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Piano Technique - Theory

8. How to play staccato on the piano?

8.1. Preliminary Information
8.1.1. Firstly, I want to remind you that I will not mention all of the kinds of pianistic staccato and I will not either speak of their realization in pieces by different composers, because I believe that these problems can only be discussed at the keyboard. I only want to demonstrate the great value of this joint in the general framework of perfecting technique. Everyone who learns to control the basic staccato - as described below - will be able to model it freely afterwards and adapt it by ear to the style of each composer.
8.1.2. Staccato is less present than legato in the piano literature (at least in the scores), but to practice staccato a passage that has been written legato gives excellent technical results. More specifically, the staccato (single, double, triple) used during exercise is an excellent starting point for mastering fundamental virtuoso techniques such as playing “poco legato”, the French “jeu perlé”, the technique of projection or even that which is called “shaking the shoulder”. Briefly, everything which is necessary to obtain a particular control of the arm which Liszt called “hovering”. These techniques will be described in the following chapters. For now, let us focus on how to correctly play a very short and energetic staccato.

8.2. “Touch” in Chopin’s method
8.2.1. In English, as well as in French, “touch” represents both an action and a sense. In pianistic technique, “touch” means how to feel the keys on two levels. Not only on the vertical level but also on the horizontal one, which is the same as being aware of the key’s surface. Chopin’s advice was to caress the keys instead of striking them (Mathias1 - exact quotation). This is one of the most important discoveries in pianisitic technique, but above all one must learn how to put it into practice. Before anything else, please do not take this recommendation at face value.
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1Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger - “Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1986
8.2.2. In reality, “caress the keys”, i.e. using the finger, whose tendancy is to bend, in order to slide on the keys, provokes a more or less important friction between the key’s surface and the finger’s pad. Playing like this brings about an enormous waste of muscular energy, and many times arm pain as a result. We do not always realize the internal resistance of the hand/arms and the effect of the internal friction2 in the arm (in the muscles and tendons), all the more important because the movements are ample.
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2Czesław Sielużycki - “The pianist’s hand” p. 123, Polish Music Edition, Cracow, 1982
8.2.3. There exists another possibility: when we make a finger slide on a clean plate, we get as close as possible to the limit of adherence, i.e. the moment beyond which the plate makes a noise. The “caress” described by Chopin is is all about finding the limit of this adherence, without going beyond it, i.e. without sliding on the key or pressing on it. Succeeding in this movement on a key which depresses with no resistance is not at all an easy matter (a less resistant keyboard means that this movement is more difficult) and requires very subtle movements. When the fingertip is thus immobilized horizontally, all that is needed is adding the minimum energy required to press the key and produce a sound. There are many ways to obtain this extra energy - starting from the metacarpal joints to arrive at the shoulder (the better recommendation).
8.2.4. Many pianists and theorists (cf. chapter 10 point 10.3.1) give an inordinate amount of importance to the activity of the distal phalange […] 
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8.2.6. Several words in addition
By accident I came across a PDF (document in Polish) created by Stanisław Olędzki and titled “Encounters with the pedagogue Krystian Zimerman” where I found this fragment of lesson transcription:
Zimerman: “I see many things happening at the surface of the keys, that is to say you press on a key, you make it move and you cease to maintain control over it. In this manner, the key may reach the keybed, but then again it may just as easily not get there. If the keyboard has a lot of resisitance, the key will not reach the bottom. One must try to play more ‘in the interior of the keyboard’ by concentrating on the bottom of the key; it is at this place which you will find your encounter with the keyboard, and not at the surface.”
In the first place, it is important to remind you that from an objective and physical viewpoint the piano’s interior mechanism does not allow us to control the hammer’s movement beyond the superior 3/4’s of the key’s depth3 (cf. Characteristics of the Keyboard point 3.2). For this reason, the keybed is attained after the moment the hammer strikes the strings. Thus, each pressure only has influence on the next sound. Moreover it is because of this, in certain situations, that we have problems playing the first note or chord pianissimo, for there is no preceding key from which to rebound. There are many ways to avoid this risk - Ingolf Wunder, for example, plays the first third of Chopin’s Etude in thirds with his left hand.
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3Czesław Sielużycki - “The pianist’s hand” p. 211, Polish Music Edition, Cracow, 1982
As for the indication “more to the interior of the keyboard”, so typical of the Polish school of piano, it can be misleading for a student, because it is only half true - for everything related to the inferior limit of what is known as the finger’s contact with the key. After trying too hard to find the keybed, the student runs the risk of an “overdose” of weight with all of the disastrous consequences that can arise, detailed in the chapter devoted to the weight of the hand. As for the truth concerning the upper limit, the initial stage of this contact, it is about the famous “touch” of Chopin. Evidently, Zimerman is correct when he says that the finger should accompany the key all the way to the bottom, but his indication [how to accomplish this] is as incomplete as the large quantity of similar advice offered by the masters of the past. For my own part, I believe that a good technique consits in finding through the movements of the arm and the “touch” in the fingers a good compromise in the oscillation of the arm’s weight (the member) between the upper and lower levels of the key. In other words, it is all about the ability to feel the vertical limits of the keyboard in a balanced manner, so that the hand does not press down too deeply and that it does not either hover above it with too light a movement (obviously, one needs to do this with the proper muscular impulses - cf. the point 8.4.2 below). A partial truth, i.e. a truth taking into consideration only a single limit, doesn’t allow us to resolve the problem, and more importantly, we can make it worse.

8.3. How to correctly play staccato?
8.3.1. Test a double movement
Place the 2nd finger on a key, not vertically but at a certain angle, in order to play on the pad and not the nail (photo 1a). Try to perform simultaneously the following movements (photo 1b under the cursor):
● By raising energetically the wrist, play the note as short as possible
● …by bending slightly the distal phalange as I describe more precisely in the points 8.2.3 and 8.2.4 above.
The sum of these elements produces a lever effect and “playing from below” is the best way to describe the overall movement. This movement reminds us also of rolling a piece of paper - place the cursor on the photo 2a below to see 2b. Click to see a short video.
N.B. I volontarily omit here the description of the lateral movements of the wrist and the opening of the elbows (i.e. the lever movements), which will be detailed in Chapter 4, in preparation.
Moreover, using this kind of double movement, i.e. bringing into play the fingertip/wrist tandem, is not only limited to staccato. This is a universal movement in piano playing […] 
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8.4. How to avoid errors, both visible and invisible?
8.4.1. How to avoid visible errors? […] 
8.4.2. How to avoid invisible errors? […] 
8.4.3. The shoulder makes up the principal locomotive of the pianist. (illustration above), i.e. the source of his energy. The way the wrist works (not only in the case of staccato) can be compared to a supplementary locomotive placed in the middle of a train: it pushes the cars ahead of it (the hand and the fingers) while all the time pulling everything behind (the forearm and the arm). […] 



8.5. Audio and video examples
8.5.1. Below, I have made available several useful audio and video examples of staccato playing […] 
8.5.2. Example of a piece made to be played staccato
8.5.2.2. Gigue from the 5th Bach - French Suite in G major
Exercise and two fragments for the RH and LH
In the case of the Gigue from the 5th French Suite, the first beat falls on the G played by the third finger. As for the natural gestures of the wrist (red slurring present on the right-hand example), it makes the beginning of each triplet susceptible to being accented: the D (played with the thumb) and F-sharp (second finger). The easiest way to play this measure is […] 
8.5.3. Practicing staccato passages meant to be played legato (or poco legato)
B.Woytowicz taught a special technique to easily increase the tempo. [...] 
8.5.3.1. Moszkowski - “Sparks” (op. 36 n° 6) - exercises for measures 1-8
My live recording is available here. […] 
8.5.3.2. Chopin - Etude in a minor, op. 25 n° 11 - exercises and measures 5-12
       
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