Reversed concept resolution

Something has been bothering me for really a while, since the first days of researching the technology behind Apple’s Siri, that was when I read about Wolfram Alpha being one of the source of it. I was really amazed with what Wolfram did with the engine, particularly with the supercomputer workhorse that runs its core (which is not really surprising). But there is a major thing that Wolfram stated clearly its engine couldn’t do: answering complex structure sentences. For instance, it can answer the following two questions:

– Who was the first person who set foot on the Moon? (Neil Armstrong of course)

– Where was Neil Armstrong born?

However, it is not able to understand and find a solution for the combination of the two:

– Where was the first person who set foot on the Moon born?

And that is certainly a major lacking of the system, which I want to tackle. I’m not sure if there are other people who try to solve the same problem, and if there is, how they would call it, but I’d like to call it “reversed concept resolution”. It simply means mapping the unstructured text (i.e. the first person who set foot on the Moon) to its corresponding correct concept (i.e. Neil Armstrong).

The solution would be more complex and less intuitive than a non-technical person think. The first thing should be extracting a huge knowledge base about entities and their characteristics, events, anything that related to the entities themselves. After that, there has to be an effective algorithm to map the unstructured text to the concept, which by the way, can be of any form, represented in countless ways as long as they semantically mean the same thing. And that’s not the end of the story, the algorithm might need to handle fuzzy cases, like when a human being guessing about something they might know, and produce a corresponding statistical value that indicates the confidence of their guess. All of the problems need to be solved effectively and efficiently, with a lot of data for processing. But like any other “crazy” ideas I had in the past, let’s see how this go 🙂

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Revised thought regarding Turing Test

Turing Test has always been a fascinating subject for me since I first knew it soon after the beginning of my undergraduate study. For people who are not so familiar with this famous topic, Turing Test was introduced by Alan Turing (sadly not a familiar person to many people either, despite the fact he is regarded widely as the founding father of modern computer science) in order to evaluate the developing state of artificial intelligence. The simple definition of Turing Test is as followed:

  1. There is a person who communicates with a computer supported with artificial intelligence via a channel that does not indicate which one is the computer and which one is the human being.
  2. There is another person who acts as a judge that can view the exchanged messages.
  3. In the end, if the judge cannot identify which one is the computer, that computer is considered to pass the Turing Test.

Given the above description, one simply does not hesitate to deduce that there has been no single computing system that is able to pass the Turing Test. Millions of researchers have been working relentlessly for decades to find a solution for computers to pass the Turing Test, in other words, possess human-like behaviours. It is still now one of the most challenging problems of computer science, although this field of science has just been developed for over half a century.

How about me? I dedicated my efforts over the years to solving small parts of the challenge, which I think still need decades to reach the optimum points. But after all those years, one thing I’ve learnt is that even though most people think the highest reach of artificial intelligence is having comparable intelligence of human beings, most researchers in the field would disagree. Computers have the potential to overcome many of human limits, including limited memory, limited processing capability, and many more. Simply put, no human being can compute faster, remember more things than the fastest supercomputer on earth. As a result, many researchers (me including) investigate methods, algorithms that are so complex that only computers can perform in a reasonable amount of time. And that is the future!

Therefore, I simply don’t think thinking the way humans do is the best thing to develop computing intelligence since they are very different concepts. And by judging the advances of the field, computers are becoming more and more capable, outperforming humans in more and more tasks. So here’s my prediction: the world will never see a computer that passes the Turing Test, simply because when they can achieve enough human-like behaviours, they are also developed to the stage that no human being can compete with them, and the judge can easily identify the computer since it is obviously the smarter one. Will people tell computers to be “less smart” just to pass the Turing Test? I hope not 😀

My Linux vs BSD experience

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OK, first post for computer category 😀

I’ve been a loyal Linux user for quite some time, even dedicated most of my time developing for Linux (of course there are some cross-platform projects which theoretically can compile and execute on any OS). After all those years, I’ve always felt Linux as a safe haven for me to do anything technological since it’s very reliable, fast, secure, useful (WARNING: with supported hardware only, it’s going to be a real pain for users with unsupported hardware, although I believe all popular hardware shall be supported sooner or later). Moreover, using Linux really makes me a real master of Unix-like system, which literally gives you the power to do anything you want with the whole system since it’s completely open-source and free to use and modify. However, I’ll leave good things about Linux for another post, the topic today is going to be my adventure with BSD given previous Linux experiences.

Like most of anything I’ve done, I researched the topic quite thoroughly before making my first actions. It’s great to know more real stuffs about BSD as I had some serious time getting information about Mac OS X (which is based on BSD if one wants to trace to the root). I’ve read really a lot about how different BSD and Linux are, and it eventually turned out that they have more similarities than differences (the most notable differences are just GPL vs BSD license and their kernel differences, which is quite minimal). The commands are basically the same, the software are too, they are open-sourced and apparently no developer wants to make their piece of product too attached into a specific platform. With that said, most open-source software, in my experience, were written for Linux initially, and BSD developers have most of them ported so BSD kernel can run them using a layer called Linux-compatibility layer. Some might argue that BSD is true Unix, the operating system that was developed by the legendary Dennis Ritchie, which is true since the BSDs really hold the license of the original Unix from AT&T, and Linux is always only Unix-like, which is also true. But does that really guarantee that BSD will have some notable advantages over Linux? I’d have to say it is a frustrating question, as I always want to know what Unix is really like, is it something that is going to make me astonished as much as coming to Linux from Windows?

Hours of researching only made it worse, there was seriously some sort of holy war between Linux and BSD on the pages I’ve read. I traced the source of this war to dig up a few things that used to happen in the past. Apparently in the 90s, BSDs were much more used compared to young Linux (the first Linux kernel was released in 1991). It was really BSDs time! Serious servers at that time ran BSD, and some of them still do (take Netflix, Yahoo, Whatsapp). But then the new century saw the dawn of Linux as it became more and more popular in the open-source community than BSD. Many people with many different theories have tried to explain why this happened. Some pointed out the fact that GPL license forces developer to contribute their code makes Linux code base multi-times larger than the one of BSD, others think the development of Linux as both server and desktop OS gives new tech people (like me) the impression that open-source OS means Linux, and BSD is never mentioned. Eventually, everything gave me a feeling of BSD as a similar but mysterious OS to Linux. BSD fans still talk about how great things are in their camp although in my experience, not many people heard them. After all, I always like challenging and mysterious stuffs that potentially pay off, it would definitely help if I can use BSD for my needs, too (if I can see they can make a considerable advantage over my Linux systems). So I decided to move on and see if things I’ve read are what I think they are since I’m not a big fan of believing people’s opinions ;).

Unlike Linux with a lot of different distributions, different flavours, BSDs only have a few, and most of them are for servers, which is not a problem to me, although I prefer my OS to be desktop-capable too. After reading some recommendations, it was quite convincing to try FreeBSD as the first step to the BSD camp, which is a OS for quite general purpose. I like to take things a bit slow for new OSes, so I started with doing some virtual machines using VirtualBox. FreeBSD ran quite nicely and everything works out of the box for an experienced Linux user. Installation was straight-forward, drivers over VMs seemed to work, no desktop environment by default but it was easy to install via reliable internet connection. I spent a few days experience with the new system, observe how it works and record its behaviours, fixed problems as I encounter them. The most notable differences I found with FreeBSD are:

  • It has a lot less GUI software (i.e. no similar network manager like Linux), a lot less support from third-parties (i.e. no Adobe Flash), a lot of processes are not automated by default. As a result, it seems to require the user to have more experiences and more hacking skills to operate and control it.
  • The overall performance of FreeBSD appear to be not so different from Linux, maybe even worse, except network operation handling such as Apache. This is consistent with benchmarks of Phronix and quite opposed with the quote “you generally feel the performance of FreeBSD to be faster than Linux”. But this is limited by VM performance, so it needs to have a real test later.
  • The Ports collection is certainly a new thing, as Linux systems (except Gentoo) does not have this feature. It is really a great thing to have the ability to customise every piece of software to be installed in the system. Ports collection is really a real plus for FreeBSD.em

After a few days toying with FreeBSD on VM, I started installing the real system on my machine. I had to sacrifice my Linux partition so the whole system is not messed up too much, as it already has Windows 7 installed. I also have to hope that the bootloader of BSDs can recognise the Windows partition, so no complicated configuration is needed. And it worked without complication!

But that feeling did not stay long. Soon I realise that there is no driver for my ethernet card. Even worse, my laptop has Nvidia Optimus card which cause confusion to the drivers. The system has both Intel and Nvidia drivers and somehow X system does not properly work, which means it cannot run GUI! Things got even worse, there is no way I can turn off one of the graphic card to let the other take control and run GUI, so I was officially out of luck!

After concluded that FreeBSD cannot be a usable system for me, I tried another fork of it, PC-BSD, which is designed for desktop, not servers like FreeBSD with the hope that their developers have somehow configured the system to work. The nice thing about PC-BSD is that it has hardware diagnosis before the installation so the users have the information which piece of hardware can run properly with PC-BSD. Eventually, the ethernet still cannot work, but X system does and it even supports Gnome 3! At the time, I had a piece of information that the ethernet driver I need is going to be available in the next release of the system, so I decided to spend sometime using the system and evaluate it. After all, it has the potential to be usable!

Once again, the good feeling didn’t end happily! With the assurances of some BSD users, I believe most Linux software can be compiled in BSD from source, or using Ports collection if they are available there. Well, it turned out to be not that easy. Although the Ports collection has a lot of open-source system, there are many of them are still not available, so I try to compile them from source. When I did, the software usually say something similar to “unsupported system”. I know that my BSD system already has Linux compatibility layer running, so it must be the source code that has the platform checking, which can be removed if I modify the code. Nevertheless, this gave me the feeling that what if every software I want to compile from source needs to be modified this way? Modifying a couple of them maybe fine, but too many of them will be too frustrating to handle. Eventually, the advantages of BSDs simply cannot make up for that much pain coming from poor hardware support and now also software support.

So I abandoned BSD camp after all! I re-installed my Linux workstation and feel happy of using it, as I always have. If someday one of my friends come to me asking for BSD experience, I’d tell that person that he should not use it, unless he wants something that doesn’t need to have GUI and can handle network traffic even more efficiently than Linux. That’s where BSD still shines in my opinion, server-side. But my last but most important advice is that one would only use BSD with hardware that is supported by the system, so always do the homework before making any purchase, and BSD might just work very well 😉

P.S. I would always want to make sure that the potential BSD user can handle the loneliness when having little support from other BSD users (there are not many of them left apparently). Also, I have the feeling that BSD has the potential to vanish anytime in the future as too many people have abandoned this camp in the last decade, so one should be prepared to find another option when this happens. That said, I never wish BSD to become extinct, that would be a real shame for the last descendant of the legendary Unix, after everything it has done for this world!

Fundamentals of Piano Practice (copied)

Objective

The objective of this book is to present the best known methods for practicing piano. For students, knowing these methods means a reduction in learning time that is a significant fraction of a lifetime and an increase in the time available for making music instead of struggling with technique. Many students spend 100% of their time learning new compositions and, because this process takes so long, there is no time left to practice the art of making music. This sorry state is the greatest hindrance to acquiring technique because making music is necessary for fast technical development. The goal here is to make the learning process so fast that we aim to allocate 10% of practice time to learning and 90% to making music, thus maximizing technical development. Now, in the larger picture, 10% is basically a negligible amount of time — therefore, what we are saying is that we must start making music as soon as we possibly can.

Here, we define “learning a piece” as memorizing the notes and being able to play the composition basically at speed. One might logically think that learning a piece, and acquiring the required technique to play it, are synonymous. For pedagogical purposes, it helps to define technique more narrowly as the ability to make music; therefore, “technique” will be discussed in some detail below. The reason for this definition has to do with how to practice so that you can perform for an audience, such as your teacher during lessons. Most students have no trouble practicing to play a piece to their satisfaction, yet run into terrible problems when performing. They tend to blame such difficulties on nervousness, but it is much more fundamental — it is caused by inappropriate practice methods. If we claim here that these practice methods work, then it should follow that nervousness should be greatly reduced and performances should follow naturally. And everything hinges on just one thing — acquiring technique!

At this point, you can justifiably ask, “How can it be that simple?” Then consider this. Even students who have terrible difficulties during recitals have much less problems performing for the teacher during lessons. The reason for this is that you practice performing for the teacher about once very week. Obviously, if you practice it, you will become good at it. The rest of this book is dedicated to showing you how to practice so that you are basically performing every time you practice. In order to succeed in acquiring technique, you must quickly learn how to make music.

What is Piano Technique?

We must understand what technique means because not understanding technique leads to incorrect practice methods. More importantly, the correct understanding can help us to develop superior practice methods. The most common misunderstanding is that technique is some inherited finger dexterity. It is not. The innate dexterity of accomplished pianists and ordinary folk are not that different. This means that practically anyone can learn to play the piano well. There are numerous examples of mentally handicapped people with limited coordination that exhibit incredible musical talent. Unfortunately, many of us are much more dexterous but can’t manage the musical passages because of a lack of some simple but critical information. Acquiring technique is mostly a process of brain/nerve development, not development of finger-moving muscles or strength.

Technique is the ability to execute a zillion different piano passages; therefore it is not dexterity, but an aggregate of many skills. The task of acquiring technique thus boils down to solving the problem of how to acquire so many different skills in a short time. The wondrous thing about piano technique, and the most important message of this book, is that piano skills can be learned in a short time, if the correct learning procedures are applied. These skills are acquired in two stages: (1) discovering how the fingers, hands, arms, etc., are to be moved, and (2) conditioning the muscles and nerves to execute these with ease and control. This second stage is concerned with control, not the development of strength or athletic endurance. Many students think of piano practice as hours of intense finger calisthenics because they were never taught the proper definition of technique. The reality is that you are actually improving your brain when learning piano! Acquiring technique is a process of developing faster nerve connections, creating more brain cells for the proper movements and memory functions, and for “speaking the language of music”. You are actually making yourself smarter and improving your memory; this is why learning piano correctly has so many beneficial consequences, such as the ability to better cope with everyday problems or the ability to retain memory longer as you age. This is why, in this book, memorizing is an inseparable part of technique acquisition.

The above definition of technique tells us that, once you have learned something, like playing a scale, practicing it over and over does not materially improve technique and can waste a lot of time. We must understand our own anatomy and learn how to discover and acquire the correct technique. This turns out to be a nearly impossible task for the average human brain unless you dedicate your entire life to it from childhood. Even then, most will not succeed. The reason why it takes an entire dedicated lifetime is that, without proper instruction, the pianist must discover the correct motions, etc., by trial and error. You must depend on the small probability that, as you try to play that difficult passage faster, your hand accidentally stumbles onto a motion that works. If you are unlucky, your hand never discovers the motion and you are stuck forever, a phenomenon called “speed wall”. Most beginning piano students haven’t the foggiest idea about the complex motions that the fingers, hands, and arms can perform. Fortunately, the many geniuses who came before us have made most of the useful discoveries (otherwise, they wouldn’t have been such great performers) leading to efficient practice methods.

Another misconception about technique is that once the fingers become sufficiently skillful, you can play anything. Almost every different passage is a new adventure; it must be learned anew. Experienced pianists seem to be able to play just about anything because (1) they have practiced all the things that you encounter frequently, and (2) they know how to learn new things very quickly. Therefore, acquiring technique might at first appear to be a daunting task because there is almost an infinite number of different piano passages — how are we to learn them all? This problem has been mostly solved. There are large classes of passages, such as scales, that appear frequently; knowledge of how to play these will cover significant portions of most compositions. But more importantly, there are specific solutions for specific problems — these solutions are the main subject matter of this book.

Some of the most important solutions we will discuss are powerful learning tricks that allow you to acquire difficult technique using general procedures that apply to almost any passage. These learning tricks provide the fastest way for you to discover the optimum finger/hand/arm motions for playing that passage. There are two reasons why you need to make your own discoveries. First, there are so many different passages that the methods for playing them can’t all be listed here. Second, the needs of each individual are different, so that the set of rules in this book should only serve as a starting point for each person who must adapt them to the individual needs. Readers who truly understand the contents of this book will not only be able to immediately speed up their learning rate, but also to accelerate it with each added skill. The degree of this acceleration will largely determine how fast and how far you will advance as a pianist.

Unfortunately, many private piano teachers not associated with music institutions do not know these methods and they teach most of the beginners. At the other extreme, the great masters and professional pianists have written books on piano playing that discuss topics at a higher level on how to make music but do not deal with how to acquire basic technique. That is why I wrote this book.

Technique and Music

Although it is not easy to define music precisely, we can discuss how to play musically, as done at various points in this book. The relationship between technique and music determines the way we practice for technique. Technique is needed, and is used, to make music; therefore, we must always practice musically. If we concentrate only on developing “finger technique” and neglect music during practice, we can pick up non-musical playing habits. This is an insidious problem because practicing to acquire technique implies a lack of technique so, initially, there is no way to make music. Then, how is the student supposed to practice musically? Of course, you start non-musically. The error occurs when the students forget to add the music as soon as they are able to do so. One common symptom of this error is the inability to play the lesson pieces when the teacher (or anyone else!) is listening. When an audience is present, these students make strange errors that they didn’t make during “practice”. This happens because the students practiced without regard for music but suddenly realized that music must now be added because the teacher is listening. Unfortunately, until lesson time, they had never really practiced it!

There is an even more fundamental connection between technique and music. Piano teachers know that students need to practice musically in order to acquire technique. What is right for the ears and the brain turns out to be right for the human playing mechanism. Both musicality and technique require accuracy and control. Practically any technical flaw can be detected in the music. At the very least, the music is the supreme test of whether the technique is right or wrong. As we shall see throughout this book, there are more reasons why music should never be separated from technique. Nonetheless, many students tend to practice neglecting the music and preferring to “work” when no one is around to listen. Such practice methods are detrimental to technique acquisition and produce “closet pianists” who love to play but can’t perform. Once you become a closet pianist, it is extremely difficult to reverse that psychology. If students are taught to practice musically all the time, this type of problem will not even exist; performing and practice are one and the same. We provide many suggestions in this book for practicing to perform, such as video taping your practices from the very beginning. However, the single most important concept is that of practicing musically.

Why is slow, musical play more effective than fast practice for increasing playing speed? There are three main reasons. The first is that both require the same amount of accuracy and control. The second is that you can avoid picking up bad habits and stress when playing slowly. The third is that you can concentrate on new or efficient motions, relaxation, etc., and practice them more effectively when playing slowly. All these factors conspire to produce a phenomenon called “fast play degradation” in which, one day, you suddenly find that you can’t play a piece to your satisfaction although you played it very well (and fast) the previous day. Of course, methods for quickly developing speed are equally important, and are discussed in great detail here. A judicious choice of practice speed, alternating between slow and fast practice, is what enables you to optimize your practice efficiency.

Basic Approach, Interpretation, Musical Training, Perfect Pitch

Teachers play a critical role in showing students how to play and practice musically. There are some general and useful principles of musicality. For example, most pieces of music begin and end with the same chord, a somewhat mysterious rule which is actually a result of basic chord progression rules. An understanding of chord progressions is very useful for memorizing. A musical phrase generally starts and ends with softer notes, with the louder ones in between; when in doubt, this is a good default principle. There are many books that discuss musical interpretation (Gieseking, Sandor), and we will encounter numerous pointers throughout this book. Clearly, education in music theory, relative and perfect pitch, etc., will be very beneficial to the pianist.

Musical training of the very young can be extremely rewarding. Most babies exposed frequently to perfectly tuned pianos will automatically develop perfect pitch — this is nothing extra-ordinary. Nobody is born with perfect pitch, because it is a 100% learned skill (the exact frequencies of the musical scales are arbitrary human concoctions — there is no natural law that says that middle A should be 440 Hz). If this perfect pitch is not maintained, it will be lost later in life. Piano training of young children can begin as early as age three to four. Early exposure of youngsters (from birth) to classical music is beneficial because classical music has the highest musical content (deep, complex, logic) among all the different types of music. Some forms of contemporary music, by over-emphasizing certain narrow aspects, such as loudness or simplistic music structures that do not stimulate the brain, can detract from musical development by distancing the brain from music.

A person does not have to be especially gifted to be able to play the piano well. Although you need to be musically gifted to compose music, the ability to move the fingers is not that dependent on the musical brain. In fact, most of us are more musical than we give ourselves credit for and it is the lack of technique that limits our musical expression at the piano. We have all had the experience of listening to famous pianists and noticing that one is different from the other — that is more musical sensitivity than we will ever need to start playing the piano. There is no need to practice eight hours a day; some famous pianists have recommended practice times of less than an hour. You can make progress practicing three or four times a week, one hour each. If you practice more, you will of course make faster progress.

One of the most important lessons of this book is to play relaxed. What should you feel when you have learned to play completely relaxed? Firstly, speed ceases to be an issue, not only because it isn’t that difficult, but also because you have an automatic speed limit called music, which will limit your speed long before you encounter any difficulties. You will feel that the fingers actually want to go faster, and you will often have to hold them back. You develop “quiet hands” in which the hands move minimally while the fingers fly. You can play even moderately difficult material and actually rest the hands on the piano and feel the fatigue decreasing as you play. Note that relaxation applies only to the physical playing mechanism; the brain must never be shut off — it must always be intensely focused on the music, even (or especially) when practicing. Thus mindless repetitions of exercises such as the Hanon series is the worst thing you can do to develop stamina in your musical brain. If you don’t develop brain stamina during practice, the brain will tire out part way through any performance and you will end up playing like a robotic zombie with no active control over the performance. This type of situation is what naturally gives rise to nervousness because, without proper preparation, your brain knows that the chances of success are slim.

Finally, total music education (scales, time signatures, dictation, ear training [including perfect pitch], dictation, theory, etc.) should be an integral part of learning to play the piano because each different thing you learn helps all the others. In the final analysis, a total music education is the only way to learn piano. Unfortunately, the majority of aspiring pianists do not have the resources or the time to follow such a path. This book was designed to give the student a head start by learning how to acquire technique quickly so that they can consider studying all the other helpful subjects. Statistically, students who excel in playing the piano almost always end up composing music of their own. Learning theory later in life is often not a viable option; for example, learning perfect pitch becomes more difficult with age, see details in section III.12. On the other hand, studying music composition is not a prerequisite for composing. Some musicians frown on learning to much composition theory before starting to compose your own music because that can prevent you from developing your own musical style.

What are some unique features of the methods of this book?

  1. They are not overly demanding, like older methods that require students to commit to a dedicated lifestyle to fit the piano instruction. In the methods of this book, students are given the tools to pick a specific procedure that will achieve a defined objective. If the methods really work, they shouldn’t require a lifetime of blind faith in order to achieve proficiency!
  2. Every procedure of these methods has a physical basis (if it works, it always has one; the past problems have been in identifying the correct explanations); it must further contain the following required elements:
  • Objective: what techniques to acquire, i.e., if you can’t play fast enough, or you can’t trill well, you want to memorize, etc.,
  • Then do: i.e., practice hands separately, use chord attack, memorize as you practice, etc.,
  • Because: the physiological, psychological, mechanical, etc., explanations for why these methods work. For example, hands separate practice allows quick acquisition of technique by making difficult passages simpler (one hand is easier than two) and the chord attack enables instant acceleration to the final speed, etc., and
  • If not: problems that arise if uninformed methods are used, i.e., acquiring bad habits from too many repetitions, developing stress from practicing with fatigued hands, etc. Without this “If not”, students can pick any other method — why this one? We need to know what not to do because bad habits and wrong methods, not insufficient practice, are the main causes of a lack of progress.

The Practice Routine

This section contains the minimum set of instructions that you need before starting practice.

Many students use the following practice routine:

(1) First, practice scales or technical exercises until the fingers are limbered up. Continue this for 30 minutes or longer, if you have time, to improve technique, especially by using exercises such as the Hanon series.
(2) Then take a new piece of music and slowly read it for a page or two, carefully playing both hands together, starting from the beginning. This slow play is repeated until it can be performed reasonably well and then it is gradually speeded up until the final speed is attained. A metronome might be used for this gradual speed-up.
(3) At the end of a two hour practice, the fingers are flying, so the students can play as fast as they want and enjoy the experience before quitting. After all, they are tired of practicing so that they can relax, play their hearts out at full speed; this is the time to enjoy the music!
(4) On the day of the recital or lesson, they practice the piece at correct speed (or faster!) as many times as possible in order to make sure that they know it inside out and to keep it in top condition. This is the last chance; obviously, the more practice, the better.

EVERY STEP OF THIS PROCEDURE IS WRONG! The above will almost guarantee that the students will not progress beyond intermediate level even if they practice several hours daily. You will understand this as soon as you read about the more efficient methods described below. For example, this method tells the students nothing about what to do when they hit an impossible passage except to keep repeating, sometimes for a lifetime, with no clear idea of when or how the needed technique will be acquired. This method leaves the task of learning the piano completely to the student. Moreover, the music will come out flat during the recital and unexpected flubs will be almost unavoidable, as explained below. The lessons of this section will demonstrate why the above procedures are wrong. You will know why the recital will come out flat, and why the wrong method leads to flubs. But more importantly, you will know the correct methods!

Lack of progress is the main reason why so many students quit piano. Students, especially youngsters, are smart; why work like a slave and learn nothing? Reward the students and you will get more dedication than any teacher could want. You can be a doctor, scientist, lawyer, athlete, or anything you want, and still become a good pianist. This is because there are methods that let you acquire technique in a relatively short period of time, as we shall soon see.

Note that the above practice routine is an “intuitive” method. If a person of average intelligence were marooned on an island with just a piano and decided to practice, that person would most likely devise a practice method like the one above. That is, a teacher using this type of practice routine isn’t teaching anything — the method is intuitive. When I first started to compile the “correct learning procedures” of this book, I was struck most by how counter-intuitive many of them were. I will explain later why they are so counter-intuitive but this offers the best explanation for why so many teachers use the intuitive approach. These teachers never really understood the correct methods and therefore defaulted naturally to the intuitive method. The trouble with counter-intuitive methods is that they are harder to adopt than intuitive ones; your brain is constantly telling you that they are not right and to get back to the intuitive ones. This message from the brain can become irresistible just before a lesson or recital — try telling (uninformed) students not to enjoy playing their finished pieces before quitting practice, or not to practice full speed on recital day! It is not just the students or teachers. It is also any parents or friends with good intentions that influence the practice routines of young students. Parents who are not informed will always force their children to use the intuitive methods. This is one reason why good teachers always ask parents to accompany their children to the lessons. If the parents are not informed, there is a virtual guarantee that they will force the students to use methods that are in direct contradiction to the teacher’s instructions.

Students who started with the correct methods from the beginning are the apparently lucky ones. However, they must be careful later in life because they don’t know what the wrong methods are. Once they leave the teacher, they can stumble into the intuitive methods and have no idea why everything is falling apart. It’s like a bear that had never seen a bear trap — it gets caught every time. These lucky ones often can’t teach either, because the correct methods are second nature and they can’t understand why anyone would use any other method. They may not realize that the correct methods need to be taught and that many intuitive methods can lead to disaster. Something that is second nature is often difficult to describe because you never gave it much thought. You never realize how difficult English is until you try to teach it to a Japanese. On the other hand, the apparently unlucky students who first learned the intuitive methods and then changed over to the better ones have some unexpected advantages. They know both the right and wrong methods and often make much better teachers. Therefore, although this chapter teaches the correct methods, it is just as important to know what NOT to do, and why. This is why the most frequently used wrong methods are extensively discussed in this book; they help us to better understand the correct methods.

We describe the components of a proper practice routine in the following sections. They are presented in approximately the order in which a student might use them from start to finish of a new piece of music. Sections 1 to 4 are preliminaries; the really new material of this book starts in section 5.

Finger Positions

Everyone seems to have her/is own ideas about finger positions, so it is clear that there are no rigid rules. The only guidance is that the fingers should be in the most relaxed and powerful positions. First, make a tight fist. Then open your fingers and stretch them as far out as they will go. Now relax the fingers completely. In this relaxed state, place the hand on a flat surface with all the fingertips resting on the surface and the wrist at the same height as the knuckles. The hand and fingers should form a dome. All the fingers should be curved. The thumb should point slightly down and bend very slightly towards the fingers so that the last digit of the thumb is parallel to the other fingers. It is important to maintain this slight inward bend of the thumb when playing chords with wide spans. This positions the tip of the thumb parallel to the keys making it less likely to hit adjacent keys. It also orients the thumb so that the correct muscles are used to raise and lower the thumb. The fingers are slightly curled, curving down and meeting the keys at angles near 45 degrees. This curved configuration allows the fingers to play between the black keys. The tip of the thumb and the other fingertips should form an approximate semicircle on the flat surface. This is a good starting hand position for playing the piano. You can then modify it to suit your playing style. If you do this with both hands side by side, the two thumbnails should be facing each other. Use the part of the thumb directly below the thumbnails to play, not the joint. For the other fingers, the bone comes very close to the outer skin at the fingertips. Just inside the fingertip (away from the fingernail), the flesh is slightly thicker. This fleshy part should contact the keys, not the fingertip.

This is just a suggested starting position. Once you begin play, these rules immediately go out the window. You may need to stretch the fingers almost straight, or curl them more, depending on what you are playing.

Bench Height and Distance from Piano

The right height of the bench and its distance from the piano is also very much a matter of personal taste. A good starting point can be determined in the following way. Sit at the bench with your elbows at your sides and forearms parallel to the keys. With your hands on the keys in playing position, the elbows should be at the height of the keys. Now place your hands on the white keys — the distance of the bench from the piano (and your sitting position) should be such that the elbows just miss your body as you move them in towards each other. Do not sit at the center of the bench, but sit closer to the front edge. The bench height and location are most critical when playing loud chords. Therefore, you can test this position by playing two black key chords simultaneously, as loudly as you can. The chords are C2#G2#C3# (5,2,1) for the left hand and C5#G5#C6# (1,2,5) for the right hand. Press down hard, leaning forwards a little, with the whole weight of your arms and shoulders, to make a thundering, authoritative sound. Make sure that the shoulders are totally involved. Loud, impressive sounds cannot be made using only the hands and forearms; the force must come from the shoulders and the body. If this is comfortable, the bench and sitting positions should be correct.

Starting a Piece: Listening and Analysis (Fur Elise)

Look over the new piece and start sight-reading with it, so that you become familiar with how it sounds. The best way to become familiar with a new piece is to listen to a performance (recording). The criticism that listening first is some sort of “cheating” has no defensible basis. The purported disadvantage is that students might end up imitating instead of using their creativity. It is impossible to imitate someone else’s playing because playing styles are so individualistic. A mathematical “proof” of this impossibility is presented in section IV.3. This fact can be reassuring and relieves some students from blaming themselves for the inability to imitate some famous pianist. If possible, listen to several different recordings. They can open up all sorts of new vistas and possibilities. Not listening is like saying that you shouldn’t go to school because that will destroy your creativity. Some students think that listening is a waste of time because they will never play that well. In that case, think again. If the methods described here will not make people play “that well”, I wouldn’t be writing this book! What happens most frequently when students listen to many recordings is that they discover that the performances are not uniformly good; that they actually prefer their own playing to some of those in the recordings.

The next step is to analyze the structure of the composition. This structure will be used to determine the practice program. Let’s use Beethoven’s Fur Elise as an example. The first 4 bars are repeated 15 times, so by just learning 4 bars you can play 50% of the piece (it has 125 bars). Another 6 bars are repeated 4 times, so learning only 10 bars enables you to play 70% of it. Using the methods of this book, therefore, 70% of this piece can be memorized in less than 30 minutes, because these bars are quite easy. Application of this method automatically commits those sections you practice to memory. Among these repeated bars, there are two interruptions that are not easy. When you can play these interruptions satisfactorily, using the methods described below, join them with the repetitions, and Voila! — you can play, and have memorized, the whole piece. Of course, mastering the two difficult interruptions is the key to learning this piece, and we shall address that issue in the following sections. A student with 2 years of lessons should be able to learn the required 50 different bars of this piece in 2 to 5 days and be able to play the whole piece at speed and from memory. At this point, the teacher is ready to work with the student on the musical content of the composition; how long that will take depends on the musical level of the student. Musically speaking, you never really finish any piece.

This is the end of the preliminaries. We are ready to begin the real exciting lessons. The secret for acquiring technique quickly lies in knowing certain tricks for reducing impossibly difficult passages to not only playable but also to trivially simple ones. We shall now embark upon that magical journey into the brains of geniuses who figured out incredibly efficient ways to practice the piano!

Practice the Most Difficult Sections First

Returning to our Fur Elise, look for the difficult sections; there are two interruptions with 16 and 23 bars inserted among the repeated material. These are the difficult sections. Start learning the piece by practicing the most difficult sections first. The reason is obvious; it will take the longest time to learn these, so they should be given the most practice time. If you practice the difficult sections last and then try to perform the piece, you will find that the difficult part is the weakest and it will always give you trouble. Since the ending of most pieces is generally the most exciting, interesting, and difficult, you will probably learn most pieces starting from the end. For compositions with several movements, you will most frequently start with the end of the final movement.

Shortening Difficult Passages: Segmental (Bar-by-Bar) Practice

A most important learning trick is to choose a short practice segment. This trick has perhaps the largest effect on reducing the practice time because of many reasons.
(1) Within any difficult passage of say, 10 bars, there is typically only a few note combinations that stymie you. There is no need to practice anything other than those notes. If there are 10 bars with 8 notes each but there are only 4 difficult notes, then by just practicing those four, you can get to play all 10 bars, greatly cutting down on practice time. Let’s revisit the two difficult interruptions in Fur Elise. Examine them and find the most troublesome bars. This may be the first bar or the last five bars of the first interruption, or the final arpeggio in the second interruption. In all difficult segments, it is critically important to observe the finger markings and to make doubly sure that you are comfortable with them. For the last five bars of the first interruption, the difficulty is in the RH where most of the action is in fingers 1 and 5. Finger 2 plays a key role on certain notes, but there is an option of using mostly finger 1. Use of finger 2 is the most conventionally correct way and provides better control and smoother play. However, use of mostly finger 1 is easier to remember, which can be a lifesaver if you haven’t played this piece for a while. It is very important that you choose one fingering and stick to it. For the arpeggio in the second interruption, use the fingering 1231354321…. Either thumb under or thumb over (see section III.5) will work because this passage is not overly fast, but I prefer thumb over because the thumb under will require some elbow motion and this extra movement can lead to flubs.
(2) Practicing only short segments allows you to practice the same segment dozens, even hundreds of times, in a matter of minutes. Use of these quick, successive repetitions is the fastest way to teach your hand new motions. If the difficult notes are played as part of a longer segment, the longer interval between successive practice and the playing of other notes in between can confuse the hand and cause it to learn much more slowly. This effect is quantitatively calculated in section IV.5, and that calculation provides the basis for the claim in this book that these methods can be 1000 times faster than the intuitive methods.
(3) We all know that playing a passage faster than your technique allows is detrimental. However, the shorter a segment you choose, the faster you can practice it without ill effects. Initially, the most common short segment you will choose is one bar or less, often just two notes. By choosing such short segments, you can bring practically any difficult note combination up to speed in just minutes. Therefore, you can practice most of the time at or beyond final speed, which is the ideal situation because it saves so much time. In the intuitive method, you are practicing most of the time at slow speed.

Hands Separate Practice: Acquiring Technique

Essentially 100% of technique development is accomplished by practicing hands separately (HS). Do not try to develop finger/hand technique hands together (HT) as that is much more difficult, time consuming, and dangerous, as explained in detail later.

Start practicing any difficult passage HS. Choose two short passages, one each for the right hand (RH) and the left hand (LH). Practice the RH until it begins to tire, then switch to the LH. Switch every 5 to 15 seconds, before either the resting hand cools and becomes sluggish, or the working hand becomes tired. If you choose the rest interval just right, you will find that the rested hand is eager to perform. Don’t practice when the hand is tired, because that will lead to stress and bad habits. Those unfamiliar with HS practice will generally have a weaker LH. In that case, give the LH more work. In this scheme, you can practice hard 100% of the time, but you never practice with fatigued hands!

For the two difficult sections of Fur Elise, practice them HS until each hand becomes very comfortable, up to speeds much faster than final speed, before putting the hands together. This may take from a few days to several weeks depending on your level of play. As soon as you can play HS reasonably well, try HT to check that the fingering works. It is best to try to use similar fingerings (or closely related fingerings) in the two hands; this will make the task of playing HT simpler. Don’t worry at this point if you can’t play it satisfactorily, you just need to make sure that there are no conflicts or better fingerings.

It should be emphasized that the HS practice is only for difficult passages that you cannot play. If you can play the passage adequately HT, by all means, skip the HS part! The ultimate objective of this book is for you to be able to quickly play HT with practically no HS practice after you become proficient. The objective is not to cultivate a dependence on HS practice. Use HS only when necessary and try to reduce its use gradually as your technique advances. However, you will be able to play HT with little HS practice only after you have become pretty advanced — most students will be dependent on HS practice for 5 to 10 years, and will never completely abandon its use. The reason for this is that all technique is most quickly acquired HS. There is one exception to this rule on avoiding HS practice whenever possible. That is memorizing; you should memorize everything HS for several important reasons (see “Memorizing” in section III).

Beginning students should practice HS all the time for all pieces so as to master this critically important method as quickly as possible. However, once the HS method is mastered, the student should start to explore the possibility of playing HT without using HS. Beginner students should be able to master the HS methods in two to three years. The HS method is not just separating the hands. What we will learn below are the myriad of learning tricks you can use once the hands are separated.

HS practice is valuable long after you have learned a piece. You can push your technique much further HS than HT. And it is a lot of fun! You can really exercise the fingers/hands/arms. It is superior to anything Hanon or other exercises can provide. This is when you can figure out “incredible ways” to play that piece. This is when you can really improve your technique. The initial learning of the composition only serves to familiarize your fingers with the music. The amount of time spent playing pieces you have completely learned is what separates the accomplished pianist from the amateur. This is why accomplished pianists can perform but most amateurs can only play for themselves.

Finally, it should be understood that all finger technique is acquired HS because there is no method that is more efficient. If you can play HT immediately, there is no need for HS practice. However, if you can’t quite play HT, how do you tell if you can skip HS practice? There is a clear test for that — you can skip HS practice only if you can play HS comfortably, relaxed, and accurately at faster than final speed. It is usually best to bring the HS speed up to at least 1.5 times final speed. That is usually not difficult, and can be a lot of fun, because you can see the rapid improvement in your skill level. For this reason, you might find yourself practicing HS a lot more than is absolutely necessary, and will certainly use it all your life. Each hand must eventually learn its own set of skills independently of the other (you certainly don’t want one hand to depend on the other). The quickest way to acquire these skills is to learn them separately. Each alone is difficult enough; trying to learn them together will be much more difficult and time consuming. In HS practice, you acquire finger/hand technique; then in HT practice you only need to learn how to coordinate the two hands.

The Continuity Rule

Suppose that you want to play the (LH) “do-so-mi-so” quadruplet (“Alberti accompaniment”) many times in succession, very fast (as in the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata). The sequence you practice is CGEGC. The inclusion of the last C is an application of the continuity rule: while practicing one segment, always include the beginning of the following segment. This ensures that when you have learned two adjacent segments, you can also play them together. The continuity rule applies to any segment you isolate for practice, such as a bar, an entire movement, or even to segments smaller than a bar.

A generalization of the continuity rule is that any passage may be broken up into short segments for practice, but these segments must overlap. The overlapping note or group of notes is called the conjunction. If you are practicing the end of the first movement, then include a few bars of the beginning of the second movement; don’t immediately jump back. During a recital, you will be glad that you had practiced in this way; otherwise, you might suddenly find yourself stumped on how to start the 2nd movement!

We can now apply the continuity rule to those difficult interruptions in Fur Elise. For the first interruption, the 8th bar (of this interruption) can be practiced by itself. Play the last note with finger 1. The conjunction is the first note of bar 9 (finger 2), which is the same as the first note of bar 8, so by using this C as the conjunction, you can cycle bar 8 continually for a good workout without any wasted time. This bar is said to be self-cycling — see “Cycling”, section III.2, for more details on cycling. Bars 9 and 10 as a unit are also self-cycling. Since all the difficult sections are for the RH, find some LH material to practice, even from a different piece of music, in order to give the RH periodic rests by switching hands.

The Chord Attack

Let’s return to the (LH) CGEG quadruplet. If you practice it slowly and then gradually speed it up (HS), you will hit a “speed wall”, a speed beyond which everything breaks down and stress builds up. The way to break this speed wall is to play the quadruplet as a single chord (CEG). You have gone from slow speed to infinite speed! This is called a chord attack. Now you only have to learn to slow down, which is easier than speeding up because there is no speed wall when you are slowing down. But — how do you slow down?

First play the chord and bounce the hand up and down at the frequency at which the quadruplet should be played (say, between one and two times a second); it should be easier when played as a chord, but this may not be simple if it is your first time. Note that the fingers are now positioned exactly correctly for fast playing. Try varying the bounce frequency up and down (even beyond the required speed!), noting how to alter the wrist, arm, fingers, etc., positions and motions as you go through the different speeds. If you feel fatigue after a while, then you are either doing something wrong, or else you have not yet acquired the technique of bouncing the chords. You will need to practice it until you can do that without tiring because if you can’t do it for a chord, you will never do it for quadruplets. In other words, you have just identified a weakness in the technique that needs to be remedied before you can progress to the next stage.

Play the chord with the most economical motions you can think of. Keep the fingers close to or on the keys as you increase speed. Get your whole body involved; shoulders, upper and lower arms, wrist. The sensation is to play from your shoulders and arms, not your fingertips. When you can play this softly, relaxed, fast, and without any feeling of fatigue, you know that you have made progress. Make sure that you are playing perfect chords (all notes landing at the same time) because, without this kind of sensitivity, you will not have the accuracy required to play fast. It is important to practice the slow bounce because that is when you can work on the accuracy. Accuracy improves faster at the slower speeds. However, it is absolutely essential that you get up to fast speeds (if only briefly) before slowing down. When you slow down, try to maintain the same motions that were required at high speed, because that is what you need to ultimately practice. If you think that this is the end of this simple chord business, you are in for a surprise — this is only the beginning; read on!

Gravity Drop, Chord Practice, and Relaxation

Practicing to play accurate chords is the first step in applying the chord attack. Let’s practice the above CEG chord. The arm weight method is the best way to achieve accuracy and relaxation; this approach has been adequately treated in the referenced books (Fink, Sandor) and therefore will be discussed only briefly here. Place your fingers on the keys and position them correctly. Relax your arm (the whole body, actually), keep your wrist flexible, lift the hand from 5 to 20 cm above the keys (the shorter distance in the beginning), and just let gravity drop your hand. Let the hand and fingers drop as a unit, do not move the fingers. Relax the hands completely during the drop, then “set” your fingers and wrist at the time of impact with the keys and let the wrist flex slightly to take the shock of landing and to depress the keys. By letting gravity lower your hand, you are referencing your strength or sensitivity to a very constant force.

It may seem unbelievable at first, but an under-weight 6-year-old and a gargantuan sumo wrestler dropping their hands from the same height will produce sound of the same loudness. This happens because the speed of gravitational fall is independent of mass and the hammer goes into free flight as soon as the knuckle leaves the jack (the last few millimeters before hitting the strings). Physics students will recognize that in the elastic limit (billiard ball collision), kinetic energy is conserved and the above statements do not hold. In such an elastic collision, the piano key would fly off the fingertip at high velocity, somewhat like when playing staccato. But here, because the fingers are relaxed and the fingertips are soft (inelastic collision), kinetic energy is not conserved and the small mass (piano key) can stay with the large mass (finger-hand-arm), resulting in a controlled keydrop. Therefore, the above statements hold as long as the piano is properly regulated and the effective mass for the key drop is much smaller than the mass of the 6-year-old’s finger-hand-arm. Stiffening the hand at impact ensures that the entire arm weight transfers to the key drop. Obviously, it is not possible to produce the full sound of the gravity drop if you do not stiffen the hand at impact. You must take care not to add force during this stiffening; therefore, it takes practice to be able to produce a pure gravity drop and this becomes more difficult with increasing height of the drop. Not adding this extra force is a more difficult task for the sumo wrestler because he needs such a large force to stop the momentum of his arm. The best criteria for the proper stiffening force are the loudness and tone of the sound.

Strictly speaking, the sumo wrestler will make a slightly louder sound because of momentum conservation, but the difference will be quite small, in spite of the fact that his arm may be 20 times heavier. Another surprise is that, once properly taught, the gravity drop may produce the loudest sound that this youngster has ever played (for a high drop), and is an excellent way to teach youngsters how to play firmly. Start with short drops for small youngsters because in the beginning, a truly free drop can be painful if the height is too high. For a successful gravity drop, especially for youngsters, it is important to teach them to make-believe that there is no piano and the hand should feel like it is falling through the keyboard (but is stopped by it). Otherwise, many youngsters will subconsciously lift the hand as it lands on the piano. In other words, the gravity drop is a constant acceleration and the hand is accelerating, even during the key drop. At the end, the hand is resting on the keys with its own weight — this action is what produces pleasant, deep, “tone”. Note that it is important for the key drop to accelerate all the way down – see section III.1 on producing good tone.

The well-known Steinway “accelerated action” works because it adds acceleration to the hammer motion by use of a rounded support under the center key bushing. This causes the pivot point to move forward with keydrop thus shortening the front side of the key and lengthening the back side and thereby causing the capstan to accelerate for a constant keydrop. This illustrates the importance piano designers place on accelerating the keydrop, and the arm weight method ensures that we take full advantage of gravitational acceleration to control the tone. The effectiveness of the “accelerated action” is controversial because there are excellent pianos without this feature. Obviously, it is more important for the pianist to control this acceleration.

The finger must be “set” at the moment of impact so as to depress the key and decelerate the fall. This requires a brief application of force to the finger. As soon as the key reaches the bottom of the keydrop, remove this force and relax completely so that you can feel gravity pulling the arm down. Rest the hand on the key with only this gravitational force keeping the key down. What you have just accomplished is to depress the key with the least possible effort; this is the essence of relaxation.

Beginning students will play chords with too many unnecessary forces that can not be accurately controlled.The use of gravity to lower the hand allows you to eliminate all forces or tenseness in the hand that are the causes of certain fingers landing before the others. It might seem like a curious coincidence that the force of gravity is just the right force for playing the piano. This is no coincidence. Humans evolved under the influence of gravity. Our strengths for walking, lifting, etc., evolved to match gravity exactly. The piano, of course, was built to match those strengths. Remember: the amount of force you need to play the chord is roughly equal to that supplied by gravity — don’t bang those chords or tense the hands — a lot of things will start to go out of control! For beginners or those who have developed a habit of tensing the hands to play chords, it is a good idea to practice the gravity drop for several weeks, or even months, a little bit every time you practice. And of course, it must be incorporated into the everyday practicing and playing. What this means is that when you are truly relaxed, you can actually feel the effect of gravity on your hands as you are playing. Some teachers will emphasize relaxation to the point of neglecting everything else until “total” relaxation is achieved; that may be going too far overboard — being able to feel gravity is a necessary and sufficient criterion for relaxation.

The gravity drop also eliminates the need for momentum balance (see section IV.6). When the hand plays the piano, the downward momentum of the key is supplied by the momentum of the hand. This downward momentum must be compensated by the rest of the human playing mechanism which must provide an upward momentum if the gravity drop is not utilized. Although we all accomplish this without even thinking, it is in fact quite a complex feat. In the gravity drop method, this momentum is supplied by gravity, so that the piano is played with the absolute minimum action by the human playing mechanism. In this way, the gravity drop enables us to relax all the unnecessary muscles and to concentrate only on those that are needed to control the chord.

Gravity drop is therefore much more than just a method to practice chords. More importantly, the gravity drop is a method to practice relaxation. Once this relaxed state is achieved, it must become a permanent, integral part of your piano playing. The guiding principle in the arm weight method is relaxation. In addition to the gravity drop, it is important to learn to feel the effect of gravity as we play. We will treat relaxation in more detail below.

Finally, chord playing is an important component of piano technique. As such, it must be developed gradually in concert with your general skill level. There is no faster way of doing that than the use of the parallel sets described below. Also, see section III.7 for more details; section III.7e gives additional instructions on how to practice playing even chords when the gravity drop does not solve the problem.

Parallel Sets

Now that the LH CEG chord is satisfactory, (try to) switch suddenly from the chord to the quadruplet at several different bounce frequencies. You will now have to move the fingers but keep the finger motions to a minimum. Here again, you will need to incorporate the proper hand/arm motions (see Fink, Sandor), but that’s advanced stuff, so let’s back-track a little. You will be able to switch quickly after you have become proficient with this method but let’s assume that you cannot, so that we can demonstrate a powerful method for solving this very common type of problem.

The most basic way to learn how to play a difficult passage is to build it up two notes at a time, using the chord attack. In our (LH) CGEG example, we start with the first two notes. A two-note chord attack! Play these two notes as a perfect chord, bouncing your hand and fingers (5 and 1) together up and down as you did previously with the CEG chord. In order to play these two notes rapidly one after the other, lower both fingers together, but keep the 1 finger slightly above the 5 so that the 5 lands first. It is just a rapid two-note rolling chord. Since you are bringing both fingers down at once and only delaying one slightly, you can play them as closely as you wish by decreasing the delay. This is how you slow down from infinite speed!

Is it possible to play any combination of notes infinitely fast in this way? Of course not. How do we know which ones can be played infinitely fast and which ones can’t? In order to answer this question, we need to introduce the concept of parallel play. The above method of lowering fingers together is called parallel play because the fingers are lowered simultaneously, i.e., in parallel. A parallel set is a group of notes that can be played as a chord. All parallel sets can be played infinitely fast. The delay between successive fingers is called the phase angle. In a chord, the phase angle is zero for all the fingers. These and related concepts are explained more systematically in section IV.2. The highest speed is attained by reducing the phase to the smallest controllable value. This smallest value is approximately equal to the error in your chord playing. In other words, the more accurate your chords, the faster will be your maximum attainable speed. This is why so much space was devoted above to describing how to practice perfect chords.

Once you have conquered the CG, you can proceed with the next GE (1,3), then EG and finally the GC to complete the quadruplet and conjunction. Then connect them in pairs, etc., to complete the quadruplet. Notice that CGE is also a parallel set. Therefore the quadruplet plus conjunction can be constructed from two parallel sets, (5,1,3) and (3,1,5). This is a faster way. The general rule for the use of parallel sets is: construct the practice segment by using the largest parallel sets possible that are consistent with the fingering. Break it up into smaller parallel sets only if the large parallel set is too difficult. If you have difficulty with a particular parallel set, read section III.7 on parallel set exercises. Although, in theory, parallel sets can be played infinitely fast, that doesn’t guarantee that you can play that particular parallel set with sufficient speed and control. You can play it only if you have the technique. Therefore, parallel sets can be used to pinpoint your weaknesses. Section III.7 discusses details of how to practice playing parallel sets and how to quickly acquire technique by their use.

After you can play one quadruplet well, practice playing two in succession until you can do that comfortably, then three, etc. Soon, you will be able to play as many as you want in succession! When you initially bounced the chord, the hand moved up and down. But in the end, when playing the quadruplets in rapid succession, the hand is fairly stationary, but not rigid. You will also have to add hand motions — more on this later.

The second difficult section in Fur Elise ends with an arpeggio that is composed of three parallel sets, 123, 135, and 432. First practice each parallel set individually, then add the conjunction, then connect them in pairs, etc., to build up the arpeggio.

Now we have the necessary terminology and can summarize the procedure for using the chord attack to scale speed walls (see sections IV.1 and IV.2 for discussions of speed walls). Decompose the segment into parallel sets, apply the chord attack to these sets, and connect the parallel sets to complete the segment. If you cannot play any of the needed parallel sets at nearly infinite speed, you will need the parallel set exercises of section III.7. Whew! We are done with speed walls!

In order for the segment to sound smooth and musical, we need to accomplish two things: (1) control the phase angles accurately and (2) connect the parallel sets smoothly. Most of the finger/hand/arm motions described in the references are aimed at accomplishing these two tasks in the most ingenious ways. This is the most direct connection between the concept of parallel sets and the references. Since those subjects are adequately covered in the references, they are only briefly treated here in section III.4. Therefore those references are necessary companions to this book. The material given here will get you started; the material in the references is necessary to bring you to the next level of proficiency and musicianship. In order to help you decide which reference you should use, I have provided (extremely brief) reviews for several of them in the Reference section. As you speed up the parallel sets, experiment with hand rotation, wrist motion up and down (in general, lower the wrist when playing the thumb and raise it as you approach the pinky), pronation, supination, cycling motion, thrust, pull, etc. These are detailed in the references and briefly surveyed in section III.4.

You will need to read section III.7 in order to know how to use parallel sets to acquire technique quickly. The above introduction to parallel play is just an abbreviated description and is in fact a little misleading. The parallel play described above is what is called a “phase locked” parallel play and is the easiest way to start, but that is not your ultimate goal. In order to acquire technique, you need complete finger independence, not phase locked fingers. Completely independent finger-by-finger play is called serial play. Our objective therefore, is fast serial play. In the intuitive method, you take a slow serial play and try to speed it up. Parallel play is not an objective in itself, but is the quickest way to fast serial play. These issues are explained in the section on Parallel Set Exercises. The idea of these exercises is to first test whether you can play “infinitely fast” — you will be surprised to find out that you cannot always do so, even with just two notes. The exercises then provide you with a way to practice only those sets that you need for that technique. You acquire the technique when you can play the parallel set with control over each note at any speed.

Of course, proficient parallel play by itself does not guarantee correct play. It just gets you there faster by at least getting you up to speed, so that you have fewer steps to take in order to arrive at the correct motions. That is, even with successful parallel play, you will still need to perform quite a bit of further experimentation in order to be able to manage the whole passage. Because the method described here allows you to try hundreds of trials in minutes, this experimentation can be conducted relatively quickly. If you apply the bar-by-bar method, each bar will take less than a second at speed, so in 5 minutes, you can practice it 300 times!

This is why you can’t beat having a good teacher, since s/he can steer you quickly to the correct motions and bypass most of this experimentation. But having a teacher does not mean that you will stop experimenting – just that the experimentation will be more effective. Experimentation should be a constant part of any practice routine. This is another reason why HS practice is so valuable — experimenting is difficult enough HS, it is practically impossible HT!

Parallel play does not solve all problems; it solves mainly material containing runs, arpeggios and broken chords. Another major class of problems is jumps. For this go to section III.7.f.

Learning and Memorizing

There is no faster way of memorizing than to memorize when you are first learning a piece and, for a difficult piece, there is no faster way of learning than memorizing it. Therefore memorize these sections that you are practicing for technique while you are repeating them so many times, in small segments, HS. Memorization is discussed in more detail in section III.6. The procedures for memorizing are almost exactly parallel to those for technique acquisition. For example, memorization should be done HS first. This is why learning and memorizing should be done simultaneously; otherwise you will need to repeat the same procedure twice. It might appear that going through the same procedure a second time would be simpler. It is not. Memorizing is a complex task, even after you can play the piece well. For this reason, students who try to memorize after learning a piece will either give up or never memorize it well. This is understandable; the effort required to memorize can quickly reach the point of diminishing returns if you can already play the piece at speed.

Once students develop memorizing-learning routines that are comfortable for them, most of them will find that learning and memorizing together takes less time than learning alone, for difficult passages. This happens because you eliminate the process of looking at the music, interpreting it, and passing the instructions from the eyes to the brain and then to the hands. With these slow steps bypassed, the learning can proceed unencumbered. Some might worry that memorizing too many compositions will create an unsustainable maintenance problem (see section III.6c for a discussion of maintenance). The best attitude to have towards this problem is not to worry if you forget some pieces that are seldom played. This is because recalling a forgotten piece is very fast as long as it was memorized well the first time. Material memorized when young (before about 20 years of age) is almost never forgotten. This is why it is so critical to learn fast methods of technique acquisition and to memorize as many pieces as possible before reaching the later teen years.

As you go through each step described in this section to acquire technique, memorize the music at that same step. It is that simple. Section III.6 also discusses the numerous benefits of memorization; these benefits are so valuable that it does not make any sense not to memorize. It is much easier to memorize something if you can play it fast; therefore, if you have difficulty memorizing it initially at slow speed, don’t worry; it will become easier as you speed it up.

The major difference between practicing for technique and memorization is that for technique, you need to start with the most difficult sections first, whereas for memory, it is usually best to start with sections that are easy and repeated many times so that you can quickly memorize a large portion of the composition. Then, by memorizing the remaining small sections, you can connect the long easy sections and thereby memorize the whole piece quickly. In general, it is better to memorize first, and then practice for technique. That way, you can start to practice for technique while memorizing. Obviously, all these many requirements are often contradictory, so you must use your judgment on what to do first for each specific case.

Velocity, Choice of Practice Speed

Get up to speed as quickly as possible. Remember, we are still practicing HS. Playing so fast that you start to feel stress and make mistakes will not improve technique because playing with stress is not the way it will be played when you become proficient. Forcing the fingers to play the same way faster is not the way to increase speed. As demonstrated with parallel play, you need new ways that automatically increase speed. In fact, with parallel play, it is often easier to play fast than slowly. Devise hand positions and motions that will control the phase angle accurately and that will also position everything in such a way that the coming transition to the next parallel set is smooth. If you do not make significant progress in a few minutes, you are probably doing something wrong — think of something new. Repeating the same thing for more than a few minutes without any visible improvement will often do more harm than good. Students who use the intuitive method are resigned to repeating the same thing for hours with little visible improvement. That mentality must be avoided when using the methods of this book. There are two types of situations you will encounter when increasing speed. One involves technical skills you already have; you should be able to bring these parts up to speed in minutes. The other involves new skills; these will take longer and will be discussed below.

Technique improves most rapidly when playing at a speed at which you can play accurately. This is especially true when playing HT (please be patient — I promise we will eventually get to HT practice). Since you have more control HS, you can get away with much faster play HS than HT without increasing stress or forming bad habits. Thus it is erroneous to think that you can improve faster by playing as fast as possible (after all, if you play twice as fast, you can practice the same passage twice as often!). Since the main objective of HS practice is to gain speed, the need to quickly attain speed and to practice at a speed optimized for technical improvement become contradictory. The solution to this dilemma is to constantly change the speed of practice; do not stay at any one speed for too long. Although it is best to bring the passage up to speed immediately, for very difficult passages that require skills you don’t already have, there is no alternative but to bring it up in stages. For this, use speeds that are too fast as exploratory excursions to determine what needs to be changed in order to play at such speeds. Then slow down and practice those new motions. Of course, if you lack the technique, you must go back to shortening the passage and applying the parallel set exercises.

To vary the speed, first get up to some manageable “maximum speed” at which you can play accurately. Then go faster (using chord attacks, etc., if necessary), and take note of how the playing needs to be changed (don’t worry if you are not playing accurately). Then use that motion and play at the previous “maximum speed”. It should now be noticeably easier. Practice at this speed for a while, then try even slower speeds to make sure that you are completely relaxed. Then repeat the whole procedure. In this way, you ratchet up the speed in manageable jumps and work on each needed skill separately. In most cases, you should be able to play a new piece, at least in small segments, HS, at the final speed during the first sitting. In the beginning, such feats may seem unattainable, but every student can reach this objective surprisingly quickly.

How to Relax

The most important thing to do as you get up to speed is to relax. Relaxing means that you use only those muscles that are needed to play. Thus you can be working as hard as you want, and be relaxed. The relaxed state is especially easy to attain when practicing HS. There are two schools of thought on relaxation. One school maintains that, in the long run, it is better not to practice at all than to practice with even the slightest amount of tension. This school teaches by showing you how to relax and play a single note, and then advancing carefully, giving you only those easy material that you can play relaxed. The other school argues that relaxation is just another necessary aspect of technique, but that subjugating the entire practice philosophy to relaxation is not the optimum approach. Which system is better is not clear at this time. Whichever system you choose, it is obvious that playing with stress must be avoided.

If you adopt the methods described in this book and get up to final speed rapidly, some initial stress may be unavoidable. Note that the whole idea of getting up to speed quickly is to enable you to practice at a slower speed, completely relaxed. As pointed out throughout this book, high speed is nearly impossible to attain without complete relaxation and de-coupling of all the muscles (especially the large muscles) so that the fingers can gain their independence.

Students who play with a lot of stress will know that the stress is gone when, all of a sudden, the playing becomes easy at speed. Those who had not been taught to eliminate stress think that this is the point at which they suddenly acquired a new technique. In reality, their technique had slowly improved to the point when they could start to relax. The relaxation allowed the technique to improve more and the improvement allowed further relaxation, and this feedback cycle is what caused such a magical transformation. It is obviously better to start with zero stress. Although starting with zero stress might appear to hold you back in the beginning, you tend to acquire technique faster starting with zero stress than rushing into a stressed state and then trying to eliminate the stress. So, then, how do you relax?

There are numerous instances in many books, with instructions to “involve the whole body”, when playing the piano, with no further suggestions on how to achieve it. Part, or sometimes most, of this involvement has to be relaxation. In many ways, the human brain is wasteful. For even the simplest tasks, the brain generally uses most of the muscles in the body. And if the task is difficult, the brain tends to lock the body in a mass of tensed muscles. In order to relax, you must make a conscious effort (involve the whole body) to shut down all unnecessary muscles. This is not easy because it goes against the natural tendency of the brain. You need to practice relaxation just as much as moving the fingers to depress the keys. Relaxing does not mean to “let go of all muscles”; it means that the unnecessary ones are relaxed even when the necessary ones are working full tilt, which is a coordination skill that requires a lot of practice to achieve.

Don’t forget to relax all the various functions of the body, such as breathing and periodic swallowing. Some students will stop breathing when playing demanding passages because the playing muscles are anchored at the chest, and keeping that part of the body still makes it easier to play. When relaxed, you should be able to conduct all of the normal body functions and still be able to simultaneously concentrate on playing. Section 21 below explains how to use the diaphragm to breathe properly. If your throat is dry after a hard practice, it means that you had also stopped swallowing. These are all indications of stress.

The gravity drop method discussed above is an excellent way to practice relaxation. Practice this gravity drop with one finger. Choose a different finger each time. Although there is never a need to actively lift the 4th finger, don’t get into the habit of completely relaxing it, as that will cause it to hit some unwanted keys. This is because evolution has connected the last three fingers with tendons to facilitate grasping tools. Acquire the habit of maintaining a slight upward tension on the 4th finger, especially when playing fingers 3 and 5. Again, the test for relaxation is gravity: feeling the effect of gravity as you play is a necessary and sufficient condition for relaxation.

Relaxing is finding the proper energy and momentum balance as well as arm/hand/finger positions and motions that allow you to execute with the appropriate expenditure of energy. Therefore relaxing requires a lot of experimentation to find those optimum conditions. However, if you had been concentrating on relaxation from day one of your piano lessons, this should be a routine procedure that you can quickly execute because you have done it many times before. For those who are new to relaxation, you can start with easier pieces you have learned, and practice adding relaxation. The parallel set exercises of III.7 can also help you to practice relaxation. However, nothing can replace the daily experimentation you should conduct whenever you learn a new piece of music. You will then gradually build up an arsenal of relaxed motions — this is part of what is meant by technique. One easy way to feel relaxation is to practice one parallel set and accelerate it until you build up stress, and then try to relax; you will need to find motions and positions of arms, wrists, etc., that allow this; when you find them, you will feel the stress gradually draining from your hand.

Many people do not realize that relaxation is itself a diagnostic tool in the experimentation. Assuming that you have a certain arsenal of hand motions (see section III.4), the criterion for “good technique” is one that allows relaxation. Many students think that long repetitive practices somehow transform the hand so it can play. In reality, what happens is that the hand accidentally stumbles onto the right motion for relaxation. This is why some skills are acquired quickly while others take forever and why some students acquire certain skills quickly while other students struggle with the same skills. The correct (and faster) way to learn is to actively search for the right motions and to build up an arsenal of them. In this search, it helps to understand what causes fatigue and what biological functions influence the energy balance (see section 21 on Endurance below). Relaxation is a state of unstable equilibrium: as you learn to relax, it becomes easier to further relax, and vice versa. This explains why relaxation is a major problem for some while it is completely natural for others. But that is a most wonderful piece of information. It means that anyone can relax, if they are properly taught and constantly strive for relaxation!

The most important element in relaxation, obviously, is energy conservation. There are at least 2 ways to conserve: (1) don’t use unnecessary muscles and (2) turn off the necessary muscles as soon as their jobs are done. Practice the art of turning off muscles quickly. Let’s demonstrate these with the one-finger gravity drop. (1) is the easiest; simply allow gravity to completely control the drop, while the entire body is resting comfortably on the bench. For (2) you will need to learn a new habit if you don’t already have it (few do, initially). That is the habit of relaxing all muscles as soon as you reach the bottom of the key drop. During a gravity drop, you let gravity pull the arm down, but at the end of the key drop, you need to tense the finger for an instant in order to stop the hand. Then you must quickly relax all muscles. Don’t lift the hand, just rest the hand comfortably on the piano with just enough force to support the weight of the arm. Make sure that you are not pressing down. This is more difficult than you would think at first because the elbow is floating in mid air and the same muscles used to tense the finger in order to support the arm weight are also used to press down. One way to test if you are pressing down is to take the arm off the keys and rest your forearm on your legs in front of you, totally relaxed. Then carry over that same feeling to the end of the gravity drop.

Few people bother to turn off muscles explicitly. You just tend to forget about them when their work is done. This presents no problems when playing slowly, but becomes problematic with speed. You will need a new exercise because the gravity drop has little to do with speed. You need to start with the key down and to play a quick, moderately loud note. Now you have to apply extra downward force and turn it off. When you turn it off, you must return to the feeling you had at the end of gravity drop. You will find that, the harder you play the note, the longer it takes for you to relax. Practice shortening the relaxation time.

What is so wonderful about these relaxation methods is that after practicing them for a short time (perhaps a few weeks), they tend to be automatically incorporated into your playing, even into pieces that you have already learned, as long as you pay attention to relaxation.

The worst consequence of stress is that it gets you into a fight you can’t win because you are fighting an opponent who is exactly as strong as you are — namely, yourself. It is one of your own muscles working against another. As you practice and get stronger, so does the opponent, by an exactly equal amount. And the stronger you get, the worse the problem. If it gets bad enough, it can lead to injury because the muscles become stronger than the material strength of your hand. That is why it is so important to get rid of stress.

Relaxation, arm weight (gravity drop), involving the whole body, and avoidance of mindless repetitive exercises were key elements in Chopin’s teachings, but Liszt advocated exercises “to exhaustion” (Eigeldinger). My interpretation of the last apparent disagreement is that exercises can be beneficial, but are not necessary. Also, Liszt did not have the benefit of this book — he probably had to practice a lot before his hands accidentally stumbled onto the right motion. Of course, the piano makes a big difference. Chopin preferred the Pleyel, a piano with very light action and small keydrop, and required less effort to play. Relaxation is useless unless it is accompanied by musical playing; in fact, Chopin insisted on musical playing before acquiring technique because he knew that music and technique were inseparable. We now know that without relaxation, neither music nor technique is possible. Technique originates in the brain. Non-musical playing apparently violates so many tenets of nature that it actually interferes with the brain’s natural processes for controlling the playing mechanisms. That is not to claim that you can’t train yourself to become a machine, performing difficult acrobatics with blinding speed. The claim here is that mindless repetitions is a long, roundabout way to learn piano.

Post Practice Improvement (PPI)

There is only a certain amount of improvement you can expect during practice at one sitting, because there are two ways in which you improve. The first one is the obvious improvement that comes from learning the notes and motions, resulting in immediate improvement. This occurs for passages for which you already have the technique to play. The second one is called post practice improvement (PPI) that results from physiological changes as you acquire new technique. This is a very slow process of change that occurs mostly after you have stopped practicing because it requires the growth of nerve and muscle cells. Therefore, as you practice, try to gauge your progress so that you can quit and go to something else as soon as a point of diminishing returns is reached, usually in less than 10 minutes. Like magic, your technique will keep improving by itself for at least several days after a good practice. Therefore, if you had done everything right, then, when you sit at the piano the next day, you should discover that you can now play better. If this happens for just one day, the effect is not that big. However, the cumulative effect of this occurring over weeks, months, or years can be huge. It is usually more profitable to practice several things at one sitting and let them all improve simultaneously (while you are not practicing!), than working too hard on one thing. Over-practicing can actually hurt your technique if it leads to stress and bad habits. You do have to practice a certain minimum amount, perhaps a hundred repetitions, for this automatic improvement to take effect. But because we are talking about a few bars played at speed, practicing dozens or hundreds of times should take only about 10 minutes or less. Therefore, don’t fret if you practice hard but don’t see much immediate improvement. This might be normal for that particular passage. If, after extensive analysis and you can’t find anything wrong with what you are doing, it is time to stop and let the PPI take over. There are many types of PPI depending on what is holding you back. One of the ways in which these different types manifest themselves is in the length of time over which they are effective, which varies from one day to many months. The shortest times may be associated with conditioning, such as the use of motions or muscles you had not used before, or memory issues. Intermediate times of several weeks may be associated with new nerve connections, such as HT play. Longer times may be associated with actual growth of brain/nerve/muscle cells, and conversion of slow to fast muscle cell types. If you had developed certain bad habits, you may have to stop playing that piece for months until you lose whatever bad habit you had developed, which is another form of PPI. In most cases of bad habits, it is not possible to identify the culprit, so that the best thing to do is to not play the piece and to learn new pieces instead because learning new pieces is one way to erase old habits. You must do everything right to maximize PPI. Many students do not know the rules and can actually negate the PPI with the result that, when they play it the next day, it comes out worse. Most of these mistakes originate from incorrect use of fast and slow practice; therefore, we will discuss the rules for choosing the right practice speeds in more detail in the following sections. Any stress or unnecessary motion during practice will also undergo post-practice enhancement. The most common mistake students make to negate PPI is to play fast just before quitting practice. The last thing you do before quitting should be the most correct and best example of what you want to achieve. Your last run-through seems to have an inordinately strong PPI effect. The methods of this book are ideal for PPI, mainly because they emphasize practicing only those segments that you cannot play. If you play HT slowly and ramp up the speed for a large section of any piece of music, PPI is not only insufficiently conditioned, but also becomes totally confused because you mix a large proportion of easy material with the small amount of difficult ones. In addition, the speed, and probably the motions are also incorrect. PPI is nothing new; let’s look at three examples: the body builder, the marathoner, and golfer. While lifting weights, the body builder’s muscles don’t grow; he will in fact lose weight. But during the following weeks, the body will react to the stimulus and add muscle. Almost all of the muscle growth occurs after the exercise. Thus the body builder does not measure how much muscle he gained or how much more weight he can lift at the end of the exercise, but instead concentrates on whether the exercise produces the appropriate conditioning. The difference here is that for piano, we are developing coordination and speed instead of strength and endurance. Thus, whereas the bodybuilder wants to grow the slow muscles, the pianist wants to convert the slow muscles into fast ones. Another example is the marathon runner. If you had never run a mile in your life, and tried it for the first time, you might be able to jog for a quarter mile before you need to slow down for a rest. After some rest, if you tried to run, you will again tire out in a quarter mile or less. Thus the first run resulted in no discernible improvement. However, the next day, you may be able to run a third of a mile before tiring — you have just experienced PPI. If you run incorrectly, you can create problems; for example, you might develop a bad habit of stubbing your toe if you push yourself too far and keep on running when you are too tired. This is the analogy to acquiring bad habits if you practice the piano with stress. Golf presents another excellent example. Golfers are familiar with the phenomenon in which they can hit the ball well one day, but terribly the next because they picked up a bad habit that they often cannot diagnose. Hitting the driver every day tends to ruin your swing, whereas practicing with the #9 can restore it. The analogy in piano is that playing fast, full tilt, tends to ruin the PPI whereas practicing short sections HS tends to improve it. Clearly, the conditioning procedure must be well understood in order to assure the desired PPI. Most PPI occurs during sleep. The sleep must be the normal, over-night type with all of its major components, especially REM sleep. This is because most cell growth and repair occur during sleep. It is why babies and young children need so much sleep — because they are growing rapidly. You will not get good PPI if you did not sleep well that night. The best routine for using PPI is to practice in the evening for conditioning and then reviewing it the next morning.

Dangers of Slow Play – pitfalls of the intuitive method

Repetitive slow play can be harmful when starting a new piece. We stated in section II.1 that playing slowly, and gradually ramping up the speed, is not an efficient way to practice piano. Let us examine this procedure to see why. We are assuming that the student is just starting the piece and does not yet know how to play it. In that case, the slow play will be very different from the way it should be played at speed. When you start, there is no way of knowing whether the slow play motion you are using is right or wrong; in section IV.3, we show that the probability of playing incorrectly is nearly 100%, because there is almost an infinity of ways to play it incorrectly but only one best way. What is the probability of accidentally hitting that one correct way out of an infinity of possibilities? Practicing this wrong play does not help the student to play correctly or faster. When this wrong motion is speeded up s/he will hit a speed wall, resulting in stress. Assuming that this student succeeded in changing the playing so as to avoid the speed wall and succeeded in increasing the speed in increments as the speed is ramped up, s/he will then need to unlearn the old way and then relearn this new play, etc., and keep repeating these cycles for each incremental increase in speed until s/he reaches the final speed. Finding all these intermediate methods of play by trial and error can take a lot of time. Let’s look at a concrete example of how different speeds require different motions. Consider the horse’s gait. As the speed is increased, the gait goes through walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Each of these four gaits usually has at least a slow and fast mode. Also, a left turn is different from a right turn (the leading hoof is different). That’s a minimum of 16 motions. These are the so-called natural gaits; most horses automatically have them; they can also be taught 3 more gaits: pace, foxtrot, and rack, which likewise have slow, fast, left, and right. All this, with only four legs of relatively simple structure and a comparatively limited brain. We have 10 very complex fingers, much more versatile shoulders, arms, and hands, and an infinitely more capable brain! Our hands are therefore capable of performing many more “gaits” than a horse. Ramping up a slow play in piano is like making a horse run as fast as a gallop by simply speeding up the walk — it just can’t be done because as the speed increases, the momenta of the legs, body, etc., change, requiring the different gaits. Therefore, if the music requires a “gallop”, the student ends up having to learn all the intervening “gaits” if you ramp up the speed. You can easily understand why inducing a horse to walk as fast as a gallop would encounter speed walls and induce tremendous stress. But that is exactly what many piano students are trying to do with the intuitive method. What happens in practice is that the student does not end up acquiring the skill to walk as fast as a gallop, but accidentally stumbles on a trot as the walk is accelerated. Now a riding horse does not think, “hey at this speed, I have to canter”; it responds automatically to a rider’s signals. Thus you can get a horse to make a left turn canter using right turn footing, and injure the horse. Therefore, it requires the superior intelligence of a human brain to figure out the horse’s gait although it is the horse that is executing it. It works the same way with the piano, and the student can easily get her/imself into trouble. Although the human student is more intelligent than a horse, the number of possibilities that s/he faces is staggering. It takes a superior brain to figure out which are the best motions among the almost infinite variety that the human hand can perform. Most students with normal intelligence have little idea of how many motions are possible unless the teacher points this out to them. Two students, left to their own devices and asked to play the same piece, will be guaranteed to end up with different hand motions. This is another reason why it is so important to take lessons from a good teacher when starting piano; such a teacher can quickly weed out the bad motions. The point being made here is that, in the intuitive method, the student is guaranteed to pick up any number of bad habits before getting up to speed. The entire practice procedure ends up as a disastrous experience that actually hinders the student from progressing. This is especially true if the two hands have been locked together by extended HT practice. Trying to un-learn a bad habit is one of the most frustrating, stressful, and time consuming tasks in piano practice. A common mistake is the habit of supporting or lifting the hand. In slow play, the hand can be lifted between notes when the hand weight is not necessary. When speeded up, this “lift” coincides with the next keydrop; these actions cancel, resulting in a missed note. Another common error is the waving of the free fingers — while playing fingers 1 and 2, the student might be waving fingers 4 and 5 in the air several times. This presents no difficulties until the motion is speeded up so fast that there is no time to wave the fingers. In this situation, the free fingers do not generally stop waving automatically at faster speeds because the motion has been ingrained by hundreds or even thousands of repetitions. Instead, the fingers are asked to do the impossible — wave several times at speeds they cannot attain — this creates the speed wall. The trouble here is that most students who use slow practice are generally unaware of these bad habits. If you know how to play fast, it is safe to play slowly, but if you don’t know how to play fast, you must be careful not to learn the wrong slow playing habits or to end up wasting tremendous amounts of time. Slow play can waste huge chunks of time because each run-through takes so long. The methods of this book avoid all these pitfalls.

Importance of Slow Play

Having pointed out the dangers of slow play, we now discuss why slow play is indispensable. Always end a practice session by playing slowly at least once. This is the most important rule for good PPI. You should also cultivate a habit of doing this when switching hands during HS practice; before switching, play slowly at least once. This may be one of the most important rules of this chapter because it has such an inordinately large effect on technique improvement, but why it works is not totally understood. It is beneficial to both the immediate improvement and to PPI. One reason why it works may be that you can completely relax (see section II.14). Another reason may be that you tend to pick up more bad habits than you realize while playing fast, and you can “erase” these with slow play. Contrary to intuition, playing slowly without mistakes is difficult (until you have completely mastered the passage). Thus slow play is a good way to test whether you have really learned this piece of music. The effect of a final slow play to PPI is so dramatic that you can easily demonstrate it for yourself. Try one practice session in which you only play fast and see what happens the next day. Then try one in which you play slowly before quitting, and see what happens on the next day. Or you can practice a passage fast only and another passage (of the same difficulty) slowly at the end and compare them the next day. This effect is cumulative, so that if you were to repeat this experiment with the same two passages for a long time, you will eventually find a huge difference in the way you can handle these passages. How slow is slow? That is a judgment call, and depends a lot on your skill level. If you play slower and slower, it will lose its effect below a certain speed. It is important, when playing slowly, to maintain the same motion as when playing fast. If you play too slowly, this may become impossible. Also, playing too slowly will take up too much time, resulting in waste. The best speed to try first is one at which you can play as accurately as you want, around 1/2 to 3/4 speed. Slow play is also needed for memorizing. The optimum slow speed for memorizing is slower than that needed to condition the PPI, about 1/2 speed. As technique improves, this slow speed can become faster. However, it is interesting that some famous pianists have often been observed to practice very slowly! Some accounts document practice at one note per second, which sounds almost irrational.An important skill to practice when playing slowly is to think ahead of the music. When practicing a new piece fast, there is a tendency to mentally fall behind the music and this can become a habit. This is bad because that is how you lose control. Think ahead when playing slowly and then try to maintain that distance when you get back up to speed. When you can think ahead of what you are playing, you can sometimes foresee flubs or difficulties coming and have the time to take appropriate action.

Fingering

You usually won’t go wrong by using the fingering marked on the music. Or, rather, if you don’t follow the indicated fingering, you will probably get into a lot of trouble. Except in beginners’ books, the basic fingerings are usually obvious and are not indicated in music scores. Some indicated fingerings may feel awkward at first, but it is there for a reason. This reason often does not become obvious until you get up to speed and/or you play HT. For beginners, following the indicated fingering is an educational experience for learning the most common fingerings. Another advantage of using the indicated fingering is that you will always use the same one. Not having a fixed fingering will greatly slow down the learning process and give you trouble later, even after you have learned the piece well. If you do change the fingering, make sure that you always stick to the new one. It is a good idea to mark the change on the music; it can be very annoying to come back to this music months later and not remember that nice fingering you had previously worked out. However, not all suggested fingerings on the music score are appropriate for everyone. You may have large or small hands. You may have gotten used to a different fingering because of the way you learned. You might have a different skill set; e.g., you might be a better triller using 1,3 than 2,3. Music from different publishers may have different fingerings. For advanced players, the fingering can have a profound influence on the musical effect you want to project. Fortunately, the methods of this book are well suited to quickly changing fingerings. Part of the “explorations” alluded to above involve making sure that the fingering is optimized. Once you have become familiar with these methods, you will be able to change fingering very quickly. Make all the changes before you start HT practice because once fingerings are incorporated into HT play, they become very difficult to change. On the other hand, some fingerings are easy HS but become difficult HT, so it pays to check them HT before permanently accepting any changes. Everybody should memorize the fingerings for all the scales and arpeggios (section III.5), as well as the chromatic scale, and to practice them until they become ingrained habits.

Accurate Tempo and the Metronome

Start all pieces by counting carefully, especially for beginners and youngsters. Children should be taught to count out loud because that is the only way to find out what their idea of counting is. It can be totally different from the intended one. You should understand the meter signature at the beginning of each composition. It looks like a fraction, consisting of a numerator and a denominator. The numerator indicates the number of beats per measure and the denominator indicates the note per beat. For example, 3/4 means that there are three beats per measure and that each beat is a quarter note. Typically, each bar contains one measure. Knowing the signature is essential when accompanying, because the moment that the accompanist starts is determined by the starting beat which the conductor indicates with the baton. An advantage of HS practice is that you tend to count more accurately than HT. Students who start HT often end up with undetected mistakes in counting. Interestingly, these mistakes usually make it impossible to bring the music up to speed. There is something about wrong counting that creates its own speed wall. It probably messes up the rhythm. Therefore, if you run into problems with bringing it up to speed, check the counting. A metronome is very useful for this. Use the metronome to check your speed and beat accuracy. I have been repeatedly surprised by the errors I discover when checked in this way. For example, I tend to slow down at difficult sections and speed up at easy ones, although I think it is actually the opposite when playing without the metronome. Most teachers will check their students’ tempo with it. But it should be used only for a short time. Once the student gets the timing, it should be shut off. The metronome is one of your most reliable teachers — once you start using it, you will be glad you did. Develop a habit of using the metronome and your playing will undoubtedly improve. All serious students must have a metronome. Metronomes should not be over used. Long practice sessions with the metronome accompanying you are harmful to technique acquisition. This leads to mechanical playing. When the metronome is used for more than about 10 minutes continually, your mind will start to play mental tricks on you so that you may lose the timing accuracy. For example, if the metronome emits clicks, after some time, your brain will create anti-clicks in your head that can cancel the metronome click so that you will either not hear the metronome anymore, or will hear it at the wrong time. This is why most modern electronic metronomes have a light pulse mode. The visual cue is less prone to mental tricks and also does not interfere acoustically with the music. The most frequent abuse of the metronome is to use it to ramp up speed; this abuses the metronome, the student, the music, and the technique. If you must ramp up the speed gradually, use it to set the tempo, then turn it off and then keep on practicing; then use it again briefly when you increase the speed. The metronome is for setting the tempo and for checking your accuracy. It is not a substitute for your own internal timing. The process of speeding up is a process of finding the appropriate new motions. When you find the correct new motion, you can make a quantum jump to a higher speed at which the hand plays comfortably; in fact, at intermediate speeds, neither the slow nor the fast motion applies and is often more difficult to play than the faster speed. If you happen to set the metronome at this intermediate speed, you might struggle at it for long periods of time and build up a speed wall. One of the reasons why the new motion works is that the human hand is a mechanical device and has resonances at which certain combinations of motions naturally work well. There is little doubt that some music was composed to be played at certain speeds because the composer found this resonance speed. On the other hand, each individual has a different hand with different resonance speeds, and this partly explains why different pianists choose different speeds. Without the metronome, you can jump from resonance to the next resonance because the hand feels comfortable at those speeds, whereas the chances of your setting the metronome at exactly those speeds is very low. Therefore, with the metronome, you are almost always practicing at the wrong speed. This is a great way to build any number of speed walls.Electronic metronomes are superior to the mechanical ones in every respect although some people prefer the appearance of the old models. Electronics are more accurate, can make different sounds or flash lights, have variable volume, are less expensive, are less bulky, have memory functions, etc., while the mechanicals always seem to need rewinding at the worst possible times.

Weak Left Hand; Using One Hand to Teach the Other

Students who do not practice HS will always have a stronger RH than LH. This happens because the RH passages are generally more difficult, technically. The LH tends to get passages that require more strength, but it often lags behind in speed and technique. Thus “weaker” here means technically weaker, not strength-wise.The HS method will balance the hands because you will automatically give the weaker hand more work. For passages that one hand can play better than the other, the better hand is often your best teacher. To let one hand teach the other, select a very short segment and play it rapidly with the better hand, then repeat immediately with the weaker hand, one octave apart to prevent collisions. You will discover that the weaker hand can often “catch on” or “get the idea” of how the better hand is doing it. The fingering should be similar but does not need to be identical. Once the weaker hand “gets the idea”, gradually wean it off by playing the weaker hand twice and the stronger hand once, then three against one, etc. This ability of one hand to teach the other is more important than most people realize. The above example of solving one specific technical difficulty is just one example — more importantly, this concept applies to practically every practice session. The basic reason for this broad applicability is that one hand always plays something better than the other, such as relaxation, speed, quiet hands, and the innumerable finger/hand motions (Thumb Over, Flat Finger, etc., see following sections) — anything new that you are trying to learn. Therefore, once you learn this principle of using one hand to teach the other, you will be using it all the time. It can save you a tremendous amount of time.

Building Endurance, Breathing

“Endurance” is a controversial term in piano practice. This controversy originates from the fact that piano playing requires control, not muscle power, and many students have the wrong impression that they will not acquire technique until they grow enough muscles. On the other hand, a certain amount of endurance is necessary. This apparent contradiction can be resolved by understanding exactly what is needed and how to get it. Obviously, you can’t play loud, grandiose passages without expending energy. Big, strong, pianists can certainly produce more sound than small, weak, pianists if they are equally skillful. And the stronger pianists can more easily play “demanding” pieces. Every pianist has enough physical stamina to play pieces at her/is level, simply because of the amount of practice that was required to get there. Yet we know that endurance is a problem. The answer lies in relaxation. When stamina becomes an issue, it is almost always caused by excess tension. The most famous example of this is the LH octave tremolo in the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique. The only thing over 90% of the students need to do is to eliminate stress; yet many students practice it for months with little progress. The first mistake they make is to play it too loud. This adds extra stress and fatigue just when you can least afford it. Practice it softly, just concentrating on eliminating stress, as explained in section III.3.b. As you practice, keep reminding yourself to look for hand positions that eliminate stress. In a week or two, you will be playing as many tremolos as fast as you want. Now start adding loudness and expression. Done! At this point, your physical strength and endurance is not any different from what it was when you started just a few weeks ago — the main thing you did was to find the best way to eliminate stress. Playing demanding pieces requires about as much energy as a slow jog, at about 4 miles per hour, with the brain requiring more energy than the hands/body. Many youngsters cannot jog continuously for over one mile. Therefore, asking youngsters to practice difficult passages continually for 20 minutes would really strain their stamina because it would be about equivalent to jogging a mile. Teachers and parents must be careful when youngsters start their piano lessons, to limit practice times to under 15 minutes in the beginning until the students gain some stamina. Marathon runners have stamina, but they are not muscular. You need to condition the body for stamina for piano, but you don’t need extra muscles. Now there is a difference between piano playing and running a marathon because of the need to condition the brain for stamina in addition to the muscular conditioning. Therefore mindless practicing of scales and other exercises for stamina does not work. The most efficient ways to gain stamina are to either play finished pieces and make music, or to practice difficult sections HS continuously. Again using the jogging analogy, it would be very difficult for most students to practice difficult material continuously for more than a few hours because 2 hours of practice would be equivalent to jogging 6 miles, which is a terrific workout. Therefore, you will have to play some easy pieces between the hard practice sessions. Concentrated practice sessions longer than a few hours may not be that helpful until you are at an advanced level, when you have developed sufficient “piano stamina”. It is probably better to take a break and restart practice after some rest. Clearly, hard piano practice is strenuous work and serious practicing can put the student in good physical shape. HS practice is most valuable in this regard because it allows one hand to rest while the other works hard, allowing the pianist to work as hard as s/he wants, 100% of the time, without injury or fatigue. Of course, in terms of stamina, it is not difficult (if you have the time) to put in 6 or 8 hours of practice a day by including a lot of mindless finger exercises. This is a process of self-delusion in which the student thinks that just putting in the time will get you there — it will not. If anything, conditioning the brain is more important than conditioning the muscles because it is the brain that needs the conditioning for music. In addition, strenuous conditioning of the muscles will cause the body to convert fast muscles to slow muscles that have more endurance — this is exactly what you do not want. What is stamina? It is something that enables us to keep on playing without getting tired. For long practice sessions of over several hours, pianists do get their second wind just as athletes do. Can we identify any biological factors that control stamina? Knowing the biological basis is the best way to understand stamina. In the absence of specific bio-physical studies, we can only speculate. Clearly, we need sufficient oxygen intake and adequate blood flow to the muscles and the brain. The biggest factor influencing oxygen intake is lung efficiency, and important components of that are breathing and posture. This may be one reason why meditation, with the emphasis on proper breathing using the diaphragm, is so helpful. Use of only the rib muscles to breathe over-utilizes one breathing apparatus and under-utilizes the diaphragm. The resulting rapid pumping of the chest or exaggerated chest expansion can interfere with piano playing because all of the piano playing muscles eventually anchor near the center of the chest. Use of the diaphragm interferes less with the playing motions. In addition, those who do not use the diaphragm consciously can tense it when stress builds up during play, and they will not even notice that the diaphragm is tense. By using both the ribs and the diaphragm, and maintaining good posture, the lungs can be expanded to their maximum volume with least effort and thereby take in the maximum amount of oxygen. The following breathing exercise can be extremely helpful, not only for piano, but also for general well-being. Expand your chest, push your diaphragm down (this will make your lower abdomen bulge out), raise the shoulders up and towards your back, and take a deep breath; then exhale completely by reversing the process. When taking a deep breath, breathe through your throat (you can open or close your mouth), not through your nose. Most people will constrict the nasal air passage if they try to suck air through the nose with the mouth closed. Instead, relax your nose muscles and suck air through the throat region close to the vocal chords — even with the mouth closed, this procedure will relax the nose muscles, allowing more air to pass through the nose. If you had not taken deep breaths for a long time, this breathing should cause hyper-ventilation — you will feel dizzy — after one or two such exercises. Stop if you hyper-ventilate. Then repeat this exercise at a later time; you should find that you can take more breaths without hyper-ventilating. Repeat this exercise until you can take at least 5 breaths in succession without hyper-ventilating. Now, if you go to the doctor’s office and he checks you out with his stethoscope and asks you to take a deep breath, you can do it without feeling dizzy! This exercise teaches you the basics of breathing. Keep these breathing elements in mind as you practice piano, and make sure that you are using them appropriately, especially when practicing something difficult. Breathing normally, while playing something difficult, is an important element of relaxation. Perform this exercise at least once every several months. The above types of methods for increasing the stamina can be learned mostly during practice, at the piano. Other methods of increasing stamina are to increase the blood flow and to increase the amount of blood in the body. These processes occur during PPI. In piano playing, extra blood flow is needed in the brain as well as the playing mechanism; therefore, blood flow can be increased by making sure that both the brain and the body are fully and simultaneously exercised during practice. This will cause the body to manufacture more blood, simply because more blood is needed. Mindless repetitions of scales, etc., are harmful in this respect because you can shut off the brain part, thus reducing the need for more blood. Practicing after a large meal also increases the blood supply and conversely, resting after every meal will reduce stamina. Since most people do not have enough blood to engage in strenuous activity with a full stomach, your body will rebel by making you feel terrible, but this is just an expected reaction. Once the body manufactures the necessary extra blood, this terrible feeling will not return. Therefore, you should stay as active as you can after a meal. Practicing immediately after a meal will require blood for digestion, for the playing muscles, and for the brain, thus placing the greatest demand on blood supply. Clearly, participation in sports activities, proper health, and exercise are also helpful for gaining stamina in piano playing. In summary, beginners who have never touched a piano previously will need to work up their stamina gradually, because piano practice is strenuous work. Parents must be careful about the practice time of very young beginners; allow them to quit or take a rest when they get tired. Never allow a sick child to practice piano, even easy pieces, because of the risk of aggravating the illness and of brain damage. At any skill level, we all have more muscle than we need to play the piano pieces at our level. Even professional pianists who practice 6 hours every day don’t end up looking like Popeye. Franz Liszt was thin, not muscular at all. Thus acquiring technique and stamina is not a matter of building muscle, but of learning how to relax and to use our energy properly.

Bad Habits: A Pianist’s Worst Enemy

Bad habits are the worst time wasters in piano practice. Most bad habits are caused by stress from practicing pieces that are too difficult. Therefore be careful not to over practice a passage that is too difficult, especially HT. This can even lead to injuries. HT practice is the greatest single cause of bad habits and speed walls. This is why, in this section, the HT methods are described at the end. Many of the bad habits from HT practice are difficult to diagnose, which makes them that much more perverse. Another bad habit is the over-use of the damper or soft pedal, as discussed below. This is the surest sign of an amateur student taking lessons with an unqualified teacher. Overuse of these pedals can only help a severely technically deficient student. Stuttering is caused by stop-and-go practice in which a student stops and replays a section every time there is a mistake. If you make a mistake, always play through it; don’t stop to correct it. Simply make a mental note of where the mistake was and play that section again later to see if the mistake repeats. If it does, just fish out a small segment containing that mistake and work on it. Once you cultivate the habit of playing through mistakes you can graduate to the next level in which you anticipate mistakes (feel their approach before they occur) and take evasive action, such as slowing down, simplifying the section, or just maintaining the rhythm. Most audiences don’t mind, and often don’t even hear, mistakes unless the rhythm is broken. The worst thing about bad habits is that they take so long to eliminate, especially if they are HT habits. Therefore nothing accelerates your learning rate like knowing all the bad habits and preventing them before they become ingrained. For example, the time to prevent stuttering is when a student first begins piano lessons. If playing through mistakes is taught at this stage, it becomes second nature and is very easy. To teach a stutterer to play through mistakes is a very difficult task. Another bad habit is to bang away at the piano without regard to musicality. This often results because the student is so engrossed with the practice that s/he forgets to listen to the sounds coming out of the piano. This can be prevented by cultivating the habit of always listening to yourself play. Listening to yourself is much harder than many people realize because many students expend all their effort playing, with nothing left for listening. Also, you tend to hear what you think you want to play; therefore, what you hear may not be what you are actually playing. One way to reduce this problem is to record your playing so that you can listen to it later in a mentally detached way. Then there are those with weak fingers. This is most common among beginners and is more easily corrected than those who bang too loud. Still another bad habit is always playing at the wrong speed, either too fast or too slow. The right speed is determined by many factors, including the difficulty of the piece in respect to your technical ability, what the audience might be expecting, the condition of the piano, what piece preceded or will follow this piece, etc. Some students might tend to perform pieces too fast for their skill level, while others are timid and play too slowly. Those who perform too fast can become very discouraged because they make too many mistakes and become convinced that they are poor performers. Timid players can also be psychologically affected by their own music, which will make them feel even more timid. These effects apply not only to performances but also to practices. Poor tone quality is another common problem. Most of the time, during practice, no one is listening, so tone doesn’t seem to matter. As a result, if the tone degrades slightly, it does not bother the student, with the result that the tone is totally ignored after some time. Students must always strive for tone, no matter how good they think it is. Listening to good recordings is the best way to wake up the student to the existence of good tone. If they only listen to their play, they may have no idea what good tone means. On the other hand, once you pay attention to tone and start getting results, it will feed on itself and you can readily learn the art of producing sounds that can attract an audience. The number of possible bad habits is so large that they cannot all be discussed here. Suffice it so say that a rigorous anti-virus attitude towards bad habits is a requisite to rapid improvement.

Damper Pedal

Beginners often over-use the damper pedal. The obvious rule is, if the music doesn’t indicate a pedal, don’t use it. Some pieces might seem easier to play with the pedal, especially if you start slowly HT, but this is one of the worst traps a rank beginner can fall into that will truly hold back development. The action feels lighter with the damper pedal down because the foot is holding the dampers up instead of the fingers. Thus the action feels heavier when the pedal is released, especially for fast sections. This forms a trap that gradually sucks the beginner into using more damper pedal for fast parts. What these students do not realize is that where pedals are not indicated, it is impossible to play the music correctly at speed if you use the pedal. Those who use HS practice will rarely fall into this trap because the method gets you up to speed so quickly that you can immediately see that the pedal doesn’t belong there. This is another trap that frequently catches students who use the intuitive method. Because they start playing slowly at first, use of the pedal doesn’t sound so bad and they get into the habit of practicing with the pedal. Only when they get up to speed, do they realize that the notes are all running into each other and they now have to get rid of a bad, established habit. For Fur Elise, use the pedal only for the large LH broken chords and the one RH arpeggio. Practically all of the two difficult interruptions (except for this arpeggio) should be played without the pedal. Even the parts requiring the pedal should initially be practiced without the pedal until you have basically finished the piece. This will encourage the good habit of keeping the fingers close to the keys and discourage the bad habit of playing with too much jumping and lifting of the hands, and not pressing firmly into the keys. Coordinating the pedal and hands accurately is not an easy task. Therefore, students who start learning a piece HT with the pedal will invariably end up with terrible pedal habits. The correct procedure is to practice HS first without pedal, then HS with pedal, then HT without pedal, and finally HT with pedal. In this way, you can concentrate on each new element as you introduce it into your playing. Another point about the pedal is that it must be “played” just as carefully as you play the keys with the fingers. See the references for all the different ways to pedal, when to use them, and how to practice those moves. Make sure that you master all these moves before using the pedal with an actual piece of music. There are some very helpful exercises in the references for practicing proper pedaling. When you do use the pedal, know exactly which move you are using and why. For example, if you want as many sympathetic strings to vibrate as possible, depress the pedal before playing the note. If, on the other hand, you want just one clear note to sustain, press the pedal after playing the note; the longer you delay the pedal, the fewer sympathetic vibrations you will get (clearer note — see the following section for more detailed explanations). In general, you should get into the habit of depressing the pedal a split second after playing the note. You can get a legato effect without too much blurring by rapidly lifting and depressing the pedal every time the chord changes. It is just as important to know when to lift the pedal as when to press it down. Inattention to the pedal can slow down technical development much more than many students realize; conversely, attention to the pedal can help technical development by increasing the over-all accuracy of what you are doing. When you do one thing wrong, it becomes difficult to do all the other things right. When the pedal is wrong, you can’t even practice the correct finger technique because the music comes out wrong even when the fingers are technically correct. Most of the HS practice should be done without the pedal, even when the pedal is indicated. While practicing HS, you are only trying to figure out how to move the fingers and manage the passage; you are not trying to make music yet, so the pedal is just an unnecessary interference. The most important reason for not using the pedal at this stage is that technique improves fastest without the pedal because you can hear exactly what you play without interference from previously played notes. Also, the keys feel a little heavier without the pedal, as explained above. This extra workout (without the pedal) makes the playing easier when the pedal is added later.

Soft Pedal, Timbre, and Normal Modes of Vibrating Strings

The soft pedal is used to change the mood of the sound from more percussive (without the soft pedal) to more serene and gentle for grand pianos (soft pedal depressed). For uprights, it mostly makes the sound softer. For grands, it should not be used solely to reduce the intensity of the sound because it will also change the timbre. In order to play pianissimo, you will just have to learn how to play softly. Another property of the grand is that very loud sounds can be made with the soft pedal depressed. The soft pedal on most uprights has only a negligibly small effect on timbre. The upright cannot produce loud sounds with the soft pedal depressed. These changes in timbre will be explained in more detail below. One difficulty with the use of the soft pedal is that it (una corda, or more correctly due corda for the modern grand) is often not indicated, so the decision to use it is often left to the pianist. A frequently overlooked point concerning the soft pedal is hammer voicing. If you tend to need the soft pedal to play softly, or if it is distinctly easier to play pianissimo with the grand lid closed, the hammer almost certainly needs voicing. See the subsection on “Voicing” in section 7 of Chapter Two. With properly voiced hammers, you should be able to control soft playing to any desired degree without the soft pedal. With worn, compacted, hammers, playing softly is impossible and the soft pedal has much less effect in changing the tone. In that case, the soft pedal mostly helps you to play softly and the sound will have a percussive component even with the soft pedal. Therefore, with worn hammers, you lose both the ability to play softly and the truly wonderful timbre change of the soft pedal. In most cases, the original properties of the hammer can be easily restored with simple voicing (re-shaping and needling). The uncertainties concerning the condition of the hammer are partly responsible for why the use of the soft pedal is so controversial, since many performing pianists do use it just to play softly. As shown in the section on “Voicing”, energy transfer from the hammer to the string is most efficient when the string motion is still small. A compacted hammer transfers most of its energy in this range. That is why you can find so many old large grands that feel feather light. Soft hammers on the same piano (with nothing else changed), would make the action feel much heavier. This is because, with the softer impact point of the hammer, the string is lifted far from its original position before the hammer energy starts to transfer to the string. In this position, the energy transfer is more inefficient and the pianist has to push harder to produce any sound. Clearly, the effective key weight is only partly controlled by the force required to depress the key, since it also depends on the force required to produce a given amount of sound. In other words, the piano technician must strike a compromise between voicing a hammer sufficiently soft so as to produce a pleasant tone and sufficiently hard so as to produce adequate sound. For all except the highest quality pianos, the hammer needs to be on the hard side in order to produce sufficient sound and to make the action feel nimble, which makes it difficult to play softly. This in turn can “justify” use of the soft pedal where it otherwise shouldn’t be used. In most uprights, the soft pedal causes all the hammers to move closer to the strings, thus restricting hammer motion and decreasing volume. Unlike the grands, loud sounds cannot be produced in an upright when the soft pedal is depressed. One advantage of uprights is that a partial soft pedal works. There are a few uprights in which the soft pedal works similarly to that of the grands. In modern grands, the soft pedal causes the entire action to shift to the right by one-half string distance (the distance between strings of the same note in the 3-string section). This causes the hammer to hit only two of the three strings, causing a serendipitous transformation in the character of the sound. The horizontal motion must not move one string distance because then the strings will fall into the grooves made by adjacent strings. Since string distances cannot be controlled sufficiently accurately, this would cause some strings to fall exactly into the grooves while others will miss, creating uneven sound. Also, by hitting the less used portions of the hammer between string grooves, you get an even gentler sound. In order to understand the change in timbre with the soft pedal, we must study the acoustical mechanics of coupled vibrating strings (see Scientific American reference). Almost all of the piano sound we hear is produced by what is called normal modes in mechanics. This is the reason why the piano sound consists mostly of the fundamental and its harmonics. Normal modes can always be decomposed into components in two orthogonal planes; say, vertical and horizontal. Furthermore, these oscillations have wavelengths that are integer fractions of the string length. Why does the string oscillate in normal modes instead of producing a whole jumble of every conceivable wavelength? At the instant that the hammer hits, it does produce a lot of these. If you place your hand on the piano, you can feel the piano “shudder” for an instant. But this is like “white noise”, energy spread over a wide frequency spectrum, and the component of that energy that is within the auditory range is not sufficient to produce a significant amount of what our ears interpret as sound. What happens is that most of this energy quickly escapes out of the strings through the ends, after only a few vibrations. This happens in milliseconds, too short a time for the ear to hear anything. The only energies trapped in the strings are those in the normal modes. Why? Because in normal modes, the ends of the strings are nodes: regions of the string that do not move. Since no transverse energy can be transmitted across a string that is motionless, only the normal modes are trapped within the string. But not quite — the ends of the piano string are not ideal (absolutely motionless) nodes. The bridge and hitch pins are designed with just enough flexibility so that a controlled amount of energy is delivered to the soundboard. This is how the piano produces the fundamental frequency and its harmonics. Only exact harmonics are trapped because these are the only vibrations whose nodes coincide with those of the fundamental at the ends of the string. Since the hammer strikes the string in the vertical plane, all the normal modes are, initially, also in the vertical plane. An inexpensive piano is not constructed as rigidly or with as heavy material as an expensive piano and therefore has looser nodes, allowing more energy to escape. Since energy escapes quickly, a cheap piano has less sustain. A larger piano can produce more sound because the longer strings, with more tension, can store more energy and, at the same time, the more rigid nodes of the heavier, better built pianos allow less energy to escape, producing a longer sustain. What are the normal modes of three parallel strings whose ends are coupled by placing them close together at the bridge? These strings can all move in the same direction, thus pulling the piano in that direction, or move opposite to each other, in which case the piano does not move. The opposing motions are called symmetric modes because the strings move symmetrically in opposite directions about the center of gravity of the three strings. The center of gravity is stationary during these motions. Since it requires a lot of energy to move the piano, the non-symmetric modes quickly dissipate, leaving only the symmetric modes as possible normal modes of a 3-wire system. There is only one vertical normal mode for a three string system: the center string moves in one direction while the two side strings move in the opposite direction with half the amplitude. There are two horizontal normal modes: the one in which the center string is stationary and the side strings move in opposite directions, and the one in which the center string moves in one direction while the other two move in the opposite direction at half the amplitude. For a two-string system, there is no vertical normal mode! The one in which one string moves up and the other moves down is not symmetric; it twists the piano. The only possible horizontal mode for two strings is the one in which they move in opposite directions. The lack of symmetric normal modes is one reason why the fundamentals are so weak in the two and one string sections in the bass; however, they can sustain strong harmonics. The actual motion of the strings can be any combination of these normal modes. The different admixtures of the normal modes determine the polarization of the oscillations. The polarizations change with time and this change controls the nature of the piano sound, especially things like undesirable beats. Now we can explain what happens when the hammer hits a three string system. It initially produces mostly the vertical normal modes. Since these vertical modes couple efficiently with the soundboard (which is most flexible in that direction; i.e., it is thinnest in this direction), a loud “prompt” sound is produced. Because of the high coupling efficiency, the soundboard vibrates actively like a drum, producing a drum-like percussive sound. Now, because the piano is not symmetrical on both sides of the strings, some sideways motions are created by the vertical oscillations, which transfer energy from the vertical modes into the horizontal modes. These new modes transfer energy poorly to the soundboard, which is “thickest” in the horizontal direction and cannot vibrate horizontally. This also excites a different set of vibrational modes of the soundboard, thus changing the timbre of the sound. Therefore the horizontal modes survive much longer than the vertical modes and produce the “after sound” which has a longer sustain and a different character (Scientific American article, P. 120). Therefore, when the three strings are struck, there will be a percussive prompt sound followed by a gentler after sound. Note that the prompt sound has two components, the initial “noise bang” associated with the white noise of the hammer strike that produces large numbers of travelling waves and anharmonic vibrations, and the following prompt sound made principally by the normal modes. Because the instantaneous volume of this impact sound can be so high, it is probably this initial sound spike that is most damaging to the ear, especially from worn hammers that release most of their energies during the initial impact. See “Voicing” in section 7 of Chapter Two for details of the interaction of worn hammers with the string. For pianos with such worn hammers, it may in fact be wise to close the lid (as the majority of their owners probably do because of the painful effect on their ears). Of course, nothing beats getting the hammers properly voiced. The above explanations are obviously greatly oversimplified. Even the Scientific American article referenced is totally inadequate in explaining the real workings of a 3-string system. That article deals mostly with the motions of one string and discusses two string interactions for ideal, simplified cases. There is no treatment of a real 3-string system. Most discussions on string vibrations are concerned with transverse motions of the strings because those motions are the most visible and they explain the existence of the fundamental and harmonics. Although nodes do not transfer transverse motions, they do transfer tensile forces. The discussions in the “Voicing” section make it clear that tensile forces cannot be ignored since they are much larger than the transverse forces and might well dominate the acoustics of the piano. Also, the conclusions of the normal mode discussions presented above depend greatly on the coupling constant. For small coupling constants, the system becomes a superposition of coupled and uncoupled motions which allows many more modes. Thus the above discussions give only a qualitative flavor of what might be happening and give neither a quantitative, nor even a correct mechanistic, description of a real piano. This type of understanding of piano acoustics helps us find the proper ways to use the damper pedal. If the pedal is depressed before a note is played, the initial “white noise” will excite all strings, creating a soft background roar. If you place your finger on any string, you can feel it vibrate. However, octave and harmonic strings will vibrate with higher amplitudes than the dissonant strings. This indicates that the initial “white noise” is not white but favors the normal modes. This is expected because the ends of the string are held still while the hammer strikes, thus discouraging the excitation of non-normal mode vibrations. Thus the piano not only selectively traps normal modes, but also selectively generates them. Now if the pedal is depressed after the note is struck, there will be sympathetic vibration in octave and harmonic strings, but the unrelated strings will be almost totally quiet. This produces a clear sustained note. The lesson here is that, in general, the pedal should be depressed immediately after striking the note, not before. This is a good habit to cultivate. Many of the above explanations can be proven experimentally. The motions of the strings can be measured directly by a number of readily available instruments. A second method is to make use of the fact that the string vibrations are linear processes; i.e. they decay exponentially with time. Thus when the sound decay is plotted on a logarithmic scale, you get a straight line (see Scientific American reference). However, when so plotted, one gets two straight lines, an initial line with a steep slope (faster decay), followed by another one with a less steep slope. These two lines coincide with our perception of prompt and after sounds. The fact that these lines are so straight tells us that our linear model is very accurate. In linear systems, the existence of two straight lines also proves that they originate from two distinct mechanisms (in this case, different types of vibration). Because the string vibrations are not sufficiently violent to materially distort the piano, the transfer rate of vertical vibrational energy to the horizontal vibrations is a constant. This explains why the ratio of prompt sound to after sound is independent of loudness; i.e., you cannot change the timbre by just playing softly. However, there is one caveat. Timbre is controlled by at least two factors: the prompt/after-sound ratio just discussed, and the harmonic content. The harmonic content does depend on loudness. When the hammer strikes a string with higher force, the string becomes more distorted, which creates more high frequency components in the sound. This higher harmonic content makes the sound brighter or harsher. In practice, the condition of the hammer controls the harmonic content much more than the loudness. Therefore, proper voicing is necessary in order to produce the pleasant piano tone, especially for loud sounds. The unstruck string plays an important role in producing the una corda sound. This string acts as a reservoir into which the other two strings can dump their energy. Since the vibration of the 3rd string is in anti-phase (a driven string is in anti-phase with the driver), it takes the edge off the initial prompt sound and at the same time, excites vibrational modes that are different from those that result when all three are struck in unison. This is why the soft pedal in uprights doesn’t work as well — all the strings are struck even when the soft pedal is depressed. Can you use a half soft pedal on a grand? This should not be controversial, but is. If you use a partial pedal, you will of course get a new sound. There is no reason why a pianist shouldn’t be allowed to do that, and if it produces an interesting new effect, there is nothing wrong in that. However, this mode of play was not intentionally designed into the piano and I know of no composer who composed for half soft pedal on a grand. Note that extensive use of partial soft pedals on the grand will cause the string to shave off one side of the hammer. Also, it is impossible for the piano technician to regulate the piano in such a way that the third string will always miss the hammer at the same pedal travel for all the hammers at the same time. Thus the effect will be uneven, and different from piano to piano. Therefore, unless you have experimented and are trying to produce some strange new effect, half-pedaling is not recommended for the soft pedal on a grand. Nonetheless, anecdotal accounts seem to indicate that use of partial soft pedal on a grand does occur, probably because of ignorance on the part of the pianist about how it works. In the double and single string sections, the strings have much larger diameters, so when the action moves sideways, the strings hit the side walls of the grooves, thus giving them a horizontal motion and increasing the after sound component. This mechanism is indeed fiendishly ingenious! The need to excite large vertical normal modes for loud sounds explains why the loudest piano sounds are produced by rapid double strikes. This is why so many pieces of music with loud endings frequently finish with full, double strike, chords. Since the hammer hits the strings close to one end, the initial hit creates running waves traveling down the string. If the hammer is struck again immediately after the first strike, a new wave of energy is supplied, producing a louder sound. This second wave does not dissipate rapidly like the first wave because all available oscillation modes have already been excited. Thus the second strike produces the loudest sound that a piano can make. A third strike becomes unpredictable because the strings are now moving and the strings and hammer can be out of phase, in which case the third strike can deaden the sound. In summary, the name soft pedal is a misnomer for a grand. Its main effect is to change the timbre of the sound. If you play a loud sound with the soft pedal depressed, it will be almost as loud as without the soft pedal. This is because you have put roughly the same amount of energy into making the sound. On the other hand, it is easier to play softly using the soft pedal on most pianos. Provided that the hammer is in good condition, you should be able to play just as softly without the soft pedal. A partial soft pedal will produce all sorts of unpredictable, uneven effects and should not be used for a grand.

Hands Together: Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu

We can now finally start putting the hands together (HT)! This is where some students encounter the most difficulties, especially in the first few years of piano lessons. Although the methods presented here should immediately help you to acquire technique faster, it will take about two years for you to be able to really take advantage of everything that the methods of this book has to offer, especially for someone who has been using the intuitive method. Therefore, work on learning the method as much as using it to learn a particular piece of music. The main question here is, what must we do in order to be able to play HT quickly? In answering that question, we will learn why we devoted so much of this section on HS practice. As we shall soon see, putting HT is not difficult if you know how. Playing HT is almost like trying to think about two different things at the same time. There is no known, pre-programmed coordination between the two hands like we have between our two eyes (for judging distance), our ears (for determining the direction of oncoming sound) or our legs/arms (for walking). Therefore, learning to coordinate the two hands accurately is going to take some work. The preceding HS work makes this coordination much easier to learn because we now only have to concentrate on coordinating, and not coordinating AND developing finger/hand technique at the same time. The good news is that there is only one primary “secret” for learning HT quickly (of course, there are numerous other tricks, such as the “adding notes” method, outlining, etc., discussed below). That “secret” is adequate HS work. All technique acquisition must be done HS. Putting it another way, don’t try to acquire technique HT that you can acquire HS. By now, the reasons should be obvious. If you try to acquire technique HT that you can acquire HS, you will run into problems such as (1) developing stress, (2) unbalancing the hands (the RH tends to get stronger), (3) acquiring bad habits, especially incorrect fingerings, that are impossible to change later on, (4) creating speed walls, (5) incorporating mistakes, etc. Note that all speed walls are created; they result from incorrect play or stress. Therefore everybody has a different set of speed walls. Premature HT practice can create any number of speed walls. Incorrect fingering is another major problem; some fingerings appear more natural when played slowly HT but become impossible when speeded up. The best example of this is “thumb under” play (section III.5). What this boils down to is that you will need some criterion for deciding when you have done adequate HS practice. The first criterion is HS speed. Typically, the maximum HT speed you can play is 50% to 90% of the slower HS speed. This slower speed is usually the LH. Suppose that you can play the RH at speed 10 and the LH at speed 9. Then your maximum HT speed may be 7. The quickest way to raise this HT speed to 9 would be to raise the RH speed to 12 and the LH speed to 11. Don’t try to raise it HT. Raising the speed HT is probably the biggest cause of problems with the intuitive method. As a general rule, get the HS speed up to about 50% above final speed. Therefore, the criterion we were seeking above is this; if you can play HS at about 150% of final speed, relaxed, and in control, then you are ready for HT practice. Do not take this “150%” too literally; it is not necessary to measure the HS speed with a metronome. Just make sure that the HS speed is much faster than HT, then try HT. If you still have trouble, go back to HS and raise its speed a little more. If you had done sufficient HS work, the HT play will come very quickly. There is a world of difference in how the brain handles tasks in one hand and tasks that require two-hand coordination. HS practice improves your ability to manipulate one hand. It does not tend to form habits not directly controlled by the brain because the brain controls each function directly. HT motions, on the other hand, can be cultivated only by repetition, creating a reflex habit. One indication of that is the fact that HT motions take longer to learn. Therefore, bad HT habits are the worst because, once formed, they take forever to eliminate. The best way to acquire technique quickly is to avoid this category of bad habits. This is why it is so important to delay HT practice until you are sure that the HS preparation is adequate. The ability to coordinate, yet independently control, the two hands is one of the hardest skills to learn in piano. The flip side is that this makes HT habits nearly impossible to undo — nobody has yet figured out a way to erase HT habits quickly. This is the main reason why so many students spend so much time trying to learn HT — they transition to HT before they are ready and end up trying to acquire technique HT. Now, this does not mean that you should never try HT in the beginning; you can start preliminary HT work at any time — just don’t try to improve technique HT yet. HS practice is fundamentally different; you can change fingerings and hand motions relatively quickly. You can increase speed with much less chance of picking up bad habits. But it is not enough to get up just to final speed HS; you must be able to play much faster before you are ready for HT. Only by going to such fast speeds can you guarantee that all your finger/hand/arm positions and motions are optimized. If you perform enough preparatory HS work, you will find that HT play at final speed comes surprisingly quickly and easily. You have effectively scaled all potential HT speed walls by avoiding the mistakes that create them. For example, you can cultivate accurate chords and jumps best HS. It can be forbiddingly difficult to practice fast runs, accurate chords, or jumps HT, and there is no need to create such difficulties. So here is a suggested routine for ensuring adequate HS work. Suppose that the final speed is 100. First, memorize and learn HS to 80 or even 100 (whole piece, or a large section, at least several pages; doesn’t have to be perfect at this stage). This may take two or three days. Then start HT at 30 to 50. The objectives are (1) memorize HT, (2) make sure that the fingerings, hand positions, etc., work HT. This may take another day or two. You will in general need to make some modifications, such as when the two hands collide or one needs to cross over/under the other, etc. Then work on the technically difficult sections HS to speeds over 100. When you can comfortably play at speeds of 120 to 150, you are now ready to seriously start practicing HT. Vary HT practice speed; as soon as you start to get confused HT, clear up the confusion using HS play. For difficult material, you will be alternating between HS and HT for days, if not weeks, with the HT progressively taking over. As you improve HT play, always keep the HS play well ahead of the HT speed, because this is the fastest way to improve HT. Now we can understand why some students get into trouble when they try to learn pieces that are too difficult by practicing mostly HT. The result is an unplayable piece full of stress, speed walls and bad habits that completely block any improvement because the problem motions are locked in. If this happens, no amount of practice will help. By contrast, there is nothing that is too difficult with the methods of this book (within reason). But it is still not a good idea to tackle pieces that are too far above your skill level because of the tremendous amount of HS practice that will be needed before you can start HT. Many people would become impatient, start HT or abandon HS prematurely, and end up getting into trouble anyway. There are more benefits to acquiring technique HS before HT, in addition to saving time and trouble. (1) You will develop the independence of the two hands which is so necessary for controlling the expression. (2) You will find that the piece will have a much more solid foundation than if you started HT too early, and you will feel that there is better control. (3) You can more easily play through mistakes or hide them. If you had learned the piece HT only and one hand makes a mistake, the other hand will stop. But if you had learned it HS first, then the other hand can keep going; in fact, you can often change fingerings as you play. (4) You will memorize it much better with fewer blackouts. (5) Best of all, you will acquire technique that you could not acquire by practicing only HT. Because you can play much faster HS than HT, you can acquire technique HS that you cannot even dream of, playing HT. It is this extra technique that builds a solid foundation for controlled HT playing. (6) If you can play accurately at 150% of performance speed HS, you will find that nervousness during the performance will be greatly reduced because of the increased confidence that you can handle the piece. In fact, using this method, you should eventually be able to play the piece at far above performance speed, which is what you need to do in order to have adequate control. Most of the HT practice procedures are similar to the HS methods (shorten difficult passages, continuity rule, rules for fast and slow play, relaxation, etc.). Therefore, although there appears to be relatively few HT rules stated here compared to the HS section, you already know many of them from the HS section. There is no need to repeat them here because you will readily recognize their applicability if you had carefully studied the HS section. As stated earlier, there are additional HT methods that can help. One is outlining, discussed in section III.8. Another is the method of “adding notes”. Suppose that you had followed all of the above procedures, but still have trouble playing HT. That is, you can play HS at much faster speeds than final speed, yet HT does not work. Then try the following. Take a short segment of the difficult section. Then play the more difficult hand HS, repeating it continuously (this is called cycling, see section III.2). Now start adding the easier hand note by note; first add only one note, until you can play it satisfactorily. Then add another, etc., until the segment is complete. Very often, the reason why you cannot play HT although you can play HS is that there is an error in one hand. Frequently, this error is in the rhythm. Therefore, as you add notes, try to find out if there is a rhythmic error in one hand. Another source of HT difficulty is insufficient memorization. Note that HS memorization and HT memorization is not the same thing. Therefore, just because you have it memorized HS does not mean that you have memorized it HT. When you transition to HT, you need to memorize it all over again, although it should go much faster this time. It is a mistake to assume that, because you know it inside out HS, you also know it HT. Let us now proceed with a real life example of how to practice HT. I have chosen a non-trivial example to illustrate HT methods, because if the method works, it should work with anything. This is Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66. This example is good because (1) everyone likes this composition, (2) without good learning methods it can seem impossible to learn, (3) the exhilaration of suddenly being able to play it is unmatched, (4) the challenges of the piece are ideal for illustration purposes, and (5) this is the kind of piece that you will be working on all your life in order to do “incredible things” with it, so you might as well start now! In reality, this is a fairly easy piece to learn! Most students who have difficulty do so because they can’t get started and the initial hurdle produces a mental block that makes them doubt their ability to play this piece. There is no better demonstration of the efficacy of the methods of this book than showing how easily you can learn this composition. For somewhat easier pieces, see section III.6.l (Bach’s Inventions). We start by making sure that you have done all the preliminary homework with HS practice. Although the last page might be most difficult, we will break the rule about starting at the end and start at the beginning because this piece is difficult to start correctly but, once started, sort of takes care of itself. You need a strong, confident beginning. So we will start with the first two pages, up to the slow cantabile part. The LH stretch and continuous workout makes endurance a major issue. Those without sufficient experience and especially those with smaller hands, may need to work on the LH for weeks before it becomes satisfactory. Fortunately, the LH is not that fast, so speed is not a limiting factor and most students should be able to play the LH HS faster than final speed in less than two weeks, completely relaxed, without fatigue. For bar 5 where the RH first comes in, the suggested LH fingering is 532124542123. You might start by practicing bar 5, LH, by cycling it continually until you can play it well. See section III.7e for how to stretch your palm — you should stretch the palm during playing, not the fingers, which can lead to stress and injury. We all know that you can spread the fingers to increase your reach. However, you also have a separate set of palm muscles just for spreading the palm. Learn to use these two sets of muscles independently: the palm muscles for spreading only and the fingers for playing. Practice without the pedal. First a few bars, then the entire section (up to the cantabile), all memorized and up to speed, HS. Practice in small segments. Suggested segments are: bars 1-4, 5-6, 1st half of 7, 2nd half of 7, 8, 10 (skip 9 which is the same as 5), 11, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20, 21-22, 30-32, 33-34, then 2 chords in 35. If you cannot reach the 2nd chord, play it as a very fast ascending broken chord, with emphasis on the top note. After each segment is memorized and satisfactory, connect them in pairs. Then play the whole LH from memory by starting from the beginning and adding segments. Bring it up to final speed. When you can play this entire section (LH only) twice in succession, relaxed, without feeling tired, you have the necessary endurance. At this point, it is a lot of fun to go much faster than final speed. In preparation for HT work, get up to about 1.5 times final speed. Raise the wrist slightly when playing the pinky and lower it as you approach the thumb. By raising the wrist, you will find that you can put more power into the pinky, and by lowering the wrist you avoid missing the thumb note. In Chopin’s music, the pinky and thumb (but especially the pinky) notes are most important, so practice playing them with authority. The Cartwheel method, explained in section III.5, may be useful here. When you are satisfied with it, insert the pedal; basically, the pedal should be cut with every chord change which generally occurs either once every bar or twice every bar. The pedal is a rapid up and down (“cutting the sound”) motion at the first beat, but you can lift the pedal earlier for special effects. For the wide LH stretch in the second half of bar 14 (starting with E2), the fingering is 532124 if you can reach it comfortably. If not, use 521214. The thumb under method (see section III.5) should be used here. At the same time, you should have been practicing the RH, switching hands as soon as the working hand feels slightly tired. The routines are almost identical to those for the LH, including the initial practice without the pedal. Start by splitting bar 5 into two halves and learn each half separately up to speed, and then join them. For the rising arpeggio in bar 7, use the thumb over method, not thumb under because it is too fast to be played thumb under. Although you may not be playing it that fast now, you will eventually play it much faster. The fingering should be such that both hands tend to play the pinky or thumb at the same time; this makes it easier to play HT. This is why it is not a good idea to fool around with the fingerings of the LH — use the fingerings as marked on the score. Now practice HT. You can start with either the first or second half of bar 5 where the RH comes in for the first time. The second half is probably easier because of the smaller stretch of the LH and there is no timing problem with the missing first note in the RH, so let’s start with that. The easiest way to learn the 3,4 timing is to do it at speed from the beginning. Don’t try to slow down and figure out where each note should go, because too much of that will introduce an unevenness in your playing that you may have a hard time eliminating later on. Here we use the “cycling” method — see “Cycling” in section III.2 for more details. First, cycle the six notes of the LH continually, without stopping (no pedal). Then switch hands and do the same for the eight notes of the RH, at the same (final) tempo as you did for the LH. Next cycle only the LH several times, and then let the RH join in. Initially, you only need to match the first notes accurately; don’t worry if the others aren’t quite right. In a few tries, you should be able to play HT fairly well. If not, stop and start all over again, cycling HS. Since almost the whole composition is made up of things like the segment you just practiced, it pays to practice this well, until you are very comfortable. To accomplish this, change the speed. Go very fast, then very slow. As you slow down, you will be able to take notice of where all the notes fit with respect to each other. You will find that fast is not necessarily difficult, and slower is not always easier. Now add the pedal. This is when you should develop the habit of accurately pumping the pedal. If you are satisfied with the second half of bar 5, repeat the same procedure for the first half. Then assemble the two halves together. You now have all the tools to learn the rest of this composition by yourself! It should be clear from this example that the general methodologies for HT practice are essentially parallel to those for HS practice. Therefore, the best way to learn HT practice is to learn the HS rules well. And it will pay handsomely if you can put HT at final speed instead of slowly at first. But this is not an absolute rule. For some pieces it may be better to slow down. In the above example, it was best to start HT at speed because of the 3,4 timing problem. The cantabile section is just the same thing repeated four times. Therefore, learn (and memorize) the 4th repetition first, and the rest will be easy. The quickest way to learn the 4th repetition is to first analyze and partially learn the beginning (1st repetition) since it is simpler and easier to analyze. As with many Chopin pieces, memorizing the LH well is the quickest way for building a firm foundation for memorizing because the LH usually has a simpler structure that is easier to analyze, memorize and play. This is because Chopin will often create several versions of the RH while repeating essentially the same notes in the LH. The trill in the 1st bar (4th repetition), combined with the 2,3 timing, makes the 2nd half of this bar difficult. Practice it first without the trill. Since there are 4 repetitions, you might play it without the trill the first repetition, then an inverted mordent the 2nd time, a short trill the 3rd, and a longer trill the last time around. This will make it much easier to play than trying to trill it all four times. The third section is similar to the first section, so if you managed to learn the first section, you are almost home free. Note that in the final 20 bars or so, the RH pinky and thumb carry notes of major thematic value, all the way to the end. This section may require a lot of HS practice with the RH. The 3,4 timing is a mathematical device Chopin used to produce the illusion of hyper-speed in this piece. The mathematical explanations and additional salient points of this composition are further discussed under “Cycling” in Section III.2. You will probably practice this composition HS for years after you initially complete the piece because it is so much fun to experiment with this fascinating composition. If you play any composition at full speed (or faster) too often, you may suffer what I call “fast play degradation” (FPD). The following day, you might find that you can’t play it as well any more, or during practice, you can’t make any progress. This happens mostly with HT play. HS play is more immune to FPD and can in fact be used to correct it. FPD occurs probably because the human playing mechanism (hands, brain, etc) gets confused at such speeds, and therefore occurs only for complex procedures such as HT play of conceptually or technically difficult pieces. Easy pieces do not suffer FPD. FPD can create enormous problems with complex music like Bach’s or Mozart’s compositions. Students who try to speed them up HT can run into all sorts of problems, and so the standard solution is to simply keep practicing slowly. However, there is a neat solution to this problem — increase speed using HS practice! One disadvantage of the HS-HT approach is that practically all technique acquisition is accomplished HS, possibly resulting in poorly synchronized HT play. Therefore you should be aware of this possibility and practice HT with the objective of attaining very accurate synchronization of the two hands.

Summary

This concludes the basic section. You have the essentials to devise routines for learning practically any new piece. This is the minimum set of instructions you need to get started. However, note that the simplicity of each topic belies the endless possibilities that they present. It is important to understand that each procedure may have a myriad of uses and to constantly learn these new applications as you come across them, and to keep your eyes open for new possibilities. Take HS practice, for example. It is not just a method for learning quickly, but is useful for practicing as hard as you want without risking injury and it is used for removing hand memory and substituting it with more permanent memory that you can depend on for recovering from blackouts. It helps you to analyze a composition and its underlying simplifying concepts, it is used to balance the hands so that one is not weaker than the other, it allows you to take advantage of the ability of one hand to teach the other, etc. In section III, we shall explore more uses for these basic steps, as well as introduce more ideas on how to solve some common problems.

Into serious digital photography: Canon vs Nikon

Ok, from last post I probably mentioned my path into serious photography, so it’s now coming down to getting my first DSLR. Well, this requires a lot of extensive and intensive research into some field I didn’t really know about. Some of my friends do have their own DSLRs, but I don’t trust their councils very much – my requirements have never been as low as theirs, and I also expect specific things for my photography system, so best I work on my own this time 😀 .

There were a lot of things to start to be honest. At first, I didn’t start with branding (which has never been the first priority for me), and I think many other people would share this opinion when they make their first steps into serious photography. My first priority therefore was finding the most suitable DSLR given my budget, which is of course limited. Having said that, I could always persuade my parents to invest some money, but I prefer not to. So everything comes down to something I think would suit my passion for photography, my current knowledge of the field, my potential in this field, and it has to be a good long term investment (of course I don’t want to buy a DSLR and then trade for an upgrade 1 year after, which I’ve seen happened with people I know). However, things forced me to come back to the branding issue – it’s not the DSLR alone that would matter, but also the lenses that come with it. It turned out that certain lenses can only work with certain DSLRs since they have different mounts. So say if I go with a Canon DSLR, I will have to invest everything else accordingly. This is why we already see something called a “holy war” on many photography forums with a lot of people arguing whether Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax… systems would be the best, which I certainly don’t want to participate 😀 .

So which is the system of my choosing? Is it Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, or any other brands? Those brands are certainly famous and they produce excellent photography systems. Well, I understand everything now comes down to the matter of personal preference.

Many people who know me would expect me to go for a Sony since I’ve been a great admirer for Sony digital products since ages. Back to the time I first went to university, I had a wide range of Sony products because I always love their quality, durability, innovation and design (because of that they never come with cheap price tags though 😛 ). I had a laptop, a lovely Vaio, a Walkman MP4 player, a good headphone, even my rechargeable batteries were all Sony’s. My parents were also influenced by my choices, they would’t consider buying things produced by any other brands if Sony have them. Consequently, my house is now full of Sony’s laptops, headphones and TVs, and they never disappoint 😀 . Nevertheless, in the field of photography, Sony seems to be less reputed compared to other brands like Canon or Nikon, the two biggest giants in terms of sales, and Leica or Carl Zeiss compatible system for image quality (given their exceptional lenses, especially Leica). For photographer, it’s usually the image quality that moves them towards a particular choice, and I’m no exception, so for me image quality is now the first priority.

Then what, I should go for Leica perhaps? Pretty non-sense for me to be honest. I know there are a lot of Leica fans out there would argue about their exceptional quality, both their rangefinder and lenses, but I would not consider it for their prices (probably around $7000 for the body and $1000 – $10000 for a Leica branded lens). It appeared to me more like buying a Aston Martin instead of a Toyota, which I don’t really go for. I admit that perhaps Leica lenses are exceptional (from a lot of reading), especially when shooting wide open, but most of the time people seem to see images produced by a Leica and say they are better because they know those ones come from a Leica 😕 . Besides, it seems even the most enthusiastic photographers cannot say that the difference Leica lenses make worth the difference in price compared to Canon/Nikon, especially Zeiss. Therefore, I didn’t consider buying a Leica, and a Zeiss compatible system for the same reasons 😉 .

So it eventually came down to Canon or Nikon war that I mentioned earlier 😀 . I was more or less a great admirer of Canon long before I considered buying a DSLR. A friend of mine used to show me a compact Canon, cost about the same as my Lumix and produced 2 years earlier when she came to visit me. When I shot with her camera, I only could say “Wow, this one produces exceptional images, for both its price and date of production”. Since then, I usually consider Canon as the standard and hope that someday I could invest a really good Canon system. Therefore, I leaned toward a Canon system at first and started searching for information regarding the types of DSLRs they offered. Generally speaking, Canon offers their DSLR as entry level (amateur), mid-range (semi-pro) and high end (pro). Most high end DSLRs now are considered full frame, which is comparable to 35mm film camera, without cropping, with steep price and lenses are normally expensive. The rests, less expensive options are cropped ones (which means their view of angle cropped by a certain ratio, normally around 1.5). This effects the focal length of the lenses compatible with cropped DSLRs longer by that exact ratio. For example, if a full frame lens has focal length of 35 mm, it will be 52.5 mm for a 1.5x cropped DSLR. Certainly full frame DSLR has certain advantages, not just the angle of view (more angle means you can take wider photos, which is generally beneficial for landscape), bigger sensor size, and full frame format which produce sharper images, but it seems to me it was not the right time for a full frame, since I just made my first steps into the field, there were still so much to learn until I can really exploit the benefits of full frame DSLRs. Having said that, I always keep in mind those advantages, so when the time is right, with my skills strengthen, and good financial situation, I would really go up and upgrade for a full frame camera. This is important because there are some lenses that can work for both full frame and cropped DSLRs, so I have more ideas when choosing my lenses (especially when they aren’t normally cheap, I prefer making long-term investments 😀 ).

So cropped DSLR that is, what now? Still the question of Canon or Nikon. After a really long time researching their lines of DSLRs and lenses, I pretty much see their major differences. First of all, many people said to me that Canon would take better portrait images (better processing human skin, especially Asian one), and Nikon better landscape images (due to contrast and saturation). However, after more reading, those things only apply to the taken JPEG images. This is not the format of my preference, I would lean toward taking RAW images and Photoshop them on my own, so at this point these systems make no difference to me. Secondly, since I didn’t see any point buying an entry-level DSLR (with many disadvantages when shooting difficult situations like sports etc), plus the difference in price between them and mid-range DSLRs is not so high, I decided to pay for a good mid-range one. At this point, I really prefer Nikon since they offer better DSLRs for taking photos and come with lower price tag (Canon’s famous 7D, namely “King of Crop”, is still not worth the price for me compared to Nikon D7100, and especially the not-much-older model D7000). Moreover, I’ve heard of Nikon’s great line of lenses, with excellent reputation of producing great image quality. Canon also has their great line of lenses for a similar price compared to Nikon, so this is not so much a big deal, although some people did say mid-range Nikon’s lenses produce a bit better image quality than Canon’s.

So that’s it, the struggle ends with me paying for a Nikon D7000 (as see below, impressive image of the camera 😀 ). The path is now chosen, I will follow Nikon, maybe for a long time to come because I will be stuck with their cameras and lenses, which make it very unlikely for me to change to another DSLR system unless I have really big budget and sufficient motivations. But honestly, my prediction is that I will be very happy with this system for a long time to come (and maybe happier when I really come to full frame Nikon DSLR). Next post will be about more things in photography, my first Nikon lens, my plan for future lenses and the reasons why I choose those for my needs.

First step into serious photography :)

Well, first of all, for someone who use digital stuffs intensively every day like me, I do of course know certain things about photography 😀 . I bought my first digital camera about 5 years ago, a compact Lumix which I find pretty decent, especially for its price, from a friend who went back from Singapore. Obviously at that time I didn’t have enough time and financial means for any better option – I was in my 2nd year in university. And back then I was quite happy with it, a nice, very lightweight, compact camera which I use occasionally to capture precious moments of my life, although I already have great admiration for the photos that were taken by much more serious systems using DSLR and expensive lenses.

Now everything has changed for my photography perspective. When I first told my parents that I want to invest (probably a lot of money) for a serious photography system, namely a good DSLR and many good lenses in order to capture best possible photos myself, they asked me a question that I’m very used to before buying literately anything: “Is it worth it?” 😕 .

That question is really a haunting one in my family tradition to be honest. Since I was a child, my parents always teach me how to spend money effectively and efficiently. To them, the best way to do it is spending for 1. something you really need, 2. something you really want to have, and will make a good use of it. Therefore, you can save a lot of money potentially spent for (maybe small) things that only catch your interests and use that to pay for expensive things you need. That said, my parents both look into details and never pay for any single thing that we don’t use frequently or exploit all of its capabilities. A good example of this is when we went out to buy our first laptop (sure I do know a lot about computers so everyone can just trust me with my council 😀 ). We all knew we need one because we would use it every day, so that makes sense. Nevertheless, we also know that different configurations cost differently, so we analyse every single details to find the most suitable configuration, brand, design for our needs, which certainly saved us a lot of money. Many people looked at us and said: “They are so stingy”, but we never mind 🙂 . Also, the same people probably say that we would never pay for anything expensive, and that is horribly wrong. In fact, after years of saving, we have completed building our mansion in one of the most expensive lands in the city, and I really enjoy knowing those people now look at us with admiration and jealousy in their eyes 😛 .

OK, back to the main story 😀 . The point is that my parents questioned me how much it’s worth for me buying a serious photography system. I told them it’s totally worth it, so they don’t have to worry about that, and they trusted me 🙂 . My explanation is that although DSLRs and lenses are expensive at first sight, but just take a look at how long you can use it. They are literately a system of lenses which use the light mechanism, which doesn’t evolve much, unlike other digital stuffs like laptops. In the case of laptops, you would need to invest for a new system every 3-5 years because of the old system getting too outdated for demanding tasks. However, a good DSLR can stay for a lifetime without the real need for upgrading (honestly, ask yourself, what can manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony… do to improve their DSLRs and lenses, apparently not much). That is why when you sell your laptop after years of using, its price decreases dramatically, maybe no one even considers buying it. In the case of DSLRs and lenses, I’ve seen people selling their gadgets after 5 years of using without losing much money (you can confirm this by looking at the price of the used ones on any photography sites). Therefore, paying money for a photography system probably one of the safest investments I’ve made so far, not to mention I can use it to catch really quality photos of anything I see, and such potential makes me feel so thrilled when I bought mine 😀 .

Well, it’s probably a bit too long for a single post now. I’ll probably talk more into the field of photography in the next ones 😀 .

Let’s go and rebuild my wardrobe

The second post under this Diary Category is a follow up of the lesson from basic colour theory taken from the previous post (which I probably left under Undercagorized Category 😀 ). Well, the reason for all this to happen is that I struggled to decide whether or not to buy another smartphone, a white one, instead of a black one I’m using. I’ve always used a black phone in my whole life, and it seems reasonable for some time since it obviously is the safest choice for technology devices. In early years, manufacturers around the world tend to produce black devices, until just recent times. A month after I got myself another new phone, another black one of course, I found out many people who can use their white phone to look more gorgeous, which is very tempting to me. Well, I’m nowhere near the idea of “becoming gorgeous”, but who wouldn’t want to dress better 😀 ? So that’s when I decided to take up some lessons myself on how to mix up colours for my needs.

Researching, researching and researching, that’s what I always do when I really want to find out something, although the solution might not be simple, my time can always lead me to my goals. The whole point of this is to match the colours of my cloths, devices with my skin tone, and I can have a clear view of how to rebuild my wardrobe with stuffs I really want to wear. So what is my skin tone? It has to match the colour theory, so I was tempted to find out that first. I’m obviously an Asian guy, but normally it would need to be classified into the “cool” and “warm” sections. There are many suggested tests to know whether my skin is cool or warm, but I think the easiest is probably looking at my veins. If the veins appear to be blue, so the skin is of cool undertone, and they appear to be green, the skin is of warm undertone. So after looking at my veins, I realised that my skin is of warm undertone. First problem solved 🙂 .

OK, so what colours should an Asian with (probably) olive skin with warm undertone wear? After more researches, I found the following:

“There are 3 categories or levels of skin tones: light, medium, and dark. There’s a lot of information about these tones and their corresponding “undertones” and “seasons”, but I’ve decided to keep it simple and straightforward in hopes of not being too confusing.

Skin Tones

Light Skin Tone: This is the palest skin color that typically has ivory, blue, or pinkish undertones. Typically found on Caucasians, this skin tone burns easily before tanning. Hair tends to dramatically contrast this fair skin color, and is often black or very dark brown; however, blonde hair is not uncommon. Eye colors typically include blue, shades of green, grey-blue, black, or light brown.

Complimentary colors are cool colors, which include blues, greens, pinks, purples, and reds. Pastels look great, although stronger colors, like dark blue or red look good, too. White and black clothing can wash light skin out and is best avoided. Silver jewelry looks best with this coloring.

Medium Skin Tone: Yellow, yellow/peach, and olive undertones make up this skin tone. Asians, Latinos, Mediterraneans, or dark, mixed race people normally have this skin, which tans more easily, without as much burning. Hair colors are normally brown, black, various shades of red (auburn, strawberry blonde), and blonde. Eyes are typically brown, hazel, or green.

Complimentary colors are warm colors, which include the earth tones: browns, tan, khaki, yellow, green, orange, gray, blues, and some reds. Other flattering colors are cream, black, and navy blue. Avoid pastels and bright whites that will make you look washed out, and lime and olive greens that can make medium skin look sallow. Gold is your color of jewelry.

Dark Skin Tone: Various shades of brown with yellow, red, or blue undertones belong to this skin tone. Typically found on people of African and Indian decent, this skin tans without burning. Hair colors are usually black or dark brown. Eyes are normally various shades of brown, including amber and black.

Complimentary colors are white, khaki, eggplant (dark purple/plum), red, gray, light blue, orange, pink, and gold. Black, dark brown, navy blue, and light green are not very flattering. When wearing dark colors, incorporate a complimentary color: black suit/eggplant necktie. Opt for clothing that contrasts skin color, in order to bring out dark eyes and hair. Gold is your best jewelry color, also.”

From another post, it is suggested that people with warm undertone should look best when stick with warm colours (unfortunately I forgot to record the post, so no direct quote given, but I suspect I can always find a related one from the internet 😀 ). Well, I can always read about “warm” and “cool” colours, too. So that’s basically what I need to rebuild my wardrobe 🙂 .

Arggh, welcome back to the first question, should I buy another white phone to mix? Probably not. Not just because bright white apparently will not help to compliment my skin tone, the white skin potentially shows more dirt, scratches on it, and I really like my device to last as long as possible with perfect look. So black is definitely the safer choice over white in this case. Also, although very tempted with using a white device, a phone which I do not use so frequently is probably not worth that much attention, and I should pay more to my cloths, which appear constantly to viewers. So conclusion? Black or white? Both are fine for me, with black a safer choice, white would look gorgeous with the right shade, under appropriate light, and a lot more attention to keep it from dirt and scratches 🙂 .