms can remain relaxed. If you want to release more power from the back, what should that feel like? Should it feel like a relaxed back or a muscularly active back (which some people may equate with tension)?

      The back should always be straight BUT relaxed. Instead of tensing the back muscles, you should simply feel that there is energy coming from the back (how much depends on how loud you need to play) – and that this energy is being channeled into the fingertips and the keyboard. When I play, I have the feeling that I have only two support points: my straight back and my crisp fingertips. In rest, all the arm joints are perfectly flexible and relaxed. However, I never feel tension in my back either!

      As I often write in my articles, piano playing originates in our mind – so we don’t have to underestimate the power of our imagination in sending this energy from the back to the fingers. It’s more mental energy than muscular effort! In time, with practice and experience, the muscles will get used to the necessary movements without being tense or making extra efforts.

      As to the key speed, perhaps the speed of the key descent has to be fast enough to create a loud sound, but not so fast that it creates a harsh sound. The balance is something that perhaps can only be found through experimentation.

      Yes, a fast key attack will create a louder sound. As I already wrote, in order to soften the resulting sound and make it loud BUT expressive, we have to compensate the speed and the fast landing of the hand by keeping our wrists as flexible as possible and allowing them to ‘buffer’ the movement. In fact, no experimentation is needed – these movements have been invented long ago in the Russian piano school and they are being taught to all students who are following this system. However, each student has to discover for himself/herself how this technique feels – so for each of us it is certainly a discovery!

      So, I will say again that a fast descent will create a loud sound; however, for making this sound beautiful, we have to soften the attack by relaxing our wrist in the moment when our fingers land on the keyboard (you can watch my tutorial The Secrets of a Correct Piano Key Attack and see how this technique is done: when the finger presses the key, the wrist goes slightly below the level of the keys and then up again).

      Even more, the key attack itself should be GRADUAL and not brutal and direct. As I already wrote, you have to imagine that your finger is DIVING into a flexible surface, and not hitting a rigid one! This principle, along with the relaxed arms and flexible wrists, creates that unbelievable soft yet deep sound which is famous in the Russian piano school (and yes, this gradual DIVING should be used even when we want to play really loud).

      When you talk about the fingertips being crisp and precise, is it difficult to achieve that without pushing too hard with the fingers?

      You don’t have to push with the fingers. You have to claw with them instead – like a cat is clawing at a toy :). The well-rounded fingers should be like sharp claws, but there should be no effort in this!

      I think that many pianists have the habit of pushing too hard with their fingers, instead of using the arm.

      Yes, unfortunately this is true. It’s a bad playing habit that originates in the old harpsichord technique – when pianists were playing only from their fingers, without using the weight of the arm. While this technique is perfectly suitable for the harpsichord, it’s definitely inappropriate for the modern piano (the hammerklavier). So those who play like this are the unfortunate students of those teachers who haven’t heard yet about the innovations introduced by Chopin and Liszt (these innovations are now at the core of the Russian piano school).

      Perhaps firm fingers are an issue of being able to securely feel the keys, without exerting any unnecessary pressure. Exponents of the Taubman method have suggested that you should play lightly with the fingers, but use a lot of arm weight. Do you think that light fingers can obtain the necessary crispness?

      Yes, I agree – BUT you have to keep your fingers rounded and NEVER allow the knuckles to collapse inwards. This may be challenging for beginners, because their fingers are still soft and the knuckles collapse easily. With correct practice and experience, however, the fingers get strengthened and they keep the needed ‘dome’ naturally, without any effort. In fact, the fingers are the only part of a pianist’s arm that gets strengthened because of piano playing! For creating a loud sound, however, you have to press the keys with the entire weight of the arm – and not with the fingers!!!

      So – yes, light fingers can be crisp BUT they should keep their firm rounded shape (without affecting the relaxation of the wrist!).

      Perhaps piano playing is an issue of not doing what you shouldn’t do (relaxation would allow that), and then doing what you should do.

      In fact, this is a very wise phrase!!! :) It’s true – the first thing I’m usually teaching a student is how to be relaxed. However, letting go of tension does not happen overnight. It’s a long process and it comes with practice – but even small children should be aware of this principle and use it as a ‘guiding light’! In fact, relaxation is both a cause and an effect of correct practice: if you’re relaxed, you’re practicing correctly; and, the more you practice correctly, the more relaxed you become (because the needed movements become comfortable and familiar).

      Relaxation may only serve to prevent unnecessary tension from getting in your way. Even without the tension, there are certain things that you must do on your own to achieve the best sound, such as releasing more power for a fortissimo. Presumably, if you are relaxed to begin with, it becomes very easy to apply more or less power.

      There is a saying in martial arts: “In a tensed body, the energy cannot flow”. Relaxation is not everything in piano playing (of course!!!), but it is the foundation! Without it, we can’t build a solid building – we can’t develop our technique or learn how to create a quality sound.

      Wow, this was a long reply! I hope that now you have a better understanding of this subject!

      One more thing: one of my first videos for the forum which I’m about to launch will be dedicated to this subject: I’ll show you how to create a powerful forte at the piano and then how to play softy by keeping your arms totally relaxed.

      You can subscribe to my email list (and get a free copy of my report A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing) – I’ll send an email to all my readers as soon as I launch this project!

      Good luck and talk to you soon! ;)
      Ilinca

      • Natalie says:

        Thank you for your comprehensive reply, Ilinca. I think that I understand the situation much better now, even without the benefit of having a hands-on, in-person lesson. I tried creating a fortissimo while remaining upright and having a sense that all the power is coming my back. I was careful to release into the keys, in a relaxed fashion, as opposed to forcing or jabbing. The result was that I obtained a very powerful fortissimo (measured at over 100 decibels on a decibel meter), without any sense of forcing. When you talk about how a cat can knead in a relaxed, but powerful fashion, is that another example of all the power coming from a relaxed, but energized back- as opposed to exerting muscular tension?

        Another question that I have is related to the need for mechanical accuracy? How much repetition of passages and what type of practice is necessary for dead-on accuracy? For example, some pianists such as Rachmaninov, Lhevinne, Horowitz, and Pollini are known for playing/having played at a high level of technical accuracy. Some musicians have argued that in order to consistently give nearly note-perfect performances, you have to overpractice everything. Rachmaninov would allegedly practice pieces, which had been in his repertoire for decades, so slowly that they were unrecognizable. If Horowitz was going to perform the Tchaikowsky Concerto #1, he allegedly would spend six hours a day just practicing octaves.

        The other side of the argument is that hours of repetition is not necessary for technical accuracy. Some pedagogues have argued that when you overpractice, you risk developing bad habits that would not have occurred if you had practiced less. For example, it has been said that it is better to play a passage five times in a row perfectly, than to play it nine times perfectly and one time imperfectly. In the former example, the muscle memory only knows the right way, but in the latter example, the muscle memory knows both the right way and the wrong way- creating the possibility that it will revert to the wrong way in concert. According to that line of thought, technical practice should be efficient, only doing as much practice as is necessary to make a passage secure and not overpracticing. Musicians who subscribe to that philosophy would probably argue that Horowitz’s and Rachmaninov’s hours of practice on mechanics were unnecessary.

        Which side of the argument is correct? Is overpracticing unnecessary and counterproductive? Or is it necessary to overpractice (e.g. spend many hours on octaves or other technical challenges) if you want technique on the level of a Rachmaninov or a Horowitz?

        Your replies have been very illuminating.
        Thank you,
        Natalie

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Natalie! ;)

      As always, I’ll quote your questions and write my answers below.

      Thank you for your comprehensive reply, Ilinca. I think that I understand the situation much better now, even without the benefit of having a hands-on, in-person lesson.

      Thank you! It feels really nice to be able to help!!! :)

      I tried creating a fortissimo while remaining upright and having a sense that all the power is coming my back. I was careful to release into the keys, in a relaxed fashion, as opposed to forcing or jabbing. The result was that I obtained a very powerful fortissimo (measured at over 100 decibels on a decibel meter), without any sense of forcing.

      Wow!!! That’s great news! With practice, this new feeling will become natural and comfortable, and you’ll be able to create such a forte with ease!

      When you talk about how a cat can knead in a relaxed, but powerful fashion, is that another example of all the power coming from a relaxed, but energized back- as opposed to exerting muscular tension?

      Yes, and it’s also a good example of how we should take the energy needed for piano playing from our entire body – keeping the arms flexible like a cat’s paws. This way, the sound is powerful but soft, bright without being brutal. We should have the feeling the we press the keyboard (just like a cat does) – and not HIT it! ;)

      Another question that I have is related to the need for mechanical accuracy?

      Technical accuracy is one of the most challenging aspects of piano playing. Below I will describe this issue in more detail.

      How much repetition of passages and what type of practice is necessary for dead-on accuracy?.. Some musicians have argued that in order to consistently give nearly note-perfect performances, you have to overpractice everything. Rachmaninov would allegedly practice pieces, which had been in his repertoire for decades, so slowly that they were unrecognizable…

      I don’t think that ‘overpractice’ is the right word. I agree that in order to develop a brilliant, accurate technique, you have to practice A LOT. However, we cannot call it ‘overpractice’ since every pianist has his/her unique capabilities and the needed practice time varies from one person to another. That’s why we should call it ‘needed practice for achieving a certain result’, and not ‘overpractice’.

      So if you need to practice 8 hours per day for playing a certain Etude brilliantly – that’s not ‘overpractice’ – it’s simply how much practice you need for playing this piece as it should be played! I hope you understand what I mean! :)

      However, ‘how much we repeat a certain passage’ is only a secondary detail. Read below to see what I mean.

      The other side of the argument is that hours of repetition is not necessary for technical accuracy. Some pedagogues have argued that when you overpractice, you risk developing bad habits that would not have occurred if you had practiced less. For example, it has been said that it is better to play a passage five times in a row perfectly, than to play it nine times perfectly and one time imperfectly.

      Yes, this opinion is very reasonable, but it doesn’t cover all the aspects of piano practice. Below you’ll see why.

      I always write in my articles that the most important thing in piano playing is not how MUCH we practice – it’s HOW we practice. If you practice a certain passage for hours but you’re playing it incorrectly – in a mechanical way, without awareness, too fast or with tensed arms – then it’s obvious that you’ll only make the passage worse!

      So yes – it’s better to practice a passage 5 times and make sure that your posture is correct, your arms relaxed, your fingers rounded etc. – than practice the same passage 10 times in a tensed, mechanical, incorrect manner.

      BUT

      Often practicing a passage 5 times (even in a correct, mindful manner) is certainly not enough! There are times when we have to practice a passage 100 times for ‘polishing’ it to the needed accuracy! Is this ‘overpractice’? No if you’re practicing correctly! Yes if you’re playing mechanically! In my opinion, this is the main secret here! ;)

      By the way, did you know that when you’re playing by using the weight of the entire arms (which is the ONLY correct piano key attack), you’re increasing your stability, allowing each finger to ‘memorize’ its position on the keyboard? It may sound paradoxical, but playing ‘from your arms’ is the only way of keeping your wrists relaxed when practicing complicated passages – this way increasing your finger mobility and accuracy!

      Pianists who play ‘only from their fingers’ have to keep their wrists tensed for maintaining the arms in the needed position – and this way their finger mobility is reduced and the sound becomes shallow and tensed! Moreover – with a tensed wrist the fingers get tired really soon because tension literally blocks our muscles! This way, there is an extremely big risk of developing a hand injury!

      In the former example, the muscle memory only knows the right way, but in the latter example, the muscle memory knows both the right way and the wrong way- creating the possibility that it will revert to the wrong way in concert.

      This is absolutely true!

      However, don’t forget the most important thing: Piano playing is a holistic art. Achieving technical accuracy is not just about finger velocity and muscle memory. The most important thing in piano playing is mental training. Everything originates in our mind – including the accuracy of our fingers.

      Mechanical accuracy is first of all about mental concentration. Only by harmoniously combining mental concentration with correct technical practice we can achieve a truly brilliant technique!

      Make an experiment: play a certain difficult passage in the needed tempo without concentrating too much. Then play it again in the same tempo, but this time try to be aware of where each finger goes, guiding all your movements with your mind, with your concentration! Do you see the difference?

      In the Russian piano school, we focus on the whole, not on the part. Yes, we practice a lot (just like Rachmaninoff and Horowitz did) – but we combine mental and technical training and we never forget about expressiveness. My professor always told me to practice with awareness and to pay close attention to the quality of the sound – even when repeating a certain difficult passage 10, 20 or 100 times! Only this kind of practice can be truly productive!

      So it’s impossible to achieve a brilliant technique without awareness, concentration, quality sound and expressiveness. ;)

      According to that line of thought, technical practice should be efficient, only doing as much practice as is necessary to make a passage secure and not overpracticing. Musicians who subscribe to that philosophy would probably argue that Horowitz’s and Rachmaninov’s hours of practice on mechanics were unnecessary.

      ‘Making a passage secure’ is a relative statement. How do you know when a passage is ‘secure’? When you can play it brilliantly at home? Or when you can play it brilliantly on stage? These are two entirely different things!

      My teacher used to say: “At home, you have to be 300% sure and secure of what you’re playing. This way, in front of me, during the lesson, you’ll play with a 200% accuracy, and on stage – with a 100% accuracy“. Now I’m telling the same thing to my students when they tell me: “I don’t know why this passage sounds so raw now! At home it was perfect!” LOL

      It’s how our mind works – in difficult situations (for example, during an exam or concert) we tend to lose some of our stability.

      HOWEVER,

      If you’re practicing mechanically, than you’re definitely ‘overpracticing’! We cannot know for sure how exactly Rachmaninoff and Horowitz were practicing, but I know that all great pianists apply in their practice the principles I described above! So I don’t think that they were doing hours of ‘practice on mechanics’. For a uninitiated person, it might seem like ‘overpracticing’, while for them it was certainly meaningful, purposeful practice. In fact, they were not working on technique alone. While ‘polishing’ a certain passage, they were simultaneously ‘polishing’ their gestures, their arm relaxation, the quality of their touche, the beauty of their sound, their phrasing, their dynamic range, their intonation and so on. It’s impossible to play as beautifully as they did otherwise!

      Which side of the argument is correct? Is overpracticing unnecessary and counterproductive? Or is it necessary to overpractice (e.g. spend many hours on octaves or other technical challenges) if you want technique on the level of a Rachmaninov or a Horowitz?

      Mechanical, incorrect ‘overpracticing’ is detrimental. Correct, mindful and relaxed practice is extremely useful!

      If we talk about ‘practice time’, then each pianist should know his/her own endurance and limits – and to decide depending on the situation when it’s time to stop practicing AND when extra practice is useful or detrimental.

      A good piano teacher can always tell a student which is the best way to practice a certain piece – it’s a question of experience. So, as you can see, there are no exact ‘recipes’ – but still, you should always remember that technique should never be separated from expression – no matter how many hours per day we practice a certain passage.

      It’s impossible to practice more than our brain and arms allow at the moment. For example, now I can practice 5-6 hours per day without any side-effects (though because of my two jobs, I don’t usually have the time to practice so much! LOL). Others can practice 10 hours – but for me it would be detrimental! On the other hand, with constant training I could get to 10 hours – if I really wanted to. Others can practice only 2-3 hours per day. It all depends on your individual skills and endurance – and also on your training!

      Good luck! Have a great day and an enjoyable practice! ;)
      Ilinca

      • Natalie says:

        Thank you once again for an informative reply, Ilinca. On the subject of Horowitz, do you think that he was using the same technique for loud playing that all Russian-trained pianists use, and that he simply applied the technique much more effectively than others did (i.e. two people can study the exact same technical approach, but one person performs the approach in a much better and more advanced fashion)? Or is Horowitz’s sonority the result of some physical approach that only he understood, something that is entirely different than the traditional Russian approach?

        I think that your explanation about mechanics is very logical and does a fine job at balancing the claims of the two opposing camps. Perhaps the people who are likely to play a passage “nine times correctly and one time incorrectly” are the ones who engage in mindless, poorly concentrated practice. It makes perfect sense that when you aren’t concentrating, you are likely to make mistakes that you didn’t make before.

        If practicing is done in a concentrated and focused fashion and with the right technique, you should always make progress- no matter what you are practicing. In such an ideal scenario, you should be able to engage in much more than five repetitions without making silly mistakes. The difficult question, as you mentioned, is what exactly constitutes sufficient practice. I think that your 300% figure is very apt. Many musicians would argue that playing a passage five times perfectly does not necessarily mean that it will sound perfect at the concert. Every situation is different, and it’s possible that you may make a mistake in one setting (the concert) that you didn’t make in another setting (home). That is why many people have understandly advocated “overpractice”, although, as you pointed out, that is really a misnomer. You aren’t overpracticing if you are merely doing as much practice as is necessary to ensure technical solidity. If five repetitions isn’t enough, then doing more is not a superfluous action.

        It seems that even if you are concentrating properly, there is a possibility that you may make a mistake that you didn’t previously make, simply because you are human and cannot be expected to be 100% consistent all of the time. If that is true, then that is all the more reason not to be satisfied with a mere five correct repetitions. Maybe there will be a time in the future that- for whatever reason- you don’t play the passage correctly. That seems to suggest that minimal practice is not enough to ensure consistent accuracy. If you can play a passage perfectly many times in a row (however many times are necessary to make it secure in performance), then you are less likely to make some type of a seemingly silly error.

        I suppose each pianist has to determine for himself or herself exactly how much repetition is necessary for absolute mastery (not just at home, but on stage) of the music. Some people may fall into the trap of thinking that because they played something correctly once, it will always work. The more that you perform, the better equipped you will be to form an accurate appraisal of how much practice is needed to ensure that something works in concert.

        With that said, many pedagogues have emphasized that no matter how good your technique is, there are always going to be certain areas that need to be fine-tuned. Taking that into consideration, we definitely don’t need to feel like we are overpracticing if we continue practicing even after a passage is played accurately. Having a passage “work” doesn’t mean that it is perfect. Perhaps it could be played even faster and more brilliantly, or more evenly, or with better quality of tone, etc. Thus, doing further work on the passage can not only bring you up to that 300% security, but it can serve to improve the technical and musical execution of the passage. By always looking for ways to improve your playing- even when it sounds satisfactory or even great- you can achieve new levels of greatness. It seems that you have to know a passage so well that it could be played in your sleep, in order to ensure that no matter what conditions- favorable or unfavorable- will be present at the concert, the passage will be secure. When you practice that way, with the caveat that the aforementioned practice is done with optimal concentration, it should go without saying that not only will you further fine-tune your technique and musicianship, but you will know the passage well enough to play it under any conditions. Perhaps the second-rate technicians are the ones who are satisfied with five correct repetitions and do not strive to fine-tune or to achieve 300% security, while a Horowitz or a Rachmaninov was determined to ensure mechanical precision under any circumstances.

        With that said, half of the challenge is probably ensuring that you always practice with the necessary concentration. Especially if a person isn’t used to practicing for long stretches of time, it may be difficult for that person to maintain his or her mental focus. If concentration starts drifting, then practicing can do more harm than good. I suppose that that’s another issue that pianists needs to regulate for themselves. They need to know when their concentration is drifting, stop, and then regain their concentration. That is the only way to ensure optimal practice. It goes without saying that the more you practice while applying the right concentration, the more mental stamina you will develop, and hence the easier it will become to concentrate for long periods of time. As long as optimal concentration and correct physical and musical habits are retained at the piano, then practice sessions should necessarily yield progress.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Natalie!

      I’m replying with some delay because I’m currently preparing the launch of my Piano Coaching Program – it will be live on 15th of February! ;)

      Wow, in your last post you showed a very thorough understanding of the practice topics we were discussing! I’m very happy that I could help you to gain such a deep insight into this problem and see so clearly the difference between ‘overpractice’ and ‘mindful, concentrated and correct practice’.

      On the subject of Horowitz, do you think that he was using the same technique for loud playing that all Russian-trained pianists use, and that he simply applied the technique much more effectively than others did (i.e. two people can study the exact same technical approach, but one person performs the approach in a much better and more advanced fashion)? Or is Horowitz’s sonority the result of some physical approach that only he understood, something that is entirely different than the traditional Russian approach?

      All great pianists use many similar techniques – especially the ‘whole arm action’ principle, wrist relaxation, deep key attack etc. However – and this is the most fascinating thing – each one of them (including Horowitz) transforms these ‘classical’ techniques and adapts them to their unique personality.

      Of course, Horowitz uses many Russian-inspired playing principles. At the same time, he’s very original in many ways. For example, he’s sitting a little bit lower than recommended, sometimes he keeps his wrists lower than the level of the keys and he also likes to play with flat fingers (the famous ‘Horowitz technique’).

      Each great pianist has a unique, specific sound color, which is a ‘formula’ that combines many different elements (some of them specific to a certain school, others individual). Horowitz’s forte is not an exception.

      By the way, I could never produce such a powerful yet noble forte if I would sit as low as he did! For producing such a forte, I need to keep my elbows slightly higher than the level of the keyboard, and my wrists as well should be higher than the keys. This gives me leverage and helps me to channel the force coming from my back into the keyboard.

      Moreover, sometimes we can notice small differences of posture between men and women. Men have more physical force and their arms are heavier, that’s why they feel the need to sit a little lower. Women, on the other hand, feel the need to increase the weight of their arms by using the leverage provided by a higher bench and more flexible elbows and wrists.

      And let’s not forget that ultimately, the sound we produce originates in our mind, in our hearing, in our capacity of imagining and visualizing the desired outcome!

      So, as you can see, there are certain general rules in piano playing – and there are also individual traits and exceptions. An experienced teacher (especially in the Russian piano school) is always using an individualized approach, which is specifically ‘tailored’ for each student’s talents, strengths and weaknesses.

      This is what makes piano playing an art, and not simply a craft.

      If practicing is done in a concentrated and focused fashion and with the right technique, you should always make progress- no matter what you are practicing.

      Yes, of course. Plus, we should never forget about relaxation. :)

      I suppose each pianist has to determine for himself or herself exactly how much repetition is necessary for absolute mastery (not just at home, but on stage) of the music.

      Again, perfectly true! Just as I mentioned before – there are general rules in piano playing, but there are also many things which depend on our individual talents and preferences! It’s just like in our universe: there are universal rules; there is a species called ‘homo sapiens‘ that has general characteristics; and there are also countless differences between each individual of this species! The same can be said about music, piano performance and many other arts and activities!

      Some people may fall into the trap of thinking that because they played something correctly once, it will always work.

      Yep, my students think like this all the time, but after a while they realize that the reality is different LOL :).

      The more that you perform, the better equipped you will be to form an accurate appraisal of how much practice is needed to ensure that something works in concert.

      Yes, and this is why this phenomenon is called experience :). Experience is a magical, priceless thing!!!

      With that said, many pedagogues have emphasized that no matter how good your technique is, there are always going to be certain areas that need to be fine-tuned… Having a passage “work” doesn’t mean that it is perfect. Perhaps it could be played even faster and more brilliantly, or more evenly, or with better quality of tone, etc. Thus, doing further work on the passage can not only bring you up to that 300% security, but it can serve to improve the technical and musical execution of the passage. By always looking for ways to improve your playing- even when it sounds satisfactory or even great- you can achieve new levels of greatness.

      Absolutely true!

      It seems that you have to know a passage so well that it could be played in your sleep, in order to ensure that no matter what conditions- favorable or unfavorable- will be present at the concert, the passage will be secure.

      In our country we even have jokes on this subject: we always say that a pianist should be able to play the entire program ‘in his/her sleep’ before being ready to play on stage!

      Perhaps the second-rate technicians are the ones who are satisfied with five correct repetitions and do not strive to fine-tune or to achieve 300% security, while a Horowitz or a Rachmaninov was determined to ensure mechanical precision under any circumstances.

      Yes, and that’s why many great people always say that ‘greatness is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” or “1% talent and 99% work”.

      With that said, half of the challenge is probably ensuring that you always practice with the necessary concentration. Especially if a person isn’t used to practicing for long stretches of time, it may be difficult for that person to maintain his or her mental focus.

      It’s true – and this is why beginners have to increase their practice time gradually, allowing their mind and their arms to get used to the new challenges step-by-step, without traumas, mental exhaustion and hand injuries.

      If concentration starts drifting, then practicing can do more harm than good.

      Perfectly true! As I always mention in my articles, mechanical practice is our worst enemy. By playing mechanically, we are in fact allowing our ‘muscle memory’ to memorize things incorrectly – and then it’s very difficult to ‘unlearn’ what already became a habit!

      It goes without saying that the more you practice while applying the right concentration, the more mental stamina you will develop, and hence the easier it will become to concentrate for long periods of time. As long as optimal concentration and correct physical and musical habits are retained at the piano, then practice sessions should necessarily yield progress.

      Yes, everything (including our power of concentration) can be trained and improved. On the new Online Community Forum which I’m now designing there will be a special board entitled “Piano Mind” – which will be dedicated to improving our concentration, awareness, our hearing, our memory, imagination and many other mind-related skills!

      Good luck and talk soon!

      P.S. I’m really curious – are you a professional pianist (piano student)? In your posts, you show a deep insight on many piano topics!!! :)

      • Alexandra says:

        (What an inspiring dialogue on all the topics here! )
        It is relieving to know that developing a second-sense for relaxed playing technique will develop over time eventually, since it is obviously not an overnight accomplishment for me.

        Looking forward to the board on “Piano Mind”!! This is an area of particular interest lately. I’ve found that even after learning a piece (like my recent Bach Invention 9) and playing it through without mistakes at home, I still manage to stumble at a couple places when playing in front of my teacher (not the same places each time—which makes me think that I have not developed my mental concentration skill; my mind tends to wander easily and mechanical playing takes over. It takes real effort to control my mental focus, although I’ve found recently that having an emotional picture of my interpretation of a piece helps keep me ‘in place’ in my mind: for example, when I present Schumann’s Traumerei, I first ‘see’ myself, as a child, in my childhood’s warm kitchen on a winter’s evening drawing pictures with my finger in the steam on the glass windows and the cozy feeling it invokes. )

        Ilinca, today I have an opportunity to play on a concert grand piano at a local small concert hall, following a local piano competition. This will be my first experience for this! I’m so looking forward to how the sound of piano will be, as compared to my piano at home (which is scheduled for a tuning…) It is not a recital, but there will be some audience and judges lingering, and they will offer critical feedback on sound, etc. After years of riding ponies, then work horses, then pack horses, I feel like I will be getting on a real race horse today, if you can imagine this metaphor in feeling.
        Anyway, your comments on EXPERIENCE and playing on stage prompted me to write this quick comment!
        Really looking forward to the upcoming changes on PianoCareer.com!!
        p.s. Currently learning Bach Invention 13, another gem. Struggling with Czerny (He is deliberately sneaky, isn’t he!) :)

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi Alexandra!

          I’m finally replying to this message – sorry about the delay! :)

          From our email conversations I already know that you did great on your recital – and I’m really happy that riding a ‘real race horse’ proved to be so enjoyable!

          Yes, a relaxed playing ‘reflex’ will definitely develop in time! As days and months go by, your arms will inevitably become more and more ‘elastic’ and ‘fluid’ – to make another metaphor LOL.

          Experienced pianists feel like tigers at the piano – they have soft, powerful, relaxed ‘paws’ and sharp claws (our fingertips) that manage to ‘fetch’ with ease and grace every little note that we’re supposed to play.

          I always remember my teacher’s words: ‘You should feel like a queen at the instrument!’ :) Nowadays, I like both the ‘queen’ and ‘tiger’ metaphors – they are extremely helpful for my students!

          The same can be said about mental concentration: maybe today it’s still difficult for you to be 100% concentrated (especially when playing something more complicated), but tomorrow you’ll definitely do a little bit better. These ‘little bits’, combined together, create big, outstanding results!

          And don’t forget that there can be no concentration without mental relaxation (if I remember correctly, we were once discussing this subject :))). Concentration should not be an ‘effort’. It should be a clear state of awareness and relaxed focus – just like the state we achieve after 20-30 minutes of meditation.

          And yes – imagination is priceless in musical performance! On the ‘Piano Mind’ board we’ll talk a lot about imagination, concentration and mental relaxation – and their importance in creating convincing, bright musical images. There should always be a ‘story’ behind the piece we play – just like you imagine when playing ‘Traumerei’ :).

          Bach’s Invention No. 13 is definitely not easy – and it’s very useful! It has a great polyphonic, expressive and technical balance between the right and the left hands and it teaches us how to ‘transfer’ the theme in a flowing manner from one hand into the other. Practice it with patience and don’t forget about the quality of the sound and about making a beautiful legato - which is so important when playing Bach!

          Wishing you a great weekend,
          Ilinca

      • Natalie says:

        Thank you for yet another insightful response, Ilinca. Any delay is absolutely no problem, as all of us are busy, and I greatly look forward to your new coaching program.

        “Wow, in your last post you showed a very thorough understanding of the practice topics we were discussing!”

        Thank you. I’m glad that you have been enjoying our exchange as much I have been enjoying it.

        “Of course, Horowitz uses many Russian-inspired playing principles. At the same time, he’s very original in many ways. For example, he’s sitting a little bit lower than recommended, sometimes he keeps his wrists lower than the level of the keys and he also likes to play with flat fingers (the famous ‘Horowitz technique’).”
        Indeed. In the article “Technic the Outgrowth of Musical Thought”, Horowitz talked about the importance of pressing, as opposed to striking, the keys to obtain a good sound- even when playing chords or fortissimo. Of course, that is the exact same Russian principle that is at the heart of your own pedagogy.

        Horowitz did have a lot of unusual physical mannerisms at the piano, and many pianists who tried to follow his technique had injuries. Perhaps there was something unique about the construction of Horowitz’s body that allowed him to play in a manner that would be inappropriate for most people. Maybe some people naturally have faster reflexes than others, allowing the former category of people to achieve levels of virtuosity that would be inaccessible to the average pianist.

        Some teachers (e.g. Taubman disciples) advocate a “one size fits all” approach to technique, insisting that the same anatomical principles apply to every person, and thus everyone should use the same physical approach to piano playing. According to the Taubman method, the only physical difference among individuals that has any effect on piano playing is hand size. Because some people have larger hands, they can reach larger intervals. The most plausible explanation is probably that the Taubman method (as good as it is in certain other areas) is dead wrong on that issue.

        I know of many instances where a pianist seems to have a natural aptitude for one technical problem, but not for another. For example, one pianist may be a natural octave player, while someone else is a natural run player. I know of many instances where pianist A has difficulty with figuration X- but finds figuration N very playable, while pianist B finds figuration A to be much easier than figuration N. In some cases, that may be due to differences in technical approach, but I think that in many cases, it can be the intrinsic construction of the fingers, hand, and arm that determine what types of passages are easiest for the pianist. Just as each singer has a unique vocal mechanism, each pianist has a unique physical mechanism. Some singers excel at coloratura passages, while others excel at sustained, dramatic singing. In many cases, that is a reflection of their inherent vocal endowment. In the same fashion, you will find certain pianists who- due to their unique bodily structure- can learn certain technical challenges more easily and naturally than others.

        “In our country we even have jokes on this subject: we always say that a pianist should be able to play the entire program ‘in his/her sleep’ before being ready to play on stage!”

        According to Leonid Hambro, that is the substance of what Horowitz once told him. Hambro heard Horowitz practicing two measures from a Liszt Etude. It sounded perfect the first time, but the Maestro kept repeating the passage over and over again. According to Hambro, each repetition sounded as good as the first; some repetitions sounded even better than the first. After 100 repetitions, Hambro stopped counting. Hambro asked Horowitz why he would waste time practicing a passage that he knew so well. Horowitz replied that he gets so nervous that he needs to make sure that he can play the passage under any circumstances, even if the house is on fire.

        One problem that such a story (and other anecdotes) raises is exactly how long Horowitz practiced. In a 1932 article, Horowitz asserted that he practiced for four hours a day. However, Gitta Gradova claimed that he would spend six hours a day practicing octaves from the Tchaikovsky Concerto and that he might spend five or six hours on two measures from a Chopin Mazurka. If that type of practice (and the practice that Hambro witnessed) was Horowitz’s normal routine, then how could he possibly have only been practicing for four hours? I would think that his practice session would have to involve more than just octaves or two measures from a Mazurka or Etude. If he was spending up to six hours on just one of those issues, then I would think that his total practice time would have to be even longer. Perhaps Horowitz wasn’t being honest when he claimed that he only practiced for four hours a day.

        In regards to practicing virtuoso passages, I have noticed that some people look and feel very relaxed when playing at a slow tempo, but then their arms become very tight when they try to play extremely fast. That is a rather strange phenomenon when you think about it, as tension only serves to make fast playing harder. If anything, you should be more relaxed when you play fast (although obviously you should be optimally relaxed in either fast or slow playing). What do you think is the solution to a problem like that? Should the pianist consciously direct himself or herself to remain relaxed, no matter how fast the tempo is? Some pedagogues have suggested that if you can play a passage easily at a slow tempo, but cannot play it fluently at a fast tempo, then that indicates that there is something about your physical approach that is wrong. Sometimes, you can get away with a faulty and inefficient technical approach at a slow tempo, as you have plenty of time to hit all the notes. However, when you speed up the tempo, if your motions are not correct and efficient, then you may have a lot of trouble playing the notes accurately. Maybe the solution is to minimize the motions, even at slow tempi, so that you are prepared to employ minimal and efficient movement at the most rapid tempi.

        I’m studying at the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Division. Although I’ve had access to some great teachers, I am always looking to gain a new level of understanding and insight into piano technique and artistry. I feel that this website has done an excellent job at helping me gain that knowledge.

        Best regards,
        Natalie

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi Natalie!

          In the article “Technic the Outgrowth of Musical Thought”, Horowitz talked about the importance of pressing, as opposed to striking, the keys to obtain a good sound- even when playing chords or fortissimo. Of course, that is the exact same Russian principle that is at the heart of your own pedagogy.

          YES, exactly! Pressing the keys even when playing massive chords (not to mention lyrical melodies on legato) is one of the most efficient and powerful secrets of the Russian piano school!

          Horowitz did have a lot of unusual physical mannerisms at the piano, and many pianists who tried to follow his technique had injuries.

          I remember that I first saw a video recording of Horowitz when I was about 8-9 years old. There was no internet back then, and the recording was on TV. The next day I had a piano lesson, and I told my teacher: “Why do you always tell me to play with rounded fingers? Look at Horowitz, he plays with flat fingers!”. My teacher remained speechless for a moment, and then she began to laugh and said that I’m definitely a little devil that notices everything LOL. Then she explained that she’s showing me the correct basics of piano technique and sound creation – those fundamentals that are proven to be comfortable and efficient. I have to master them first, and then, in the future, I can ‘personalize’ them and adapt them to my unique abilities. In time, I discovered how right she was! :)

          Perhaps there was something unique about the construction of Horowitz’s body that allowed him to play in a manner that would be inappropriate for most people.

          Yes, we’re all unique in our own way – and at the same time we’re all human beings and the construction of our body is similar. That’s what makes it all (life, music and piano playing) so fantastic and interesting!

          Maybe some people naturally have faster reflexes than others, allowing the former category of people to achieve levels of virtuosity that would be inaccessible to the average pianist.

          You know, there are many opinions on this subject. Now I’ll tell you my personal approach and what I learned after many years of piano practice (and many self-improvement experiments). It all depends on one thing: what you really want to achieve in life. Yes, some people are born with certain qualities, while others have to work for developing these qualities. In the end, however, succeed only those people who are moving towards their goal with determination and patience – and more often than not, these are the people that have to work for developing a certain ability/quality/skill (and not those who were simply ‘born with it’). So yes – maybe some pianists have faster reflexes than others; some have a better hearing; some have a better finger agility; some have a better imagination. But nothing compares to the power of one ‘secret ingredient’: Never Giving Up! Personally, I think that this is what separates great pianist/actors/dancers/writers/painters etc. from those who cannot manage to realize their potential and make all their dreams come true.

          Some teachers (e.g. Taubman disciples) advocate a “one size fits all” approach to technique, insisting that the same anatomical principles apply to every person, and thus everyone should use the same physical approach to piano playing.

          The Taubman method has definitely many good things to offer, especially when it comes to using our hands ergonomically, relaxing when playing etc.

          And yes – there are certainly basic anatomic principles that apply to every person when it comes to piano playing, for example playing with relaxed arms and wrists, using the entire weight of the arm behind each note, pressing the keys (and many other principles we use in the Russian piano school). These principles are undeniably 100% correct and ALL great pianists use them in their unique manner. For example, I’ve never seen a great pianist play with tensed arms, with immobile wrists (except maybe for Jazz or pop pianists) or without using their entire arms LOL.

          According to the Taubman method, the only physical difference among individuals that has any effect on piano playing is hand size.

          Here you’re right – this approach does not reflect the entire complexity of the amazing art called ‘piano playing’. Our entire body is involved in piano playing – and not just our hands. For this reason, the size of our hands is not the ONLY physical difference that affects our playing! As I wrote in my previous reply – some people are taller, others are shorter. Some have heavier bones, while others have more muscular force. There is an obvious difference of physiology between men and women, and there are also lots of differences between persons of the same gender. Also, some people are naturally ‘inclined’ towards ‘small’, ornamental technique, while others like to ‘pound’ on the keys – and the list goes on!

          ALL these ‘variables’ influence our unique manner of playing the piano – and that’s why one of the basic ‘pillars’ of the Russian piano school is the ‘individualized’ pedagogical approach!

          I know of many instances where a pianist seems to have a natural aptitude for one technical problem, but not for another. For example, one pianist may be a natural octave player, while someone else is a natural run player. I know of many instances where pianist A has difficulty with figuration X- but finds figuration N very playable, while pianist B finds figuration A to be much easier than figuration N. In some cases, that may be due to differences in technical approach, but I think that in many cases, it can be the intrinsic construction of the fingers, hand, and arm that determine what types of passages are easiest for the pianist.

          Yes, exactly – it’s just what I explained above :). For example, I’m a natural ‘fast small technique’ player and it took me many years of focused practice to develop my ‘big, powerful’ chord and octave technique. For many of my colleagues, however, it was often quite the opposite! LOL But that’s a great thing in the end! Imagine that all pianists would play the same – how boring would that be???

          Regarding Horowitz’s practice sessions, let me tell you my opinion (even if, of course, I never had the chance to talk to Horowitz LOL). Great pianists never have fixed routines of doing something. Sometimes they practice 4 hours a day, other times they spend 6 hours ‘polishing’ some octaves passages, others times they take a break, while other times they can practice even 10 hours per day! – this is perfectly normal! I once read in an article that Richter used to practice 10 hours per day when learning Beethoven’s extremely difficult Sonata op. 106 (Hammerklavier). Piano playing is an art, and arts are flexible, always changing, always improving! Our practice sessions always reflect the program we’re learning, our skills at the moment, our mood, our hopes and so on!

          I remember that when I was about 12, I had to prepare a Polonaise by Chopin (I think) for a concert. There was a specific fragment (2 or 3 bars) that I couldn’t play well, no matter how much I tried – or at least this was what I was telling my teacher. I was saying: “I don’t know what’s wrong! I’m practicing a lot, but this passage is still so uncomfortable!”. She said: “And how much do you practice?” I said: “About 1 hour per day for the entire piece”. She laughed and said: “My dear, when you’ll practice 2 hours per day only this passage, that’s when you’ll begin to master it!”. The next day I did as she said – and she was perfectly right! So it all depends on what exactly we play, on our skill level and on many many other variables!

          In regards to practicing virtuoso passages, I have noticed that some people look and feel very relaxed when playing at a slow tempo, but then their arms become very tight when they try to play extremely fast. That is a rather strange phenomenon when you think about it, as tension only serves to make fast playing harder. If anything, you should be more relaxed when you play fast (although obviously you should be optimally relaxed in either fast or slow playing). What do you think is the solution to a problem like that?

          The solution is simple: practice :). It’s normal to have tensed arms when playing in a fast tempo. Why? Because of our human nature: we’re always tensed when we do something that’s still uncomfortable LOL. That’s why we should reach the fast tempo gradually. For example, if the needed tempo is Presto, we should begin practicing in Andante – until we’re perfectly relaxed and comfortable. Then, we practice the same thing slightly faster – Andantino :). Then we move to Moderato, then to Allegretto, then to Allegro etc., until we reach the needed tempo! It’s natural that after practicing Lento a certain passage, it will be almost impossible to play the same thing on Presto without any transition! So it’s all a question of correct practice and patience! ;)

          Should the pianist consciously direct himself or herself to remain relaxed, no matter how fast the tempo is? Some pedagogues have suggested that if you can play a passage easily at a slow tempo, but cannot play it fluently at a fast tempo, then that indicates that there is something about your physical approach that is wrong.

          Yes, maybe – but more often than not it’s a question of ‘not being used to do it‘ :). And yes, we should be aware of our relaxation no matter how fast we play – even if in time relaxation itself will become an ‘automated reflex’.

          I’m studying at the Manhattan School of Music Pre-College Division. Although I’ve had access to some great teachers, I am always looking to gain a new level of understanding and insight into piano technique and artistry. I feel that this website has done an excellent job at helping me gain that knowledge.

          That’s definitely a great approach and I’m happy that you found my site helpful! :) By the way, I’m also impressed by your level of theoretical knowledge – you read so many books and articles about piano playing and great pianists! This is a rare quality and it speaks about patience, determination and curiosity – which are usually hard to ‘implement’ in our modern fast lifestyle!

          I hope you’re having a great weekend!

          Talk soon,
          Ilinca

          • Natalie says:

            Hello, Ilinca. Thank you once again for all of your salient observations!

            “For example, I’ve never seen a great pianist play with tensed arms, with immobile wrists (except maybe for Jazz or pop pianists) or without using their entire arms LOL.”
            I think that you’re absolutely right. Of all the great pianists that I have seen, not a single one of them plays with isolated finger motions. All of them clearly move the arms when playing.

            Interestingly enough, Arrau claimed that Horowitz was incredibly stiff in the arms when playing, but I think that Arrau was probably wrong. Horowitz’s motions were economic, and pianists who employ a lot of superfluous motions may wrongly perceive economy of motion as a sign of stiffness. It’s hard to believe that stiff arms could produce the rich, sonorous quality that Horowitz produced or play with the amount of speed and dexterity that he displayed.

            This reminds of the fact that pianists don’t always understand their own techniques. Sometimes, they think that they are doing one thing, but are actually doing something else. I wonder why that faulty sensory perception would occur.

            For example, in the Horowitz article that I cited, “Technic as an Outgrowth of Musical Thought”, he said that he uses only the wrist to play octaves (with the movement stopping at the wrist), and that if he used the forearm, he would become fatigued and a harsh sound would result. However, if you watch this slow motion video of Horowitz playing the “Octave” Etude http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lT6H-ERo-rk, you can see that he is clearly moving the forearm on each octave. There is some movement in the wrist, but it doesn’t look particularly prominent. If anything, the forearm movement might be more noticeable than the wrist movement. I wonder why Horowitz would claim that he was using only the wrist, when he was making huge motions from the forearm. I would think that a pianist would be able to sense whether he is moving his arm or his wrist.

            In that article, Horowitz also mentioned that one cannot play heavy and with great strength all the time, as you would become tired. That seems to contradict the notion that one should be relaxed at all times. If heavy (i.e. loud) playing requires more endurance, then that implies that the physical apparatus is less relaxed during loud playing (at least in Horowitz’s case). Perhaps even Horowitz had some unnecessary tension in his playing (which would explain why he felt that one cannot play heavy all the time), but not to the same extent that the average pianist does. Some people seem to think that great musicians have no technical flaws, but that is a misconception. I think that great musicians simply have far fewer flaws than mediocore musicians do.

            As to Horowitz’s practice sessions, I believe that you made a very significant point, namely that the length of his practice sessions weren’t necessarily consistent. It’s certainly plausible that if Horowitz (or any other pianist) was confronted with a particularly difficult technical or musical problem, he might spend much more time practicing than he normally would. This goes back to one of your original points about practicing as much as is necessary for each individual passage. Some passages might require five hours of practice, while others can be mastered in a matter of minutes. It is an issue of individual circumstances.

            “The solution is simple: practice . It’s normal to have tensed arms when playing in a fast tempo. Why? Because of our human nature: we’re always tensed when we do something that’s still uncomfortable LOL. That’s why we should reach the fast tempo gradually. For example, if the needed tempo is Presto, we should begin practicing in Andante – until we’re perfectly relaxed and comfortable. Then, we practice the same thing slightly faster – Andantino . Then we move to Moderato, then to Allegretto, then to Allegro etc., until we reach the needed tempo! It’s natural that after practicing Lento a certain passage, it will be almost impossible to play the same thing on Presto without any transition! So it’s all a question of correct practice and patience!”

            Yes, I think that gradually building up a passage is a very effective way of gaining control over the speed. Many teachers advocate that you should start a difficult passage slowly on the metronome, building it up (either every notch or every other notch) to finished tempo. Another method is taking a complex passage and breaking it up into smaller fragments. For example, in sixteenth-note runs, you might play four notes, stop, play the next four notes, stop, etc. By mastering the small fragments of four sixteenth notes each, it sometimes becomes easier to put those fragments together into an entire passage.

            Other teachers have claimed that if you learn a passage correctly at a slow tempo, sometimes you discover that you can automatically play it fluently at a fast tempo- without gradually increasing the tempo. Once again, this may bring us back to the issue of each passage needing to be assessed according to its unique circumstances. Perhaps some passages can be mastered without gradually building up the tempo, while other passages need a lot of slow to fast practice (possibly with metronome).

            One issue that may stand in the way, even when gradually building up the tempo, is if you are engaging in some physical movement that is wrong and inefficient. There are many subtle movements that are necessary for optimal technique (in the fingers, hands, arms, even the torso and the legs), and if one of those movements isn’t functioning properly, it may limit your technical success. Perhaps the solution to that particular issue is to have a teacher with a solid understanding of the physiology of piano playing: one who will be able to identify any minute physical defect (anywhere in your body) that exists in your playing. That is one reason why pianists who have not been trained to be aware of their bodies often experience technical limitation. Even when they practice a copious amount, they don’t make satisfactory progress because they are using an inherently faulty physical approach.

            “You know, there are many opinions on this subject. Now I’ll tell you my personal approach and what I learned after many years of piano practice (and many self-improvement experiments). It all depends on one thing: what you really want to achieve in life. ”

            I think that that’s very true. There is a self-improvement book by Joseph Murphy called The Power of the Subconscious Mind. In it, Dr. Murphy posits that the subconscious mind has unlimited power and that any goal that we want to accomplish can be brought about by directing the subconscious mind to do the task. He says that if you plant a thought in your subconscious mind, envision the thought as an objective reality, and have full faith and inner conviction that the thought will be executed as a tangible reality, then that idea necessarily will be translated into reality. As an example, Murphy stated that people have cured themselves of terminal illnesses simply by decreeing perfect health and envisioning it as an objective reality. He also said that all great musicians know how to access the creative power of the subconscious mind, providing them with the inspiration to execute artistic feats that are far beyond what their conscious minds would have been able to imagine.

            Some people may dismiss Murphy’s philosophies as wishful thinking, but I think that his ideas may have a substantial amount of truth to them. Perhaps if you genuinely believe that you can and will achieve musical greatness, the subconscious mind will reveal- through your creative imagination- the means that are necessary to achieve that greatness. That may be why focusing on the mental image of a certain sound- even when you have little or no cognizance of the physical means necessary to create that sound- can help you finds the means to create that sound.

            Sometimes, musicians get in their own ways by doubting their abilities and thinking that they can only achieve modest success. It seems that negative thinking programs the subconscious mind to prevent you from achieving your true potential. If you believe that you can only be mediocre, then that often becomes a self-fulfulling prophecy- not because you don’t have extraordinary talent, but because you have convinced yourself that you cannot accomplish anything significant. If your thoughts are constantly focused on failure, then your actions are probably going to reflect that. That appears to be how the subconscious works: it magnifies our thoughts, makes them habitual, and translates them into action. Perhaps if musicians adopted a positive form of thinking- with a genuine belief that they can achieve the highest levels of technical and musical mastery and a willingness to do the work that is necessary- the inspiriation of the subconscious mind would reveal the exact type of practice that is necessary to achieve the aforementioned greatness. Maybe that is how the subconscious mind can foster musical greatness. If you genuinely believe that you have the capabilities to fulfill your dream, you will be prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish your goal. It is often the doubt of one’s own abilities that prevents him or her from being able to reap optimal benefits from practice. Maybe more people could be like Horowitz if they programmed their subconscious minds to believe that they can and will achieve greatness.

            “In the end, however, succeed only those people who are moving towards their goal with determination and patience – and more often than not, these are the people that have to work for developing a certain ability/quality/skill (and not those who were simply ‘born with it’). ”

            That’s very true. It seems that all great individuals have or had very strong work ethics. Even Mozart admitted that in order to develop as a composer, he had to intensely scrutinize the works of virtually every important composer, learning whatever he could and formulating ideas of his own. There has always been a debate about nature vs. nurture in regards to success. Some people believe that only an extremely small percentage of the population have the ability to equal someone like Horowitz or Mozart. However, those people may be underestimating the nurture side of the equation, failing to realize that hard work very well may carry much greater significance than innate talent. There appear to be a lot of extremely talented individuals, as can be observed at any major conservatory. Perhaps the ones who achieve the greatness success are not necessarily more talented than their less successful brethren, but simply worked harder and more efficiently. Maybe there would be more people like Mozart, Shakespeare, Da Vinci, etc. if all talented individuals were willing to work as hard and effecitvely as they did.

            “But nothing compares to the power of one ‘secret ingredient’: Never Giving Up!”

            Indeed. There are some people who give up when confronted with the slightest semblance of an obstacle, while others continue fighting even after the most crushing defeat. Needless to say, the latter category of individuals are much more likely to achieve real greatness.

            “That’s definitely a great approach and I’m happy that you found my site helpful! By the way, I’m also impressed by your level of theoretical knowledge – you read so many books and articles about piano playing and great pianists! This is a rare quality and it speaks about patience, determination and curiosity – which are usually hard to ‘implement’ in our modern fast lifestyle! ”

            Thank you, Ilinca. In addition to my passion for music, I have always had a strong proclivity toward intellectual exercises. I think that such a dual interest is very helpful in music, as gaining correct theoretical knowledge about music should necessarily help me apply that knowledge in a practical setting (i.e. in actual playing).

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi again!

          Horowitz’s motions were economic, and pianists who employ a lot of superfluous motions may wrongly perceive economy of motion as a sign of stiffness.

          Yes, I agree. I have noticed that the more experience a pianist has, the more economic his/her gestures are. However, this does not mean that he/she is playing with tension – quite the opposite! They simply ‘refined’ their gestures over time and they manage to play in a very relaxed state without making any ‘excess’ movements.

          This reminds of the fact that pianists don’t always understand their own techniques. Sometimes, they think that they are doing one thing, but are actually doing something else. I wonder why that faulty sensory perception would occur.

          This can probably happen, of course. Great video of Horowitz, by the way (the slow motion one)! You’re right – you can clearly see that he’s actively using his forearm in a very ‘correct’ way for playing those octaves! :) His entire arms are involved in the playing process (just like they’re supposed to be!) and his gestures are very cat-like (as I like to call them).

          I wonder why Horowitz would claim that he was using only the wrist, when he was making huge motions from the forearm. I would think that a pianist would be able to sense whether he is moving his arm or his wrist.

          Maybe he didn’t want everyone to know his secrets? LOL We can’t be sure why he said what he said – but we can always watch his videos and learn! :)

          In that article, Horowitz also mentioned that one cannot play heavy and with great strength all the time, as you would become tired.

          Actually, he was right. No matter how perfectly relaxed we are, it’s normal to get tired after performing a certain action for a long time. Our body is not a machine (even machines get rusty!) and it needs rest to recover its strength – even if there’s no tension in the action itself! Imagine that you walk all day in a beautiful park, in a perfectly relaxed state (mentally and physically). No matter how happy, calm and relaxed you are, you’ll still get tired by the end of the day! And now imagine that you’re jogging (still in a relaxed state). You’ll get tired faster, isn’t it? The same can be said about piano playing! In his book “The Art of Piano Playing” H. Neuhaus writes that the most difficult thing in piano playing is too play ‘very loud, very fast for a long time’ LOL. Does this mean that he was not a promoter of ‘relaxed playing’? Of course not – he always talked about the importance of a tension-free, whole-arm key attack.

          That seems to contradict the notion that one should be relaxed at all times. If heavy (i.e. loud) playing requires more endurance, then that implies that the physical apparatus is less relaxed during loud playing (at least in Horowitz’s case). Perhaps even Horowitz had some unnecessary tension in his playing (which would explain why he felt that one cannot play heavy all the time).

          As I explained above, Horowitz was perfectly right and this does not mean that he had flaws in his playing or that his apparatus was less relaxed. It’s simply a law of the universe – we have to alternate action and rest – otherwise we’ll burn very fast (no matter how relaxed we are in the process).

          Piano playing (just like life) is a balance of dual phenomena: yin and yang, work and rest, music and silence, slow and fast practice etc. We have to balance all these things for achieving a good piano mastery. Unilateral heavy loud playing will inevitably ruin this balance! That’s why in all great pieces loud culminations alternate with lyrical fragments, forte is followed by piano etc. – this is not only interesting and meaningful from a dramatic point of view – it also offers the pianist the needed comfort for performing the piece well!

          Yes, I think that gradually building up a passage is a very effective way of gaining control over the speed. Many teachers advocate that you should start a difficult passage slowly on the metronome, building it up (either every notch or every other notch) to finished tempo. Another method is taking a complex passage and breaking it up into smaller fragments. For example, in sixteenth-note runs, you might play four notes, stop, play the next four notes, stop, etc. By mastering the small fragments of four sixteenth notes each, it sometimes becomes easier to put those fragments together into an entire passage.

          Breaking a passage into smaller fragments is also a good practice method. I call it the ‘magnifying glass’ practice method :). Why? Because usually we play a certain difficult passage and we don’t know why exactly we can’t play it well. Often the biggest difficulty is concentrated in a small detail – a specific hand turn, or a jump etc. Identifying this ‘corner stone’ and mastering it (even if we talk about a couple of notes!) will magically make the entire passage ‘fall into place’! And, of course, it’s also useful to take the entire passage and practice it 2-4 bars at a time, then connect them in bigger fragments etc. I will demonstrate in detail all these practice methods on the Piano Community forum! ;)

          Other teachers have claimed that if you learn a passage correctly at a slow tempo, sometimes you discover that you can automatically play it fluently at a fast tempo- without gradually increasing the tempo. Once again, this may bring us back to the issue of each passage needing to be assessed according to its unique circumstances.

          Yes, there are no 100% recipes – but at the same time I still recommend to my students to reach the needed tempo gradually – it’s safer and ‘healthier’ this way – especially if the student is a beginner and he/she doesn’t have a good finger agility/playing reflexes yet.

          One issue that may stand in the way, even when gradually building up the tempo, is if you are engaging in some physical movement that is wrong and inefficient.

          Definitely, this is a big one!!! There are so many piano students out there who sit at the piano as if they’re doing the most uncomfortable thing in the world! Under such circumstances (slouching, excess body movements, overall tension (even tension in the face LOL), a low piano bench, etc.) – how can we talk about relaxation and technical brilliance?

          Perhaps the solution to that particular issue is to have a teacher with a solid understanding of the physiology of piano playing: one who will be able to identify any minute physical defect (anywhere in your body) that exists in your playing. That is one reason why pianists who have not been trained to be aware of their bodies often experience technical limitation. Even when they practice a copious amount, they don’t make satisfactory progress because they are using an inherently faulty physical approach.

          An experienced teacher will show the student from the very first lesson how to sit correctly at the piano, how to keep his arms, how to press the keys etc. Then, during each following lesson, the teacher will correct all the problems that might appear – so that nothing will stand in the way of the student’s progress. However, the reality is often different from this ideal scenario: so many teachers have no idea how to teach a correct posture and then they wonder why their students don’t show a good progress! Just like you say, it’s impossible to improve your skills (no matter how much your practice) if you’re building your playing habit on an incorrect physical foundation.

          There is a self-improvement book by Joseph Murphy called The Power of the Subconscious Mind. In it, Dr. Murphy posits that the subconscious mind has unlimited power and that any goal that we want to accomplish can be brought about by directing the subconscious mind to do the task.

          The powers of our mind (including the subconscious mind) are limitless! Our thoughts shape our reality, we become what we think about! This is what Buddha said and what many many other wise people said after him (and probably before him as well). There are many great books on this subject. Maybe each author uses his/her own terms for describing this phenomenon, but its essence is the same: our world is our mirror :).

          He also said that all great musicians know how to access the creative power of the subconscious mind, providing them with the inspiration to execute artistic feats that are far beyond what their conscious minds would have been able to imagine.

          I recently read a great book by Shakti Gawain – it’s called ‘Creative Visualization‘ and it describes the same process – how we can access our creativity, which is in fact our natural connection with the universal ‘informational field’. As I said, there are many amazing books on this subject – and it’s great that you came across Murphy’s book!

          Some people may dismiss Murphy’s philosophies as wishful thinking, but I think that his ideas may have a substantial amount of truth to them.

          It’s not wishful thinking – it’s how our universe works! It’s more than tangible reality! :)

          That may be why focusing on the mental image of a certain sound- even when you have little or no cognizance of the physical means necessary to create that sound- can help you finds the means to create that sound.

          Yes, and this is why I say in my tutorial The Secrets of a Correct Piano Key Attack that the piano sound originates in our mind :). However, for being professionals in what we do (piano playing) we also have to KNOW HOW to transfer the visualized sound into the instrument, and we also have to build the needed SKILLS for doing this. It’s a holistic process and all these aspects are important!

          But, again, everything originates in our mind! That’s why Chopin and Liszt were able to create the physical ‘laws’ of modern piano playing: they visualized the needed sound first and then they invented the physical means that allowed them to create this kind of sound!

          Sometimes, musicians get in their own ways by doubting their abilities and thinking that they can only achieve modest success. It seems that negative thinking programs the subconscious mind to prevent you from achieving your true potential.

          Of course! All our thoughts shape our reality – including the negative ones! Unfortunately, most people lack the most important thing: CORRECT INFORMATION. They simply don’t know that their thoughts will materialize, and they allow themselves to have doubts, fears and insecurities – and then they wonder why it’s so hard to be successful.

          If your thoughts are constantly focused on failure, then your actions are probably going to reflect that. That appears to be how the subconscious works: it magnifies our thoughts, makes them habitual, and translates them into action.

          There is a quote on this subject that I really like:

          Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
          Watch your words, for they become actions.
          Watch your actions, for they become habits.
          Watch your habits, for they become character.
          Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

          Perhaps if musicians adopted a positive form of thinking- with a genuine belief that they can achieve the highest levels of technical and musical mastery and a willingness to do the work that is necessary- the inspiriation of the subconscious mind would reveal the exact type of practice that is necessary to achieve the aforementioned greatness.

          It’s true, but once again let’s not forget about the importance of knowledge and skills :). Everything – creativity, knowledge and skills – have to be in balance for creating success and fulfillment. In other words, all the aspects of our life have to be in balance: spiritual (or the so-called ‘subconscious mind’, or ‘creativity’, ‘inspiration’, ‘connection with the transcendental’ etc.), intellectual (our rational mind), physical (our body) and emotional (our feelings). Developing only 1 or 2 of these aspects and neglecting the others will inevitably create an imbalance which will affect the quality of our life!

          Of course, this is not a simple process and it doesn’t offer instant results. However, if we never give up despite all the obstacles we might encounter in our path, if we keep believing in ourselves, if we rise each time we fall, if we see each failure as a lesson – then the effect will be ‘cumulative’ and it will inevitably shape our reality. A great Russian writer once said that the reality has inertia – it’s like a thick resin – and one little thought will not change it much. However, if we ‘cultivate’ a specific thought or belief with perseverance and determination, it will become our reality – musical achievements included!

          It seems that all great individuals have or had very strong work ethics. Even Mozart admitted that in order to develop as a composer, he had to intensely scrutinize the works of virtually every important composer, learning whatever he could and formulating ideas of his own.

          Exactly! Nowadays, everyone knows that Mozart was a ‘genius’, but only a few people realize how much he worked, how much he studied, how much dedication he put in everything he did! However, let’s not forget another important fact: each one of us has a wonderful, unique potential. A big part of success is identifying what you LOVE to do and doing it – this way even very hard work will be enjoyable and will offer fulfillment.

          Unfortunately, there are so many people out there who work hard in a field that’s simply ‘not theirs’: maybe their parents forced them to choose this career, or maybe they chose it because it seemed ‘prestigious’ at the time. However, in such cases it’s unlikely to achieve remarkable results simply because every hour of work will seem interminable and instead of giving you energy, it will take it from you!

          There has always been a debate about nature vs. nurture in regards to success. Some people believe that only an extremely small percentage of the population have the ability to equal someone like Horowitz or Mozart. However, those people may be underestimating the nurture side of the equation, failing to realize that hard work very well may carry much greater significance than innate talent.

          Yes, and also let’s not forget about what I said above: it’s important to know what exactly you want from life, what is you passion, what gives you ‘wings’, what you LOVE to do. All great personalities (Horowitz, Rubinstein, Mozart etc.) LOVED what they did, they lived through music and they enjoyed playing, practicing and sharing beautiful piano pieces with the public. Otherwise, if they didn’t, all the hard work in the world could not make them become great pianists!

          So all the aspects of this ‘formula’ are important: identifying your passion (we can also call it your ‘talent’ or your ‘nature’), believing in yourself and your success and working for achieving it! I will also say again that if the work is not enjoyable, it will do you more harm than good! This is one of the main ideas of my ‘holistic perspective on piano playing’ – because I’ve seen too many pianists practice because they ‘have to’, this way transforming their life into a constant torture, when in fact they would make great lawyers, doctors or painters etc. LOL

          Thank you, Ilinca. In addition to my passion for music, I have always had a strong proclivity toward intellectual exercises. I think that such a dual interest is very helpful in music, as gaining correct theoretical knowledge about music should necessarily help me apply that knowledge in a practical setting (i.e. in actual playing).

          Yes, I totally agree! It’s just what I said above – knowledge is also important for developing our pianistic skills! I have the same passion myself! :)

          Actually, this will be my last reply on ‘Ask Me a Piano Question’. After posting it, I will close the comments so I will have time to get everything ready for the upcoming launch! Less than 3 days left until PianoCareerAcademy.com goes LIVE! So we’ll transfer our conversation to the forum and we’ll talk after 15th of February ;).

          In the meantime, have a great Sunday and a productive beginning of a new week!

          Talk soon,
          Ilinca

  17. Derek C. says:

    Hello Ms. Vartic, I recently stumbled upon pianocareer.com while searching for an answer to the question I am about to ask. Before anything else, I’d like to thank you for all these videos and tips! I’ve never had access to a teacher, and it’s videos like these that help me out when I run into some trouble, so thank you!

    The only keyboard I’ve had is a rather old midi controller with 61 keys and no sustain pedal, but I’ve recently been able to get my hands on a newer, full-sized digital piano that supports just a sustain pedal. Unfortunately, my extensive time with the midi controller kind of lead me into some bad habits, where in order to play the pieces I’ve been studying, I need to hit the “octave up/down” buttons to reach the high and low notes that don’t fit on the keyboard. Also, and perhaps worse, I’ve had very little experience playing with a real pedal, and I’ve simply relied on a “sustaining” effect that I managed to get out of the midi controller to make the pieces sound reasonable.

    Anyway, I now realize that I’m missing a huge part of playing the piano, and a search for answers brought me here, so thank you again for your videos, and the pedal-focused videos in particular. After this long explanation, my question is basically this: what advice would you give for learning how to best use the sustain pedal after going without it for so long? I was about halfway through working on Chopin’s Ballade no. 4 when I got myself this new digital piano, and I’ve found that it doesn’t sound all that great without knowing how to use the pedal very well. Any help will be appreciated, it looks like I’m going to spend quite some time relearning everything! Thanks!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Derek!

      Thank you for your question and welcome to PianoCareer.com! ;)

      Yes, it’s not easy to make the ‘transition’ between a simple synthesizer and a real piano (or even a digital piano).

      First of all, in such circumstances it’s necessary to ‘retrain’ your muscles and to adapt to the new weight of the keys. Most digital pianos nowadays have a ‘weighted key’ mechanism which mimics the natural resistance we encounter when playing on a real piano. Old synthesizers usually have simple, light keys which are very easy to press. Naturally, when we switch to a digital piano or a real piano, we have the feeling that it’s very hard to press the keys and we get tired faster. And, of course, there is the pedal – which is another skill we have to train.

      The good news is that it’s never too late to modify your reflexes, to train and strengthen your arms and fingers, to learn how to use the pedal and to improve your playing habits!

      For such a ‘relearning’ experience, I always recommend taking it step by step. Chopin’s 4th Ballade is one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written! If you’re able to play it, I really admire you! I remember that I played this piece in a concert when I was about 16 (and I already had 10 years of experience behind).

      Of course, you can continue to study it – but you can use easier pieces for getting used to the sustain pedal. For this, I recommend as ‘training material’ the easy piece I’m using as a demonstration in one of my videos: Tchaikovsky’s “In Church” from his “Children’s Album”.

      This piece is extremely appropriate for mastering the delayed pedaling technique – which is the most necessary one, especially in playing romantic music. I explain all the details of this technique in my tutorial Using the Piano Pedals – The Art Behind the Mechanism.

      I often mention that in learning something new, we have to start small, with something easy – and master that easy detail until it becomes comfortable and we feel nice and relaxed while executing it (in your case, using the sustain pedal). After getting used to the pedal in playing the easy piece I recommend, you can gradually apply it to more complex pieces.

      Continue this kind of practice until you feel that you’re creating a new reflex. In time, pedaling will be something automated – you’ll use the sustain without thinking about it! However, in order to reach this skill level, you need to practice on a regular basis – starting with easy pieces and slowly reaching more complicated ones.

      So this is the main secret: correct practice makes perfect! For learning how to do something new, you have to do it many many times – and you have to make sure that you’re doing it correctly. In piano playing, ‘correct’ means relaxation and awareness.

      One more thing: I hope that your sustain pedal functions just like the pedal of a real piano: when it is pressed, it sustains the sound; when it is released, the sound ends. I’m asking this because I know that there are some digital sustain pedals that function just the opposite – and you have to stay away from those!!!

      Good luck!
      Ilinca

      P.S. I have many new interesting plans for the near future! You can subscribe to my email newsletter (and also get a complimentary copy of my report “A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing“) or follow me on Facebook to stay updated! ;)

      • Derek C. says:

        Thank you for your answer! That is good advice, I will definitely give it a try. I’m tempted to keep going with the Ballade just because I love it so much, but you are right, I should pause and get a solid foundation before trying something over my head.

        However, since you mention that you have played it before, I thought I might ask about your particular use of the pedal in a certain part of the piece, if you wouldn’t mind. The portion in question is the set of legato octaves on the left hand, starting at the end of measure 37. I can’t seem to find an appropriate place to release the pedal, and I’m not sure whether I should release it at all. If it’s not too much trouble, what is your preference as to how this section should be played?

        Thank you again for your detailed answer, I will take your advice and get to work right away!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi again Derek!

      Actually, I was suggesting continuing to work on the Ballade – but at the same time improving your pedal skills by practicing some easy pieces ;). This way, you’ll gradually build some correct pedaling reflexes without forgetting the Ballade!

      When I was still studying, my professors often recommended me to practice without pedal. Why? Because when we play without pedal, we have to use ONLY our hearing and our arms and fingers for creating a beautiful sound, a good connection between notes and therefore – a convincing phrasing.

      The reality is the following: the sustain pedal (once you get used to it) has the capacity of simplifying our playing! Once you press the pedal, everything gets easier – especially creating a good sound continuity (a good legato) – which is the most challenging thing in piano playing!

      On the other hand, if you learn how to make a quality, flowing legato without the sustain pedal – when you’ll use the pedal afterwards you’ll feel like you’re flying!

      To make a comparison – pressing the pedal is like covering all the winter mud and the leafless tress with a white, fluffy layer of sparkling snow! LOL

      Here is why I’m writing this: until you improve your pedaling skills, you can continue to learn the Ballade without pedal. Or you can practice without pedal first, and then gradually, slowly and mindfully add the pedal, bar after bar, until you’re satisfied with the sonority.

      The basic pedaling rule in playing romantic music is the following: changing the pedal (using the delayed pedaling technique) on each new harmony – so the notes will be connected, but the sonority will remain clear of dissonant sounds!

      The fragment which you’re mentioning (Chopin’s Ballade No. 4, from the end of bar 37) has to be pedaled like this:

      Correct pedaling starting from bar 37 of Chopin's Ballade No. 4

      If you can’t see all the details, click on the image to enlarge it!

      Now a little explanation to my pedaling indications:

      As I already told you, in playing romantic music (especially pieces with a lyrical, singing character like this amazing Ballade) we have to use most of the time the delayed pedaling technique.

      As I explain in my video tutorial How to Use the Piano Pedals – The 3 Main Pedaling Techniques, the delayed pedal means releasing the pedal on the note and engaging it immediately after – as if catching the note (or interval, or chord) with the pedal before the fingers are lifted. In other words, we change the pedal on each new harmony so the sonority will not be dirty. At the same time, this pedaling technique ensures a very good sound continuity (there are no gaps between sounds!).

      The delayed pedal is noted like this: the asterisk means releasing the pedal, while the letter P means engaging the pedal. However, since these movements should be executed without any pauses, you have to simply change the pedal each time I wrote *P in the score.

      So let’s repeat one more time: each asterisk followed by the letter P means changing the pedal on that particular note and keeping it pressed until the next indication! Each change consists of two movements: the foot goes up and immediately down (as I explain in my video).

      I hope that everything is clear! If there are still some details you don’t understand about this pedaling technique, don’t hesitate to ask! ;)

      Enjoy practicing this fantastic piece and also don’t forget about the easier pieces for pedaling training!

      Talk soon,
      Ilinca

      P.S. I had a great time today remembering this Ballade – it’s one of my favorite pieces ever! ;)

      • Derek C. says:

        Thank you again for your reply! I’m starting to see that there are a lot more pedal changes involved than I would have guessed, but I’m getting there. Even just working through the Ballade, it’s already sounding much better. I was inspired to attempt this piece by Krystian Zimerman’s performance of it on some old recordings. It always amazes me how professional pianists can move so fluidly, and yet play with such force and delicacy. I’m glad you enjoyed revisiting the piece, it’s one of my all-time favorites as well. Do you have any videos of yourself playing full pieces? I would love to see some!

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi Derek!

          You have made a very good remark: indeed, great pianists play with a wonderful fluidity, force and delicacy. This comes as a result of experience and lots of correct practice! :)

          Good luck with learning the pedal – and don’t forget to change it as fluidly and smoothly as possible! :) The listeners should never hear the pedaling itself – they have to hear only the flawless continuity of the phrase! ;)

          Between two jobs and this site I don’t have the time to record full pieces – I prefer to make tutorials instead and explain HOW we should play for improving our skills. However, I will definitely make some recordings in the future – it all depends on my schedule!

          Good luck and see you soon in the Piano Community which I’m about to launch!
          Ilinca

          • Derek C. says:

            I’m glad to hear that you might do some recordings, I’d love to see them! And I’m very excited about the Piano Community, it seems like a great place to learn and enjoy talking and meeting with people. One more question, if it’s not too much trouble to answer, about the Ballade. At the end of measure 74 and in 75, there’s that fast, short motion with the right hand. I am boggled as to what the fingering on this section should be, I can’t figure out any way to play it comfortably. Again, if it’s not too much trouble, how did you play this? As I’m continuing through this piece, I’m realizing that it is probably going to defeat me until I’ve been playing for quite a bit longer, but I still enjoy playing it, even if it’s quite far from perfect. Thanks again, hopefully these specific questions aren’t a bother.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Derek!

      The Community which I’m currently designing begins to look very promising! I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I enjoy configuring it! ;)

      Here is the appropriate fingering for Chopin’s Ballade No. 4, bars 74-75:

      fingering for bars 74-75 in Chopin's Ballade No. 4

      I used this fingering when playing the Ballade and it was very comfortable! :)

      If you have more questions about this amazing piece, please ask!
      Ilinca

  18. Tiana says:

    Dear Ilinca, How would you describe a Russian piano teaching method? How is it different from many other once? Thank you,
    Tiana.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Tiana!

      Thank you for your question and welcome to PianoCareer.com! ;)

      In October one of my readers and piano friends (Pauline) asked me the same question. You can click here and read my detailed reply to her question.

      Also, I describe the basics of the Russian piano school in many of my articles and video tutorials: the focus on expressiveness, on developing the imagination, on increasing musical understanding, the ‘whole arm’ action principle, the ‘orchestral piano’ approach, the ‘vocal cantability’ approach, the complex approach on musical theory and much much more!

      I also cover many interesting aspects of this teaching method in my report “A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing” – you can subscribe and receive a free copy of this report!

      If you’re interested to learn more on this subject – I’m currently working on a new project – a Piano Online Community where I plan to share with you many other secrets of the Russian piano school. You can click here to read the description of this project!

      Also, if you have some specific questions about the Russian piano school, don’t hesitate to ask! This is an extremely complex subject and it’s impossible to describe all of it in detail in one reply! :)

      I can also recommend Heinrich Neuhaus’s amazing book “The Art of Piano Playing”. Neuhaus was one of the greatest Russian piano professors – and we have so much to learn from him!

      So, first read the reply I recommend – I hope it will give you a good understanding of the basics of this system. ;)

      Have an amazing day and talk to you soon!
      Ilinca

  19. Peter Sellmer says:

    Hello IIinca, do you also offer paid piano lessons? I am 55 years old, started taking lessons about a year ago and stopped as I did not like my teacher but also have some trouble with my hands. My goal is not to be a great master but simply to enjoy the music I love and learn at my own pace. But would love to have some tips and have seen that some teachers offer lessons via video – not as good as live but if you can see my technique I am sure there are things I could learn.

    thank you,

    Peter in Cosa Rica

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Peter!

      Welcome to PianoCareer.com! ;) It’s very nice to meet you!

      I’m currently developing several new projects. One of them is the Online Piano Community which I describe in the last article posted on the site.

      And yes – another project (which will be launched immediately after the Piano Community) will be offering online piano lessons! I hope to make this service available in 2-3 weeks (depending on how the Forum launch goes – there’s currently lots of configuring and testing going on! :)).

      You can stay updated by subscribing to my newsletter (and receiving a free copy of my report “A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing”) or following me on Facebook!

      You’re right – piano playing should be a stress-free, enjoyable activity that will allow all piano enthusiasts to play and share the music they love! That’s why I created this site and this is the foundation of my ‘holistic approach on piano playing’.

      Until I launch these two projects, feel free to ask piano questions on this page, to read the other articles (go to Archives to see the full list) and watch all the video tutorials! I hope you’ll find them helpful! ;)

      Good luck and talk to you soon!
      Ilinca

  20. William says:

    Dear Ilinca,
    At the Russian music school, do you have methods to help students learn perfect pitch? I believe one of the reasons my sense of pitch is not good is because I started learning the piano relatively late (9.5 years old). I am able to recognize some keys that I hear often and are distinctive in a piece (for example, I can reliably recognize G# because it’s the first note of Fantaisie Impromptu, which is one of the pieces I have played most). Thank you.

    William

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi William!

      Thank you for your question – it’s a very interesting one! ;)

      In the Russian piano school, we believe there are two kinds of pitches (hearings):

      1. The perfect pitch. In our country and Russia, it’s also called ‘absolute hearing‘. It is generally believed that in order to have a perfect pitch, you have to be born with it. According to statistics, only 1 person from 10.000 is born with it. Among musicians, only 1-2 people from 100 have it!

      Having a perfect pitch means being able to recognize the absolute frequency of each note, its ‘individual’ vibrations, without previous ‘tuning’ (without comparing it to a known reference note or chord). Vice-versa, it means being able to SING a certain note without previous tuning, hearing in your head all the time HOW exactly it should sound.

      Having a perfect pitch is not mandatory for being a great musician!!! In some cases, it is considered that it can even get in your way! For example, especially if you’re a pianist, it may be very hard to play on an instrument that’s slightly out of tune! So in case you don’t have a perfect pitch – it’s totally ok!!!

      2. The good musical pitch. It is also called ‘relative hearing‘. You have to be born with it too – but since about 90% of people have it, it’s not a big problem! :) This is the kind of hearing you absolutely need for becoming a great musician!

      It’s the capacity of identifying and reproducing (singing) different sounds in melodies, chords and intervals by COMPARING these sounds to a reference sound from our memory (for example A or C).

      People with relative hearing can sing a certain melody very well (in tune), but they have no idea what tonality they’re actually using! On the other hand, each note is perfectly ‘tuned’ with the other sounds of this melody.

      The good musical pitch (relative hearing) can be developed with practice and training (unlike the perfect pitch which is most of the time simply ‘perfect’ and that’s it). For example, I was born with a relative hearing. Now, after 25 years of practice, I have developed an almost ‘perfect’ pitch: I can identify any note or harmony without previous tuning, but I can’t SING a correct note without tuning :).

      However, most specialists consider that cases like mine are very rare and unexplainable – and that the majority of people with a relative hearing cannot ‘upgrade’ it to perfect pitch. But, as I said – this is totally ok!

      So don’t worry about not having a perfect pitch! Many great composers and pianists didn’t have a perfect pitch either – and this didn’t stop them from creating masterpieces or playing fantastically well!

      But, as I said, relative hearing can always be improved! For this, solfege and harmony are especially useful! For me personally, the best ‘pitch’ training was my daily piano practice. In time, my hearing got used to recognizing the absolute frequency of each note (especially when it’s played on the piano or another instrument). I have the feeling that I simply ‘know’ the identity of each note, its ‘personal’ color and feeling. However, I still can’t recognize notes if they are SUNG, not played! LOL

      Besides these two main types of pitches, there are several other ‘subtypes’:

      1. The inner hearing. It’s the ability to imagine (from your memory or by looking in a score) certain sounds, different melodic and harmonic structures and even entire pieces.

      2. The intonative (timbral) hearing. It’s the ability to hear and understand the expressiveness of music.

      3. The harmonic hearing. It’s the ability to hear and identify harmonic structures. For example, you hear a certain song and, even without knowing the scientific basics of harmony (harmonic functions, different types of chords), you’re still able to SING all the chords used in the song or even to play the accompaniment for this song on the piano!

      All these 3 types of hearing can be developed with correct practice :).

      So the fact that you can already recognize certain keys is definitely a good sign! The majority of musicians can’t do that, even after decades of practice!

      Also, the fact that you started to learn piano from the age of 9 has nothing to do with having a perfect pitch or not. You have a very good relative hearing – and with practice, it will inevitably improve!!! ;)

      Ilinca

      P.S. I’m currently working on a new project – an Online Piano Community forum where you’ll be able to ask questions, watch exclusive tutorials and receive detailed replies – all this in the very easy-to-use structure of a forum! You can subscribe to my email newsletter (and receive a complimentary copy of my report “A New Perspective on Piano Playing“) to stay updated. I’m also posting all the news on my Facebook page ;).

  21. Henrik says:

    Hi!!! :)
    I hope your new Online Piano Community will come up soon.

    Interesting question by William and good answer.

    I have a short question about hands.

    Is there anything we as piano players should avoid to not go back in our developement/hurt our hands? Except cold?

    I hope you understand the question!

    Take care!!

    / Henrik

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Henrik!

      Thank you for your question! :)

      In fact, your question consists of two separate parts, and I’ll give an answer for each of them.

      1. First, let’s see what we can do in order to avoid hurting our hands.

      The only thing that pianists should really avoid is tension.

      You have to make sure that when you practice, your arms and wrists are totally relaxed and flexible. Besides causing discomfort, making your fingers clumsy and affecting your expressiveness, tension is also the main cause of hand injuries and muscle pain which unfortunately affect many pianists.

      Also, if you’re working out, make sure that you perform all force exercises (especially weight lifting, push-ups and pull-ups) correctly, at exhalation. Incorrect tensed exercises could also hurt your hands – but they’re not as dangerous as tensed piano practice!

      For example, I work out on a daily basis, and I do lots of push-ups, press-ups with weights, burpees (and many other exercises where the hands are involved) and I feel amazing – my hands never hurt!

      So, avoid tension and feel free to do anything you want! Exercise, carry heavy things (again, the effort should be done at exhalation!), play in the snow (yes, cold is not your enemy, but a low blood circulation is!!!) etc.

      You can also read my articles on these subjects: How to Get Rid of Cold Hands? Tips for Pianists, Keep Your Hands Strong and Your Mind Open and How to Deal with Piano Practice Related Hand Injuries and Muscle Pain?

      2. Now, I will answer the second part of your questions: Is there anything we as piano players should avoid to not go back in our developement?

      The key to continual development (or, in more pianistic terms – to continual and gradual improvement of our piano skills) is regular correct mindful practice. Now I will explain the exact meaning of all these three words – regular, correct and mindful.

      Regular means practicing every day, or at least 4-5 days a week. Ideally, you should practice at least 2 hours per day, but if you don’t have so much time for practice, it’s still better to practice 45 minutes per day EACH DAY than 3 hours per day 2-3 times a week!

      However, the most important thing in piano playing is quality, not quantity. It’s better to practice 30 minutes correctly, than 3 hours incorrectly! Correct practice means being relaxed when your play (mentally and physically), avoiding tension (just as I mentioned above!!!), having a correct posture, keeping your wrists flexible, having a positive attitude and enjoying what you do! It means working smart, not hard! If you have a couple of minutes, you can read my article on this subject: Work Smart! Tips for a Productive and Enjoyable Piano Practice.

      Mindful means being aware of what you play and avoiding mechanical practice – which is your worst enemy! Mechanical tensed practice (when you play on ‘autopilot’ without paying full attention to the tempo, the character and the meaning of the music) is the main factor which can affect your progress and your productivity!

      Practice calmly, with awareness, without hurry, without tension, without allowing your fingers to run faster than your mind! ;) This way your practice will be fun, enjoyable, productive and you’ll progress much faster! You can read more about mechanical practice (and how to avoid it) in my answer to Pauline from December 15th – click here to go to the exact post!

      As a conclusion – if you want to have a productive practice and to avoid hurting your hands, you need to have a positive attitude, to be relaxed, to practice regularly and correctly!

      Good luck and talk soon! ;)
      Ilinca

      • Henrik says:

        Hi!!! :)

        Thank you for your reply!!

        I understand that I have to practice on a daily basis to develope and become better, but is that also important to do that to not go back in developement and lost earlier progress?

        Would I lost much of my ability to play if I didn’t practice/play for a while? Like, if I go on a long time vacation, get sick, or if the keyboard/piano is broken.
        Does the skill level decrease if you not play/practice?

        What would happen if a proffesional pianist got sick and wasn’t able to play for 6 months, would he lose much of his ability? Or gets an idea that he want to travel the world for as long as a YEAR.
        Would it take a long time of practice before he’d reached the same level he had before the interuption?

        For how long can you take a “rest” from playing without loosing earlier progress?

        Thank you and good luck on creating the new Piano Career community!!

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi Henrik!

          I’ll quote your questions and insert my answer below each one.

          I understand that I have to practice on a daily basis to develope and become better, but is that also important to do that to not go back in developement and lost earlier progress?

          Practice is important not only for progressing, but also for maintaining your skills.

          Imagine that you’re an athlete. After lots of training, you can run 10 miles a day and it becomes easy for you. If you take a break once a week, your physical shape will not change. If you take two days off per week, it will still be ok. However, if you take 3 weeks off – then you’ll definitely lose some endurance! If you take 2 months off, you will become even weaker. If you take 1 year off – then you’ll definitely not be able to run even 1 mile without getting exhausted.

          However, you’ll never forget HOW to run – you’ll just lose some of your strength and endurance.

          The same can be said about piano playing.

          Would I lost much of my ability to play if I didn’t practice/play for a while? Like, if I go on a long time vacation, get sick, or if the keyboard/piano is broken.
          Does the skill level decrease if you not play/practice?

          As I already mentioned, it depends how LONG your vacation is.

          There are times when rest is even more important than practice. Imagine that you’re learning a very difficult piece. You practice it a lot (let’s say 3-5 hours per day, each day). You invest patience, determination and concentration to reach your goal. After several weeks of hard practice, you begin feeling exhausted and it’s hard for you to concentrate. Even worse, you begin to feel that instead of progressing, your practice is making the piece sound worse. This happens often with professional pianists who are so eager to develop their skills that they overwork their arms and their mind.

          In such cases, 1 or 2 days of rest are the best remedy! When you take a little break (not longer than 3 days) after a period of daily practice, then something amazing will happen: the piece will sound better than before!

          Why? Let me give you an example: have you ever looked into a pond of water? You know that if you take a stick and play with it in the water, then the mud from the bottom will affect the transparency of the pond! The same happens with our mind when we practice too much – everything gets blurry and it’s hard for us to concentrate, to be calm and see clearly all the elements of the piece. On the other hand, if you let the water to rest for a couple of minutes/hours, then all the mud will settle down and the water will become transparent again! The same happens in piano playing – so taking short breaks can be extremely beneficial, helping you to rest your arms and clear your mind.

          On the other hand, if your break is longer than 1 week, the agility of your fingers will certainly decrease, BUT the depth of your musical understanding may still increase!

          What would happen if a proffesional pianist got sick and wasn’t able to play for 6 months, would he lose much of his ability? Or gets an idea that he want to travel the world for as long as a YEAR.

          If a pianist is forced to take a long break in his practice, here is what happens: he will never forget HOW to play piano. The more experience he has, the less he will forget! However, the agility of his fingers and the elasticity of his gestures will definitely decrease and he will get a little ‘rusty’ LOL :). However, he will not lose his mental skills and his knowledge – and he will always be able to resume his practice when he chooses to.

          Would it take a long time of practice before he’d reached the same level he had before the interuption?

          It depends on the length of the interruption! But if he is an experienced pianist, then the ‘recovery’ time will not be very long – maybe about 1 month.

          For how long can you take a “rest” from playing without loosing earlier progress?

          Maximum a week (in some cases, two weeks). However, great pianists usually say that if they don’t practice 3 days, the public will definitely notice! :)

          As I already wrote, a short break can be sometimes beneficial. Longer breaks (more than 1 week) will inevitably affect your skills, especially your technical agility. Plus, if you don’t practice a certain piece for a while, you’ll slowly begin to forget it – including the text.

          Thank you and good luck on creating the new Piano Career community!!

          Thank you! Still lots of work on the new forum – but I plan to make it as useful and enjoyable as possible!!!

          Good luck and have a wonderful practice! ;)
          Ilinca

  22. Marie Harris says:

    Hi Ilinca!

    I am so glad I found your website! What a gold mine of information!

    Help! I have a student learning the Rachmaninoff Prelude in g minor Op. 23 #5. I am totally lost on how to teach him that melodic middle section of the piece and bringing out the melody especially the second and third page. Ugh!!

    Thank you!

    Marie

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Marie!

      Welcome! ;)

      The middle section of Rachmaninoff Prelude op. 23 No. 5 is BEAUTIFUL!

      Our goal here is to create a flowing phrase and a smooth, expressive legato in the right hand – which is especially challenging when the melody is expressed in octaves and chords.

      But let’s start with the foundation and take it one step at a time.

      The first thing we need to ensure is the quality of the accompaniment – so the 16th notes in the left hand will not ‘get in the way’ and stop us from concentrating on the melody! The left hand should be a support for the right hand, and not an obstacle! LOL For this, those 16th notes have to be practiced until the accompaniment becomes extremely comfortable and we can play it in a relaxed manner.

      Tell your student to practice hands separately at first. He can start with the left hand in a slow tempo. Our objective is to create an even, uninterrupted flow on a good legato AND a very light sonority (after all, this is the background!). At the same time we have to find finger stability so we won’t miss any note.

      There is a wrist trick which can help us do that: Instead of trying to reach with our fingers alone all those wide intervals between the notes of the arpeggio, it’s much better to ‘guide’ the fingers with the wrist – anticipating the direction of the movement and ‘shortening’ the distances. This way, the arm and the wrist will be the ‘navigator’, followed by the obedient hand and fingers. The wrist should be totally flexible and relaxed, and we should also make sure that there is no tension in our shoulders and elbows. However, we don’t need to channel our entire arm weight into the keyboard – so this accompaniment technique is more about caressing the keys in a relaxed manner than pressing them with the weight coming from our back (which is appropriate for playing expressive melodies!).

      This trick helps us to create the illusion of legato when our fingers alone cannot ‘cope’ with such a task. Moreover, sometimes we come across fragments where it’s possible to make legato with the fingers – but it’s still extremely uncomfortable and it costs us too much ‘stretching’, focus and energy. Why bother stretching our fingers and playing brutally when we can simply guide our fingers with the arm and wrist, ‘moving’ them to the needed place without effort or strain?

      When practicing in a slow tempo, the student can exaggerate the sonority a little and play the left hand mp instead of pp. This way each finger will find stability and its proper place on the correct key. Also, in a slow tempo the arm and hand will memorize the necessary ‘angle of rotation’ for each ‘hand over thumb’ or ‘thumb under hand’ crossing. Gradually, the tempo should be increased, but only after achieving stability and comfort in the slower tempo.

      When moving to a faster tempo, he can gradually reduce the sonority as well, until he achieves the needed light pp and a smooth, ‘gliding’ legato without gaps, stops or awkward accents. In the end, the left hand should sound like a delicate breeze in a sunny morning, or like the delicate waves on a small lake in the middle of the forest – without any tension, without accents and without dramatism.

      A brutal and ‘awkward’ accompaniment could totally ruin this middle section of the Prelude, so the technique I describe above is necessary for achieving the needed ease, fluidity and elasticity!

      Imagine the wideness of the Russian steppe – and imagine that the 16th notes in the left hand represent the long grass which is being caressed by the gentle summer wind. It’s very important to make good use of our imagination when understanding a musical piece – this way it will be much easier to create the needed atmosphere! This is one of the biggest secrets of the Russian piano school – fantasy, imagination, comparisons!

      So the left hand offers us the canvas, the background – and now it’s time to paint something beautiful on it!

      Again, let’s imagine the Russian steppe (which, along with the famous ‘wideness of the Russian soul’ was a constant source of inspiration for Rachmaninoff). Tell your student to imagine that he’s an eagle flying above this land, across its forests and rivers, mountains and valleys, seeing all this beauty as a whole, but at the same time not missing any details!

      This ‘eagle flight’ will be our melody – those amazing octaves and chords in the right hand. The melody tells us the story, paints the view, shows us in wide, colorful brushstrokes all the beauty of the landscape. By the way, this ‘story’ I just invented isn’t the only one you or your student can use. Just feel free to improvise! ;)

      This middle section is a moment of uplifting lyrical beauty in the middle of a dramatic, ‘combat-style’ piece LOL. It’s the magic of Earth, the power of feminine, the creative force of nature. It can also be the memory of a soldier in battle, when he sees his village and his wife in font of his eyes, even if he’s dying on the battlefield. As I said – feel free to improvise – it’s an extremely useful and captivating task!

      By the way, another helpful association is the orchestral one. Imagine that the melody in the right hand is being played by the entire string section of an orchestra – that’s how ‘connected and flowing’ it should sound! (Quick tip: tell your student to listen to Variation No. 18 from Rachmaninoff ‘Variations on a Theme of Paganini‘ – especially to the fragment when the strings play the theme! That’s the continuity I’m taking about!).

      Now that we ‘identified’ the needed atmosphere, let’s get to technical details and learn how to bring these images to life by using the possibilities of the piano.

      First your student has to understand the construction of the phrases. In fact, all this middle section is one big phrase that is formed from smaller phrases. The bigger phrase has a ‘curve’ structure with two culminations – the first one in bar 6 (counting from the beginning of the middle section), the second one in bar 13.

      These culminations are like two ‘attempts’ of reaching a mountain top, or two consecutive waves reaching the shoreline: the first one is more modest, smaller – it’s the first step. The second one is more powerful, brighter – it’s the second and final step – it’s when you step on the top of the mountain and see the entire breathtaking landscape below you!

      This middle section has to have a ‘wave’ pattern – it means that all crescensdos and diminuenos are gradual, without sharp edges or brutal accents.

      Now he should be able to identify the smaller ‘waves’ inside the big ones. Tell him to sing the melody. He’ll notice that he should take a breath in the beginning of bar 3 – that’s when the first little phrase ends and the second begins. Bars 3 and 4 form the second phrase and so on (in fact, I think I could write an entire book on these two pages of amazing music, analyzing each phrase and all its details, so I’ll try to be more concise LOL).

      Now I’ll simply say that these smaller phrases are like consecutive waves as well – each one goes a little farther, being a little stronger than the previous one – until they reach the first culmination. Then they fade on a so-called ‘silent culmination’ (beginning of bar 7), and then they gather strength again for reaching the second culmination.

      Now the technical part:

      In the Russian piano school, we have a special technique called ‘intoning on the piano’. You can read more about it in my report “A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing”. In the end, our goal is to create an ample, flowing phrase out of this middle section – that’s why my report on phrasing can be really useful here (so you can tell your student to take a look at it ;)).

      So, the biggest challenge: creating a good legato, a flowing melodic line out of chords! This is when the intoning technique comes to our rescue. In my report, I describe how we can use the flexibility of our wrist for anticipating the movement of the melody. It’s basically the same technique I just described for the left hand, BUT for the right hand we should use the entire weight of our relaxed arm behind each note (chord), for making it sound deep, vibrant and expressive.

      Since it’s difficult to describe this technique in simple words, without showing how to do it (I’ll begin recording videos as soon as I launch the forum!), I’ll make a list of the most important elements:

      1. The piano is a ‘percussion’ instrument. However, for playing this fragment we have to create the illusion that the piano can actually SING. Our purpose is to achieve a vocal-like cantability – and this is another reason for singing this melody before playing it – this way understanding our expressive goal.

      2. Just as I explain in my report, a quality sound is the foundation of a convincing phrase. A quality sound is created on the piano by gradually pressing the key instead of hitting it. So, when playing the chords and octaves in the right hand, your student has to make sure that he ‘dives’ with his arm into each one – and he’s not simply hitting the keys. The ‘diving’ effect is achieved by imagining that you’re pressing an elastic surface (for example a pillow). St the same time, you have to make sure that the force coming from the relaxed weight of the arms is softened by the flexible wrist, which goes a little down and then up on each chord. At first, in a slow tempo, these wrist movements can be a little exaggerated. However, in the needed tempo they should be kept to a minimum – because too much ‘vertical movement’ could interrupt the needed ‘horizontal flow’ which I’ll describe below.

      3. One more important thing: notice that Rachmaninoff marks most chords with a horizontal line – a tenuto mark. This means that each chord (even the unmarked ones!) should be played by using a technique which we call ‘all the notes down’ LOL. It’s a literal translation from Russian and it means playing each chord in a ‘downward’ movement and keeping the chord pressed for as long as possible (tenuto, ‘held down’), avoiding sudden upward movements! In other words, you have to press the chords into the keyboard as if applying some sort of ‘elastic stamp’ on each one.

      4. After playing a chord or octave, instead of raising your hand vertically, you have to transfer it horizontally to the next chord! At the same time, the wrist should anticipate this movement, guiding the fingers to their next ‘location’. Moreover, the wrist should go to the needed location even BEFORE letting go of the previous chord. Here is what basically happens: your fingers are still playing the second chord from the middle section (for example), while the wrist is already moving towards the third one! The same technique should be used for all transfers – and this way the gaps between chords will be reduced to a tiny minimum (which is the end will be ‘covered’ by the sustain pedal ;)).

      5. This way, your arm is GLIDING from one chord to another in a smooth, horizontal movement. Mastering this technique is not easy, of course. It takes lots of practice until these movements become natural and comfortable – but it’s worth every little second of practice!

      This way, even if a real legato is not possible in our case, we’ll create a very convincing illusion of legato and continuity – including a visual illusion!!!

      6. When practicing, your student has to make sure that his arms and wrists are totally relaxed. Relaxation should always come first, even if initially it might seem that it’s easier to ‘control’ a certain technique with tensed arms. It’s an illusion! So – relaxation and flexibility – even if at first it will mean hitting some wrong notes or feeling less ‘in control’ than we would like.

      7. When playing a certain note or chord, make sure that the arm weight is concentrated on the upper note – and keep the 5th finger almost vertical, which will amplify its power. The upper note is the brightest one from a chord – and it has to be played deeper than the rest. This little trick makes the melody even more expressive and luminous, bringing it out and separating it from the accompaniment.

      8. And last but not least: even if Rachmaninoff indicates an overall pp at the beginning of the middle section – it means that the left hand should be played pp, while the melody – mp. This difference of dynamic gradations should be kept throughout the entire section: the right hand should always be at least 2 gradations LOUDER than the left hand!

      9. Almost forgot about the middle voice! Those notes between phrases (for example, at the end of bar 2) should be played expressively as well, in a deep cello timbre – being a more ‘masculine’ response to the phrases in the upper voice.

      10. You can tell your student that the intoning technique which I describe above is easier to master in playing a simple, one-voice melody. With chords, it becomes more complicated (because there’s no actual legato, only the illusion) – but not impossible!

      Unfortunately, now I don’t have enough free time for making videos because I’m working on the upcoming Piano Coaching Program. As soon as it will be launched, I’ll make many tutorials on all the techniques which I describe above – because they are essential for achieving a true piano expressiveness!

      Good luck and enjoy teaching this amazing piece! ;)
      Ilinca

  23. Wendy Huang says:

    Hello, just a technique related question here

    when i do slow practice i hold my knuckle high and make sure i hit fast and leave the key fast. and i think my arm and shoulder is relaxed. I sit high. I starting having part of back of my hands swollen. and my palm is swollen, too. from a pianist prospective, what do you think goes wrong.
    ps. I am a piano performance student second year college.

    Thank you!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Wendy!

      Welcome to PianoCareer.com! ;)

      First of all, you have to check if your problem is not caused by a medical condition. So I recommend seeing a doctor and making sure that you’re not suffering from arthritis or other related issue. It’s very unusual to get swollen hands because of piano playing – especially if you practice correctly and you keep your arms and wrists relaxed.

      Now let’s analyze your problem from a piano perspective and see what might go wrong:

      Pain and discomfort often appear as a result of tension and incorrect, irregular practice. Even if you think that your playing is relaxed, you probably could improve your posture and work some more on playing from the entire weight of your arms, at the same time keeping your wrists as relaxed as possible.

      You also said that you keep your knuckles high. If this means that you keep your hand rounded and your knuckles are forming a dome – then it’s great! Otherwise, if your hand position is tensed and uncomfortable, you might need to change it.

      You can take a look at these pictures from my reply to Helen where I show and compare several correct and incorrect hand positions.

      Also, ‘hitting’ and leaving a key fast is not always the best solution! As I often explain in my tutorials, for creating a beautiful, relaxed sound we need to press the keys gradually, not to hit them in a hammer-like manner! So I assume that you could also improve your key attack, making it more flexible, ergonomic and natural (and not simply fast, as you describe it). Also, be aware that the speed of pressing a key will inevitably affect the volume, character and color of the sound. So if you want to make a loud accent, you could definitely ‘hit a key fast’. In other cases, this type of key attack is totally inappropriate – especially if you want to create a soft, deep piano or a flowing legato. You can watch my tutorial The Secrets of a Correct Piano Key Attack and see exactly what I mean :).

      You mentioned that you’re sitting high. How high exactly? As I explain in my video tutorial The 5 Basic Elements of a Correct Piano Posture, we have to adjust the height of the piano bench by making sure that our elbows are on the same level with the keys (or slightly higher). If the elbows are below the key level or much higher than the keyboard – then your posture can cause tension and discomfort, which could degenerate into hand injuries.

      You can also read my article How to Deal with Piano Practice Related Hand Injuries and Muscle Pain? where I explain in detail the main causes of hand injuries, also describing the most effective solutions for preventing and treating them.

      No matter how unbelievable it may sound – stress and a negative attitude could also result in physical tension and hand injuries. So make sure that you’re always practicing in a calm, mindful state, with a positive attitude and with enthusiasm – this way you will seriously reduce your chances of getting piano-related hand injuries!

      By analyzing all the aspects I just mentioned you’ll be able to determine which is the exact cause of your problem (again, in case it is NOT caused by a medical condition).

      Good luck in your practice! Keep us posted on your progress – I hope you’ll feel much better soon! ;)
      Ilinca

      P.S. On 15th of February I will launch a Piano Coaching Program that will include a unique Online Community Forum. There you’ll be able to ask as many piano questions as you like – also sharing your video recordings so I could give you better practice advice! In your case, seeing how you play could immediately tell me if your hand injury is caused by piano practice or not!

  24. Pauline says:

    Hi Ilinca

    I’ve just been introduced to the technique of playing quietly with the right hand and loudly with the left and vice versa. HELP! It’s harder than I thought! It’s like I want to separate the two halves of my brain to focus in the middle. I’m ambidextrous, but I don’t know if that would make a difference, or not.

    Will I eventually be able to do it? Any advice, tips, or anything would be much appreciated, please. Grateful thanks.

    Desperate!

    Pauline

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Pauline!

      What a good question! As a matter of fact, showing in detail how to master this technique has a high priority on my ‘video to-do list’. Can’t wait to record new videos – I’ll begin ‘designing’ and recording them after the launch of the Piano Community! :)

      In the meanwhile, I’ll try to answer your question as best as I can with written words:

      YES, you will definitely be able to do it and learn how to create different sound intensities simultaneously! And when I say ‘simultaneously’, I mean not only playing loudly with the right hand and quietly with the left (or vice-versa). In time, you’ll also learn how to create two separate dynamic gradations in the same hand – which is extremely important for playing polyphonic pieces that have 3 or 4 voices.

      But let’s take it one step at a time! ;)

      The basic technique of doing this is not complicated – but (as you probably guessed) mastering it requires practice :).

      No matter what piece you play, as long as both hands are involved, it’s always necessary to play one hand louder than the other! Yes, even if we talk about tiny pieces for absolute beginners. Why? Because usually – especially in easy pieces – we have the melody (or the theme) in one hand and the accompaniment in the other. The theme is our main ‘character’ – and it has to sound deeper and more expressive than the accompaniment, which simply offers us a harmonic background that supports the melody and offers it ‘some company’ LOL.

      However, we should never underestimate the importance of the accompaniment. Yes, it should be played much softer than the melody – but it offers us that stable foundation on which we can build our entire musical ‘building’. It’s impossible to build a solid and beautiful house without a stable foundation!

      When learning a piece, first you have to identify the melody (or the more important voice). In some pieces, the melody is always in the right hand. In others, the melody is in the left hand. However, often the melody can ‘migrate’ from one hand into the other, and you have to have a clear picture of the layout of the piece.

      When I was a student, my teacher used to mark in my score the beginning and the end of each melodic phrase – so it will be easier for me to bring out the melody (no matter in which hand it was ‘presented’).

      When you practice, you can first learn the hand that plays the accompaniment. Make sure it feels comfortable and the sound is soft – but at the same time there should be no ‘mute’ notes (which happens when you press a key superficially, without reaching its ‘bottom’) . For ensuring a quality soft sound, you have to keep your arm (no matter if we talk about the RH or the LH) extremely relaxed, BUT you should NOT channel its entire weight into the keyboard. Practice the ‘accompaniment’ hand until you feel that all the movements are comfortable and your mind and arm muscles have memorized all the necessary sensations.

      Then, play separately the hand which plays the theme/melody. Here, the situation changes: you will need to keep your arm relaxed as well, but you should feel how its entire weight ‘flows’ into the fingertips and into the keyboard. In other words, the entire heavy arm should have a single support point: the finger which presses the key! You have to transfer all the weight of your arm from one finger into the other in a flowing, relaxed manner.

      By the way, for this technique I like to use the ‘kneading cat’ comparison. Have you ever seen how a cat kneads? Moreover, have you ever felt how a cat kneads on your knees? Have you noticed how soft and relaxed her paws are – and at the same time how much power she puts into each movement? Also, have you felt how the cat presses the surface (or your knee LOL) gradually, as if diving into something flexible?

      On the piano, we should do the same thing! We should press the key gradually (as if it’s some kind of elastic surface) , by using the relaxed weight of our arm – and not simply HIT it only with our fingers. This way, we’ll be able to play the melody really expressively and we’ll avoid a brutal loud sound which is totally inappropriate for playing themes with a lyrical, singing character.

      In the Russian piano school, we call this technique ‘making the piano SING’ :)

      You should also not forget to keep your wrist flexible and use it as a ‘navigator’ which anticipates the next ‘turn’ of the melody. For example, if you play C and the next note of the melody is a higher F, it means that after pressing C, you have to move your wrist slightly in the direction of F, and only then press the note. This technique (which is called ‘intoning on the piano‘ – more details on the forum!!!) allows us to create an unbelievably flowing, smooth legato – as if we play on the violin, not on the piano! It ‘softens’ the transition between notes and the resulting sound is continual, deep and expressive.

      Some piano teachers also call this technique ‘the walking arm‘. When we walk, we transfer the entire weight of our body from one leg to the other. When playing piano, we have to transfer the weight of the entire arm from one finger into the other!

      One more thing: don’t forget about finger ‘articulation’! It means lifting each finger after pressing a note for at least 1 cm from the keys – this way ensuring the each note is ‘pronounced’ clearly and the melodic line is not ‘blurry’!

      Now let’s summarize: you learned how to play softly the accompaniment and how to play the melody expressively, deeply, by using the entire weight of your arm.

      Now it’s time to combine these two sensations!

      Select a fragment (4 0r 8 bars, depending on the structure of the melody) and start practicing them slowly, both hands together. Try to remember the sensations you had during the ‘hands separately’ practice. Channel the entire weight coming from your back only into the arm playing the melody – and keep the other arm relaxed but not ‘diving’ so much unto the keys. In other words, the ‘melody’ hand should press the keys with more intensity, by using the ‘kneading cat’ effect, while the other hand plays with a good articulation, but with less weight and less ‘pressing’.

      Practice this little fragment until it becomes at least a little bit comfortable. Then move to the next fragment.

      The next day you’ll probably feel that everything is ‘raw’ again – but this is perfectly normal. Repeat the entire procedure and let it ‘sink in’ for one more day. After several days of such gradual, relaxed practice, you’ll begin noticing amazing results! In time, you’ll be able to do it without even thinking of ‘how exactly you’re doing it’. It’s like walking – when you walk, do you think ‘now I move the right leg, and now I transfer the weight of my body into the left leg’? LOL. No, you simply walk, and with experience you’ll simply ‘play’ – thinking only about the character of the music and the images and atmosphere you have to create.

      You have to understand that this technique is also a matter of coordination (mental and physical) – and coordination can be improved with repeated mindful correct practice. It’s just like you said – we have to learn how to make the two halves of our brain perform different tasks in perfect agreement! LOL

      I hope this helps! Take it only one tiny step at a time – and remember that progress is inevitable! ;)
      Ilinca

  25. Iris says:

    Hi Ms Vartic I want to thank you so much for the opportunity, I’ve watched your videos they are really helpful I’m really glad that I found your website on the net!!! Good luck

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Iris!

      Welcome and thank you for pre-registering on PianoCareerAcademy.com! ;)

      After the launch I’ll begin making new videos – inspired from the questions you will post on the forum!

      Talk to you soon,
      Ilinca

  26. Iris says:

    Hi Ilinca it’s me again!
    I’ve been working on Beethoven’s 17th sonata (The Tempest 3rd mvt) and I’m really struglling with pedals espacially in section from bar 46 to bar 90(sorry I couldn’t copy the score) Can you please help me ! thank’s a lot.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Iris!

      The answer to your question is coming soon (hopefully tomorrow!). ;)

      I’m preparing the launch now – and I’m a little ‘behind’ with the questions posted here LOL. So tomorrow I’ll take a ‘dive’ into the fragment you mentioned and tell you the best pedaling! :)

      Talk soon,
      Ilinca

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Iris!

      I just went to the piano and played through the 1st half of the 3rd movement from Beethoven’s ‘Tempest‘ Sonata. Here is the pedaling that I would use (explanations below):

      pedaling for bars 46-90 from Beethoven Sonata op. 31 no. 2 Tempest, 3rd movement

      If you can’t see all the details, click on the image to enlarge it!

      As I said, this is the pedaling I would use. There are other versions as well, but more about this a little later.

      As you know, the mark P (or Ped) indicates the moment when we should engage the pedal, while * indicates the release of the pedal. Of course, now we’re talking only about the sustain pedal. I don’t think that the character of this music requires the use of the soft pedal – it’s perfectly possible to make all the needed contrasts without the help of the una corda pedal :).

      The mark *P is used for the delayed pedaling technique – when we change the pedal on the indicated note (chord).

      The mark P* is used for the simultaneous pedaling technique – when we press the pedal simultanesouly with the indicated note and release it immediately after (when releasing the note).

      The bars without any red pedal markings should be played without pedal. In the bars marked only with Ped you have to press the pedal in the beginning of the bar and release it on the first note of the following bar (as indicated). In the bar where I indicated (Ped.*) the use of the pedal is optional – I would use it, but it’s up to you.

      I explain everything about the delayed and the simultaneous pedaling techniques in my article+video Using the Piano Pedals – The Art Behind the Mechanism (but I assume that you read it already :)).

      As I already said, this fragment can be pedaled in several different ways. Some pianists prefer a rich pedaling (for example Emil Gilels), while others (for example Yuliya Gorenman) use a severe, slightly ‘dry’, economical pedal. What I recommended above is actually a ‘golden middle’ between these 2 tendencies ;).

      As I explain in my tutorials, the use of the pedal depends on several factors, including the character of the music and the style of the composer, BUT also on the way you treat and understand this music. Some pianists like to play Beethoven with a tendency towards romanticism (and they use more pedal), while others prefer a more strict classical approach (where the pedal is used only for emphasizing certain effects). Both groups are right, because Beethoven was the composer that made the transition between classicism and romanticism and we can only guess how he played his works himself :).

      The Tempest Sonata can be in fact situated somewhere in the middle between Beethoven’s early works (which have a classical character and language) and his amazing late works (which open the doors for the upcoming romanticism).

      That’s why in my pedaling recommendations I combined some romantic pedaling techniques (the delayed pedal on entire bars) with classical techniques (pressing the pedal only for emphasizing certain notes and enriching the timbre of the instrument).

      One more thing: when you use the pedal, it should not create an accent in the musical flow and it should NOT interrupt the phrase (as I’ve seen in many beginners’ recording on YouTube – it’s like they play only one bar at a time without connecting them in bigger phrases)! Press and release the pedal flowingly, naturally, with smooth movements.

      Also, try not to press the pedal all the way down – use the half pedaling technique as much as possible – this way those bars on delayed pedal will maintain a clear sonority! The pedaling itself should not be heard – it has to ‘support’ the music, not ‘create obstacles’! LOL

      I hope this helps! ;) If you have questions about my pedal markings, please ask!
      Ilinca

  27. Iris says:

    Hi Ilinca!
    I was very glad when I found your answer for my question, I know how busy you are preparing the launch.
    I can’t thank you enough for your help, you’re really saving me!
    I read the explanation you wrote it seems very convincing, I will work hard to improve my playing using your advices!
    Thank you again, I can’t wait to join your coaching program!
    Iris

  28. Ilinca says:

    Hi everyone!

    There are less than 3 days left until the launch of PianoCareerAcademy.com – my new Holistic Piano Community & Coaching Program!

    Don’t forget that you can still pre-register and receive a lifetime 50% discount coupon code – there are only a few spots left ;).

    So as much as I would LOVE to continue to answer all the questions you post here – I will simply have no time because I need to get everything ready for the launch!

    ‘Ask Me a Piano Question’ will be transferred to the new forum, which has a well-structured format, specific categories (that cover all the major aspects of piano playing) and many other enjoyable features! ;) This will allow me to give you detailed, personalized answers, post video answers to your questions, record detailed video tutorials and much more!

    So I’m closing the comments on this page – and I also want to thank you for an amazing year of extremely interesting questions and captivating piano conversations!!!

    However, you’ll still be able to post comments and ask questions under all the other articles on PianoCareer.com – in fact, I will greatly appreciate your feedback each time I will publish a new tutorial (I will keep posting new articles and videos after the launch of the forum).

    Have a wonderful Sunday and see you on 15th of February on PianoCareerAcademy.com!

    Talk really soon,
    Ilinca