At my recent piano lesson, I worked on Rachmaninov’s Etude-Tableaux Opus 33 No. 2 in C. In order to practice the tricky arpeggiated left-hand accompaniment, which includes many awkward extensions of more than an octave, my teacher asked me to imagine that my arms had no bones in them, no fulcrum at the elbow, and that they were made of “soft, uncooked pastry dough”. And the following day, while teaching an adult student who is studying George Nevada’s nostalgic Wenn Paris Traumt (When Paris Dreams) for her Grade 2 exam, I gave her the image of thick, warm, scented oil running down her arms and into her fingers to create the smoothest, most beautiful legato playing.

Such visual cues may seem odd, but they can be really helpful, as sometimes it is not possible to find the technical vocabulary to describe the sensation one wishes to create in the hand and arm. A metaphor is often better (see my teacher’s post on Playfulness in Piano Playing for more thoughts on this), and children, in particular, can be quick to pick up and act on such images.

A sense of both relaxation and connection in the arms and hands is essential for both the production of good tone and to avoid physical tension or, worse, an injury. Tightness and stiffness produces a tight, stiff, and sometimes very harsh sound. I ask students to listen to the difference in the sound they are producing once they have been encouraged to relax their arms and hands: my adult was certainly very surprised when she heard herself playing the other day!

A few months ago, I reviewed the French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin in a coruscating concert of very varied and physically demanding repertoire (Haydn, Stockhausen, Villa Lobos and Liszt). During the interval, my friend (who is also one of my adult students) commented on how floppy and loose Hamelin’s arms appeared to be. Even as he walked onto the stage, his arms swung loosely from his shoulders, as if attached by thick, stretchy ‘bungees’. This incredible freedom and relaxation allowed him to bring a huge variety of tonal colour, touch and balance to his performance, and even the most jagged passages of the Stockhausen and percussive sections of the Villa Lobos had an extraordinarily fine quality of sound.

My teacher advocates a series of arm and shoulder loosening exercises as a warm up before any practice session or performance (at her courses, we usually do these in the garden if the weather is fair, allowing us plenty of freedom to swing our arms around). You need only do them for about five minutes to begin to notice a difference in the arms, hands and shoulders. The arms feel looser, longer even! The fingers are light and warm, and the shoulders, back and chest are opened. Try to retain these sensations when you sit at the piano.

To soften the arms and hands further, let your arms rest loosely in your lap and start to roll your arms gently around on your thighs. Imagine there are no bones between your hands and your shoulders, and that everything is very soft and pliable (like uncooked pastry!). When you place your hands on the keyboard, check underneath the wrist and forearm to ensure that lightness remains. And keep checking during your practice session, particularly if you are working on a small technical passage: it is all to easy to allow tension to creep back into the arms, resulting in uncomfortable playing and an ugly sound.

Last week, I heard Leon McCawley in a lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall. He played Debussy’s suite Pour le Piano (the ‘Sarabande’ from which was one of my Diploma pieces) and I was fascinated by the playfulness and lightness in his hands and fingers as he played the outer movements of the piece (both the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Toccata’ demand digital dexterity and fleetness). I observed a softness in his arms too, but it was very subtle, and, as my teacher pointed out when I was discussing it with her, a few years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed it, because it was not something I was aware of at the time.

I find it quite hard to encourage students to let their arms move more freely: this is partly because far too many early piano students (and even more advanced ones!) sit too close to the piano, with elbows resolutely glued to the body. The image of a skipping rope is helpful here, to encourage more freedom and “swing” in the arm. One end of the skipping rope is the finger on the key, the other the shoulder, and whatever is between should swing freely.

Meanwhile, I am pleased to report that the “soft dough” exercise, combined with a sweeping, eliptical movement in the hand (aided by using a middle digit – either the second or third finger – as a pivot), is enabling me to make progress with the Rachmaninov: it’s slow because I can only work on it for about 10 minutes before my arm gets tired, but, as with any technical exercise, it is worth the effort. The results come slowly at first, as the body adjusts to the new sensations, but eventually it becomes intuitive. Never push a technical exercise or overwork it: if your hands and arms feel tired, it is time to take a break.

Rachmaninoff composed his Opus 33 Études-Tableaux between August and September of 1911, the year after he completed his Opus 32 Preludes, and while the Opus 33 shares some stylistic points with the Preludes, the pieces are very unlike them.

The pieces are intended as “picture studies”, evocations in music of visual stimuli, though Rachmaninoff was never specific about what inspired each piece; he preferred to leave such interpretations to listener and performer, suggesting they should “paint for themselves what it most suggests”, rather as Debussy does in his Études, and Préludes (whose titles appeared at the end of the piece in Debussy’s original score). And like the piano Études of Scriabin, Debussy and Messiaen, Rachmaninoff used these pieces to explore and exploit a wide variety of themes, textures and sonorities, the possibilities of the modern piano, and how music for it should be written. They are also related to Chopin’s Études Opp 10 and 25, for they make technical demands on the pianist, while also offering characterful, beautiful and varied writing for the instrument. (It is no accident that Rachmaninoff greatly admired Chopin, especially his ability to write exquisite piano miniatures.)

Performing all eight Études-Tableaux together could be considered to run counter to the composer’s original intentions: he published only six in his lifetime. Numbers three and five were published posthumously, though are often inserted amongst the six etudes in modern editions. Number four was transferred to the Opus 39 set. The works make various demands on the pianist: syncopations, alternating hands, changing time signatures, awkward extensions, brisk tempos, expressive melodies, large hand leaps and massive chords. Many require strength, precision, endurance, rhythmic control, and dynamic and tonal balance. They push the boundaries of the Étude even further than Chopin or Liszt did, and are virtuosic in the extreme, with passionate character and vivid rhythmic vitality.

I hadn’t really explored these pieces until I heard the No. 2 of the Opus 33, in C Major, played as an encore by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in a recent recital on the Southbank. He played it with a Chopinesque tenderness, yet it was unmistakably Russian, the arpeggios in open fifths of the first bar, which form a recurring motif and accompaniment throughout, lending a slightly folksy feel to this work, and putting us in touch, as Rachmaninoff does with a great deal of his music, with the vastness of his native land.

The LTCL repertoire list asks for “two contrasting Études-Tableaux‘ from either Opus 33 or Opus 39, so I selected the No. 2 and No. 7 (sometimes listed in editions as No. 4) from the Opus 33. The No. 2 is a beautiful nocturne, a soaring melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment. The study elements of this piece are achieving a balance between the hands, and coping with some awkward extensions in the arpeggios. By contrast, the No. 7 in E flat, a brilliant and triumphant march, opens with a bright, brassy fanfare, and wild alternating chords, and bells at its close. It’s full of wit and humour, redolent of the Prelude in E, Opus 32, No. 3, and, to me, suggests an aristocratic rider, liveried in gold and scarlet, on a lively, prancing horse. Rachmaninoff himself actually nicknamed it “Scene at the Fair” when discussing it with Respighi (who orchestrated the Études-Tableaux‘). Its principal difficulty lies in the middle section where huge leaps and chords of 10ths make playing it up to tempo tricky. I’ve found practising it slowly and quietly protects the hands, and ensures accuracy when pushing the tempo up.

As for a recording, look no further that British pianist John Lill, who has recorded both Opuses. He gives a big, bright, full sound when required, and retains a strong sense of line and the dramatic impact of these pieces throughout, yet he never over-interprets.

Here is Sviatoslav Richter in the Opus 33, No. 4 (which I am also planning to learn)

And Hélène Grimaud in the No. 2 and No. 1