Teaching Your Fingers to Fly

by Sean on May 1, 2012

Rhythms for Practicing Piano

The ability to play fast seems to be one of the most coveted skills for piano students.  It’s impressive to hear, fun to do, and often (but maybe a little less than most students think) sounds cool.  Some fast pieces or passages are intended to create an effect, e.g. the howling of the wind or the trickling of water.  Other excerpts have more musical and thematic integrity.  There are even works that seem to be fast simply for the sake of playing fast.

The exact tone and articulation of each individual piece will need to be different, but what they all require is a solid technique in order to play them well.  I am far more impressed by a student who can play a slow piece thoughtfully and expressively than one who barrels through a showpiece sloppily and with no musical direction.  The following exercises appear to be so simple that they could easily be undervalued and even ignored by many students.  However, I have seen first hand, both as a student and as a teacher, the miracles that these exercises can accomplish when combined with diligence and determination by the student.

The exercises can be summed up in 4 simple lines:

1. long short
2. short long
3. long short short short
4. short short short long

Sure, they require explanation, but once you understand what these mean, it is truly as simple as that.  When you see fast passages, they are generally a string of 8th, 16th, or 32nd notes (but usually 16th.)  They also usually occur in groups of 4 notes.  Occasionally you will see triplets or sextuplets, but let’s see how it applies to the most common examples first.  You can even practice scales with these rhythms.

In fact, let’s start with a 2 octave C scale.  You can try this with each hand separately to start.  Simply go up the scale in groups of 2 notes.  The first rhythmic pattern (long short) would mean that you play the first note as a long note, then the second note extremely short, going right into the next note.  The groupings would look like this: (ascending) C, DE, FG, AB, CD, EF, GA, BC, (descending) BA, GF, ED, CB, AG, FE, DC.  At each comma, make a pause, and play each paired group quickly one after the other.  Essentially, you would be playing a dotted 8th, 16th note rhythm, but you don’t necessarily need to think of it in exact terms.  The second rhythm would be: CD, EF, GA, BC, DE  etc.  Make sure that you feel the first note of each group as the beat, not the second note.  The third rhythm involves 4 notes: C, DEFG, ABCD, EFGA, BC(descending)BA, GFED, CBAG, FEDC.  Finally, the last rhythm would look like this: CDEF, GABC, DEFG, ABC(descending)B, AGFE, DCBA, GFED, C.  Again, feel the first note of each group as the beat, not the last.

For triplets, take the same idea in three note groups:

1. long short short
2. short short long


To sum up this blog, I challenge you to try these rhythms with all of the scales that you normally practice along with a piece that has fast passage work in which you struggle with speed, evenness, and cleanliness.  When you get more comfortable with these rhythms, you can try more unconventional groupings.

I have plenty more information about using these rhythms as a tool, but get accustomed to the general idea first, and then look for future blogs that take this idea a step further.

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