10 Techniques To Help You Play Piano Songs Like A Professional Pianist
1. Sit up straight
Keep your back straight at all times. When was the last time you saw a trained pianist slouching over the keyboard? If you find that you keep slouching, get a Post-it note and stick it on the wall or piano to remind yourself to sit up.
A quick story...
A new student of mine (14 years old) had the worst posture going. Every week I would say to her, "Sit up straight! Sit up straight!" but it wasn't working. In the end, I thought she's never gonna learn, so I got myself a book and made her balance it on her head for the rest of the lesson. I think this technique is used in The Alexander Technique. The following week she came in looking different. Her posture was different.
Now it was either the thought of me placing a book on her head again throughout the lesson, which she didn't like or she had practised this technique at home, (I doubt it) but either way, when she sat at the piano she sat up straight for the entire lesson and has never slouched again in any of my lessons.Now, when she plays her favourite piano music, she looks like a professional! And it's better for her back too!
2. Hand position
When playing piano music, most people move their hands far too much. As a result, the hands move out of position, making it harder to find the notes. When you play the piano, move only the fingers as this will help you stay in a better hand position.
Stay in a five-fingered position
Each finger/thumb will be placed over one note. For example: If you had your right-hand thumb (finger 1) placed over C then your index finger (2) would be on D, middle finger (3) on E, ring finger (4) on F and the little finger (5) on G, as shown in the picture below.
Try to keep all fingers and thumbs as straight as possible over the keyboard at ALL times. If you keep the middle finger (finger 3 on both hands) straight as possible, then the other fingers and thumbs will stay straight too.
If you think you won't be able to remember all of the above just remember to...
Keep the finger 1 and 5 over the keyboard at ALL times.
3. Play on the tips of your fingers
Apart from the thumbs, by playing on the tips, this will help you to play piano songs faster than you could if your fingers were flat. Playing on the tips of your fingers will also help with playing 3rds, 6ths, octaves and chords. Think of hitting the keys like a hammer. Shown below is the correct finger position. Notice how the fingers are also curled.
4. Keep your wrists level
Don’t lift your wrists too high or drop them too low. Professional pianists do ‘bounce’ their wrists up and down but they are using an advanced technique called ‘arm weight’ where they use the arm (not the wrist) to apply ‘more weight‘ to the music.
In classical piano music, playing the music is a lot easier because the fingering is worked out for you. The fingering helps you to keep your hand position as straight as possible. When playing piano songs in pop and jazz music, you will not find any fingering written in the sheet music. You have to work it out yourself. If you haven’t had the correct training then you will almost certainly perform the music with bad fingering technique.
Check out the fingerings for Beethoven's Fur Elise here!
Most players teaching themselves the piano, will not use the pedal correctly. Some players will even use them as a footstool! Some pianos have two and others have three pedals. The most commonly used one is the sustain/damper pedal, the one furthest on the right. The other pedals are the soft, sostenuto/practice pedal depending on which piano it is, i.e., grand or upright. Check out this YouTube video from Cunningham Pianos for a more detailed explanation on each pedal.
As a quick guide when playing any piano song, use the sustain pedal...
- When a chord is played.
- At the start of the bar.
- Wherever you see these signs or word...
, , Con Ped.
Practice the following 6 steps to help you play the sustain pedal correctly.
- Play and hold a note or chord.
- Using the right foot and keeping the heel down, press the pedal.
- Keeping the pedal down, take your hand off the note/chord. The note/ chord will sustain.
- Press the new note/chord and AT THE SAME TIME lift the pedal.) Down with the note / up with the pedal)
- Still holding the note/chord down, press the pedal.
- Continue from step 3.
Practice this every day until it becomes automatic and you can speed up the steps without thinking.
An Octave is a distance between two notes of the same letter. For example C to C, F# to F# etc. They are used a lot when playing classic piano songs. Here's Chopin's Nocturne Op 48 No.1 In C Minor played here by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Notice all the octaves in the left hand on beats one and three.
Chopin's Nocturne Op 48 No.1 In C Minor has the same style left hand as a piano rag like Scott Joplin's The Entertainer. Performed here by Lord Vinheteiro
If you feel brave enough maybe go for Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1. Now that's a lot of octaves!
Playing an octave together like in the previous piano songs is very popular but also playing them separately as single notes are just as popular.
The following exercise is an exercise in the Octave Stretch and is taken from The Complete Classical Piano Course. Here's how to practice it.
Set the metronome to 60 and gradually increase the tempo to 120. Start with the right hand and once you've reached 120 change to the left hand. Start by looking down when hitting the octave stretch and then use your ears and do it without looking. This stretch is often found in piano music, so it would be in your best interest to learn this technique until it's automatic without looking down.
Octave Stretch Exercise
Thirds are another important interval that’s played in piano music. Classical, Jazz and Blues piano use them a lot throughout their music.
Most of the time you will be playing the piano using the sustain pedal, however, the pedal should only be used to add colour and warmth to the music. The technique below will show you how to play thirds smoothly without using the pedal.
To play each third smoothly, hold the top note a little longer than the lower note, allowing the lower note to move into position. When played correctly, the top notes should sound joined and played smoothly and the lower notes sounding detached for a slight second.
Exercise in 3rds
Can't play the 3rds together?
If you find that you cannot play both notes at the same time, a good way to practice this is to play the third, two or three octaves HIGHER than written. Since the notes are lighter the further you go up the piano it becomes more challenging to keep the notes together. Once you’ve done this a few times then play the third, two or three octaves LOWER than written. The lower you go down the keyboard, the easier you will play them together. Once you have done both of these HIGHER then LOWER, return to the original place and you’ll find that it will be much easier to keep the notes together.
You’ll find Sixths are popular too in piano songs. There are sixths in Beethoven's Fur Elise. See Teach Yourself How to Play Fur Elise: Part 3 for more information.
Like 3rds, to play smoothly, without the sustain pedal, either the top note or lower note will hold a little longer than the other note. Below is an exercise in sixths.
For each sixth, hold the top note (finger 5, 4, 3) longer than the lower note, to free up the lower note for it to move into position. Start slowly then increase the tempo. Again, the idea here is to make the top notes sound smooth and not detached.
Exercise in 6ths
Trills are used in many genres such as Baroque, Classical, Jazz and Blues piano music. In Baroque and Classical piano songs, a trill would be played to extend one note. Have a listen to this interesting piano masterclass lesson from Pianist magazine taught by Graham Fitch on Trills.
Here's Marc-Andre Hamelin, playing some great trills from the piano music of Claude Debussy's L'isle Joyeuse.
To help you get your Trills up to speed, have a go at Mozart's Trill Exercise below, which he wrote for his pupils.
Set the metronome to 60, starting slow and then gradually increase the tempo, Make a note of the tempo when you finished practising, so that when you come back to it, you know what speed to start with.
Mozart's Trill Exercise
You can download all the exercises here! 10 Techniques to help you play piano songs like a professional pianist.
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