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  • Writer's pictureAdam Hope

Healthy Finger-Substitution – Exercises for Keyboard Players

This is a follow-up and supplement to my recent blog post 'Piano to Organ: Two Technical Challenges', in which I explored two major technical obstacles that the pianist can face in transferring their skills to the organ. One of the issues was 'Silent Finger-Substitution', which is a technique used to create a seamless legato, as it facilitates the smooth connection of five-finger positions, double notes, and chords. In the exercises below, I explore a practice technique to help facilitate the study of silent finger-substitution and make it a relaxed, rhythmically precise process. To do this, I'll break the learning down into four stages, and we'll look at what happens in between the sounding of notes...

So we've all seen exercises such as this in our organ tutors:

Pianists will also be familiar with this kind of exercise. Whilst we ultimately want to aim for fluid and smooth scale (it's a gesture, after all), I've found that it's tremendously helpful to examine – for study purposes – what happens moment to moment as we proceed from one sounding interval to the next. In my previous blog, I gave the following musical example to demonstrate the activity that takes place during substitution:

Now I'll expand on this, and break down the learning process into four stages.

Stage 1

In order to introduce the changing hand-positions without the danger of excess tension, I like to start with the following keyboard exercise: Rest lightly on the surface of keyboard and, using a gentle Hand Touch, sound the notes non-legato, noting well the very subtle lateral shifts that take place as fingers 1 and 3 replace 2 and 4, taking up the hand position.

Stage 2

Next, the repeated notes become tied (see the example below), and the finger-substitutions happen at keybed rather than key surface. Endeavour to let everything happen at the allocated moment in the pulse – aim for each physical sensation to be timed to the beat, even though you don't hear a new/repeated sound. As an aide-mémoire, I've left in the notes and tied them to show where and when these small muscular exertions take place. I also like this stage because it encourages us to think contrapuntally; we develop our ability to see and hear to independent musical lines, even in a simple progression of thirds.

Finally, on the last beat of every bar, test for freedom. This is an opportunity to build the Tension-Relaxation diametric into your playing; after every act of physical exertion, test yourself to make sure there is no residual or unnecessary strain being carried into the next note.

Stage 3

Next, using semibreves, we're going to use the same exercise as above. The aim now is to train yourself to mentally time the processes without the aid of specialised notation showing when every event happens. Learn to see notation as a mnemonic for combinations of muscular gestures, and memorise what it feels like from note to note – in this case, the processes from Stage 2 i.e. the various rhythmically-timed exertions followed by testing for freedom.

Stage 4

Finally, all of this merges into one single act – the scale gesture. Having adequately ingrained the mental and muscular processes of the rhythmical act of finger-substitution, proceed to focus on the macrocosm of the scale, and the seamless legato that this technique facilitates.

The one thing I'd encourage you to do, even once you feel you've got the exercise and its stages secure, is to constantly test for freedom. It may be the Matthay in me, but constantly checking for freedom and relaxation, both in performance and practice, is something I have tried to completely absorb into my technique. Perhaps adapt the exercise and test only every other note, every few notes, or even only once in the scale. Whatever works for you.

Finally, it goes without saying that you'll need to devise the same process for the descending form of the scale. Follow the same procedure, but in reverse. A couple of transpositions should suffice for handling the introduction of the black keys. Try it in D major and Eb major, using the same fingering.

Happy playing!

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