Parallel Sets

Now that the LH CEG chord is satisfactory, (try to) switch suddenly from the chord to the quadruplet at several different bounce frequencies. You will now have to move the fingers but keep the finger motions to a minimum. Here again, you will need to incorporate the proper hand/arm motions (see Fink, Sandor), but that's advanced stuff, so let's back-track a little. You will be able to switch quickly after you have become proficient with this method but let's assume that you cannot, so that we can demonstrate a powerful method for solving this very common type of problem.

The most basic way to learn how to play a difficult passage is to build it up two notes at a time, using the chord attack. In our (LH) CGEG example, we start with the first two notes. A two-note chord attack! Play these two notes as a perfect chord, bouncing your hand and fingers (5 and 1) together up and down as you did previously with the CEG chord. In order to play these two notes rapidly one after the other, lower both fingers together, but keep the 1 finger slightly above the 5 so that the 5 lands first. It is just a rapid two-note rolling chord. Since you are bringing both fingers down at once and only delaying one slightly, you can play them as closely as you wish by decreasing the delay. This is how you slow down from infinite speed!

Is it possible to play any combination of notes infinitely fast in this way? Of course not. How do we know which ones can be played infinitely fast and which ones can't? In order to answer this question, we need to introduce the concept of parallel play. The above method of lowering fingers together is called parallel play because the fingers are lowered simultaneously, i.e., in parallel. A parallel set is a group of notes that can be played as a chord. All parallel sets can be played infinitely fast. The delay between successive fingers is called the phase angle. In a chord, the phase angle is zero for all the fingers. These and related concepts are explained more systematically in section IV.2. The highest speed is attained by reducing the phase to the smallest controllable value. This smallest value is approximately equal to the error in your chord playing. In other words, the more accurate your chords, the faster will be your maximum attainable speed. This is why so much space was devoted above to describing how to practice perfect chords.

Once you have conquered the CG, you can proceed with the next GE (1,3), then EG and finally the GC to complete the quadruplet and conjunction. Then connect them in pairs, etc., to complete the quadruplet. Notice that CGE is also a parallel set. Therefore the quadruplet plus conjunction can be constructed from two parallel sets, (5,1,3) and (3,1,5). This is a faster way. The general rule for the use of parallel sets is: construct the practice segment by using the largest parallel sets possible that are consistent with the fingering. Break it up into smaller parallel sets only if the large parallel set is too difficult. If you have difficulty with a particular parallel set, read section III.7 on parallel set exercises. Although, in theory, parallel sets can be played infinitely fast, that doesn't guarantee that you can play that particular parallel set with sufficient speed and control. You can play it only if you have the technique. Therefore, parallel sets can be used to pinpoint your weaknesses. Section III.7 discusses details of how to practice playing parallel sets and how to quickly acquire technique by their use.

After you can play one quadruplet well, practice playing two in succession until you can do that comfortably, then three, etc. Soon, you will be able to play as many as you want in succession! When you initially bounced the chord, the hand moved up and down. But in the end, when playing the quadruplets in rapid succession, the hand is fairly stationary, but not rigid. You will also have to add hand motions -- more on this later.

The second difficult section in Fur Elise ends with an arpeggio that is composed of three parallel sets, 123, 135, and 432. First practice each parallel set individually, then add the conjunction, then connect them in pairs, etc., to build up the arpeggio.

Now we have the necessary terminology and can summarize the procedure for using the chord attack to scale speed walls (see sections IV.1 and IV.2 for discussions of speed walls). Decompose the segment into parallel sets, apply the chord attack to these sets, and connect the parallel sets to complete the segment. If you cannot play any of the needed parallel sets at nearly infinite speed, you will need the parallel set exercises of section III.7. Whew! We are done with speed walls!

In order for the segment to sound smooth and musical, we need to accomplish two things: (1) control the phase angles accurately and (2) connect the parallel sets smoothly. Most of the finger/hand/arm motions described in the references are aimed at accomplishing these two tasks in the most ingenious ways. This is the most direct connection between the concept of parallel sets and the references. Since those subjects are adequately covered in the references, they are only briefly treated here in section III.4. Therefore those references are necessary companions to this book. The material given here will get you started; the material in the references is necessary to bring you to the next level of proficiency and musicianship. In order to help you decide which reference you should use, I have provided (extremely brief) reviews for several of them in the Reference section. As you speed up the parallel sets, experiment with hand rotation, wrist motion up and down (in general, lower the wrist when playing the thumb and raise it as you approach the pinky), pronation, supination, cycling motion, thrust, pull, etc. These are detailed in the references and briefly surveyed in section III.4.

You will need to read section III.7 in order to know how to use parallel sets to acquire technique quickly. The above introduction to parallel play is just an abbreviated description and is in fact a little misleading. The parallel play described above is what is called a "phase locked" parallel play and is the easiest way to start, but that is not your ultimate goal. In order to acquire technique, you need complete finger independence, not phase locked fingers. Completely independent finger-by-finger play is called serial play. Our objective therefore, is fast serial play. In the intuitive method, you take a slow serial play and try to speed it up. Parallel play is not an objective in itself, but is the quickest way to fast serial play. These issues are explained in the section on Parallel Set Exercises. The idea of these exercises is to first test whether you can play "infinitely fast" -- you will be surprised to find out that you cannot always do so, even with just two notes. The exercises then provide you with a way to practice only those sets that you need for that technique. You acquire the technique when you can play the parallel set with control over each note at any speed.

Of course, proficient parallel play by itself does not guarantee correct play. It just gets you there faster by at least getting you up to speed, so that you have fewer steps to take in order to arrive at the correct motions. That is, even with successful parallel play, you will still need to perform quite a bit of further experimentation in order to be able to manage the whole passage. Because the method described here allows you to try hundreds of trials in minutes, this experimentation can be conducted relatively quickly. If you apply the bar-by-bar method, each bar will take less than a second at speed, so in 5 minutes, you can practice it 300 times!

This is why you can't beat having a good teacher, since s/he can steer you quickly to the correct motions and bypass most of this experimentation. But having a teacher does not mean that you will stop experimenting - just that the experimentation will be more effective. Experimentation should be a constant part of any practice routine. This is another reason why HS practice is so valuable -- experimenting is difficult enough HS, it is practically impossible HT!

Parallel play does not solve all problems; it solves mainly material containing runs, arpeggios and broken chords. Another major class of problems is jumps. For this go to section III.7.f.