Do you panic when you see large leaps when sight-reading? Not sure how to overcome this fear? Then read on to find out how to play leaps with confidence when sight-reading.
Leaps are scary, especially when we’re sight-reading and we’re not supposed to look at our hands. And to make matters worse, for us pianists, it’s either a hit or a miss, unlike string players who can slide the finger until they find the right note! So how can we possibly nail these big leaps without looking down? Is there a trick? Or do we just have to pray for dear life and stab in the dark?
Luckily, I have a few tricks up my sleeves that can help you nail those leaps.
But first, let’s clarify something…
What type of leaps am I talking about?
There are many types of leaps but the leaps I’m referring to in this article are the ones that we most often find in romantic music, the “oom-pah-pah” or “oom-pah oom-pah” LH accompaniment. Think of waltzes, mazurkas, nocturnes, rags, etc. These leaps usually consist of a bass note and a chord, the typical pattern being bass note, chord, chord, or bass note, chord, bass note, chord. The interval between the bass note and the chord is often a 4th, a 5th, a 6th or an octave, and sometimes larger. We will look at examples of these in existing pieces.
Ok, let’s look at ways of overcoming the fear of leaps.
Practise without looking at your hands
To get more confident around the keyboard and thus with leaps, practise your scales, arpeggios, studies, pieces and what have you without looking at your hands, or better still, with your eyes closed. I know this might sound horrifying and impossible but not only is it possible but necessary in many cases, especially with sight-reading when we don’t have the luxury of looking down at our hands every second.
So next time you practise, give it a go. You might fumble at first but keep at it. You’ll give yourself a chance to learn your way around the keys.
Use the black keys to guide you
The black keys on the piano are raised for a reason: they’re placed higher to enable pianists to find their way around the keyboard. Without them, we would be completely lost. So use the black keys to your advantage. For example, if you need to find a C, instead of looking down, feel for the two black keys and you’ll find the C to the left. Or to find an F, feel for the three black keys and you’ll find the F to the left.
Look for the closest notes
Large leaps can be daunting on the page but there are several ways to make these leaps seem less scary. One of these ways consists of looking for the closest notes between intervals, in this case, the bass note(s) and the chord. This method is a useful concept derived from the Taubman approach.
For example, in the following nocturne by Chopin, the octaves and the chords seem far apart if we think of the distance the LH pinkie has to travel, or between the lowest and top notes, but if we look at the closest notes between them, that is, the top note of the octaves and the bottom note of the chords (as indicated by the red circles), they appear much closer. The distances between the closest notes in the first two bars are either fifths or sixths, which are manageable intervals.
Look for common notes
Another way to approach leaps is to look for common notes between chords. For example, in Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, the common note between the A-flat octave and the following chord in the first bar is the A-flat (as shown by the red rectangle). The thumb on the first A-flat is replaced by the second finger when playing the chord. Similarly, in the next bar, the common note between the chord and the following E-flat octave is the E-flat, played with the pinkie then by the thumb.
Being aware of common notes can help you find the right notes more easily without having to look down.
Remember the preceding notes
Remembering where your LH has just jumped to can help you play the succeeding jumps more accurately. For example, in Chopin’s Nocturne Op.32 No.2, while the leaps between the first and second notes of each group of three seem big, the LH keeps going back to the same place each time. In other words, the distance remains the same between the bass note and the chord so remembering this distance helps with playing all the subsequent leaps.
Use consistent fingering
Try using consistent fingering for common oom-pah-pah LH accompaniment patterns. Here are a few rules I suggest you follow:
– use the pinkie on the single bass notes preceding the leaps
– use the thumb on the top note of chords, regardless of whether the note is on a white key or a black key
– use the common fingering for triads and inversions (that is, 5-3-1 or 5-2-1) unless the lowest note is a black key or you have big hands, in which case finger 4 may be more comfortable
– when the chord is made up of two notes and falls within the interval of a fifth, use a more extended hand position (fingers further apart) so that your pinkie has less distance to travel. For example, use fingers 1 and 2 for intervals of a second or third (or fourth in some cases) and fingers 1 and 3 for intervals of a fourth or fifth.
Here is an example taken from Chopin’s Waltz Op.64 No.2:
Think of broken chords as blocked chords
When the LH pattern is made up of a bass note followed by a broken chord (usually two notes followed by one note), it helps to think of the broken chords as blocked chords.
For example, in Chopin’s Waltz KK IVa No.15, the interval between the bass note and the following chord is not so big if you think of beats two and three as one unit, that is, a blocked chord. It’s only scary if you look at the interval between the bass note and the lowest note of the following chord (D-sharp to F-sharp, E to E, etc.) without thinking of the following note.
Practise the LH separately
Of course, you can also practise the LH separately, either in the form of exercises or using LH hand patterns found in pieces.
For a whole set of LH exercises as well as the tips and examples of this article plus over 80 pieces with LH leaps, practice suggestions and other recommended music, check out the downloadable Master Your Left-Hand Leaps booklet.
Those are my tips for LH leaps. If you think of any other tips, please do share them in the comments below!