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I am just preparing for my grade 8 piano exam. I'm struggling with quick runs in the 3rd movement of Beethoven's Sonate Pathetique. It really doesn't sound right. When I play I can't do it smothly and it sounds (and feels) like my hands are tired. Does anyone have any good exercises to improve this?

The other matter is that my shoulder hurts after longer sessions. I know that probably I do something wrong, but don't really know what.

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I know it sounds odd, but make sure your eating properly and other similar stuff, I'm not a pianist but I know my technique suffers(and i feel tired) if I don't eat well for a day or two. Also make sure your properly warmed up before you play the piece and have periodic short breaks away from your instrument, stretch during the breaks if you think it will help your shoulder. –  DRL Jun 9 '11 at 23:45
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7 Answers

Something my teacher regularly had me do with difficult sections was to play it all stacatto. Slow it down and focus on perfect timing while you do this, then gradually increase the tempo. Don't increase it further than you can play while still keeping the timing perfect. Do this every practice session until your speed is relatively close to the speed you need to play it normally, and then play it normally. You'll be amazed how much easier it is to play smoothly and quickly after training with the much more strenuous staccato version.

The stacatto will tire your hands out even more, of course. There's not much you can do other than build up your strength, assuming your technique is good and you're rested etc. as Rein and DRL note. And this is a great method of building hand/finger strength.

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Guys, thank you for your coments.They're very useful:) –  Anya Jun 10 '11 at 23:02
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If your shoulder (or anything else) hurts after playing sessions, your playing is ergonomically poor. Keep your posture erect, keep your arms relaxed and loose at your sides, and don't raise your elbows. Make sure your seat is at the correct height. Watch out for tension while you are playing and work on allowing your body to release it.

To improve scales (and many other technical challenges), I find a combination of two practice approaches to be helpful:

  1. Start with the first group of notes that you can play comfortably at (or near) performance speed. Then add a new note (or group), focusing on the new movements necessary to hit that note (or group). This sacrifices consistency for speed.

  2. Go as slow as necessary to play the movement correctly. Speed up gradually at a pace where your technique remains consistent. Use a metronome. This will bring back the consistency you sacrificed previously.

For instance, when practicing arpeggios, I focus on the thumb tucks (cross-overs), doing the arpeggio through the first thumb tuck until that feels natural, then the second, and so on until I can span a number of octaves comfortably. I also practice the same arpeggio slowly and consistently to make sure that I don't learn bad habits (playing out of time, rushing through, etc). The combination of approaches seems to yield greater benefits for me than either individually.

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On violin, it helps to practice entire passages in swing (dotted followed by half value) and reverse swing (half value followed by dotted). This lets you practice playing every other note in quick succession as well as in isolation.

I think the same practice technique should work for piano too.

To play quickly doesn't mean to play each note quickly so much as it means to switch from one note to the next really quickly. And that's where your concentration should be when you practice, thinking about how you can best move your hand to play the next note, how you can prepare your hand for the next note after that etc.

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+1 My piano teacher made me do this to fix rhythm issues. Just remember to keep your playing in context! Nobody will be impressed if you start habitually swinging the notes! –  Babu Jun 16 '11 at 19:58
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To make runs "sound right", you need to respect the phrasing. Just because something is played fast doesn't mean that you can't play with dynamics (obviously). So when you're working with the runs, really look at them, and see if adding a swell, or "leaning into" a beat will make it sound more coherent. If you have no idea where to start, pick a beat to lean into at random, and see if you like it better! Singing the melody is my favorite way to pick out which parts of a phrase need a little more "oomph".

Like other people said, when your hand gets fatigued, take a break. There's no point in playing through it, because that just makes it easier to get hurt. Over time, your musculature will develop and you'll be able to play for longer without getting that fatigue. Anything you can do to stay relaxed will delay that fatigue. I find that playing with "proper piano technique" (according to my teachers, wrists high, fingers curled) is really really annoying at first, but over time, it did wonders for my stamina.

As far as shoulder tension is concerned, make sure that you're sitting at the right height and the right distance from the piano for you; try playing out of a different chair, or adding a cushion on top of your bench. Also, consciously make sure that you're not tensing up your shoulders, it'll help you with your control over time (tired muscles are imprecise muscles).

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For fast runs, you have to rely on muscle memory; you have to become "unconsciously competent".

For simple fast runs, play it very(!) slow and very(!) loud (but not hammering) with only the hand doing the run. This strengthens your fingers and builds muscle memory. After playing a fast run two or three times with this technique, try playing it very quiet but faster. I was surprised by how effective this technique is.

For more complicated runs, do the above, but play ever other note twice as long as the other notes. Instead of da da da da da, you play daa da daa da daa, and then you switch it up and play da daa da daa da. This singles out one set of the transitions and focuses learning on these.

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There are 2 main things to remember and be conscious of, when you practice:

  1. relax the hands, fingers, shoulders and your body. If you feel pain, STOP! "No pain, no gain" does not apply in music performance! BTW, they found out it is not good in sports either!

  2. Anticipation: this gives you speed and evenness. For example on the piano when your finger is one one key, prepare the next finger for the next key. Remember also that you don't push in the key, but lift the fingers and let then fall like little hammers (articulation). Keep the arm relax when you have to skip keys. The arm leads the hand.

In violin the same, need to anticipate the position of the next finger that plays, especially if you play arpegios. In violin you also have to coordinate the anticipation of the bow and the arm level of the right hand.

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  • Of course, practice is the most important factor.
  • In sections are are having trouble with, practice one hand at a time. You might be surprised how badly you do with one of the hands. Then, when you learn it with the bad hand, you'll have it with both.
  • Make sure your bend your fingers enough. If your fingers are too straight, they don't respond as quickly.
  • Emphasize the first of every 4 or 8 notes. This will help with the timing. Later on you can de-emphasize it if it sounds better that way.
  • Make sure you are using good fingering. If you are stumbling over the same place (like measures 179-181, for example), you might want to adjust your fingering. The version edited by Stewart Gordon has excellent fingering.
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