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I'm working on the piano accompaniment to Schubert's "Trockne Blumen" variations for flute and piano. Variation 2 is all sixteenth-note octaves in the left hand. I began by practicing very slowly with the metronome and gradually increased the tempo over several weeks up to a quarter note = 80. This is fast enough for the performance (which will be in two months) but it is still tiring, and the octaves still sound like I'm struggling with them. (On recordings, professional pianists play them quite smoothly at 96.)

Do you have any tips for practicing these?

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Just to be clear, do you mean playing both octaves at once or switching back and forth? I thought you meant switching back and forth, but Babu seems to think it is both at once and now that I look at it I don't know what to think. –  musicwithoutpaper Apr 28 '11 at 19:14
    
Two notes at the same time, an octave apart. Other famous pieces with fast octaves are Chopin's Polonaise in A-Flat (middle section) and Liszt's Funerailles. –  Mark Lutton Apr 29 '11 at 4:02
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Another example is Scriabin's first sonata, third movement. –  Benoit Apr 30 '11 at 10:45
    
The score on IMSLP shows 32nd notes...! –  terpsichore Mar 25 '13 at 3:02

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I have been learning "Rage Over A Lost Penny", and there is a part about one third in where the left hand quickly plays in 16th notes at about the same tempo the fingers are 2,1,5,1,2,1,5,1 and is supposed to seamlessly change the notes that 5 plays each time. Then I play 5,1,2,1,5,1,2,1 and about 6 more variations seamlessly with only two short pauses.

Here is what I have figured on my own after 6 months of practice and I have about got it mastered.

  • Vary your tempo during practice: Practice slow and steady, as well as at tempo (even if it sounds bad). Switch back and forth. (Your brain can get a better idea what is going on if you play slow once in a while)
  • When performing, you might be able to cheat the tempo: It is possible to gradually speed up or slow down the song to accommodate your skill, as long as it sounds like part of the effect. Make sure it sounds like part of the effect, if the real purpose occurs to one of the audience, it may be a distraction, and if change in tempo only happens in one place, there could be a problem and if the audience has heard the song before there could be a problem. On the other side, if done right, a tempo change can be refreshing. I currently practice tempo changes temporarily for Rage Over a Lost Penny, until I sound good with the correct speed. In this case, I cut the tempo in half for a certain part, which does not mess with the beat (Actually, this is just before I move into a transition to the first section so I can make an end about half way, I am not yet able to play the whole thing). Also, in The Entertainer, I have (don't anymore), slowed down the song when playing the first section the third time, that way I can preserve the slower tempo for the second half. This does not work for every song. (Perhaps see below comments that object to this suggestion)
  • Interesting case from a well known composer: Michele McLaughlin has a song called So Long Mr. Selfish, and she has composed in an alternating octave similar to what you have described, in her CD, she plays it surprisingly inconsistent, although it does not sound like a struggle to me. This however is not written out as 16th notes, but rather as a Tremolo between two whole notes an octave apart.

Now that I know you mean both notes at once, the answer mostly applies, but whatever you do, do not sound like you are struggling. :) Anything to make it sound natural.

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I'd strongly caution against cheating the tempo. Most of the time it does not work and is noticed. Especially the suggested 25%+, that would be impossible to hide. –  Matthew Read Apr 27 '11 at 14:55
    
@Matthew: See my edit here. I know this answer is still against the grain, but if you think it is good enough you can remove the down vote. –  musicwithoutpaper Apr 27 '11 at 15:50
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Downvote removed, but my caution is still stronger than yours. In my experience a "layperson" audience may not know exactly what's wrong, but they still know it just doesn't sound right. –  Matthew Read Apr 27 '11 at 15:52
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@Matthew: After this explanation, I am thinking that paragraph needs to be re-written to state it right. The fact that I understated the caveat in the first place is an example of the disadvantages of doing without a teacher and also an example of why I wanted this site so much. I will bookmark this and rewrite the paragraph when I have time. –  musicwithoutpaper Apr 27 '11 at 17:02
    
@Matthew: Done. –  musicwithoutpaper Apr 29 '11 at 22:33

When I play octaves, I do my best to separate the up and down motion of the wrist from the lateral motion of the arm. The nice bit of isolating the motion is that it helps in keeping a relaxed grip. It also makes it easy to practice fast octaves away from the piano (it's your wrist moving up and down rapidly). To build endurance, just practice the up and down wrist motion while you're waiting for something to happen. Granted, slapping your leg rapidly while you're waiting for a train is......an odd thing to do, but it does help you build endurance in otherwise dead time.

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+1 for isolating the motion to practice elsewhere. I practice rasgueados when emptying sugar packets. –  luser droog Jan 12 '12 at 6:03

You must find a fingering that lets the outside bit of your hand play a legato-compatible fingering (i.e. 4-5-4-5-5-4-5-5), even if you don't play legato. This keeps you hand from freezing up and lets you work toward relaxing the rest of the mechanism more.

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Sounds like you have a workable solution for this particular performance. For future pieces, playing octave scales as part of your daily regimen of exercises will help you approach octave passagework as something more normal. While playing octave scales, keep your hand open and loose, not clawlike or tense, with just enough support in the fingers and palm muscles to bounce off the keyboard like you're dribbling a basketball with your thumb and pinky. Listen for a strong and even sound. Stay at a tempo that is manageable without panic or tension (that tempo will increase as you become more accustomed to octave scales.) Do major, minor, and chromatic scales.

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