How to Develop Brilliant Octaves in Your Piano Playing

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Welcome to, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about how you can develop brilliant octaves in your piano playing. It’s exciting when you go to a concert and there are big octave sections, like in the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor Piano Concerto. Or, in Liszt or Chopin octave sections where both hands are playing octaves in unison. There’s a power to it that is so exciting! It almost seems impossible if you’ve never done it before. But there are techniques that I’m going to share with you.

I’ve been working on the Liszt B minor Sonata for a recording session that I’m doing later this year. In relearning this piece, I’ve had an epiphany that I’m going to share with you. But first, I want to show you the essentials that I’ve covered before in previous videos.

What are the essential techniques for brilliant octaves?

Just playing octaves doesn’t seem very difficult. So what’s the technique? Playing octaves with the arms won’t work at speed because the arms are just too big to move fast enough. There’s a limitation to how fast the arms can go. So it comes down to the wrists. I’ve talked a great deal about the importance of the wrists in piano technique. It’s important to use your wrists not just for octaves and fast chords, but also for articulating staccatos. Even in Baroque and Classical period music, the wrists are so important for clarity of your phrasing. Even for something like a Bach minuet. If you were to play a Bach minuet without using your wrists for staccatos, it just would be lacking in definition. By using the wrists on the staccatos, instead of the arm, it has far greater clarity. Even for music that was written when the piano was in its infancy, the wrists delineate phrasing in a way that the arms can never achieve. But when you’re doing fast octave or chord technique, the wrists have to be independent from the arms. But there’s more to it than that.

The most important thing for achieving fast octaves is maintaining an arch position of your hands.

One secret of octaves is having your hands in exactly the right place. In order to accomplish this, you use a technique I refer to as, the arches. Your hand must form an arch. The arch is an amazingly strong structure. The Roman aqueducts used arches. A tent that you go camping in has supports that form an arch, and they’re very strong to withstand winds. Your hand must have an arch for strength as well. You do this to mitigate the difference in strength between the thumb and the pinky. Forming an arch equalizes the force that you have on either side of your hands. Even with an arch, the other fingers are in the way, aren’t they? So the other fingers need to go up and out of the way. This forms another arch! There are two sets of arches, essentially. The arch for support, and the arch to get the fingers out of the way. That way, positioning your hands less than an inch over the keys, any effort goes directly to playing the keys. You want to always keep your hands just a fraction of an inch above the keys, never touching the keys. You don’t want a big motion because there’s no time for that. If you place your hands precisely over the keys, less than an inch, with a nice arch, you can get tremendous power and speed with a minimal amount of effort.

How do you practice the arch technique?

There’s a great little exercise I’d like to show you. You must not use the arm for the up and down motion of octaves, only for going from key to key, moving towards the fallboard for black keys, and closer to the edge of the keys for white keys. Set the metronome to 60 and just play a slow C major scale in octaves. When you play this, your wrists should be moving up and down, but your arms should just be making a fluid motion over the keys. The arms provide absolutely no up and down motion at all. Maintain the arch position between your thumb and pinky, and keep your other fingers up and out of the way. That doesn’t seem hard. To play it correctly, however, is very important. It’s how you play this exercise that will develop your strength. If you just play with your arms, it might work at a slow tempo. With your metronome set at 60, you could play almost any way at all, and it’s going to come out! But to get greater speed, the motion must all come from your wrists. The wrists can go very fast! Once you’re secure and you’re not using any up and down arm motion, just your wrists, go to two notes to the beat, then three notes to the beat. Go as fast as you possibly can, adding a note each time.

Playing fast octaves with the arms feels horrendous.

Playing with the arms, and not the wrists, is painful. And you can’t get control or speed. The secret of the arch is equalizing the force of the pinky with the thumb so you get a sound that is equal in both notes of the octave. As you go faster, stay closer to the keys and play lighter. That’s the secret of fast octaves! Develop the independence of the wrist and unlock the secret power of the arch! Work slowly and identify the wrists separate from your arms as you practice octaves. For some people, this comes very quickly. Other people struggle for a long time because it’s not something you’re accustomed to doing, isolating wrist motion from your arms. Sometimes, I liken it to waving bye-bye, just moving your wrists up and down keeping them separate from your arms.

The arms only place the hands over the right keys, the wrists provide the up and down motion.

Using the arms will just slow you down and make everything much heavier. Get used to waving bye-bye first. Then, eventually get into the arch position. You’ll be able to get clear, fast octaves! So that’s what brilliant octave technique is all about! You can work on your octaves with the exercise I’ve shown you. Learn to get into the arch position. Start off just waving bye-bye a bit, and then go to the piano and try it out. Then get into the arch position and work on the octave exercise. And you can develop brilliant octaves. I promise you! I’m Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Resource.

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Supplemental Content:

How to Play Piano PT 2 – It’s All in the Wrists

The Best Piano Exercises (Part 4) – Octaves

A Secret Octave Technique for Piano

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