3 Important Piano Elements

...and blending them.

The photo above is of a Zen garden.  They have three primary elements to them:  rocks or large stones, gravel or sand and raked lines which are usually renewed daily.  They are also known as dry rock gardens for reasons which should be quite obvious.

Individually, each element can be studied but its true value only becomes apparent in the context of the environment as a whole.  In other words, if one element is missing, the whole garden loses its full meaning, significance and importance.

The purpose of a Zen garden is to replicate that which exists in nature and to provide us the opportunity, through observation, to acquire a kind of wisdom regarding the true nature and perfect balance of the world.

(Consider my latest eBook: Water Pianism)

The rocks more often than not represent mountains but even waterfalls if rounded, weathered stones are stacked on top of each other.  One does well to find a kind of balance between the rock types used and their number.

The gravel most commonly represents bodies of water in an environment where water does not exist.  When combined with purposefully placed rocks, a mimic landscape begins to take shape.  Of course, water moves and is ever changing, much like a Water Pianist, so it is necessary to rake the gravel to represent both the ripples of water and to infer the impermanence of all things.

You may be wondering what on Earth this has to do with being a pianist or piano theory in general but you may be suitably surprised that it has very much to do with it indeed!

After all, just as a Zen garden is composed of three primary elements to make up the whole, so too are the demands put upon a pianist and only through a gentle blend of mastery of each of these three elements might a pianist reach levels of ability and sensitivity previously undreamed of.

To join the Water Pianism Community, click here:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/waterpianismcommunity/

Rocks, gravel and waves are to the Zen garden what chromaticism, broken chords and leaps are to the pianist.  The inherent lack (of mastery) of any one of these elements renders the other two somewhat useless.

Chromaticism is in fact quite a complex study if you wish to go all the way but for this article, it is enough to understand the following logic:  Major scales are built from the twelve available notes in the familiar chromatic scale, which has been around for centuries, and contain seven notes.  These seven notes do not create a chromatic scale because they do not contain only semi-tone intervals; the interval pattern is: tone, tone, semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tome (or whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half-step).



Although I often call major scales the DNA of the piano/jazz, since without them, nothing is possible, we could call the chromatic scale the nucleotide of the major scales.

Due to the tuning system used, each note forming the chromatic scale just happens to be the same 'pitch' above or below the next note on our instruments.  This interval is called a semi-tone; when they are all lined up, it just happens to create 12 pitches which we just happen to label C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B.  Of course, they could be labelled as flats in the opposite direction.

When one wishes to play a note outside the major scale, one enters the world of 'chromaticism'.  When reading music, such notes are highlighted by a sharp # or flat b or natural ♮ symbol and are known as accidentals.

In practice, being able to play chromatically, meaning one note after the other, is incredibly important.  So much music from the last 200 years at least has involved chromatic movement and pieces often demand chromatic runs in both hands, sometimes starting on different notes which can really confuse the conscious mind.

Spend a lot of time playing with the chromatic scale; however, do not just try to become the fastest full-length chromatic scale executor the world has ever seen but break them down into bite-sized phrases.  C to F# and back again, or Ab to Eb and back again.  Try chromatic runs using intervals, meaning each hand starts on a different note.

Liszt's priceless (yet free) technical exercises collection has pages and pages of intervalic chromatic runs.  Also, try them using unnatural fingering, just for a beneficial work out.  And as always, do all of these with your eyes closed and Find your Natural Limit... then work at pushing it.

You would be hard-pushed to find a piece of piano music which does not involve broken chords played in some way.  Usually in the lower register or requiring use of the left hand to provide some kind of accompaniment to the melody in the right hand, broken chords come in two basic forms: in-octave and multi-octave (arpeggio) and may vary only in speed of execution and direction (ascending/descending).  An exceptionally important element to playing the piano, broken chords must be mastered with all chord types and in all twelve keys.

This sentence, "in all twelve keys", gets chucked around a bit too often but for chords, you simply must do it because as you acquire repertoire and work through progressions, at some point, you will have passed through all twelve keys whether you liked it or not (!) so get used to them in the early stages so that you may thank your past Self (and a teeny tiny bit, me) in the future.

If you search for an official meaning of the word 'leap', as used in musical theory, you will not find one definitive answer.  There are steps and skips, whereby the former is the interval of a second or less (C to D or Db, for example) and the latter anything larger than a minor 3rd (C to Eb or above); then there exists an octave which is a leap, too, but you would do well to follow my additional rule which I believe should be added to music theory literature surrounding the word 'leap' itself.  See what you think...:

One has a step and a skip as described above and which are, in the purist sense of the word, leaps.  One then has an octave which, as may already be realised, is the third kind of 'leap'.  So, what about anything which is a minor 9th or above (outside an octave)?  At the moment, it must be called a 'skip' because it's a leap above a minor 3rd but the octave acts as a barrier.  I dislike this set up of terminology.

If I may, name only this interval (b9) and above as a 'leap', for the octave and within already have their own designated terminology whereas the b9 and beyond do not.  For anything of an octave interval or less, let them be named 'jumps'.

Would one argue against a leap being further than a jump?  I don't believe so...

Spending time with all jumps:  steps (minor 2nd and second), skips (between a minor 3rd and a major 7th) and octaves is of course part of one's technical exercise regime at the piano but leaps, as you now understand, involve jumping beyond an octave and appear quite often in music yet are often disregarded during practice sessions.  Do not let this be the case for You.

I hope that this article has given you some food for thought and that you are now able to focus your piano time in a manner more beneficial to your natural progress and on the elements which matter most.

Understand that pianism is quite simply a blend of chromaticism, broken chords and leaps and that, just as with the Zen garden, if one element is missing, the other two suffer in their lonesomeness.


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