How to Play Piano Arpeggios Like Liberace

TakeLessons has purchased the right to use an edited version of this post in their blog.

An arpeggio is a series of three or four notes played, one after another, that sound good together. Learning how to play arpeggios is one of the first steps for understanding the science of how to create beautiful harmonies on the piano keyboard. Playing piano arpeggios well is an art as well as a science.

Tip: Perhaps the simplest example is the C Major arpeggio, which contains the notes C, E and G, played both forward and backward: C-E-G-E-C. Start with the right hand, using fingers 1-3-5-3-1 ( finger number 1 is the thumb )and using the fingers 5-3-1-3-5 with the left hand. After you can do this with both hands separately, try playing both hands together. This will be a little tricky, remember when one hand is using finger 5, the other hand will use the thumb ( finger 1 ).

One of the great masters of 20th century piano showmanship was Liberace; otherwise known as the “Elvis” of piano performance. Liberace’s trademarks were wildly ostentatious outfits, candelabras atop the piano and dramatic, finger-tangling sweeps across the keyboard of a grand piano. Those dramatic sweeps, known as arpeggios, are available to any aspiring pianist who has the patience to learn the art.

Arpeggios are also an amazing way to create sound effects on a piano. The rapid tinkling of pianissimo major seventh arpeggios in the high notes can sound angelic; like tiny drops of the first rain in spring that evoke the image of an impressionist painting.

Mysterious and dark, a slow forte diminished arpeggio in the base notes has a familiar yet foreboding sound, like the soundtrack to suspenseful parts of a scary movie. The full range of arpeggio sounds can produce a practically unlimited combination of effects … no synthesizer required!

1.       The first step to learning arpeggios is to start with something simple: the one-octave arpeggio. One-octave arpeggios are deceptively easy to perform on the natural (white) keys, and it only starts getting a little tricky when arpeggios include natural keys with sharp and flat (black) keys.

One-octave arpeggios come in many different styles and flavors, and all of them are based on chords. The most common are three and four note arpeggios. Three-note arpeggios are a great place for beginning students to start. These are:

a)      Major
b)      Augmented
c)       minor
d)      diminished

Tip: The one-octave C Major arpeggio repeats the C above the first C, played both forward and backward: C-E-G-highC-G-E-C. The one-octave is a stretch for smaller hands, and kids might need need to move their hands back-and-forth from side-to-side to grab the lowest to the highest notes in this arpeggio. Most teenagers and adults can reach the one-octave stretch, hovering above each note much easier. Right hand fingers: 1-2-3-5-3-2-1; left hand: 5-3-2-1-2-3-5.

Four-note arpeggios are a little more complicated. These are for intermediate students, so if you’re new to piano just skip over these for now. These are the most common versions of four-note arpeggios:

a)       Major with Major seventh
b)      Major with minor seventh (also known as “Dominant”)
c)      Augmented with minor seventh
d)      minor with minor seventh (also known as “minor seventh”)
e)     diminished with minor seventh (also known as “half-diminished”)
f)      diminished with double-flatted seventh ( also known as “full-diminished” or just  “diminished”)

2.       Tuck the thumb under to play the natural keys, while the fingers are reaching up to play the sharps and flats. Decide what fingers you want to use, and practice the same fingering each time. After you get the hang of them, arpeggios are a great way to warm up your hands before practicing music, just like a sports team warms up before sports practice.

3.       When you’re ready, learn how to play every type of arpeggio in every key. Yes, all twelve keys, and all ten types. Don’t expect to practice everything in one sitting. Maybe you’ll have more fun learning all the arpeggio types in one key before moving onto the next key. Or maybe there’s a certain sound effect that you’d like to check out in all the keys. However you want to learn, be consistent and keep moving forward each time you are at the piano keyboard.

4.       After you’ve mastered one-octave arpeggios, you’re ready for the piano big leagues. Soon you’ll be taking on the entire keyboard like a pro. Here’s the good news: if you can master the second octave, running the length of a seven-octave piano should be a piece of cake. So, what’s the deal with that elusive second octave? It’s very simple: be relaxed and be prepared.

Tip: A two- or multi-octave C Major arpeggio continues the sequence beyond the one-octave arpeggio: C-E-G-highC-E-G-higherC and so on to as high a C as you desire …. and then back down through the octaves to your starting point. Right hand fingers going up: 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3 etc.; left hand going up: 5-3-2-1-3-2-1-3-2-1 etc. and going back down the opposite of the way you went up.

5.       Relax your shoulders and wrists, working with your hands as your thumb and fingers move in a constantly flowing over-and-under wave motion. Let your elbows move in and out, going with the flow as your hands rotate gently over the keys.  Keep your back straight, and allow yourself to bend side-to-side at the waist if you’re travelling over the keyboard, keeping your shoulders aligned parallel to the floor. If you do it right, you’ll get a great upper-body workout at the same time!

6.       Start slowly, using a metronome, and then build up speed as you get more comfortable. That way, you’re more likely to sound like the smooth and suave musician you are, and not like Peter Cottontail thumpity-thump-thumping down the bunny trail. (for more about working with a metronome, read my post “Steps for Learning Fast Piano Songs”)

7.       Be prepared. After your posture and position are comfortable, the best preparation for pianistic takeover is fingering. Unlike the one-octave arpeggio, your thumb and fourth finger (both hands) will be constantly moving over (fingers) and under (thumb) each other. Be ready to make a move before you’ve reached your third or fourth finger.

Word of advice: Don’t wait until you’ve played the fifth (pinkie) finger or you’ll get stuck. You’ll either be tripping over your fingers, or trying to rotate your wrist over to play with the back of your hands. Just don’t do it.

8.       But wait! There’s more … maybe you want to venture beyond ten types of arpeggios in twelve keys over seven octaves (that’s 840 octaves and 120 arpeggios). Okay, maybe not … but what if you seek additional intellectual stimulation with your warm-up?

Try arpeggios in contrary motion; starting with one center note, each hand moves outward from center, and then back. Give it a whirl, it’s a mind-bender. Or, if harmony is your desire, try a different arpeggio in each hand (like c minor seventh with E♭major seventh) The possibilities are endless …

If you’ve followed these simple directions, and still feel like a beginner, you’re not alone. Most pianists take many years learning how to play arpeggios with finesse.

So, when you’ve reached the conclusion of your arpeggio, whether it’s a simple, three-note glide within a single octave or a fortissimo multi-octave, mind-boggling, finger-tangling adventure, go ahead and finish it with confidence. If you like, use that well-rested fifth (pinkie) finger or, if you prefer, finish up with your choice any dramatic flourish, fingering or hand motions.

Why not? You’ve worked hard for it. You, too, deserve a Liberace moment.

Exercises for Learning Piano Arpeggios

I’m informed that professional bloggers may charge an average of approx. $1 per word ( I’ve seen a ranges between $.02 to $2.00 and $.05 to $5.00 ) so, because I’m already considered a professional in a few careers already, as an exercise I submit the following 50-word post valued at approximately $50. Blog posts can cost upwards of $500 to $1000, as a comparison. This means up to about 90% or more of the ” fluff ” was removed from this post.

 It was really difficult to write because I wanted to put much more. I am publishing it here “as is”: the rare $50 blog post.

Four easy rules:

Same fingering every time; thumb for white notes.
Wrists and elbows relaxed and flexible; use gentle “ocean wave” motions.
Learn one-octave major/minor arpeggios in every key, using metronome.
For multi-octave arpeggios, thumb crosses under.

Advanced:

Multi-octave
Seventh chord
Harmonizing  (e.g. cm7  E♭maj7)
Contrary motion (outward from center)

See my post steps for learning fast piano songs to learn more about using a metronome to help you play faster.

Steps for Learning Fast Piano Songs

TakeLessons has purchased the right to use an edited version of this post in their blog.

Have you ever watched a pianist play a really fast song? Maybe you’ve wanted to play piano yourself, or maybe you just wondered how they do it. Piano is an easy instrument to learn. You push a key, and a note sounds. Compared to instruments like the violin, which take months and months of dedicated practice before a pleasant sound comes out, piano seems like a walk in the park.

This simple fact is that piano is not only an easy instrument to learn, it’s also one of the easiest instruments to learn to play badly. Many piano students become so enraptured with the idea of moving forward quickly, that the idea of playing piano fast becomes a goal. Honestly, what is there to show off about, when anyone can walk up to a piano, press a key and make a sound?

Well, the simplicity of playing piano is one of the drawbacks of the instrument. You see, most piano players don’t learn patience with the process. We want to play fast, to really show we can do our stuff, and often what happens when we take on all that speed, is the quality of the playing is compromised.

Varying tempos is one of the first signs of a pianist who really isn’t up to the speed. Haven’t we all experienced the joy of playing easy passages quickly, and then being caught unaware when that one tricky riff comes up? If you’re the typically impatient pianist, you’ll race past that tough part, maybe missing a few notes, and hope that nobody notices by the time you’re finished. Kind of like a racer going for the finish line.

The thing about music is that it’s really quite different from sports. There are tender emotions as well as exciting moments, and those slower and softer songs are often some of the most meaningful, when contrasted with the louder and faster songs we wish we could play. However, the idea is contrast, and fast songs do need to be part of our repertoire. So, here’s how to learn a fast song:

Be patient … start with the basics, and find the most difficult part of the song. Find out how slow you need to go, to play that part accurately. Use a metronome, and set it at that slow pace. If you don’t have a metronome, you can search for one online. I like the simple metronome at bestmetronome because it’s cute and retro. Set the metronome at that slow pace, and play the entire song at that slow pace. Yes, even the easy parts. Play it perfectly again and again.

Watch your fingers. Are there places in the song where your fingers are tripping over each other? Remember, we’re never so advanced in music that we have more than four fingers and a thumb on each hand. Even the best pianists need to come up with specific fingering for certain passages. Go ahead and write in the finger numbers like a beginner … 1-2-3-4-5 … and don’t forget the left hand!

Don’t practice in front of an audience. If you’re practicing at home, and your family listens in while you practice, realize they’re going through your drills just like you. Your song isn’t going to sound anywhere near as good in the beginning as it will in the future.

Don’t practice the same mistake twice. Practicing mistakes teaches you to play inaccurately. If you notice you’re having trouble in certain passages, stop and slow down even more. Work on those specific passages, and give the rest of the song ( which you play well ) a rest. If you practice perfectly, you’ll learn to play perfectly. Yes, even the hard parts.

Celebrate your accomplishments with feelings of confidence. While practicing your “ fast “ song at a snail’s pace, you’ll slowly and surely become more confident about all the little details of fingering, dynamics and, yes, specific notes. You will become enlightened about those complicated places, and before long they will become easy. When you can play smoothly and slowly you’re ready for the next step.
Let your metronome be your best friend. By now, you’re used to that tick-tick-tick and keeping a slow pace throughout the song. Now, push the metronome speed up one notch. You probably won’t notice you’re playing any faster, because metronomes are calibrated to very small increments. If you can play the song at that pace, push the metronome speed up one more notch.

Continue working on speed, one metronome notch at a time. If you start going faster than you can play accurately, then move the metronome speed back down one notch. Work on smoothing out those hard parts, and then playing the whole song at that speed.

Set your goal speed, using the metronome. Slowly work up to that goal speed, one notch at a time. You’ll know you’re ready when your at your goal speed, and playing accurately and confidently.
 To see a guitarist demonstrate amazing speed technique with a metronome, check out this Post by Cifras.

Now you’re ready to perform that fast song. Like a sports star who performs on TV, you haven’t invited your audience to your private practice sessions. Nobody but you ( and maybe your family ) will ever know how hard it was for you to learn that fast song. If you can make all that hard work look easy, then you’ve mastered your fast song.

Good luck!