Ben Laude: Ask Me Anything about Piano Technique!

We are kicking off this new Community feature with our own Ben Laude!  You know him as an outstanding pianist and pedagogue, and, of course, as Head of Piano here at tonebase, where he has produced and appeared in countless video lessons and interviews with the many dozens of world class pianists on the Artist Roster!

As he'll be the first to tell you, Ben was no prodigy; and without proper technical training, he had to solve his physical problems at the instrument the hard way. A long-time student of piano technique, Ben has researched a variety of technical schools of thought developed over the past century and is always experimenting with them in practice.

For tonebase, he has collaborated on video courses with technique specialists from Penelope Roskell to Seymour Bernstein, and is currently in the process of releasing a multi-part video series on how to practice the Chopin Etudes with Marina Lomazov. This past spring, he released a series of master class sessions on the Taubman Approach with Golandsky Institute co-founder Robert Durso, and will be recording with Edna Golandsky herself this fall.

How to Participate

  • Ask your questions right here until September 2nd!
  • Ben will answer questions from September 5th - 9th!
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  • Hi! How do you know when to rotate your wrists clockwise or counterclockwise? Thanks!

    Like 2
    • Ben Laude Thank you for this thorough reply! It gives me a lot to work on and ponder. I haven't thought about Taubman scales lately, let alone how to apply them to repertoire. This is helpful. Thank you!

      Like
    • Roy
    • Royhj
    • 5 mths ago
    • Reported - view

    Hi Ben,
    Thank you for putting this feature up.

    I'm struggling with building my technique in a progressive manner (difficulty/importance-wise).
    There are so many great tips and insight on how to improve my technique and musicality that I find it hard to focus on one thing for a enough time before moving on.

    As a beginner, I know for example, that playing scales and working on my left-hand is probably more important than my finger independence while playing bach, but I'm having a hard time prioritizing and making a plan and measurable goals so I know when to move on.

    Would really appreciate help with how to make a progressive practice plan.

    Like 5
      • Ben LaudeTeam
      • Head of Piano @ tonebase
      • Ben_Laude
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Roy good questions. Without watching you play a little bit, it will be hard for me to tailor this especially for you and your technique. For example, I do think hand independence is something to be practiced from day 1 (although maybe not "finger independence" in Bach passages with multiple voices in the same hand; that comes later). But I think I can give some general pointers that you might find useful and applicable to your current level.

      • First of all, I want to make sure that when you're working on developing your technique that you're not sight reading anything. You didn't mention it, but I'm assuming your sight reading/music literacy is also at a rudimentary level? (Maybe you learned to read music long ago and played another instrument, but it's still a different experience to read a grand staff.) For example, if you were to be learning Bach's Minuet in G (not by Bach, but it's from his notebook at least), you should memorize the first two bars and just focus on choreographing your hands to play them musically and with ease. So, step 1 is to separate sight reading practice from technical practice. You should practice both, but for now I'll just focus on technique.
      • Next, as I understand your questions, you're wondering about (1) priorities, and (2) how to know when to move on.

      (1) Priorities. Ask yourself this:

      • What are my longer term goals (whether 6-9 months or 2+ years)? Do you have a specific piece you really want to play, but feel like you need to train to get there? Usually that's a beginner student's motivation (for classically inclined students, that is). If that's your goal, I would tailor your training around developing your chops to play that specific piece.
      • Maybe you're motivated by many pieces, or by a whole composer's output. In any case, it's useful to pick one piece you'd really like to play and ask: what are the things I can't do that I need improve before I even touch this.
      • Now, pieces of music can usually be reduced down to scales, arpeggios, and chords, and fragments thereof, but one of the reasons we get lost at first is because we know abstractly that we need to "practice scales, arpeggios, and chords" but don't have a concrete goal in mind, and that engenders this feeling of not knowing where to begin. Say you wanted to play Mozart's C major Sonata, K. 545. The first movement is accessible to a beginner within a year of diligent practice (if not sooner). So, why not use the passage beginning in bar 5 to practice right hand scales? For both right and left hand scales, Clementi Op 36/1 is a good place to start. Those are just a couple of examples – maybe you're not interested in that. Maybe you really want to play the CPE Bach Solfeggio, which combines arpeggios and scales. Why not start there. Maybe you're aiming for a Chopin Nocturne, like Op. 9 No. 2, which has a constantly shifting left-hand chords and a legato right hand. Well, that's a good piece to practice chords/leaps and legato. Maybe it's Clair de lune you want to play: that piece has some perfect passages you could use for developing your chords and arpeggios.
      • You get the idea. If you tell me what you're aiming for, I could help you build a regimen around training for that. Then, from there, you can build out your practice to include more abstract exercises (and I can suggest some). But now you'll have a sense of priority about what to spend more or less time on. There's no objective way to do this, and there's really no such thing as practicing the piano in general without any aim in mind (unless you want to feel lost and confused), so you can be reassured that your own aspirations are the best place to derive your shorter terms goals and priorities.

      Having said all that, if you do just want to sit down and practice scales because you know you have to improve them, know a few things:

      • Never make scale/arpeggio practice a game of getting through however many scales up to however many octaves at whatever metronome speed. This can end up being mindless, and you'll likely end up reinforcing bad habits.
      • Always focus on the choreography of the hands, and developing a supple. Seymour's Keyboard Choreography course isn't a bad place to start. The goal is to develop the movements that will help you play efficiently. Penelope Roskell's Pillars of Piano technique is worth studying as well, and her Technique Training is designed for you to practice a long with. She discusses the movements more in depth in the Pillars course, but here you just get exercises tailored to developing the essential movements of a competent technique. And this features passages from repertoire, so it's a musical experience at the same time it's a mechanical one. If you really don't know where to begin, or what to do next, then it's worth just starting to make your way methodically through he course and the training exercises. Then you can start incorporating them into your daily practice. Or - pick and choose from the exercises based on what your weaknesses are and what you'd like to eventually accomplish.

      (2) How to make "measurable" goals, and how to know when to move on.

      • Right, so even if you get your priorities straight and you decide what you really want to achieve at the piano, it's still hard to know how to measure you progress.
      • Again, there's not objective measurement. I would caution against using a metronome mark as a goal, because again it's very common to build speed through injurious means. Of course, if you simply can't play something fluidly up to speed, you know that you haven't reached the point that you can move on. But the goal should not be a certain tempo.
      • Rather than thinking of your progress quantitatively, I would think qualitatively. Ask yourself: What does it feel like to play this scale with the left hand, or that sequence of chords with the right, etc; and what does it sound like. If it feels good and sounds good, that's probably a good "measurement" of success and you're probably ready to move on (or, better yet, keep playing the pattern and enjoying the newfound facility, and try to inflect it in different ways, dynamically and with touch, and see if you can achieve different characters with it).
      • Listening to yourself while you play is never easy at any level. Record yourself with your phone and listen back, and see if you sound like what you thought you did. Did it sound the way you wanted? If not, how did you want it to sound, and from there you can probably deduce what it is mechanically that's causing the undesirable sounds. But often we're pleasantly surprised. Sometimes things sound good but don't feel good. In that case, make sure the bad feeling isn't just you getting used to a new movement (I would call that "awkward", which is a necessary to experience when having the experience of new and more efficient movements; whereas "bad" meaning "pain" should never be tolerated).
      • Say your right hand is good at something that your left hand isn't. Play the same or similar pattern with both hands simultaneously, using the same fingering as a mirror image. The most common example of this is playing a scale in contrary motion: put both thumbs on middle C and start an ascending scale with the RH while the LH descends. Same fingering. But ask: do they feel the same? Is the right hand more fluid than the left. Just the act of playing them simultaneously in contrary motion can help send constructive signals to the weaker hand from the stronger hand. The hands can "talk" to each other and share secrets without your brain even getting involved. How do you know when to "move on"? Well, in a given practice session, maybe all you end up accomplishing is gaining the awareness of what the right hand is doing that the left hand can't. But you've slowed it down and let your right hand send signals to the left, and do your best to match the movements. You could end with that, having not yet solved the problem at the keyboard, and let your brain solve problems while you're away from the piano. Things "sink in", especially when we're sleeping, and a day or two later when you come back to it, suddenly your left hand is better. Or, maybe it's not better, and you need to dig deeper. Watch one of the many lessons on tonebase about scale technique, and see what you can apply to your left hand. The problem might be originating in the shape of your bridge, the position of your forearm, or tension in your upper arm. That brings me to another principle:
      • When we lack finger dexterity in certain kinds of patterns, the root of the problem is never found in the fingers themselves, but in the whole mechanism. There's really no such thing as "strong fingers" or "fast fingers," only more or less efficient playing mechanisms. I recommend watching through Bob Durso's Taubman course, because the approach conceptualizes every healthy movement in terms of a unified playing mechanism – finger, hand, and arm working together. Everybody here already has "fast fingers," just hold your hands up and do the "jazz hands" - twiddling all the fingers rapidly at the same time. Watch how fast your fingers move! So, the dexterity is already there. What's not there yet is the feeling of being comfortable in a unified playing mechanism at the keyboard, so that you can utilize your natural dexterity towards musical ends. This is where Taubman really helps.

      I realize you might be wanting a clearer guide to progress where I spell out an ordered practice routine for you. But, again, I can't know for sure what your needs or goals are. And, at the end of the day, practice regimens are effective only insofar as you're doing the types of things I've been describing above when you're progressing through the regimen.

      One thing you could do is make the very activity of trying to develop a routine into an experiment. Try very short routines that target fundamental weaknesses. Take an hour, divide it into three 20-minute segments. 20 minutes of left hand scales, 20 minutes of right hand scales, and 20 minutes together. Or, better: 15m LH scales, 15m RH scales, 15m together (emphasizing contrary motion), and then return to LH scales for the final 15 (because your right hand will have "talked to" your left). What scales? Well, you could use one of the scale passages I was talking about. Or just focus on C major, which is not an easy scale, and occasionally mix it up with the parallel minor (C minor). But, all the while, the point is not how long or what order or what scale, it's how it feels and how it sounds.

      Like 5
      • Roy
      • Royhj
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Ben Laude thank you so much for this! I summarized and written everything you wrote with many action items based on your insights.

      I'm not sure how to translate the idea of having a dream piece in mind (for me, maybe the Eng suite No. 2 or Bach's piano concerto in D minor) into a practical plan.

      I really like the idea of connecting those pieces that motivate me with the ability I don't have in order to play them to help building practice routines. But then I went along and tried it, even just listening to the C major fugue (WTC 1) and couldn't isolate the exercises I need to close the gap... only playing lots of easier bach to build up independence (which is not what you meant).

      Then I get stuck with my second problem. I started practicing a 2 part invention (No. 4 in D minor in this instance) planning to study more than one of course. I memorized most of it but never happy with how it sounds (https://youtu.be/X71Xx9TtoTI). I'm not sure I see the light in the end of the tunnel with regards to moving on.

      Like 1
      • Ben LaudeTeam
      • Head of Piano @ tonebase
      • Ben_Laude
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Roy Just quickly. Your Bach looks pretty good! In terms of being satisfied with how you sound, this is everyone's problem, even if standards raise when you get better and better. I would from time to time stop thinking about even a relatively short piece like this Invention as something to execute in full, or even in this segment that you played. And just focus on one phrase or fragment that you particularly like or are interested in and just enter the flow state trying to experiment with touches and articulations and pedal, and also with your physical approach, listening very carefully and trying to realize a certain ideal concept you have of the sound. And if you don't have much of a concept to begin with, gaze at the passage and imagine one, then try to realize it. When you inevitably fall short, ask why, and see if you can't pinpoint even just one thing that helps you shape the phrase into something really beautiful that you've imagined in your head. You're better off spending practice time just doing that, than trying to learn buttons to press over the course of a 2 minutes piece. It will develop your senses in a way that allows you, over time, to start making it second nature how you approach practicing extended sections, and ultimately gets you to the point that you're solving problems more and more easily by aiming for more and more well-formed ideas about what you want from the piece.

      Like 1
    • Heidi
    • Heidi_Basarab
    • 5 mths ago
    • Reported - view

    Hi Ben, thanks for doing this AMA and sharing your knowledge. What are your general thoughts on developing a technical approach for certain genres (Classical, Romatic, Baroque, New Music, etc.) or even composers? Any overall pointers or things you keep in mind when it comes to tailoring your technique and adapting to meet the harmonic/emotional demands of these various eras and/or composers?

    I would also be interested to hear about how you've developed your own *sound*. Any breakthrough moments or ideas that have helped you figure out who you are, sound-wise? 

    Like 3
      • Ben LaudeTeam
      • Head of Piano @ tonebase
      • Ben_Laude
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Heidi Good questions. In reverse order, with respect to your second question I recommend you scroll up and see my response to Niraj who asked a very similar question.

      Regarding your question about technique and genre, we certainly want to approach different styles with a different set of touches, articulations, dynamics, etc – which means, in effect, a different technique – but you could also say the same between composers within roughly the same genre (Haydn v Mozart, Chopin v Liszt, Debussy v Ravel, etc). And we see very clearly that certain pianists who possess certain physical approaches to the instrument often specialize in a body of repertoire. Glenn Gould's flat fingered, digital technique, with his array of articulations made with the fingertip, suited his predilection for Bach (or perhaps his predilections influences his techniques; in any case they likely evolved together). Other pianists who championed the Viennese classical repertoire – Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert – often developed techniques that were less elastic and more conducive to rhythmically strict, precise execution of motives and clear lines. See Rudolf Serkin or Alfred Brendel. When you hear these pianists in Chopin, it's like a foreign language for them, and this is directly tied to their technical approach. However, they're good in Brahms, since his brand of romanticism required techniques that also make for good Beethoven – deep, rich sonorities. There's a feeling of "downwardness" in this Austro-German repertoire and pianistic tradition (although I'm flirting with stereotypes note), it can sometimes sound heavy-handed (Mozart being an exception). Whereas to play Chopin well, you need quite the opposite feeling: I interviewed the Chopin Competition silver medalist Alexander Gadjiev last fall and he said that his teacher Pavel Gililov (4th in the '75 Chopin) always talked about Chopin's music "going up." There's a lift and an air to it, always, and this relates to Chopin's own pearly technique. A whole French school of playing developed around this style, and it suits Debussy well, but can sound a bit feeble in Liszt or Rachmaninoff.

      I spent more than 5 years where the majority of the repertoire I was playing was Bach and Beethoven, and I was practicing in a way that prized clarity and dignity of line over color and textural variety. My fingers got more curved and my sound a bit more direct, and I became much more judicious in my use of pedal. When I finally started playing lots of Chopin again, I had to develop/recover sensations that I didn't feel I needed in Bach, both in my touch and in my arm movement. Chopin composed in a way that respected the natural shapes of our bodies and hands, including the curvilinear motions we create and the uneven length and strength of our fingers.

      Having said all that, I also noticed that when I started playing Chopin again after all that time developing my finger independence and rhythmic precision from playing Bach and Beethoven, it did wonders for my interpretation and sensitivity to Chopin's own polyphony strong rhythmic character.

      And I would actually conclude with that: I think, ultimately, it's much more important to ground your technique in the contrapuntal tradition of Bach, if only because it lies at the base of 200 years of compositional thought and keyboard technique. Of course styles and approaches to playing evolved significantly, but Bach was always lurking underneath just about every good composer's music. At the end of the day, the piano is most noteworthy in being a polyphonic instrument, and if you don't develop the sensitivity and awareness to control multiple things happening at once, you're going to sound 1-dimensional in Romantic music. I was inspired by Yunchan Lim – who just became famous for his Rachmaninoff and Liszt – who was asked in an interview what his pianistic and aesthetic influences were, and he said that he's always first and foremost grounded in Bach and Beethoven. And you hear it in his Romantic playing, including Mendelssohn and Scriabin – he's much more in control of voicing and color and very attentive to details thanks to his training and appreciation for baroque music.

      Like 4
      • Heidi
      • Heidi_Basarab
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Ben Laude Wow, this is very thorough and helpful. Thank you!

      Like
      • Gail Starr
      • Recently retired MBA (international consumer products/luxury goods/classical music mgt.)
      • Gail_Starr
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Ben Laude What a clear and nuanced response.  Thank you SO much!

      Like
  • There are many passages  that require one to play a chord and then quickly play another chord a jump away. I am thinking of the first page of the coda in Chopin’s Ballade #3.  Is it best to maintain the stretch throughout the jump, or release it in between? Logically, it seems more efficient, and thus faster to keep the hand stretched. But I am trying to relax my hand in between each jump, thinking of a trampoline.  

    Like 4
      • Ben LaudeTeam
      • Head of Piano @ tonebase
      • Ben_Laude
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Jenny Harrison do you mean this passage? And if so, right hand or left hand? Or both?

      Like 1
    • Ben Laude Oops! I meant the Ballade #1. Sorry about that. See the right hand of the coda at Presto con fuoco. I have tried playing this keeping the same hand position for the first 8 bars, but this does not seem right.  It is too rigid. Now I am trying to immediately relax the hand completely while lifting it up after the thumb plays. If this is right, then I can apply it to many other places. I hope others find this helpful.

      Like
      • Ben LaudeTeam
      • Head of Piano @ tonebase
      • Ben_Laude
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Jenny Harrison Oh, of course. I'm assuming you've watched Garrick Ohlsson's lesson on the piece. He speaks quite a bit about the coda. But I'll also make a video for you addressing your specific issues!

      Like
    • Ben Laude Wow, I look forward to seeing it. When I was a beginner and for a long time after that, I subconsciously applied the principle “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.”  This is clearly not the way to approach fast passages on the piano. For one thing, the black keys get in the way so the shortest path to avoid these will be an arc. Tension from rigidity is not good, either. 

      Like 1
    • Ben Laude I had listened to Ohlsson’s lesson a year ago when I first started working on this, but was not ready for much of what he had to say. Now I am!  Indeed, he does broach the right hand motion at the beginning of the coda that I was asking you about and I am pleased that this is what I ended up doing. Perhaps that first time I listened, I absorbed his words subliminally and chose the path he had recommended. The chromatic passage coming up in the right hand is going to take some real work to make it sound like a glissando. Do you have any thoughts on that? 

      I think I will need another year to get this down, but it is worth it. It is never boring and each page has challenges that advance me as a pianist and musician as I figure out how to play them. I strongly recommend it to others who may think it is beyond them.

      Like 1
      • Ben LaudeTeam
      • Head of Piano @ tonebase
      • Ben_Laude
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Jenny Harrison Thanks again for your patience! Here's a video I made for you on the 1st Ballade Coda. I hope it's helpful!

      Like 1
    • Ben Laude 

      Wow! That was fantastic!  You packed in many techniques and tricks to this 20 minute video. I will be going through it slowly during the next few weeks to make sure I fully understand each of your points.  As it happened, I was ready to hear this and felt like a sponge soaking up your knowledge. For the first time in my life,  I think I will be able to play this entire piece, but it will take a few more months.

      I wish I had expressed myself more clearly, but you actually guessed what I was asking about and answered my question.  (For what it is worth, I have large hands and can easily play a ninth.  So I would play the first chord and thumb note with a stretched hand for the entire ninth spread and use a bit of wrist rotation for power. Then I would move my stretched hand to the next group and do the same thing.  I was not satisfied with this for I could not play the passage up to tempo. Thanks for correcting this error and showing me what to do.)

      You said at the end, that you did not know how I was responding, so I thought you would like to hear some details. 

      Like 1
  • One can play a note softly by gently pressing the key. Another way is to gently stroke the key.  I find that the latter produces a more magical sound. Is this backed by experience of professionals? If so, then a combination of “tangential” and “orthogonal” motions could introduce a vast array of tones. 

    Like 3
      • Ben LaudeTeam
      • Head of Piano @ tonebase
      • Ben_Laude
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Jenny Harrison Indeed! And different pianists/teachers will advocate more or less for different angles of attack. Fleisher, for example, is a proponent of flatter fingers and using a sliding motion to "deflect" the energy and create a more "magical" sound, as you say. See 21:35 - 25:45 in the master class he gave me on the Pathetique. I then applied that kind of touch to the beginning of the 4th concerto here, and you see that it pleased him! (At 0:40).

      I don't consider this universal, and I doubt Fleisher would either. Rather, I see a sliding key stroke as a tool that should be in a pianist's tool box, and like you say, experimenting with sliding at different angles, and combining with all the gradations of touch with a more curved, downward-facing fingertip, can have all kinds of subtle (but noticeable/special) effects on your sound.

      I would only caution against the word "press." I think it sends the wrong message. We should never "press" the keys, the way we press a button, because it implies isolating the fingers from the rest of the playing mechanism. And, especially with soft tones, you have to approach your attack with a firm finger tip and enter the key with a constant rate of speed, just at a slower velocity than when playing fast. Seymour and I talk about this at 7:48 here and specifically with regard to soft playing at 19:23 here.

      Like 1
    • Ben Laude Thank you for your informative reply. I watched your Fleisher master class and yet another range of possibilities opened up. I had been experimenting with tangential motion away from the fall board, especially for bass notes for which I was trying to create a sound like a cello. (I have played cello in orchestras, so  knew what I wanted.) Fleisher demonstrated motion towards the fall board. What fun I will have now, trying and comparing both directions!  It must be true that once the hammer hits the string, it is all over, so we can focus on what is happening at the beginning of the tone. Pianists who know a little math can think in terms of tangent and orthogonal vectors. These are infinitesimal attributes of motion occurring at the moment of contact between the hammer and string. 

      Like 1
      • Ben LaudeTeam
      • Head of Piano @ tonebase
      • Ben_Laude
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Jenny Harrison Interesting insights! And yes, sometimes we can slide away from the fallboard. It really depends on the context of the passage and what kind of color you want to achieve.

      Like
    • Ben Laude I wanted to thank you for creating ToneBase from the bottom of my heart. It has opened up the world of piano for me in ways I never imagined possible. I once dreamt of going to Juilliard, and ToneBase provides an online version. That you answer personal questions like this is simply thrilling. 

      Like 4
      • Ben LaudeTeam
      • Head of Piano @ tonebase
      • Ben_Laude
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Jenny Harrison that means a lot, and thank you!

      I was accepted to Northwestern for college to pursue a dual degree in math and music, but ended up going to Rice for just music instead. I never got past Calculus I and even that was pushing my limits (no pun intended).

      I know nothing about vector calculus, but I am curious how math (and physics) could help elucidate the mysterious things we do at the piano. I’ve always been perplexed at the variety of sound that can be produced by an instrument made of hammers striking strings at different speeds. And equally mysterious is how the endless ideas about touch that pianists have somehow can be reduced again to the blunt mechanism of a hammers hitting strings.

      Like
    • Jenny Harrison Thanks for sharing. I started off as a music major at the U of Alabama but switched to math because I had so many problems playing the piano as a late beginner. I ended up as a professor of math at UC Berkeley.

      There are many connections between math and music. (Math and physics are deeply intertwined, so I include physics when I say “math.”) Both are studies of patterns, Musicians use patterns to express story and emotions. Mathematicians use them to create models that ultimately mirror processes in the real world, although we pure mathematician often live in made-up abstract worlds. Many mathematicians are gifted musicians, and musicians are often gifted mathematically, but do not have the education to follow what is going on.

      Going back to the question about how the angle of motion of the finger/hand/arm unit when the hammer hits the string affects the sound, it would be really interesting to film this in slow motion.  Does the hammer actually move, even a tiny bit for a split second in the direction of the string, in either direction? We hear a magical sound, so can we see it? 

      Like
      • Gail Starr
      • Recently retired MBA (international consumer products/luxury goods/classical music mgt.)
      • Gail_Starr
      • 4 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Jenny Harrison Hi Jenny!  I used to play cello, too.  I totally know what you are looking for in that sound!

      Like 1
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