Teaching Arpeggios as Gesture; The Broad Sweep of the Arm
Updated: Jan 27
In my piano teaching I've recently been refining my approach to the execution of scales and arpeggios. With pupils of various levels, I've delivered the methodology in such a way that, for the first time, I felt I wanted to document the stages of execution exactly as I'd taught them in the lesson. In the course of exploring the arpeggio with my pupils, I have happened upon an approach that I find highly satisfactory because it feels like I've bored down to the core of what the arpeggio is (for me at least) as a pianistic gesture and a holistic technical concept: that the macrocosm of the arpeggio gesture is a broad movement in time across the space of the keyboard, within which occurs a flurry of activity. In this blog I'll set out the approach in more detail. The method is defined by first learning the 'broad sweep' of the arpeggio gesture, and then adding and introducing the composite elements successively until the gesture is complete.
General points on methodology
Before discussing the specifics, it seems helpful to contextualise the method with some general points about how I teach scales and arpeggios: First, hands separately, taking the R.H. as the starting point; Second, use the R.H. to teach the L.H., mirroring the technique just learned; Third, hands together, but in contrary motion, and finally; Hands together, parallel motion. It's also worth noting that I prefer to commence with D major or E major, given that the starting notes D4 and E4 offer a comfortable position for the R.H. thumb, and I find that the keyboard geography of 2 white keys combined with 1 black key sits well under the fingers and is easier to manage than arpeggios with all white keys, which present unique challenges due to position of the fingers and hand in all white-key positions.
So with those general points in mind, here are the steps that I follow with my pupils...
The first step involves exploring the basic shape of the chord to be used in the arpeggio. I ask the pupil questions that will stimulate their physical and kinaesthetic responses to the piano: "Draw the shape of the chord in your mind..."; "Close your eyes and feel the chord whilst you visualize it..."; "Play the chord in different positions around the keyboard...". Every scale and every chord has its own pattern and physical identity that makes it distinct from the others in some greater or lesser way. Identifying the idiosyncrasies of the chord to be used is an important part of directing the attention and thus stimulating the memory, ensuring maximum retention.
Step 2–The Broad Sweep
I call this the 'Ping-pong' stage (I find this a handy visual analogy for understanding the correct movements involved in this step). During this stage, the pupil–having been acquainted with the chord shape that will form the basis of the arpeggio–begins to explore the arpeggio proper. In the first instance, the pupil places their thumb on D4 (SPN) in preparation for a D major arpeggio. Assuming that the objective is a two octave arpeggio, I then ask the pupil to move back and forth between D4 and D6, with the thumb and fifth finger respectively.
The aim is to focus on the space to be traversed–this is the process of setting up the structural points of the arpeggio. The pupil begins to acquire a sense of direction, moving between two landmarks that form the outline of the D major arpeggio. Arm movement should be encouraged (but managed carefully with regard to excesses), and the keys to be depressed should be done so by a gentle lapse of the arm, caught by the finger. As the exercise develops, a singular, uninterrupted movement should emerge–the arm carries the hand and fingers across the keyboard, brings them into position over the notes they are to play, and then lapses its weight momentarily. At the same time, the fingers are ready to 'snap' or 'spring' (in the form of a kick) against the keybed, and propel the arm into motion, impelling its movements towards the other note. Hence the Ping-pong analogy; it's a constant, uninterrupted, back-and-forth gesture–it is the 'broad sweep' of the arpeggio.
In this stage, it's important to guard against any anticipatory muscular activity: reaching of the fingers, holding of the hand or arm, tension around the elbow etc. The key-drop involves a free-fall of the arm, which rebounds away from the key (as a reaction to the kick of the finger against the keybed) and back towards the note it came from. (If the pupil is unable to release the arm weight freely then exercises should be carried out away from the piano to teach the 'free-fall' of the arm.)
Step 3–Tucking-in; Part 1
The preparatory work done in step 2 provides the broad outline of the arpeggio–the board is set, so to speak. Think of it as the background in a portrait; the negative space defining the shape of the objects in the foreground. It's now time to tuck-in more notes (gradually adding detail). Next I ask the pupil to include F#4 on the way up, and A5 on the way down:
The void between the notes is negative space; the focus within this space should be on traversing the horizontal plane of the keyboard, making intermittent key-drops within the curve (the broad sweep) of the journey. We are gradually adding the foreground, which slowly emerges as the singular gesture of the arpeggio comes into focus with all of its composite detail.
The two notes (D4 and F#4 or D6 and A5) are both embraced by the single lapse of the arm, which gently rolls the weight from the first note to the second. As before, the travel between these sets of notes should be an entirely uninhibited arm movement, moving in a curve across the keys, carrying hand and finger into position.
Step 4–Tucking-in; Part 2
Once step 3 has been achieved, then more notes should be added until the following foreground is achieved:
And this still within the curve of the broad sweep gesture from step 2. I re-iterate that the space in between the two groups of notes should be thought of as part of the journey–the individual notes as alighting points along the road.
At no point should the detail cause the pupil to lose sight of the broad sweep; and this they will be tempted to do unless the mind remains fixed on the commanding arc that forms the bedrock of an arpeggio gesture. The fingers will want to take over, and the pupil must be reminded that fingers and arm are engaged in a co-operative activity; in tone production, the fingers act in response to the arm–they should never act arbitrarily or independently, even when there is no visible sign of the arm’s involvement.
Step 5–The Missing Link
The quintessential technical challenge of the arpeggio can now be broached, viz. the passage of the thumb under the fingers in ascending, and the passage of the fingers over the thumb in descending. However, this old-fashioned terminology of ‘thumb under’ etc. is fundamentally misleading; this is not a thumb-centric muscular exertion in which the thumb passes of its own accord. The passage of the thumb is a reaction to an outward movement of the wrist which draws the thumb under the hand and along the keyboard–for this, the thumb need barely exert itself; it only really needs to be exerted in tone production. The act of guiding the thumb under the hand to prepare it over its note is one in which the thumb can remain almost inert.
The pupil should isolate this component of the arpeggio and practise the micro-gesture in the following way, keeping in mind that this little gymnastic will be tucked back into the broad sweep of the arpeggio that has so far been the cardinal element in the learning process:
The thumb should not be fixed or held, but should move freely back and forth as it would in the context of the arpeggio. To develop this, extend the micro-gesture to the following pattern, encouraging the pupil to allow the thumb to be carried, guided, and led into position.
Step 6–Putting it all together
Once the final technical element in step 5 has been overcome, this micro-gesture can resume its rightful place within the broad sweep of the arpeggio, the correct sensation of which has already been cultured. The carriage of the arm is the all-important factor; if it is impeded by tension, restriction, inhibition, anticipation, or any other unwanted muscular activity, the necessary fluidity of the gesture is hampered. In the final execution of the arpeggio gesture, the delivery must be of a singular, homogeneous, and consistent quality. It is a musical shape in its own right, and any note-by-note approach to the learning of the gesture will reduce it to a meaningless and dull exercise in fingering a series of notes.
When the pupil looks at the arpeggio in its notated form, they should see a journey along the horizontal plane of the keyboard, moving to and from fixed points, with the carrying power of the arm taking up responsibility for the effortlessness with which the hand can sweep across the keyboard, and be free to makes its tiny 'here-and-there' adjustments in support of the correct action of the fingers. The fingers, for their part, assume their true function of communicating the energy of the arm into the key, all within the allocated time, and at the correct moment.
The above may take many lessons to embed, and I am fond of working on a single arpeggio or pair of similar arpeggios repeatedly until the gesture is understood and sufficiently absorbed. Mindless strumming of scales and arpeggios until learned is fruitless and will never bear out the inherent musical value of these time-honoured elements of technique. However, if we teach individual scales and arpeggios as musical shapes, one at a time, embedding their character, their feel, their gesture, and (in the case of arpeggios) their value in teaching the pupil the power of the arm in helping us traverse the keyboard with fluidity, we can empower the pupil to use technique as it should always be used: with a view to realising and communicating a refined musical gesture.