How To Use The Parallel Set Exercises

Parallel set exercises are not intended to replace the Hanon, Czerny, etc., or any type of exercise. The philosophy of this book is that time can be better spent practicing "real" music than "exercise" music. The parallel set exercises were introduced because there is no known faster way to acquire technique. Thus, technical pieces like Liszt's and Chopin's etudes or Bach's Inventions are not "exercise music" in this sense. The parallel set exercises are to be used in the following way:

(i) For diagnostic purposes: by going through these exercises systematically, you can find many of your strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, when you arrive at a passage you cannot play, they provide a method for finding out exactly why you can’t play it. In hindsight, it seems obvious that if you are trying to improve some technical aspect you will need a good diagnostic tool. Otherwise it will be like going to a hospital for an operation without knowing what malady you have. According to this medical analogy, practicing Hanon is somewhat analogous to going to the hospital to get the same simple, routine checkups every day. The diagnostic capability of parallel sets is most useful when practicing a difficult passage. It helps you to pinpoint which fingers are weak, slow, uncoordinated, etc.

(ii) For acquiring technique: the weaknesses found in (i) can now be corrected using precisely the same exercises used to diagnose them. You simply work on the exercises that revealed the problems. In principle, these exercises never end, because the upper limit of speed is open ended. However, in all practicality, they end at speeds of around one quad per second because few, if any, music requires higher speeds. In most cases, you can't use these high speeds once you add even one conjunction. This demonstrates the beauty of these exercises in allowing you to practice speeds that are faster than what you will need, thus giving you that extra margin of safety and control. You should be using these exercises most during HS practice, as you bring the speed up beyond final speed.

Procedures (i) and (ii) are all you need to solve most problems in playing difficult material. Once you have successfully applied them to several previously “impossible” situations, you will gain the confidence that nothing is unconquerable, within reason.

As an example, consider one of the most difficult passages of the third movement of Beethoven's Appassionata, bar 63, the LH accompaniment to the climactic RH run, and similar, ensuing passages. If you listen to recordings carefully, you will find that even the most famous pianists have difficulty with this LH and tend to start it slowly and then accelerate it, or even simplify the score. This accompaniment consists of the compound parallel sets 2.3,1.5 and 1.5,2.3, where 1.5 is an octave. Acquiring the required technique simply boils down to perfecting these parallel sets and then joining them. For most people, one of the above two parallel sets will be difficult, and that is the one you need to conquer. Trying to learn this by just playing it slowly and accelerating it HT would take much longer to learn. In fact, simple repetition brings no guarantee that you will ever succeed, because it becomes a race between success and building a speed wall, if you try to speed it up. You must practice HS and change hands frequently to avoid stress and fatigue. You also need to practice it softly in the beginning in order to learn to relax. Without parallel sets, there is a high probability that you will develop stressful habits and create a speed wall. Once the speed wall is erected, you can practice all your life without improvement.

Another cause of the speed wall is “forced playing”. It is easy to bring most of the rest of this movement up to speed, so there is the tendency to play it at speed and then try to “force your way” through this difficult passage without the required technique. The resulting stressed playing creates a speed wall. This example shows how important it is to start practicing the difficult parts first. In this situation, a person who knows how to practice will slow down so that s/he will not have to play beyond her/is ability.

In summary, the parallel set exercises comprise one of the main pillars of the methods of this book. They are one of the reasons for the claim that nothing is too difficult to play if you know how to practice. They serve both as diagnostic tools and as technique development tools. Practically all technique should be acquired using parallel sets during HS practice to bring up the speed, to learn to relax, and to gain control. They form a complete set so that you know that you have all the necessary tools. Unlike Hanon, etc., they can be immediately summoned to help when you hit any difficult passage and they allow practice at any speed, including speeds higher than anything you will ever need. They are ideal for practicing to play without stress and with tone control. In particular it is important to get into the habits of sliding the fingers over the keys and feeling the keys before playing them. Sliding the fingers provides tone control and feeling the keys improves accuracy. Without breaking up a difficult passage into simple parallel sets, it is impossible to incorporate these extra refinements into your playing. We now move on to several other useful exercises.