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I'm about 3 weeks into practicing playing two notes in each hand using four different quartal voicings. Below is some notation paraphrasing the practice patterns I'm using. I apply the pattern to various tonics.

The goals for this are:

  • work on L.H. 5-2, 4-1 & R.H. 1-4, 2-5 fingering for two note scales
  • learn quartal, open voicings and playing parallel 5ths and 4ths.
  • develop a memory/tactile "map" of the different diatonic scales.

I did a similar extended study of playing the four diatonic seventh chord types in all 4 inversions, closed position, and all 12 roots. I spent about 4 months on that.

With the chord study I felt steady progress. Each week I moved on to a new chord type and inversion, played various patterns, and could feel my hands adapt day by day. Initially the new patterns were unfamiliar, but by the end of the week I would get to the point where my hands moved more 'automatically.'

With these two notes per hand patterns I'm not feeling the same progress.

When hitting a progress wall should I back off and say 'enough for now' or, should I regroup and think about how I'm approaching the patterns?

I'm inclined to think the latter, because ...well, because I need to practice, and I need to explore what is the actual impediment. When I hit that wall it's drudgery and I feel sick of it. But, when I figure out how to practice and make even incremental progress it isn't drudgery. It may be a lot of work, but I feel good about the progress.

Perhaps these two notes per hand patterns are just harder than the chord patterns. At first I couldn't play them at all with my eyes shut. I'm just getting over that hurdle now. In the chord study I could get to playing with my eyes closed much faster.

Anyway, that's the background. I'm wondering what others think about how long to stick with something before they feel it isn't productive? Obviously, you should not keep banging away like a robot when you don't progress. Also, is spending 3 or 4 months on technical study too much?

Short hand overview of my patterns:

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...I play each of the four voicings through a one octave scale combining motions with repeated note and broken thirds with different rhythms. Everything is also played with descending movement.

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    A good mix of what you are struggling with and something that feels good to play is always good. You don’t want to get bored playing stuff that is below you level or too easy. You don’t want to make unfun by forcing yourself to play stuff that is too hard. Mix it up. – b3ko Jul 22 at 23:19
  • Practice it until you cannot play it wrong is what I was taught (though I'm not a pianist). – ggcg Jul 23 at 15:32
  • Personally, learning works better for me by doing 30min of practice, 15-20min of something else, another 30 min of practice, etc. I find that when I do shorter practice, and put a lot of breaks in between, things just make sense faster in my mind. – Thomas Jul 23 at 19:44
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Once you get the feel of things in your practice, it's perfectly acceptable to move on to the next thing on the list. That's easy to understand, but sometimes more effort is needed before the learning takes hold, then you may experience getting sick of it. I've run up against that wall a few times, and it can feel like drudgery, but when I give up on it and return to it the next day, I can usually see some progress and that helps me with my attitude. What really can feel good, is when I persist and things fall into place,(sometimes after repeated failures), the sense of accomplishment at that point can be much more fulfilling than when I work on stuff that comes easy to me. One point that might not be apparent at this time, is that everything you learn today is leading to future learning, so it's probably unwise to just skip over it. Most of us try that trick at some point and usually end up having to come back to learn what we initially blew off. Best of Luck!

  • Some of the other answers seem to suggest I change the exercise which I think simply avoids the issue. But your answer suggests re-approaching the problem and allowing more time. I tried this and I think it helped. I reduced the amount of time on the drill each session, stopped play every possible pattern, and re-adjusted my expectation about how long it will take to "get it." Some of my other drills progressed quickly. This one seems different and needs a 'slow bake' long view attitude. – Michael Curtis Aug 9 at 13:56
  • So I suppose it's a matter of: stop when "I'm sick of it" and re-assess what I'm doing so I can keep practicing "until I get it." – Michael Curtis Aug 9 at 13:58
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You may be hitting a brick wall because what you describe is not the conventional way to finger such passages - and it's not the conventional way because it's not the easiest way.

An average sized hand can play 4ths and 5ths with the thumb and any other finger from 2 to 5. The usual way to play "consecutive 4ths or fifths" would be to use the thumb for all the lower notes (in the right hand) and whatever fingers were convenient for the upper notes. You would only use 5-2 if you need the thumb for something else.

The 5-2 fingering severely limits the possible hand positions you can use compare with using the thumb, which adds to the difficulty. You can't easily turn your hand in the horizontal plane from the wrist.

Achieving a "theoretically accurate" legato in keyboard playing is unnecessary. If there are small even gaps between notes, nobody will notice.

In a slow tempo, the function of the sustain pedal is to cover up the gaps.

Don't forget that the sound of a note does not instantaneously disappear when you release the key. Even if the room you are playing in is not very resonant, the instrument itself is. For example loud bass notes on a piano can take of the order of 1 second for the sound of the instrument to decay completely, after you release the key.

Try practising a slow scale in consecutive 4th and 5th on the white keys with the fingering 1-4 1-5 1-4 1-5 etc. Turn your hand to point "outwards" away from your body and cross 4 over 5 to make the top notes "completely legato". This is even easier if you can put 4 on black notes, and use 3 as well if you "run out of fingers." Make all the thumb notes sound even and the will also sound legato even though theoretically they are not.

Start practising the above with just the top notes, without the thumb.

This may feel weird at first, but when keyboard instruments were first invented, the standard fingering for an octave of a C major scale was 2 3 2 3 2 3 4 not 1 2 3 1 2 3 4 - and nobody complained about the unavoidable articulation that sort of fingering produced.

  • I tried this fingering last night and this morning. Where does this 'convention' come from? Jazz? Double note fingering is frustratingly varied (books.google.com/books?id=uhes8M1_zXAC&pg=PA91) What would the full two hand pattern be for stacked fifths in key signature like 3 sharps or flats? – Michael Curtis Jul 23 at 13:22
  • I've been using several piano method books mentioned in that Google book for fingering reference. – Michael Curtis Jul 23 at 13:25
  • -1 for no reply about the finger "convention" – Michael Curtis Aug 9 at 13:37
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or, should I regroup and think about how I'm approaching the patterns?

I think you respond by yourself:

when I figure out how to practice and make even incremental progress it isn't drudgery. It may be a lot of work, but I feel good about the progress.

I personally think that you're thinking too decisively on one or another option. If you get tired and you get to the point where you really can't keep practicing, it won't make much sense to continue with it at that moment. Take a rest. If you get stuck and can't progress, it is probably because you should look closely what specifically you should improve and how. If your approach isn't correct, repeating something over and over won't make it any more correct.

I think technical exercises aren't to 'practice for x amount of time'. You study. If you reach a point where you need to study something else, pick up something else and continue studying that. Only you can know when it's the best time for each thing. But be very conscious with this kind of decisions, since it's easy to fall in a 'escape' strategy and never face the real problems.

As you get studying harder and harder things, each will probably take longer, so I think it's a very good idea to have more things to study simultaneously.

In short: address the problems, but always stay fresh.

Hope this helps!

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My recommendation would be to look for a more effective way to practice these same voicings. Specifically, given your drills, I think the best way forward is to practice these voicings into a real musical context--a song, a common progression, licks, etc.

While the progress you've made is good, it's important to practice efficiently. This is not a case where you want to practice drills so much that the technique comes out naturally and intuitively in your improvisation/playing. Leverage your progress and practice these same voicings in a real musical context. For example, practice improvising in all 12 keys over a ii-V lick, and while you improvise with your right hand, play these voicings in the left hand. Or, write out the voicings for a ii-V-I and practice those voicings. Find some nice voice leading that uses the chords you've been practicing.

This sort of activity will help link the quartal voicings with the other techniques you know. This can actually improve the rate of learning. It can also make the practice more interesting, and might lead to quicker progress.

In any case, the time you've already put in isn't a waste. The fact that your technique is improving at all is a good sign. The pace of learning typically increases as our technique improves. It sounds like you've simply found a skill in which you are weaker relative to your other skills. Spending time on our weaknesses goes a long way; it's much easier to practice the things we're good at than bad at.

  • The musical context I hope to apply this in is more like Bartok or Debussy. But I have tried some jazz type application, like a funky octave part in the bass with the quartal stuff in the right hand. In this regard I think my focus has been on florid scale passages in double notes rather than chords. – Michael Curtis Jul 23 at 16:17
  • Scales in fourths would normally just double the two hands in octaves. I separated the two hands so that I would have these quartal voicings. I liked the sound and I thought it bumped up the technical challenge. Maybe I over complicated it? – Michael Curtis Jul 23 at 16:19
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Leaving the piano specifics of the question aside (as I'm no pianist) and addressing myself to the question in the title, I'm reminded of something a friend of mine said. He's a professional flute player, and has been for many years; we were talking about practice, when he said "Amateurs practise until they get it right; professionals practise until they can't get it wrong.".

So I think it depends on what your aspirations are. If you're practising, as I am, to make a better sound in your friendly Monday evening band rehearsal, then "until you get it" will be fine. If you're hoping to go all the way, and make a career out of it, then "until you're sick of it" will be needed - or even more.

  • I thought the question implied that the question asker reached "until I'm sick of it" earlier than "until I get it". – Dekkadeci Jul 23 at 16:03
  • @Dekkadeci I see now that it can also be read that way, but then I fear the answer is "at least until you get it, whether you're sick of it or not". – MadHatter Jul 23 at 16:57

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