Hints on the Study of Octaves, Thirds and Sixths

The performance of pure legato octaves is undoubtedly the greatest stumbling block in the path of a pianist striving for virtuosity. This is surprising, as with proper placing, correct use of the down-up motions of the wrist, and relaxation of the muscles, octaves may approximate the speed, depth and equality of single notes. Pure, perfectly even, resonant octaves cannot be acquired when the muscles are rigid, hands misplaced, and a faulty principle applied.

The ear plays a very important part in octave playing, as it requires constant listening to each tone, in order to discover inequality. All previous training of the fingers and muscles for scales, chords and arpeggios has been a splendid preparation for octaves, although the latter should be a daily study even for comparative beginners, as they are a great aid in developing strength and giving elasticity to the first and fifth fingers.

One case, of a very gifted girl who performed in public the Rubinstein D Minor Concerto, comes to mind. The task was accomplished only by applying the principles for octave playing to which I have so often referred, as the young girl had little mechanical development or capacity. With a very short thumb, and no stretch between the latter and the index finger, she certainly had enough to contend with, but added to that the fingers were stiff and the hand not large by any means.

By means of dogged determination and patient application of the correct principle, she was enabled in six years (from the time she received her foundation) to make her debut, performing an entire program of extreme difficulty, winning encomiums from press and public.

That convinced me how unimportant comparatively, a find hand was, and how much could be accomplished by musical and intellectual gifts, when combined with perseverance and correct guidance.

White Key Octaves

When performing on white keys only, the hand should remain over the margin between the front of the keyboard and the black keys, always using the straight lines for scale and arpeggio passages, but when using black and white, never move in and out, but invariably remain inside.

The rules for octaves are as follows:

  • Play in a straight line
  • Use even pressure
  • Observe regularity of the up-down motions
  • Complete devitalization when pressing down the octave

The chromatic scale in octaves should be a daily study. In the chromatic scale (played in octaves) use the slow, deep clinging legato touch, bearing down from the triceps, but never growing rigid. Never play with the arm (when using the triceps muscles) as only the pulsation of the latter is felt, and the arm, although relaxed is perfectly steady.

In performing thirds and sixths, the main difficulty lies in the connection of both tones when passing under and over the keys. Most performers retain only one note of the thirds or sixths, thereby destroying the equality and perfection of the passages. By using the same rules laid down for scales, relaxing the wrist when crossing over and under, and retaining both notes until the last moment, a perfect connection is assured.

The Chopin Berceuse in D Flat Major is an exceptionally fine work for developing thirds and other intricate passages, and some editions have a set of preliminary studies to prepare for the difficulties. However, if all the technical rules have been carefully observed studies will be unnecessary, and thirds or double notes of any kind will glide smoothly and perfectly, to the complete satisfaction of the performer.