Piano Exercises – Piano Songs That Lift Your Proficiency

We often witness their accomplishments. They are the enviable few who always seem to go on to achieving great things endlessly - a classmate who was always the valedictorian, a colleague who gets promoted repeatedly, an athlete who dominates his opponents on the field and my favourite - the pianist who unfailingly hypnotizes her audience.

Have you ever wished that it was you people were applausing to?

Wishful thinking, daydreaming and waiting to get lucky however, are not what winners are made of. The path to greatness in any undertaking is deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice?

It is practising on specific and clearly defined areas in order to improve performance, striving to accomplish a performance that is beyond the current level of proficiency, seeking feedback on the results of your efforts and doing so repeatedly on a regular basis.

Simply hitting the keys of C,D,E,F,G on the piano is not deliberate practice. Instead, practising 2 octaves of the scale of F# major in legato, with the goal of controlling the intensity of the tone as you go up and down the scale, listening carefully to the quality of the sound produced, the positions of your arms and fingers and making the necessary adjustments every day for 4 hours - that is deliberate practise.

Technical skills on the piano includes having a soft legato touch, finger strength, nimble fingers when executing an ornament, an acute sense of pronouncing contrasts and discernment of the quality of a sound that creates a clear and distinct tone.

I know of five piano songs that can serve as piano exercises to help you hone these skills. Through deliberate practice with these piano songs greatness is within grasp. Each song puts emphasis on one specific technique mentioned above. When you can play them all, you shall acquire a mental model of what excellence in piano playing calls for.

[1] Piano Exercises – Piano Songs That Lift Your Proficiency #1

The Swan: ‘Soft legato touch’.

Camille Saint Saens composed ‘The Swan’ together with several other songs named after animals. There are movements named ‘Kangaroo’, ‘Elephant’ and ‘Tortoise’. He called the composition ‘The Carnival of Animals’.

Every phrase in ‘The Swan’ has to be played in legato. The long curved lines make appearances above the ledger lines of every bar.

Playing legato means playing smoothly and connected. There must not be any break in between notes, not even a second of pausing.

To gain proficiency in playing legato, your hand should press against the keyboard while keeping the wrist motionless. It also has to remain low and close to the keys. Draw out as much tone as possible when pressing a key with the fingers, their joints should be well rounded forming a dome and the thumb has to be curved at all times. Touch the keys using only the tip of the thumb, this way you may keep it level with the other fingers.

The exquisite tender arrangement of musical phrases in ‘The Swan’ makes the legato playing an absolute joy to practise. Take pleasure in tickling a string of quavers in bars 7-8, treat it with a dose of crescendo to heighten the suspense as you dash up the scale.

[2]- Piano Exercises – Piano Songs That Lift Your Proficiency #2

Hanon – The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises: ‘Developing finger strength’

Would you step into a boxing ring for a fight without packing pounds of muscles first? Can you finish a marathon running on wobbly legs? No. You will have to build strength in parts of your body first. The same rule applies to piano playing. Developing strength in the fingers is a necessity if you wish to lift your proficiency.

A volume of piano exercises by Hanon has helped me tremendeously in building strength in my fingers. The piano exercise in “Hanon” works like a laser guided missile that targets the weak fourth and fifth fingers. They do not miss their target, with regular practise after a few weeks the fourth and fifth fingers will pack a strong punch to hit the piano keys with firmness and potency.

Lift each finger up high – while ensuring they are curved at all times - when moving up and down the phrase. Play in a variety of mode. Start off in the usual legato style, switch to staccato mode to reassert the flexibility of your fingers as you are practising.

Another style you can use to practise the piano exercises is to play the notes in ‘long-short-long-short’mode. Press the first key longer than the next one and alternate the rhythm (long-short-long-short) as you go through each phrase in the piano exercises. Practising this way develops muscle control in your fingers. Instead of flailing up and down haphazardly, you can train them to drop down towards the keyboard and lift off it according to the speed and intensity of your liking.

[3]- Piano Exercises – Piano Songs That Lift Your Proficiency #3

Adieu Au Piano: ‘Ornaments’

Ornaments adorn a passage in a piano movement. A levelled and even melody is suddenly lit up like a Christmas tree when an ornament embellishes it. Either a trill, acciacatura or a turn they lend lustre to the phrase with their reverberating ring.

To play ornaments well, you shall need agile and flexible fingers. Practise No.[2] to acquire them. Because they are played with an increased level of velocity, you shall need to employ fingering that is most comfortable to your hand. Try a few options before deciding on one that is most well-suited and can render the ornament most effective.

Beethoven loved to sprinkle his compositions with ornaments. In ‘Adeiu Au Piano’ alone there are eight bars decorated with them. In his universally loved Fur Elise there are three.

Coaxing out an ornament such as a trill or an acciaccatura flawlessly is not supposed to be an easy feat. So do not be disheartened if they stay elusive for a while. Practise them consistently everyday for several hours. Musicians at the pinnacle of their careers – performing on the piano, violin or cello - practise an average of 10,000 hours over their lives to reach greatness.

[4]- Piano Exercises – Piano Songs That Lift Your Proficiency #4

Memory: ‘Pronounced contrasts’

A few weeks ago I took some time off to escape from the city and went off to Langkawi. I have been here many times before but its green natural beauty and brilliant torquise reflecting off the surrounding ocean never cease to impress me. I watched the sun set on the horizon of the Andaman Sea - the vivid contrasts in light and color that took place in the sky was a sight to behold.

From an upbeat lively romp to a soft delicate whisper - music emanating from the piano is capable of inspiring an almost similar dramatic experience – acoustically. This is what is called pronouncing contrast in piano playing.

The first ever real piano piece I learnt was ‘Memory’ from Andrew Lloyd Webber. Much like the first girl I ever loved, I can remember each wonderful detail of the first piano song I ever played. The pronounced contrast in ‘Memory’ gave me goosebumps when I finally got it right that first time.

It is brought out with the rich arsenal of touch and deft use of the pedals. Besides using our motor functions to achieve that jaw dropping effect of a well executed constrast, we can be aided by the use of our sense of hearing.

The ear is a good judge of tonal gradations and its quality. If it does not sound quite right to your ear, there must be something wrong somewhere and you shall need to make corrections to the touch, pedalling or expression.

[5]- Piano Exercises – Piano Songs That Lift Your Proficiency #5

Prelude, No.1 from Well Tempered Clavier: ‘Clearness and distinction’

A performing pianist has little options when it comes to producing a clear and distinct sound. Not only because of the certain presence of music connoisseurs amidst the audience - who will no doubt show not much mercy in their criticism of a meek performance – but also because in a spacious hall, the music has to be carried over the flashlights, across the aisles between rows of seats all the way to the adoring listener sitting furthest behind.

For that to happen, touch must be made stronger to produce the desired power. Prelude, No.1 from Well Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach is a suitable song to practise with for this purpose. I chose it because of its even pace and serene melody. The absence of any aggressive fingering and hand movements makes it ideal for focusing on building the power needed to produce a clear and distinct sound.

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