Some Problems in Tchaikowsky Concerto

Piano technique secrets: how to make the opening chords of Tchaikowsky concerto juicy and clangorous

In the original chordal passage (m. 5 and following), we avoided placing the hands on the next chord prematurely – this would create an extra movement that cuts the musical line. You may be tempted to do just that in order to be sure of your notes. This is “sight-reader’s syndrome”: get there early in order to be sure you’ve got there! But resist the temptation: hang on to each chord as long as possible to juicen up the tone. Physically feeling the duration of each clangorous chord by staying in the key bottoms will enrich its tone immeasurably. Then when you finally do leave the chord, don’t tense your hands in the effort to form them to the shape of the next one. Instead, leave them loose and let them move into that shape in the instant you are already entering the keys. It’s a series of very delicate adjustments that takes place constantly even amongst all the effort and brouhaha of this thunderous concerto opening. You can further cultivate this feeling of really joining the chords physically, eliminating any movement that would break that join, by playing without the sustain pedal, using your fingers to create the impression that there is no air at all between the chords but a continuous flow of sound, as if the sustain pedal was being used.

Development of piano technique takes place in the reflexes

Here’s an intermediate step you can use to acquaint yourself with this feeling of staying loose while finding new notes. Practice moving with lightning-like rapidity to the new chord but not playing it, placing your fingers loosely but extremely quickly on key. The rapidity trains your reflexes to react on time. But do not use this practice technique of stopping on the chords when actually playing them. Instead, the process of leaving one chord and entering the next should now be one movement, not two. That is, arriving on the new keys and entering them is the same movement. This is what makes the two chords into one phrase, one musical entity. The instant you stop in between the chords, you’ve created two independent musical events – not at all the same kettle of fish!

Tricking your brain to develop your piano technique

The inner workings of this last exercise provide a fascinating insight into how our neurophysiology functions. One would think that scrambling to get your fingers into the keys of the next chord with no time for preparation would be tremendously disorienting and disorganizing, reducing one’s capacity for accuracy drastically, if not eliminating it altogether. But what this radical practice strategy does is clear the way for a new mode of organization.

Habitually we fix our fingers in some way in order to ensure accuracy. But this fixing is an immobilization that reduces the chances for bigness and/or variety of tone, that reduces the freedom with which one can manipulate the key. Here the movement from one chord to the next is so quick that you have no chance to fix, to rigidify your fingers. The first result: chaos, mashed notes, complete inaccuracy. But keep trying: absolutely no airspace between chords, and absolutely instantaneous movement from the keys of one chord into the keys of the next. Your fingers have no time to stiffen; therefore they remain supple. In their supple state they are capable of a snake-like movement that is incredibly accurate once you get used to it – much more accurate than stiffening to control. We are totally unused to cultivating accuracy by remaining loose! As soon as we remain loose, the alarm signals start to go off – “I have no way of controlling my finger. I’m going to miss my note!” But the neurological control made possible here is a far more refined, evolved, sophisticated control. Keep trying to move from one chord to the next in this strange, airspace-free way. As if you were hanging from the precipice of a 300-yard high cliff, your feet dangling in space – if you lose your grip you’ll plunge to your demise. But you must change your grip, move it afoot to the right, because the piece of cliff you’re hanging from is beginning to crumble! Can you play accurately like this? Did you sense something ‘click’ in your brain the moment you ‘got’ it, the first time you hung on to the first chord until the absolute last moment, whipped your hand into the new chord, and “Hey, all the right notes sounded!” And by the way, with what a sound they did sound! Because of the way you produced it, the sound must be resonant, singing, lush, something to roar and hold its own against a 100-piece orchestra!

Letter “A”, measure 60:

These measures illustrate well just how complicated the process of piano playing is physiologically. You need big sound, the hand position and finger arrangement in the chord tones is constantly changing, and the chords are now repeated in a dotted rhythm.

A strange piano technique strategy: stiffening to clarify rhythmic definition

Measures 60 and following illustrate well just how complicated the process of piano playing is physiologically. You need big sound, the hand position and finger arrangement in the chord tones is constantly changing, and the chords are now repeated in a dotted rhythm.

The dotted rhythm is the added musical element. Strangely enough, the way to keep these rhythms crisp, clean and in tempo is to reinstate the practice of stopping on key before playing! If you try to play this passage making only one movement between chord groups, there is a tendency to miss the new chord and for the rhythm to be sloppy. Stopping on key may seem to be giving you back that chance to clarify your position but its real importance lies in defining the rhythmic moment. Where in the first case stopping on key broke the musical flow, here it creates the necessary rhythmic definition.

Here stiffening hinders your piano technique

At measure 158, make a drum roll noise on a tabletop with your left hand on the beat, right hand off the beat. Keep your hands and fingers feeling totally loose. Do you notice that only when your whole hand and arm feels extremely relaxed, limp like a fish, does the rhythm become really regular and healthy? How can you keep this quality in playing the passage? Most likely you have been stiffening more than you need to in order to be accurate note-wise. But your accuracy should come from quality of attention, not physical tension! Here’s a good opportunity to learn how to do that.

An exercise in piano technique à la Peter Feuchtwanger

At measure 243 there’s an opportunity to feel how a hand shift can feel not like a hand shift. Let your hand hang limp, and very quickly play a repeated note “G”, fingering 1-5. Your hand feels like the tip of a whip. You may begin by playing completely wrong notes, but don’t tense your hand or arm to gain control over the situation. Stay with this strange feeling and adjust the direction of the attack little by little until the correct notes sound. The repetition should be as rapid as possible.