[1.III.5.3] Practicing TO, Speed
We now discuss procedures for practicing fast TO scales. The RH C major ascending scale consists of the parallel sets 123 and 1234. Parallel sets are groups of notes that can be played as a "chord" (all at once). First, use the parallel set exercises (section III.7.2) to attain a fast 123, with 1 on C4. Then practice 1231 with the thumb going up and then coming down behind the 3, quickly moving the 3 out of the way as the thumb comes down. Most of the sideways motion of the thumb is accomplished by moving the hand. The last 1 in the 1231 is the conjunction required by the continuity rule (see section II.8). Repeat with 1234, with 1 on F4, and then 12341, with the last 1 rolling over, just behind the 4, and landing on C5. Play fingers 234 close to the black keys in order to give the thumb more area to land on. Use the forearm and wrist so that the fingertips of 2345 make a straight line parallel to the keyboard; thus, when playing middle C, the forearm should make an angle of about 45 degrees to the keyboard. Then connect the two parallel sets to complete the octave. After you can do one octave, do two, etc.
When playing very fast scales, the hand/arm motions are similar to those of a glissando (but not identical). The glissando type motion allows you to bring the thumb even closer to the passed fingers because all the fingers 2 to 5 are pointing slightly backwards. You should be able to play one fast octave (about 1 octave/sec.) this way after a few minutes of practice (let's not worry about evenness yet!). Practice relaxing to the point where you can feel the weight of your arm. When you become proficient with TO, you should find that long scales are no more difficult than short ones and that HT is not as difficult as TU. This happens because the contortions of the elbow, etc., for TU become difficult, especially at the high and low ends of the scales (there are many other reasons). It is important to stress here that there is never any real need to practice scales HT and, until you become quite proficient, HT practice will do more harm than good. There is so much urgent material we must practice HS, that there is little to be gained by practicing HT, except for brief experimentation. Most advanced teachers (Gieseking) consider practicing fast HT scales to be a waste of time.
In order to control the phase angle in the parallel set accurately, raise your wrist (ever so slightly) as you play the parallel sets 123 or 1234. Then make the transition to the next parallel set by lowering the wrist to play TO. These wrist motions are extremely small motions, almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, and become even smaller as you speed up. You can accomplish the same thing by rotating the wrist clockwise (cw) to play the parallel sets and cycling back by rotating ccw to lower the thumb. However, the up and down wrist motion is preferred over the rotation because it is simpler, and the rotation can be reserved for other uses (Sandor). If you now try to play several octaves, it may initially come out like a washboard.
The fastest way to speed up scale playing is to practice only one octave. Once you are up to the faster speeds, cycle 2 octaves up and down continually. At high speeds, these shorter octaves are more useful because it is difficult to reverse direction at the top and bottom, and these short octaves give you more practice at the ends. With longer runs, you don't get to practice the ends as often, and the added stretch of the arm to reach the higher/lower octaves is an unnecessary distraction from concentrating on the thumb. The way to play fast reverses at the top and bottom is to play them with a single downward pressure of the hand. For example, to reverse at the top, play the last ascending parallel set, the conjunction, and the first parallel set coming down, all in one downward motion. In this scheme, the conjunction is effectively eliminated by incorporating it into one of the parallel sets. This is one of the most effective ways of playing a fast conjunction -- by making it disappear!
In the glissando motion, the hands are supinated or pronated in such a way that the fingers point away from the direction of motion of the hand. In these hand positions, the keydrop motions of the fingers are not straight down, but have a horizontal backward component that enables the fingertips to linger a little longer on the keys as the hand moves along the keyboard. This is especially helpful for playing legato. In other words, if the fingers were coming straight down (relative to the hand) and the hand is moving, the fingers would not come straight down onto the keys. By rotating the hand slightly in the glissando direction, this error can be compensated. Thus the glissando motion allows the hand to glide smoothly. You can practice this motion by cycling one octave up and down; the hand should resemble the motion of a skater, with alternate feet kicking sideways and the body alternately tilting while s/he skates forward. The hand should pronate or supinate with each change of direction of the octave. As in skating, where you must lean in the opposite direction before you can change the direction of motion, the rotation of the hand (reversal of glissando hand position) must precede the change in direction of the scale.
Do not take the glissando analogy too literally, because there are differences. For playing scales, the fingers are doing the work; therefore, it is important to keep the fingers parallel to the arm so as not to strain the tendons and cause injury or create stress.
For the RH descending TO scale, practice the parallel set 54321, and the other relevant parallel sets, with and without their conjunctions. You just need to make a small modification to avoid letting the thumb fold completely under the hand while the next parallel set is rolling over the thumb. Lift the thumb as early as possible while keeping the scale smooth, by raising and/or rotating the wrist to pull the thumb up -- almost the reverse of what you did for the ascending scale. If you fold the thumb completely under the palm, it will become paralyzed and difficult to move to the next position. This is the "slight modification" referred to above and is somewhat similar to the thumb motion for the ascending scale. For TU play, the thumb can be allowed to fold completely under the palm. Because this motion is somewhat similar in TO and TU, and differ only in degree, it can be easily played incorrectly. Although the differences in motion are small visually, the difference in feeling to the pianist should be like night and day, especially for fast passages.
For ultra-fast scales (over one octave per second), think not in terms of individual notes, but in units of parallel sets. For the RH, naming 123=A, 1234=B, play AB instead of 1231234, i.e., two things instead of seven. For even faster play, think in units of pairs of parallel sets AB,AB, etc. As you progress in speed and start thinking in terms of larger units, the continuity rule should be changed from A1 to AB1 to ABA (where the final member is the conjunction). It is a bad idea to over-practice fast, at speeds you can not comfortably manage. The forays into very fast play are useful only for making it easier to practice accurately at a slower speed. Therefore practice most of the time at slower than maximum speed; you will gain speed faster that way.
Try the following experiment in order to get the feel of truly fast scales. Cycle the 5 finger parallel set 54321 for the RH descending scale, according to the scheme described in the parallel set exercises. Note that, as you increase the repetition speed, you will need to orient the hand and use a certain amount of thrust or rotation in order to attain the fastest, smooth, and even parallel play. You may need to study the arpeggio section below on "thrust" and "pull" before you can do this correctly. An intermediate level student should be able to get up to faster than 2 cycles per second. Once you can do this rapidly, comfortably, and relaxed, simply continue it down one octave at the same fast speed, making sure to play it TO. You have just discovered how to play a very fast run! How fast you can play depends on your technical level, and as you improve, this method will allow you to play even faster scales. Do not over practice these fast runs if they start to become uneven because you can end up with uneven, non-musical playing habits. These experiments are valuable mainly for discovering the motions needed at such speeds.
It is best not to start playing scales HT until you are very comfortable HS. The maximum HT speed is always slower than the maximum HS speed of the slower hand. If you feel a need to practice scales HT (some use it for warm-ups) start HT practice with one octave, or part of one, such as one parallel set. For practicing by parallel sets, the C major scale is not ideal because the thumbs are not synchronized -- see below for a better scale to use (B major). Cultivate the habit of transitioning to HT at a fast speed (although it may seem much easier to start at slow speed and then gradually ramp up). To do this, play one octave LH at a comfortable fast speed several times, repeat the RH at the same speed several times, and then combine them at the same speed. Don't worry if at first the fingers don't match absolutely perfectly. First match the starting notes; then match both the start and final notes; then cycle the octave continually; then work on matching every note.
Before going too far with the C major scale, consider practicing the B major scale. See table below for scale fingerings. In this scale, only the thumb and pinky play the white keys, except for the bottom finger (4) of the LH. All other fingers play the black keys. This scale has the following advantages:
- It is easier to play initially, especially for those with large hands or long fingers. Each key falls naturally under each finger and there is plenty of room for every finger. For this reason, Chopin taught this scale to beginners before teaching the C major scale.
- It allows you to practice playing the black keys. The black keys are more difficult to play (easier to miss) because they are narrower, and require greater accuracy.
- It allows play with flatter fingers (less curled), which may be better for practicing legato and for tonal control.
- TO play is much easier with this scale. This is the reason why I used the C major scale to illustrate the TO method. With the B major, it is more difficult to see the difference between the TU and TO motions. However, for purposes of practicing the proper motions, B major may be superior, if you already understand the difference between TU and TO because it is easier to get to the faster speeds without acquiring bad habits.
- The thumbs are synchronized in the B major scale, making it possible to practice HT, parallel set by parallel set. Thus HT play is easier than for the C major scale. Once you become proficient with this scale HT, learning C major HT becomes simpler, thus saving you time. You will also understand exactly why the C major is more difficult.
This paragraph is for those who grew up learning TU only and must now learn TO. At first, you might feel as if the fingers get all tangled up and it is difficult to get a clear idea of what TO is. The main cause of this difficulty is the habit you have acquired playing TU which must be unlearned. TO is a new skill you need to learn and is no harder to learn than a Bach Invention. But the best news of all is that you probably already know how to play TO! Try playing a very fast chromatic scale. Starting with C, play 13131231313 . . . . . The flat finger position may be useful here. If you can play a very fast chromatic scale, the thumb motion is exactly the same as for TO because it is impossible to play a fast chromatic scale TU. Now transfer this motion to the B major scale; think of this scale as a chromatic scale in which only a few white keys are played. Once you can play the B major TO, transfer this motion to C major.
Of course, learning scales and arpeggios (below) TO is only the beginning. The same principles apply to any situation involving the thumb, in any piece of music, anywhere that is reasonably fast. Once the scale and arpeggios are mastered, these other TO situations should come almost as second nature. For this to develop naturally, you must use a consistent and optimized scale fingering; these are listed in the tables below.
Those who are new to the TO method and have learned many pieces using the TU method will need to go back and fix all the old pieces that contain fast runs and broken chords. Ideally, all the old pieces that were learned using TU should be redone so as to completely get away from the TU habit where TO is more appropriate. It is a bad idea to play some pieces TU and others TO for similar fingerings. One way to accomplish the switch to TO is to practice scales and arpeggios first so that you become comfortable with TO. Then learn a few new compositions using TO. After about 6 months or so, when you have become comfortable with TO, you can start converting all your old pieces.
TO and TU should be considered as the extremes of two different ways to use the thumb. That is, there are many other motions in between. One unexpected benefit of learning TO is that you become much better at playing TU. This happens because your thumb becomes technically more capable: it becomes free. And you gain the ability to use all those motions between TO and TU that may be required depending on what other notes are being played or what type of expression you want to create. The thumb is now free to use all of its available motions and for controlling tone. This freedom, plus the ability to now play much more technically difficult material correctly, is what transforms the thumb into a very versatile finger.