[1.III.7.2] Parallel Set Exercises for Intrinsic Technical Development

For exercises to be useful, they must be able to identify weaknesses and strengthen those skills. We need a complete set of exercises, and they must be arranged in some logical order so that an exercise that addresses a particular need can be quickly located. I propose that the concept of parallel play provides the framework for devising a universal set of exercises. Parallel sets (PSs) are groups of notes that can be played simultaneously, like a chord. Any arbitrary musical passage can be constructed from combinations of PSs. Of course, PSs alone do not comprise a complete set of exercises; conjunctions, repetitions, jumps, stretching, etc., are also needed, and are addressed below. Apparently, Louis Plaidy taught exercises resembling PS exercises in the late 1800s.

All the PS exercises are HS exercises. However, you can practice them HT also, and in any combination, even 2 notes against 3, etc. At first, just try a few of each exercise, then read section III.7.3 on how to use them. There is no need to practice PSs by themselves because, if expanded, there will be an infinite number (as they should be, if they are complete), so you will never practice them all. You will never need all of them either, and probably over half are redundant. Use these exercises only when needed (all the time!), so that the only requirement at this point is that you become familiar with them so that you can instantly call upon a specific, required exercise when the need arises – no more wasting of time doing unnecessary exercises! Once the problem is solved using a particular exercise, there is no need to keep repeating it, because you have acquired the desired skill. PS exercises should not be practiced every day like Hanon exercises; they are to be used for diagnosing difficulties and correcting them.

PS exercises are designed to test your technique. A beginner with no technique should fail all of them. Most students will initially have no idea how to play them correctly. It would be very helpful someone to demonstrate a few for you if you had never done them before. I will make videos available as soon as I find the time. Intermediate students with 2 to 5 years of lessons should be able to play over half of them satisfactorily. Thus these exercises provide a means for measuring your progress. This is total technique development and therefore involves tone control and musical playing. Advanced students will still need them but, unlike developing students, they will need them only briefly, often for just a few seconds of practice and experimentation.

Excercise #1

This exercise establishes the basic motion that is needed for all following exercises. Play just one note, for example, finger 1, e.g. thumb of RH, as four repetitions: 1111. In this exercise, we are just learning how to repeat one "thing" rapidly; later, we will replace the "thing" with a PS so that we can save time by playing as many PSs as possible in a short time. Remember, one reason for practicing exercises is to save time. This repetition motion is needed in most PS exercises.

Play the 1111 as quadruplets ("quads") of equal strength, or as one measure of a 4/4 or a 2/4 time signature. The idea is to play them as fast as possible, up to speeds of over one quad per second, with complete relaxation. When you can play a quad to your satisfaction, try two: 1111,1111. The comma represents a pause of any arbitrary length, which should be shortened as you progress. Then string three, then four quads in rapid succession: 1111,1111,1111,1111. You "pass" this exercise at about one quad per second, 4 quads in succession, with only a brief pause between quads. Play them softly, relaxed, and not staccato, as explained in more detail below. If you pass the 4-quad test, you should be able to play the quads as long and as fast you want, with control and without fatigue. This seemingly trivial motion is much more important than appears at first sight because it is the basis for all velocity motions, as will become apparent when we come to PSs involving many fingers such as those in fast Alberti accompaniments or tremolos. That is why we devote so many paragraphs below to this exercise.

The thumb has four major ways to move down; the other fingers have three. The first motion is finger motion: with the hand motionless, you can press the keys with only finger motion, mainly by pivoting each finger at the knuckle (the "thumb knuckle" is at the wrist). The second motion is wrist motion: with the forearm motionless and rigid fingers, you can press a key with wrist motion only. The third motion is arm motion. With the fingers and wrist rigid, you can lower the finger by moving the entire forearm down. This motion originates at the shoulder. The fourth motion, which applies only to the thumb, is forearm rotation. Practice each of these motions separately, eliminating all stress. First, practice each slowly, with large, exaggerated motion. Then increase speed by decreasing the motion. You can further increase speed by combining the motions, because when you combine them, you need even smaller individual motions to accomplish the same key drop.

Let's try this whole routine with the thumb as an example. In all of the following, stretch the thumb out comfortably; do not tuck it under the hand. (1) Thumb finger motion: Use only thumb motion to play the quad, moving it as far up and down as you can. Hand, arm, etc., do not move. Because of the large motion, you can play at only about one note per second (don't worry if your speed different, because each person can have very different numbers – same comment applies to other numbers discussed below). Let's also assume that your maximum thumb motion is about 10 cm. Now move the thumb only 5 cm – you can play faster! Then try 3 cm, and so on, until the smallest motion that will still play the note. As you speed it up, stress will start to build – this is your maximum speed. There is no need to practice faster at this time. (2) Wrist motion: play the thumb by keeping the thumb rigid and pivoting the hand up and down at the wrist. The maximum motion will be about 10 cm, and as you decrease this motion, you will be able to increase the speed. The maximum speed with which you can play with wrist motion without stress should be about the same as for thumb motion alone. Now combing motions (1) and (2); you should be able to play faster than the maximum of either motion. (3) Arm motion: keep thumb and wrist fixed and play the thumb by only moving the arm up and down. Start by lifting the thumb about 10 cm, and increase speed by decreasing this distance. You can reduce stress with a thrust motion of the arm with each quad, because this makes use of different muscles for each downstroke. You can also raise the wrist with each quad and further reduce stress. (4) Forearm rotation: now keep everything rigid and play the thumb by only rotating the forearm. Again, rotate the thumb up about 10 cm and play the note. Increase speed by reducing this distance. In principle, you should be able to combine all four motions, and even the arm thrust and raised wrist, to play the fastest motion humanly possible. Combining so many motions is very difficult; practice it by combining them in pairs. Some may decide to depend mostly on one motion, and add just a little of the others.

Every part of the body must be involved: fingers, hand, arm, shoulder, etc., not just the fingers. This does not mean that every part must move by a visible amount - they may appear stationary, but must participate. A large part of the "involvement" will be conscious relaxation because the brain tends to use too many muscles for even the simplest tasks. Try to isolate only the necessary muscles for each motion and relax all others. The final motion may give the appearance that only the finger is moving. From more than several feet away, few people will notice a 1 mm movement; if each part of the body moved less than one mm, the sum of those motions can easily add up to the several mm needed for the key drop, even without finger movement.

As the speed increases, the fingers/hands/arms will automatically go into positions that are ideal; PSs will make sure of that. These positions will resemble those of famous pianists playing at a concert -- after all, that is why they can play it. Therefore it is important, when attending concerts, to bring your opera glass and watch the details of the motions of professional pianists. To the untrained observer, a concert pianist may seem to be doing nothing unusual, but if you know the hand motions as explained here, you will see them executed beautifully.

Beginners, in their first year, may not be able to play at one quad per second. Do not force yourself to practice at speeds you cannot handle without stress. However, periodic, brief, excursions into your fastest playing are necessary for exploration purposes. Even students with over five years of lessons will find some of the following exercises difficult. Those practicing PSs for the first time should practice exercise #1 for a while, then practice #2 (below); if #2 becomes problematic at certain speeds (fatigue, stress), those problems can be solved by practicing #1 again (try it; you will find out what I mean). Then briefly examine the other exercises, but there is no need to do them all now, because there will be plenty of chances to practice them as the need arises when practicing with real music later on.

Practice until all stress disappears and you can feel gravity pulling the arm down. As soon as stress builds up, you will not be able to feel the gravitational pull. Don't try too many quads at once if you begin to lose control. Don't keep practicing with stress because playing with stress can quickly become a habit. As stress builds up, the quads will start to slow down; therefore, the slowing down is a sign of stress – it is time to switch hands. Get one quad down well before adding another. The reason for stopping at four quads is that, once you can do four, you can usually do a large number in succession. However, exactly how many are needed, before you can play an indefinite number in succession, depends on the individual. If, after stringing two quads together, you can then play the quads indefinitely at any speed, then you have passed the test for Exercise #1, and don't have to practice it again.

For the first few days of practice, there should be some improvements during practice because you are rapidly learning new motions and eliminating wrong ones. In order to make further progress, use the post practice improvement (PPI), because muscle/nerve growth throughout your body and brain will eventually be required. For PPI, instead of pushing for speed during practice, wait for the hand to automatically develop quickness so that you play faster the next time you practice; this can happen when you switch hands, or when you practice the next day.

This is technique acquisition, not muscle building. Technique means making music and these exercises are valuable for developing musical playing. Do not bang away, like a jack hammer. If you can't control the tone of one note, how can you control it with more? One key trick in controlling tone is to practice softly. By playing softly you get yourself out of the mode of practice in which you totally ignore the nature of the sound and bang away, just trying to achieve the repetitions. Press down on the key completely and hold it down momentarily (very short -- a fraction of a second). Read section III.1 which is mandatory reading before you do any serious PS exercises.

In order to increase speed and accuracy, and to control the tone, keep the playing finger near the key as much as possible. If the finger does not touch the key once in a while, you lose control. Do not rest the finger on the key all the time, but touch the key as lightly as you can so that you know where it is. This will give an added feel for where all the other keys are, and when it comes time to play them, the fingers will find the right keys more accurately. Determine the minimum key lift needed for repetition and practice playing with as little key lift as possible. The key lift is larger for uprights than grands. Faster speeds are achieved with smaller key lifts.

Experiment with controlling the tone using finger sliding: try the pull motion or thrust motion. Sliding increases control because you are creating a small key drop using a larger motion. The result is that any errors in the motion will be decreased by the ratio of key drop to total motion, which is always less than one. Therefore, you can play more uniform and softer quads by sliding than by coming straight down. Sliding also simplifies the finger motion because the finger does not have to come straight down -- any motion with a downward component will do, which increases your options. The thumb may be the easiest finger to slide. Play with the tip of the thumb, not the joint; this will enable the thumb to slide and the wrist to be raised, thus reducing the chances of the other fingers accidentally hitting some keys. Playing with the tip also increases the effective range and speed of the thumb movement; that is, for the same thumb movement, the tip moves farther and faster than the joint. Knowing how to slide the fingers will let you play with confidence even when the keys are slippery or if they get wet from perspiration. Do not develop a dependence on the friction of the key surface to play the notes because it will not always be there for you. Playing with a raised wrist will cause the fingers to slide towards you during the key drop. With a low the wrist, the fingers will tend to slide away from you, especially for fingers 2-5. Practice each of these sliding motions: practice all five fingers with the wrist up for a while; then with the wrist down. At an intermediate wrist height, the fingers will not slide, even if the keys are slippery!

Repeat Exercise #1 with all the fingers, one at a time. Some fingers (typically, 4 and 5) may be slower than the others. This is an example of how to use these exercises as a diagnostic tool to find the weak fingers.

Proper regulation of the piano action and voicing of the hammers is critical to successful execution of these exercises, both for acquiring new skills and for avoiding non-musical playing. This is because it is impossible to produce soft (or powerful, or deep) musical tones with worn hammers and defective actions. You will need expert guidance to avoid acquiring bad habits if you practice on such pianos.

Excercise #2

The 2-finger Parallel Set exercises: play 23 of the RH on CD as fast as you can, like a grace note. The idea is to play them rapidly, but under complete control. Obviously, the methods of Sections I and II will needed here. For example, if the RH can do one exercise easily, but a related exercise is difficult for the LH, use the RH to teach the LH. Practice with the beat on the 1 as well as with the beat on the 2. When that is satisfactory, play one quad as in exercise #1: 23,23,23,23. If you have difficulty with accelerating a 23 PS quad, play the two notes together as a "chord" and practice the chord quad just as you did the single note quad in exercise #1. Again, bring the quad up to speed, about a quad per second. Then increase the number of quads until you can string 4 quads in succession. Repeat the entire exercise with each of 12, 34 and 45. Then come down: 54, 43, etc. All the comments about how to practice for exercise #1 apply.

In this and subsequent exercises, the comments in preceding exercises almost always apply to succeeding exercises and will not generally be repeated. Also, I will list only representative members of a family of exercises and leave it to the reader to figure out all the other members of the family. The total number of exercises is much larger than you would initially think. Furthermore, if the different PS exercises are combined HT, the number of possibilities quickly becomes mind boggling. For beginners who have difficulty playing HT, these exercises may provide the best way to practice HT play.

One objective of PSs is to teach the brain the concept of extreme velocity, up to almost infinity. Once the brain gets used to a certain maximum velocity, all slower velocities become easier to execute. Perform all the exercises initially using only the white keys. Once all the white key exercises are done, work on similar exercises including the black keys.

In the beginning, you may be able to play the 2 notes in succession very fast, but without much independent control. You can initially "cheat" and increase speed by "phase-locking" the two fingers, e.g., holding the two fingers in a fixed position (locked phase, 3 slightly higher than 2) and simply lowering the hand to play the two notes. One easy way to do this is to curl 2 a little more than 3. The phase angle is the delay between successive fingers in parallel play. Eventually, you must play with finger independence. The initial phase locking is used only to get up to speed quickly. This is one reason why some teachers do not teach parallel play, because they think that parallel play means phase locking, which is bad technique. One reason for this problem is that after phase locked play, both fingers stay on their keys and the two notes overlap. It is just as important to lift the finger at some precise time as it is to lower it. For independent finger playing, the first finger must rise just as the second finger plays so that successive notes are clearly separated. Therefore, the ability to play 23 quads rapidly is not enough. What takes time to develop is the independent control of each finger.

Once you can play fast PSs relaxed, slow down and work on playing each note more correctly. Beginners will have difficulty lifting the fingers at the right time to control the note duration. In that case, either wait for technique to develop further, or practice the lifting exercises of section III.7.4.

Excercise #3

Larger PSs: e.g., 123 and its family, 234, etc. Repeat all of the procedures as in exercise #2. Then work with the 1234 group, and finally, the 12345 sets. With these large sets, you may have to slow down the quad repetition speed slightly. The number of possible exercises for these larger sets is very large. The beat can be on any note and you can start on any note. For example, 123 can be practiced as 231 and 312. When coming down, the 321 can be played 213 or 132; - all six are distinct because you will find that some are easy but some are difficult. If you include the beat variations, there are 18 exercises for just three fingers on white keys.

Excercise #4

Expanded PSs: start with the 2-note sets 13, 24, etc. (the 3rds group). These sets also include the 14 (fourths), and 15 (fifth and octave), type groups. Then there are the 3-note expanded PSs: 125, 135, 145 (fifth and octave) groups. Here, there several choices for the middle note. Then there are the expanded sets played with 12: thirds, fourths, fifths, etc.; these can also be played using 13, etc.

Excercise #5

The compound PSs: 1.3,2.4, where 1.3 represents an interval, i.e., CE played simultaneously. Then do the 1.4,2.5 group. I have often found sets that are easy going up but difficult coming down, or vice versa. For example, 1.3,2.4 is easier for me than 2.4,1.3. These compound sets will require quite a bit of skill. Unless you have had at least several years of lessons, do not expect to be able to play these with any proficiency.

This is the end of the repetitive quad exercises based on exercise #1. In principle, Exercises #1 to #5 are the only exercises you need because they can be used to construct the PSs we discuss below. Exercises #6 and #7 are too complex to be repeated in rapid quads.

Excercise #6

Complex PSs: these are best practiced individually instead of as rapid quads. In most cases, they should be broken up into simpler PSs that can be practiced as quads; at least, initially. "Alternating sets" are of the type 1324, and "mixed sets" are of the type 1342, 13452, etc., mixtures of alternating and normal sets. Clearly, there is a large number of these. Most of the complex PSs that are technically important can be found in Bach's lesson pieces, especially his 2-part Inventions, see section III.20. This is why Bach's lesson pieces (by contrast to Hanon) are some of the best practice pieces for acquiring technique.

Excercise #7

Now practice connected PSs; e.g., 1212, that contain one or more conjunctions. This can be either a trill (CDCD) or a run (CDEF, use thumb-over). Now these sets cannot be played infinitely fast because the speed is limited by your ability to connect the PSs. The objective here is still speed -- how fast you can play them accurately and relaxed, and how many of them you can string together. This is an exercise for learning how to play conjunctions. These can be practice by "adding overlapping PSs": practice 12, then 21, then 121, then 1212. Play as many notes as possible during one motion of the hand. For example, practice playing 1212 in one down motion of the hand.

Connected PSs are the main practice elements in Bach's 2-part Inventions. Therefore, look into these Inventions for some of the most inventive and technically important connected PSs. As explained in section III.19.c, it is often extremely difficult for students to memorize certain Bach compositions and to play them beyond a certain speed. This has limited the popularity of playing Bach, and limited the use of this most valuable resource for acquiring technique. However, when analyzed in terms of PSs and practiced according to the methods of this book, such compositions usually become quite simple to learn. Therefore, this book should greatly increase the popularity of playing Bach.

The nearly infinite number of PS exercises needed demonstrates how woefully inadequate the older exercises are (e.g., Hanon - I will use Hanon as a generic representative of what is considered the "wrong" type of exercise here; I don't mean to keep picking on Hanon because it can help your technique). There is one advantage of the Hanon type exercises, however, which is that they start with the most commonly encountered fingerings and the easiest exercises; i.e., they are nicely prioritized. However, chances are nearly 100% that they will be of little help when you hit a difficult passage in an arbitrary piece of music. The PS concept allows us to identify the simplest possible series of exercises that form a more complete set that will apply to practically anything that you might encounter. As soon as these exercises become slightly complex, their number becomes enormous. By the time you get to the complexity of even the simplest Hanon exercise, the number of possible PS exercises becomes intractably large. Even Hanon recognized this inadequacy and suggested variations such as practicing the exercises in all possible transpositions. This certainly helps, but still lacks whole categories such as Exercises #1 and #2 (the most fundamental and useful ones), or the incredible speeds anyone can readily achieve with PS exercises.

It is easy to bring Hanon up to ridiculous speeds by using the methods of this book. Try that just for the fun of it -- you will quickly find yourself asking, "What am I doing this for?" Even those ridiculous speeds cannot approach what you can readily achieve with PSs because every Hanon exercise contains at least one conjunction and therefore cannot be played infinitely fast. This is clearly the biggest advantage of PS exercises: there is no speed limit in theory as well as in practice, and therefore allows you to explore speed in its entire range without any limitations and without any stress.

As one illustration of the usefulness of these exercises, suppose that you want to practice a four-finger compound trill based on exercise #5 (e.g., C.E,D.F,C.E,D.F, . . .). By following the exercises in order from #1 to #7, you now have a step-by-step recipe for diagnosing your difficulties and acquiring this skill. First, make sure that your 2-note intervals are even by applying exercises #1 and #2 (12 & 34). Then try 1.3,2 and then 1.3,4. When these are satisfactory, try 1.3,2.4. Then work on the reverse: 2.4,1 and 2.4,3, and finally 2.4,1.3. The rest should be obvious if you have read this far. These can be rough workouts, so remember to change hands frequently, before fatigue sets in.

It is re-emphasized here that there is no place in the methods of this book for mindless repetitive exercises. Such exercises have another insidious disadvantage. Many pianists use them to "limber up" and get into great playing condition. This can give the wrong impression that the wonderful playing condition was a consequence of the mindless exercises. It is not; the limbered up playing condition is the same regardless of method. Therefore, the pitfalls of mindless exercises can be avoided by using more beneficial ways of limbering up. Scales are useful for loosening the fingers and arpeggios are useful for loosening the wrists. And they are useful for learning some very basic skills, as we saw in section (5) above.