Published October 2011 in Keyboard Magazine

By Hal Galper

Much of the following advice derives from my early studies with the great Madam Chaloff while a student in Boston, George Kochevitsky‘s book “The Art of Piano Playing.” (Summy BirchardCo., 1967. See ) as well as my own experience playing and teaching jazz piano for almost a half a century. As much as I’ve tried toremain true to Madam Chaloff’s teachings, over the years they have been absorbed into my own physiology and become my own. I suspect that pure “technique” is objective technique, i.e., is only a starting point. True technique is subjective and will eventually be personalized to accommodate your particular physical make-up.

A late protégé of Madam Chaloff, Leslie Stevens, Chair of the Piano Department at Berklee College, was given permission by the Madam to write a book and accompanying DVD preserving her technique. (See “Recommended” column) There have been so many times over the years I have wished I could take a tune-up lesson with the Madam just to make sure I was doing everything right. An excellent summation of the Madam’s technique can be found in the Harvard University Press 1960 edition of The “Harvard Dictionary Of Music” by Willie Appel under the title “Pianoforte Technique.” I have not been able to find an original version of this. If anyone does please let me know about it.

The basic tenet of my book “Forward Motion, From Bach To Bebop,” is that all music is in motion toward points in the future. What I have since learned about Forward Motion is how it can be applied to other aspects of piano performance.


As a general rule, one should use only the amount of physical and emotional activity it takes to execute your musical ideas and no more. Any physical and emotional activity (To learn how excess emotional activity creates excess physical activity see my article on “Stagefright and Relaxation” ) in excess of the appropriate amount will detract from your execution and may cause physical pain and harm. Your goal as a performer is to remain emotionally and physically “quiet” during performance. The goal is to remove any sense of “body” from articulation. In avery real sense musicians are athletes like football and basketball players. However, in our case, we are athletes of the “fine/small” muscles as opposed to the larger muscles used in sports. The use of these larger muscles can diminish a musician’s sensitivity to the manipulation and control of the finer muscles.

Watch of any video of any jazz master, on any instrument, and notice how little they move. At this point students usually bring up Keith Jarrett and his gyrations. As physically active as he may be, you still don’t hear “body” in his playing. His touch always remains light and singing. This sense of “body” can result in a dark touch, sluggish articulation and general feeling of heaviness or lack of “crispness” in single line and chordal playing. The converse of this is that you can move as much as you like as long as it doesn’t affect your playing, i.e., when you can play like Keith, you can move like him.

A note about technique: for those jazz pianists not fortunate enough to have received basic technical training in their youth, at some point in your career, preferably as early as possible, dedicate a few years of study with a classical teacher to insure you are using your system of weights, pulleys and levers in the most efficient manner. Get it done early and you’ll never have to do it again. During my years teaching jazz piano I have met many young pianists who have studied classical  music and technique in their youth. Almost all of them create a disconnect between their classical training and jazz piano playing, making the assumption that the two are incompatible. As a result, when playing jazz, they over-play, adopting an aggressive approach to articulation, banging and pounding on the piano in a misguided attempt to “swing.” I have to remind them that technique is technique no matter the musical genre and as such are throwing away a valuable musical resource that they worked hard to achieve. I’ll have them play any Bach piece and then, without stopping, switch over to a Bebop head such as “Donna Lee,” playing it the same way they played the Bach. Usually the light goes on at that point and their playing takes on the singing tone of good piano technique and they stop banging


As pianists we face a set of problems that are particular to the instrument; we have ten fingers of unequal length and position (the thumbs) and are playing a keyboard that has black and white keys at two different heights or distances from the hand. In a very real sense we are trying to achieve uniformity in a situation that is in no way uniform, the physical illusion that all of the fingers are the same length and the same distance from the keys. In the case of the piano, the larger muscles in question are, in the order of size: the shoulders, upper arms, forearms, wrists and fingers. As a general rule, the larger muscles are used to create higher volumes, the action and weight of the smaller muscles of the wrist and fingers articulating the lower ranges of volume.The body is a system of weights, pulleys and levers to which the laws of physics apply as in any machine. Your sitting position, height and the angles of your elbows, forearms and wrists, are all reflected in your touch. However, no two pianists body’s are the same, each pianist’s positioning at the keyboard has to be tailored to their particular body size and make-up. The ideal sitting posture is to sit straight, suspending your forearms from the shoulders (as if they were on gimbals), letting them carry the weight of the upper arm, forearm and hand, with your elbows slightly in front of the shoulder line, forearms and wrist level with the keyboard. If your elbows are behind the shoulder line, upper body weight is delivered to the keyboard. If your elbows are below the keyboard more forearm weight is delivered to the keyboard.

At one point, while playing with Phil Woods in the 1980’s, I developed over-use syndrome. My hands were tiring and my articulation was becoming sluggish and heavy. I made a visit to the Miller Institute at Roosevelt Hospital in NYC where they video taped me playing the piano. It showed that I was sitting to low at the keyboard. They suggested I sit farther back and raise my sitting level so that my elbows would be in front of my shoulder line and even with the keyboard. I immediately noticed my arms straining under there own weight. Holding your arms out in front of you for an hour to an hour and a half can be (and has been used as) torture. Accomplishing this requires strong shoulder muscles. The Miller Institute doctors proscribed physical therapy on a machine that developed my shoulder muscles. It took me quite a while to get my strength up but it was rough going. Until the therapy was completed it felt like shocks were travelling up my arm to my shoulder on every note I played. They also showed me the most natural hand position is the one you get when you hang your arms to your sides, letting them hang in a relaxed manner.

Some of the most common problems I find among my piano students are:

Using classical fingerings. Classical fingerings are generally asymmetric and difficult to memorize and don’t work well for jazz phrases.

Articulating with the forearm. This delivers forearm weight to the fingers. Moving the forearm up and down to articulate each note slows them down as the larger forearm muscles cannot respond quickly to the ear/brain-to-hand signals. This almost guarantees carpal tunnel syndrome. So does the following:

Hunching over the keyboard. As hip as it may look, if your shoulders are in front of your elbows, all your upper body weight will be transmitted to your fingers. You can also assume that after decades of this posture you be spending a large part of your time and income visiting a chiropractor.

Thumbs on black keys. Using the thumb on black keys while playing single lines throws the hand into an awkward position.

Not making cross-overs and cross-unders at the right time. This often leads to dead-end fingerings that leave you no place to go. Many students incorrectly use a forearm shifting movement (jumping) to get out of the dead-end but that is a very awkward solution to the problem.

Wild hand movements. Hands flopping around the keyboard, changing hand position by “reaching” for upcoming notes


An effective technique for learning complex systems is to reduce the system to it’s simplest form or rules by generalizing as much as possible, then including the exceptions to the rules later.

One afternoon, while taking a break after a practice session, I was looking at my hand and a couple of bizarre thoughts occurred to me: As jazz musicians we play a music that is generally in a duple rhythmic and melodic format. What I was seeing was a hand with five digits applied to a duple musical system with fingerings that tend to fall into uneven and hard to memorize finger patterns because we’re applying a number system of five within a number system of four.

Another thought, probably considered heretical by most piano teachers, is that there is no rule that says we have to use all five fingers all the time. The perception came to me that since we practice in patterns of four note groups, why can’t the fingers be used in four-note groups well. Instead of fingerings that utilize all five fingers all the time, why not look at the five fingers as being used in combinations forming four fingered patterns, or “sets,” with the last finger of each finger pattern being predictable (Target Fingers) by repeatedly falling on “1′ & “3” (Target Beats) of the bar. These fingerings could also coincide (be “in synch”) with the Target Notes utilized in Forward Motion.

For example, using 4-note “sets” like 1234, 1234, or 4321,4321, or 1324, 1324, or 5342, 5342, the three fingers have the Forward Motion effect of approaching and ending on the last finger of the 4-note finger pattern. By synchronizing the fourth finger of a four-fingered fingering pattern, as in Forward Motion, one eventually develops a kinesthetic muscle memory of feeling your fingers in motion toward these Target Fingers, feeling them “coming up” as your hand progresses through a 4-note group.

Applying the rule, no thumb on a black note wherever possible, I discovered the solution to these four-fingered patterns was deciding which white note the thumb had be on to achieve the appropriate finger pattern. It could be one form of 1234, or another 4-note finger pattern, for example: in an Ab Major Bebop Scale (with the added E natural between the 5th & 6th of the scale), the thumb would fall on the notes F and C natural. The four note finger pattern for the scale starting on the Ab (without applying Forward Motion) would then be 3412, 3412. Applying Forward Motion by starting on the “and of 3” pickup (the E natural) the finger pattern would be 4123,4123. Still a four fingered pattern.

Although the these scale fingering exercises encompass only one octave, with the top note often having the 5th finger, practice them for two octaves, while retaining the appropriate 1st fingerfor the intervening “1st notes” of each octave.

Hand preparation is another concept borrowed from Madam Chaloff. When articulating “crossovers” i.e. using the thumb to shift the hand while either ascending or descending, the hand should end up pre-positioned over the next “set” of notes (4-note group). This is accomplished by lightly “throwing” the hand over the next grouping at the same time you’re fingering the crossover. Coordinating the crossover and the “throwing” actions to occur simultaneously avoids inadvertent accents that might be created by either of the motions. The physical action of throwing must be light and kept to a minimum.

You can also minimize excess hand motion by training your thumb to stay under the palm of the hand until needed. Test how quiet your hands are by playing while keeping a quarter on the top of your hand without it falling off. (See my video “Quite Hands) I’ve tried to apply the four-fingered rule to as many situations as possible but occasionally there are exceptions on some scale groupings and arpeggios, in some keys, to the four-fingered rule. Sometimes the fingerings from one group to the next may alternate between two different fingering “sets.“ In this case, the finger “sets” may have a “target-note finger pattern” of last fingers such as 4, 4, or 2, 5, or whatever. The target note fingers will still form a finger pattern that is easier to memorize/sense than an asymmetrical pattern. Madam Chaloff had me speak the target note fingerings out loud to keep my mind focused, making it easier to retain the pattern in my kinesthetic memory.


Practice these scales starting on every beat (i.e. 3rd finger on the note on the 4th beat, 4th finger on the “&” of the 4th beat, etc.) Keep the fingerings synchronized with the numbers as written. Note that the target beats “1” & “3”., for these examples have target notes of the root and fifth of each scale. Practice them using the thirds and sevenths (6ths.) as well but don’t change the fingering. Keep the fingerings synchronized with the numbers as written.