Reference Book: “On Piano Playing” by Gyorgy Sandor
In his book “On Piano Playing”, Sandor identifies five basic technical patterns in piano playing. And he lists them in the following order:
1. Free Fall
2. Five-Fingers, Scales and Arpeggios
Here I would like to explain no. 1 Free Fall and no. 5 Thrust together, with the following passages selected from my upcoming book “Piano Freedom”. (to be published in 2016).
Free fall is all about gravity.
As I repeatedly say to my students, it only requires us two ounces to hold a key down. So what is all the fuss about hitting a key so hard with a lot of force and continuing to hold it with tightening fingers and arms?
Although free fall uses gravity, it does not mean we do not have to do anything as we play. We still have to play the right keys at the right time, right? That means we have to control the use of gravity accordingly.
According to Sándor, there are three steps in this free fall technique:
Lift, Drop, Land and Rebound.
1 . Lift
From the term “lift”, it is obvious that we have to lift something up. But we have to lift with the following order: from upper arm, then the forearm, followed by hands and finally fingers.
There should be some distance for the fingers to drop from to the keyboard. Sándor suggests around ten inches. I don’t think one needs to measure the distance too precisely but approximately a considerable distance from above the keyboard as Sándor suggests would be just fine.
Another thing to notice is that the joints – meaning the shoulder joints, elbows, wrists and finger knuckles – should be “resilient and firm”, plus are “fixed only at the instant the fingers depresses the key”. (42)
Such action is in fact quite passive as the active parts go to the lifting and rebounding. You should feel your whole arm, hand and fingers being completely relaxed right after the drop. Pay special attention to such feeling in your slow practice of the technique as it would be the most difficult part of the whole action to get right.
3. Land and Rebound
This is when the keys are executed and notes sounded.
“This fixation causes the transference of energy into the keys and a slight rebound of the hand and fingers, and notably, of the wrist.” (42)
“A very important detail to watch out for is that the wrist must be in a relatively low position at landing so that it can cushion naturally.” (42-3)
When Do We Use Free Fall?
Gravity works on its own terms, distance is given for acceleration and insufficient speed will be generated in free fall without the addition of a throw. Therefore we can only employ free fall in passages in moderate tempo. Nothing can “drop fast”!
I would say we use free fall for big-sounding chords/octaves with longer duration (note value) in music of slower tempo, as we need time to generate the action, time that we do not have in fast-pacing passages or pieces.
To quote Sándor,
“we place the fingers right on the surface of the keys and push the keys down with a sudden instantaneous contraction of some of the strongest body and arm muscles (the chest, stomach, back triceps and forearm flexor muscles). This action generates maximum speed in the fingertips.” (108)
“In this thrust, unlike the techniques described before, the fingers are in constant contact with the keys; they touch the keys before, during and after the actual sudden muscle contraction takes place.” (108)
“The fingers stay on the surface of the keys, and the arms are slightly bent.” (109)
Do you understand this technique? Let me give you an example:
Think about playing a ball game, for example: badminton or volleyball. Now there is a ball coming from the other side and it is high in the air, you want to get it really bad. So you have to jump unusually high to get that ball. Now you are standing with your feet grounded into the floor. In order to get to that unbelievable height, you push your feet into the floor so that you can spring from it and catch the ball.
That push is the thrust, your fingers to the keys — except your fingers do not leave the keys after the push.
The push is, like Sándor describes, an “instantaneous” action. To push your fingers into the keys, you must make use of your upper body, especially your chest muscles and arm muscles. Notice if the triceps (the back muscles of your upper arms) are working. When you push your fingers into the keys and execute the notes, you can feel your upper body is also moving back at the same time, like a re-bounce. It is as if you are pushing yourself away something scary or someone you are absolutely angry with so that your whole person is also moving back, bouncing towards the opposite direction from where you have pushed against. You should be able to feel a momentum there.
What Are The Differences Between Free Fall And Thrust?
- You use free fall with your fingers dropped down to the keys from high above and push away from the keys after the execution of notes.. With thrust, your fingers always stay on the keys, before and after the keys are struck.
- Free fall is all about gravity. You do not have to push. You just have the hand position ready and let your arms fall. The speed of the action is slower. For thrust however, you have to push with great speed within a split second. You do need to create more force.
- Free fall can create much louder sound as the velocity of the action is much stronger. Thrust on the other hand is applied for smaller sonority like medium loud or even soft sound.
- Free fall is more suitable for easier chords with less notes, e.g. octaves and regular chord patterns. Thrust should be applied for more extended chords with more notes and complicated harmony so as to gain more security in getting the notes right.
In this following video, I illustrate briefly what Thrust and Free Fall are respectively.