Practicing Jumps

Many students watch famous pianists make these quick, wide jumps and wonder why they can't do jumps themselves, no matter how hard they practice. These great pianists appear to jump effortlessly, playing notes or chords smoothly from position to position no matter where they are. In reality, the pianists are making several motions that are too fast and subtle for the eye to see unless you know what to look for. Jumps consist of two principal motions: (1) a horizontal translation of the hand to the correct position and (2) the actual downward motion to play. In addition, there are two optional motions, feeling the keys and the take-off motion; these will be explained below. The combined motion should look more like an inverted "U" than an inverted "V".

Students with no jump training tend to move the hand along an inverted V motion. With this type of motion (no horizontal acceleration), it is awfully difficult to hit a note accurately because you are coming down at some arbitrary angle. Note that this angle is never the same (even for the same passage played at different times) because it depends on the distance of jump, your tempo, how high you lift your hand, etc. Practicing coming down straight is hard enough; no wonder some students consider jumps impossible if they have to practice all these angles. Thus it is important to come straight down (or feel the keys just before playing them) at the end of the jump.

Students with no jump training also do not generally realize that the horizontal motion can be greatly accelerated; therefore, the first skill to practice is to make the horizontal motion as quickly as possible so as to reserve enough time to locate the keys after you get there. Locate the keys by feeling them before the actual playing. Feeling the keys is the 3rd component of a jump. This 3rd component is optional because it is not always necessary and sometimes, there is not enough time for it. When this combination of motions is perfected, it looks as if it is done in one motion. This is because you only need to get there a split second before playing the note. If you don't practice accelerating the horizontal motion, you tend to get there a split second later than you need to. This almost imperceptible difference makes all the difference between 100% accuracy and poor accuracy. Make sure that you practice rapid horizontal motions even for slow jumps.

Although feeling the keys before playing is optional, you will be surprised at how quickly you can do this. You will have time to do it a majority of the time. Therefore, it is a good policy to always feel the keys when practicing jumps slowly. When you learn all the skills listed here, there will be plenty of time to feel the keys even at the final speed. There are few instances in which there is no time to feel the keys, and those few can be played accurately if you had located most of the other jumps accurately by feeling them.

The fourth component of the jump is the take-off. Get into the habit of making quick takeoffs regardless of the speed of the jump. There is nothing wrong with getting there way ahead of time. Even when practicing slowly, you should practice quick takeoffs so that the skill will be there when you speed up. Start the take-off with a small downward and sideways kick of the wrist. Although it is necessary to come straight down for playing the notes, there is no need to go straight up for the take-off. Obviously, the entire jump procedure is designed for the hand to arrive at the destination quickly, accurately, and reproducibly so that there is plenty of time to play straight down and feel the keys.

The most important element to practice once you know the components of a jump is to accelerate the horizontal motion. You will be surprised at how fast the hand can move horizontally if you concentrate only on that motion. You will also be amazed at how much faster you can move it with just a few days of practice -- something some students never achieve in a lifetime because they were never taught to practice it. This speed is what provides that extra time needed to ensure 100% accuracy and to effortlessly incorporate all the other components of the jump - especially, feeling the keys. Practice feeling the keys whenever possible so that it becomes second nature, and you don’t have to look at your hands. Once it is smoothly incorporated into your play, most people watching you will not even notice that you are feeling the keys because you can do it in a small fraction of a second. Like an accomplished magician, you will be moving your hands faster than the eye can see. The flat finger positions are important for this because you can use the most sensitive part of the fingers for feeling the keys, and those positions increase the accuracy of hitting the keys, especially the black keys.

Now that you know the components of a jump, look for them when you watch concert pianists performing. You should now be able to identify each component, and you may be amazed at how often they feel the keys before striking them and how they can execute these components in the blink of an eye. These skills will also enable to play, and even make long jumps, without looking at the hands.

The best way to practice fast horizontal motions is to do it away from the piano. Sit down with your elbow straight down. Quickly move the hand sideways by swinging the forearm around the elbow with the elbow stationary. Now point the forearm straight in front and shift it horizontally sideways (not in an upward arc), by pivoting the upper arm around the shoulder socket and simultaneously moving the shoulder down. In an actual piano jump, these motions are combined in a complex way. Practice fast right and left motions, as fast as you can with each of the two types of motion, and with a combination of the two. Do not try to learn these motions in one day. It is possible to injure yourself, and most significant improvements will have to await post practice improvement.

As you learn to accelerate the horizontal motion, jumps will immediately become easier. In order to reduce stress, relax all muscles as soon as the horizontal motion is over. The same applies to the subsequent downward motion -- as soon as the notes are played, relax all muscles, and let the weight of the hand rest on the piano (do not lift the hand/fingers off the keys). A good piece to practice this jump for the LH is the 4th variation in Mozart's famous Sonata in A, #16 (K300). This variation has large jumps in which the LH crosses over the RH. One popular piece you can use to practice RH jumps is the 1st movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata (Opus 13), right after the LH octave tremolos, where the RH makes jumps crossing over the LH.

Practice accelerating the horizontal motion by playing at a slow tempo, but moving horizontally as quickly as you can and then stopping over the correct position and waiting before playing. You will now have time to practice feeling the notes before playing, in order to guarantee 100% accuracy. The idea here is to establish a habit of always getting to the position ahead of time. Once you are satisfied that you have a quick horizontal motion, speed up the tempo. All you have to do to speed up is to simply reduce the waiting time before playing the notes. As you become proficient, you will always "get there at least a split second ahead of time". Then gradually combine all four jump motions into one smooth motion. Now your motion looks just like that of those great pianists you envied! Better yet, jumps aren't that difficult or scary, after all.