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So at the moment I'm learning the first movement of the Pathétique Sonata by Beethoven. The main problem I'm having is with the left-hand accompaniment which is similar throughout much of the piece, where you have to play alternating octave notes. I can play those notes fast, and I can play them quietly, but I can't do these two things at the same time. Trying to play faster just results in them being too loud, which doesn't sound nice.

Obviously, when it comes down to it, practising slowly then building up speed while maintaining dynamics helps, but does anyone know anything else useful for playing quietly at a high speed? I know already that you should keep your fingers near the keys all the time, although I don't know how effectively I'm doing it.

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The usual technique for those tremolo octaves is to rotate the arm rapidly back and forth from the elbow. (Glenn Gould executed very rapid tremolos with fingers only; if you are a similar freak of nature then you may ignore this post entirely.) Back when I was learning it, I found it helpful to practice the technique away from the piano, by holding your forearms vertically (elbows bent and down by your waist) and rotating ("oscillating" comes to mind as an illustrative word) them rapidly. (I remember walking down a hall back in college doing this rapidly as I went, and an assistant professor I knew grinned and rolled his eyes and said "piano majors.")

Start by fully pronating and supinating (if you don't know these terms, look them up; they'll help you understand what we're up to) the forearm. Work to make smaller and smaller movements, until you can comfortably have the thumb and fingers move rapidly back and forth about an inch. (That's the technique you'll use to play the soft tremolos. As they crescendo, you'll enlarge the rotation.)

When you do the exercise away from the piano, work to make sure that your right and left arms are in sync. One of the reasons that you do both hands at once is so the right hand can train the left (or the opposite if you're left-handed, of course), by serving as an example.

To apply what you've learned, just go play the passages again. You may find yourself surprised at how quickly your hands and arms pick up the idea.

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I'm having some of the same issues with Rachmaninoff's arrangement of Kreisler's Liebenslied. The piece isn't particularly fast like Pathetique, however I'm forced to roll across 14ths with fairly small hands so the same principles apply.

What I've found incredibly helpful was making up ludicrously difficult exorcises that take the same concepts that make the tougher passages hard, but then I blow them drastically out of proportion. There's a section in which I had to play a very awkward 1-8-9 chord shaping. To practice this, instead of simply going over the same exact 2 chords hundreds of times until I had it perfect, I used that same shape as an arpeggio adding 2 notes in my right hand and crossing over up and down the entire piano. This exercise made me keep track of the very specific quintuple rhythm making it more interesting to play than just a quarter note chord change.

I'm assuming that the section you are referring to is the octaves in the bass of the first movement. So allow me to make you an example exercise that could help with this section:

Play an arpeggio with the pinky in your left hand. Voice out each of the notes of a i-iv-V7-i pattern in the key of c minor. While you do this play a 'C' the octave above in-between every note with your thumb. This will replicate the rhythmic motif in Pathetique, but make it much more strenuous on your pinky finger. Once you can play this up to the tempo you like work on making it as quiet as you physically can. After this go back to the Beethoven and test out the work you just put in.

  • Sounds interesting. But could you elaborate on what the exercise you are suggesting to me is? What do you mean by the I-iv-V7-i pattern, as in C, F, G, Bflat, C? I think I understand the concept of alternating between playing note in arpeggio then the C above. – Cataline Jun 10 '15 at 16:56
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I am facing similar problems here, and have found one or two ideas helpful (though I have not yet solved the problem completely).

Play the troublesome section(s) slowly and quietly - as slowly as necessary - even ridiculously slowly, while aiming to eliminate all possible tensions in arms, shoulders, fingers, wrists. Aim to have the fingers just resting on the keys when they are not actually playing notes, and play as quietly as you possibly can - even to the point of not being able to hear some of the notes (you can cure that later).

Gradually increase speed, but stop increasing as soon as you feel any kind of tension arising, and slow down again. It is not going to be a skill that you are likely to master in a few days, and could take weeks, but it is possible!

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if you're not playing it RIGHT at whatever speed, slow down until you can do it right. And slowly bring the speed up while you're doing it right.

that's the only way to do it that there is.

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Two things: (1) your fingers stay very close to the keyboard (2) you slow your attack (the time it takes for you to press a key and reach the bottom). They should both contribute to a quieter sound. Practicing these two things slowly will eventually help it become automatic once you play faster.

  • One of the concerns I have with this advice (which is not bad advice) is that the technique for playing slowly and that for playing quickly are somewhat different, especially when playing quietly. At least in my own technique, I would play the notes slowly with the fingers alone, and begin incorporating arm rotations as the notes got quicker. – BobRodes Jun 16 '15 at 15:24
  • Sure. Here a clarification: when practicing slowly for quicker parts, you should not be using the "technique for playing slowly." Instead, you should be using the "technique for playing quickly" albeit playing slowly and in exaggerated motions. You practice for where you need to go, not where you are now. – sacerdote_jh Jun 16 '15 at 21:12
  • Also, I am not a proponent of ever playing with only fingers. Regardless of the speed, you need to incorporate your arms (and body). Playing with only fingers, even just "to learn the notes" ingrains incoherent and disconnected phrasing. – sacerdote_jh Jun 16 '15 at 21:17
  • That's a good clarification. :) As for playing only with the fingers, there isn't really such, because the muscles that move the fingers are in the arm for the most part. But while you make a very good point about incoherent and disconnected phrasing, nevertheless trills, for example, usually involve very little arm movement. – BobRodes Jun 17 '15 at 20:10

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