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Even though I got my ARCT 5 years ago and can stretch to reach a 10th, simply put, the torrent etude is the hardest etude I have come across played at the right speed, true presto, like how Richter did. At that speed, I have played all the other parts correctly but somehow the right hand in the start of the 2nd bar always gets me.

How can I practice that in a way that accounts for the physiology of the hand? Some people suggest playing it EXTREMELY slow, but it doesn't work as I tried that for 3 months already and there's no improvement. I then tried playing it at Richter's speed for that section for 2 months, and in each practice session there were a few tries hitting the correct sequence of notes, but it isn't consistent, no clear improvement until I tapered from doing that for 1 month. I can then play the section with greater accuracy at high speeds for 3 days, but the next few days I couldn't do it. The tapering process is too slow.

Some people suggested tapping on the table, but clearly, tapping on the table with a book the same height as the note's pressed depth doesn't work both when lifting the fingers to tap and no lifting of the fingers. Also, I've tried all sorts of different positions for the section but sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, and it's not a problem with strength because I don't work out my forearms AND I found that power napping helps with playing it at high speeds in a controlled manner (power napping relaxes certain muscles and improves others); hence, it's a problem with muscle activations – but the muscle/joint movements are extremely subtle, simply practicing trilling doesn't work.

My question is, for people who know hand anatomy very well, how can I improve the torrent etude? Or is there a more general tactic like power napping to focus on muscle activation for that specific section? I mean, I really want to get this section right so I can carry on with other pieces, and at times I can play it at high speeds in a controlled and accurate way, but it isn't consistent.

Some more information: I notice when playing at the position of the "controlled accurate way" which is the slight bend of the second finger joint in anticipation of the next part and immediate bend of the fifth finger joint upon the fourth finger hitting, sometimes my middle finger doesn't activate after the fourth finger hitting, but it always activates when the fifth note doesn't get hit, so 2343 is accurate at high speeds, not 23435. Possibly it is the stretch that makes it hard for me compared to Richter's massive hands. Also, 3435 with both the second finger holding the note down and second finger pointing horizontally is accurate at high speeds (however, I did notice that my middle finger in this case moves a little laterally to press the second time, maybe it uses the interossei instead of the fdp? Maybe I should focus on practicing middle finger pressing down straight, so to activate the other muscle), but just not 23435 – it's the combination 23435 that hinders me, when broken down into specific parts such as 3435 and 2343 it works quite well. But somehow, I managed to pull the section off at Richter's speed 5 times in a row accurately and in a controlled way in the 3 days after taper, so it's doable, I think.

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  • You're having trouble with bar 3 right hand, but could play all other parts in the entire piece with no problem? What about bar 7 left hand? Or bar 11, 53, and 61 right hand? Those are some other where the same figure as bar 3 right hand occurs. How is it that you could play those parts, but can't play bar 3?
    – Divide1918
    Mar 4 at 7:19
  • I don't know, but all the other parts are alright, just bar 3 right hand and its repeated parts. Mar 4 at 18:22
  • my fingering for that part is also what Richter did (third-fourth-third-fitfth-second-third-second-fifth-first-third-second-fifth) Mar 4 at 22:37
  • 2
    Just to clear up potential confusion, I think you are referring to "bar 2." The pickup bar doesn't count as a bar (see any edition with bar numbers).
    – angryavian
    Mar 4 at 23:12
  • 3
    I’m voting to close this question because in its current form, as a purely anatomical/physiological question, it's a question for a physical or occupational therapist.
    – Aaron
    Mar 8 at 19:04
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Some unorganized thoughts:

  • If you really want help, you should see a teacher (even if over a video call). Even if you shared a video with us, it would still be difficult to assess why you are not being able to play that passage without the interaction of a real conversation. Your post is quite detailed, but it would still take a lot of guesswork for us to pinpoint the root of your problem.
  • Not directly relevant Josh Wright has a video that may be helpful to you. At 2:24 he mentions an alternate fingering that you might try.
  • The fingering that Richter uses (that you mention in the comments) can be quite difficult and potentially injurious if you are not playing correctly. Although it may seem economical in the sense that your hand/arm does not need to move laterally very much, this just means your small finger muscles have to do a lot of work, especially at a fast tempo. If you insist on using this fingering, remember to move your hand/arm to the right as you hit the 5th finger notes, rather than stretching the 5th finger out. Stretching the fingers causes tension and will inhibit you from playing faster. Use the large muscles in your arm so that the small muscles in your fingers have to do less work. It might seem counterintuitive ("why should I waste large arm/hand motions on such a small movement?") but it is much easier to make movements with the arm than by stretching fingers. Some teachers teach this arm motion using the cue of "leading with the elbow," i.e. before you reach the 5th finger note, you have already started moving your elbow outward to initiate a nice circular motion heading to the 5th finger and then back left. Note that these movements don't have to be huge or even visually noticeable, but it may help to exaggerate at first to get the feeling, and then minimize it later once you feel more comfortable.
  • That said, I think you should explore other fingerings, like Josh Wright's. Another one that appears in the Henle edition is the following. Using 3-4-2-5 in the beginning of the measure instead of 3-4-3-5 does two things: it avoids the difficult 3-4-3 trill, and also gives you an opportunity to reposition your arm rightward using the 2nd finger to prepare for the 5th finger. enter image description here
  • If you are struggling with a passage, fast practice will not do you any favors (actually it might just make things worse, as it will build bad habits). On the other hand, if genuinely did slow practice for 3 months and could not find any improvement, then something deeper must be wrong. (Again, a teacher would be the best way to diagnose.) When doing slow practice, make sure you are completely concentrating on every aspect. Your body should be completely relaxed and you should be feeling every in and out of the passage for ergonomical comfort. As you gradually increase the tempo, keep this ideal comfort in mind, and the difficult spots will reveal themselves so that you can focus on making those parts more comfortable at a slow tempo before increasing the tempo.
  • One thing you can do to make slow practice more interesting/challenging: Playing alternate rhythms or phrasing can help your brain focus in on awkward parts of the passage. For example, putting pauses in certain points in the bar like the following,enter image description here or grouping in groups of 3s instead of 4s, as follows.enter image description here
  • Your comment about activating the middle finger reminded me of this: make sure your palm is not too low to the keys. When your palm is low, your fingers need to "cock back" (pull upward/backward) before striking, and this motion is is relatively difficult because it is near the limit of the range of motion of your fingers. If your palm is higher, your fingers are in the middle of their range of motion, and it is easier to initiate the downward motion.
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  • Hey thanks for the reply! However, for your suggested fingering, it just makes it even more difficult to play at high speeds since I tried it for a few weeks. About the arm movements, it wouldn't work as well – have you tried playing it? And for the slow tempo, there's no one-size-fits-all rule for it always working, my previous music teacher is big on that but I think more generally, accurate comfort is the thing we should seek after, regardless of speed. Bad habits developing when playing things wrong? At this level, I think this can only occur in coordination problems. Mar 5 at 0:52
  • Also, I'm not sure if a teacher is the best way to go, unless they know hand anatomy and its practical applications – at this level, I expect a lot for a teacher. However, I did notice my middle finger doesn't activate that fast all the time, perhaps that's the root of the problem? Coupled with my fourth finger possibly throwing it off balance when hitting the key preceding it? Mar 5 at 0:54
  • I personally use the fingering 3425132513251215.
    – Divide1918
    Mar 5 at 1:16
  • @SunlightScreen I added another note to my answer regarding activating the finger.
    – angryavian
    Mar 5 at 3:12
  • @SunlightScreen I'm not quite sure what kind of answer you are expecting to get without even showing how you are playing the passage. I have no way of knowing whether my suggestions are relevant because I don't have a clear picture of what you are struggling with, nor do I have any way to convince you that my suggestions (which you dismiss) could be helpful to you because this site isn't conducive for extended discussions and video demonstrations. I really suggest you see someone in person. A good piano teacher will definitely know about hand anatomy and how to work on specific hard passages.
    – angryavian
    Mar 5 at 3:19
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@angryavian covers a variety of excellent suggestions. In addition,

a fingering suggestion...

Fingers 3 and 4 have overlapping tendons. This makes it difficult to play the two in rapid succession, especially when one of them must be repeated (3-4-3 or 4-3-4). This can be seen in the "Finger extensor" illustration, on the website for the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.

One way around that physiological reality is, when arriving in measure 2, try 3-1-3 for the first three notes. It allows for speed, naturally brings finger 5 to the C#, and leaves fingers 2-3-5 in a good position for the next grouping.

...and two related practice suggestions.

Another aspect of playing very quickly, especially if a finger must be activated more than once, is that the effort of playing that finger doesn't get fully released, or released quickly enough, for the re-attack.

These exercises are designed to address the minutiae of relaxation and exact finger placement (an imprecision which can also slow one down). They are independent of the fingering chosen for the passage.

  1. Begin by practicing in pairs as block chords. The emphasis is on landing cleanly (relaxed, and without requiring even micro-adjustments to finger/hand/arm positions) on the second chord of the pair.

    a. Play [G# A C#] together as a block, staccato. Use the fingering you plan normally to play with. Spring off the keys as though leaping to the next chord. Your hand/arm should make a smooth parabolic arc; no direction changes or other adjustments.

    b. Land on [F# G# C#], again as a block, but this time let your hand and arm come to rest on that chord, so that any effort from the "leap" is released. Make sure you land "cleanly": that is, no small finger or hand position adjustments. Even the smallest adjustment will throw you off at speed, so one must be able to get from chord to chord in exactly one fluid motion.

    c. First, practice each pair individually until you can land cleanly. Then practice consecutively, landing on a chord, then replaying it to leap to the next chord -- again, until each landing is clean. Finally, leap through all four chords without pause, finally landing/relaxing on the downbeat of the next measure.

  1. Similar to #1, but now as written.

    a. Play the first four-note grouping of the bar, at speed (or faster), landing (and coming to rest/relaxing) on the first note of the next grouping. Make sure all fingers land cleanly on their respective notes in that grouping, but only actually play the first note.

    b. As with #1, practice group 1 to the first note of group 2 until clean; then group 2 to group 3, etc. Always ensure that although you only land with the thumb, the other fingers must land cleanly on their respective keys. Then practice through all groups, landing on the downbeats, relaxing, and replaying the downbeat pitch for the next group-move.

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