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Slur Technique

© Richard Beauchamp — Jan. 1999

From the moment most pupils meet their first slurs — perhaps in Steibelt’s little Adagio in A Minor or Beethoven’s Sonatina in G, they regard them as boring and outdated stylistic effects, encumbrances put into the music by quill happy composers intent on making their works look more interesting on paper and progress more difficult for the student. Very often all the teacher is able to get across to the reluctant pupil is that the second note should usually be softer than the first and somewhat shorter than written. In fact, not only do slurs help to make the music dance, breathe and ‘speak,’ they are also an opportunity to get something right early on that will later enable the student to play some of the most ‘difficult’ music by Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Liszt. It is not uncommon to find professional pianists who experience difficulty in playing “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” by Schubert, the second movement of the Sonata for Violin and Piano by César Franck, the seemingly impossible changes of hand position in the Coda from Brahms’ second piano concerto, or even the beginning of the Sonata in D Minor Op 31 No 2, known as “The Tempest,” by Beethoven, all of which have difficulties directly related to slur technique.

A great treasure to be found in slur technique is in learning to relax quickly — not something most of us think of doing fast! — thereby giving the muscles freedom to re shape the hand for the next action and for the arm to prepare another downward stroke. Once this relaxation becomes a learned reflex it can be compressed into a seemingly infinitely small period of time so that it does not interrupt the flow of the music.

Practising slur technique

The principle of exaggeration is often useful in learning a new reflex, so I start the pupil off with large movements and slow slurs to make time for them.

To avoid ambiguity, here are some photos to illustrate what I mean by ‘low wrist’ and ‘high wrist.’ NOTE: The way the arm slopes is irrelevant, it is the angle at the wrist that is significant.

This is a low wrist position: Low wrist position and this, a high wrist position: High wrist position

Starting with a two note slur, fingered 3,2, in the right hand, get the pupil to form the low wrist position and raise the hand to about chin height. Then drop onto the first note, maintaining the low wrist position. Next relax the wrist and play the second note as the arm is raised. It is very important to get this timing right as many pupils play the note first and then raise the arm, thereby wasting time by making two movements in place of one, and many others raise the wrist before playing the second note which is a waste of the movement. As the arm is raised, the wrist will assume the high position (if it is relaxed) and the hand will hang from it. “Dead fish” or “limp rag” seem to be helpful images! It is vitally important to get this stage correct, with the hand hanging limply the instant the arm is raised, or the quick relaxation needed for virtuoso playing can not be developed. Now continue to raise the arm very slightly and at the same time bring the hand up to form the low wrist position again in preparation for the next slur. (This is necessary because we are slowing down what will, at speed, become a ballistic movement. Momentum will cause the hand to continue upwards after the arm starts to come down.) The pupil will by now be convinced that you have reached new heights of insanity in imagining that the piano can be played in this manner, but you can demonstrate how the movement becomes smaller as you increase the speed. I usually find a quick burst from the opening of “The Tempest” does the trick. At the fastest speeds the movement is barely discernable, but, if the relaxation reflex has been properly trained, the muscles still have time to prepare the next shapes with comfort and freedom.

These slurs can be practised upward and downwards with each pair of fingers. Note that the second note does not have to be softer. You can give it an accent by ‘kicking off’ or by pushing forwards with your arm as you play it.

Next, three note slurs can be practised with various fingerings and patterns. Land on the first note, ‘walk’ to the next note (keeping the low wrist position) and lift off on the third note. This gives a natural diminuendo through the three notes.

Do the same with four notes. Land on the first, walk to the second, walk to the third whilst reducing the weight and lift off on the fourth. It is important to save the lift for the last note. Once again this gives a different dynamic for each note. (You can, of course, do any of these slurs with or without a diminuendo as required.) When you have mastered this technique, those passages (e.g. in Mozart) where a group of notes begins by repeating a note or finger, will give you no trouble at all. The two notes do not feel as though they are repeated. Rather, the first is the end of an action and the next the begining of one — like notes that are separated by the end of an up bow and the begining of a down bow on a stringed instrument.

With five notes, land on the first, walk to the second, reduce the weight on the third, lift very slightly on the fourth and lift off completely on the fifth.

Arm phrasing

A very useful spin off from all this practice is that the pupil will have learned how to phrase with arm weight.

Simply lower the arm as the notes get louder and raise it as they become softer. This is a beautifully natural way to phrase and brings to life the playing of many pupils who have previously been unaware of arm phrasing. String players will quickly catch on to the advantages of this technique as it is so like the phrasing they do when they add or take away weight in the bow arm.

When watching a pianist play in this way, the hands appear to perform a dance which articulates the music, as would be the case in this example.

Richard Beauchamp was Head of Keyboard at St Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh until April 2014

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