The nuts and bolts of piano technique – Part 1: Octaves

Murray McLachlan
Friday, March 8, 2024

A manual breaking down aspects of piano technique with practical advice and step-by-step guidance for players of all standards, written for International Piano by Murray McLachlan

Octaves have a glamourous reputation. They are frequently associated with excitement, virtuosity and ‘wow’ moments that seem incredibly hard to bring off. For the inexperienced, simple octave passages can prove problematic. We may associate increased effort with an admirable work ethic, but for octave-playing excess strenuous endeavour and wrongly distributed physical strength can prove ineffective. Indeed, it is fair to say that heavy-handed practising will only make your octaves more unreliable and uncomfortable. Octaves need to feel natural and enjoyable. Taking time over them all as you practise is important. It is essential to approach and assimilate octaves with physical pleasure, coordination and ease of movement as priorities.


Because successions of octaves are not commonly found in music at elementary or intermediate levels, first encounters with the phenomenon are often intimidating and stress-inducing. Beethoven’s Minuet in G major, WoO10 No 2,has long been a popular intermediate piece. Indeed, it has commonly been set for Grade 4 examinations in the past. It contains a succession of left-hand octaves that can often prove intimidating and uncomfortable for inexperienced players (see Example 1).

Example 1: Beethoven Minuet in G major, WoO10 No 2, bars 13-16

Even in this brief passage players are frequently scared. The good news is that with patience and know-how it should be possible for all players to play this passage, provided they can comfortably stretch eight white notes on the keyboard with their thumb and fifth finger. Regular, concentrated and coordinated practice will pay dividends. Take the left hand on its own. Start through shadowing the keys rather than playing them out loud. Feel that you are lifting each octave out of the keyboard without any sense of stiffness or undue effort. This is an important principle for octave-playing that can be applied to more challenging passages in advanced repertoire. Learning not to ‘dig in’ to the keys will conserve energy and enhance a sense of comfort.

As you move around the keyboard silently, relax between each octave. The hand can compress inwards and relax and feel light as you move. Make sure that your arms and wrists feel tension-free, too. What we are after is a gentle wave movement from one octave to the next. This will certainly facilitate ease and coordination. Think of opening and closing a fan: gently stretch out your hand in preparation to play each octave, and afterwards draw your thumb and fifth finger inwards towards each other as you lift the wrist gently upwards in preparation for the next octave.

Combining dexterity with velocity

After coordination and consistency of approach are achieved with slow-moving octaves it is possible to move on to repertoire that demands a faster pace. Scarlatti’s Sonata in A minor, Kk54, sits comfortably around the Grade 8 level of difficulty. Its light, rapid octaves need to flow with dancelike momentum but can prove challenging for players who have not nurtured comfortable, coordinated dexterity. Even if it seems too easy, always take time to work slowly at octave passages that need to move quickly. Use exactly the same principles for practice as suggested for the Beethoven excerpt above: relax before and after each movement, shadow the keys and feel that you are literally bouncing from each octave to the next rather than pushing down into the keyboard (see Example 2).

Example 2: Scarlatti Sonata in A minor, Kk54, bars 21-26

Lightness is the byword here. You can gradually increase reliability and understanding in your playing by working with three octaves at a time, stopping on the third. Though there will be a separate ‘mini bounce’ upward movement for each octave, it is important to be able to feel as though you are taking an overview of a moderately rapid octave passage like this one, playing in a single thrusting movement. Think about throwing a pebble over the surface of the sea in a skimming movement. As you increase speed and the number of octaves you can play at a time, individual bouncing movements for each octave can become more and more economical, so that your brain only needs to think about an entire passage of octaves as a single thrusting gesture. Be mindful over the quality of sound and the dynamic level you are producing: if you ‘shout’ octaves out loud for even a few minutes at a time, you will experience a tiredness that makes it hard to concentrate and listen acutely. Take time to produce the loose but economical movements that will ultimately enable you to perform with maximum success.

Flying octave exercise

As an independent exercise away from repertoire it is worth practising descending double-octave scales. Don’t start with complete scales. Play the top octave first alone, bouncing off it as soon as it is played. Next, play the second highest octave and move immediately to the top octave again. Start with your hands at least six inches above the keyboard and play the two double octaves in a single movement (when confidence increases you can try diving down from a much higher height). Remember to come straight off the keyboard immediately after you finish playing the second double octave. When you can do this, try three octaves in succession (the sixth, seventh and eighth degrees of the scale), then four and five octaves at a time. Keep going until you can play eight octaves in succession with a sense of one continuous movement. Think of a golfer’s swing. Feel relaxed and economical with your upward movements, and try to conserve energy by working at a quiet dynamic level.

Health and longevity

When you can play rapid octave scales by building up through the approach just outlined, you can try octaves in arpeggio and broken-chord patterns. You should feel, as Franz Liszt famously observed, as though you are shaking octaves ‘out of your sleeve’. Though there are many instances when players seem to have constant high wrists as they rapidly execute sequences of octaves in performance, I would argue that the healthiest approach is to strive for neutrality when you play an octave – try to keep the wrist in alignment with the forearm. Playing any note, chord or octave with wrists raised or lowered produces more of a strain on tendons than playing when the wrist is in synchronisation with the lower arm. Of course, wave movements are necessary to move from one octave to the next, and it is these that can most readily relax and re-energise the player in preparation for the next octave.

Virtuoso octaves

Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 6 (the Allegro final section) is arguably the most famous extended octave ‘stunt’ passage in the entire repertoire (see Example 3).

Example 3: Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No 6, bars 35-41 of final Allegro section

If you have mastered the ability to play octaves rapidly in scale patterns beforehand then work here can spring from a similar approach. Work in four-note groups at first, ‘shaking out’ each group of octaves as single, leggiero movements. Approach this octave marathon on a daily basis, with a sense of patient growth. Think like a trainer in the gym: you cannot hope to play eight successive bars of double octaves instantly on the first day of practising, so gradually add to the number of notes you play over an extended time. If you can cope easily with four notes at a time, try eight. Move on to 12 then 16. Don’t be impatient – it is far better to stay within your comfort zone for a week or two longer than you would prefer than risk discomfort and possible injury. Set up a standing mirror parallel to the keyboard so that you can observe your movements. Film yourself and watch back. How is your wrist-arm alignment when you play each octave? Are you adopting wave movements in each group of octaves? Are you really physically relaxed when you stop after each segment of notes? Try working with your eyes closed so that your hand and fingers learn through touch how to reach each octave with complete security and familiarity. Take breaks, persevere with pianissimo playing before increasing the dynamic level, and always feel in control and comfortable.

Weighted technique

Of course, octaves vary in colour, characterisation and intensity of sound depending on the stylistic context. Though rapid leggiero octave-playing remains the most glamourous and glitzy, there are voluminous examples in the repertoire when such an approach would be inappropriate. The middle section of Brahms’s Ballade in D minor, ‘Edward’, Op 10 No 1, mixes chordal and octave-playing in textures that demand weighted resonance and depth of sound in order to be convincing (see Example 4).

Example 4: Brahms Ballade in D minor, Op 10 No 1, bars 27-32

Practise everything in the same way here. Single notes, chords and octaves will thrive when your fingers are placed in advance touching the keys so that your (relaxed) arms and wrists can be raised prior to each sound. Experiment with pre-play leverage so that the arm/wrist moves up in a ‘backswing’ movement before descending for each note/chord/octave to sound. But keep your fingers on the keys at all times. Never lift them off. This may need lots of patience to perfect – but it is worth it. We are taking the emphasis away from the fingers and using relaxed weight from the arm to be responsible for sound-production. It will totally fail if your wrists are locked with stiffness. When healthy technique is established the wrist acts as a car’s clutch or shock absorber, enabling the arms to have a positive impact on the sound. Stiff wrists literally make this an impossibility as they block the requisite connection between the hand and the arm. I recommend experimenting using weighted touch with octaves in scale, arpeggio and broken-chord patterns, building up from the slowest speed.

The infinite variety of styles in our extraordinary repertoire means that octaves can be adjusted tonally to fit into so many contexts. Think of the speed of release necessary in percussive repertoire (say, Bartók’s Allegro barbaro) or the slow floating movements in so much French repertoire (say, Debussy’s ‘La cathédrale engloutie’), not to mention the sense of muscularity from the hand rather than the upper arm in strong Viennese Classical music (say, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto). As with all technical challenges, our ears will tell us how we need to adjust our physical approach in order to achieve the desired results. Success comes from a combination of sensitive listening with comfortable, coordinated movement. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of International Piano. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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