Parallel Set Exercises for Intrinsic Technical Development

The main objective of exercises is technique acquisition which, for all intents and purposes, boils down to speed, control, and tone. For exercises to be useful, you must be able to identify your weaknesses and use these exercises to strengthen those skills. In order to accomplish this, we must have a complete set of exercises, and they must be arranged in some logical order so that you can easily locate an exercise that addresses a particular need. Such an exercise must therefore be based on some basic principle of piano playing that covers all aspects. Also, how do we identify our specific weaknesses? Just the fact that you can’t play something doesn’t tell you why or how to solve the problem.

I propose that the concept of parallel play provides the framework for devising a universal set of exercises for technical development. This is because any arbitrary musical passage can be constructed from combinations of parallel sets (groups of notes that can be played infinitely fast). I describe below a complete set of parallel set exercises that satisfies all the requirements. See section II.11 for an introductory discussion of parallel sets. Of course, parallel sets alone do not comprise a complete set of exercises; conjunctions, repetitions, jumps, stretching, etc., are also needed. These issues are also addressed below. Apparently, Louis Plaidy taught exercises resembling parallel set exercises in the late 1800s.

All the parallel set exercises are HS exercises, so change hands frequently. However, you can practice them HT at any time, and in any compatible combination, even 2 notes against 3, etc. In fact these exercises may be the best way to practice such incommensurate RH-LH combinations. At first, just try a few of each exercise, then read section (c) on how to use them. This is because, if expanded, there will be an infinite number (as they should be, if they are complete), so you will never practice them all. You will never need all of them either, and probably over half are redundant. Use these exercises only when you need them (you will need them all the time!), so that the only requirement at this point is that you become sufficiently familiar with them so that you can instantly call upon a specific, required exercise when the need arises. Therefore, you never waste time doing unnecessary exercises.

Parallel set exercises diagnose your weaknesses as well as build your technique. This means that you first use them to test your technique. If you are a beginner with no technique, you should fail all of them. They will all be basically impossible to play at the required speeds. Most students would initially have no idea how to play them correctly. It would be very helpful if you can get someone to demonstrate a few for you if you had never done them before. Intermediate students with 2 to 5 years of lessons should be able to play about half of them satisfactorily. Thus these exercises provide a means for measuring your progress. This is total technique development and therefore involves tone control and musical playing, as will be explained shortly. Advanced students will still need them but, unlike developing students, they will need them only briefly, often for just a few seconds of practice.

Exercise #1. This exercise establishes the basic motion that is needed for all following exercises. Play just one note, for example, finger 1, e.g. thumb of RH, as four repetitions: 1111. In this exercise, we are not yet practicing any parallel sets; we are just learning how to repeat them rapidly so that we can save time by playing as many parallel sets as possible in a short time. The “parallel set” we are using here is the trivial set consisting of just one note. Another reason for this exercise is that the ability to play a parallel set rapidly for an indefinite amount of time is the best test that you have acquired the skill to play it.

You can play the 1111 as quadruplets of equal strength, or as units of a 4/4 or a 2/4 measure. The idea is to play them as fast as you can, up to speeds of over one quad per second. When you can play a quad to your satisfaction, try two: 1111,1111. The comma represents a pause of any arbitrary length, which should be shortened as you progress. When you can do two, string four quads in rapid succession: 1111,1111,1111,1111. You "pass" this exercise at about one quad per second, 4 quads in succession, with no rest between quads. Play them softly, completely relaxed, and not staccato, as explained in more detail below. You pass when you can play the quads as long and as fast you want, with complete control and without fatigue. This seemingly trivial motion is much more important than appears at first sight because it is the basis for all velocity motions, as will become apparent when we come to parallel sets involving many fingers such as those in fast alberti accompaniments. That is why we devote so many paragraphs below to this exercise. These paragraphs describe the methods for acquiring critical skills for advanced technique.

If stress builds up as you string these quads together, work on this until you can play 4 quads rapidly stress free. Note that every part of your body must be involved: fingers, hand, arm, shoulder, etc., not just the fingers. This does not mean that every part of your body must move by a visible amount - they may appear stationary, but must participate. A large part of the "involvement" will be conscious relaxation because the brain tends to use too many muscles for even the simplest tasks. Try to isolate only the necessary muscles for the motion and relax all others. The final motion may give the appearance that only the finger is moving. From more than several feet away, few people will notice a 1 mm movement; if each part of your body moved less than one mm, the sum of those motions can easily add up to the several mm needed for the key drop, even without finger movement. Therefore, experiment with different positions of your hand, wrists, etc., for optimum play.

As your speed increases, the fingers/hands/arms will automatically go into positions that are ideal; otherwise, you will not be able to play at those speeds. These positions will resemble those you see of famous pianists playing at a concert -- after all, that is why they can play it. Therefore it is important, when attending concerts, to bring your opera glass and watch the details of the motions of professional pianists. The importance of hand/body positions/motions will be particularly true of the more advanced exercises given below, so begin now to train yourself to identify these improvements. There may be several motions that work; many suggestions are given below. Try them all; the more, the better.

Beginners, in their first year, will not be able to play at one quad per second and should be satisfied with slower speeds. Do not force yourself to practice at speeds you cannot handle. However, periodic, brief, excursions into your fastest playing are necessary for exploration purposes. Even students with over five years of lessons will find parts of these exercises difficult. In order to save time, you might practice exercise #1 for a while, then practice both #1 and #2 (below) simultaneously. This is because #2 uses the same motion as in #1. Since #2 is so simple, you can combine it with #1 without running into difficulties.

Practice until all stress disappears and you can feel gravity pulling your arm down. As soon as stress builds up, your sense of the gravitational pull will disappear. Don't try too many quads at once if you don't feel that you have complete control. Don't force yourself to keep practicing with stress because playing with stress can become a habit before you realize it. If you keep practicing with stress, you will actually start to slow down. This is a clear sign that you must either slow down or change hands. The material of sections I and II should have given you plenty of weapons for attacking this speed/stress problem. Get one quad down very well before adding another one -- you will progress faster that way than by rushing many quads at once. The reason for stopping at four quads is that, once you can do four, you can usually do any number in succession. However, exactly how many you need, before you can play an indefinite number in succession, depends on the individual. Therefore, you should test yourself frequently. If, after stringing two quads together, you can then play the quads indefinitely at any speed you want, then you have passed the test for Exercise #1, and you never have to practice it again in your life. These exercises are completely different from the Hanon exercises that you must repeat every day; once you pass, you move on to something more difficult -- that is progress!

For the first few days of practice, you should feel some improvements during practice because you are rapidly learning new motions and eliminating wrong ones. In order to make further progress, you will need to use the post practice improvement (PPI), because you are now causing nerve growth throughout your body and brain. Instead of pushing for speed during practice, wait for the hand to automatically develop quickness so that you play faster the next time you practice; this can happen when you switch hands, or when you practice again the next day. After the first week or two, most of the quickness will develop between practices, not during practice; therefore if you don't seem to improve very much even after a hard workout, don't be discouraged -- this is normal. Later stages of PPI will develop mostly after a good night’s sleep. Most nerve growth seems to occur during sleep, when the body’s resources are not needed for daytime activities. Over-practicing, in an attempt to achieve some visible improvement during practice, is one of the major causes of injury, stress, and bad habits. Your task during practice is to condition your hand for maximum PPI. Conditioning requires only a certain number of repetitions (generally in the neighborhood of a hundred quads, which takes only a few minutes); beyond that, your gain per repetition declines.

This is technique acquisition, not muscle building. Technique means making music and these exercises are valuable for developing musical playing. Do not bang away, like a jack hammer. If you can't control the tone of one note, how can you control it with more? One key trick in controlling tone is to practice softly. By playing softly you get yourself out of the mode of practice in which you totally ignore the nature of the sound and bang away, just trying to achieve the repetitions. Press down on the key completely and hold it down momentarily (very short -- a fraction of a second). This ensures that the back check grabs the hammer and stops the oscillations that the hammer picks up when it bounces off the strings. If these oscillations are not eliminated, you cannot control the next strike. Read section III.4.b on flat finger playing; this is mandatory reading before you do any serious parallel set exercises.

In order to increase speed and accuracy, and to control the tone, keep the playing finger near the key as much as possible. If the finger does not touch the key once in a while, you lose control. Do not rest the fingers on the keys all the time, but touch the keys as lightly as you can so that you know where they are. This will give you an added feel for where all the other keys are, and when it comes time to play them, your fingers will not hit the wrong notes because you know exactly where they are. Determine the minimum key lift needed for repetition and practice playing with as little key lift as possible. The key lift is generally larger for uprights than grands. You can achieve faster speeds with smaller key lifts. When all parts of your entire body: fingers, palm, wrist, arm, shoulder, back and abdomen, etc., are coordinated, each part just has to move a millimeter or less to result in sufficient motion for playing, since all you need to do is lift the key 3 or 4 mm.

The wrist is important in the repetition motion. The wrist governs all three goals we are seeking: speed, control, and tone. Remember, "getting the wrist involved" does not mean an exaggerated wrist motion; its motion may be imperceptible, because it is the momentum, not the motion of the wrist, that you need.

Instead of always working on speed, work on control and tone. Repetitions practiced for control and tone count equally towards conditioning for speed. Both control and velocity require the same skill -- accuracy. In fact, fast practice under stress will condition you for stressful playing, which will actually slow down the motion.

You must investigate and perform experiments all the time. If you keep your fingertip in one spot, or if you slide it over the key, will you get a different tone? Practice sliding your finger forwards (towards the piano) and backwards (towards your body). The thumb may be the easiest finger to slide. Play with the tip of the thumb, not the joint; this will enable you to slide the thumb and to raise your hand, thus reducing the chances of the other fingers accidentally hitting some keys. Playing with the tip also increases the effective range and speed of the thumb movement; that is, for the same thumb movement, the tip moves farther and faster than the joint. Knowing how to slide the fingers will free you to play with confidence regardless of whether the keys are slippery or if they get wet from perspiration. Do not develop a dependence on the friction of the key surface for you to be able to play. Playing with a raised wrist will cause the fingers to slide towards you as you press down. If you lower the wrist, the fingers will tend to slide away from you, especially for fingers 2-5. Practice each of these sliding motions: practice all five fingers with the wrist up for a while; then repeat with the wrist down. At an intermediate wrist height, the fingers will not slide, even if the keys are slippery!

Experiment with controlling the tone using some intentional sliding. Sliding increases control because you are creating a small key drop using a larger motion. The result is that any errors in the motion will be decreased by the ratio of key drop to total motion, which is always less than one. Therefore, you can play more uniform quads by sliding than by coming straight down. You can also play softer. Sliding also simplifies the finger motion because the finger does not have to come straight down -- any motion with a downward component will do, which increases your options.

Repeat with all the other fingers. Students who do this exercise for the first time should find that some fingers (typically, 4 and 5) are harder than the others. This is an example of how to use these exercises as a diagnostic tool to find the weak fingers.

The idea here, obviously, is to acquire the skill to play as many repeats for as long as you wish at any desired speed. Only one finger is exercised because this is technique acquisition; in normal playing, repetitions are generally played by changing fingers. Repetition is the basic motion for practicing any parallel set. It is essential for acquiring parallel set skills quickly, as further explained in section (c) below. Fast repetition is what enables you to practice parallel sets quickly with a minimum of wasted time. Thus exercise #1 is not just an exercise in itself, but something that you will need in all of the following exercises.

If you encounter difficulties in exercises #1 to #4, those difficulties should be easy to solve with the methods of sections I to III. You should be able to pass each one after a few weeks of practice. Since you can work on quite a few at a time, the whole set from exercise #1 to #4 should not take more than a few months to bring up to speed, for students with over two years of lessons, although this will naturally depend on your skill level. As mentioned above, do not try to practice until you “pass” all of them because there are too many and you will have ample opportunity to practice them while learning new compositions. Relaxation, control, and tone are more important than speed. Try to make the best piano sound that you can achieve - a sound that will make a passer-by say, "That's the sound of a piano!" even if you are playing just one repeated note.

Obviously, the piano must be capable of producing such sound, and must be properly voiced, as explained in section III.14 (performances and recitals) and section 7 of Chapter Two. The voicing of the piano is critical to proper execution of these exercises, both for acquiring new skills more quickly and for avoiding non-musical playing. This is because it is impossible to produce soft (or powerful, or deep) musical tones with worn hammers that need voicing.

Exercise #2. The 2-finger parallel set exercises: play 12 (thumb followed by 2 of the RH on CD) as fast as you can, like a grace note. The idea is to play them rapidly, but under complete control. Obviously, the methods of Sections I and II will needed here. For example, if the RH can do one exercise easily, but a related exercise is difficult for the LH, use the RH to teach the LH. Practice with the beat on the 1 as well as with the beat on the 2. When that is satisfactory, play one quad as in exercise #1: 12,12,12,12. If you have difficulty with accelerating a 12 parallel set quad, play the two notes together as a “chord” and practice the chord quad just as you did the single note quad in exercise #1. Again, bring the quad up to speed, about a quad per second. Then string 4 quads in succession. Repeat the entire exercise with each of 23, 34 and 45. Then come down: 54, 43, etc. All the comments about how to practice for exercise #1 apply.

All the notes in a parallel set must be played as rapidly as possible because parallel sets are used mainly for developing velocity. The purpose of the parallel sets is to teach the brain the concept of extreme velocity, up to almost infinity. It turns out that once the brain gets used to a certain maximum velocity, all slower velocities become easier to execute.

In this and subsequent exercises, the comments in preceding exercises almost always apply to succeeding exercises and will not be repeated. Also, I will list only representative members of a family of exercises and leave it to the reader to figure out all the other members of the family. The total number of exercises is much larger than you would initially think. Furthermore, if you tried to combine different parallel set exercises HT, the number of possibilities quickly becomes mind boggling. For beginners who have difficulty playing HT, these exercises may provide the best way to practice HT play.

Perform all the exercises initially using only the white keys. Once all the white key exercises are done, work on similar exercises including the black keys.

The objective here is not to do all of the exercises, but to get some idea of all the possible exercises, to identify those that give you difficulty, and then to work on them. These are not exercises you play to limber up your fingers; these are exercises for acquiring technique when the need arises. Thus, once you can do them satisfactorily, you don't need to come back to them again unless you encounter a new situation that requires even more improvement.

In the beginning, you may be able to play the 2 notes in succession very fast, but without much independent control. You can initially "cheat" and increase speed by "phase-locking" the two fingers, e.g., holding the two fingers in a fixed position (locked phase) and simply lowering the hand to play the two notes. Recall that the phase angle is the delay between successive fingers in parallel play. Eventually, you must play with finger independence. The initial phase locking is used only to get up to speed quickly. This is one reason why some teachers do not teach parallel play, because they think that parallel play means phase locking, which will destroy the music. After practicing for a while with locked phase, the fingers should become more and more independent, freeing you to create music. Thus the simple ability to play parallel sets fast isn't sufficient. After you get up to speed, keep practicing until you can feel the independent control of each finger. The best way to achieve this is to slow down gradually, as explained in the next paragraph.

Once you can play the (2-finger) four quads very rapidly, test the finger independence by continually slowing down to see if you have difficulties at some intermediate speed. If you encounter difficulties at slower speeds, there is something wrong. Initially, the cause is usually phase locking. You have not yet gained finger independence. It may also be an indication that you have some residual stress. Therefore, practice at different speeds.

Exercise #3. Larger parallel sets: e.g., 123 and its family, 234, etc. Repeat all of the procedures as in exercise #2. Then work with the 1234 group, and finally, the 12345 sets. With these large sets, you may have to slow down the quad repetition speed slightly. The number of possible exercises for these larger sets is very large. The beat can be on any note and you can start on any note. For example, 123 can be practiced as 231 and 312. When coming down, the 321 can be played 213 or 132; - all six are distinct because you will find that some are easy but some are very difficult. If you include the beat variations, there are 18 exercises for just three fingers on white keys.

Exercise #4. Expanded parallel sets: start with the 2-note sets 13, 24, etc. (the 3rds group). These sets also include the 14 (fourths), and 15(fifth and octave), type groups. Then there are the 3-note expanded parallel sets: 125, 135, 145 (fifth and octave) groups. Here, you may have several choices for the middle note of the three.

Exercise #5. The compound parallel sets: 1.3,2.4, where 1.3 represents a chord, i.e., CE played simultaneously. Then do the 1.4,2.5 group. I have often found sets that are easy going up but difficult coming down, or vice versa. For example, 1.3,2.4 is easier for me than 2.4,1.3. These compound sets will require quite a bit of skill. Unless you have had at least several years of lessons, do not expect to be able to play these with any proficiency.

This is the end of the repetitive quad exercises based on exercise #1. In principle, Exercises #1 to #5 are the only exercises you need because they can be used to construct the parallel sets we discuss below. Exercises #6 and #7 are too complex to be repeated in rapid quads.

Exercise #6. Complex parallel sets: these are best practiced individually instead of as rapid quads. In most cases, they should be broken up into simpler parallel sets that can be practiced as quads; at least, initially. “Alternating sets” are of the type 1324, and “mixed sets” are of the type 1342, 13452, etc., mixtures of alternating and normal sets. Clearly, there is a large number of these. Most of the complex parallel sets that are technically important can be found in Bach’s lesson pieces, especially his 2-part Inventions. This is why Bach’s lesson pieces (by contrast to Hanon) are some of the best practice pieces for acquiring technique

Exercise #7. Now practice connected parallel sets; e.g., 1212, that contain one or more conjunctions. This can be either a trill (CDCD) or a run (CDEF, where you must use thumb-over). The 1212 trill is different from exercise #2 because in that exercise, the 12 interval must be played as fast as possible, but the subsequent 21 interval can be slower. Here, the intervals between notes must always be the same. Now these sets cannot be played infinitely fast because the speed is limited by your ability to connect the parallel sets. The objective here is still speed -- how fast you can play them accurately and relaxed, and how many of them you can string together. This is an exercise for learning how to play conjunctions. Play as many notes as possible during one motion of the hand. For example, practice playing 1212 in one down motion of the hand. Then practice playing two of them in one down motion, etc., until you can do 4 in succession in one motion.

For fast play, the first two notes are the most important; they must start at the correct speed. It might help to phase lock just the first two notes to make sure that they start correctly. Once the first two notes are started at a fast speed, the rest tends to follow more easily.

For sets containing the thumb, use the thumb-over method for connecting them except for special situations when the thumb-under is needed (very few). Explore various connection motions to see which ones work best. A small flick of the wrist is one useful motion. For connecting sets not involving the thumb you almost always cross over, not under. However, many of these non-thumb crossovers are of questionable value because you seldom need them.

Connected parallel sets are the main practice elements in Bach’s 2-part Inventions. Therefore, look into these Inventions for some of the most inventive and technically important connected parallel sets. As explained in section III.19.c, it is often impossible for many students to memorize certain Bach compositions and to play them beyond a certain speed. This has limited the popularity of playing Bach, and limited the use of this most valuable resource for acquiring technique. However, when analyzed in terms of parallel sets and practiced according to the methods of this book, such compositions usually become quite simple to learn. Therefore, this book should greatly increase the popularity of playing Bach. See section III.19.c for more explanations on how to practice Bach.

The nearly infinite number of parallel set exercises needed demonstrates how woefully inadequate the older exercises are (e.g., Hanon - I will use Hanon as a generic representative of what is considered the "wrong" type of exercise here). There is one advantage of the Hanon type exercises, however, which is that they start with the most commonly encountered fingerings and the easiest exercises; i.e., they are nicely prioritized. However, chances are nearly 100% that they will be of little help when you hit a difficult passage in an arbitrary piece of music. The parallel set concept allows us to identify the simplest possible series of exercises that form a more complete set that will apply to practically anything that you might encounter. As soon as these exercises become slightly complex, their number becomes unmanageably large. By the time you get to the complexity of even the simplest Hanon exercise, the number of possible parallel set exercises becomes intractably large. Even Hanon recognized this inadequacy and suggested variations such as practicing the exercises in all possible transpositions. This certainly helps, but still lacks whole categories such as Exercises #1 and #2 (the most fundamental and useful ones), or the incredible speeds we can readily achieve with parallel set exercises. Note that exercises #1 to #4 form a complete set of purely parallel (without conjunction) exercises. Nothing is missing. Intervals larger than what one can reach as a chord are missing from the list of parallel sets described here because they cannot be played infinitely fast and must be classified as jumps. Methods for practicing jumps are discussed in section (f) below.

It is easy to bring Hanon up to ridiculous speeds by using the methods of this book. You might try that just for the fun of it, but you will quickly find yourself asking, “What am I doing this for?” Even those ridiculous speeds cannot approach what you can readily achieve with parallel sets because every Hanon exercise contains at least one conjunction and therefore cannot be played infinitely fast. This is clearly the biggest advantage of parallel set exercises: there is no speed limit in theory as well as in practice, and therefore allows you to explore speed in its entire range without any limitations and without any stress. As noted earlier, the Hanon series is arranged in increasing order of difficulty, and this increase is created mainly by the inclusion of more conjunctions and more difficult parallel sets. In the parallel set exercises, these individual "difficulty elements" are explicitly separated out so that you can practice them individually.

As one illustration of the usefulness of these exercises, suppose that you want to practice a four-finger compound trill based on exercise #5 (e.g., C.E,D.F,C.E,D.F, . . .). By following the exercises in order from #1 to #7, you now have a step-by-step recipe for diagnosing your difficulties and acquiring this skill. First, make sure that your 2-note chords are even by applying exercises #1 and #2. Then try 1.3,2 and then 1.3,4. When these are satisfactory, try 1.3,2.4. Then work on the reverse: 2.4,1 and 2.4,3, and finally 2.4,1.3. The rest should be obvious if you have read this far. These can be rough workouts, so remember to change hands frequently, before fatigue sets in.

It is re-emphasized here that there is no place in the methods of this book for mindless repetitive exercises. Such exercises have another insidious disadvantage. Many pianists use them to "limber up" and get into great playing condition. This can give the wrong impression that the wonderful playing condition was a consequence of the mindless exercises. It is not; the limbered up playing condition is the same regardless of how you got there. Therefore, you can avoid the pitfalls of mindless exercises by using more beneficial ways of limbering up. Sales are useful for loosening the fingers and arpeggios are useful for loosening the wrists.