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I am looking for advice in executing the following passages of fast, broken chords in Beethoven's Sonata in E Minor (Op. 90), first movement. The passages in question are pictured below.

There are general issues of accuracy and fatigue at tempo, but most specifically:

  • the leap from F# back down to B in the first passage, across the mm. 55-56 (for example) bar line (circled in purple). I have trouble landing the B and/or following D accurately.
  • the recurring B in the second passage. Again there are accuracy issues because of its proximity to Bb.
  • also in the second passage, because of the octave it's written in, the arm angle is awkward -- even leaning well to the side, my upper arm runs into my body. When the passage is repeated in the lower octave (mm. 204-207, not pictured) that problem is effectively eliminated.

I consider "at speed" to be around quarter-note = 144bpm. I've worked slowly, experimented with a wide variety of fingerings, and I can reach all of the individual chords comfortably or with a light stretch. Nevertheless, I've hit a wall. Short of deciding this passage is beyond me at speed, suggestions ...?

Measures 55-58 (also 61-64)

mm. 55-58

Measures 198-201 (also 204-207)

mm. 198-201

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    How big are your hands? Mine can only span an octave each comfortably, and I always hit adjacent inner notes if I attempt ninths. I have trouble playing that passage for obvious reasons; if your hands are around the same size as mine, I believe you also have the same reasons as me for having undue trouble with that passage. – Dekkadeci Nov 22 '20 at 12:33
  • @Dekkadeci my left hand can hit the minor tenths and most of the major ones, and I had trouble with this passage. My teacher in college, who has performed the entire set of Beethoven sonatas in concert on more than one occasion, said that the passage was difficult for him as well. Maybe Rachmaninoff didn't think it was difficult :) – BobRodes Nov 26 '20 at 17:45
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I went my piano to see how I play this piece. (I learned it as a teenager taking lessons.) Let's see if this helps.

  1. My fingering is 5131 on all the chords, and I keep the tip of my third finger on the F# throughout the passage. This means my 5th finger hits the low B without fail because my left hand knows the stretch between the 3rd finger on the F# and the 5th finger on the B. In particular, my left hand is not leaping from the high F# to the low B; it's rotating around the fixed tip of the 3rd finger. The tip of the 3rd finger never moves off the key (EDIT: It does move forward and back a bit). The rest of the hand (and wrist and forearm) rotates around it. (My hands are small enough that I can't stretch the 10th easily - my wrist moves back and forth a small amount.

  2. Not moving the 3rd finger takes care of accuracy issues on the B.

  3. I normally sit far enough away from the piano so that, if the tip of my middle finger is at the front edge of the keyboard and I extend my hand and wrist straight out, my elbow is still slightly in front of my body. I literally cannot have my upper arm run into my body if my fingers are to reach the keys. There are of course advantages to sitting closer to the piano, but this passage is not one of them. You just might have to sit farther away.

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  • Do you shift your 3rd finger forward and back, or do you keep it entirely stationary on the key? – Aaron Nov 22 '20 at 5:32
  • @Aaron - it moves forward and back – Alexander Woo Nov 22 '20 at 5:35
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This is a notoriously difficult passage to play. I do much the same thing as Alexander, except I use 2 on the first F# and then switch to 3 for the next two. For me, when I do that leap, 2 is right on top of the F#, so I use it. But whatever works for you is what to do; so much depends on the shape of your hands. (From what Alexander says, his hand is about the same size as mine — I have to stretch to hit tenths too. But the shape is probably different.) I second his advice to move back from the piano far enough to prevent your arm getting jammed against your body. You have to find your distance. That's part of what scale practice will teach you, how your torso needs to be positioned when your hands are at different positions on the piano.

With this passage, here's something that helped me. Perhaps you'll find it helpful as well. First, try to rapidly play B-F#-B-F# a few times. Don't try to stretch as far as possible, rather, put as much jump in it as you need to to avoid a sense of effort in the hand muscles. You'll see that your arm weight moves further towards the F# than it does if you simply play the F# broken octave using 1 and 3. So, it's a different movement in the octave than it would be if you didn't have to hit that B right afterwards. Next, try to do the same thing while holding the lower F# down with your third finger. (Don't play the F#, just hold it down.) You'll get a feel for your wrist moving laterally left and right. Then, incorporate this extra movement in the Alberti figure. You should find that your wrist moves in (laterally) closer to the upper F# than it did while you're taking the F# broken octave, and that you can more easily accomplish the leap to the B. Once you break all that out, then add in the middle F#.

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  • Which Bs and F#s are you suggesting in the second paragraph? That is, are the Bs the same and the F#s the same? Do they ascend by octave? – Aaron Nov 26 '20 at 16:52
  • Sorry Aaron, I didn't make that entirely clear. I'm talking about the B and F# you have circled in purple, as well as the bass F# immediately preceding the treble F# you have circled. So, practice the leap between the B and F# that you have circled, and practice holding down the F# immediately preceding those two while playing those two. Does that clarify? – BobRodes Nov 26 '20 at 18:15
  • I think so. You practice the leap in reverse initially, from the low B to the high F#, focusing on the balance of the hand/wrist/arm at each position, and then comparing that to the balance of the F#-F# octave played 3-1. From there, you hold the middle F# with 3 and practice shifting between the low B and high F#, "cheating" toward the F# to keep the weight/placement more toward that end. Have I understood? – Aaron Nov 26 '20 at 20:17
  • Pretty much. I suspect you're having trouble because you're trying to learn the F# broken octave without giving enough thought to how you're going to get to the B. Then you're learning how to optimally execute that broken octave in an isolated sense, which isn't the way to optimally execute it when you have a leap to B coming up next. The point is that if you have to execute a leap to the left you have to figure out where your arm needs to be to be balanced. If you are stretching to reach the upper F# prior to going for the B your arm will probably be too far to the left. – BobRodes Nov 27 '20 at 23:18

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