Playing Double Notes at the Advanced Level


Introduction

Playing an extended double note passage, especially when fast, is one of the most technically difficult activities at the piano. It requires a high level of finger independence, super-fine coordination and collaboration of the fingers, arm and wrist. Common problems include seizing up through muscular tension and an inability to synchronise the pairs of fingers involved for more than a few notes.

Image courtesy of Don’t Shoot The Pianist

Some of the hardest pieces in the piano literature involve double notes, usually thirds and sixths, but it might be fourths, seconds or indeed a mixture of intervals. Chopin’s Etude op. 25, no. 6 and Liszt’s Feux Follets are two virtuoso examples of double notes in action.

In my postgraduate training, my teacher stressed the importance of doing some work on double notes as part of the daily practice. Practising this skill was more important than the material I used - it might be scales in thirds, an exercise or two, or working on studies or excerpts from the repertoire. Nowadays, when I need to be in good shape for performance I include some gymnastic double note exercises in the warm up routine I have come to prefer for myself, varying them regularly so I don’t get bored with them. I do not spend too much time on these, nor indeed on exercises in general, but they play a part in my general pianistic fitness.

In this series on double notes, I am going to explore how to start developing the technical skills needed, from exercises that prepare the groundwork at the elementary level, leading to the intermediate level (where double note study begins in earnest). There will be detailed advice on how to practise scales, exercises and studies, along with some suggestions for studies you might not have come across. These may well be more appealing than some of the standard fodder (which can be rather dry and unwelcoming).

Two Independent Lines

My best advice is to think of double notes as polyphony, as two independent lines. Work out a suitable fingering for your hand then study each line by itself with the fingering you will end up using. Practise each line with musical shape, expression and good sound, fluently at speed. If the double notes are in the right hand, be able to play the upper voice and the left hand, and then the lower voice and the left hand. If you are planning to memorise the piece, then practise this process from memory. I will offer plenty of other practice suggestions in each article.

Correct Technique

Skillful double note playing relies on meeting these technical challenges:

  • The ability to synchronise the pair of fingers so they sound absolutely dead together. In order to do this in a controlled way, aim to play each pair from the surface of the keys.
  • Aligning the arm behind the pair of fingers that is playing, using lateral adjustments from the wrist.
  • Equalising the touch so that the weaker outer part of the hand matches the inner fingers in agility and strength.
  • Attending to the voicing - in the right hand, it is almost always the upper notes that actually needs to be played more strongly than the lower notes, making yet more demands on the 4th and 5th fingers.
  • The ability to pass fingers over other fingers (3rd crawling over 4th, for example). Hand and arm positions need to accommodate this somewhat gawky situation. As we move away from the body (RH ascending, LH descending) we need to point the hand slightly in the direction of travel.
  • Achieving legato (where required) in at least one of the two voices. It is often not possible to make a perfect legato between both voices all the time. If we can’t join in one voice, we join in the other, and this creates the illusion that the whole is legato and is acceptable to the ear.

Injury Prevention

Because double notes make demands on the weaker fingers on the outside of the hand, they can be injurious if done incorrectly, especially without proper alignment. The practice should be done with care, and certainly not for hours on end. Here is some basic advice on injury prevention:

  • Avoid awkward hand positions especially those causing twisting at the wrist; align the outer side of the hand (3, 4 and 5) with the forearm as much as possible. Slide along the whole length of the key as you accommodate short fingers (1 and 5) on black keys, and long fingers (2, 3 and 4) on white keys. You will need to allow in-out adjustments.
  • Make sure the wrist does not drop lower than parallel with the forearm. Maintain flexibility and mobility in the wrist, especially laterally.
  • Use springy, pushing movements from the wrist. We sense this as a vibrating motion, which is possible even at high speed and with considerable suppleness as well as strength when necessary (demonstrations are included throughout the series).
  • Practise softly and loosely before building in strength and speed.

Series Index

Playing Double Notes at the Advanced Level

This series starts at the advanced level and currently comprises the following chapters:

Modulating Pattern

Traditional exercises of the type we find in collections of technical regimes are often designed to be transposed from the given key of C into all other keys (since there is only limited value in practising exercises only on white keys). This chapter helps the reader understand the patterns found within the exercises (based on the different chord shapes generated from the key note) and offers practical suggestions to help with the transposition process. The modulation pattern is given in full as an aid. Click here >>

Preliminary Exercise

Before the double note exercises themselves, I suggest one of the best exercises I know. It is not a finger exercise in the traditional sense, since the cooperation of the wrist, arm and ear and inextricably linked with how we play it. Essentially this exercise demands two different activities in the hand – a smooth, shapely legato line and a soft leggiero trill in the other. Once the hand has become accustomed to managing these two touches simultaneously, double note exercises can be safely begun. Click here >>

Double Note Exercise Patterns

This chapter offers a series of double note patterns using the modulating pattern in the first chapter. Full instructions for practice are included, with an emphasis on how to keep free of tension. Click here >>

Diatonic Scales in Double Notes

This chapter looks at the traditional fingerings for scales in double thirds, where the octave is divided up either into three groups (long-short-short) or two groups (the so-called “double thumb” fingering). There is also an exploration of alternative fingerings by Moszkowski and Busoni, and by Penelope Roskell. The final part of the chapter gives detailed suggestions for practising double note scales. Click here >>

Coming soon…

In addition to the articles on elementary and intermediate exercises and studies, there will be articles on chromatic scales in minor thirds, scales in sixths and an exploration of Safonov’s ideas applied to the practice of double notes. When it is complete, I am hoping the Online Academy’s library of resources on double notes will be exhaustive (but certainly not exhausting!).

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