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Book Cover for The Craft of Piano Playing: A New Approach to Piano Technique

 

THE CRAFT OF PIANO PLAYING
A New Approach to Piano Technique

Appendix I: Towards a Theoretical Framework

 

Excerpts from Moshe Feldenkrais's Seminal Book,
AWARENESS THROUGH MOVEMENT
related to aspects of piano technique.

 

 


In the forward to The Craft of Piano Playing I mention the necessity for a new path to pianistic perfection – there are many reasons why old draconian practices no longer suit our purpose. These passages from Awareness Through Movement present some of the background trains of thought that led me to formulate my general approach and my new style of keyboard exercises.

‘The difficulty of changing an earlier pattern

‘A man tends to regard his self- image as something bestowed upon him by nature, although it is, in fact, the result of his own experience. His appearance, voice, way of thinking… are all taken for granted as realities born within him whereas every important element in the individual’s relationship to other people and to society is actually the result of extensive training… The arts of walking, speaking, reading are skills the individual accumulates over a period of many years; each of them depends on chance, and on the place and period of his birth. The acquisition of a second language is not as easy as that of the first, and the pronunciation of the newly learned language will impose itself on the second. Every pattern of action that has become fully assimilated will interfere with the patterns of subsequent versions of that action (Bold, underline mine).

‘… The difficulties lie less in the learning of a new habit than in the changing of habits of body, feeling and mind from their established patterns. What is meant here is not the simple substitution of one activity by another, but a change in the way an act is performed, a change in its whole dynamics so that the new method will be in every respect as good as or even better than the old."

Moshe Feldenkrais

Thus we see that improving our technique is not as easy as it might seem. There’s a double difficulty. This is why I hope that pedagogues will eventually incorporate the new patterns of movement engendered by my exercises into piano methods for beginners, that these ‘movement templates’ be learned in the easiest fashion – imprinted on the nice clean tabula rasa of fresh young musical minds!

‘There is no awareness of many parts of the body

‘A person who lies down on his back and tries to sense his entire body systematically – that is, turning his attention to every limb and part of the body in turn – finds that certain sections responds easily while others remain mute or dull and beyond the range of his awareness. The parts of the body that are easily defined in the awareness are those (such as the thumbs, fingers, lips) that serve man daily, while the parts that are dull or mute in his awareness play only an indirect in his life (such as the middle of the back or the back of the head between the ears) and are almost missing completely from his self-image when he is in action .

My exercises are designed to wake up all the sleeping parts of your pianistic mechanism, so that all the physical parts of yourself and their functions are included in the range of your awareness, becoming a permanent part of your self-image.

‘A complete self-image is a rare and ideal state _uacct = "UA-1129505-2"; urchinTracker();

‘A complete self-image would involve full awareness of all joints in the skeletal structure as well as of the entire surface of the body – at the back the sides, between the legs, and so on; this is an ideal condition and hence a rare one. We can all demonstrate to ourselves that everything we do is in accordance with the limits of our self-image and that this image is no more than a narrow sector of the ideal image .

Did your investigations inspired by my text lead you to any conclusions in this regard? Did you discover, for instance the insidious collapsing of your second knuckle? Does it demonstrate at least one gap between your own self-image and the pianistic ideal?

‘Individuals act in accordance with their subjective image

‘The difference between image and reality may be as much as 300% and even more. Persons who normally have a sunken chest – flatter than it should be and too flat to serve them efficiently (to breathe effectively), are likely to indicate its depth as several times larger than it actually is if asked to do so with their eyes closed. The sunken chest appears right to them, because any expansion of the chest to normal dimensions feels to them as a deliberately puffed out chest would to another person.

Again, when your play in such a way that consciously generates and maintains your hand structure, does it feel so different from your usual mode of playing as to unsettle and even disconcert you?

‘Systematic correction of the system is more useful than correction of single actions

‘From what has been said about the self-image, it emerges that systematic correction of the image will be a quicker and more efficient approach than the correction of single actions and errors in modes of behaviour, the incidence of which increases as we come to deal with smaller errors. The establishment of an initial more or less complete, although approximate, image will make it possible to improve the general dynamics instead of dealing with individual actions piecemeal. This second type of improvement may be likened to correcting playing on an instrument that is not properly tuned. Improving the general dynamics of the image becomes the equivalent of tuning the piano itself, as it is much easier to play correctly on an instrument that is in tune than on one that is not .’

Again, the implications are obvious: my exercises ‘tune’ your body – your mental and physical piano playing apparatus. Your entire ‘pianist’ self-image is improved, empowering you to better meet each individual pianistic challenge.

Later on in his book Feldenkrais makes the bold assertion that

‘Correction of movement is the best means for human self-improvement’

He gives several reasons – altogether they make a pretty convincing and comprehensive list:

1) The nervous system is occupied mainly with movement – thus when we engage the nervous system in movement we act on our selves in the most complete way.
2) We are more experienced at distinguishing qualities of movement than of feeling or thought
3) We have a richer experience of movement
4) The ability to move is important to self-value
5) All muscular activity is movement
6) Movements reflect the state of the nervous system. The muscles contract as a result of an unending series of impulses from the nervous system…Obviously neither position, expression or voice can be changed without a change in the nervous system that mobilizes the outward and visible changes. Thus, when we refer to muscular movement, we mean, in fact, the impulses of the nervous system that activate the muscles, which cannot function without impulses to direct them. From this we may derive a conclusion that seems paradoxical at first sight: Improvement in action and movement will appear only after a prior change in the brain and nervous system has occurred.
7) Movement is the basis of awareness
8) ‘Hinges of habit’: All behaviour is a complex of mobilized muscles, sensing, feeling and thought. The motor cortex of the brain lies just a few millimeters above the brain strata dealing with associative processes. Owing to the close proximity to the motor cortex of the brain structures dealing with thought and feeling, and the tendency of processes in brain tissue to diffuse and spread to neighbouring tissues, a change in the motor cortex will have parallel effects on thinking and feeling. A fundamental change in the motor basis within any single integration pattern will break up the cohesion of the whole and thereby leave thought and feeling without anchorage in the patterns of their established routines. In this condition, it is much easier to effect changes in thinking and feeling, for the muscular part through which thinking and feeling reach our awareness has changed and no longer expresses the patterns preciously familiar to us. Habit has lost its chief support, that of the muscles, and has become more amenable to change.

Crucial for us to note – the important thing is to hang on to the new, unfamiliar way of playing for that preliminary period when it doesn’t seem to go so well. This is because at first you are not only cultivating the new habit, but also simultaneously fighting to eradicate the old. It takes time, but eventually at a certain point that hesitated-ness literally dissolves – it’s a very noticeable phenomenon – this is a sign that the new habit has been assimilated to the point where it is now the template by which all further variations on it are measured.

Moshe Feldenkrais & Margaret Meade

 

 

 

Dr. Feldenkrais with anthropologist Margaret Meade

 

 

 


Still later in his book, much of the preamble to Feldenkrais’ actual ATM lessons applies equally well to my exercises and approach.

‘The lessons are designed to improve ability, that is, to expand the boundaries of the possible, to turn the impossible into the possible, the difficult into the easy, and the easy into the elegant. Only those activities that are easy and pleasant will become a part of man’s habitual life and serve him at all times. Actions that are hard to carry out, for which man must force himself to overcome his inner opposition, will never become a part of his normal daily life (read ‘practice routine’).

‘We should differentiate clearly between improvement of ability and sheer effort for its own sake. We should do better to direct our willpower towards improving our ability.

‘Ability and willpower

‘To the extent that ability increases, the need for conscious efforts of the will decreases. The effort required to increase ability provides sufficient and efficient exercise for our will power. If you consider the matter carefully you will discover that most people of strong willpower (which they have trained for its own sake) are also people with relatively poor ability. People who know how to operate effectively do so without great preparation and without much fuss. Men of great willpower tend to apply too much force instead of using moderate forces more effectively.

‘If you rely mainly on your willpower, you will develop your ability to strain and become accustomed to applying an enormous amount of force to actions that can be carried out with much less energy, if it is properly directed and graduated.
‘Both these ways of operating usually achieve their objective, but the former may also cause considerable damage. Force that is not converted into movement does not simply disappear, but is dissipated into damage done to joints, muscles, and other sections of the body used to create the effort. Energy not converted into movement turns into heat within the system and causes changes that will require repair before the system can operate efficiently again.

‘Whatever we do well does not seem difficult to us. We may even venture to say that movements we find difficult are not carried out correctly (underline mine).

‘To understand movement we must feel, not strain

‘To learn we need time, attention and discrimination; to discriminate we must sense. This means that in order to learn we must sharpen our powers of sensing, and if we try to do most things by sheer force we shall achieve precisely the opposite of what we need.

Moshe Feldenkrais
‘Sharpened discrimination

‘ ‘‘A fool cannot feel’ said the Hebrew sages. If a man does not feel he cannot sense differences, and of course he will not be able to distinguish between one action and another. Without this ability to differentiate there can be no learning, and certainly no increase in the ability to learn. It is not a simple matter, for the human senses are linked to the stimuli that produce them so that discrimination is finest when the stimulus is smallest. More delicate and improved control of movement (something we assume desired by all pianists) is possible only through the increase of sensitivity, through a greater ability to sense differences.

‘The force of habit

‘We need a great deal of persistence and enough knowledge to enable us to move according to what we know rather than according to habit. If a person usually stands slouched, his pelvis is pushed too far forward and there will be far too great a curve in his back for good posture. If he then pushes his pelvis back and straightens his spine, the position will seem abnormal to him, and he will quickly return to his normal stance.

‘It is therefore impossible to change habit by relying on sensation alone. Some conscious mental effort must be made until the adjusted position (or new way of playing) ceases to feel abnormal and becomes the new habit. It is much more difficult to change a habit than one might think, as all who have tried it know.’
In changing our piano habits we have it one better, as the sound we are producing is an added spur to our maintaining the new habit. Love of that sound and the desire to keep producing it is an added motivation to effective learning.

‘Freeing an action of wasted energy

‘An efficient machine is one in which all the parts fit together accurately; all are properly oiled, with no grit or dirt between adjacent surfaces; where all the fuel used is turned into kinetic energy up to the thermodynamic limit; and where there is no noise or vibration, that is, no energy is wasted on useless movement that cuts down the effective operating power of the machine.

‘The exercises we are about to begin are intended to achieve just this, to gradually eliminate from one’s mode of action all superfluous movements, everything that hampers, interferes with, or opposes movement.

‘In the systems of teaching generally accepted today emphasis is placed on achieving a certain aim at any price, without regard for the amount of disorganized and diffused effort that has gone into it. So long as the organs of thought, feeling, and control are not organized for action that is coordinated, continuous, smooth, and efficient – and therefore also pleasant – we are involving parts of the body indiscriminately, even if they are in no way required for this action or even interfere with it. One result is that we quite often perform and action and its opposite at the same time. Only mental effort can then make the part that is directed toward the goal overcome the other parts of the body operating to frustrate it. In this way, unfortunately, willpower may tend to cover up an inability to carry out the action properly. The right way is to learn to eliminate the efforts opposing the goal and to employ willpower only when a superhuman effort is required.

‘We shall come back to this point when the reader has proved it to himself through his own experience; he will then be able to progress along the desired road.’

Many sentences here have their direct corollary in my text. For example, when he writes, ‘no energy is wasted on useless movement that cuts down the effective operating power of the machine’, read ‘your classic arm movement out to the side may be hindering not helping you’. For ‘we are involving parts of the body indiscriminately, even if they are in no way required for this action or even interfere with it’, read ‘rising off the piano bench to produce a more impressive forte is totally counterproductive: all that lifting energy is not being used to produce sound’. For ‘we quite often perform and action and its opposite at the same time’, read, ‘an up and down movement of the wrist on each note (to ‘produce tone’) is sure ruin your phrase line. And for ‘willpower may tend to cover up an inability’, read ‘banging is not an indication of too much strength but rather of weakness’.

I like these last passages for many reasons. They betray Feldenkrais’ background as a scientist and mechanical engineer – one of the big reasons I was drawn to his method rather than some of the other ‘touchy-feely’ fads that abound these days. They also state in a nutshell the crux of the matter – here we have a clear expression of the underlying rationale for the development of my approach to piano technique.

In short:

Define what is required from the piano in terms of music and sound.

Evaluate whether you are fulfilling these requirements. If not, what is missing from your mental and physical ability that prevents you from succeeding?

Acquire the abilities you need to fulfill your intentions in the most elegant, artistically complete way possible. Improve the functioning of your physical apparatus to improve your playing.