Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Develop Brilliant Octaves in Your Piano Playing

Useful tips for developing your piano octaves

In this video, Robert teaches you a technique to develop your octaves with outstanding results.

Released on September 29, 2021

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

This is I'm Robert Estrin, bringing you such an important show today, how to develop brilliant octaves in your piano playing. It's the most exciting thing when you go to a concert and there's a big octave section, like in the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor Piano Concerto. Or in Liszt or Chopin, when an octave section comes where both hands are playing in unison octaves, there's a power to it that is so exciting. And you wonder, how? It almost seems impossible if you've never done it before, but there are certain techniques that I want to share with you.

Now, the reason why I'm making this video, because I've done other videos on octave technique, but I had been working on the Liszt B minor Sonata for a recording session that I've got coming up a little bit later this year. And, in relearning this piece, I've had an epiphany that you're going to see at the end of this video. In the meantime, I want to show you the essentials that I've covered before.

Now, what do I talk about? What are the essential techniques for brilliant octaves? Well, octaves, just playing... It doesn't seem like very much. So what's the technique here? Well, what I just did would never work at speed because the arms are just too big to move very fast. There's a limitation to how fast the arms can go. So it comes down to the wrists, and I've talked a great deal about the importance of the wrists in piano technique, not just for octaves and chords, fast chords, but also for articulating staccatos. Even in Baroque and Classical period music, there's nothing like the wrist for having clarity of your phrasing. For something like even a Bach minuet, if I were to play a Bach minuet without using the wrist, you get a sound like this.

Now, by using the wrist on the staccatos instead of the arm, listen to the difference in the sound. So, even for music like that, when the piano was in its infancy and couldn't handle the kind of music that you're going to hear in a little bit, even for that music, the wrist delineates phrasing in a way that the arms can never do. But when you're doing octave technique or fast chord technique, the wrists have to be independent from the arms, but there's more to it than that. The most important thing is maintaining the right position, the arch position. Watch a little bit about this.

And I'm going to show you how to develop brilliant octave technique, absolutely brilliant octave technique. Now, it's all in the wrist. Yes, but the secret is having your hand exactly in the right place. In order to accomplish that, there's something that I call the arches. That's right, the parallel arches or two Cs. Your hand must form an arch. If you know everything about the Roman aqueducts, the strength, and the arch is an amazingly strong mechanism like a tent that you go camping with has supports that will form an arch, and they're very strong to withstand winds. Your hand must have an arch. Why? Once again, to mitigate the difference in strength between the thumb and the pinky, forming an arch equalizes the force that you have on either side.

So you form this arch. Notice what happens here, though. I'm going to show you on the piano now. If I have my hand and I try to play an octave, even with an arch, the other fingers are in the way, aren't they? So, in order to accomplish it, the other fingers go up and out of the way, and this way you have a C going this way, and you have another C going this way. There are two set of arches, essentially. This arch for support, and this arch to get the fingers out of the way. That way, if you're just less than an inch over the keys, any effort goes to playing the keys.

Notice the preparation of each octave puts me over the next one. And I'm always a fraction of an inch above the key, never touching the key, and not a big motion because there's no time for that. So, if you place your hand precisely over the keys, less than an inch, with a nice arch, you can get tremendous power and speed with a minimal amount of strength.

So you see that essential position of the arch because, after all, you've got your weakest pinky on one side of your hand and your strongest finger, your thumb, on the other side of the hand, and the arch makes it possible to equalize the force of the notes on either side of the octave. More than that, by utilizing just the wrist, you get much more speed and clarity in your octaves. But how do you practice such a thing? Well, there's a great little exercise that I'd like to show you. Check this out.

You must not use the arm for the up and down motion of octaves, only for going from key to key. So put the metronome on 60 and just play a slow C major scale, and notice how, when I play this, my wrists are moving, but my arms are just making a fluid, sideways motion, no up and down motion at all. And I maintain this arch position where there's an arch between the thumb and the pinky and the other fingers are up and out of the way.

That doesn't seem hard. To play it correctly, however, is very important. It's how you play it that will develop the strength because, if you just play that with the arm, sure, it's 60, one notes to the beat. You could play that almost any way at all and it's going to come out. To get the speed, it must all come from the wrists because the wrists can go very, very fast as I will demonstrate. Once you're secure and you're not using an up and down motion of the arm at all, just the wrist, go to two notes, then three notes. Go as fast as you possibly can, adding a note each time. Let me demonstrate.

At that speed, if you were trying to do that with the arms, it would look like this, and it would feel pretty horrendous. It's painful. It honestly is. And you can't get the control. The secret of the arch is equalizing the force of the pinky with the thumb so you don't get a sound like this, but you get a sound like this, equal in both notes of the octave. So, now, can you go faster? Yes. As you go faster, stay closer to the keys and play lighter. And that's the secret of fast octaves, once you develop the independence of the wrist and the secret of the arch.

So you can see by working slowly and identifying the wrists separate from the arms, some people this comes very quickly to, other people struggle for a long time because it's not something that you're accustomed to doing, just using the wrists. Sometimes, I liken it to waving bye-bye, just doing this and having it separate instead of using the arms in conjunction because that'll just slow you down and make everything much heavier. So, if you can just do this, and then, even if you don't hit keys on the piano, you get used to just waving bye-bye. Then, eventually get into position, and you'll be able to get a nice, brilliant, fast sound.

Now, my good friend and wonderful concert artist Jeff Biegel, I interviewed him a few years ago, and he talked about curling the second finger. It's almost like, really, all the fingers are somewhat curled to get in that dual arch, the two Cs, as I sometimes call them, the C going this way and the C going that way. So you delineate just these, the arch from the thumb to the pinky, and the other fingers are kind of up and out of the way. And, yes, you can kind of curve in your second finger. Watch this technique.

Because I'm going to play octaves now with the second finger straight out, I'm naturally curling that second figure. I've gotten so used to doing it now. It actually relaxes the hand. It has something to do with how it impacts the muscles. Because as I've described before, creating an octave technique is like an arch equalizing the power of the pinky to the strong thumb. You can actually impart equal weight on both fingers by utilizing the arch. By curling the second finger, it makes this position much more effortless. So, when you get into an octave position, try curling your second finger. That's the tip today.

So, when you put this all together, what does this actually sound like? Well, I'm going to attempt a monstrously difficult octave section in the middle of a Liszt B minor Sonata, and you'll see what brilliant octaves can sound like.

So that's just a little taste of what brilliant octaves are all about, and you could work on your octaves with the exercise that I've shown you and learn to get into that position. And start off just by waving bye-bye a bit, and then go to the piano and try it. Then get into the arch position and work on the octave exercise. And you, too, can develop brilliant octaves. I promise you.

You can address your questions here at and YouTube. Happy to help all of you. And I want to thank, once again, my Patreon subscribers and all you subscribers here at YouTube, making this all possible and worthwhile. I hope you enjoyed this. We'll see you next time here at, your online piano resource.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Alice Borg on September 29, 2021 @4:23 pm PST
Using the wrist as opposed to arms is helpful. However, my hands are too small. Hence, stretching out my little finger and thumb to reach an octave leaves a flat hand and if I curl any fingers they rub the black keys. Alice Note new email:
Robert Estrin on September 30, 2021 @10:22 am PST
It's tough if an octave is a stretch for you. One of those smaller keyboards would be ideal for you!
Ken Cory * VSM MEMBER * on September 29, 2021 @11:17 am PST
Liszt loved "brilliant octaves" so much, he incorporated them into his string writing, which was very annoying.
Robert Estrin on September 29, 2021 @1:13 pm PST
Octaves are incredibly challenging on stringed instruments!
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