Monday, 13 August 2012

Piano Athletics: Leaps (jumps) on the Piano - technical tips from Alan Dorn, LRSM

Guest blogger Alan Dorn, LRSM (Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music) gives us technical tips to approach leaps, such as those found in Chopin's Etude Opus 10 #1 and Liszt's 'La Campanella'.

What is a leap?
A leap is a large, quick movement from one note or chord to another (requiring a change of hand position).

Why are leaps difficult?
To leap accurately we have to move our arms, not just our hands/fingers.  We might not be used to doing this quickly and accurately.  Poor posture can lead to tension in the back, shoulders and upper arms which can make leaping more difficult.

If we miss a leap it’s often very exposed and so the error is easy to hear.  This can make us anxious – again causing tension and making accurate leaps harder.

Technique for leaps
Many leaps are best handled by a shift of the whole arm.

  •  Make sure you are sitting in a balanced posture so that your shoulders and arms can move freely.
  •  Make sure the arm is moving enough.  It is tempting to move the arm only part of the way and do the rest with the hand, but this results in cramped and awkward hand positions.
  • Allow your weight to shift on the stool if necessary.

Free Whole Arm Movement 
A good example of free whole arm movement is Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Watch how his right arm movement allows his hand to remain in a comfortable position throughout.

However, some leaps need different approaches such as forearm shifts or rotation.

Alice Sara Ott uses rotation here .

The best strategy for you will depend on the passage and your capabilities – try various options and see what works.

Repeated leaps up and down the keyboard can give an awkward ‘stop-start’ feel.  Try to integrate the leaps into a larger circular motion.  Your movement should be as graceful and flowing as possible.

What’s going wrong?
If you’re having trouble with leaps the first step is to isolate the problem.
-     Make sure you know exactly what notes you should be playing.  Play very slowly if necessary.

-     Work out which exactly which notes are being missed when you play up to tempo.  Sometimes this kind of attention will reduce your anxiety levels and the problem will go away.

-     Focus on how you are missing the notes.  Are you jumping too far or not far enough?  Once you are aware of what you are doing, you can consciously think about widening or narrowing the leap as you practice.

Practising leaps
To build security in your leaps, you can try some of the following practice suggestions:

  • Play the note or chord before the leap, and leap to the next note or chord as quickly as possible without playing it.  This will link the leap in your mind to the action of playing the previous note or chord.
  •  If you have to leap and also change hand shape (for example from a triad to an octave), try working on each of the two things separately first, and then put them back together.
  • Try practising on the surface of the keys without pressing them down.  This has two benefits:

1.       You can focus on feel rather than sound, and make sure you’re touching every key cleanly.  This is harder than just playing the right notes and builds in some margin for error.

2.       You get into the habit of touching the keys for an instant before pressing them down (‘prepared’ playing) – this gives more security in leaps.

  •  Break the passage down into very short sections (can be as short as a bar or half a bar).  Think through each section up to tempo, then play it, then think how successful it was before you move on (‘plan, play, judge’).  If you need to repeat a section, think it through again first.  This lets you practise at full speed while focusing fully on each leap.
  •  If you have to leap outwards with both hands at once, you can’t see where they both land.   Decide which hand you’re going to look at and make sure the other hand can locate its target by feel.  An example is the last chord of Chopin’s second scherzo.
  • Practise with your eyes closed.  This promotes a feel for the size of the leap and helps locate the note or chord by touch.  This skill can be greatly improved with practice – note the number of successful blind pianists.


  1. Excellent! Dr. Bonnie Woodruff. So glad you are showing these technique-demo's.I studied with a great European concert artist, and developed these steps for beginners to levels 6 and higher, where they can learn this in 6 months with regular dedication to the piano in my series of white and black key technique.

  2. Some good information here, though some misunderstanding, as well. The 1st Chopin etude is not about leaps, but rather grouping of notes to keep the hand in a "closed" position. When mentioning the arm it's very important to differentiate between the forearm and upper arm. The latter is heavy and slow. In quick leaps the forearm, hinged at the elbow, is the motor. The hand can be at any angle with the keyboard as long as it is straight with the forearm.