Building Up an Octave Technic

How to Play Octaves Smoothly, Rapidly and Tirelessly

Many piano players – and not amateurs only – find great difficulty in playing octave passages, especially when such passages demand a rapid tempo and great endurance. Such passages some performers find so fatiguing as to be unable to carry them through without experiencing a lameness in the wrist amounting almost to a feeling of being momentarily paralyzed. The word “paralyzed” is used here purposely because that which is so often taken to be fatigue is in reality a temporary or momentary paralysis.

We know that a muscle, when put to an unusual strain, accumulates of lot of blood which causes that muscle to expand. The muscles of the wrist, when put to an undue strain will thus expand and by this expansion press against the many large and small blood vessels which nourish and stimulate the finger nerves. This pressure makes the circulation difficult and by forcing matters this difficulty increases more and more, until finally the circulation of blood in the hand is stopped – which produces a condition of partial or temporary paralysis.

The hand becomes really paralyzed; but this word need not frighten anyone, because this particular paralysis is not only temporary but admits of an instantaneous cure by dropping the wrist. Through this dropping the muscles relax – it might be said, collapse – the pressure against the blood vessels is thus released and the circulation of the blood is re-established. This cure works instantaneously, whereas it would take from five to ten minutes, if not more, to restore the force of the hand if its inability to continue a lengthy octave passage were really due to fatigue.

The supposed fatigue is often accompanied by a pain which is felt about two inches above the wrist, but this pain only proves that the blood that was intended to nourish the finger nerves has been stopped in its course; that it has accumulated where it found no outlet and thus exerted that pressure which caused the pain.

This is the physiology of the difficulty and it had to be made quite clear here in order that the reader may understand that the means to conquer the difficulty, as suggested in the following, are entirely in line with the physiological aspect of the matter.

Gripping the Octave

The most common error committed in playing prolonged octave passages consists of playing them – or endeavoring to play them – with one and the same set of muscles, instead of distributing the passage over four different sets. It would be well to understand that the octave technic comprises:

  1. Wrist octaves
  2. Arm octaves
  3. Shoulder octaves
  4. Finger octaves

Nos. 1 and 4 are more difficult to acquire than Nos. 2 and 3, because Nos. 2 and 3 are used only for forte and fortissimo places and never long in succession, while Nos. 1 and 4 are much more frequently used and demand a very attentive and time-consuming study.

The study of wrist octaves should begin – as Kullak suggests in the masterly first book of his “Octave School” – by striking an octave on white keys in such a way as to grip it, somewhat in the manner of the tongs which our summerly friend, the iceman uses. The thumb and the fifth finger should show in their position a tendency to “face each other.” While thus holding this octave the wrist should be alternately elevated as high as possible and dropped again; this “dropping,” however, should not be a “depressing” but and actual dropping that is; falling. The arm that had lifted the wrist should suddenly become, practically devitalized and allow the wrist (as well as the arm itself) to fall; to fall instantly and to fall so low that the finger tips are in danger of losing their hold on the keys. Of these two motions each one should be made quickly but, at first, very far apart so that the wrist, whether high or low, should remain at least four or five seconds in the same position in order that the player may make sure that the fall is not a masquerading depression. In this “fall” the arm should be as if it were dead.

Assuming now that this first study was made on the keys of C, the next move will be a slight spreading of the  hand while the wrist is lifting and the thumb and fourth finger reach for C sharp. Here the fingers should be astraddle of the black keys. In going then back to C, the wrist should again fall and the fifth finger and thumb take their C’s as before. By and by, the study may progress chromatically to E and back again, always taking the black keys with the thumb and fourth and with a highly raised wrist, which must promptly collapse again when the white keys are retaken, while the thumb and fifth finger resume their gripping attitude.

When the chromatic scale is extended over an octave (of octaves) the shifting of the thumb and fifth from E to F and from B to C should be done (slowly at first) by lifting the wrist very slightly and throwing the hand upon the next white key. In all these motions the hand should endeavor to lean a little toward the thumb and beware of leaning toward the fifth finger.

Avoid Speed at First

The student should keep up this slow practice for a week at the very least, however much he may feel that he could do the lifting and dropping of the wrist more quickly. The essential point in the beginning of this study is not speed, but the forming of the habit of suddenly devitalizing the arm that upheld the wrist. A premature reaching for speed is very likely to produce a failure and preclude all future speed.

The next step will be the repetition of each octave while the hand retains its position. Play the C octave twice; after a while thrice to the same time beats, then four, six, and eight times with a low, hanging wrist. Then do the same on C sharp with a high wrist and the fingers astraddle of the keys.

When this has been accomplished, play the diatonic scale of C in such a way that C, E, G, b have the wrist low while on D, F, A, C the wrist is high. Use always the thumb and fifth finger and throw the hand from key to key without losing sight of coming as nearly as possible to a legato.

The time for throwing the hand from key to key can be so minimized as to make the breaks in the legato inaudible, if the hand – at first – remains long enough on each key for a complete mental preparation of the next motion. Here again – it has to be repeated – the motions are to be made quickly, but not in quick succession until the motions have become habitual. And even then the increase of speed should be made very gradually. How soon the speed may be increased is a question which every student must decide for himself, but long abstaining from speed and the greatest self-restraint cannot be to highly recommended.

Assuming now that the foregoing advice has been punctiliously followed, other scales may now be practiced with the fourth finger and a high wrist on black keys, even when there are two or three black keys in succession. (If the hand stretch is wide enough the third finger may be used on the first of two or three consecutive black keys, as in the scales of E, B, A flat, D flat, e.a.)

Finger Octaves

Coming now to “finger octaves” (No. 4 of the foregoing statement), it may be said that they are not, or only in exceptional cases, used in passages that move on white keys only; this manner of octave laying is used in scale or arpeggio passages that contain a number of black keys on which the fourth – if not also the third – finger is employed. Such passages should be practiced with the fifth and fourth (or also the third) finger alone (without the thumb) while the hand retains the outstretched position as if it were playing octaves. When the upper notes of the octaves with the fifth and fourth fingers are so well learned that they can be played in the required speed, then – and not until then – the thumb may be permitted to “trolley” along; to make the keys speak and thus to complete the octaves. In case of necessity the thumb may practice its notes separately, but while so employed the hand must retain its outstretched octave position. These “finger octaves” are very useful in passages that require great rapidity.

“Arm” octaves are used only where great strength is needed, while “shoulder” octaves should be used only for sforzato moments, where one or two octaves or heavy chords form the climax of a passage which, in itself, was to be played forte. Of these two manners nothing more need be said than that the “arm” octaves should engage the arm up to the elbow only, while the “shoulder” octaves employ the entire arm, deriving their strength from the shoulder muscles and that these two manners should not be confounded with each other but be considered as distinctly separate; for, they employ two entirely different sets of muscles.

Prolonged Octave Passages

Prolonged octave passages played with one and the same degree of strength would be as monotonous as any other passages that were devoid of dynamic shading. It is to the dynamic undulations that the student should now pay the greatest attentions, because they will show him the places where he may change from one manner of execution to another.

It would be useless to say here that soft octaves should be played in the manner of No. 1 and No. 4, because the choice would depend upon whether the octaves are to be played legato, non-legato or staccato. Nor was the purpose of the foregoing to furnish a “recipe” which the student could follow without doing his own thinking and experimenting. The purpose was, on the contrary, to stimulate his thinking and experimenting after having made him acquainted with the fact that there are four distinct manners of playing octaves, and explaining how these four manners can be acquired.

In the course of his pianistic experience the student may find that – once in a while – the various manners may form combinations, e.g., the arm and wrist may work for moments together or that the wrist may help a little in the finger octaves. Such experiences, however, are granted to those only who have a very clear conception of the four manners states before. If they are not thoroughly understood, the student may by chance hit upon a combination that may be of momentary help to him, but, as it would be mere chance work, it would be more than likely never to help him again. Hence it is best to learn and understand the four fundamental manners so thoroughly that, in case of any combination suggesting itself, the student should know what he is combining.