Techniques for Relaxed and Fluid Playing

Jeffrey Biegel shows exercises for every keyboardist
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As a student of Adele Marcus at The Juilliard School, I wat ched her demonstrate various exercises to stretch the fingers, loosen the wrists, and develop fleet pianism with speed and clean phrasing. All of the exercises provided us with the necessary mechanics to translate physically demanding passagework, chordal structures, and rhythms into music as a language.

The first exercise is the ‘”diminished seventh stretching exercise,” which I demonstrated for Keith Emerson on a hotel-lobby piano one afternoon in 2012 before the evening’s performance. Keith asked, ‘”What do you do to stay so relaxed when you play?” Here is what I showed him.

Position at the Piano

Sit on half the bench, leaning slightly forward for horizontal mobility. Grab each end of the piano with your hands, so you know you are comfortably at arm’s length. Your elbows should hang by your sides, as if in a sling, with the shoulders relaxed, as well.

Always play with the piano, not at the piano. This enables you to draw sound from the instrument, as though you are playing the strings—the harp of the piano—rather than pressing down the keys.

When you play, you need to be able to utilize the entire key; it’s an important component in performing, although it only comes up in specific moments to suit the music, such as the opening notes of Chopin’s Ballade no. 2 in F Major. In this case, wipe the key towards you from the back with your fingers. Playing the natural notes from the back of the keys creates a different sound from playing on the center of the key before the sharps and flats begin.

The Stretching Exercise

With each hand separately (starting with either hand), place your fingers over a diminished seventh chord: With the right hand, start on C above middle C and ascending—C, Eb, F#, A, C; with the left hand, begin with A below middle C and descending—A, F#, Eb, C, A.

Play the chord and pull your fingers slightly toward you. Relax your arm and keep your fingers pressed down on the keys. Then, place your thumb on the wood rail below the keys. This will give you more leverage and strength.

At a tempo of half note equals m.m. 60, count out loud slowly, “1, 2.” On the third count, lift your pinky through beats 3 and 4, then bring it down again and relax your wrist. Repeat this four times.

After the fourth time, raise and stretch the 4th finger out (not up) on beats 3 and 4, then down and relax for beats 1 and 2. Repeat this four times, before moving on to the third finger, which you will stretch straight up. Keep your thumb on the rail until its turn. At that point, stretch it out away from the hand, then play it on its side, not the tip.

After doing this for each finger individually, do two-note combinations, four times each: fingers 5 and 3, 4 and 2, and 3 and 1. Shake your wrists out afterward to loosen and avoid tightness.

As you strike a key, pull each finger’s first joint slightly toward you to reinforce the first finger-joint. After you play into the key, bounce the wrist slightly to mitigate tension in the wrist joint.

Over time, this regimen will strengthen the muscles and train your mind and hands to be loose and without tension. Eventually, you will subconsciously know to play with a relaxed body and arms.

The Vladimir Horowitz Stretching Exercise

Use the same principle of sitting on half bench with your shoulders relaxed, elbows hanging close to your sides as you play Ex. 1. Lift each finger comfortably, not too high to cause tension, but just enough to drop into the key with curved tips.

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In Ex. 2 for the fourth and fifth fingers, place your thumb on the wood below the keys. Then lift the 4th finger up and drop into the key. As you do this, lift the 5th finger up. Play this ascending chromatically for a few notes. Start on any pitch you desire once you get the idea. Do the same with the left hand.

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Snap the wrist back easily and slightly curl the 2nd finger in to open the hand, increasing the span ever so slightly. Count two slow beats at m.m. 60, then drop into the octave and hold for two more. Do each one four times, and only three or four different notes ascending chromatically (e.g., C, then C#, D, and Eb).

Fluency, Evenness, Accuracy

I like the Hanon exercises 1-31 because they even out the passagework for scaler patterns. They can be done all legato, all staccato, one hand staccato with the other hand legato, vice versa, and hands crossed—left over right, and right over left, using the various articulations, alternating staccato and legato. Of course, Carl Czerny’s exercises Opus 299, 599, 636, and 740 are also fantastic for developing fluent pianism.

Major and Minor Scales

Focus on fluency, evenness, and accuracy. To achieve this with ascending scales and arpeggios, bring your left elbow out slightly to guide the arms upward. For descending scales, bring your right elbow out slightly to guide the arms downward. I play them in single notes an octave apart, an interval of a third between the hands, and an interval of a tenth between the hands.


With all arpeggios, I stress the importance of the following routine: Play one octave four times; two octaves two times; three octaves two times; and four octaves two times. By the time you get to four octaves, you have achieved smoothness and evenness from one octave, to two, three, and then four. I do these in root position and in contrary motion (see Ex. 3).

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