Based on Cortot exercies like these...

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...I've been practicing patterns like this for seventh chords...

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...and left hand...

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The spacing of the fingers with these major seventh chords feels different than other seventh chord types like minor sevenths, etc. The fingers get crowded at the minor seconds, but then stretch to reach the major thirds. The finger spacing feels more even for the other chord types.

When I reach with finger 4 to get to a black key I notice that my left hand has a more difficult time than my right, but my two hands are the same size.

When if finish playing like this my palms feel a little warm and sort of 'itchy.' I'm not sure exactly how to describe it. It does not hurt or ache or spasm, etc. I definitely feel like my hands need a rest by the end. I don't push through any discomfort.

It feels similar to the fatigue of playing scales in octaves or full octave chords, but it's more centered in my palms.

Let's just say I've had worse feeling from using the computer mouse wheel, and I have enough sense to stop before I've really irritated by hand.

Of course I don't want to do any damaging repetitive motions. But I can't really tell if this is just a phase of coordinating and training my hand.

Just looking for some guidance.

  • does my pattern show some misunderstanding of the Cortot exercises?
  • are there some time limits I should keep in mind?
  • should I avoid certain things when doing such tremolo patterns?

EDIT for a bounty.

The one answer I received from @MalcolmKogut is appreciated but is more of a general overview of anatomy than a response about these particular exercises. I'm looking for help with how to approach these exercises safely. Or, if the recommendation is to avoid them entirely, some explanation of why such exercises were recommended by Cortot - whose teaching I understand is still used today - but avoided by some teachers.

Also, I removed the word 'strengthen' from my question. I can tell now that word is a big piano instruction buzz word. This issue isn't about strength, but extension (meaning spreading my fingers apart - which apparently uses the interossei muscles) and finger independence, which I understand is mostly an issue or coordinating the nervous system. To be clear: I do not think these exercises are about working out finger muscles. I can hold my fingers fully spread apart without discomfort or fatigue. I can do motions like this for an extended time - 20 minutes for example - so the point is already understood these exercises are not about strength. I want to know how to approach such exercises safely.

I found some videos like this one...

...from what I have seen in this particular video I gather that I don't need to play them fast and the ability to rock your hand in subtle circular motion while the keys are depressed sort of tests or demonstrates a firm touch without undesirable tension and stiffness. He calls it 'loose' around 5:47 in the video.

2 Answers 2


I have been looking at that question for a few days unsure if I could actually bring anything useful. I will try.

First, some comments about what you shared:

  • Though I have never followed these particular exercises, the Cortot exercises make sense to me. I do not know about strength but they certainly teach about independence and help (to a lesser extend) with stretching. It's common to start children on much simpler versions of these exercises where some keys need to remain depressed while others are being played. During these exercises, it is key to remain completely relaxed and there is no need for racing either, very much like what the video shows. There is nothing wrong with them if you approach them that way. If you don't, yes, they can harm you.

  • The video also makes perfect sense: slow and relaxed. Note also why he doesn't move down the fifth finger on his left hand. Even if you do that one slowly, there is an uncomfortable stretch even if you are completely relaxed (unless you have even more reach than him). That isn't the case in any of the Cortot exercises you showed where the stretches are much more subtle and completely safe.

  • Regarding your own exercise. First I think you meant to show the same notes and fingering but different notes depressed (1 and 3) if you want it to be the very same as the right hand. When I activate the very same fingers on both hands, I do not feel the difference you describe. The only difference possibly between your chords and Cortot's is that the fingering for your chord is really counter intuitive. For example, you would want to put a 5th instead of 4th for the notes you have. I do get you are after a stretch but Cortot's chords present the advantage of representing more natural positions that would occur more commonly. And I do think there is value, if you are into exercises, in making them as realistic as can be. But these somewhat unnatural positions you have feel completely safe to me nevertheless.

To sum it up and answer your questions directly now.

  • does my pattern show some misunderstanding of the Cortot exercises?

No. Your pattern is just not as natural so conceivably not as useful.

  • are there some time limits I should keep in mind?

No time limit. Listen to your inner tensions. If any of these happen: you cannot move your hand and arm gently as shown in the video, you feel tensions, in your wrist, up your arm or even into your shoulder or neck, your neighbor wants to smash your head or the piano or both, just stop.

  • should I avoid certain things when doing such tremolo patterns?

Avoid rushing it. Avoid any form of tension (stretching != stressing).

I'm looking for help with how to approach these exercises safely. Or, if the recommendation is to avoid them entirely, some explanation of why such exercises were recommended by Cortot.

I think I answered everything as objectively as I could. So I will conclude subjectively: exercises are great; practicing on actual music is greater. Exercises are fine in context. Pick a score at your level, whatever it is, and within that score listen to your performance. Identify the areas that need improvement: evenness of the touch, fluidity, softness, rhythm, precision, etc. and come up with exercises--with the help of a teacher if need be--that will hone on your weakness. Because the ultimate test for all these exercises is whether they work, and your improvements on the actual piece you play will be the best judge of that.


I am not a slave to notation so if something feels "wrong" I either try to figure out what movement is missing or what movement is getting in the way of my execution or, I work around it. I also beleive in working on technique through the use of real music rather than exercises. For instance, I know I will probably not hurt myself jumping off the roof of my house but, I'm not going to try it (although I did it all the time as a youth).

Tremolos and trills on their own come from the pronator and supinator muscles around your elbow. Those two muscles are strong and don't fatigue very easily. The reason is because you can not use both at the same time. When you pronate your supinator rests. When you supinate your pronator rests. It is impossible to use both at the same time. If you could, like a game of tug of war they would tear at each other, strain and cramp. Likewise, you can only flex or extend your fingers, you can't do both at the same time - HOWEVER, if you isolate a finger, you can indeed engage your flexors and extensors simultaneously. The bad thing about that is your flexors and extensors will pull on one another creating tension. If you are lucky enough to not strain anything you may be creating micro tears to the tendons. That sort of damage is cumulative because tendons don't have a direct blood supply and can't heal as fast as tearing muscle which is flooded with cell healing blood. The first sign of this is waking up in the morning feeling a little stiff. That is a sign that your tendons are inflamed and adhering to the tendon sheath. Once you get your synovial fluid flowing you can force the tendons to glide again. That should serve as a warning, not the need to "warm up."

All those exercise examples you provided require you to use both flexors and extensors at the same time. Oh, they also most likely require you to use your abductors too. That means you have three muscles pulling on one another simultaneously. Something will strain but you may not feel it now. As I said, it is cumulative.

Another downside to static loading your hand in place to play these exercises, you can't use gravity to play the notes and must use brute force. Unable to use equal and opposite muscles they never get to rest. Every motion must have an equal and opposite motion otherwise it will strain.

Here is an example; if you walk your legs effortlessly move right, left, right, left. If you tie your inner leg to another person as in a three legged race, you now have a third vector force pulling on you and you can immediately feel the strain. We do this with our hands all the time but most of our teachers tell us to practice more or prescribe exercises to build strength and endurance. The thing is, we don't need strength and endurance, only to obey the laws of physics. Don't ever challenge the laws of physics because it will always win, eventually. Just ask the builders of the Tower of Pisa.

Your hands have to serve you for about 80 years and injuries never fully heal. Instead, we power through them because we are taught "no pain no gain." What a lie that is. The body often replaces damaged tissue with scar tissue and rarely do cartilage, tendons and ligaments heal 100%. Muscle indeed does get stronger with damage but the pianist doesn't need more muscle. The body will provide what it needs. That is why your anti gravity muscles are stronger than your go with gravity muscles (hamstrings, quads / bicep, triceps). You don't need muscle to stand on the floor. Gravity does all the work, you only need ancillary balancing muscles. The same is true at the piano. We've all seen 5 year old prodigies, surely they don't have more muscle than a grown adult. What is different is they are going with the laws of physics and not trying to brow beat technique into the wrong muscles.

Just my take. I may never be the best pianist but I will still be playing when I am 80.

  • 1
    Is the main concern that two fingers are held down while the other two perform the tremolo? Regarding real music versus drill, this stuff is just a means to an end for me: finger independence and 'finding' any chord on the keyboard. I'm open to using other methods. Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 17:58
  • 1
    I've re-read this answer several times over the past week and watched some online lessons - like this one youtu.be/uFjz_O9TUSA?t=402 - I can't really tell if you mean 'don't play these at all' or 'play them properly.' It seems like if played only with the flexors/extensors it could be harmful. But if played with pronator/supinator and some wrist motion that is better. I understand the ergonomics of gravity drops and muscle balance. I just don't understand how you recommend applying that to these kinds of passages. Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 18:08

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