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This has got to be one of the hardest technical things to teach your hands. I'm looking for advice from someone who's already surmounted this particular obstacle.

To be clear, I'm talking about alternating two notes in VERY fast succession using only your 4th finger and your pinky on one hand.

Can anyone recommend good exercises for this, and tell me how long it took them before they could comfortably do it well?

Right now it feels literally impossible, like the muscles of my hand aren't even capable of alternating those two fingers with any sort of speed, and it's very discouraging. Would I be right in guessing that that's completely normal, and I just need to develop the finger strength over time?

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In answer to your final question: yes, I'd say that's completely normal, and that it will take longer to develop the strength and independence of those two fingers than it would for any other finger combos. If it were possible, I could do endless trills between fingers 1 and 5, 2 and 5, and to some extend 3 and 5, but 4 and 5 is still a no go for me. Note that I'm primarily not a pianist though… Good luck! Thomas Bryla nails it… just do it very often… like 10 times a practice session, just a minute or so each. –  Josh Fields Apr 23 '12 at 0:43
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2 Answers 2

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You're absolutely correct; this is a very challenging technique to pick up, it is 100% normal to have difficulty building speed, and you will get faster as you train your hands.

This is one of those (few) times that I consider Hanon's virtuoso pianist exercises to be actually useful. You want to look at exercise 46 (page 76-77 of this edition). The exercise is more comprehensive than you ask for; it covers all forms of trills, in both hands. With these exercises, you want to start slow so that you can play them consistently and to never push the tempo to the point where you sound messy.

As for technique, you want to make sure that you never ever tense your forearms. Ever. Seriously. Don't do it. If (when) they do tense up, give them a few minutes to relax before continuing. When trilling, there are two major motions. One is fairly obvious: waggling your fingers back and forth. To amplify the finger movement, you use the other motion: rotating your wrist back and forth. It has the added benefit of making it easy to avoid tensing up. And in case I haven't made the point clearly enough, don't tense your forearms. :P

The key to trills is practice. Nobody here can tell you how quickly you'll pick it up, mainly because we have no idea what your goal speed, skill level, practice schedule, or natural aptitude are; however, with dedicated daily practice, it shouldn't take more than a week or two to get your trills to a medium tempo.

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What's so adamantly terrible about tensing your forearms? –  Aerovistae Apr 23 '12 at 22:05
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Tension is dangerous for your health. Specifically, over time it can lead to repetitive strain injuries over time (think carpal tunnel syndrome, but I'm talking more generally). Less critically, it tires you out, making it harder (and eventually impossible) to play precisely. The worst part about it is that tensing up becomes a habit that is very difficult to kick in 10 or 15 years, which is when these RSI's will actually kick in. –  Babu Apr 23 '12 at 23:31
    
I'd like to add that the commentary on tension is applicable across the board in relation to any instrument... Tension leads to fatigue which leads to failure... (try playing funk guitar at 120 for 4 hours ;-). When I began practicing again last year (after 10 years) I decided to completely tear-down my right hand technique and fundamentaly change the basics of my technique in a quest to eliminate the problems caused by tension. If you learn your technique properly from the start you'll save yourself a lot of time (and possibly pain and injury)... 20-30 years down the road (or even sooner). –  David Axtell Moore II May 28 '12 at 23:16
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Do it VERY slow and do it over and over. Not necessarily for a long time but do it often. You're talking about getting your muscles used to a very specific set of movements, and that has to be taught over a long time, and takes the same getting used to as it took you to stand up on your legs and bending your knees the very very first time.

How long it takes depends on your motor ability.

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