Lyric Pieces, Op.54


Nocturne (1)

A step-by-step walkthrough for mastering right hand double notes

Grieg wrote his famous Nocturne (Night Piece) in the summer of 1891 during his annual country retreat to the Norwegian mountains and fjords. Along with five other pieces, he included the Nocturne in Book V of his Lyric Pieces, Op. 54. In 1894, Anton Seidl, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, orchestrated the Nocturne. Grieg was not altogether happy with it, so he made his own version.

Grieg's Nocturne is a deservedly popular piece, and one that shows up in my studio fairly frequently. As a result, I plan to work through this piece with you bar by bar in depth, tackling the polyrhythms in the outer sections, and the problems of pedalling and interpretation.

One place where people may run into difficulties is the middle section, the place where the RH has to manage an extended passage in double notes. Therefore I will start off with a step-by-step walk through of how I suggest you might practise this section. I illustrate the stages with an introductory video and some exercises to help with the technical control.

Before embarking on any technical work, it is essential to have the end goal in full view. This shows us what we are aiming for, and stops us from getting sidetracked or ingraining sounds and muscular movements we are not going to use. So, do some preliminary research on the piece and some background listening. Rather than repeatedly listening to your favourite recording, listen to as many different ones as you can find so you build up a picture of what is possible. Also, listen to Grieg's own orchestral transcription to get an even richer sense of the sound world he may have had in mind when he conceived the piece.

Loading video...

Video notes

The RH in the middle section is likely to tie you up in knots if you try to isolate the fingers from the wrist and arm.

Lets begin with an exercise in awareness. From your lap, bring your RH up to the keyboard and land on F# and D with 5 and 3. Feel how your whole arm can balance on the pair of fingers you are resting on. Now remove your arm back to your lap, come up again and this time land on E and B with 2 and 4. Balance there for a moment before repeating the process with G# and D, using 1 and 3. Notice how each position looks and feels subtly different from the others (its a bit like shifting your body weight from one leg to another when standing, only here were using three different positions).

The secret when you play this passage is to pass through these three points of balance as you play the double note patterns by allowing a tiny lateral left/right adjustment of the wrist. This makes the passage much easier to coordinate than trying to manage the double notes from a fixed position.

The following practice patterns will assist you on your journey, provided they are done correctly with attention to hand, wrist and arm alignment.

1

  • Play the crotchets in the lower part completely legato; slide freely along the length of the key in and out as necessary
  • Tap the quaver line on the top very lightly
  • Experiment with triplet quavers, as well as semiquavers

2

  • Now add slurs in the upper quaver line across the beats
  • Keep it light! Remember that the dynamic level is pp
  • Try the rhythmic variant

3

  • Now work on looseness in the lower part
  • As before, crotchets legato; quavers light and loose

4

  • Now add slurs in the lower quaver line across the beats
  • Try the rhythmic variant, and explore others of your own choice

5

  • This exercise places accents on each pair of double notes in turn
  • Repeat using rhythmic variants

6

  • Keeping the lower crotchet line legato, play the upper part legato and then staccato
  • Experiment at different dynamic levels, also add hairpin < > for expression
  • Keeping the upper crotchet line legato, play the lower part legato and then staccato
  • Experiment at different dynamic levels, also add hairpin < > for expression

7

  • This exercise uses each of the three positions in turn as the starting point
  • Begin slowly, exaggerating the accents
  • Repeat each pattern a few times, lightening the semiquavers and feeling them lead to the accented long note
  • Pause longer on the accented notes if this helps

8

The LH part requires as much mobility as the RH because the spans are bigger the movements will be bigger.

  • Play each pair of fingers in turn, sensing the alignment of the arm and the hand on each

9

  • Loosely hold the long note (this is your hinge), allowing sliding along the length of the key in and out as you pivot from one position to the other
  • As above, the sliding will be more obvious in the this exercise as you will be bringing your thumb (short finger) to a black key

For Further Study

  • Apply the same exercise patterns to the remainder of the passage
  • Do the exercises for several days in a row. Begin at the beginning and go through each stage
  • Aim to master each stage, doing it as beautifully and perfectly as you can
  • Bring a sense of enjoyment and craftsmanship to the work
  • For more information on practising double notes as part of a technical regime, follow this link to Part 2 of my ebook series

Resources