Piano Technique is one of the the most important foundational elements that we all must learn, master and continue to practice, no matter what level of musician we are. This means even as a professional, we continually have to work on our piano technique.
A lot of students think piano technique is playing boring piano scales or piano arpeggios, but in reality it can be quite fun.
In this article I'm going to share with you a couple of piano technique exercises that will add some creativity to your piano practice routine.
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This piano exercise mixes 5-finger scales along with triad arpeggios. To see this in action, check out this Piano Chords Exercise video on YouTube.
OK, so what is a tetrachord? You can read the Wikipedia article on tetrachords here. Basically, a tetrachord is 4 pitches (notes) that happen within a perfect 4th.
This translates into a 4-note scale in which all of the notes are within a perfect fourth interval. Now, in reality, we can use the tetrachord terminology a little looser to refer to any 4-note scale.
This two-handed tetra scale exercise is an incredible tool for increasing your fluidity and coordination between your hands. This piano technique exercise also helps you strengthen your left-hand because you are leaving out your thumb. When you play a 5-finger scale, and each finger plays a note, your hand gets used to this pattern. By removing one of the notes, you've made it more difficult to play this scale.
Want a challenge? Try this 7-day practice challenge to jumpstart your piano practice routine.
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The point of these 10 tips is to get you thinking about how to create exercises. This is only scratching the surface. Try coming up with your own exercises as well. If these are too difficult, try using the simple 5-finger scale in either the right or left hand while doing a full scale or arpeggio in the opposite hand,
One important, often overlooked, topic in piano performance is how to avoid injuring ourselves at our instrument. Piano playing is not a natural process. We are not born with the ability to play the piano...we learn it. Therefore, we can easily suffer from repetitive use injuries if we are not careful. In this article, I'll lay out 7 tips that I think will help you to avoid injuries when learning to play the piano, practicing or gigging. These tips are geared for the pianist, but also work for other instruments.
For many of you who know me and have followed my teaching, you probably know that I like working out. I will use this as an example. When working out, you obviously need to be aware of your body's limitations. You do not want to try to lift 300 pounds if you realistically can only lift 150 pounds. If you do this, you will most likely hurt yourself.
We are all guilty of not taking our bodies signals seriously at one time or another. I’m sure that we can all remember a time when we suffered physically or experienced discomfort as a result of our complacency.
Taking the time to stretch before working out in the gym or remembering to bend at the knee in order to lift something heavy are pretty well-known precautions...yet people still forget or neglect to follow them and get injured. In contrast, playing the piano is much more subtle in terms of physical activity than working out.
We all hold some tension in our arms, back, neck, hands and legs. It is easy for us to go over board in our practicing and work our muscles beyond the point of fatigue.
Because every piano player brings a unique set of variables into their practicing, I would be hard pressed to come up with a stretch routine that would universally prevent injury and solve everyone’s piano playing ailments. That is why I am urging you, the piano player, to become aware of your own body signals. The most important thing is to stay loose and not over work your body.
My advice: take a look at the Alexander Technique. This is a technique that I studied right after college because I was playing way too heavy and with too much tension. The Alexander Technique teaches you to send "directionals" to your body. You can try this right now. Have your mind concentrate only on your shoulders. Try and "will" your shoulders with your mind to "widen and drop." When I say widen I mean it should feel almost like someone is lightly pulling your shoulders apart from one another to create "space" between your shoulder blades.
Ask yourself "Are my shoulders tense?" "What about my arms? Are they tense?" "Where can I release tension?" There is an obvious amount of tension that you need in order to be able to sit up and play. Your goal though, should be to release all unnecessary tension to allow you to freely express yourself on your instrument.
I have to admit, I do not always do this myself...but it is a great habit to get into. Here are a couple of basic exercises to try next time you plan to sit down at the piano to practice...
First, you can try soaking your arms under warm water. Or, take a hot shower. This will help to loosen up your muscles and get them ready for playing. You should do this before you practice/play.
Second, if you can not soak, then lightly do some motion exercises. If you are into yoga, a quick "sun salutation" will also do the trick.
Here are some good stretching exercises to take a look at. Rather than go into too much detail myself about stretching and Yoga positions, I’ll just point you in the direction of the experts. The most important thing to remember is: stretch .
Do you know what warmup I still enjoy? Simple 5-finger scales. Often when setting up for a gig, I will turn off the sound on my keyboard and just play 5-finger Major or minor scales. This simple exercise is a nice way to get warmed up. Do these in parallel and contrary motion.
After the 5-finger scales, do some simple minor or Dominant 7 arpeggios. Do these slowly with both hands going two octaves. You can also do these in contrary and parallel motion.
Finally, do the chromatic scale going up and down the keyboard. You can play this scale on the same note in both hands spread out by an octave, or different notes (i.e. a major 6th apart, etc...)
While everyone else is noodling around playing their best licks, these simple warmups will help you to get loose and be ready to play your best when it counts!
I often ask students, "What do you warmup with?" And they'll tell me that they play songs that they know or just "mess around" at their instrument for a few minutes. This is not good for two reasons:
Practice first...then play. Start off your piano practice session with some of the examples in tip #3. This will help you to warmup...and build your technique!
Working out at the gym is a great way to avoid injury. Even light weight training will help you to build your muscle and give you more balance. However, remember to be smart! Don't pretend, for any reason, like you KNOW what you are doing if you DON’T know what you are doing. You can really hurt yourself in the gym if you are not careful! But, don't let this stop you from exercising either.
I find that cardio (running) and weight training has helped me to understand my body more and has helped to "firm up" the smaller muscles. These smaller muscles are used often when playing an instrument. So, exercising really helps...plus you stay fit!
If you have no clue what you are doing in the gym, talk to a trainer or a friend who can help you. You can also do many exercises at home. Point is...exercise helps keep the body in shape for the piano, and for life.
The goal of playing piano is to express yourself through your instrument. Expression includes happiness, sadness, anger or a whole range of emotions that, in turn, can be channeled through an instrument and take on a whole new meaning. This expression through your instrument is based on real life. If you spend all your time in a practice room...you're not living life!
There is another, less known, reasoning behind the "take a walk" idea. Studies have proven that the brain needs time to "digest" what it is learning. This is especially true when dealing with fine motor movements like playing an instrument. Practicing hard for 15-20 minutes then taking a short break gives the brain time to process what you just introduced.
Practicing for hours on end without taking breaks can also lead to injury. So, give your arms and your brain a break by taking a short walk or stepping away from the piano for a few minutes.
In this article, I've given you a few tips that, if followed, might help you to avoid injuring yourself at the piano. Speaking from personal experience, I have dealt with my share of arm injuries. I've had to learn to listen to my body and stretch. It doesn't come easy because I often just want to sit down and play without bothering with warmups.
If, for whatever reason, you sustain an injury that interferes with your piano playing, it is VERY important that you don't just "work through" it. If you have pain...STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING. Put some thought into why you think you are feeling pain. Are you sitting too high or low? Holding tension? Did you warmup? Is your 'head in the game'? Self analysis is the most important and valuable way to avoid injury.
If you just can not figure out why you are feeling pain or discomfort then consult your physician or another professional that is knowledgable in bodywork or neuromuscular disorders. Do NOT play through the pain. This approach will likely cause much more pain.
Many students write in to me every week asking how to improve their piano playing. In this article, I'm going to lay out some of my ideas and the concepts that I've learned over the years that will help you improve your piano playing skills.
This is not meant to sound harsh, but many students set unrealistic goals and milestones for themselves. I've been guilty of doing this myself. We're all human and tend to "dream and scheme" which sometimes gives us lofty ideas of what we can accomplish and how long it should take. So, the first step in improving your piano skills is to evaluate or re-evaluate your piano goals.
Why do you study the piano? You should have a clear answer to this. The answer can be as simple as "Because it makes me happy to play the piano." Start by answering this question and we will come back to this in a minute.
Second, what do you want to do with your piano playing skill? Do you want to play gigs? Record? Teach? Play at parties? Write music? All of these things? Having a clear idea of what you want to do with the skills that you are attaining will help to define your direction.
Getting better at the piano is dependent on both physical and mental practice. The physical practice, though time consuming, is the easy part. You learn songs, practice scales, rhythms, etc. The mental practice is often more difficult. So, what do I mean by mental practice?
Mental practice can be thought of as practice away from the the piano. Spelling chords in your head while in the car for example. However, this is not the mental practice that I am referring to here. The mental practice that I'm referring to is "how to keep yourself in the right frame of mind."
Playing an instrument is a mind game. How many times have you said to yourself "I can't play hands together," or "I'll never be able to improve my piano playing!" Maybe you've thought "I'm not as good as that piano player," or "I don't practice enough to improve my piano playing." On and on it goes. We as humans have a wonderful capacity to be incredibly hard on ourselves. I personally have said every one of these statements and others!
Unfortunately, this mental "garbage" blocks us from progressing at our instrument. Let me share a story...
In my 20's I had my own trio that I would play with and write songs for. When writing songs, I would often think "What will other musicians think of this piece? Will they like it or think that it is good?" I spent years thinking this way. I would often wonder if what I was playing was "right" or if I was even a jazz pianist at all since I really didn't feel as though I sounded like other players. This was garbage thinking.
You can't see the floor in a basement filled with garbage. In the same way, I could never know the pianist inside if I was so worried about the pianist outside. Luckily when I hit 30 I had an epiphany. For some reason, I just stopped caring about what others thought of my playing. I guess I figured that I had been playing professionally for 15 years at this point, I must be doing something right.
Letting go of my preconceived notions of what I should sound like as a pianist, an artist, helped me to unlock the pianist inside.
Unlocking the pianist inside might take just reading this article for some, while it may take years of introspection for others. Regardless of how long it takes, we can start aligning our goals with what we practice.
Let's go back to the two questions I asked you earlier:
To align your practice with your goals I suggest this formula. Bear in mind, this is only a guide, not an absolute. You might decide to practice more or less than my suggestions.
1) Start with "Why do you study the piano?" Look below to see which answer is closest to yours:
2) Next, think about your goal and pick the option below that most closely matches your piano goal:
Taking the numbers in (parenthesis) from both lists, we can create a basic practice schedule for ourselves. The more honest you are with yourself, the better the numbers will be.
In list 1, the number that matched your answer the closest is how many days you should practice. In list 2, this number tells you how many hours per day to practice.
For example, if you said that you play the piano "To play for my wife once a year on our anniversary" and your believed your goal to "pretty easy to attain," then you should practice for about 30 minutes, 3 days a week. A focused 30 minutes a day, 3 days a week would most likely get you to your goal.
You'll notice, the closer to a professional player you want to be and the harder the goal...the more you should practice. This is just one way of looking at practice and in many ways it is more of a novelty than a scientific method of calculating how much you should practice. There is an ulterior motive!
My goal for you in doing this exercise is to gain a more realistic approach to how you see your piano goals and practice to help you improve your piano playing. So often I see students that are so hard on themselves. They feel really low about their piano playing skills and their abilities. This pains me because music should be fun! It usually comes out that their goals or expectations are just way 'out of whack' with what is possible.
Shooting for the moon is noble, but if you shoot for the moon and make it only to the couch you're likely to feel pretty low. Small, attainable goals are the answer. Better to have a goal of playing one easy song than to try booking a gig at Carnegie Hall and feeling upset when they don't call.
So here's to you getting to the next level with your piano playing! In part 2, I will discuss a structure for our lessons based upon your goals.
In this article, I'm going to share with you a few ways to practice your triads that will add some 'spice' to your playing. I'll be covering these techniques in a future video lesson. This article is a great preparation for you to work on before that lesson is released.
What is a triad? Well, a technical definition is a triad is a 3-note chord (a chord consisting of three notes). You can basically play any three notes and it creates a triad. Practically speaking, we normally think of triads like major, minor, diminished, augmented and suspended.
The first exercise is playing a triad in octaves. The fingering listed here will work on all 12 major triads. It might feel 'weird' on triads starting on a black key, but it does work. Please remember to go slow and be patient. If you practice these triads slowly, in about 2-3 weeks you will see solid improvement and increased dexterity. See the "Practice Session" below for more tips on how to practice these exercises.
Below is the C Major triad played in octaves (arpeggiated). All of the examples in this article will be in the key of C to make it easier to visualize.
In this exercise we keep the left-hand playing the C Major triad arpeggio as we did in exercise #1. However, the right-hand now starts on G. Notice, we are still playing the C Major triad...we're just shifting it and starting on a different note.
What is so neat about this exercise is that it creates a very cool sound because each step in the arpeggio creates a perfect-5th or major- or minor-6th interval. This makes a rich harmony that is perfect for improvisational lines, which I will cover in our future lesson.
This exercise is a challenge to your ears and to what you might define as dissonance. I have found myself practicing concepts like this often over the years to help 'stretch' my ears to hear more dissonant sounds. The chord is written as C, but look closely and you'll see that we are actually playing a D Major triad in the right-hand along with a C Major triad in the left-hand. I used the C chord symbol because I am still thinking of the root chord as C.
You can put any triad over the 'top' of another. For instance, try playing the C Major triad arpeggio (as written here) along with and Eb Major triad, or G minor triad and so on. These exercises will create some very unique harmonic tones which can really kick-start your improvisation.
Exercises are only good if you can find some practical application for them. Otherwise, they are only exercises. Below is an example of how we can use a D Major triad arpeggio over a C Maj7 chord to create a cool sounding lick. The D Maj triad adds the 9th, #11 and 6th to the chord which produces pleasant sounding tension.
Here is a suggestion practice plan:
If you like this kind of practice, I would suggest taking a look at the following lessons:
We all want to play the piano faster and be stronger in what we play. However, we also need accuracy, dexterity, fluidity, dynamics and most of all musicality. In this article and lesson, I will show you how to achieve these characteristics in your playing through some simple exercises of both your fingers...and your mind!
Let's start with the mind first. Playing fast is a job for the brain. Your fingers can play fast, but often our minds get in the way. Left on their own, your fingers can move pretty darned fast...but what about accuracy? This is where the brain comes in. Our dexterity is linked to our brain. The brain tells the fingers when to move and where to go. It also sends signals to our fingers that control dynamics, pressure, speed and hundreds of other signals. Now, the problem is, when we play, we often overload our fingers with too much information. We are trying to focus on playing fast while also focusing on rhythm, dynamics, flow and a thousand other things.
Let's clear our mind and focus the fingers on a specific target. This target can be a note that we are trying to hit or a focus on dynamics. The point is that by focusing the mind...we focus the fingers too. Remember, the fingers listen to what we tell them to listen to.
Targets are a way to focus your mind/fingers for speed. As I said earlier, when you focus on too much, your playing and speed will suffer. So, how do we create and assign targets?
Well, if you are looking to gain speed, one way is to target a specific note and try to get to that note as fast as possible. Take the 5-finger scale for instance. Normally, we would play that scale up and down. Try only going one direction and see just how fast you can reach your target note. If you make mistakes in the middle, that is O.K. for now as long as you play that target note strong.
Another target might be playing all of the notes as light as you can. Remember, the lighter you play, the faster you can play! Try not to push at the notes. Instead, grab at the notes and let your fingers produce a full tone...not your arms.
Try coming up with your own target ideas. Dynamics can be a target as well. Try playing notes as soft as you can. You can even try combining targets together. So, play the 5-finger scale as fast as you can and as soft as you can.
Great piano players know how to use their hands together for accompaniment, soloing, grooving and more. Have you ever wondered how a pianist can move so easily between the hands? Well, here is an exercise that will help you achieve more fluidity between your hands.
In example 1 we are taking a typical C minor 5-finger scale but instead of playing it in tandem with both hands, we are playing it consecutively one hand after the other. Starting first with the left hand, we play the scale but at the end of the scale (G note) we then switch to the right hand and start the scale on C and move up to G. We can also think of this as playing the C minor 5-finger scale two-octaves...only with two-hands.
Here is an excerpt from our new Faster Fingers lesson which explains how to do this:
In December's article, we will cover some more techniques from our Faster Fingers series that will help loosen up your fingers and get you playing faster and more accurate at the piano!