Practicing octaves

Solid octave technique is the cornerstone of piano playing.  At the early stages of learning, it is beneficial to start the study of octaves by practising sixths, as they are more easily manageable for smaller hands.

When practising with the thumb alone, make sure that the tip engages actively with the key and the elbow relaxes on each note. It is crucial that the thumb is not stretched out sideways, as this will cause the wrist to tighten, which affects both the articulation of the octaves and the tone quality. When you practise carefully with the thumb alone, your elbow moves naturally in relation to the thumb, and no extra tension is generated. When you play with the fifth finger, maintain the support of the palm and do not allow the distal transverse arch to collapse. Remember to articulate the beginning of the note by engaging the fingertip and then relax the hand, as in the thumb exercise.

Octaves are thus never executed exclusively through arm motion. The fingers grip the keys actively, absorbing the weight of the arm. Played with passive fingers, octaves sound considerably heavier.

It is beneficial to play lots of scales and triads in octaves, especially at a very slow tempo, relaxing at each grip.  At first, press the keys very lightly with the fingertips only, which gives you the feel of the octave span and how closely the hand retains it. Let the hand relax between the octaves. Throughout, keep the idle fingers as relaxed as possible.

Gradually increase arm weight by “plunging”, wrist first, into each octave and feeling the fingers engage and rebound, letting the hand  “float”, while the wrist and the elbow remain relaxed. As the elbow relaxes, the weight of the hand and arm is on the fifth finger, enabling it to produce a bright tone.

In octave repetitions, one major impulse comprises several minor vibrations with wrist articulation, the hand tapping the keyboard, as it were. From here, it is natural to move on to rapid scale flurries. Two movements combine in fast scales in octaves: the familiar repeated action and the transition to an adjacent key. Give the motion a proper initial impulse and then let the hand vibrate freely. Engage both fingers (1+5 or 1+4) carefully, in other words articulate each interval. On the last note, release the hand. It is vital that the hand drops freely and moves sideways accurately. For this reason, it is beneficial to start by mastering octave repetitions on the same note, and then add the sideways movement.


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