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Dear Mr. Chappell:

What can I do to make playing trills easier on the piano?

— Triller

Dear Triller:

A trill is the alternation of two notes that are either a half step or a whole step apart. It consists of the principal note, which is the lower note, and the auxiliary note, which is the higher note.

(There is one notable exception to this, which is a trill passage in the first movement cadenza of Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G. Here, the principal note is the higher note and the auxiliary note is the lower note.)

The two notes are played at a speed that is more rapid than the fastest notes in the rest of the piece of music. However, the general tempo marking affects the speed of the trill also: a trill in an adagio is slower than a trill in an allegro. Therefore, the first thing you can do to make playing a trill easier is to play it more slowly. The evenness of the notes is more important than their speed in creating a satisfying effect.

Another way that you can make playing a trill easier is to put the damper pedal down while trilling. The notes will blend together and will give the impression of greater speed and smoothness. In fact, I recommend that you do this for almost every trill, and you will understand why when you try it and hear the result.

The exception to pedaling while trilling is when the piece of music is being interpreted without using much pedal to begin with. This would include the playing of a beginning pianist who hasn’t learned yet how to use the pedal, as well as the playing of an interpreter who purposely avoids the use of the pedal particularly in the works of the Baroque period.

There are two kinds of trills: measured and unmeasured. A measured trill is one that has an even number of notes in it that are played at a two-to-one ratio against the other notes that sound with it; for example, a measured trill in the right hand might be the equivalent of sixteenth notes when played against eighth notes in the left hand. You can make playing a trill easier by making it a measured trill. Measured trills usually sound best in Baroque or Classical period music when the duration of the trill is short.

An unmeasured trill is played without calculating its mathematical relation to the other notes that sound with it; instead, it is just a blur that happens to start and stop at the right time. It is more often the musically appropriate choice.

You can make playing a trill easier by choosing a good fingering. Ideally, a pianist would be able to play trills with any pair of adjacent fingers. However, our fingers are of different lengths and strengths. Therefore, you will find that some combinations of pairs of fingers provide greater strength and control than others. Using 2 and 3 is going to be the most favorable fingering, and using 3 and 4 (or, for some people, 4 and 5) is going to be the most disadvantageous fingering. Whenever possible, use the strongest combination of fingers.

Trills can also be fingered with two fingers that are not adjacent, such as 1 and 3, 2 and 4, and 3 and 5. For some people, these combinations bring a surprising amount of strength and control. Test them out and see if you are one of these people.

Research has shown that when the thumb is one of the two fingers used in a trill, greater speed results when you rotate the arm. If the thumb is not involved, greater speed results by using finger movement only and keeping the arm still.

There is another trill fingering using three fingers that you may find published in some editions or taught to you by your piano teacher. That fingering is 1-3-2-3, and if you were trilling from C to D, you would play 1 on C, 3 on D, 2 on C, and 3 on D, and then repeat. I suppose that the premise for changing fingers on the principal note is to reduce tension. It is inherently less efficient because you are using three fingers instead of two, but you may find that works easily and comfortably for you.

You can make playing a trill easier by taking inventory of the combination of black and white keys that are being played. Trilling two white or two black keys is easier than trilling from a black key to a white key or from a white key to a black key. In the case of one key of each color, you will need to experiment with fingering to find what works best. You will also need to position the hand closer to the fall board (the part of the piano that you close and open to cover and uncover the keyboard) so that you are located more in the region of the black keys. That will make playing the trill easier.

You can make playing a trill easier by keeping the fingers close to the keys instead of lifting them in the air above the keys. Ideally, your fingers will maintain contact with the keys both as the keys descend and as they ascend.

In fact, after putting a key down it is not necessary to allow the key to return all the way up to its original starting position before playing it again. Try this: push down a key, and then very slowly let it rise. Put it down again before it gets all the way back to its starting position. If you keep experimenting with doing this, you will find the spot to which you must, at a minimum, raise the key in order to make sound when you put it down again. It might be less than a half of an inch from the bottom.

You can make playing a trill easier by moving the fingers less than a half of an inch down and up. This is particularly effective for playing trills softly.

You can make playing a trill easier by using the following exercise: first, hold down the principal note while quickly repeating the auxiliary note many times; then hold down the auxiliary note while quickly repeating the principal note many times.

You can make playing a trill easier by focusing your listening. Remember that a trill is an ornament. The auxiliary note ornaments the principal note. It is preferable in most cases to focus your listening on the principal note and to play it louder than the auxiliary note.

An exception to this would be an extended trill played when the music is in a heightened state of expression and when a maximum effect of brightness is desired. In that case, both notes should be played loudly.

— J.C.

Listen to Jeffrey Chappell's interview about a life in music in this half-hour "Muse Mentors" podcast from October 2020.

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