Piano songs playing tips - Fur Elise

Tips on playing piano songs, in this article suggestions on how to play Fur Elise is discussed and why the importance of acquiring agility and flexibility in the fingers is emphasized



Beethoven's darling
Among the popular piano songs loved by students


The value lies in the process, the end result is a by-product. Countless times have I uttered those words when fatigue and frustration in learning new piano songs begin to overwhelm. In moments such as these it is a good idea to retreat a few steps backwards and re-evaluate what you are doing before pushing forward again.

The realization struck me like a bolt of lightning. Before I can ever play a song well, I need to practice – not exactly an earth shattering discovery. The true insights are the goals of practicing;  playing in the right tempo, gaining smoothness, clarity and expressiveness.

One of the goals of practicing is to be able to play in the right tempo. When should one attack the keys on the piano? 

I said ‘attack’ because tempo originated from the Latin word tempus; a fencing (sword fighting) term describing the timing of an attack. 

The definition of tempo in modern English is; the speed at which a passage of music is or should be played [reference: Oxford Dictionary of English, Copyrights of Oxford University Press 2010, 2017]]

As a case study, let’s take a look at Fur Elise. It has a 3/8 time signature, which is a relatively fast paced song tempo-wise. Three half beats in a bar is almost a sprint, more so when semiquavers are all that fill the bars, as evident in the first phrase of the song as shown in Image 1. In it, obviously, bars in the first phrase are dominated by semiquavers.

Image 1

Personally, I consider songs that are played in 60 crotchet beats a minute as moderately paced. Fur Elise’s first has to be played three times faster. Agile and flexible fingers are a prerequisite to executing such musical phrases.

As with any song, it is best to start practicing hands separately, very slowly, usually with the RH first. Lift the fingers high and independently. Meaning to say, ensure that the fingers are not gummed up. 

Now is a good time to emphasize practicing this way because it will result in your fingers acquiring the agility and flexibility needed. When you do start playing up to speed the tendency of gummed up fingers can be consciously and deliberately prevented.

Possessing agile and flexible fingers make available assets integral in expressing and articulating music as intended by the composer. 

For example, let’s go back to Image 1.

Notice the Italian term ‘poco moto’. It is a tempo direction literally translated as ‘with motion’. Music historians and scholars are of the divided opinion that since the song was not published during Beethoven’s lifetime it was not him who wrote the instruction, therefore it can be neglected.

However the instruction is meant for pianists to play the bar ‘not too fast but a bit slower’. When put together with the rest of the phrase, the subtle contrast in tempo infuse an extra layer of tone making it all the more attractive to listen to. Such seduction through piano music is made possible by she who plays with agile and flexible fingers.

Soft yet hard?...
The paradox of learning piano songs explained


Pianissimo…is it a coincidence it too is indicated near the vicinity? One (poco moto) was a tempo direction, now we see an instruction on the sound production.  Somehow it makes sense – to be played not too fast but a bit slow, very softly. 

Producing such a sound is a lot more challenging because of the tremendous amount of control needed and judgment required on how little force should be exerted. To put it in perspective if I was to play ‘forte’,  more or less I could just pounce away at the keys and not be mistaken. 

Again, the fingers hold the key. Regular fingering exercises, lifting each high and independently develop them into agile and flexible apparatus that you can control to generate soft soothing sounds when appropriate and loud thunderous roars upon necessity.

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