Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 35 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.
First of all, one has to realise that technical issues always have to do with muscles and movement of fingers, wrists, arms etc.
A lot can be done with relaxation and of course, the only way to really resolve technical issues is by one thing called: practice, practice, practise…
But one needs to understand how and what to practise in your piece to be able to conquer a passage or part of your piece which you are studying. There can be many technical issues in one piece.
Here are but a few technical issues that you can find in most advanced pieces of piano music:
Fast finger movement needing finger dexterity
Pedalling effectively and using the sostenuto pedal and ‘soft’ pedal
Playing of 3rds and 6ths
Jumping from chord to chord
Contrapuntal playing etc.
Facing many of these physical issues – one needs to know how to deal with it and what to apply.
Just playing through your piece will not help much.
First of all, one has to break it down into smaller parts or sections and tackle each problem on its own.
For instance – if you have a phrase with fast finger work the best would be to practice it with a metronome.
Choose the correct fingering
First of all, it’s very important that you work out the correct fingering if it’s not given on the piece of music. Your teacher should be able to help you with that. If you have to change the fingering later it will always be a problem or at least for a long time until the old way of playing is un-learned and forgotten.
I once decided to change a certain passage to a better fingering.
Well, it took literally years for me to change that well practised run because one tends to want to revert to the first thing learnt.
See to it that it’s all written on your music score so that you use the same fingering each time when you practise. This is vital for your ‘finger memory’ that will eventually take over.
Take a finger passage (I mean a passage with fast running notes) for a few bars to practise on its own.
It can be either with the left hand (LH) or with the right hand (RH). Start at the beginning of the passage and play it slowly up to a certain point of rest – if it’s a long passage.
Now use your metronome to practise this passage until it’s fluent, even and at the speed, it needs to be.
Make proper use of a metronome
Metronome practice is an amazing tool in practise and development of technique and speed and stamina for your fingers and hands. It helps you to concentrate and move faster a bit by bit without you even really realising it.
Make sure you start at a very slow speed and make sure that each finger works exactly and specifically on the beat of the metronome in order to get a steady even passage when playing fast.
Increase the tempo with 2 notches on your metronome – whether it is an older weighted metronome or a digital one, does not matter.
It might seem as though there is no change in the tempo and that it’s still too slow and not really moving but be assured, the tempo is slowly moving up.
Do not jump to a faster tempo too soon.
Repeat and repeat the passage each time with another 2 notches up. Make sure every note you play is perfect and in perfect timing.
In this way slowly increase the metronome beat.
At the start play one note per beat. Later you will have to play 2 notes per beat as the tempo is increased.
Set your metronome at a tik-tak-tik-tak beat for each note of the passage. Play the whole passage. Then increase metronome speed with 2 notches. In this way, you will work up speed and precision which will benefit your playing greatly and soon the passage will become a piece of cake and beautifully even and perfect.
Practising this way will resolve many issues of having hiccups in fast passages and uneven notes will disappear, as long as you actively listen and concentrate to play exactly with the metronome.
One needs to have that want, to play the passage perfectly in order to reach that goal – and yes it’s possible with enough practice coupled with concentration and determination.
Dealing with chords
Another technical issue is the issue of playing chords well.
Here one has to pre-prepare the chord and see in your mind where and which notes are to be played.
Get the hand over the particular notes and make sure you play over and into the black notes – Do not try to play on the edge of the white notes – your fingers can play inside the black notes too.
If you have to move fast from one chord to another, do practise the movement from the chord to the next by playing the first chord, then make a very sudden quick move to the next chord but do not play it.
Only land on it with your fingers.
We call it ‘the pre-preparation’ – then play the chord. Playing chords gives the best sound when you feel how you play into the piano pressing downwards.
Practising this movement from one chord to a bass note or to another chord needs to be lightning-fast and can be practised.
It’s like practising the move and pre-preparing the chord by feeling it only. Only then playing it afterwards.
This technical resolution was shown to me by Celine Gaurier-Joubert.
I found it to bring a huge change in knowing that you can not miss a note or a chord this way and puts one to rest to know – your playing is not left to “perchance I might hit the wrong chord in a fast passage”.
No everything is practised and ready for performance.
So the practising of the fast movement and preparation gives you the capacity of playing the next chord perfectly without missing a note. This is really great.
Next, there is the issue of producing a beautiful tone – or sound production. If you want to create beautiful singing tone or sound, it’s important to feel the keys and to play into the piano – not hit it from the top but literally feel and love the keys.
One has to practise this by keeping your fingers in a nearly flat way rather than the usual round fingers – playing on the tips of fingers.
Playing with the fingertips was the way I was thought.
This is fine for fingerwork, but not effective in melodic singing passages.
There are different schools of approach to sound production and it can be debated.
I do however think that the way of thinking that one plays either into the piano or feels the keys on the fleshy part of your finger is better.
Playing on the tips of your fingers are fine, but its a hammer movement. (Therefore, it will produce a hammering sound…)
Producing a cantabile (singing) sound
This playing into the piano creating a beautiful singing sound was taught to me by the late Mr Josias van der Merwe – a master in piano interpretation and training.
I also have to salute Celine Gaurier-Joubert – master pianist and trainer for her teaching about – not only playing by feeling the keys when doing singing tone but actually using the type of ‘stoking’ technique even in fast running passages and chords.
It makes a huge difference in your sound and is well worth it to give attention to with your mind when practising.
More technical issues: There are many ways of finding out also for yourself what works for does not work for you in passages. There is a lot on the internet to read on and try out.
Your body and relaxation
I do need to address the issue of relaxation.
Relaxation of the shoulder, arms are also a major key in resolving technical issues. So do give major attention to relaxing your shoulders and try to not tense up any muscle in your face, your jaw, shoulders, neck or arms.
Sit correctly. It’s important. Practice keeping your body relaxed. This will help with speed, dexterity, fast notes and of course tone forming.
Alexander Technique is highly recommended. To find out more about the technique – please see Jackie’s description of the technique here.
Use your brain!
Enjoy! Remember the key is to use your brain.
Think about what you are doing.
Practise small sections or short passages at a time.
Find a good solution for any technical issue.
Sometimes it takes a while before one suddenly understands how or what one has to do to overcome an issue.
A good teacher can make all the difference!
I once played a very difficult long piece with very technical variations. One part was extremely fast and I just could not manage it without stopping.
At one of my lessons Mr Josias v d Merwe was so fed up with me that he retorted that he now had enough of me not being able to play this part right through!
He was really angry.
I was really shot and in tears.
Well, that was all I needed to get myself to face the passage, practise hare and find a way to get through it.
The next time I came for the lesson – to his surprise – I could play it perfectly!
I had found a way of relaxing my hand on these extremely fast movements which suddenly gave me the breakthrough I had needed.
So don’t give up.
Your issues can eventually be resolved.
Even if it’s just by an angry amazing trainer that pushes you past your own ability and fears!