Play me a song, you're the piano man...
April 18, 2009 1:37 PM   Subscribe

PianoFilter: So, it's a bit embarrassing, but I'm a music grad student, and I can't play piano. Now, I'm coming upon my piano proficiency test in a few weeks, and I'm panicking. I need to play and memorize two piano bits in hymn style (bass notes in left hand, melody/chords in right), and I just can't seem to make it all work. Help?

I know, I should be able to do this, but I'm an instrumentalist. The theory isn't giving me hell - it's the actual act. I can't seem to make all of my fingers make all of the jumps they need to.

The main problem is the chord fills in the left hand. I can play the bass, and I can play the melody. It's the jumps that are messing me up. The notes will skip, and my brain isn't able to recover. People have been giving me chord patterns to practice (I-IV-I-V-I), but those don't require any giant jumps on the left hand - you can keep at least one finger down moving through the chords. It's the big jumps that mess me up, and I just can't do it in any sort of consistent tempo, even slowly.

Has anyone worked with this, or have any advice on how to learn this? Transposing it isn't going to be an issue, and neither will doing the chord analysis - it's really just the act of playing the piano that I can't seem to wrangle. I feel like I just missed a step on learning how to do this somewhere - something about finger placement, or along those lines.

I really have no background in piano, and the only piano I've ever played with score reading, which was basically block chord in the left hand, and melody in the right. Having the melody and chord material in the left hand is killing me.

Any advice? I know this is kind of vague, but it basically boils down to any advice on playing hymn/chorale style music on the piano.
posted by SNWidget to Media & Arts (14 answers total)
Response by poster: Here's one of the pieces I'm trying to play, if it's of any help.


The problem is stuff like in the first measure, moving between the first two notes on the left hand. I can't make the jump between the ACF to the CEG clearly. I feel like I'm doing something wrong.
posted by SNWidget at 1:54 PM on April 18, 2009

Wait do you mean you can't make the jump in the "RIGHT" hand, correct? You said left....
posted by snoelle at 2:07 PM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, I meant right. In fact, I meant right in most of what I wrote above. In my frustration, and apparent dyslexia, I confused the two.
posted by SNWidget at 2:09 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: Hehe....ok seems like the hardest thing you are having then is fingering patterns. You need to figure out the best fingers to use for the chords so you have the least amount of movement in the hands. For instance (I'm going b/w tabs so bear with me) First chord for right hand, from bottom to top. A (thumb) C (index finger) F (Pinky). To get to the next chord than you need to use C (thumb) E (middle finger) G (Pinky). That minimizes the movement that your hand will have to do. You need to figure out how to do this b/w each and every chord. If your like most musicians, you will be frustrated because you have to go so slow. (I feel the same way when I pick up a guitar). Now number your fingers from thumb to pinky-Thumb is 1, pinky is 5. Write in the fingers so you know where you are moving. I can analyze the rest of the moves for you if you would like...but if you figure them out, it will help you learn the song better. You have a few weeks so that give you a bit of time...let me know if I can help!!!
posted by snoelle at 2:15 PM on April 18, 2009

Just looked at your example again, once your thumb gets to the C in the second chord, it can stay there for almost the next two that should be easier. Got to figure out those patterns!!!
posted by snoelle at 2:16 PM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: Snoelle - I figured as much that that was it. The fingering patterns are eating my lunch, so to speak. I guess it is time to go slow and figure that out. I always felt like that was what I was missing.

I can analyze most of the moves - but a question. On stuff like in the last stave, measure 2. When I have the parallel sixteenth note movements, how the hell do I make my fingers do those together? Do I alternate fingers, or do I have to use the same fingers for both notes?
posted by SNWidget at 2:19 PM on April 18, 2009

Ok in that case, I would use 1,3,5 for the first beat. Then you will have to move your hand up so that the thumb can be on the F. The two sixteenth notes would have to be fingered: 1,3 on the first, 2,4 on the second, then thumb and pinky on the F, C. That one is a place where you will have to shift your hand a bit more. B/W the last chord in the 2nd measure and the 1st chord of the 3rd measure, your going to have another good size leap. Again I'm here to help, just let me know!!
posted by snoelle at 2:25 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: Sadly the gist of my answer is basically practice. But there are a few key things to do when you practice this stuff.

Break this down into two to four measure phrases. Play each phrase all the way through even if you make a mistake. The biggest mistake people make is that as soon as they hit one wrong key, they go back to the beginning. Do not do this--you will essentially be practicing the mistake.

Keep playing the phrase over and over. Slowly. To a metronome. If you've made a mistake during practicing the phrase, slow down the tempo until you can get it right. If you can't make the jump, you are going too fast. If you have to go under 60BPM, do it. (You will have to look at your hand until you get the muscle memory going so you will need time to look between your hand and the sheet music.)

You must keep working on the phrase until you've gotten it right three times in a row. Then move on to the next one. Only play phrases faster when you've gotten them right.

Then start putting the piece together into 8-16 bar phrases. Again, do not stop when you make a mistake. Keep going. Go slowly. Only move on if you've gotten it right several times in a row. It gets easier, and eventually you'll be playing the whole song with few problems.

Two more things that you probably know or are doing, but bear repeating. 1) Don't bother playing the left and right separately. You must teach yourself to play them together from the start. 2) Have a recording of the piece on hand. You will make mistakes over and over, and you will occasionally want to recalibrate your ear so that you are not learning the mistakes.

If you are a music grad student, presumably you have the discipline to practice. But it sounds like you are panicking--slow down, be diligent, and you will be fine. Let us know how it goes!
posted by txsebastien at 2:29 PM on April 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: txsebastian - You're right, the majority of this is pure panic. But as I've said above as well, it's a bit about my unfamiliarity with piano in general, especially this type of piano playing.

If I were playing my instrument, or another wind instrument, I'd know how to practice - for some reason, this just feels a bit alien to me.

Thanks for the advice, though. It's good to hear exactly what I should be doing, even if in the back of my mind, I know how.

I think part of it is because I'm pretty good on my own instrument, it's weird to start back at beginner level on anything else, and practice that way.
posted by SNWidget at 2:32 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: Snoelle's right -- write in all your fingerings! Also, even when most of your hand is moving, you can plot out a way to have one finger already hovering over the correct note for the next chord. That way you have an anchor to keep you from getting totally disoriented.

For example, and alternate fingering for your first two chords could be:
A1-C2-F4; that leaves your 5th finger (pinky) already hovering over the G, and your 3rd finger kinda-mostly already over the E, so that when you play the second chord, you're only really shifting your thumb.

That makes your fingering for the first two chords: A1-C2-F4; C1-E3-G5.

Plot it all out one chord at a time in whatever way feels most natural for your hand, and practice it the same painfully slow way; do just the first 2 or 3 chords until it feels natural, then move on. For the bigger jumps, (e.g. between bars 3 and 4, and transitioning into the repeated section at the end of line 2), you may well have to peak at your hand (should just be a quick glance at the key you're aiming for), but if you always use the same fingering, it will become smooth.

You can do it! You'll be surprised how automatic it becomes after a few days; the brain seems to be good at quietly mapping those distances out somewhere in the subconscious. (And I say this as someone with no innate musical talent, who somehow still managed to hack her way through years of training -- you've already got the skill and the ear, so you're way ahead!)
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 2:34 PM on April 18, 2009

Oops, should've previewed. Clearly you're already on the right track. Write the fingerings in, and you're all good!
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 2:36 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: This might go without saying, but don't panic too much about how your exam is coming up and rush into putting your hands together. After you map out your fingering, practicing your hands separately until you feel like you could do those sixteenths with your eyes closed, then try putting it together.

As long as you're slow and methodical everything should be fine. I think one thing you'll realize is that the sequence of chords is actually quite logical, it just doesn't feel that way at first.

Good luck!
posted by Grimble at 3:04 PM on April 18, 2009

Yes write in fingerings and practice. You might want to get hold of some more things in the style of the Haydn Emperor Quartet example (or I guess the German National Anthem as it's in a different key) that you posted and see how you would approach them. There might be some good examples in ear-training/dictation books for example. Lastly, do remember that voice-leading and fingerings are related, a smooth chord progression with good voice leading should feel like that under the fingers. Best of luck!
posted by ob at 3:18 PM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice. I locked myself away for a bit, and started doing the fingerings. This has turned into a giant math problem, but at least my hands don't hurt as much anymore from weird reaches.

This is definitely one of those AskMeFis that I posted in panic, and now that I am off that mode, I realize that it's doable, just given a reorientation of what I was doing.

Thanks for everyone who chipped in, especially about working on the fingerings. I, stupidly, didn't approach it like that, and paid for it.
posted by SNWidget at 4:51 PM on April 18, 2009

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