Practicing double-thirds scales

Example-2-Double-third-scales-SO-1_20170826-192413_1

Why study double-thirds scales? Practicing double-thirds scales facilitates the performance of similar double-thirds passages encountered in the piano literature.1 Routinely practicing the double-thirds major scales readies the pianist for major and minor scale fragments, as well as challenging chromatic double-thirds passages.2 Some complete works are structured primarily on double thirds.3 However, analogous to our rationale for practicing single-voice ordinary scales, we really practice double-thirds scales not so much as to prepare ourselves for their occurrences in the repertoire, but for valuable ancillary benefits.

Practicing ordinary scales helps us develop a consistent touch (legato, staccato, portato, etc.) while targeting beauty in our musical tone. Ordinary scales improve our ability to play fast and to elucidate a melodic line. Additionally, scales help us address issues with our posture and hand position, and they promote the integration of our forearms and arms. When we work on technical exercises such as scales, our focus does not require interpretation nor engage our memory skills—items that otherwise demand our thoughts when we practice pieces for a jury or a recital.

Practicing double thirds improves our ability to achieve a control of tone, especially in legato passages. When we play legato, we connect one note to the next without breaks in the melodic line. In the case of legato double thirds, we are connecting a pair of notes to the next pair without breaking the melodic line (see Example 1). Through learning and regularly practicing double thirds, we improve our finger independence and voice leading. This increases our ability to enunciate contrapuntal passages, the real challenge Bach presents us in his Well-Tempered Clavier fugues. Another benefit of ordinary scales is the evenness they help develop in our trills. Similarly, practicing double-thirds scales achieves evenness in double-note trills (i.e., opening of Beethoven's Sonata, Op. 2, No. 3).

Example 1: Legato double-thirds

Franz Liszt and his favorite student, Carl Tausig—certainly two of the premier pianists of the nineteenth century—both published volumes of extensive technical exercises which included double-thirds scales, and they did not agree on the fingerings for these scales.4,5 Example 2 presents a general fingering guide this author recommends for major-key double-thirds scales. In the interest of keeping the guide to one page, the scales are shortened to just enough detail to establish the fingering pattern for an exercise envisioned as four octaves in each hand. Except for deviations noted with Example 2, the fingering shown is mostly in agreement with Liszt's fingering. 

Fingering for major scales in double thirds. Notes for the right hand are shown with fingering above. Play the left hand one octave lower using the fingering below (see note 6).

Why are double-thirds challenging?

First, legato touch in the context of double thirds requires highly trained listening skills and finger coordination. Even in non-legato double-thirds passages, it can be very difficult to balance voicing between parallel lines while fingering combinations vary between weak and strong fingers. Double-thirds passages usually involve awkward, but necessary, fingering pattern such as 3 crossing over 4, 3 crossing over 5, and the challenge of moving 4 under 3 while 2 goes over 1. Resolving the latter fingering issue cannot be reduced to a simpler study involved in a single line, but can only be addressed in the setting of double notes.

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Mastering double-thirds scales

Double-thirds scales can be mastered using an approach similar to the way ordinary scales are often learned. The process can be broken into two phases. The memory work and most of the conceptual learning occurs in the first phase when playing hands separately. In the second phase, the hands are combined and the effort becomes more repetitive, taking on the character of a daily drill. Mastering double-thirds scales requires a commitment of time: Allow at least three months of daily effort to thoroughly develop this technique.  

Double-thirds scales can be mastered using an approach similar to the way ordinary scales are often learned. The process can be broken into two phases. The memory work and most of the conceptual learning occurs in the first phase when playing hands separately. In the second phase, the hands are combined and the effort becomes more repetitive, taking on the character of a daily drill. Mastering double-thirds scales requires a commitment of time: Allow at least three months of daily effort to thoroughly develop this technique.

Phase one: Hands separate

• Approach the study of scales in double thirds as you would any major work in the repertoire. Start very slowly. Work within a lento tempo. Listen intently. Focus on tone.

• From the outset, playing legato must be a priority. You probably learned to connect notes—not releasing the first note until the subsequent note had been played—when you learned your ordinary scales. It became fascinating to hear the dissonant overlapping of tones and to actually listen to the sound of the release that the upward action of the first note made after the second note pitch was sounded.

•In every double-thirds scale we must embrace the playing of two notes with 1-3 either followed or preceded by 3-5. Because of this rather awkward fingering necessity, legato can be maintained in only one of two voices per "direction" (see Example 1). In ascending double-thirds scale passages played by either hand, legato can be maintained only in the uppermost voice of either hand. When descending, only the lower voice in either hand can be legato. This alone may be the most important reason for practicing double thirds—to improve one's legato tone.

•Another priority at the beginning of this learning process needs to be playing into the keys. Our natural tendency as pianists is to pull away. Especially at the outset when the pace is slow, play right up next to the key cover. Playing into the keys generally conserves finger motion and ultimately provides a feeling of security—a oneness with the instrument.

•Understand the fingering pattern for one octave and then extend the execution of the scale to four octaves.

•When we learned ordinary scale fingerings, we simplified the memory by remembering a landmark: the single pitch in each scale the fourth finger plays in each hand. We also memorized the starting finger in each hand for each scale. The approach with double thirds is similar: (a) learn the starting notes of each hand for each scale, and (b) remember which pair of notes, excluding the starting notes, the 5-3 combination plays in each hand for each scale. The adherence to a fingering pattern that relies on this landmark concept comes from Liszt. Tausig used landmarks for many of the scales yet abandoned that idea for double-thirds major scales in C, G, A, and F-sharp.

•As when playing ordinary scales, feel the line: exert a modest crescendo to the top and a decrescendo back to the bottom.

•Follow a consistent accent pattern, emphasizing every fourth pair of notes; if you think of the scale in sixteenth notes, emphasize the beginning of every quarter note.

•Develop some level of velocity while hands- separate practice continues.

Phase two: Hands together

•Slow the tempo dramatically—sixteenth notes become quarter notes.

•First execute four octaves in parallel (P) motion: 4-P up. 4-P down.

•Secondly, extend the two-hand exercise to contrary (C) motion by learning first, one octave in contrary motion, both outward (or diverging—C out) and inward (converging—C in), then extending that to 2 octaves. (2-C out, 2-C in)

•Finally, mix the parallel and contrary motion.

Practice the following two-hand pattern daily: 4-P up, 4-P down, 2-P up, 2-C out, 2-C in, 2-P up, 4-P down 

This is the pattern to practice daily. If it is too daunting to play all twelve double-thirds major scales each day, maybe a good fallback is to play six one day, six the next.

If you ask yourself, "Why do I need to play technical exercises?" Just remember the famous words of Franz Liszt: "I practice 4 to 5 hours of exercises (3rds, 6ths, 8ths, tremolos, repetition of notes, cadences, etc., etc.). Ah! Provided I don't go mad, you will find an artist in me!"7 



1 For scales and scale fragments: Beethoven: Op. 2, No. 3, Mvt. 1 (opening double-note trill), Op. 53, Mvt. 1 (sub. theme, i.e. mm. 46 and 207), Op. 81 a, Mvt. 1 (mm. 30-31); Balakirev: Islamey (many spots, particularly mm. 41-42 and 158-160); Chopin: Prelude, Op. 45 (opening in left hand); and Ravel: Miroirs, Mvt. 4 (glissandi double thirds in mm 187-190).

2 Chopin: Prelude in D Minor, Op. 28, No. 24 (mm. 55-56) and Berceuse (m. 25); Ginastera: Sonata Op. 22, Mvt. 2 (mm 164-167); and Prokofiev: Toccata (mm 77- 83 and m. 84).

3 Chopin: Études, Op. 25, No. 6 and Debussy: Douze Études, II.

4 Liszt, F. (1886). Technical Studies for the Pianoforte, Book VI. A. Winterberger (Ed.). Leipzig: J. Schuberth & Co., pp. 3-14.

5 Tausig, C. (1880). Daily Studies for Pianoforte, Volume II. H. Ehrlich (Ed.). New York: G. Schirmer, pp. 39-41.

6 Liszt (1886), pp. 3-14.

(a) In the RH of the D-flat scale, Liszt starts with 3-1 then 4-2. Fingering shown lends to a more comfortable start in this author's opinion and is also that of Tausig's.

(b) In the E-flat scale, Liszt starts RH with 2-1 and LH with 3-5. Start of E-flat shown here agrees with Tausig's fingering.

(c) In the F scale, Liszt starts RH with 2-1 and LH with 3-5. Fingering shown here more closely resembles Liszt's than Tausig's whose F scale uses C-E as its "5-3 landmark."

7 Letter from Franz Liszt to Monsieur Pierre Wolff of May 2, 1834, in Letter of Franz Liszt, Volume I, https://goo.gl/iU9nL7, collected and edited by La Mara (pseudonym of Marie Lipsus, 1837-1927), translated by Constance Blanche. 

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