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!


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

If you enjoyed this piano tutorial, here are some other piano learning and practice tutorials you’ll like:

The Power of Perseverance in Learning to Play Piano: Why Musical Progress is Not Linear

350 Responses to “Ask Me a Piano Question!”

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  1. Rodney James says:

    Hi Ms Vartic!
    This question has to do with rapid scales. Examples would be the final run in the winter wind etude, or the runs in the Brahms b minor Rhapsody or even the concluding scales of the Chopin g minor Ballade.
    When I play those passages they seem choppy. Even when played rapidly it is still choppy. I can’t get that sweeping sound. I’m trying to get one smooth sweep from the first note to the ends of the run. My directional line is always broken up. How can I effectively practice these passages to get that sweeping sound?

  2. Ilinca says:

    Hi Rodney!

    Thank you for your question! The art of playing rapid scales and scale-like passages is definitely a good subject for a future article or video tutorial.

    In the meantime, even if it’s very difficult to explain shortly (especially with written words) how to achieve a flowing sound when playing scales, I’ll still give you a few tips:

    In the Russian piano school, we focus on developing simultaneously a quality sound and a good technique. For achieving a deep, smooth and expressive sound while playing difficult passages (including rapid scales), there are several important things to keep in mind:

    1. Correct posture (you can also read my article The Piano Posture and the Energy of the Sound – it touches some aspects of your question).

    2. Playing with relaxed, flexible arms and wrists.

    3. ‘Diving’ into the keyboard with the full weight of your entire arm when pressing a key, not ‘hitting’ it only from your fingers or wrist.

    4. Correct phrasing (it means hearing in your mind the entire phrase or scale before actually playing it, and then playing it in one mental breath, as a continual line).

    If you keep these principles in mind, tension is avoided and your dexterity can develop at the same time with your capacity of controlling the color of the sound and the flowing of the phrase (scale).

    When your arms are relaxed, there are no limits to the levels of velocity and ‘smoothness’ you can reach!

    Tension is the main factor which literally kills the ‘sweeping line’ you’re trying to achieve. When your wrist is tensed, your dexterity is affected, not to mention the fact that your sound will be ‘tensed’ as well (and your arms will get tired very fast, creating the risk of hand injuries). As a result – your scales will sound ‘chopped up’, as you say.

    When playing scale-like passages, begin practicing them slowly and make sure that you feel comfortable – there should be no tension in your shoulders, elbows and wrists. Your wrist should be really flexible, naturally ‘turning’ each time your hand changes position. You have to feel how the relaxed weight of your entire arm has only one support point: the fingertips. The weight of the arm should be smoothly transferred from one fingertip to another – this transfer, with a totally relaxed wrist, is the secret to the ‘sweeping line’ you want to reach.

    When practicing slowly, make sure that each finger is well ‘grounded’ in the key it has to press, at the same time keeping your arms and wrists as relaxed and flexible as possible. ‘Anticipate’ the movement of the fingers with your wrist and arms, ‘guide’ them by moving your arms slightly in the direction of the passage, and don’t forget to control the quality of the sound – it should be deep and powerful, but not brutal! You have to hear how each note smoothly passes into the next one – creating an uninterrupted line.

    Gradually, you can increase the speed, making sure that you’re keeping your wrists and arms relaxed and flexible! You touche should be deep and ‘gradual’ – like diving into a gel, not rigid and tensed. A superficial key attack (when the weight of the arm goes to the elbow or the wrist instead of the fingertips) is detrimental as well, stopping you from achieving a quality, smooth scale.

    If you practiced correctly in a slow tempo (maybe with a little exaggerated depth), when you accelerate the tempo your fingers will ‘remember’ their position on the keys – and at the same time your flexible arms and wrists will allow you to create a flowing phrase!

    More on this subject in my future posts!

    Good luck!

  3. Rodney James says:

    One more quickly question. Are you familiar with Alexander Peskanov’s technique series called “The Russian Technical Regimen for Piano”? It is a series of 5 volumes of exercises which he says encompasses the technical requirements which have been in used in Russian and Soviet schools for over 100 years. I would love your opinion on the set. I have used it on an off for a while. I seriously want to get back into and conquer these exercises. I known I shouldn’t separate technique from the musical, but I feel as if I have so much catching up to do! I started rather late! If you are familiar with it your thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks a million, Rodney

  4. laura says:

    I need some help with Fugue technique. I am working on Bach’s Fugue 21, BWV 865. What kind of finger technique should I be using for the theme? Should it be different for the eighths and the sixteenths? Should I be using a kind of ‘edgy’ legato for the bars where the theme is not heard or some other type of technique? Thank you very much and your site is wonderful.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Laura!

      I know it’s been a long time since you asked me this question! I was traveling at the time, and then I got caught up with concerts, students and the launch of my report. I began to answer new questions, but I never found the time to go back to the older ones – like your question about Fugue technique. Sorry about that! 🙂

      Now I finally have the possibility to reply not only with written text, but also with videos! I’m thinking about recording a small video tutorial about the finger technique in the Fugue you’re practicing. However, I’m not sure what Fugue you mentioned: the Fugue BWV 865 is actually No. 20, not 21! Could you please tell me what Fugue exactly do we need to analyze?

      Have a great day!

  5. Ilinca says:

    Hi Rodney!

    Yes, I’ve heard about Peskanov’s technique series (mostly from American pianists), but I’m not familiar with these exercises because we don’t use them in my country. I’ll try to find at least 1 volume from this series and then I’ll gladly try these exercises and tell you my opinion.

    However, we use a very sophisticated scales system here in Moldova (it is a fundamental technical system used in the Russian piano school) – we play 24 scales in about 30 or 40 variations each. It is very complex and it’s extremely useful for developing a brilliant technique.

    Actually, this is a very good question and I already included it in my video plan for the next months: showing you what types of scales we play for developing our technique harmoniously.

    Our scales system (which has been used in the Russian piano school for generations) is much older than Peskanov’s books. For this reason, I’m sure that his series are based on the same system.

    At the same time, it is not a good idea to focus only on technique, forgetting about the quality of the sound (even if you have some ‘catching up’ to do). When you play scales or technical exercises, make sure that your posture is correct, your sound is deep and expressive and your arms are relaxed. Otherwise, you’re simply losing time and effort, because it’s impossible to have a brilliant technique by doing unilateral exercises. Everything should be balanced in order to have good results!

    A holistic approach is always more energy-efficient, productive, fulfilling and enjoyable!

    Best wishes,

  6. Ilinca says:

    Hi Laura!

    I’ve noted your question! 🙂

    Now I’m traveling and I don’t have my WTC with me :). I’ll answer your question as soon as I get home – Bach’s works are definitely a fascinating endless subject!

    Enjoy your practice!

  7. Winston says:

    Hi Ms Vartic!
    Your advice helps a lot. Thank you so much! however, there are some technical difficulties that I can’t conquer no matter by practice, relaxation, hand posture, thinking,etc..for example, fast 4-5 trills while playing an octave (3rd mvt of moonlight sonata beethoven)It’s frustrating! I wish there is an easy approach?Though thus far,”no shortcut” seems to be true. Please and Thank you!


  8. Ilinca says:

    Hi Winston!

    Thank you for your question – I noted it! As I told Laura (in the previous comment), now I’m traveling and I don’t have access to my scores and my piano. I cannot give you an advice without trying to play the fragment myself first – only this way I can be sure that it is truly effective :).

    I’ll be home in about one week and I’ll give you a more detailed answer. In the meantime, I will tell you that there are no ‘shortcuts’ in learning a difficult piano piece. There are simply two main ways of practicing: the incorrect way (when you lack proper information about HOW you should practice in order to a achieve a certain result and you do everything chaotically, without understanding the basic ‘laws’ and principles of piano playing) and the correct way (when you DO work hard, but you practice correctly, mindfully, wisely combining all the needed elements).

    When learning a piece incorrectly, without awareness, in a state of mental and physical tension (or without knowing HOW exactly to overcome a certain barrier), you lose lots of time and effort in the process, not to mention the fact that you can also deform your spine and affect your health.

    When you practice correctly, you reach your maximum productivity level – and all your work and dedication have wonderful results – which is a really empowering feeling! That’s why when you practice correctly, in a state of relaxed concentration, armed with proper knowledge, it seems that you’re taking a ‘shortcut’ :). Yes, this road is the shortest one (and definitely the most enjoyable one!).

    Have a good practice and we’ll talk some more about Beethoven’s Sonata in the near future!


  9. Berne says:

    Hello Ilinca, Thanks for having a website like this, I accidently stumble across it searching for better posture help. It take some level of dedication to offer advice and share your knowledge.

    My question is this.

    How do I start practicing again, playing piano again after being away from it for 20 years?

    The obvious answer is to just do it, right? Take a class or fine a teacher?

    Not easier said than done in my case. I believe I developed a psychological and emotion block. A problem that I think I had when I was playing, but now it’s worst 20 years later. Talk about insecurity. I find myself not wanting to rekindle the effort it takes to just actually play or love the process. The process seems so painful and frustrating that it defeats me before I even start practicing. I either have a fear of failing or succeeding it seems. I also recall having terrible recall or memory and concentration. (still a problem) My patience & posture is equally terrible so sitting for a long period of time is difficult. I know. As I’m writing it seems… why even bother trying-sound like such a problem. I’m not sure I even remember loving playing the piano. I just know that it bothers me not playing it, (even after 20 years) and, that it was first things I learned doing without effort when I was a kid. Admittedly so, I was mostly self taught and never receive formal training. I think not having a mentor of sorts would have helped.

    So do I sound screwed about this?

    What do you think?

  10. Ilinca says:

    Hi Berne!

    Thank you for your question!

    Actually, it seems that you read my mind or I read yours – yesterday I began to work on a new article about overcoming the fear of failures (and all related negative emotions). Since I’m traveling now, I don’t know when I’ll post the new article (maybe next week), but I’ll surely try to give you a short answer now :).

    You said that you enjoyed learning to play piano as a kid, but then things had changed and the whole process became too painful and frustrating to you. Generally, children do things correctly. They do only what they like, they are always present in the moment and they don’t care abut failing or succeeding – they just enjoy the process. This simple approach (being also the essence of Zen Buddhism) is extremely wise, keeping us ‘in tune’ with the laws of our universe.

    Unfortunately, as we grow older, our ‘rational’ mind starts to take over. We begin to over-analyze our activities, we lose time worrying about the future or regretting the past, we give too much importance to everything (especially to our studying achievements, thinking that our future and our financial success depend on them) and therefore we develop a paralyzing fear of failure.

    The good news is that you’re definitely NOT screwed up about this! You simply lack correct information and proper training.

    Even if I never took a piano break longer than one month, I had such moments of confusion, fear and insecurity as well. Sometimes it was so difficult that I was seriously considering giving up piano playing. The truth is – all professional pianists pass through such painful moments, but THEY CAN BE AVOIDED! This is one of the reasons why I created this website – because things can be different and more pleasant, because our teachers generally forget to explain that a correct, relaxed attitude is much more important than our technical piano skills, and because proper information can help pianists avoid lots of unnecessary suffering!

    Returning to your problem: I think that there are two main causes of your present state of mind:

    1. You never had a professional teacher who could’ve helped you pass successfully through all the challenges that inevitably arise during the learning process. Also, nobody explained to you that failing (making mistakes, feeling tired, having memory problems from time to time) is NORMAL – failures are simply stepping stones towards success and they have to be regarded with calm and even with sense of humor.

    2. Even if you truly love piano music (I’m sure you do!!!), you got discouraged by the difficulties you encountered in your journey and you didn’t possess the necessary knowledge that could help you overcome them – therefore the frustration and the confused feelings towards piano playing.

    This is what I learned during 20 extremely difficult and (often) frustrating years of studying piano: Piano music is fantastically beautiful, enriching and liberating. The art of playing piano, however, is not easy to master. BUT – and here is the most important thing – it is much easier than we think! The secret lies in our positive, relaxed attitude and our holistic approach on what we do! No matter how paradoxical it may sound – it’s usually harder to overcome emotional barriers than technical difficulties!

    For overcoming your psychological block, you have to ask yourself a few questions. However, before meditating on the things I will write below, you have to take a deep breath, relax your mind and your body, sit (or lie down) in a very comfortable position and make sure that no other thoughts, fears or worries are bothering you. Such a relaxation helps us get in touch with our inner wisdom (or our intuition) – I could recommend you a few books on this subject, if you’re interested.

    So, this is what you have to decide:

    1. Do you TRULY want to play piano again? Be honest with yourself – which are your reasons?

    2. Is it because you love piano music? In this case, maybe you should simply listen to recordings of great pianists and enjoy the music this way?

    3. Is it because you think that you SHOULD continue your piano practice (simply because your long break had left you with a feeling of an ‘unaccomplished goal or ambition’)? In this case, remember that there are no SHOULDS in life: it’s either you LOVE doing something (and you do it), either you DON’T love it (and you find some other thing to do). At the same time, don’t forget that unpleasant experiences can easily kill our passion for a certain activity – in such circumstances, we should learn how to let go of our ‘traumas’ and look at the activity (piano playing in our case) without the negative projections of our past pains and frustrations.

    4. Is it because you love the PROCESS of playing, because it allows you to express yourself, to be creative, to feel more alive? Only in this case you have to continue playing! If you do, there are a few other things you have to understand:

    a) Start small. I’m sure you remember how to play a few notes on the piano. Don’t decide about finding a teacher yet. Give yourself time and don’t force anything. Just seat at the piano for 5-10 minutes and play something very easy. Don’t think about anything while playing – just play and be in the moment. How did it feel?

    b) After about one week of such short experiments, you can decide if you want to continue or not. If you do, it’s great! If you don’t – it’s still great!

    c) In case you decide to take a piano class and you start working with a teacher (working with a GOOD teacher is MUCH BETTER than studying by yourself), be calm and relaxed: So what if you fail in something? So what if you make some mistake? So what if you succeed? Who cares? It’s all about the process, not the results! After all, you don’t have the purpose of becoming a concert pianist! Even if you had such a purpose, you would still need the same relaxed, simple approach.

    d) When practicing, lower the importance of what you do: the more important something seems, the more we worry about it (you can read more about this aspect in my article How to Cope with Exams).

    Think less, do more! Worry less, enjoy more!

    Forget about the past, ignore the future! Be in the present moment and you’ll notice that a miracle starts happening: when we stop obsessing about the future, when we stop caring about failures, when we are relaxed and confident, when we don’t care about ‘what others will say’, when we do something because we love it and we invest stress-free dedication and relaxed concentration into the process – then we start having amazing results and our productivity skyrockets!

    Yes, I almost forgot: It’s never too late to start (or resume) something. There are no limits to what we can achieve! Our only limits are in our mind – let go of limiting beliefs and embrace true freedom! 😉

    I hope that my answer was helpful. I will write more on this subject in my future articles! In the meantime, feel free to continue this conversation if you have more questions – I will answer as soon as I find an internet connection, and next week I’ll already be home :).

    Good luck!

    P.S. Regarding your posture – you can read this article (The Piano Posture and the Energy of the Sound). Also, I’ll make several video recordings about the correct piano posture in the near future.

    • Jen says:

      Hi Ms Illinca,

      I have a similar problem. I have also started playing the piano after a gap of 10 years.

      What seemed very easy as a child seems a little overwhelming. To be specific I lack confidence now. However much I practice (I practice 3 hrs daily without fail) at evey lesson time I play meekly and in a very tensed position -and mistakes appear. I get a loadful from the teacher (I have been woth her for 2 years) and that makes me very nervous once more. Although I know very well that such negative emotions are very harmful, I cannot overcome this. As such I don’t seem to progress at all. I am very confused , pls advice.

      • Ilinca says:

        Hi Jen!

        Thank you for your question! 🙂

        As I told Berne in my answer above, children find things easy because they enjoy them, because they live in the moment without worrying about the future or regretting the past. Adults are so nervous because our rational mind makes negative projections, fears the unknown, makes things more difficult than they are and takes them too seriously. Being forced to do something we don’t like is also slowing down our progress, thus destroying our self-confidence. Before reading the rest of my answer, ask yourself the same questions I asked Berne (about your motivation and how much you enjoy playing piano).

        Overcoming lack of confidence is a step-by-step process. I believe that only a holistic approach can help us not only play better, but also become stronger, more positive and more confident.

        Having a holistic approach means being aware that everything is connected in life and that happiness and success are a result of a harmonious, balanced lifestyle. I describe the basics of my holistic approach in the article Reaching Harmony: The Power of a Holistic Approach in Piano Playing.

        So, it’s all connected: you lack confidence because you get criticized by your teacher in class. You get criticized (I assume) because you make many mistakes. You make many mistakes because you’re nervous and afraid – tension inevitably affects your productivity. As a result, it’s difficult to have a positive attitude. Without a positive attitude, how can we be productive? Without productivity, it’s hard to be confident! And the list can go on…

        However, you should start small:

        1. First of all, relax. Take a deep breath. Still your mind and empty it of all worries. Don’t think about ‘what your teacher will say’. You don’t practice piano for your teacher – you do it for yourself! The teacher is there to help you – that’s all! When you practice, be calm and positive and enjoy every moment! A relaxed mind and a positive attitude are the first steps towards confidence!

        2. Practice correctly! When you practice, make sure you have a correct posture and keep your arms (consisting of your shoulders, elbows, forearms, wrists and hands) as relaxed and flexible as possible. All the weight of your relaxed arms should be channeled freely into the tip of your fingers! An incorrect, tensed piano posture can gravely affect our productivity. No matter how many hours per day we practice, it’s impossible to progress if we play with tensed arms and wrists!

        You can read my article The Piano Posture and The Energy of the Sound. I also plan to record a few videos about the correct piano posture and the correct key attack in the near future – as soon as I find a few free hours! I also write about the correct posture and the need of playing with relaxed, flexible arms in almost all my articles and answers!

        3. Simplify. Do only one thing at a time. Stress is often the result of multitasking, of trying to achieve as many things as possible in a short time. However, the more we hurry, the less productive we are! Sit at the piano, relax and think how enjoyable it is to play a piece that you love (don’t forget that it’s very, VERY difficult to be productive and confident if you do something you don’t enjoy!).

        Warm up (scales, exercises or fragments from a difficult piece) for several minutes (10-20 minutes should be enough). Then practice one piece – slowly first, but paying attention to all the details, keeping your mind and your arms extremely relaxed. You can also read my report “A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing” – there I describe the basics of a correct, relaxed practice.

        If you feel tired after 1 hour of practice, take a break, even if only for 10 minutes. Then resume your practice and move to another piece. Or, if you feel that your mind (and your hands) are too tired, go outside and do something else! Never force yourself if your body tells you to rest! At the same time, learn to distinguish ‘exhaustion’ from ‘laziness’ ;).

        When we simplify, when we do only one thing well and then do another, when we don’t hurry, our productivity increases dramatically and, as a result – we are more confident.

        It’s better to play only for one hour correctly (in a relaxed state, being aware of what you do and having a positive state of mind) instead of practicing for 3 hours and being tensed, playing mechanically and worrying about ‘what your teacher will say’.

        4. Overcome this vicious circle: criticism – low self-confidence – low productivity – even more criticism. You said that you practice a lot every day, but your teacher still criticizes you every time. A vicious circle is formed: the more negative remarks you hear, the less confident you feel. Lack of confidence and a negative attitude lead to physical and mental tension. Tension decreases your productivity. As a result, you’ll get even more criticized next time!

        Well, it’s time to change something! Does your teacher tell you how to practice correctly? There is a big difference between hard, mechanical work and smart, relaxed and mindful work. You can read my article Work Smart! Tips for a Productive and Enjoyable Piano Practice – there I explain the basics of correct, energy-efficient ‘smart work’ in piano playing.

        5. Take it easy! Again, I will repeat that it’s impossible to be confident without being relaxed – mentally and physically. Failures and mistakes are normal and necessary for learning. So what if you make a few mistakes during the lesson? Making mistakes is the only way of learning something new. Read my article How to Handle Failures in Piano Playing? 16 Perspective-Changing Steps – I think it will be very useful for your particular case.

        However, there is a difference between normal mistakes – which are necessary steps in the learning process – and the continual lack of progress which is the result of incorrect, mechanical and tensed practice. Learn to make the difference!

        6. Combine relaxation with awareness and concentration. When we are relaxed, it’s easier to concentrate. Read my article Studying Piano – How to Cope With Exams? 7 Basic Steps, especially the 4th step – “Mastering the relaxed concentration technique“.

        7. Take good care of your health! How can we be confident and productive if (for example) our head hurts, we have muscle pain as a result of incorrect piano practice and (maybe) we’re struggling with some other health problems? Learn to compensate your daily practice with other activities (I describe this subject in my article How to Compensate Your Daily Piano Practice Routine?). Be aware that our health is the result of our lifestyle.

        I hope that my answer was helpful! I know it’s a lot of information to assimilate :), but there is a simple law in life: it’s not possible to change something if you keep doing the same thing! In order to improve the quality of our life, to boost our productivity and our self-confidence, we have to change something first – especially our attitude and our practice habits.

        Have a great day! I’m looking forwards to seeing you again on and hearing about your progress! If you have other questions about your practice, please ask! 😉


        • Jen says:

          Thank you Ms Ilinca. Your advice is really good… I will fragment it and adapt to it.

          With lots of admiration,

  11. Maximo says:

    I’ve noticed that “breathing” is really important when it comes to playing. But my question is, how do I do it? it may sound silly but we tend just to forget about it and then “tension” comes. I might be wrong, but I’ve noticed too that breathing involve two aspects: obviously letting air flow into the body and letting your “hands” breath, and both are important. Any advice in those?

  12. Ilinca says:

    Hi Maximo!

    Wonderful question and definitely a good subject for future articles! 🙂

    Breathing is not only important in piano playing – it is VITAL.

    You’re right – there are several levels of ‘breathing’ in playing piano. I would describe them as follows:

    1. Physical breathing – the deep correct abdominal breathing that has countless benefits: proper oxygenation, constant replenishment of our energy levels, mental alertness and – of course – it gives us the ability to stay relaxed physically and mentally.

    2. Breathing with your arms. A pianist should breathe not only with his hands, but also with his/her arms and shoulders. If our lungs inhale and exhale breathing air, then our arms inhale and exhale energy. First, this energy should be imaginary. With practice, it becomes real and you can literally feel its circulation – a pleasant warm feeling that will protect your hands from cold, keeping them flexible and also maintaining a good blood flow. How can we do it? Simple: relaxation allows the energy to move freely. When you play, keep your shoulders, elbows and wrists as relaxed and flexible as possible – this will allow your hands to breathe.

    When your muscles are tensed, your arms cannot breathe and they are literally ‘suffocating’: as a result, your piano sound will be tensed and ‘suffocated’ as well.

    The wrist is the most important element when it comes to piano breathing. It should be flexible all the time, no matter what you play, regardless of articulation marks.

    3. ‘Breathing’ in piano playing can also be associated with musical phrases. It may or may not match our physical breathing. This type of imaginary breathing helps us to create convincing phrases, allowing us to play them ‘on a single mental breath’, without gaps and interruptions.

    How to apply all these types of breathing in piano playing? Correct breathing – with your lungs, with your mind and with your arms – is a habit. Habits are developed by practice. When you play, you have to be aware of your breathing as often as possible – with time, you will start doing it automatically. Breathe deeply and notice how good it feels, notice how all the tension from your mind and your body goes away. Don’t forget about your arms and wrists – make sure that they’re always relaxed – this is one of the most important principles of correct piano playing.

    Of course, here I simply mentioned the basic aspects of breathing in piano playing. I will write more on this subject in the near future, also making some videos where I’ll show you in detail how we should ‘breathe’ with our arms and wrists. In the meantime, you can also read my article The Piano Posture and the Energy of the Sound – it touches some important aspects of this topic.

    Good luck with your practice!

  13. Rodney James says:

    Hello again Ms Vartic! I promise not to bombard with too many questions. I just want to get your thoughts on a couple of issues. I just read about the benefits of practicing softly. As a matter of fact the author said it’s good to practice softly 80% of the time! I guess they figure since you do need control to play soft that it’s more beneficial. Have you ever heard of this and what do you think about it?

  14. Ilinca says:

    Hi Rodney!

    This is a very good question! 🙂

    First of all, however, we have to define what ‘soft practice’ means.

    If it means playing quietly (piano), only from your fingers, with ‘suspended’ and unmoving arms and wrists – then it is extremely dangerous!!!

    On the other hand, if it means playing with relaxed arms, allowing their entire weight to go freely into the keyboard, at the same time keeping all the joints – shoulders, elbows and wrists – extremely flexible and making sure that your sound is deep and expressive (as opposed to loud and brutal) – then it is a correct, useful approach!

    In the Russian piano school, we practice by using the second version of ‘soft playing’. However, we never call it ‘soft playing’ – we call it ‘deep (or profound) playing‘.

    I agree with the author that we should always avoid hitting the keys and producing a loud, unmusical sound (which is more a noise than a sound).

    But I disagree about the sound intensity: if by ‘playing softly’ he means playing piano, then this is definitely NOT beneficial: we have to master all the dynamic variations, our priority being the quality of the sound, not its intensity level.

    Have a good practice today!

  15. Berne says:

    Thank you for the quick response. It would mostly certainly take sometime to assimilate your answer since it’s quite detailed. You definitely touched on a few notes that only someone with experience can only say. I’ve been trying the 10 minutes at the piano. It’s been difficult since I have back problems. Know were to start is the hardest part but your advice makes senses helps. My next question will most perhaps be, where to start practicing since I easily get bored with mundane rituals like scales.

  16. Ilinca says:

    Hi Berne!

    I’m glad that my answer was helpful!

    Start practicing with what you love. It can be a short piece by Bach (from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach), or a little Menuet by Mozart, or a simple romantic piece, or something modern (if you enjoy playing jazz or pop music).

    The most important thing is to understand that when you’re playing piano, you’re FREE. Free to play what you like, free to create something new, free to improvise, free to play scales or not. Believe me, when the time will be right and you’ll feel the need to improve your technical skills, you’ll find an appropriate way of doing it.

    One more thing – scales are not the only way of warming up. You can also use dynamic pieces for this purpose – sometimes they are even more effective! But don’t worry about technique yet – first you need to reconnect with the instrument :).

    For example, I enjoy playing Bach’s Organ Preludes and Fugues (or Chopin’s Etudes, or something by Rachmaninoff) as a warm up – these pieces are definitely more effective than simple scales.

    You mentioned that you have back problems. For preventing (and treating) them, you should always keep a correct posture and perform exercises for the spine regularly. I will record some videos with these subjects in the next couple of weeks 🙂

    Have a wonderful day!

  17. Winston says:

    Hi Ms Vartic,
    Thanks for your reply. I really wonder how to work smart;can i achieve this without a mentor(i don’t have one at the mo)?How do i know whether i am using the correct approach and if i don’t feel so, how do i devise a proper approach on my own? Please and thanks

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Winston!

      Working smart is indeed a wonderful way of saving time and effort, at the same time increasing our productivity and making our practice more enjoyable :).

      Of course, it’s advisable to have a good, experienced piano teacher guiding you. My website cannot replace (yet) the traditional 2 lessons per week most students need. However, I can certainly describe the key points of ‘working smart’ (and answer all the other questions you may have) ;).

      I just wrote an article inspired from your question! Here it is: Work Smart! Tips for a Productive and Enjoyable Piano Practice.

      If you’re using the approach I’m describing in this article, I can guarantee that you’re on the right path! 😉

      • Winston says:

        Thank you so much Ms Vartic! It’ll be tough to be positive at many times for me now, but i’ll try. thanks again and have a wonderful day!

  18. Berne says:

    Super! Mucho appreciated. Thank you again. ~B

  19. Rodney James says:

    Hello again Ms Vartic!
    This is a brief question. I always seem to stumble when I get to cross rhythms. Of course I can manage two against three, and three against four most of the time. I manage it but it is not ingrained totally. I don’t really feel it so it does not come out correctly every time I play them. It’s kind of hit or miss. Also how do you approach the more complex ones such as five against seven, eight or nine for that matter? I approach them in my rep, but what can I do to practice this in general? How can I make these cross rhythms automatic? Thank you in advance Ms Vartic!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rodney!

      Thank you for another interesting question!

      Playing cross rhythms is a matter of good coordination – the capacity of performing different tasks simultaneously: your right hand does one thing, while your left does another.

      I remember that when I was little and I had to play two notes against three or three against four, my piano teacher used to draw lines in the score to show me where exactly each note was ‘positioned’. Then I had to practice until I played each note exactly in its ‘correct place’.

      While this ‘graphic’ approach is useful for small children, it cannot guarantee natural, flowing results and it certainly cannot be applied to complex cases of (for example) 10 against 4 or 27 against 6 etc. (as in Chopin’s works).

      In such cases, you have to practice first with separate hands (until you feel, for each hand, how the x number of notes are evenly distributed on the beats of the bar). In other words, you have to feel the individual rhythm of each hand first – you can use a metronome for this purpose as well.

      Then, you can try to play hands together.

      The secret is the following: each hand has to play naturally and independently its individual rhythm, without influencing and affecting the other hand.

      When playing complicated cross rhythms, don’t even try to understand where exactly each note belongs (as in my example for small children) – you’ll totally confuse yourself LOL. The logical, ‘mathematical’ approach is definitely NOT a good one!

      Trust your sense of rhythm instead and allow it to guide you. Feel the rhythms of each hand and don’t think about proportion or distribution or other similar things. However, don’t expect instant results – the skill of playing cross rhythms can be developed in time, after lots of practice, when you achieve a good coordination :).

      You can speed up the process by doing various coordination exercises – for example, rotate one arm forward and one backward simultaneously. You can also practice more pieces containing this particular difficulty – almost all Chopin’s slow pieces have lots of cross rhythms.

      Polyphony is also extremely helpful. Even if Bach’s works (for example) do not abound in cross rhythms, they still teach us how to multitask, which is incredibly useful for developing our coordination.

      In time and with lots of correct practice :), the ability of playing cross rhythms becomes indeed automatic.

      Actually, ‘cross rhythms and coordination’ is a very good idea for a future video – I’ll note it down and I’ll record a tutorial in the near future.

      Have a wonderful day!

  20. Bahar says:

    My piano teacher was always so sensitive about my hands and wrists’ movement and always checked my fingers to be in the right shape,but once i met another teacher,(he was indeed a great pianist)..He said it’s not important if your wrists move or if your fingers are not round.what matters is to play the piece with the right emotion.He said my hands weren’t that this a new attitude?
    I really needed to ask a pianist to make sure what i’ve heard is true.
    thank you.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Bahar!

      Thank you for a very good question!

      Indeed, what matters most is the final result – bringing to the listeners the message and the beauty of the piece by playing it meaningfully, expressively and convincingly.

      However, you cannot be a good pianist if you rely only on your ’emotion’. What is ’emotion’, in the end? Our capacity of expressing the ‘feeling’ of the piece? Of getting in touch with its ‘atmosphere’? Of understanding, on a very deep level, its true message?

      No matter how well we feel and understand a certain piano piece, we cannot express our knowledge and our feelings if we don’t have the proper pianistic skills that will allow us to do it.

      Yes, a flexible wrist is only a means to and end. However, how can we achieve a quality sound, a good technique and freedom of expression if our wrist is tensed and our posture is incorrect? Maybe some genial players can perform such miracles, but for the majority of pianists this is truly impossible!

      My advice is, as always, to have a holistic approach. Knowledge and understanding have to come first, of course. Feelings are also extremely important – without them, piano playing would be a craft, not a real art full of creativity and inspiration. At the same time, we need to develop certain skills in order to express our emotions. For this, a correct posture – straight back, relaxed arms, flexible wrists and rounded fingers – is the shortest way towards bringing to life and transfer to the instrument the results of our imagination.

      So, you see, your teachers were both right – combine their advices and enjoy the amazing results this holistic approach brings!

      Good luck,

  21. Rodney James says:

    Hi. Ms Vartic!
    A quick follow up to my question about Peskanov’s Russian Piano Regimen. It’s not really exercises per se, but a book of scales, arpeggios, broken chords, and block chords. The scales are presented in the “Russian pattern “. As far as broken chords and arpeggio patterns, they are built on a harmonic progression using the key note in 11 different chords. The arpeggios are also played in the “Russian pattern ” as are scales in double thirds. Chromatic scales and octaves are also covered. He also makes a point of relaxing and breathing at the wrists. He usually relaxes on the accents but the accents don’t always fall on places where think there should be a point of relaxation. Sorry for rambling! Hope all is going well, and I’m eagerly awaiting your videos. Be well, and thanks for sharing your knowledge!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rodney!

      Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Peskanov’s book so I cannot see for myself what types and variations of scales he included in his Piano Regimen. But your description (all the variations he uses and the harmonic progression) convinces me once more that he was inspired by our extremely complex Russian scales system (which I shortly described in my answer to your first question about Peskanov).

      If he also mentions the importance of relaxing the wrist, then I think that you can certainly use his Regimen for improving your technique :). More about scales in the near future!

      Good luck,

  22. Patricia Miguela says:

    Hello miss vartic!

    It’s a wonderful coincidence that i have landed on your website. I have found very interesting articles about piano playing =D

    Okay, i have been playing for only, and almost 2 years now. I started when i was eighteen years old. i was astonished to have been promoted to level 4a when i entered music college. Currently, i am playing mozart sonatas, and a schubert impromptu.

    i too, have problems. especially with sight reading. I get easily frustrated when my teacher gives me a piece to read and i cannot read it correctly. is there an effective way to sight read? or how can i develop my sight reading skills so that i would be able to read faster? i also think that i lack eye and finger and arm coordination.

    plus, my arms get stiff occassionally in fast passages. it bothers me alot.

    thanks! btw, i sent you tweets. hope you can adress my little problems =D

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Patricia Miguela! (you have a beautiful name, by the way :))!

      First, let me tell you that it’s definitely amazing to be able to play Mozart’s Sonatas and one of Schubert’s Impromptu’s after only 2 years of practice! Wow!

      I also hope you’re not forgetting Bach 🙂 – he has amazing works for all levels of piano playing – starting with beginners and reaching piano virtuosos.

      Your problems with sight reading and arm stiffness, however, are a direct consequence of your ‘accelerated’ progress. In piano playing, all our skills are usually developing gradually – we learn how to coordinate our mind, our eyes, our arms and our legs (pressing the pedal!), at the same time not forgetting to breathe (literally!), to relax our arms and wrists, to keep in mind articulation marks, dynamics, proper phrasing etc. and so on and so forth :).

      As you mentioned – there are simply too many things to coordinate! No matter how talented you are, no matter how fast your mind works, your body (your arms and fingers) needs time to catch up, to adjust and get used to the new tasks! With regular practice, you’ll be able to turn more and more elements of your playing on ‘autopilot’.

      1. Sight reading
      It’s normal to have a slow sight reading only after two years of playing the piano! How many years did you learn to read books? Reading musical scores is considerably more difficult!!! Believe me – your sight reading will inevitably improve during the next years – it’s only a matter of time and practice!

      However, if you want to accelerate the process, I suggest ‘exercising’ your sight reading with easy pieces. For example, each day, before working on your main program, take a few scores that you never played before – preferably easy pieces for children – and read them from the beginning till the end. Don’t return to the same piece twice (if you liked it and you want to learn it – do it later, after your sight reading ‘training’). After reading a piece, move to the next one. Gradually, increase the difficulty of the pieces.

      The rule is simple – if you want to master something, do it, then do it again, then rinse and repeat! LOL

      At the beginning, you can sight read each hand separately – read one hand from the beginning till the end, then read the other hand. When you’re ready, begin reading and playing both hands simultaneously. In time, your mind and your arms will learn how to coordinate faster and reading a score will become as natural as reading a book!

      However, beware of tension! Practice your sight reading with a relaxed mind and body – this way you’ll avoid arm injuries and headaches!

      Also, remember that the quality of your reading ability is more important than its speed! Besides text, there are many other elements you have to pay attention to: correct fingering and durations, dynamics, articulation marks, colors and characters etc. Having a good sight reading means reading not only the notes, but also all these details!

      2. Arm stiffness.
      Tension and the fact that you’re progressing so fast are the causes of your arm discomfort. First, play all complicated passages slowly. When you feel comfortable and you are able to play the passage well with relaxed arms and wrists, you can gradually increase the tempo.

      No matter what you play, keep in mind that having relaxed arms and wrists is more important than having a good finger agility. With relaxed arms, your agility will develop naturally and inevitably. With tensed arms, your technical skills will be severely affected, you’ll progress slower and your arms will definitely hurt.

      So take it one step at a time! Relax and do your daily practice as best as you can – one day at a time! You’ll be amazed by the results!

      Good luck!

      P.S. If you want to increase your productivity, you can also read my articles “Work Smart! Tips for a Productive and Enjoyable Piano Practice” and “Increase Your Productivity: Declutter Your Practice Space and Your Mind“. I touch these topics in some of my other articles as well.

  23. elwyn says:

    Hi Ilinca,

    A quick question: Do you think it is important is it to develop fluency in sight-reading or is “decoding and deciphering” scores OK?

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Elwyn!

      Actually, it all depends on your purpose.

      You need a very good sight reading if you’re a professional pianist or a piano student who has lots of dead-lines and exams. Developing your sight reading is also important if you have to accompany singers all the time (for example, in a church) or you play in an ensemble, where new works have to be learned very fast.

      The fluency in sight-reading is also helpful if you have a job such as mine (I’m the piano soloist of our country’s Radio Orchestra and we have new programs every week!).

      If, on the other hand, you play piano simply because you love it and you don’t have challenging sight-reading exams or concerts, then it’s all up to you! 🙂 If you feel that you need more fluency in reading your scores, then go for it – improve your skills by reading at least 3-4 easy new pieces each day! If you feel good ‘decoding and deciphering’, it’s great as well!

      When you have lots of time for learning a certain piece, you can take it slower. In time, if you practice regularly, your sight reading will inevitably improve – no matter if you want it or not! 🙂

      You can also read my answer to the previous question – it touches sight reading as well!

      Enjoy your day and your practice! 😉

  24. Paul says:

    Hi Ilinca, I was just curious what has been the most helpful to you in terms on expression and communicating with an audience. Meaning, transcending/integrating ego to perform more from a place/space of purity. Look forward to hearing from you and all the best, Paul.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Paul!

      Thank you for this interesting question!

      I think that the purpose of music is to bring light and joy – both to the audience and the performer. Music is the art of balance and harmony, being a beautiful way of showing people that this world, despite all its problems, is still a wonderful place worth exploring and enjoying.

      When I play before an audience I concentrate of two things: the first one is the idea I mentioned above. The second one is ‘zen-inspired’ – I simply ‘live’ in the piece I’m playing, hoping to bring forward as best as I can its meaning, its beauty and its full range of colors and images.

      I have always been taught that the stage is a magical space and that every gesture we make, every breath we take 🙂 has to be meaningful and justified by the content of the performed work. I don’t know if I’m transcending or integrating my ego – the fact is that I don’t think about myself when I play – I simply try to feel the music and to send its message.

      However, for being able to ‘feel’ the music and transmitting its message, we have to pass through lots of training (our daily mindful practice) that will slowly but surely ‘polish’ not only our technical skills, but also our mind, our hearing, our intuition and our musical sensitivity.

      In the end, it’s all a process – a holistic one, in my opinion – where spirit, mind, body and emotions connect in order to create something beautiful. And, of course, the higher our results in this quest, the better we understand that we’re only at the beginning of the road! 🙂

      Have a wonderful day!

  25. elwyn says:


    Many thanks for your considered and thoughtful reply, it was a great help…

  26. Rodney James says:

    Hi Ilinca!
    I’m just curious, with all the aspects of technique- scales, scales in double thirds, in sixths, octaves, trills, arpeggios etc. During your student days, how did you divide all of this up? Or did you actually practice all of those things, or did you master some aspects of of technique through your repertoire? Once again thanks!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rodney!

      A very interesting question! 🙂

      As a matter of fact, I was planning to write a separate article dedicated to the scales system we use here in Moldova. However, I will write a short description now and go into further details in this future post I’m planning.

      So here we go:

      Yes, we have a special system that helps us divide all the scales and their numerous variations.

      We play 24 scales:

      12 scales with sharps (the following tonalities: C major and its parallel A minor, G major and E minor, D major and B minor, A major and F# minor, E major and C# minor, B major and G# minor).

      – and 12 scales with flats (these tonalities: F major and D minor, Bb major and G minor, Eb major and C minor, Ab major and f minor, Db major and Bb minor, Gb major and Eb minor).

      EACH of these scales has the following basic variations:
      1. Parallel motion scale (4 octaves).
      2. Contrary motion scale
      3. Parallel thirds
      4. Contrary thirds
      5. Parallel sixths
      6. Contrary sixths
      7. Parallel decimas
      8. Contrary decimas
      9. Double thirds (parallel motion)
      10. Octaves
      11. Chromatic parallel scale
      12. Chromatic contrary scale.

      All of these variations are played in 4 octaves. Beginners (the 1st year of piano practice) play only parallel scales in 2 octaves.

      All the above-mentioned 12 variations are doubled if the scale is minor. Minor scales (except for chords and arpeggios) have 2 versions – harmonic and melodic (if you don’t know what ‘harmonic’ and ‘melodic’ means, please ask and I will explain in my next answer).

      Then, we move to chords and arpeggios:

      13. Chords (triads, ascending and descending parallel motion in 4 octaves; not only the basic triad is played, but also its inversions; so, in case of C major, we first play C-E-G (both hands simultaneously), then E-G-C, then G-C-E and so on).
      14. Short arpeggios
      15. Broken short arpeggios
      16. Parallel long arpeggios (one for each note of the triad chord)
      17. Contrary long arpeggios
      18. Dominant seventh chord long arpeggio (one for each of the 4 notes of the chord)
      19. Diminished seventh chord long arpeggio (again, one arpeggio for each of the 4 notes of the chord)
      20. 11 arpeggios from 1 note (if we play the C Major scale, then we have to build 11 types of arpeggios from the root note – C).

      Again, all these variations are played in 4 octaves.

      Usually, our students play 12 scales (with all the variations) during one studying year. The next year, they play the other 12. Then, the next year, the first 12. Of course, beginners play only a few easy variations. Each year, more and more complicated variations are added until, in the 6-7 grade of musical lyceum (when the student is about 12-13 years old) all the above-described variations are played.

      Sometimes, depending on the teacher, these basic variations can be diversified. For example, double thirds can be played as chromatic scales or the diminished seventh chord arpeggios as short or broken arpeggios. However, if one masters the variations I described above, it is more than enough for developing a brilliant technique!

      And, of course, while playing these scales, we should never forget about correct posture, proper relaxation and the quality of our sound! We can also experiment with dynamics (make a crescendo during the ascending motion and diminuendo when we go back – or vice-versa) and with accents (however, when it comes to accents, we don’t have to complicate things: I usually recommend considering the root note as an anchor point – this allows us to relax our wrists without making a brutal accent).

      If you have questions regarding any of these variations, please ask! 😉


  27. Winston says:

    Hello Ms Vartic!
    I wonder have you learnt Chopin’s Etude op10-no8 in F(Sunshine)? I’m really finding trouble with the middle section (line41-50)especially when in bar 47, the index must replace the thumb but my finger hits without sounding (the key was held when changing fingers)Also,the music doesn’t flow that well throughout the piece.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Winston!

      I have played many of Chopin’s Etudes during my studying years, but the Etude op. 10 No. 8 was not among them. So I don’t have it ‘in my fingers’, but I know the music very well.

      I just sat at the piano and played through this Etude to familiarize myself with its technical difficulties. For me, the most challenging thing in the middle section is the fact that (starting from bar 47) there is a big uncomfortable gap between the 3rd and 5th fingers:

      Chopin - bar 47 from Etude op. 10 No. 8

      But, it you have big hands (your hands are definitely bigger than mine and your fingers longer because you are a man :)), than I assume this particular issue should not bother you.

      Still, let me make sure that I understood your question correctly. Which fingering do you use? If you use the classical version (like the one from my scanned example), then not your index, but your pinkie (the 5th finger) should replace your thumb during the descending movement! Or maybe you mention some other passage?

      In case we talk about the same thing, here is what I suggest:

      You have a classical ‘repetitive notes‘ problem. It happens because you’re not lifting your finger enough after you play the note about to be repeated! If the key does not go fully up, how can we press it again? There will simply be no sound! But, instead of lifting the thumb separately, we have to make our life easier by ‘engaging’ our wrist into the process! 🙂

      Let me explain:

      In this Etude, each finger replacement in the middle section should be considered a ‘switch’ in hand positions. Here is what I mean:

      One of Chopin’s innovations is his ingenious use of the hand positions. Instead of focusing on the separate movement of each finger (in such cases, ‘rotating’ the hand becomes especially difficult), he builds his difficult passages as ‘strokes’ of the entire hand: the hand changes position and the fingers ‘remain in the same place’. This is especially obvious in the Etude we’re discussing.

      Sometimes, the change of hand position does not match the rhythmical structure of the bar. For example, in bars 47-50, during the ascending motion the hand position matches the rhythmical structure:

      However, the descending movement is built differently. In the picture below you can see that the hand position does not match the beats of the bars, changing during the beat:

      Why do I mention the hand positions? Because after each switch of ‘hand position’, our wrist has to relax in order to avoid tension and to make sure that the music ‘flows’ freely. When a particular ‘hand position’ starts with the same note as the previous one (as in our Etude), then, inevitably, during the wrist relaxation, our hand has to raise slightly above the keyboard.

      This technique is easier to perform when the changes in hand position match the beats of the bar. That’s why the finger replacement may be harder to perform during the descending movement!

      If our wrist goes up, ‘taking’ our fingers with it and lifting them at least 1 mm above the keys, then it’s impossible to hit the key wihtout sounding during the finger replacement!

      You can also imagine that your wrist ‘takes off’ after playing the note the first time and ‘lands’ when you play the same note the second time. This movement is obvious when you play in a slow tempo.

      So, basically, you should play each ‘hand position’ on a separate wrist movement. Or, in easier terms, relax your wrist during each change of position, between the repetitive notes – regardless of the rhythmical structure! Also, don’t forget to involve your entire arm in this process – keep your elbows relaxed and flexible and allow them to ‘guide’ the movements of the wrist!

      When you’ll increase the tempo, you should be able to keep the quality of the learned technique, but the movement I describe will not be as noticeable.

      You can take a look at Valentina Lisitsa’s wonderful performance: she does the wrist ‘trick’, but it is barely noticeable in the fast tempo! 🙂

      The musical flow you want to achieve comes as a result of freedom and relaxation. In order to achieve this freedom, you have to practice a lot (with awareness!) until everything you play becomes extremely comfortable and ‘sinks’ in your mind, your fingers and your motoric memory. When the technical difficulties will not be an obstacle, you’ll be able to focus on the quality of your phrasing.

      BUT: try to do things simultaneously. Practice slowly first, making sure that both your technique and your phrasing are correct. Practice until you feel extremely comfortable in this tempo. Then, gradually, increase the tempo until you reach the final one.

      By the way, about phrasing and the quality of the musical flow: make sure you subscribe to my email newsletter – on 15th of September I will launch my report “A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing” and I will send a free complimentary copy to all my subscribers! 😉 In this report, I explain in detail the necessary steps towards creating convincing, naturally flowing phrases.

      Take care!

      • Winston says:

        Your reply was so detailed! thank you! But I think you meant the positions before the last two notes(A by 1 and 3).That is where a gap is not er, allowed. It’s the 1-3-1 that seem so hard. I’ve done some tryouts just now, and testing the wrist movements, as you suggested kinda worked; I started the phrase with wrist level with keyboard and as it goes I raise my wrist gradually and lower it gradually, so when it comes to the 1-3-1 part it is easier for the thumb to lift quickly. I will try it out and tell you how it worked out!Also, the parts like bar 51or bar 41 where fingers 123 are far apart with the pinkie are causing the pinky to miss miserably. well, thank you so much and have a brilliant day!-D p.s.-my hand can hold c-d at edges of the keys. it’s my max… winston

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi Winston!

          In the beginning of my previous answer to your question about Chopin’s Etude op. 10 No. 8, I actually had in mind the same thing you just asked me (we only used different terms to describe the same problem! :)). I quote you current question:

          Also, the parts like bar 51 or bar 41 where fingers 123 are far apart with the pinkie are causing the pinky to miss miserably.

          This is what I meant by the word ‘gap’ – an uncomfortable stretch between the 1,2,3 fingers and the pinkie (the 5th finger). In my opinion, this is the most challenging technical difficulty in this Etude, especially for pianists with small hands (like me ;)).

          So, again, this is the ‘gap’ or the ‘stretch’ I meant (it happens between the 3rd and 5th fingers):

          Chopin - bar 47 from Etude op. 10 No. 8

          In the bar 51 we have a similar stretch – it comprises the same interval (a sixth), between the 3rd and 5th fingers:

          However, this bar is more difficult. It doesn’t have repetitive notes and jumps (or, as I call them, horizontal ‘shifts’ of the hand position), but it has a rather uncomfortable ascending movement. It is uncomfortable because, even if the hand position is basically the same (fingers 1,2,3 and then 5), the appearing sharps and flats (C#, then Bb with the 3rd finger, then, on the last beat – Bb and C# in the same position) makes us have the feeling that we’re ‘driving on a bumpy road’. The lack of stability comes from the constant little changes brought about by the black keys.

          Here is what I suggest: Why do you think Chopin marked with an accent the first note of every beat? 🙂 It’s because each accented note (played with the thumb) is a support point. On these notes, you have to relax your wrist and arm. Just play this note slightly deeper then the rest and feel how your arm rests and relaxes, even if only for a fraction of a second! Support points are like ‘anchors’ – they stabilize the hand position and prevent us from hitting wrong notes!

          Then, as you play with the 2nd and 3rd fingers, shift your wrist towards the last note (the one you have to play with your pinkie). Here is a picture I just took:

          As you can see, I move my wrist in the direction of the C#. Instead of stretching only my fingers while keeping my hand immobile, I ‘help’ my fingers with the wrist (the hand moves the finger and not the other way around!). This way, it’s much easier to reach the C# with the pinkie! The horizontal movement of the wrist helps us compensate the fact that we cannot objectively reach with our pinkie the C# on legato!

          This kind of wrist flexibility is very helpful in different situations. Even when we don’t have any technical difficulties to overcome, ‘anticipating’ with the wrist the outline of the melody (I also describe this technique in my report “A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing“) helps us ‘soften’ the contours of the melody, which becomes extremely expressive and cantabile.

          Now let’s go back to bars 47-50. Here, however, it seems that we had in mind different things :): I didn’t understand which particular place with repetitive notes you mentioned in your first question (that’s why I asked you which fingering you use!), so I described the general principle of overcoming such difficulties (repetitive notes during horizontal shifts of similar hand positions). Now let’s dive a little deeper.

          If I understand correctly, the most difficult thing for you is replacing the 1st finger with the 3rd on A and then playing Bb with the thumb:

          Here is what I suggest:

          The basic principle remains the same: in order to play well a repetitive note (in this case – A) and to avoid ‘hitting the key without sounding’, we should keep our wrist as relaxed as possible: after playing the first A we should lift the wrist slightly; when our hand ‘lands’, we play the A with the 3rd finger.

          I’ll illustrate this with some pictures I just took:

          Now I’m playing the first A with the thumb:

          Now I’m lifting my wrist to prepare the change of fingers:

          Now I’m switching my fingers (1-3) in the air, preparing to ‘land’ on my 3rd finger:

          While ‘landing’ on the second A, I’m already ‘anticipating’ with the wrist the upcoming Bb, also preparing my thumb:

          Now – the most important thing: it’s not necessary to make a full legato between the second A and the Bb!!! After moving your wrist in the direction of the Bb, lift your hand (only slightly!), make a swift ‘shift’ in the air (extremely fast and relaxed) and, without making the classical full turn with the thumb under your palm, simply place the thumb on Bb. So, instead of keeping your hand immobile and moving only your thumb, you have to do a little trick: move the wrist in the needed direction, prepare the thumb only half-way, without actually playing the note, and then move your hand so that your thumb will land on Bb!

          Here I press the Bb with my thumb and I’m ready to play the next bar!

          Now I described this technique in a really really slow motion :). It’s important to be aware of all these secrets and apply them when you practice in a slow tempo, so your arms, wrists, hands and fingers will ‘memorize’ what they have to do. Then, as you increase the tempo, these movements will become more and more automatic and natural, being performed at a smaller scale, with light small gestures. In the final tempo, these movements will be unnoticeable, but the results – fantastic!

          I hope my answer was helpful! I’m looking forward to hear about your progress with these tricky bars! 😉

          Have a wonderful day!


          • Winston says:

            Hi Ilinca,
            I tried your suggestion, but so far no progress in the etude. I’ll let you know when i do(won’t be that soon).=) Thank you!
            P.S.-Valentina Lisitsa was the pianist who inspired me to learn the prelude no.5 op.23 in g minor by Rachmaninov(through her youtube performance, that is)! And,uh, at the time, I didn’t bother to see her name…… I highly suspect pianists are inhuman.:D have a brillante day!

            • Ilinca says:

              Hi Winston!

              I’m sure that you’ll see the progress soon – often we need time (and lots of practice!) to see results and to transform quantity into quality! So keep us posted! 😉

              Yes, Valentina Lisitsa plays ‘inhumanly’ well – she amazes me all the time!!!

              All the best,

  28. Hi Illinca,

    Very cool questions and answers on this topic. I have really enjoyed these tips in my daily study.

    After read your answer about scales for Rodney, I felt my head spinning … lol! Very interesting information… 🙂

    Well, above you mention a lot about “The Russian piano school”, where the main focus is the quality of sound and good technique. I have been looking for more information about this subject, but I have not found anything substantial on the web (maybe I have not looked properly).

    Do you know if have a “textbook” which explains the basics of “Russian piano school” and some techniques? I appreciate a lot delving this subject.

    have a nice day,

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Richard!

      Actually, there are many different books and textbooks (most of them are written by Russian pianists and piano professors) about the principles of the Russian piano school. However, since they are written by Russians, they are simply about ‘piano playing’ – the “Russian” part of it goes without saying, not being mentioned in the title! LOL

      There are hundreds of such books and more and more appear as time goes by. Many of them are very good, while others simply repeat, in other words, what the predecessors have already discovered.

      My first recommendation is Heinrich Neuhaus’s “Art of Piano Playing”. It’s an awesome book, it’s very well written and the author constantly uses funny and interesting comparisons for facilitating our understanding. Neuhaus’s book is a must read for every pianist!

      However, there is no such thing as an ‘ideal piano playing system’. The Russian piano school has fantastic results, but our teachers often forget to tell us that being a good pianist is not all there is in life. They teach us how to play brilliantly, but they don’t tell us how to cope with performance anxiety, how to handle fear of failure or how to be stronger physically… and the list can go on!

      That’s why I created this site: to share not only the principles and secrets of the Russian piano school (which I learned mostly directly from my teachers), but also my holistic approach on music – my personal discoveries that can help a pianist play well and be happy, strong and healthy at the same time. It’s a question of switching the priorities and looking at our life (and our piano playing) from a different angle!

      Have an inspired practice today! 😉

  29. Rodney James says:

    Awesome Ms Vartic!
    The Russian Technical Regimen is based on some of the elements that you mentioned. All the chords, short and long arpeggios and broken chords are are played using the root note to form the eleven different chords. The scale variations are incredible. I do play scales in thirds, sixths and tenths, but parallel. After reading your post I’m going to incorporate contrary motion scales at those intervals. For scales at the octave, I use the one scale that contains both parallel and contrary motion. Also I will start using the melodic minor scale in my routine. Form some reason the harmonic minor is the default scale we always use. Even in school, we had to know melodic minor, but in juries it was always harmonic.
    Thanks for sharing, and I’m looking forward to your future posts!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rodney!

      Yes, including contrary motion scales in your practice is definitely a good idea! Besides developing our technique, they also considerably improve our coordination!

      The melodic minor is also very helpful for our coordination, especially when we play it in contrary motion: when, for example, the right hand plays the scale with the raised 6th and 7th steps, the left hand plays a natural minor 🙂 – and vice-versa!

      Good luck in your ‘scales quest’, I admire your determination to improve your technique! 😉 And, of course, as I always say – don’t forget to work on your sound as well when practicing scales!


  30. Rodney James says:

    Hi Ms Vartic!
    This question is about a specific passage. I’m at work and don’t have my score so I don’t have measure number. This concerns the Chopin g minor Ballade. Specifically the coda. I think it starts at the ninth measure of the coda. Starting when the right hand hits the a flat. I manage the jumps and the lateral motion in the right hand, but something does not feel quite right. I don’t know if I’m using the incorrect motion to navigate laterally, but it doesn’t feel good to play! Usually when I find the correct motion, most passages actually feel good to play. Not getting the feeling here! Please tell me how you navigate the right hand in this section. From that point until the end the right hand is hit or miss! Sometimes it plays sometimes it doesn’t. Tell me how to control this section instead of having it control me!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rodney!

      Thanks for another great question! 🙂

      Before diving directly into the 9th bar of the Coda, I want to share with you something that I really cherish: my first piano teacher left me a precious legacy – a very old German edition of Chopin’s Ballades (it was edited in the first years of the XXth century!).

      I just went to the piano and started to play the fragment you mentioned from the g-minor Ballade’s Coda by using my old German score. The fragment seemed uncomfortable at first, but after practicing it for about 10 minutes, I ‘got the point’ and it suddenly became very comfortable! 🙂

      Now here is what I want you to do: please check if the fingering and other elements of the text (articulation marks, slurs etc.) from my German edition match the ones in your score. I think the fingering and the articulation (especially the logical accents) are simply brilliant in my score – it’s really comfortable to play the section which starts in the 9th bar of the Coda by following them!

      So here we go – the beginning of the Coda from the g-minor Ballade by Chopin:

      Click on the images to enlarge them if you want to see all the details!

      And the next page – I scanned just two pages which comprise the difficult fragment you mentioned:

      If the fingering and the articulation marks are the same as in your score, here is what I suggest in order to increase the control of your right hand in this section:

      As my teacher used to tell me – Chopin always writes positionally and very comfortably. I’m not sure if he was aware of the term, but he uses the piano keyboard extremely ergonomically LOL, by adapting it to the exact physiological particularities of our arms and fingers.

      His technique only seems difficult – in fact, if we know the hand position trick (I wrote about it in my answer to Winston as well), Chopin’s passages become extremely comfortable – you discover that all the notes ‘fit‘ naturally under your hand! You’re right – this fragment should feel good to play if we find the right motion, the right relaxation and the right ‘support points‘.

      Basically, when playing something technically ‘challenging’ by Chopin, we have to remember these things:

      1. The fingers are positioned almost the same, only the hand ‘navigates’ horizontally from octave to octave;
      2. What is usually called a ‘jump‘ should be considered a swift, effortless ‘switch‘ of the hand position (comparable to the way a feline moves its paws) – do you see how this term changes our perspective? :);
      3. There are always ‘support points‘ hidden in the text – they help us find stability and relax our wrist;
      4. When the hand goes to its correct position, the fingers are already ‘in place’ – they simply can’s miss the needed keys!

      So… first of all, let’s identify the melody – it offers us the ‘support points’:

      Chopin marks all the notes of the melody with accents. This does not mean that these notes should be played brutally – it only means that they should stand out from the rest of the text (which has the role of a harmonic background). The main notes should be played deeper and longer than the rest (did you notice that they are crotchets, not quavers?). Even more, they should be unified in a flowing, uninterrupted phrase that begins in the 9th bar of the Coda and ends on the first beat of the 17th bar. A second phrase with a similar beginning starts in the 17th bar and ends in bar 30.

      Each note marked with accent or with a separate crotchet line should be considered a ‘support point’: on these notes, you should allow your wrist to relaxthis way your entire arm (and your fingers!) will find a stable support point! This stability will allow you to control your movements: the hand moves smoothly and relaxed (horizontally, without unnecessary vertical movements – here we have to keep the ‘efficiency and economy of movement’ principle) from one position to another.

      Each hand position is ‘anchored’ in its own support point – this makes playing this section very comfortable!

      Let’s analyze the hand positions:

      The ninth bar has two hand positions (which are almost similar):

      Please notice that in this bar, the accent is not on the crotchet G, but on the fourth e flat – a flat. This is because the accent marks the beginning of the second hand position. Here, just like in the Etude Winston mentioned in his question, the change of the hand position does not match with the beats of the bar. So, Chopin cleverly uses the accent to make sure that the pianists understand where the switch in hand positions should happen! Still, you can use the crotchet G as a secondary support point – it will give even more stability.

      Here are the hand positions in the bars 10-13 of the Coda:

      If you can’t read all the text, click on the image to enlarge it!

      The rest of this section (until bar 22 of the Coda) is based on a similar principle! From bar 22 our life gets easier 🙂 – the ‘support points’ are on each beat of the bar and there are no switches in hand positions!

      Practice suggestions: start practicing slowly, with increased concentration and awareness, keeping in mind all these elements:

      1. relaxed and swift switches of the hand positions;
      2. relaxing the wrist and the entire arm on the ‘support points’;
      3. using these ‘support points’ as anchors that keep your hand stable and prevent your fingers from ‘straying’ and hitting wrong notes!
      4. phrasing (I hope you already read my “Piano Phrasing” report!) by following the notes of the melody and making sure that they are forming a ‘red wire’ that connects and support the entire structure!
      5. making sure that the melody sounds deeper than the rest of the notes!

      When you feel comfortable and relaxed playing slowly, you can gradually increase the tempo. Follow this principle: after conquering and mastering a certain tempo, move to the next one (and not earlier!). If you feel that the tempo is too fast and it causes you to tense your arm and your wrist, return immediately to a slower tempo and master the fragment in that tempo first!

      One more thing: when you practice, combine the ‘horizontal‘ approach with the ‘vertical‘ one (if you read my report, you know what I mean): keep in mind the outline of the phrase, but don’t forget to practice 1-2 bars at a time (as if putting the bars under a microscope). After mastering technically a tiny fragment, move to the next one. Then connect the two fragments into a bigger one. Move to the next bars by using the same approach. When everything feels comfortable, connect the bigger fragments and form the phrase, making sure that it is flowing naturally and that you play it with the needed dynamics and character. When you master the technical difficulties, it should be easy to create an expressive, flowing phrase!

      This is a great practice habit that considerably increases our productivity!

      I hope this helps! 😉


  31. Alexandra says:

    Hi Ilinca,
    I’ve just started “studying” Bach’s work. He has always been known to me by name and by some famous pieces I love (Air on G strings, Toccata&Fugue for organ—my father played this at church on Sundays on the big pipe organ, when I was a child…), but somehow, my previous piano teachers skipped over Bach’s work (!) as a learning tool for musicality. So, my current teacher is having me back track to develop more musical sensitivity/technique, I suppose. Currently, I’m working on Inventio 4 (I love the “sway” of this rhythm and the “tension” and release of the trills. Lovely piece. So satisfying when it plays out smoothly, up to the final two notes in D. I’ve just managed to increase the tempo so that I am playing it quite fast now). Inventio 1 was the one I stumbled and botched to pieces in front of my teacher last week. She said I was playing more cantabile and with more expression, which was encouraging. I felt that was true… One can always sense false flattery.
    Bach is tricky. Your advice above is so appropriate. Really looking forward to more, more, and more Bach! Cant wait to tackle the 3 part inventions, Well-Tempered Clavier, and his Suites. His music just transports the performer and listener into a world of peace, nobility, humility, intellecuality and deep emotions. (I just can’t say enough about J.S.Bach…)
    Ilinca, if you have any advice/comments about how to approach interpreting Bach, how to determine the correct tempo, etc., I would love to hear from you.
    As well as Bach, I am working on Schumann’s Kinderszenen suite. (Currently, up to #7 ,Traumerei, which is so gorgeous). All but #3 (Hasche Mann) are fine, playable, not difficult for me. But the fast #3 is very very hard for me to play smoothly. I can achieve the fast tempo (about 120 on the metronome), but I’ve slowed it down again because I cannot play it without stumbling each time on the fast runs (In particular, my righthand 4th finger keeps slipping/missing the black keys.) I keep working on it each day for a while, but ineveitably move on to the other pieces, out of frustration. My teacher showed me how to “scratch” at the notes, instead of pressing and straining at each note, in the fast runs of this piece. This has relieved a lot of the tension in my right hand, but each obstacle I overcome brings a new habit or problem, or so it seems. Now my left hand is not playing in sync with my right hand. It is delayed , for some reason. So, again, I have slowed the tempo way down and am trying to erase this weird problem. Any advice on working on this piece? It is really tormenting me, and I love Schumann. I’ve been working on this piece for months… I’d like to eventually attempt his Waldzenen suite and Fantasiestucke Op.12 (“Fabel”, which is another fast piece), but need to develop accuracy with speed…Speed is nothing without accuracy.
    By the way, my teacher has me also working on Czerny Op.849 , 30 Etude. I am playing these at a very fast tempo.

    I really loved your comments: to think about “how beautiful the piece is” not just about “how well I will play”, and to think about the sharing of the beauty of the piece, not about what the audience will think! I am really looking forward to the opportunity to face and conquer this hurdle of public performance.
    My father was a professional pianist and I remember him playing with so much enjoyment and naturalness. What a dream come true to be able to get to that same mental place and that same ease of spirit.

    Have a great day, Ilinca.
    (I am trying to keep my posting short. I could easily keep writing/talking about music and piano playing.)

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi again Alexandra!

      Thanks for such a wonderful comment and for sharing your experience about Bach and Schumann! 🙂

      Your current teacher is absolutely right for advising you to return to Bach – there can never be too much Bach in our practice! His works are like a daily meditation – they liberate our mind, ‘educate’ our spirit, teach us to be kind and compassionate, to have dignity and moral values, to love life and to seek light in everything we do.

      Besides the spiritual values, Bach’s pieces are also extremely useful for our musical understanding, our sound, our sensitivity and our piano technique. I often play Bach’s fast pieces (especially some of his Organ works) instead of scales for warming up – this way, I exercise not only my finger velocity, but also the quality of my sound and my ability to ‘multitask’ and to combine musical layers (and ideas) with various sound intensities and characters.

      Bach is simple and at the same time complex as life itself.

      You’re so right – we could write volumes about Bach and the words will never be enough! 🙂

      I plan to write more about Bach in the near future – I just hope to find the time!

      In the meantime, a little advice (something that my Academy piano professor always used to tell me): Let’s not forget that Bach was an organist in a church. Besides playing organ (which is a wind and keyboard instrument!, not a hammer and string one, like the piano), he also composed lots and lots of choral Cantatas!

      So – the organ and the human voice. Bach never played on a modern hammerklavier piano – yes, he wrote for the harpsichord, but he always thought in terms of voice and organ.

      Therefore – as my professor used to say – when we play Bach, we should strive towards achieving on the piano the cantability of the human voice and the ‘almost inhuman’, cosmical power and diversity of expression of the organ.

      Which is the main connection between the voice and the organ? The fact that the sound doesn’t fade immediately after being produced – it can be maintained on the same level for as long as the performer chooses (I analyze this topic in my “Piano Phrasing” report)!

      In the Western piano tradition, Bach is often played with a harpsichord technique – short, exact, even a little ‘jumpy’ (in my opinion LOL). In the Russian piano school, we have a different approach: when we play Bach, we imagine that we have a big choir (or a powerful organ with LOTS of registers) under our fingers.

      We try to achieve a deep, expressive and flowing sound that resembles the human voice. At the same time, we combine these voices, imagining that each one is played on a different register, having its own timbre and color.

      Technically, we achieve this result by playing with heavy, relaxed arms – this is also called ‘playing from the shoulders‘. We ‘dive’ with the full weight of the arm into the depth of the keyboard (this technique – which I also mention in some of my other articles – is especially important when it comes to Bach!). It feels like concentrating the energy of our entire mind and body into the tip of our fingers. The resulting sound should be velvety, deep, ‘noble’, austere, even transcendental. It should be powerful and expressive without being brutal.

      We achieve the needed legato by keeping our elbows and wrists as relaxed and flexible as possible – this softens and gives ‘nobility’ to the sound which is produced by the heavy weight of the arms (read the chapter about “Piano Intonation” from my report – it is a very important technique for playing Bach!). This technique allows to go beyond the physical limitations of the instrument and make the piano sound like a choir or the organ.

      Tempos are a separate subject when it comes to Bach. Great pianists have different opinions – some play the Inventions you mentioned almost staccato, really fast, while others play them moderately, on a beautiful legato, emphasizing each presentation of the Theme. Since Bach himself cannot say who’s right and who’s not, all we can do is learn from all these pianists and in the end decide what suits us best :).

      Ok, more about this idea in a future article – otherwise I’ll write an entire essay now! 🙂

      In my opinion, the Invention No.4 is more complicated technically than No.1. Of course, it also depends on the tempos! If the 1st Invention is played in a fast tempo, is automatically becomes more complicated than No. 4 LOL.

      However – and here is the tricky part – No.1 has a more polyphonic structure, while No. 4 (even if the theme is presented and intertwined in both voices) is more Prelude-like (if you know what I mean). So, the fact that you can play smoothly the 4th Invention is definitely great! At the same time, you still need to develop your polyphonic thinking and skills – which are necessary for mastering No. 1 and moving on to more complicated pieces like the 3-part Inventions and the Well-Tempered Clavier.

      When practicing the 1st Invention, try to be as relaxed as possible, concentrate the entire weight of your arms in the tips of your fingers and try to pass this weight, as flowingly as possible, from one finger to another. Practice slowly at first, making sure that you feel comfortable all the time. Find stability in everything you play – avoid the ‘superficial’ approach which appears when we play only from our forearm or – even worse – only from our fingers. This type of technique leads to tension, a bad sound quality and lack of stability.

      The Theme should always be at least 2 dynamic gradations deeper, ‘heavier’ and more expressive than the other voice (I avoid the term ‘louder’ on purpose – I think it’s too brutal for Bach! :)). The Theme has to be ‘included’ from the first note, like a statement – so there would be no doubts that “the Theme begins”. We ‘include’ it by ‘taking a breath’ with the wrist before the first note of the Theme. When our hand ‘lands’ on the keyboard from a higher distance, the sound is automatically deeper, more articulate.

      Also don’t forget about dynamics! If you read my report, I describe there how a clever control of the sound intensity can help us shape beautiful, flowing phrases. So, dynamics are not only about creating contrasts and different characters (which are also very important!) – they also allow us to connect motifs into bigger phrases by creating a feeling of continuity.

      There are so many other things I could mention – but it’s hard to go into more details without hearing you play! I try as well to keep my posts short, but – as you say – it’s difficult when the subjects are so interesting :).

      I’ll write about Schumann in a separate answer! I’ll play a little the “Hasche Mann” first, to see how exactly you can overcome the technical problem :).

      Talk soon!


      • Ilinca says:

        Hello Alexandra!

        I just had a great time remembering Schumann’s Kinderszenen suite! Traumerei is one of my favorites as well! 🙂

        While playing No.3 (Hasche Mann), the first thing I noticed is the need of keeping my arms and wrists very relaxed in order to be able to feel comfortable, to find stability, to play the piece in the needed tempo and also to bring our the needed character. Staccato is another important challenge. Fingering may also be the problem.

        Let’s take it one step at the time:

        1. Relaxation.

        The most important thing in piano playing is relaxation – the ability to play with relaxed, flexible arms and wrists.

        Why? Because technical obstacles are a result of tensed playing. It took me some years to understand that the easiest way to overcome a technical challenge is to keep my arms as relaxed as possible!

        Here’s why:
        If you play only from the fingers, with immobile wrists, forearms and elbows, tension inevitably accumulates in your arms.

        The ligaments which are responsible for the movement of our fingers are directly connected with our forearms and thus – with our entire arms. When our arms are tensed and immobile, the fingers simply can’t move as fast as they should – it’s physically impossible! In a tensed state, we cannot maintain a good finger velocity for more than 10 seconds – our hands will get tired very fast, not to mention the fact that tension leads to instability, uneven passages and lack of coordination between the right and the left hand (you said you experience this problem as well).

        Of course, technical challenges appear also as a result or irregular practice. However, if we practice every day and there are still technical problems, it means that we are simply not doing something correctly.

        2. Stability.

        Relaxation leads not only to increased velocity. It also leads to stability. When our arms and wrists are relaxed, each finger dives freely into the keyboard, finding and ‘memorizing’ its stable place. When there is tension, the key attack is either superficial, either brutal. In such circumstances, there is no stability and, as a result – we play ‘randomly’, we hit many wrong notes, not to mention stumbling on a passage!

        3. Mastering Staccato.

        This piece (Hasche Mann) is built on staccato. Staccato, however, is dangerous for beginners (you can read my article on this subject – Constructive Tip for Piano Beginners – Avoid Staccato! – I think it will be very useful for learning this piece!). Staccato should be learned only after mastering portamento – the ability of playing one note at a time by channeling the full weight of our arm into the fingers, by lifting and relaxing the wrist between notes and making sure that our sound is deep and expressive – not brutal and not superficial!

        However, the advice I give in the “Staccato” article is suitable not only for beginners. I apply it as well on a regular basis. Here is what I do: when a certain difficult piece (or fragment) has to be played staccato, I learn it portamento first.

        This way, I avoid tension and I find stability – which is crucial for being able to play in a fast tempo. Without stability, when we increase the tempo, we risk hitting many wrong notes, as I already wrote.

        The ‘scratching’ tip you teacher gave you is a very good one (I also mention this technique in my ‘Staccato” article). However, we should not attempt to master a ‘clawing’, light staccato before mastering a relaxed, deep portamento.

        How to practice portamento? Read the tips about portamento from my “Staccato” article and also the following: You should feel how the relaxed weight of your entire arm flows into the finger that is pressing the key! In the beginning, this technique is exaggerated and the sound deeper (and maybe louder) than necessary. This ‘heavy but relaxed’ technique helps each finger to memorize its place on the keyboard. At the same time, your arms and wrists will ‘memorize’ their comfortable, stable and flexible state. With practice, you can gradually ‘lighten’ your touche and reduce the intensity of the sound. After such a ‘training‘ (because it is a training!!!) it will be so easy to play in a fast tempo – your fingers will ‘fly’ by themselves!

        4. Finding the ‘Support Points’.

        Stability is also found by using ‘support points. Our arms should always be relaxed, of course. However, sometimes it’s difficult to keep the arms and wrists 100% relaxed, especially if the passage we play is extremely difficult. That’s why we need support points – notes (or chords) that allow our wrist to relax and ‘recharge’ its batteries.

        Imagine that you have to swim several kilometers. It’s hard, isn’t it? Now imagine that after each 100 m, there is a floating mattress waiting for you. You can rest on the mattress for 2-3 minutes, take a deep breath and then continue your swimming until the next mattress.

        The same can be said about piano playing. Without relaxing our arms on ‘support points’ it’s impossible to play in a fast tempo for long – our fingers will simply get too tired!

        In the piece we’re discussing, Schumann cleverly marked the support points with accents:

        The accented notes should not be played too loud – they simply should be played a little deeper than the rest – allowing your wrist to relax! These notes are our much-needed ‘support points‘ or ‘anchors‘ that protect our arms from tension and keep our fingers from hitting incorrect notes (not to mention the fact that this technique allows us to play in a fast tempo!).

        If you have time, watch this video: Valentina Lisitsa illustrates wonderfully the principles I’m talking about! She plays the suite simply brilliantly! Please notice how relaxed her wrists are all the time (in this piece and in all the other pieces of this suite), especially on the ‘support points’! This technique can be achieved only by following the tips I described above – first practicing a relaxed portamento, and only then moving to staccato.

        5. Fingering.

        Which fingering do you use? I play this piece with the following fingering, and I find it really comfortable:

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

        A good, ‘ergonomic’ fingering is essential for feeling comfortable when we play!

        6. Coordination/Synchronization.

        Lack of coordination between the right and the left hand. Again, the cause is lack of stability, as a result of superficial/tensed/incorrect key attack.

        First, you can practice hands separately, in a slow tempo – relaxed and portamento. Then play hands together, slow and relaxed, and FEEL how the ‘support points’ in the right hand are ‘backed-up’ by the notes of the left hand. Allow your arms and fingers to memorize this increased relaxed stability, allow your motoric memory to learn all these sensations (how the right hand synchronizes with the left) before moving to a faster tempo and a lighter articulation.

        Coordination problems also appear when you go to the next level (of tempo, of articulation, of velocity) before mastering the previous level. In such cases here is what happens: your mind is ready for a fast tempo and the needed character, you already think about bringing out the sparkling playfulness of this piece, but your fingers/arms are not ready yet! So they remain behind, they are tensed and you lose control over your hands. Your fingers play randomly (how they can) instead of obeying your directions.

        How can we do an acrobatic jump if our muscles are not ready? We have to learn – gradually – how to do simple jumps first! Also, we have to train our muscles to be strong and stable. We also have to train our sense of balance and our flexibility. And, of course, we have to be relaxed when we train – otherwise we risk getting many injuries!

        I hope my practice strategies help! It’s not easy to translate physical sensations into words – that’s why, if you have more questions about this piece, please don’t hesitate to ask! ;).

        Have a good practice! Looking forward to hearing about your progress!


        P.S. I just remembered one more thing: A good articulation (the ability to play clearly, as if carefully ‘pronoucing‘ each word – ‘note‘ in case of music) is also necessary for being able to play well in a fast tempo. For articulating well, we have to lift each finger after it had played its note, making sure that the keys are not ‘glued’ together. However, relaxation still comes first – it’s impossible to ‘articulate’ well in a fast tempo if we are tensed!

        General tip: Relaxation is the foundation on which we add different parts of our musical structure: good articulation, quality sound, good velocity, different touchés etc.

        • Alexandra says:

          Hi Ilinca! Wow!
          I am so impressed beyond words at your kindness, wisdom, generosity, and more…! After months and months of searching and reading and watching —Valentina’s video many many times but with incomprehension (but will watch again per your suggestion), and Marta Argerich’s technique, which is just too other-worldly and inscrutably massive – and listening to Ronan Ohora’s CD, whose tempo is more instructive to me, but still unattainable…, I am so happy to have such comprehensive instruction by you! My piano teacher is lovely (her style reminds me of Angela Hewitt), but only speaks Japanese, and JPN is my second language, so many explanations are vague or not clear to me at times, in terms of learning objectives, specific coordination of hands, arms, shoulders, etc. She often must correct my forearm and shoulder tension. (I can feel I hold lots of tension when I play. I think some of it is from just pure excitement, like a crazy puppy dog. I truly love to play the piano. My soul just sings: now, if only my playing would! )
          So, I have read your email, but will go back over it again this next week and try out all the points you noted one by one.

          On fingering, I start off the same as you indicated , but in the first measure, I play the first C# with my thumb (1-2-3-4), and then the rest is the same. From this point, the 4th finger often is weak or slips.
          Then the 3rd-measure F# with my thumb, and 4th-measure, 5-4-3-2 from D. Then the 4th-measure still, my LH plays the last bottom B AND THEN the final B and F# in the treble. I thought this would give me that extra second for my RH to leap to the next measure’s starting B/F#! I don’t know. What do you think?
          FYI, I have smallish hands. Can just reach a 9th (?), eg. from C to an octave up D. Fingers are normal length and fairly strong, limber.

          I read some of your other points you wrote to another person on playing scales and what is taught in Russian piano conservatories. I am way way way behind! I wrote down all the scales and their variations of execution, but have not been trained so thoroughly; in fact, almost not at all. I’ve only just learned, by accident, about the Circle of 5ths, and relative maj/min, etc. All of my previous piano teachers have taught technique via actual pieces as they appear, and worked on major scales, starting from C, G, D, etc. Nothing about relative minors that I can recall. I realized that I have no foundation… I am feeling a bit deflated about this realization, but as of today, have decided to start “training” properly. I am dedicated to build this foundation. On this basic training, can you give any advice on how much to start and how much to do each day and realistic expectations?
          It seems overwhelming to do everyday, every key in major/minor, 3rds, 6ths, 10ths, parallel, contra, etc. Today, for example, I reviewed, in both Cmaj, Amin (harmonic, melodic), 3rds, 6ths, 10ths, in parallel, contra, then chromatic, parallel and contra. This alone took 30+min. (I happened to have my father’s old scales book, which is over 50 years old.)
          I recently read an essay by Rachmaninov: American piano students, by and large, are not trained thoroughly enough, not like in the Russian tradition! In my case, this is true, granted I did not attend any formal institution.
          Anyway, I’d love to hear from you on my fingering, on practicing scales and variations, when you have the time.
          Thank you so much!!! (It is amazing to me how kind and generous you are to perfect strangers, including myself. Although, I am feeling more like you are becoming a valuable friend…!!)
          Yes, it is night time here in Japan now 🙂
          So, I will go to bed thinking about playing Hasche Mann flowingly and freely… 🙂

          • Ilinca says:

            Hi Alexandra!

            I’m so happy I could help!

            Check out your post – I introduced your corrections 🙂

            My answer about a comfortable fingering in Schumann’s Hasche Mann is coming soon! I’ll also give you a detailed practice schedule for playing scales – it will help you have maximum technical benefits, at the same time avoiding muscle strains and other problems that can arise from too much ‘technical enthusiasm’ (I know the feeling!). In the meantime, take it easy with the scales and make sure your hands feel comfortable (maximum 1 scale – with 4-5 variations – per day!).

            Have a wonderful day!

            • Alexandra says:

              Hi Ilinca,
              (hope I’m not hogging the ‘reply’ space!) Just a quick message: I watched Valentina Lisitsa’s video again, and tried mimicking her level of relaxation, and , I don’t know how else to say it but, it clicked! Somehow, I finally understand that feeling of relaxation in my hands, wrists ( a little bit) and my arms and shoulders!… I’ve always heard relaxtion is important in piano playing, but somehow couldn’t seem to feel it. Today, I felt it for the first time. What a revelation. I of course, tried the Hasche Mann again and it really ran a lot smoother! less mistakes! and then I tried playing it portamento, as you suggested. Felt like walking through mud, haha! But , I will continue training this way for now, until I cover all your pointers, including stability, etc. (Had guests over today, so my practice time was very short. Played Traumerei for an interested guest , as an opportunity to play in front of someone, more than anything else. I wasnt able to ‘switch off” my nervousness though!. I guess this takes practice!! OH well, not giving up on this obstacle.
              Looking forward to your coming comments on other items.
              Just wanted to let you know, you helped me tremendously with relaxation!! Thank you so much, Ilinca.

              Best wishes,

              • Ilinca says:

                Hi Alexandra!

                It seems to me that our ‘reply field’ became too small – it decreases with each reply :), so I’ll write my next answer as a separate comment (because I intend to use many pictures). Just check the last comment on this page!


  32. Rodney James says:

    Thank you Ms Vartic!
    That is amazing. I thought that I paid attention to details, but I completely missed the accent on the new position and not the melody note the first time! In my practice score I am going to circle the hand positions as you did in you’re answer. I’m looking at it totally different now! I can actually see the positions and hand movements so clear now. It was the beats throwing me way off. I was grouping my movements every two notes, not realizing that some are grouped in three note patterns! This caused my motions to be jerky. Therefore my lack of control. You have done more than help me, you have opened my eyes to solving some problems visually! This is huge!
    I downloaded your report. I haven’t been able to open it yet. I need a program to extract that particular type of file. Will do that once I get home from work! I’m so excited, and can’t wait to read it.
    I really can’t express, how helpful your have been. I offer you my sincerest gratitude! You are truly remarkable!!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rodney!

      I’m really glad that I could help! 😉

      Yes, Chopin liked to be ‘tricky’, but he did it with a purpose – his music sounds difficult to the public, being very comfortable for the performer! Seeing beyond the structure of the beats is a skill that you can use in playing all his virtuosity pieces!

      Enjoy practicing this amazing masterpiece of the piano repertoire!

      Also, check your email – I sent you the report in pdf format so you won’t have to install new programs.

      Have a great day!

  33. Rodney James says:

    Wow. Ms Vartic it only took a few minutes to get the ballad coda comfortable! You are so right on terminology, there really no leaps at all, just slight position shifts! Now it’s very comfortable.
    Now my next question is conerning stretching, also position shifts in one example.
    The first is a left hand problem. Scriabin etude in d# minor. How do I comfortably manage the left hand stgroupings. Once again I have a zero comfort level when I play this piece!
    The second has to do with Chopin etude op10 #1. How do I comfortably play those stretched out right hand notes coupled with position shifts? These are two pieces that I played in the past, but they have never been comfortable. Thanks in advance for your help

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rodney!

      Another two amazing pieces to discuss – Scriabin’s Etude op. 8 No. 12 and Chopin’s Etude op. 10 No. 1 :)!

      Scriabin’s Etude:

      Don’t think in terms of ‘finger stretching’ when you have to handle such distances (let’s call them ‘distances’ instead of ‘jumps’ or ‘leaps’). Think instead in terms of ‘cleverly shifting your hand horizontally‘.

      Finger stretching is important – nobody can deny it. However, in such cases – especially when it’s impossible to do a physical legato between notes because the distances are too big – we have to forget about keeping our fingers too stretched: no matter how much we stretch our fingers, the legato will still remain impossible, while the tension will increase, thus decreasing our speed and velocity! Instead, we should compensate by moving our wrist and hand in the needed direction – horizontally!

      So, don’t stretch your fingers more than naturally comfortable. This Etude is not a finger stretching exercise, but it can be considered a good exercise in ‘swift and relaxed horizontal wrist and hand navigation‘.

      As always, you should keep your arms and wrists relaxed. When practicing slowly (you should always practice slowly first!), you can exaggerate your movements a little bit. Each time you have a big distance ahead, move your wrist in the direction of the next note. When your wrist moves horizontally to the right or to the left, the position of your hand will automatically ‘shift’ and the distance will immediately become shorter.

      Make each distance ‘comfortable’ by practicing the ‘transfer’ or the ‘shift’ with a relaxed, ‘anticipating’ wrist.

      Since we cannot connect most distances in this Etude objectively (only with our fingers), we have to be smart: we should connect them mentally, by imagining that they form a continuous line, and leave the rest to the pedal! 🙂 The actual physical connection is always the job of the pedal when the distances are too big! 🙂

      When you begin the horizontal movement with the wrist, it gives an impulse to your hand, which will easily cover the remaining distance without jumping vertically, only by making a swift horizontal transfer.

      Another comparison: your wrist is the pilot, the navigator. It gives the direction. Your hand obediently ‘changes course’ and follows.

      Gradually increase the tempo, making sure that you keep the feeling of comfort and relaxation in your arms and wrists. You can also put the bigger ‘distances’ under the magnifying glass – practice only one ‘leap’, faster and faster, until your hand is able to move like lightning (even faster than necessary!). Do it only with a relaxed arm! After a fast practice like this (practice fast only certain ‘leaps’, not the entire Etude!), it will be very easy to cover the distances in the needed tempo.

      In a fast tempo, all the ‘secret movements’ I described will be almost unnoticeable, but you’ll be able to play the left hand very well and feel comfortable at the same time!

      Chopin’s Etude op. 10 No. 1:

      I love this Etude! It seems very hard (I remember that when I was a little piano student, I used to look with veneration at my senior colleagues who were able to play it!), but it is absolutely manageable if you know a few secrets ;):

      1. The first secret: knowing the hand positions (as always in Chopin’s works).

      First, let’s identify the positions during the ascending movements:

      Chopin was a very smart pianist! He knew how to make his pieces sound difficult, but he also encoded in the musical text the secrets that allow other smart pianists to play these pieces with ease. In this Etude, here is the ‘encoded secret’:

      Do you see the accented notes in the first two bars? From the third bar the principle is the same, even if the accents are not written (they did not have computers in the XIXth century so there was no automation! LOL). Please notice that these notes are also marked staccato. Do you know why?

      Staccato shows us that we should avoid making legato between hand positions. Instead, we should slightly lift our wrist after each hand position, preparing the next one.

      The accents are support points: we should ‘push’ our finger off the accented note, this way launching our wrist in the direction of the next hand position. So, the accents are also ‘launchers’ that facilitate the ‘fly’ of our hand. 🙂

      Another ‘easy thing’ about this Etude is the fact that you have to repeat the same hand position four times during one bar (sometimes the position continues in the next bar as well). All you have to do is maintain the hand (and finger) position and navigate horizontally with the wrist! So, the more stable the movement (you don’t have to change the position on every beat!), the easier it is for us to play it!

      The descending movement is trickier (but not harder). There are two ways of ‘thinking’ these passages, two ways of ‘seeing’ them.

      The first one corresponds with the hand positions of the ascending movement, but the distribution of the sixteenth notes on the beats of the bar is different (the hand positions match the beats):

      In the second version, our hand does basically the same thing, but we think differently, this way facilitating our movements (in the end, it’s all in our head, even in piano playing!):

      The second version is based on Chopin’s smart accenting: each accented note is the last note of a certain hand position, also being the note that ‘launches’ the hand towards the next position. Personally, I think the second version is easier for our mind!

      2. The second secret: As you notice, the distances within one position are rather wide – bigger than the normal stretch of our fingers. So, instead of torturing our fingers to do the impossible…

      Yes, we use the ‘wrist anticipation’ trick: we keep our wrist and arms relaxed and we move our wrist (followed by our entire hand along with the fingers) in the needed direction.

      Instead of keeping our wrist immobile and reaching the notes only with our fingers (which is impossible, especially for pianists who cannot reach more than an octave!!!), we should move our arm and wrist first – our fingers will follow!

      In other words… let your arm and wrist take the lead!

      3. The third secret: To legato or not to legato? 🙂 We can (and should) make a physical legato between notes, BUT ONLY within hand positions. Making a full legato is not only unnecessary, it’s also counterproductive: if we don’t lift our wrist between hand positions, it will be impossible to reach the next one in a relaxed, swift and confident manner!

      So: between positions, having the accented note as a support point, we use the wrist movement as a launch toward the next hand position. Within hand positions, the movement of the wrist facilitates the internal legato – this way we don’t have to stretch our fingers too much and we avoid tension!

      4. The fourth secret: You can keep your wrist slightly above the level of the knuckles. This will allow your wrist to ‘be in charge’, to be the ‘navigator’, to be flexible and relaxed and at the same time keep the hand position compact and the fingers in proper place. Pay attention to Valentina Lisitsa’s performance (again, she illustrates perfectly the technique I’m describing – she’s simply brilliant!). Do you see how she ‘navigates’ with her wrist, shortening the distances in passages and ‘showing her fingers the way’? This is exactly what I mean!

      I hope I didn’t forget anything! This technique is not hard, but it’s important to understand and feel it properly, so don’t hesitate to ask in case you have other questions about these pieces!

      Best wishes,


      • Rodney James says:

        It’s the wrist Ms Vartic! I breezed through the Chopin etude op 10 no 1. Not at the final tempo, but pretty fast. No tension at all. I almost feel kind of stupid that the solution was right there, and I couldn’t get it. You really get to the crux of the problem!
        I have started to mark my practice scores with a red pen. Helps me to really see what I need to do technically. Hopefully I’ll get to the point where the patterns just jump out at me, but for now the red markers help.
        I’m in the last volume of the Russian technical regimen which covers double not scales. I’m done with most of the double thirds. My question is about double sixths. Do you play them, or played them in the past? Dohnyani suggests just doing chromatic scales in major and minor double sixths. He feels it is not necessary to do all the scales. What is your thought on this

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi Rodney!

          Yes, it’s the wrist – there are no limits to the ‘superpowers’ of a relaxed, flexible, cleverly used wrist! 🙂 I’m so happy that you feel the progress in your playing and – what’s even more important – you understand the principles which will simplify your practice in the future, no matter what pieces you learn!

          I’m sure that in a short time you’ll begin to see these patterns automatically – it’s simply a question of practice and a little experience.

          Double sixths: No, we don’t play them as a part of our mandatory technical regimen here in Moldova. I’m not sure if they’re played now in Russia (I’ll have to check it out!). However, in my personal opinion, it’s not necessary to practice double sixths in order to have a brilliant technique, but – certainly – you should practice them if you like! There’s always room for improvement! If you play them, however, make sure your arms and wrists are not tensed – the risk of tension appears more often when playing intervals.

          I remember that a few years ago I was practicing Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brilliante op. 22 (in E flat major). There is a passage in this brilliant piece that goes like this:

          The intervals in the right hand are not all sixths (there are some fifths in the beginning), but there is definitely a ‘sixths’ pattern. Even if I never played double sixths as a part of my scale ‘training’, I remember that I didn’t have any problems playing this fragment – it was in fact extremely comfortable! Again, the secret lies in identifying the proper hand positions and shifting them swiftly, with relaxed wrists and properly positioned fingers. In such cases, it’s also important to keep our fingers ‘ready for action’ (like Neuhaus used to say). I will compare this technique with the way a cat is ‘hunting’: the paws are totally relaxed, but the claws… you get the picture! 🙂

          I also have good news – today I recorded my first videos! The first one is the answer to Alexandra’s question about short and long arpeggios. The second one – a short video reply to Vicente’s question. Now I’m still working on converting and uploading them and I hope they’ll be live in a couple of minutes (hours?)!

          Talk soon,

  34. Rodney James says:

    Hello again Ms Vartic!
    Very nice response on the Schumann! There are two measures in the allergro section of the Mozart c minor Fantasy which have always tripped me up. First there is an a minor scale in double thirds descending and a few measures later the same thing in g minor. they are staccato double thirds and I have always tripped up at that speed. I just found the answer in your post!!
    Also in reading Alexandra’s post I wanted to offer her a suggestion. I think she would do well to take a look at Alexander Peskanov’s Russian Technical Regimen. It contains the scales that you listed, and arpeggios, broken chords, double thirds, double sixths, etc. The most helpful tool though is the dvd that comes with it. It is called In search of Sound! Through all those scales and work the main focus is on sound! He also makes sure to explain the relaxation points and breathing with the wrists. He plays all of the scales, arpeggios, etc in three tempos. Slow , medium and blazing fast! This is really amazing to see, and really inspired me to learn as much of this as can.
    I really hope that you don’t mind me offering a suggestion.
    Talk to you soon!

    • Alexandra says:

      Thanks very much for the referral to Peskanov’s DVD! Sounds very instructive…yikes! After so many years of being on the same plane of piano-playing consciousness, it is a bit intimidating to think that I may be reaching a higher one, including setting newer, higher personal goals for my technical abilities. Exciting and …scary! But, I realize, for the masterpieces I want to play, I’m in more need of serious training. No turning back now.

    • Ilinca says:

      It’s great that I could help you with the double thirds in Mozart’s Fantasy by describing the proper technique for Schumann’s Suite! 😉

      Yes, of course, it’s ok to reply to other questions and offer suggestions! This is exactly what ‘sharing our experience’ means!


  35. Vicente says:

    Let me begin with the simplest questions, may be.
    First, when you play do, re, mi, fa, sol, fa, mi, re, do, or when you play a scale, do you make some kind of rotation? After all the fingers have different sizes.

    Second question: most waltz tempos are in 3/4 (3 beats to a measure with the quarter note getting one beat.) It’s difficult to me to reach the correct bass note and then the two following chords in the left hand without watching the keyboard. Almost always I make a mistake, reaching the wrong key. For me it’s hard to estimate the right distances between the these shifting keys. What to do? Thanks. Vicente

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Vicente!

      It’s great to see you here! 😉

      1. Here is my answer to your first question:
      There is a general rule in piano playing (it is the most important one!!!): We should always keep our wrists relaxed and flexible, no matter what we play!

      As I always write, playing correctly means channeling the entire weight of our relaxed arms (with relaxed shoulders and flexible elbows and wrists) into our fingers, without any ‘blockages’! A ‘blockage’ appears when there is tension – in the shoulder, the elbow, the forearms or the wrist. When there is no tension, the resulting sound is deep and expressive, not brutal and not superficial.

      Never keep your wrist immobile, even when you play something as easy as do, re, mi, fa, sol, fa, mi, re, do.

      Yes, all fingers have different sizes, but this is a separate question :). The main reason for making a small flexible rotation remains the need to avoid tension! When there is tension in our wrist, our fingers (which are connected by ligaments with our forearm) cannot move as freely and as fast as they should. Without a relaxed and flexible wrist, we cannot develop a good technique and achieve a good quality of the sound.

      When the distance between the notes is small (for example – do, re, mi, fa, sol) then this rotation (I also call it ‘moving the wrist in the direction of the melody’ or ‘anticipating with the wrist the outline of the melody’) is minimal.

      When the distance between the notes is bigger (for example, an arpeggio), then the movement of the wrist is more ample – it helps us ‘reach’ the needed notes without straining our hand and stretching our fingers too much – this way we avoid tension.

      2. The second question:
      The problem you described (reaching the correct bass note with the left hand when playing a waltz) is a classical ‘jumping problem’ :).

      The most important thing, when playing a jump, is to avoid making a slow, tensed vertical movement. In this case it’s hard to predict where your hand will ‘land’! You should move your hand swiftly, horizontally, in a relaxed manner. This way, you save time and you can feel and prepare the needed note (or chord) in advance. Even in a fast tempo, when there’s no time for ‘preparation’, it’s still much easier to ‘land’ on the needed note if you ‘shift’ your hand horizontally instead of ‘jumping vertically’.

      Here is how you should practice:

      Practice the left hand separately. You should train your hand to remember the distance between the bass and the chords.

      First, play the left hand slowly and get used to the ‘layout’. Then, take only one bar at the time and practice the ‘jump’, gradually increasing the tempo, until it becomes a comfortable horizontalshift‘ of your hand. It means that instead of making a clumsy, tensed jump, you’ll gradually learn how to move your hand swiftly, easily, horizontally, without effort and unnecessary movements.

      First practice the ‘jump’ in the first bar (yes, only the bass and the first chord – nothing more!). Increase the tempo until you can play it fast, horizontally, and very relaxed. Then do the same with the second bar. Then move to the third and so on.

      Then, you can combine the first two-three bars. Then, combine the next two-three bars. Then combine these 4-6 bars (depending on the piece). Follow this pattern with the left hand until the end of the piece.

      I call this type of practice ‘the magnifying glass‘ – you put one tiny difficult fragment (even if it consists of two notes!) under the magnifying glass and you learn it until it becomes comfortable!

      During this training, make sure that your arms and wrists are relaxed – this is the most important thing! Tension is not only a productivity-killer. It is also responsible for muscle pain and hand injuries.

      When your left hand feels comfortable and it’s easier to play the ‘jumps’, you can practice both hands together!

      Have a good practice and don’t forget to share your progress! 😉

      • Vicente says:

        Hi Ilinca! It’s great everything you said! It helps a lot. Thank you so much for sharing your kindness and knowledge with us!
        I need yet something more. Yet to the first question (jumping to the bass note and hitting the wrong key in a waltz): when I move the left arm toward the bass note, how much can I shift the elbow in the same direction? Does the elbow move away from the body or does it maintain the same position?
        A little above you revealed some “secrets” to our friend Rodney James to play Scriabin and Chopin. Which of these secrets could perhaps complete your suggestions in the, let’s call it, “waltz affair”? I believe the second and the fourth would help a little more. Do you agree? Or do they refer to a quite different subject?
        Another question: you said, “we should always keep the wrists relaxed and flexible”. How does that work in a thumb passage in a scale? My tendency is to twist the hand around the wrist, making an angle between the hand and wrist and turning the hand toward the left, if it’s an ascending scale or arpeggio ( with the right hand). That breaks the alignment between hand and arm. The same happens if it’s a descending scale or an arpeggio: the hand breaks the alignment and turns to the left. Maybe this difficulty comes from an imperfect thumb passage. Is there a trouble with this turning? I believe this movement hinders a smooth execution of the scale or arpeggio. What may be a good solution?
        Besides, I’d like you to give us a detailed lesson about thumb passages in scales, arpeggios and third passages, possible with the aid of a video, but now I’m asking too much…. Many and many thanks again. Vicente.

        • Ilinca says:

          Hi Vicente!

          Your question about shifting the elbow is a very good one! Read my answer below!

          Today I also recorded my first videos and one of them is dedicated to your questions about thumb passages and the ‘waltz affair’ :).

          Here is a short written reply (and you can also watch my demonstration in the video):

          As I explain in the video, our wrists and elbows should always be flexible and relaxed. No matter what you play – the left hand in a waltz, a scale or a piece – allow your elbows to move freely in the needed direction, following (and sometimes anticipating) your fingers and wrists. Don’t exaggerate, keep your gestures in the limits of common sense :), but don’t keep your elbows next to your body all the time! In fact (as you’re going to see in my video), the elbows are NEVER too close to the body – they’re always at a reasonable distance that allows them to ‘fly’ freely.

          Your next question, about the secrets which I described to Rodney: In fact, those secrets refer to playing arpeggio-like passages in Chopin’s Etudes and are not really suitable for playing the left hand in a Waltz. However, what I wrote about Scriabin (in the beginning of my reply to Rodney) can certainly by applied to your problem! 🙂

          My video below touches your question about the proper way of crossing the thumb when playing scales. Then, I also demonstrate how you should practice the ‘jumps’ in the left hand when practicing a waltz.

          The video is in HD, so don’t forget to change its settings from 360p to 720p to watch it in a better quality! Enjoy! 🙂

          In this tutorial, I didn’t demonstrate the thumb passage in all the forms of scales – this is the topic for another detailed video! I also didn’t talk about the elbows – but you can see how flexible the elbows should be when playing a scale or the left hand in a Waltz. You can also watch more ‘scale tips’ (and notice how I perform the thumb passage) in my video reply to Alexandra question about short and long arpeggios.

          I hope I didn’t forget anything! If you have more questions, please ask! 😉


  36. Liz says:

    Hi! Can you tell me why a piece would have the same note twice, almost on top of each other? One has an up stem and one down. The piece is Einaudi’s Le Onde and it has this throughout the piece. Thanks!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Liz!

      Thank you for your question! Welcome to our “Ask Me a Piano Question” page! 😉

      Before talking about the piece you mentioned (Le Onde), let me explain the general rule about stem notation:

      There are two main types of musical writing: polyphonic (for example, Bach’s Inventions or his Well-Tempered Clavier – pieces where all the voices have ‘equal rights’) and homophono-harmonic (where there is a main voice – the melody, and the secondary voice – the accompaniment). In polyphonic music, every voice is important – the main Theme passes from one voice into another; in homophono-harmonic music, however, the melody is always more important, and it should be played louder and more expressive than the accompaniment.

      In polyphonic music, when two separate voices should be played by one hand (being written on the same staff), one voice has the stems pointing up, while the other voice has the stems pointing down.

      This is an example from Bach’s Three-part Invention No.3:

      As you can see, this Invention has 3 voices: there are 2 voices in the right hand and 1 voice in the left. In the right hand, the 1st voice has the stems pointing up; the 2nd voice has the stems pointing down. So, different-facing stems are used for separating different voices on the same staff.

      In homophono-harmonic pieces, usually the melody is played by the right hand and the accompaniment – by the left hand (or vice-versa). This way, it’s easy to play the melody louder – you simply have to play one hand louder than the other one.

      In Einaudi’s Le Onde (which is a homophono-harmonic piece), however, things are a little more interesting:

      The left hand gives us only the harmonic background. The right hand plays simultaneously the accompaniment and the melody.

      In order to ‘separate’ the melody from the accompaniment and to show the performer which notes should be played louder and more expressive, the composer marked these notes with separate stems pointing up – this way, they form a separate voice.

      So – the melody has the stems pointing up; the accompaniment has the stems pointing down. The ‘up’ stems are crotchets (quarter notes) because they should be not only louder than the notes with ‘down’ stems, but also longer, forming a flowing continual melody, without any gaps:

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

      Another interesting thing is the fact that the notes which I marked with red circles have double stems. It means that the same note is simultaneously the melody and a part of the accompaniment.

      You should not worry about this, however: you should simply play the notes with double stems louder, longer and more expressive than the notes with ‘down’ stems. The accompaniment should always be softer than the melody!

      So it’s not ‘the same note twice, almost on top of each other‘ – as you wrote. It’s just one note, but it has two different functions.

      Now a little about musical expression:

      Do you see how the notes of the melody are connected with a slur? It means that they should be played legato – smoothly, joined together, without gaps, being flowingly transferred from one finger to another. For example: you play the first note of the melody – D – with your pinkie. While you play the second quaver (F# from the second voice – it has the stem pointing down), the pinkie playing D should not be lifted! You can lift it only after pressing (with the 4th finger) the second note of the melody – C#!

      We should also not forget that the melody is forming a phrase.

      I hope that you read my report “A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing“. There I explain, step-by-step, how to shape beautiful flowing phrases and thus make our performance more interesting and captivating.

      I hope this was helpful! If you have more questions, please ask! 😉

      Have an inspired practice today!


  37. Ilinca says:

    Hi Alexandra!

    Wow, you can’t imagine how glad I am that after my explanation you felt that you can play more relaxed!

    Understanding is good, of course – it is the first step towards a new mastery level for most of us (even if genial performers sometimes skip this step LOL). Feeling, on the other hand, is when quantity becomes quality, when objective becomes subjective, when theory becomes skill.

    Now let’s start small, with the fingering in Schumann’s Hasche Mann.

    As I expected, your fingering has a ‘mathematical’ logic, not a pianistic one. It is reasonable on the surface, but not comfortable on a deeper level.

    For example, there is a general rule: you should always avoid (whenever possible) placing your thumb on black keys. Why? Because our thumb is shorter than the other fingers, being also situated lower. That’s why it is perfect for white keys – just like the pinkie!

    Chopin (followed by Liszt) ‘revolutionarized’ (does this word exist in English?) the pianistic pedagogy. Our modern pianistic system is based on his discoveries, being totally different from the old ‘harpsichord’ technique. He explained that the most comfortable hand position is when the thumb plays E, the fingers 2,3,4 play F#, G# and A# and the pinkie plays C. Here is a picture I just took that illustrates this position:

    Chopin is also the founder of the weighted key attack and the relaxed playing – when we play from the shoulder, with flexible arms, elbows and wrists, allowing the weight of the entire arm to flow freely into the tips of the fingers. He always used the piano ergonomically (though I’m not sure he was aware of the term :)), adapting it to the natural functionality of our hands.

    The fingering that I suggested is based on this ‘ergonomic’ approach – economy of movement and energy efficiency! 🙂

    In the first bar, in order to place your thumb on C# you need to make a big uncomfortable ‘leap’ with your hand after playing the first interval. Then, playing the sixteenth notes with 1,2,3,4, you have to ‘squeeze’ your hand between two black notes – C# and F#. It is not hard (virtuosos like Valentina Lisitsa or Martha Argerich can certainly play such pieces with all kinds of fingerings and their performance will still be perfect!). Beginners, however, should always look for comfortable fingerings – when you’re comfortable, you’re not tensed! It’s as simple as that!

    Again, here are my fingering recommendations for this piece (I only changed the 4th bar – I agree that the last two notes – B and F# – can be played with the left hand, thus increasing the right hand stability even more):

    Here I’m playing the first interval – the fourth F#-B:

    If, as I suggest, you place the 3rd finger on C#, you need to rotate your hand only slightly in order to press the key:

    It will not be a full legato – it’s not necessary because the pedal holds the sound. The pedal should be lifted only when you press C# and begin playing the sixteenth staccato notes. So, after moving your hand and 3rd finger in the needed direction (like I show in the picture above), you should make (while holding the pedal) a swift horizontal movement (in the air – moving the entire hand, not only the finger) and place the 3rd finger on C#.

    Here, after playing the C# with the 3rd finger, I prepare my thumb for playing the following D:

    This position (with the thumb on white keys and the 3rd finger on black keys) is more natural, adapted to the length and natural functionality of our fingers.

    Now let’s move to bar 4:

    If you play the first notes with the fingers 5,4,3,2 – it will be very uncomfortable to land on the fourth F# – B (not to mention that when you play the A# with the 2nd finger, your hand position will be ‘shaky’ and not stable).

    My fingering stabilizes the hand position, which becomes very comfortable. Here I play the accented D with my 5th finger, preparing the 3rd finger for C# and the thumb for B:

    Here, while playing B with the thumb, I prepare the 4th finger for the A#:

    Here, while playing A# with the 4th finger, I prepare the 2nd finger and the pinkie for the interval F# – B.

    This way, every hand position is a natural continuation of the previous one – as if each position flows from one into another! This kind of fingering is an example of thinking ahead and anticipating our next moves by facilitating them.

    Why are hand positions so important?, you might ask. After all, we have to play staccato, so we lift our fingers from the keyboard after each note! True! However, when using these comfortable hand positions, we make staccato by small vertical lifts of our wrist and fingers, but the fingers themselves are always ‘in position’, ready for action :). This way we reduce our chances of hitting wrong keys!

    This kind of fingering increases our stability, comfort and relaxation, which are the first steps towards better velocity and better control in a fast tempo.

    Portamento feels like walking through mud? 🙂 Now this is one very inspired and funny comparison! LOL Yes, maybe the initial feeling could be compared with walking through mud. I prefer to compare it with the way a cat walks or a bird moves its wings. However, don’t exaggerate with the ‘heaviness’ – concentrate on relaxation instead – just relax your arm and wrist on each note – when you play slowly.

    The heaviness in slow tempo, however, has its benefits as well, increasing the strength of our fingers and their stability on the keys. More about his technique in my future posts!

    As you increase the tempo when you practice, your touche should gradually become lighter as well until it reaches staccato (but without losing the relaxed feeling).

    This week I’ll continue to work with pictures, but from next week I hope to begin making videos (I’m still learning how to do that – so many technical details to manage!). Then it will be easier to explain this portamento practice method.

    Now it’s late, I’ll post my answer and I’ll continue writing tomorrow (especially about scales!).

    Talk soon and have a wonderful day tomorrow! 🙂


    P.S. I also have small hands – I can reach only a 9th. But I don’t consider them small, I consider them agile and adaptable :). LOL

  38. Alexandra says:

    Oh my gosh, Ilinca! I am almost speechless and in tears (of joy) with curiosity, excitement and gratitude! You are a superb teacher (and, I suspect, human being.) You’re explanations are so clear and intelligent and thoughtful. (half of me is off my chair wanting to go to the piano immediately to try out all these great points you’ve written (and shown in photos!!)
    ok. Your fingering advice is great. Yes, I always thought of my fingering mathmatically and if my thumb-3rd or 4th finger-passing was moving ‘in order’. Nothing about ergonomics—I did, however, read about Chopin’s ideas on correct hand position/finger position as they relate to the black/white keys. It made sense in theory, but I didn’t consider the practical application of this idea to my OWN fingering. duh. 🙂
    ALTHOUGH, (I dont want you to think I am a complete dummy), last night, I was trying out newer instinctively comfortable fingerings for the HascheMann piece last night… Maybe picking up some telepathic communications from your side? haha!
    Are you familiar with Ingrid Fliter of Argentina? I she is close to my style of playing. I’m not comparing my ability to hers at all! But somehow I can relate to her. She displays relaxation ‘points’ as you wrote about, but also strength. Have you seen this youtube video? This one of Ingrid is the performance that confirmed for me, my style.
    Here is another, if you are interested:

    (Fliter’s performance feels very ‘earthy’ and grounded.) Gosh, this is hard to put into words.
    Up until seeing this video, I was feeling very feeble and odd and uncertain. Just couldn’t relate to other virtuosos, including some female pianists like Argerich and Hewitt and most male pianists, with the exception of Kissin. These pianists were just worlds away to me. As an aspiring pianist, amateur or professional, it seems important to have an ideal to aspire—otherwise, one is driving blind, with no specific destination.

    The thing I love about Valentina’s playing is its grace and beauty and accuracy. I could compare Valentina and Argerich also! (In short, Valentina is more feminine, truly like a classic ballerina, and Argerich is pure power and speed and wit.)
    About Portamento: haha, ‘mud’ maybe isn’t the best metaphor? I like your cat analogy much better! haha! I’ve been (trying) to play HascheMann at the suggested tempo (138) because I read somewhere, that, when learning a new piece, it is important to bring the piece up to the correct speed as soon as able. I’ve also read about starting slow and slowly increasing speed. Do you have any thoughts on these two opposing opinions?

    Ok, off to the keyboard now!
    Have a great day, Ilinca! Thanks for taking the time for all your postings. (Your instructions are outshining my teacher’s! She is good at demonstration, but where her explanations fall off for me, yours are tremendously helpful and clear.)
    ‘revolutionized’ is correct—no ‘ar’ 😉

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Alexandra!

      Thanks again for your support and your interesting comments and questions! 🙂 I’m really happy that I can help you discover new things about piano playing!!!

      Do you know how I look at the amazing diversity of approaches and performing styles of great pianists?

      Here is what I imagine: There is light. It is beautiful by itself. However, when it shines through a particular diamond, or sapphire, or ruby (or another precious stone with a specific color or shade), its beauty transforms according to the individuality of the stone or crystal is passes through.

      Piano masterpieces are like that light – they simply ARE and they’re amazing by themselves. However, great pianists ‘imprint’ on them the unique color of their personality, of their approach, of their school.

      I can say something similar about piano playing schools and systems: each one has its particular benefits, its specific ways of bringing out the beauty of the pianistic repertoire.

      The beauty of this world is in its diversity! We all have something to say, to share, to contribute – we just have to know ourselves and develop our unique potential by doing things we enjoy!

      The diversity of performing styles in piano playing allows each of us, just like you said, to find an ideal that ‘resonates’ best with our personality. I really liked Ingrid Fliter’s performance of Chopin’s Nocturne! Yes, you’re right – she plays more ‘earthly’, but still with an amazing expression and relaxation. Her style is Western-inspired, while Valentina Lisitsa illustrates perfectly the principles of the Russian piano school (which I’ve been taught as well).

      Did you know that even within the Russian system there are several schools? For example, the method taught in St. Petersburg differs from the system taught in Moscow :). My first teacher was a follower of the St. Petersburg school, while my Academy professor’s style was Moscow-inspired.

      Still, the main focus of the Russian piano school remains going beyond the physical limitations of this instrument and making the piano sound less like a percussion instrument and more like the voice, or the violin, or the orchestra (it’s extremely important to be able to ‘find’ in the piano various orchestral timbres), or the organ!!! This ‘transcendental’ quality of the sound is, of course, combined with a very good technical education which allows the pianists to fully express the composer’s intentions and the results of their own imagination, inner hearing, emotions and understanding.

      I was always reminded by my teachers (and by the books I read) that everything originates in our mind, in our hearing, in our imagination. This should be the foundation of all piano systems! 🙂 How can we play something we don’t hear, or feel, or know, or imagine first?

      Ok, this is a very interesting topic (I got inspired by the fact that you described the performing style of several great pianists), but let’s move to the other question: fast vs. slow practice method.

      As I already said, diversity is good and each method has its benefits. There are different ways of teaching (and learning) piano. There is no such thing as ‘the perfect’ method. However, the most important thing is to identify the individual talents of each student and have a unique approach for each case! 🙂

      Personally, I prefer practicing slowly first (for how long depends on your skill level – if you’re a beginner it may take several weeks, if you’re advanced – a few hours or even minutes!).

      My teachers always emphasized the need of practicing slowly (maybe with exaggerated ‘heaviness’ and relaxation) until everything becomes comfortable and the needed positions and technical elements enter in our ‘muscle memory’ (not to mention our mind!!!).

      If the student has the tendency to play ‘superficially’, without reaching the depth of the keyboard with his fingers, then this method is especially helpful – it ‘anchors’ our arms, strengthens our fingers and gives stability to our technique (and it also helps us ‘bring down’ our shoulders, relax our elbows and wrists!).

      After ‘memorizing’ the relaxed feeling and the place of each finger this way, we should gradually increase the tempo until we feel comfortable in the final tempo. Then, of course, we can play the piece in the correct tempo a couple of times per day – but not more! After we learn the piece very well, it’s better to combine the slow practice with the fast practice.

      If the student, on the other hand, likes to ‘hammer’ on the piano, then it’s important to make him/her (again, by having very relaxed arms and wrists) to listen to the beauty of the sound, to lighten the touche, to play softer and faster (but not sooner than allowed by the state of their technique!).

      Now a little about the ‘fast practice method‘. Playing fast for too long is dangerous, especially for beginners. A beginner’s reflexes are not yet well-formed. If he or she plays in a fast tempo too soon (or for too long!), before learning how to play correctly, then there is an increased risk of tension, incorrect posture, lack of stability, superficial key attack, uneven technique and the resulting hand injuries!

      My conclusion is: for being good pianists, we should keep everything in balance – technique and sound, mind and arms, ‘slow motion’ and ‘fast motion’. In everything (including piano playing) we should strive towards the golden middle! At the same time, we should take it one step at a time – in the long run, if you don’t hurry and you’re moving calmly, each day, towards your goal, you’ll reach it sooner than those who will ‘stumble’ over a hand injury or other tension-related problem in their hurry.

      Have a nice evening! Scales, as I can feel, are coming later (or even tomorrow) 🙂


      • Alexandra says:

        By the way (I don’t think I wrote about this yet), just some feed back on the fingering for Hasche Mann: It is working. The 5-3-1-4 from high D was awkward at first, but makes sense in keeping correct form and relaxation! This is truly eye-opening. I rethinking my fingering for so many scores, including my recent Bach inventions. So, I played slowly through the first 2 phrases of Schumann, then sped it up gradually yesterday, and it felt good. no strain. This piece needs work, but someday I will play it well and look back on this time fondly (?) haha.

        I’m still working on the comfortable “new” feeling for playing scales,chords, and well, everything I’VE EVER PLAYED in the past with all my bad habits!!! Really turning everything upside down at the moment, and my brain is battling “old” ways with correct comfortable “new”, but your advice is shining a whole new light on my approach to playing correctly, finally!!

        • Ilinca says:

          Yes!!! Feels great to hear about your progress! 😉

          Battling old habits is not easy, but it’s more than possible – we just need a little patience, some courage and, of course, the good old passion for what we do :).

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Alexandra!

      So, finally we get to scales :).

      First of all, you don’t have to get overwhelmed by the diversity of variations and it’s certainly not necessary to play all of them now! In my reply to Rodney, I wrote the complete list of fundamental variations as played by advanced piano students in professional musical schools which follow the Russian system. And I also mentioned that beginners (and those who only start to play scales) need to play less variations! 🙂

      Playing too many scales without proper gradual training can lead to tension and muscle pain, so…

      Yes, as you have probably guessed, you need to take it one step at a time.

      Start with the scales with sharps (for no particular reason, simply because you have to start somewhere). C major and its parallel a minor are conventionally included in the list of scales with sharps.

      Here is the list of the scales with sharps, as they follow the Circle of 5ths:

      1. C Major – A minor

      2. G major – E minor (1 sharp)

      3. D major – B minor (2 sharps)

      4. A major – F# minor (3 sharps)

      5. E major – C# minor (4 sharps)

      6. B major – G# minor (5 sharps)

      I don’t know how you play, but considering the difficulty level of the pieces you’re currently practicing, I recommend to start with these variations (all played in 4 octaves):

      1. Parallel motion scale

      2. Contrary motion scale

      3. Parallel thirds

      4. Contrary thirds

      5, Parallel sixths

      6. Parallel tenths

      7. Triad chords (see detailed explanations below!)

      8. Short arpeggios

      9. Long arpeggios (parallel motion, 1 arpeggio from each note of the chord – 3 arpeggios in total)

      10. Chromatic scale – parallel motion.

      Also, don’t forget that minor scales (the basic scale, the thirds, sixths and tenths) come in two versions: harmonic and melodic.

      Take one scale at a time! For the time being, play only the variations I wrote above.

      Here is a practice schedule that we frequently use:

      Our students have two piano classes per week – on Monday and Thursday OR on Tuesday and Friday. For example, on Monday I tell my student that he/she has to learn C Major (with the variations suitable for his/her level) until Thursday. The student practices only this scale for 3 days (of course, besides the scale they also work on several pieces!). On Thursday, if the scale is played well, I tell the student to learn a minor until Monday. Minor scales are more complicated and there are 4 available days! ;). Then, the student will learn the next major scale – D Major. This process continues until all scales with sharps are learned (again, with the variations suitable for that particular age group or skill level).

      After the technical exam, we start learning the scales with flats and we add several variations. After mastering the ‘flat’ scales, we move to the ‘sharp’ scales – again adding a few variations. The tempo also gradually increases.

      This practice system continues until the student is able to play, in a fast tempo, 24 scales with all the variations I described in my answer to Rodney.

      So, take it one step at a time! Practice 2-3 scales per week (not more). Make your own comfortable schedule or follow my schedule example.

      Follow this system until you learn all the scales with sharps with the variations I listed above. Then you can move to the scales with flats, adding a few variations (I will tell you in which order to add them). And so on :).

      Practice suggestions:

      Start practicing slowly. Quality is more important than quantity and speed! Keep your arms and shoulders relaxed, elbows and wrists flexible, make sure that your posture is correct, your back is straight and you feel comfortable :). Keep the knuckles rounded all the time (your hand should form a ‘dome’) and your fingers rounded as well. We don’t use the pedal when playing scales, so keep your feet next to the pedals, not under the bench!!! You should feel stable and relaxed, which is not possible when our feet are not properly ‘grounded’.

      When you practice, pay attention not only to your accuracy and velocity, but also to the quality of the sound. It should be powerful without being brutal and tensed. We usually play scales with a deep, vibrant, expressive sound (mf is a good dynamic). I can compare such a sound with the flowing of a river – a relaxed, flexible, flowing force of nature – not a brutal solid rock! 🙂 Also, make a good expressive legato (sometimes, if it’s hard to get rid of tension, you can also practice the scale portamento – it facilitates the wrist relaxation).

      Using dynamics is also advisable – make a crescendo on the ascending movement and a diminuendo when you come back. Playing scales should be fun and creative too! 🙂

      All the time, notice how the entire weight of your relaxed arms is flowingly transferred from one finger into another.

      Also, don’t forget to lift each finger properly before and after playing a note, articulating each sound. These movements (lifting the fingers) are very important, but they should not be exaggerated. At the same time, avoid ‘gluing’ the keys together – it happens when we don’t lift the fingers enough! Again, strive for the golden middle. A good finger velocity develops by itself if we practice scales regularly and we play them correctly!

      Practice first in a slow tempo. As you begin to feel more comfortable, gradually increase the tempo. Return to a slower tempo at the first sign of tension or discomfort.

      I almost forgot: I don’t know how are the scale variations described in your scale book, but I assume that the fingering is correct. I also want to explain how to play triad chords properly.

      First, I will explain why we need to play chords in the first place. They do not develop our finger velocity. However, they help us to play many notes simultaneously with a beautiful sound and a proper relaxation of the wrist!!! It’s a good training for playing the chords we encounter in pieces – for example in works by Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky :).

      Before playing the first chord, take a ‘breath’ with the wrists and play the chord by pressing, not hitting the keys. When playing it, your wrists will go slightly down and then again up, lifting your fingers with them. Don’t ‘let go’ of the ‘dome’ formed by your knuckles!

      When relaxing your arms, the wrist always goes up first, being followed by the relaxed fingers (you can notice this technique in Valentina’s playing!!!). Then bring your wrists down and play the following chord.

      Chords are played hands together – each hand plays three notes at a time.

      In case of C Major, first we play C-E-G:

      Then E-C-G:

      Then G-C-E:

      We play these chords in 4 octaves – ascending and descending movements.

      Notice the correct fingering – it is the foundation of many hand positions that are used all the times in piano pieces.

      By playing chords, we also learn how to change hand positions fast and how to think on multiple levels – which will be extremely helpful in playing pieces!

      If you have questions on fingering or on how to play properly a certain variation, please ask! 🙂

      Almost forgot!!! I got so caught up in technical details that I forgot to mention the most important thing in playing scales: enjoy what you do and have fun!!! Yes, that’s right! That’s the main secret ingredient that has magical powers in increasing our productivity and making us feel amazing!

      And one more thing: having a practice schedule is a good thing. At the same time, never force yourself to do something if you don’t feel like it. If one day you don’t feel the need to play scales, don’t do it! Start with a piece that you love and have a great time at the instrument – this is what makes our lives so enriching!


  39. Alexandra says:

    Hi Ilinca,
    Thank you (as always!) for the instructions on scales and all the rest! Relieved to know that one or two scales a day (plus variations) is sufficient for now 🙂 I’ll begin slowly, as you advise, paying attention to relaxation and hand position, wrists, knuckles, etc. (I’ve got a lot to think about! No time for complaining or wallowing in boredom and regrets. haha! I think everyone with a tendency to think about life, or “over-think”, as the case may be, should study music!)

    Chords—this is another fundamental that I have not studied. I see your fingering in the photos. Makes sense. I’ve tried to read about chords and their structure via the internet. But, I think a proper text would be better.

    When you have time (!), can you recommend a text on piano chords and their variations in all the keys? (My father’s old scale book only has the scales, in order of the Circle/5ths.)
    Also, can you explain what a short and long arpeggio is? Not sure the difference.

    Different piano styles: Last year, when I started rethinking my approach to the piano, I happened to notice quite a bit of discussion about the Russian school. I got very intrigued…It IS different from western syle. Being American, I’ve always felt a sort of unrefined roughness in our approach to life, espcially noticeable when traveling abroad. Granted, Americans “get things done”. We’re stubborn and competitive. But, we lack an “old-world” quality. There is a quality to Eastern Europe, and parts of Western Europe, and Russia that, I feel, surpasses the rest of the world, especially noticeable to me in music, literature, even sports!…Is it elegance?Depth?Irony of life aesthetically manifested?A seriousness towards life?Struggle?A disciplined pursuit of excellence? All of these combined??? I cant quite identify it, but anyway, I love it.
    In short, in terms of myself, I cannot erase my fundamental nature and environmental/cultural influences (rough and dusty as they are! haha!) but ideally, as you wrote, I will strive for the golden middle, the perfect balance of my own style, while utilizing the best approaches of all schools.

    …off to do scales!!! 🙂
    I could keep writing , so much to talk about! and so many questions to ask!!!! (I’m trying to pace myself, so as not to overwhelm your Questions page and you!)

    Have a great day!
    PS, (God, see what I mean?!), here in Japan, we had a typhoon blow through yesterday afternoon. I went outside to bring in something from blowing away, and just stood on the front porch listening to the different pitches of wind. I swear I heard a pure musical symphony of nature…incredible.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Alexandra!

      You’re right – when you learn to play piano you don’t have time for being bored :). Practicing piano is an amazing method of developing our coordination and our capacity of synchronizing different levels of mental and physical action: we have to pay attention to our attitude, our posture, the quality of our sound, our phrasing, the character of the music and so on.

      Wow – I was amazed to read what you wrote about European culture and our way of doing things. I quote:

      Is it elegance? Depth? Irony of life aesthetically manifested? A seriousness towards life? Struggle? A disciplined pursuit of excellence? All of these combined??? I cant quite identify it, but anyway, I love it.

      These words are really beautiful and, I think, really close to the essence of the Old World and the Russian piano school – especially ‘depth’ (not only of feelings, but also of key attack!!!), ‘struggle’, ‘elegance’, seriousness combined with irony, sometimes with sadness and even despair, other times with radiant joy… But, at the same time, it’s perfectly ok to combine Western and Eastern traditions, and to find inspiring moments in different piano schools, adapting them to your unique personality. We’ll continue to discuss this subject some other time, and now we’ll go back to scales!

      I have good news – today I recorded my first videos!!! 🙂

      The video below is dedicated to you and your question about the difference between short and long arpeggios (but, of course, everyone who’s interested in this topic can watch it – it is for all my readers!!!). I also explain and demonstrate how to play chords properly!

      One more thing – the video is in HD, so you can change its settings from 360p to 720p and watch it in a better quality!

      I didn’t have much time for shooting this tutorial so, if I forgot to mention something about arpeggios, don’t hesitate to ask!

      I have another video reply – for Vicente’s question, and now I’m going to post it as well.

      I hope you enjoyed the video – I know I had a great time shooting it! 🙂


      P.S. Hearing a symphony of nature in the different pitches of wind is definitely a symptom that you have an incurable case of ‘chronic musician’ disease! 🙂 I hear music everywhere as well – even in the horns of the cars! I have a perfect pitch and I always tell my friends : “Did you hear that? That car just played an E flat!” LOL

  40. Alexandra says:

    Good morning, Ilinca!
    Your video was brilliant (and you are STUNNING and ADORABLE!) It helps so much to see a demonstration, in addition to the written explanation. Thank you for taking the time to do this!!
    (I also checked out the video for Vicente’s question.)

    Ok, now I see what short&long arpeggios are. In Long Arpeggios in CMaj, I am straining my wrist quite a bit from the starting CEG with fingers 123 in RH, then passing my thumb under finger 3 on G to reach the following C. (And similarly with my LH when descending.) I’ll rewatch your instruction and make sure I’m not over-compensating my wrist action unnecessarily.

    Can I ask you another detail about scales??! It happens with my RH when descending (for example, Cmajor ) from 5th finger. My 5-4-3-2 fingers move faster than the following 1-3-2 passover can accomodate. If I play a descending scale slowly, it doesn’t happen of course, but if I am playing a short scale passage at a fast tempo, this happens. Is there a good exercise or approach to train my fingers to play with velocity but evenly together, even during passing thumb, etc.? (I hope this question made sense! ) Or, is the answer simply to start slow and increase speed incrementally…

    Have a great day, Ilinca! It was so fun to see your videos!!
    p.s. A car horn in Eflat? 😉 Didnt Chopin particulary love that tone? I think I read that somewhere—it might have been H.Neuhaus. I wonder if the horn maker, being a music lover, chose that tone intentionally?… My daughter hears C and G in our bed mattress springs! Just got back from seeing the Norwegian pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes in Tokyo last night. Truly skillful and wonderful! (he has very relaxed hands, wrists, and arms, to say the least) But his three encores were of Grieg: They were the most heartfelt of the evening…

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Alexandra!

      Thank you so much for your compliments! I’m so glad you enjoyed my video! 😉

      You said that you’re straining your wrist when playing long arpeggios in C major (especially C-E-G). Strain is definitely not a good word and not a good practice habit! So, let’s try to solve this problem! 🙂

      The wrist should be the most relaxed and flexible part of the pianist’s arms. When you play something that is still difficult for you, you have to remember one important secret: your priority is keeping your arms and wrists relaxed! If doing so means missing a few notes, it’s ok! With a little practice, your arms and fingers will learn how to press the right keys while keeping the wrist relaxed.

      When you play long arpeggios (and not only!), you have to feel how the weight of your arm is passing into your fingers without any obstacles! My teacher used to show me this technique by pressing down my shoulder with one hand and with the other checking if there’s no tension in my elbow or wrist: she moved my wrist slightly – up and down, to the left and to the right – while I was playing. At first, it was very frustrating – I felt that this way she’s only stopping me from playing nicely. In time, however, I understood what she meant (and I’m so grateful that she never gave up teaching me the correct posture and proper relaxation!).

      You have to feel the weight of your arm in each finger, behind each note of the arpeggio. When you play, feel how this weight is transferred from one finger into another. Let me give you an example that I often use for my students. When you walk, you transfer the weight of your body from one leg into the other. The same happens with your arm – it should ‘walk’ by using the fingers as supports. The wrist is just an intermediary – its function is to channel this weight and to make it easier for your hand to find comfortable positions. If it is tensed or strained, then the energy coming from your back or shoulders will simply not reach your fingers and the keyboard!

      One more thing: moving your wrist in the direction of the scale (arpeggio) or rotating it during a thumb crossing is not a goal by itself!!! Don’t do it because you have to! :). It is simply a relaxation technique that is meant to simplify (not to complicate!) your practice. Don’t exaggerate your movements – just keep your wrist relaxed and make sure it doesn’t create obstacles in your playing. So, again, when you play arpeggios, don’t think: “I should move my wrist this way”. Think instead “I should play with relaxed and flexible wrists that allow my hands to feel comfortable and reach without strain all the needed positions!”.

      Now let’s move to your second question, about the descending movement when playing a scale with your RH. I can’t ‘diagnose’ a playing problem with a 100% accuracy without seeing how your play :), but I have the feeling that this happens because of (as you call it) your old practice habit: instead of playing ‘from your shoulders, ‘from your arms’, you play only ‘from your fingers’.

      When you play only by moving your fingers, without ‘involving your entire arm in the affair’ (as Vicente would say), then it’s normal for your 5-4-3-2 fingers to move faster (after all, it’s a comfortable hand position without any obstacles!). When the obstacle appears (the position shift), your speed naturally decreases.

      So: don’t allow your fingers to take over! Each note (regardless of fingering or hand position) should have behind it the weight of your entire arm (it’s the same technique that I described above, when talking about arpeggios). This way, it will be impossible to play in ‘different tempos’ – all your fingers will have to ‘carry’, one by one, the relaxed, flexible weight of your arm.

      In time, with practice, after reaching a good relaxation, you’ll be able to develop a very good finger velocity, at the same time keeping your wrist flexible. AND, what’s more important, you’ll have control over the entire process!

      One more thing: this technique is also the secret to playing ‘forte’: the power we need for producing a powerful sound does not come from our fingers, but from our back! The fingers are just channeling this power into the keyboard! However, if our wrist is tensed, this power will not reach the keyboard – it will remain ‘trapped’ at the tensed point.

      I know it’s hard to grasp this technique only by reading about it. Yes, watch my video demonstration some more – even if I don’t explain in detail this technique there, I still use it all the time, no matter what I play (it’s already an automatic playing habit for me), so you can notice the correct movements :).

      And yes – forming new practice habits is not easy, so you have to play slowly first and increase the speed gradually. Rome was not build in one day – remember this and allow yourself to go one step at a time!

      If I have time, I’ll record another video demonstration on this subject on Monday, after work (I hope that this time I can shoot the video in our main studio, on the Grand Piano!).

      I hope you’re having a wonderful weekend!


      P.S. Your daughter plays piano too? She must have a perfect pitch to be able to ‘identify’ the tone of the mattress springs so well! 🙂

  41. Rodney James says:

    Hello Ms Vartic!
    2 brief questions. The first is concerning the pui allegro section in the Mozart c minor fantasy K475. I played it today and that section was still kind of shaky. What practice tips could you give me to sure this section up?
    I have been assigned the Chopin etude op 10 no 5 in g flat. How should I approach this? Although the right hand is written in triplets, I see the right hand pattern as a 2 note pattern! I know that I may be off base, but this is what I see! How do you approach this etude?
    Many thanks and best wishes to you!

    • Winston says:

      Hi Rodney,
      I just happen to read that you’re learning the etude op10-no5, and I have learnt some really helpful tips from a canadian pianist, Vicky Chow. First, well, you have to see the main pattern in the triplet melody(by accenting the first note of each triplet group and it should show.) Vicky told me to play the notes like i am turning a doorknob when I am familiar with the notes. That is, the hand is see-sawing between each end, and is very relaxed. It helped me to achieve balance and speed, and avoid fatigue. Listen to some nice recordings of it and you’ll love it in no-time! I love the recap the most, when the melody is embedded within the cloud of notes and seem to pop up from time to time. Hope this helps a bit.

      • Rodney James says:

        Thanks for the advice! That doorknob rotation does keep me relaxed throughout the piece. This is a piece that I didn’t think I wanted to learn. After reading through it, I see that this short etude is overflowing with beauty! Never loved it until I attempted it! Thanks again for The advice!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Rodney!

      Let’s begin with Chopin.

      I remember that once my Academy piano professor said something really wise about the Etude op. 10 No. 5: “This Etude is much easier than most pianists think. They practice it a lot and play it with heavy fingers and a ‘heavy’, well-articulated technique. However, this Etude is positional – all you have to do is learn the proper hand positions, make sure your arms and wrists are relaxed and allow your fingers to fly like butterflies on the keyboard! It is like a beautiful spring day – the rays of light are touching the Earth without strain and ‘hard technical work’. It’s simply a game of light and shadows!”

      Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds :). We still need to practice in a slow tempo first, finding our support points and maybe exaggerating (but only a little!!!) the ‘heaviness’ of the key attack (however, don’t forget that this heaviness should come from our back, not from the fingers!!!), this way making sure that each finger presses the right key.

      Then, you should gradually increase the tempo, keeping the relaxation but lightening your touche until you reach that ease of movement that can be seen in Valentina Lisitsa’s performance.

      Let’s dive deeper:

      The beginning of the Etude is very comfortable. The only ‘risk’ appears at the positions shifts – I marked them with red circles:

      Then, the bars 3-4 (and all similar passages throughout this piece) can be grouped into hand positions like I marked above. When you think in terms of such hand positions, the Etude becomes very comfortable!

      For me, the most challenging remain the positions shifts in the first 2 bars (and all similar bars). Learning them, however, is simply a matter of practice – your hand and your fingers have to get accustomed to this rather ‘unusual’ layout. After practicing it for several days you’ll notice that, in fact, it is natural and comfortable. It just has a slightly ‘original’ logic, that’s all :).

      This Etude is probably one of the rare examples when we don’t have to use the ‘wrist rotation’ technique so much. I really liked Winston’s comparison with the ‘doorknob’! 🙂 Yes, a TINY doorknob rotation may certainly help you – but the classical horizontal and vertical flexibility (which is so useful in other cases) it’s not necessary here.

      Again, pay attention to how Valentina Lisitsa is playing – her style is illustrating wonderfully the principles of the Russian piano school! Do you see that her wrist is almost never moving? Of course, it is extremely relaxed, and it has a 100% potential of flexibility (I hope you understand what I mean), but this potential remains latent, without being put into action.

      I could say many other things about this Etude (analyze all types of hand positions, identify the phrases and describe the ‘dramaturgy’ of the piece), but it would probably take all night! LOL. Instead, I will emphasize one more important element: Pay attention to the beautiful chords in the left hand in the bars 17-18 and 21-22. They have to be played cantabile, in a singing, expressive way!

      A short practice suggestion: As always, the relaxation in your shoulders, elbows and wrists should come first. Then, keep your hand compact and reduce all unnecessary movements – everything should be as ‘economical‘ and simple as possible.

      Again, this is a very short answer and it’s doesn’t cover all the complexity of this Etude. As you learn it, keep us posted on your progress – we’ll discuss any problems (if they appear) ‘on the way’ :). Yes, you’re right – this Etude is the kind of piece that you start to love only after beginning to learn it!

      I almost forgot the most important thing: the originality of this Etude, especially the fact that we don’t need to make so many horizontal and vertical wrist movements (which are so useful in other pieces!), comes from a simple fact: the right hand plays exclusively on black keys! This is why the ‘range of motion’, instead of being (let’s say) three-dimensional, is only bi-dimensional LOL.

      Now it’s already late here in Moldova, so Mozart (and the other questions) will have to wait until tomorrow! There are so many interesting things to be said about Mozart’s style! Mozart is often underestimated and considered less profound than he really is. Ok, more about Mozart tomorrow!

      Have a great Sunday and enjoy your practice!


      P.S. I hope you didn’t miss my answer to your question about double sixths – I posted it the day before yesterday.

      • Rodney James says:

        Yes I did get the double sixths answer. I will have to agree, that it would be a huge burden to learn all the scales that way! I think I’ll just stick to the chromatic scales in major and minor double sixths.! Thanks Ms Vartic For your input.

  42. Ilinca says:

    Hello everyone!

    Thank you for the your recent questions! My detailed answers (about scales – for Alexandra – and about Mozart and Chopin – for Rodney) are coming tomorrow! 🙂

    Winston – thanks for your suggestions for Rodney regarding Chopin’s Etude op. 10 No. 5! Tomorrow we’ll continue the discussion about this charming Etude – with more tips, revealed secrets and practice suggestions! 😉

    Have a wonderful weekend everyone (and, of course, an enjoyable productive practice)!

  43. Vicente says:

    Hi, again and again, Ilinca.
    Wow, I am so happy with your explanations and the wonderful videos you posted. Your secrets make everything comfortable! So, thanks for taking the time for my old piano “headaches” and frustrations. Now I can hit the right keys for the waltzes my mother composed a long time ago: the “waltz affair” is finally over.
    Now I want to “bother” you with something I guess many of us would love, ok? I would cheer and welcome another video and some written material with a very detailed and thorough discussion of any of Bach’s Two-part Inventions or of one of his easiest pieces. Imagine we are all beginners (I’m always a beginner…) and that we need an inspiring instruction regarding each detail in order to achieve a “fantastic” performance: fingering, expression, pedaling, dynamics, exact poliphony, magnifying glasses, and so on, for just one but a whole piece. Am I crazy? Wow, that would be brilliant! under the condition that you appreciate a so drastic time consuming suggestion, of course. No hurry at all, please…Whatever your decision, I’m grateful.
    For the moment, my next question: how to study the complicate shifts (your nice terminology) and hand positions for bars 10-15 , left hand, and bars 30-35, right hand, of the Capriccio at Bach’s Partita 2, in G minor? Thanks in advance. Vicente. (It’s wonderful to find my name well spelled, Vicente, as you did, and not Vincent. And you’ve pronounced it very well in Brazilian Portuguese, too! Thanks.) Vicente.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Vicente!

      Glad I could help! 😉

      Your idea about making a detailed Bach tutorial is great, of course! I’ve noted it and I will try to do it as soon as possible – I just hope to find the time! 😉

      I’ll answer your questions about Bach’s Partita tomorrow – so stay tuned!

      Have a wonderful Sunday!

      P.S. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Portuguese, but I understand it a little because I speak Spanish :). I’m glad I pronounced your name correctly!

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Vicente!

      Bach’s Capriccio from Partita No.2 is not an easy piece! 🙂

      I would certainly like to write about its character and the necessary touche, to identify the themes, the phrases, the dynamics, etc. – but this would take many hours! LOL

      You can listen to Martha Argerich’s wonderful recording and have a general idea of the tempo and character. However, don’t attempt to play in such a fast tempo – in order to get there, it’s necessary to practice a lot in a slow tempo first, until your mind and your fingers get accustomed to the ‘layout’ of this tricky piece!

      So let’s move directly to the bars you’re mentioning.

      As you probably know, when we play a polyphonic piece it’s important to emphasize the Theme, to play it deeper and more expressive than the other voices so it will stand out.

      This Capriccio is written in 3 voices. In bar 8, the Theme begins in the 3rd voice (played by the left hand). I marked the theme with a T, also showing that it has to be played at least mfthis way it will be separated from the other 2 voices, which have to be ‘in the background’.

      Then, in bar 10, we need to make a quick diminuendo in the left hand. This bar is the transition between the last exposition of the Theme and the Interlude (you can also notice that the Theme appears 3 times in the exposition – once in the 1st voice, once in the middle voice – bar 5 – and once in the 3rd voice – bar 8). Each new ‘conducting’ of the Theme in the exposition should be considered a new step, a new layer – being played louder than the previous one.

      Let’s get back to our bars: in bar 10, we make the transition from the Theme (which has to be played meaningfully, with emphasis) to the first Interlude – bars 11-18 – (which should be played piano, considerably lighter than the Theme). From bar 10, you need to bring out the right hand (even if it doesn’t comprise the Theme). In order to do that, however, you need to master the left hand as well, so it won’t be ‘in the way’.

      So, the tenths in the left hand should be played piano, with a light touche and a delicate character.

      When practicing the ‘shifts’ in the left hand, pay attention to 2 important aspects:

      1. Avoid ‘upward’ or ‘jumping’ staccato! It means that these notes, even being reasonably short, still have to be played into the keyboard, not from the keyboard. This principle (I hope to find some time to demonstrate it into a video tutorial) can be applied to all Bach’s works. So, basically, instead of a classical staccato we should make a light portamento or non-legato. This will help us find stability and memorize the position of the correct notes (not to mention the fact that a short, superficial staccato will be ‘out of character’!).

      2. Use the same ‘horizontal’ approach I described in my video when I showed you how to play the bass notes in waltzes: swift, relaxed shift of your hand and ‘economical’ movements. After all, let’s not forget that we’re not dealing with long distances here – we only have to cover 10ths (which for some pianists are not hard to reach). Don’t stretch your fingers too much, though – just keep your palm comfortably, make sure there’s no tension in your wrist and shift your hand swiftly from one note to the other.

      In bars 30-35 there’s a different situation: the left hand has two play 2 voices. This section is, again, an Interlude (the Theme does not appear during these bars). So we don’t have to emphasize any voice, but I would recommend to bring out the melody in the right hand during this Interlude.

      So: the left hand (even if it comprises 2 voices) should be in the background. You can bring out only the 3 notes in the middle voice in bar 30 – they are the initial element of the Theme. Then, until the beginning of bar 35, shift your attention towards the right hand:

      In bar 35, the Theme begins in the middle voice.

      Technical practice suggestions for the left hand: Practice slowly at first, with relaxed arms and wrists, but making sure that your fingers are stable and all the position shifts (for example, crossing your 2nd finger over the thumb) are executed horizontally, in a fast yet relaxed manner. Gradually increase the tempo, keeping the feeling of stability, comfort and relaxation. Also, find ‘support points’ that will allow your wrist to relax even more, this way ‘anchoring’ your fingers and making sure they are stable and they don’t miss the notes :). For support points, I recommend the 1st note (or interval) of each half of the bar. At first, it’s ok to make small accents on these notes. In time, these accents will disappear (as I wrote in my report – too many accents will surely interrupt the flow of the phrase!), but the feeling of stability will remain.

      The more comfortable you feel (after practicing for several days in a slow tempo), the lighter your touche has to become, until your fingers will develop the needed velocity.

      General recommendation: when practicing slowly, you can also play louder than necessary, with an exaggerated ‘heaviness’ of your arm. Keep in mind, however, that this heaviness should come from your back and shoulders, in a very relaxed manner – not from your fingers!!! When you play (as Neuhaus used to say) ‘with a powerful sound in a slow tempo‘, your fingers will find even more stability, becoming stronger and memorizing their place on the keyboard very well. After such a practice, when you increase the tempo, your fingers will play the necessary notes automatically, without creating tension.

      We can compare such a practice to running: if we attach some extra weight to our legs when we run during the training, we will feel that we can fly without the weights during the competition! 😉

      If I find the time tomorrow, after work, I will record a short tutorial and show you how to practice the left hand. Until then, have a wonderful practice and a sunny Sunday!


  44. Alexandra says:

    Hi Ilinca, Hope you are enjoying a nice weekend! (I think all our questions must be keeping you quite busy, on top of your work and time for relaxing?!)

    Your instructions for both my questions seem very good. (It is late night, so I cannot go to the piano at the moment, much as I crave to play—my little girl is sleeping upstairs now and the piano just vibrates the whole house. But, I may switch-on the electric piano, with headphones…very handy for times like these and memorizing new music silently, but not great for “feeling” touch and true acoustic keyboard action, unfortunately.)
    Will try the long arpeggios again, slowly, more relaxed wrists, etc.

    I think you understood and answered well my 2nd question about my playing with my fingers only. It makes sense. Will really concentrate (be mindful) about playing from my shoulders, etc. The image you provided is excellent: “walking” with my fingers that carry the relaxed flexible weight of my arms /shoulders, etc.

    According to my teacher, I have been playing with tension, accumulating in my wrist , elbows mainly. She occassionaly pushes my shoulders down to make sure I am not lifting up there. Based on your guidance, I’ve been playing SLOWLY during my home practice times, although, at lessons my teacher keeps telling me “play faster speed” with my Czerny and Bach, and lots of staccato in both pieces—I feel like maybe she doesn’t approach teaching the same way you do, (learn non-legato&legato BEFORE staccato) and I actually FEEL better with your advice. And it is proving good results, eg. recent relaxation revelation. Well, she seems to be truly trying her best, she seems very dedicated and is musically well-trained, plays beautifully. I’ve only started with her since this past June. I should stick with her longer before making any judgments. She cares about Bach :), phrasing, analysis, tension issues, performance preparation, and willing to discuss other relevant issues. And perhaps because of the language barrier, she is relying more on demonstration… But during my home practice, I am playing (training) in portamento for most of the time (with your instructions in mind) and then at the end of the practice, speeding up tempo and lightening the touch for staccato.

    Here is a simple question, but I just have to ask you, since my teacher here did not answer it (I speak fluently but Japnese language has a quirky tendancy to rely on vague implications and a round-about response, and not specifics—lots of guessing and assumptions! Whereas English is much more direct, to the point, in most cases): My pinkie finger, especially my RH, tends to lift up each time I play the 4th finger. I read somewhere someone referred to it as the Posh Pinky Finger Syndrome. haha. Is this a problem that should be remedied???

    I am guessing this is caused by , again, tension in my hands somehow? Hence, if I play super-relaxed and slowly, it doesnt happen really. But once the tempo speeds up, there goes my pinky, up like a kite! But I have seen E.Kissin playing Melodie de Gluck (on Youtube) and he lifted his pinkie in some parts, so maybe it is not such an issue? (He has incredible articulation as well as expressive sensibilities–love him! He melts me.)

    Love to hear from you on this (dumb?) question when you get the chance.
    Thanks, Ilinca, as always.

  45. elwyn says:

    Hi Ilinca,

    Is there a “best” way to approach learning a piece that’s large/long enough to consist of 6 or more logical “sections” (and I don’t mean formal ‘movements’ like in a sonata) and where each section itself consists of multiple ‘phrases’.

    Should you identify the hardest phrases or technical challenges in the piece as a whole and work on those first, that is, progress on a ‘broad front’ or is it better to work on one section at a time, not progressing to the next until each is mastered?

    I would welcome your thoughts…

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Elwyn!

      Thank you for your interesting question! 🙂

      As I write in my report “A New Perspective on Piano Phrasing” – when studying a new piece (no matter how big it is), it’s advisable to build first a mental image of this piece as a whole.

      After following the steps I describe in the report (analyzing the piece as a whole and understanding its ‘dramaturgy’, identifying and analyzing each phrase etc.), here is what I recommend:

      Our brain and our muscle memory need time for assimilating new complicated material. This is the reason why it’s better to follow these steps:

      First, you should ‘decipher’ the entire piece, gradually moving from beginning to end (especially if we’re not talking about separate movements of a sonata, but of a single piece consisting of bigger ‘sections’ or ‘compartments’).

      I think good examples of such pieces with several big ‘compartments’ are Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Chaconne or Mozart’s Fantasy in c minor.

      So: after ‘deciphering’ the piece, try to integrate in your practice, each day, as much material as you can. Work on the entire piece, phrase after phrase, until you reach the end. Don’t try to achieve perfection from the first days of your practice! Instead, you should let the new material be ‘assimilated’ and sink in your mental and motoric memory.

      From the very beginning, try to pay attention to all the details of the musical text, integrating them in your work as best as possible: besides the right notes and durations, even when you play slowly, pay attention to dynamics, articulation marks and indications of character. Again, even if you practice slowly with a focus on the technical part, be aware of phrases and their ‘outlines’.

      This way, you give your brain ‘its homework’. Even after you finish your practice, your brain will continue to assimilate the material – so it’s good to give it a clear picture of the entire piece.

      Gradually, take the depth of your practice to the next level. Pay even more attention to details. Polish your fingering, the dynamics and all the elements of the musical text. Notice that in time it becomes easier and easier to ‘coordinate’ all the needed details. Gradually make sure that you feel more and more comfortable and it becomes easier to shape the musical flow, to express the meaning of the work.

      When you reach this point, you can learn the piece however you want: you can start from the most difficult sections, and then, when you get tired – you can practice the easiest parts. Or you can start with the final section and gradually, section by section, move towards the beginning (I use this method very often! :)).

      You can also use the ‘magnifying glass’ method at any time in your practice (even in the beginning). This method is good for solving technical problems: take a difficult passage or phrase (it may consist of only 1-2 bars!) and learn it until it feels comfortable and easy to play! And – pay attention – don’t be disappointed if the next day the same passage sounds ‘raw’ and uncomfortable again – it’s perfectly normal!!! With correct practice, you’ll surely master it in a couple of days.

      However, YOU SHOULD NEVER work at a certain section and bring it to perfection BEFORE at least ‘deciphering’ the rest of the piece! Why? Because, as I already said, our brain NEEDS TIME for assimilating new material – no matter if we talk about 20 or 200 bars (how much time, of course, depends on your experience).

      That’s why we have to return many times to the same material. First, after the ‘deciphering’ phase, no matter how many hours we practice a certain section, it will still sound ‘raw’ the next day. But if we play the new material many times – each time bringing the details to a new quality level – then our practice will be extremely productive because it will be in harmony with the natural rhythms of our mind.

      Let’s make an analogy: Imagine that you have to build a house. What do you do? Do you build only one wall, and then put all the doors and windows in that wall, and then you paint it, and also put the curtains etc., and only then start building another wall? No, of course not! First, you draw the architectural plan for the entire house; then you build the foundation; then you build ALL the walls; then you install the roof; then you add the doors and windows – and so on!

      So, as you can see, you should combine the two approaches you’re mentioning. But you should also know WHEN to use each approach for having maximum benefits! 😉


      • elwyn says:

        Hi Ilinca,

        Thank you so much for your thoughts, time and advice!!!

        I have read and studied this reply many times during the last week. I just wanted to say that I’ve learnt so very much from it and now have a new perspective on this task.

  46. Agustín says:

    Hello Ilinca!

    (sorry for my english writing; you’ll probably find a lot of mistakes)

    I feel very happy to see your dedication and hard work abailable for other people in the world. I’m from Argentina, and looking for some answers about piano studiyng I got to your web and I find it incredible!! Because of your way of living and seeing life and shearing all that with everyone. So thank you.

    Well, I’m a piano student at university in Cordoba, Argentina. I’m 24 years old and I’ve been “playing” piano since I was 9 years old. I started to study seriously 4 years ago. I’ve went to some piano teachers that taught me the physical fundamentals of relaxation and weight. But they where very poor in the expresive part of music wich I consider most important and more important than any technical concept or work. So I started studying by my self. I consider that technique is a consequence of working with music itself….so I study the music and the sound that I want; not my finger movements.
    I’ve achieved (with relaxation, free wrist, arms etc. and good playing position) a good sound and I feel very confortable and able to play any piece….but lately I’m having a problem. The more I study the worst the pieces sound….. I have an exam on december where I have to perform Chopin studies n 4 op 10 and n 1 op 25; Beethoven sonata n 7; Liszt Cansonetta de Salvatore Rosa; Bach prelude und fugue in Bb; Haydn piano concerto in D major; Debussy arabesque n 2; Albeniz Tango; Scarlatti sonata L 23. I already know the pieces by memory and I like the way that I’ve been playing them; so I’ve been playing them all every day; and studying some specific spots….But as I said before, I’m starting to feel that I play them worse and worse…And I don’t know how I should order my daily practice routine….Should I stop playing the repertoire?? Should I start to read more repertoire?? Should I play one day some pieces and someday others??I’ve also noticed that this practising every day has made my hands a bit harder and more musceled; and I don’t feel as agile as before….Should I have some “piano resting day” in my week??

    Well; those are my questions. I could probably ask these questions to some teacher over here; but I would realy appreciate your opinion because there isn’t that many people that live and share things the way you do; and I think that that is more important than any teacher title or license.
    So thank you!
    I hope that you have a nice week.


  47. Ilinca says:

    Hello everyone!

    It’s Monday and, as I promised, I’m currently working on some videos 😉 I hope to post them tomorrow, along with the replies to your last questions!

    I also wanted to say “hi” to Agustin – Welcome to!!! I must admit that your program is impressive – playing so many pieces for one exam?! It’s no wonder that you have the feeling that you’re playing these pieces worse than before – this tends to happen when our mind and our arms/fingers are ‘overloaded’ with information.

    I’ll write more about this problem tomorrow!

    In the meantime, have a productive beginning of a new week everyone!

    Talk soon,

  48. Vicente says:

    Hello, teacher!
    I loved everything you wrote about Bach’s Capriccio! Thanks again. Some questions yet: First: when I play the tenths in the left hand of this Capriccio, should I maintain a “tenth stretching” of the fingers all the time, or is it better to gather them comfortably together at each shift, relying on the accuracy of the horizontal shifting? Or yet is it possible a moderate stretching of the fingers, as if the distances were only of a seventh or a sixth , maintaining an almost fixed stretching? My fingers don’t open comfortably to a tenth distance. Besides, there’s a constant alternating movement between white and black keys concerning both the pinky and the thumb, I mean: the pinky plays an white key and then a black key, and so happens yet for the thumb. This causes a kind of hand’s swing, not so easy to play. So, an in and out movement or something like should make those passages easier?
    A second question: is there an ideal fingering for the chromatic scales? What could be the best suggestions? I like playing some easy pieces and then more difficult ones. One of the easiest pieces for me is the Minuet BWV Anhang 121 from the Notenbuechlein fuer Anna Magdalena Bach. However, I waver a lot concerning the fingering from bars 16 to the end, both hands. I’m not comfortable with the editor’s suggestions for Henle Verlag, but I can’t manage a good solution. Also do you change the fingers for repeated keys at bar 1, right hand, or bar 9 right hand, for example? Some better fingering for bars 11-12, right hand, too?
    Besides, what is important for a good interpretation of a Bach minuet? Please, send me your help only when you have time! There’s no hurry, please! Thousands of thanks for everything you do for us! Vicente.

  49. Agustín says:

    Hi Ilinka

    Thank you for your answer.
    I didn´t want to impress at any moment with the repertoire, sorry.
    I thought that knowing the pieces that I was working you would be able to glance a possible problem, as you have done. So thank you.

    I´ve also been reading some of your articles, and found important things related to my problem. I don´t know if I have a problem related to to much information because I´ve been playing this repertoire all over this year, and learning it gradually. And I reached a point where I liked my playing, but then it started to go down. I find it more related with my muscular tension-and anxiety of course, and with a default in the organization of my daily studying program. I think that I have to go more slowly and don´t pretend to be a concert pianist in such a short time.
    Well, thank you for your greetings to the web site. I shurely will be reading and in contact with my doubts. Good luck with your videos!! And also have a good and productive week.

  50. Alexandra says:

    Hi Ilinca,

    (Really looking forward to your next round of tutorials!! Hope all is well with you!)

    I have been working on Schumann (Hasche Mann) and the new fingering is really working out great! Practicing slowly at non-legato, but it is so comfortable that I can’t help going faster naturally 🙂 Thank you so much! This piece has been such a workout…

    There is one spot, though, that I cannot get comfortable: from 9th measure, A-B-C#-D, to the 10th measure’s F#. (Was doing 1234, 5 but then the 5th finger lands on the F#). Other combinations makes my 4th finger on the F#. Dilemna: 5th finger is unstable to land on black key(I often miss this key when I play at fast tempo), and 4th finger is “weak”. I cannot decide which is better to rely on as a “permanent fingering”.
    Do you have any suggestions or advice on this?

    Thanks for all your support and instruction! You are a wonderful teacher. I envy your regular students that are taught by you there!
    Best wishes.

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Alexandra!

      Yesterday I recorded a video where I answer your following questions:

      1. Playing descending movements in scales – making sure that all your fingers play evenly;
      2. The ‘pinkie’ problem :);
      3. Achieving speed – practice tips;
      4. Practicing the first 4 bars in “Hasche Mann”.

      Take a look at the image below – these are my ‘ergonomic’ fingering suggestions for bars 9 and 10 from Schumann’s “Hasche Mann”.

      This is a very comfortable fingering – you don’t have to place your 5th or 4th finger on F#! 😉 Try it out and tell me how it feels!

      I hope I didn’t forget anything! I will answer your question about Czerny (hopefully) tomorrow :).

      Talk soon,

      • Alexandra says:

        (I commented on the Schumann in separate “comment” box.)

        On Velocity and Evenness: Yes! when I play from my shoulders and back, instead of just from my fingers, which I have a tendancy to do, and as you demonstrate in the tutorial, it is immediately a truly different output. FYI, my short and long arpeggios are MUCH smoother and more accurate and I feel my whole arm to my fingers relaxed and more “elastic” (graceful, maybe is a better word) 🙂

        Ok about the Pinkie Thing. Thank you for alleviating that concern! As you mentioned from your own experience, I’ve noticed this past week or so, my 5th finger is “looking down” more, with relaxed playing and corrected fingerings!
        Thank you, Ilinca!!!
        (Looking forward to your comments on Czerny and other interesting posts when you have time 🙂 )
        Take care,

        • Ilinca says:

          I’m so glad that the long arpeggios feel more ‘elastic’ and ‘graceful’ – these are very accurate descriptions of the needed sensations!!! 😉