08 November 2022
By Ellie Palmer
Teacher Melanie Spanswick gives her top tips on how to develop real finger security
Rapid passages. They require extra practice, don’t they?
You sit down at the instrument, ready to start a practice session, and begin at the same quaver, semiquaver or demisemiquaver passage which caused some grief at the previous session. You play it through, look at the tricky twists and turns, wonder if you should change your fingering and then, perhaps, play the passage slowly. All of this is helpful, of course, but how do we develop real finger security when playing fast passages? Here are a few ideas:
1. Locate a difficult passage
Find a passage that you find uncomfortable and one which you can hear is uneven when you play it up to speed (it doesn’t matter if it’s in the right or left hand – or both!). Are you really happy with the fingering? This will make all the difference. Try to avoid too many hand turns, especially during scale passages. This may involve using the fourth or fifth finger a little more than you’d like, but if you can learn to harness their power, then you’ll be on the way to using your whole hand optimally.
2. Play the section REALLY slowly
Often the reason why rapid figurations are ‘uneven’ is lack of rhythmic security as well as finger power. Play the section REALLY slowly, that is, a fifth or a quarter of the suggested tempo. Listen to what is being played.
Notice that you rush or linger at certain points? Now implement strict rhythmic control, which is much easier to establish at a slow tempo. To do this, decide how you wish to break down or divide, the pulse; are you playing semiquavers or demisemiquavers? If it’s the former, then count in semiquavers – one note per ‘tick’ of the metronome (or you could count aloud along to your playing). Make sure you play on the beat or tick at a slow speed. If demisemiquavers are predominant in your passage, then count in demisemiquavers.
Watch Murray Perahia's seamless passagework in Schubert's Impromptu Op 90 No 2:
3. Work on this for at least five or six practice sessions
Don’t attempt to play it any faster until you feel that your fingers, and your ability to control the passage totally in time, are both secure and accurate. Now, to add even more security, your fingers need to acquire a firmer ‘grip’ of your passage. There are many ways to do this, but my favourite method, by far, is to use a deep touch (you will be aware of this if you read this column regularly!). Heavy, slow finger work ensures every finger becomes properly acquainted with each key bed.
4. Encourage every finger to play deep into the key bed on its finger-tip, past the double escapement action
Do this for every single note in the rapid figuration, slowly. This may take some effort and feel unnatural at first, but after a while it will become a habit (my students all love practising this way!).
Keep wrists supple, allowing them to move easily, supporting the hand and fingers as they circumnavigate the note patterns. Once you’ve practised in this manner for several sessions, add accents to what you feel are the weaker fingers. I like to add accents at every practice session, rotating the fingers, so that they are all accented at some point; this is a wonderful way to stop the issues of rushing (or lingering) during fast runs, because it draws your attention to the shape and contour of the passage.
5. Finally, take the speed up SLOWLY
At every practice session, move a notch or two up on your metronome, allowing fingers to become accustomed to the new speeds. When you think you’ve achieved the intended speed, and only then, lighten your touch. And, eventually, play the passage much faster than the suggested tempo – even double speed, if you can! When you return to the real speed, you will be surprised at how ‘steady’, or even ‘pedantic’, it now feels. You can then safely return it to where it belongs in your piece, and you will hopefully feel more confident during performance.
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