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Another question about playing octaves (as in Schubert's Erlkonig, Chopin's A-flat Polonaise, etc.):

I practice Hanon exercises, and Hanon recommends using the first and fifth finger on white keys and the first and fourth finger on black keys, so that's how I've always practiced them. But have you found that this is always the best?

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Does it describe the reasoning behind this at all? I always use 1 and 5. –  musicwithoutpaper May 1 '11 at 1:53
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Maitre Hanon says, "In all scales in octaves, the black keys are to be taken with the 4th finger of either hand." No other reason given. I note that the 4th finger is longer, and if I want to play three notes, two B's and a low B-flat (left hand), the fifth finger goes on the B and the fourth on the B-flat. –  Mark Lutton May 1 '11 at 4:27
    
Have you read the FAQ, Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and Real Questions Have Answers? I'm not sure "have you found this is always best" fits. –  Rebecca Chernoff May 2 '11 at 16:06
    
Sorry. I don't always phrase questions in the best way. But I got the kinds of answers I was hoping to see. –  Mark Lutton May 4 '11 at 21:26
    
I don't know how big your hands are, but I can use 3-1 with scales too. That makes playing octave scales legato a lot easier where there are two white keys next to eachother. –  11684 May 5 '13 at 10:10
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Alternating 4th and 5th is done so that the octaves can be played "semi-legato." Obviously, you can't play a whole scale legato this way, as there are adjacent white notes that will be fingered 5 -> 5.

To play octaves completely legato, you need to pass the fourth finger "through" the fifth finger while holding down the top note. To do this, play a note with your fifth finger, and then add your fourth finger to the held key and remove your fifth finger. This leaves your fifth free to play another note. You can play octaves legato this way, though this is something of an illusion since there is no good way to hold the bottom notes of the octave. This is a handy organ technique that's useful at the piano

Another reason for alternating 4 and 5 is to force proper wrist technique in octave runs. In fast octave runs, economy of motion is key, you can't be making huge arcs between each octave. Using 4 on black keys forces you to think "across" rather than "bouncing up and down." This kind of technique is called "impulse playing." To practice these kinds of octave runs, play the first octave and then successively add one more octave in each repetition. First you play one, then two, then three etc... This kind of practice should be done at top speed.

As an aside, I hope you're not thinking of playing the Erlkonig. It's a brutal piece. Even the best pianists cheat. If your technique isn't perfect, it's a piece you can give yourself a repetitive motion injury by playing.

As an aside to my aside, if you decide to play the erlkonig. Here are some clever ways of making the octaves easier.

Drop the bottom note of the octaves and play 3-2-1. Only when musically appropriate. (Not in the big sections!)

Another good trick is to jump up with the left hand and play the first octave of every triplet as only the bottom note of that octave. Using the left hand of course. This actually produces a wonderful musical effect that even more closely resembles a galloping horse than the original octave figuration.

Octaves are hard! Good luck!

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As for the brutality of playing the Erlkönig, in my Bärenreiter edition the appendix contains a second edition ('Zweite Fassung', not sure if that's correctly translated) with eighth notes instead of triplets (?). –  11684 May 5 '13 at 10:08
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I'm not sure that makes sense to me. The keys are equidistant whether white or black, and I can't think of any reason why using the larger 4th finger on the smaller black key would be better. It would certainly be more difficult to play octaves rapidly switching between notes, as you'd have to adjust the stretch of your hand between playing white and playing black.

Although ... maybe that switching would be a good thing. I know many people have trouble playing repeated octaves due to rapidly growing tired/pained with the hand in a fixed position. I'll have to give it a try and see how it works for me.

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Using the 4-th alternatively with the 5-th on black keys is mainly done for the following reason: legato, especially on semitone steps of the scale.

  • On the right hand, you have better control of the transition to and volume of the higher note of the octave which is the more important for the tone and the listener. You can do smoother scales that way.

  • By having a different fingering between black keys and white keys you have a further opportunity to train your hand to adapt itself and level the differences of key length between black and white keys. It is also useful when playing upright pianos with uneven resistance or set-up.

  • With 1-4, the thumb is more parallel to keys and the ring finger can reach the black key from further below: you have less risk to touch other nearby black keys.

  • It is also often easier on the wrist, especially if your going in the upper register: your hand is closer and closer to follow the direction of your arm (symmetric thing for octaves in the bass register on your left hand).

In Chopin and Liszt, you will also find advice for a 1-3 fingering inside certain octave passages for similar reasons (legato) and for very low or very high parts of the piano. It is difficult for small hands but it can be useful in view of extended arpegios and broken chords on the left hand.

If you have to play fortissimo and staccato (Rachmaninov comes to mind) or just in front of you (because 1-4 may twist your wrists too much) it may be better to stay with 1-5.

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I can't physically obey that rule - in most cases, my hand will only permit me to use 1-5 or make a clunking noise (I could use a bigger hand).

Whatever, as I see this, it depends where you are going next.

I can see uses for the 1-4 if the melody is ascending - the added stability from the ring finger assists the thumb going under for the next position. If the melody is descending, then 1-5 would give a stable thumb, assisting the finger going over to the next position.

Tell me if I'm talking tripe -

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Your ring finger(4) would have an easier time reaching the black keys without having to move your whole hand forward, and you would avoid an awkward wrist angle towards the upper and lower ends. There isn't much difference in the middle so you may stick to 1–5 in there regardless of key color.

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