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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

 

The Complete Text of Chapters 1 & 2

 

 

 



CHAPTER 1 - INTRODUCTON

A new approach to piano technique

This book presents a new approach to the art of piano playing aimed at extending the physical and musical capacities of pianists from the dedicated amateur to top-level professionals. In it I have taken principles of effective movement from Feldenkrais Method2  and the Eastern martial arts and applied them to the dynamics of piano performance. My book’s title pays homage to Heinrich Neuhaus, the celebrated Russian pianist-pedagogue. Published over fifty years ago, Neuhaus’ monumental work The Art of Piano Playing still stands as the pianist’s bible. Hopefully my work will lead pianists to greater success in implementing his precepts, by showing them more clearly how. By filling in a missing link between musical intention and physical execution, this book aims to advance the craft of piano playing.

The process of reforming pianistic habits by means of a written text is not easy, as each pianist presents a unique set of acquired skills and unresolved problems. However, this system of movement physics at the keyboard aims to be comprehensive enough that each pianist may find the way to a fluid, capable untangling of some of the piano’s most notorious technical Gordian knots.

Natural, individual, and systematic human activity

portrait of Moshe Feldenkrais, creator of Feldenkrais MethodMoshe Feldenkrais, creator of the method out of which much of my theory arises, cites three successive stages of development in all human activity: the natural, individual and methodical3 . All our natural activities such as running, jumping, walking or eating, are a common heritage: they function similarly in everyone. But occasionally an individual finds a special way of doing something, and if it is an improvement over the normal way, this tends to be adopted by those around him. Thus Australian aboriginals throw boomerangs, the Japanese learn judo, and North Americans go snowboarding! In the third stage, somebody observes the specialized activity and systematizes it, so that the process is now carried out according to a specific method as the result of knowledge and instruction, and no longer instinctively.

In the history of the various trades and arts practiced in the civilized world, we can find these three stages almost without exception. In the dawn of humanity people produced wonderful drawings naturally, and Leonardo da Vinci employed elementary principles of perspective, but it was only in the nineteenth century that these were fully defined; since then they have been taught in every school of art.

The simpler and more common an action is, the later will be the development of the third stage. Accepted methods were developed for the weaving of carpets, mapmaking, geometry and mathematics thousands of years ago, yet walking, standing and other basic activities are only now, through systems such as Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method, reaching the third, or systematic stage. Where then does piano playing stand in all this?

Reduced physical prowess has led to homogenized musical expression

A hundred years ago, all Russian conservatory students underwent an exceptionally rigorous technical regime. Rachmaninoff said that scales and arpeggios were the foundation of his technique and that all his life he practiced them religiously. When he graduated from Moscow Conservatory it is said that he could play any Hanon exercise at 220 quarter notes to the minute, transposed to any key! Modern pedagogy scoffs at the ‘mindless mechanical drill’ of that era, but now we seldom if ever see this kind of physical mastery. To reach the Olympics, an athlete needs to acquire both a set of increasingly refined physical skills and basic strength. And so do aspiring pianists.

Today our main focus tends to be on relaxation, indirect attack on the key for warm tone, and supple arm movements to avoid injury. Unfortunately, this can limit us to a narrower pianistic sound spectrum. A reduced variety of dynamic and tonal range cannot do justice to our musical sophistication, and prevents the piano from doing what it alone can do so well—simulating the sound of an entire orchestra.

I suspect that even many advanced pianists now lack the sheer facility and the resulting power that our most illustrious forbears possessed, and this is one key reason why it is so often difficult to tell one pianist’s playing from another’s. The problem is not too much focus on technique, but too little. Of course I am not suggesting that the student go off and pump iron or do Charles Atlas exercises to develop bulging muscles. But when I show my students how to organize themselves physically to get good sound, their hand tends to tire very quickly. Their technique hasn’t evolved to the point where it would make such great demands on their physical strength. They do not lack musicality, but their technical focus has not been far-reaching enough to manifest that musicality fully.

We have failed to preserve and pass on to following generations crucial knowledge about the most advanced aspects of piano technique.

Although some artists have reached unimaginable heights, a full understanding of what they did has not yet been incorporated into piano method. Gone for the most part are the freedom and extravagance of expression, ‘the grand manner’ for which we admire the old boys such as Rachmaninoff, de Pachmann, Friedman, and of course, the one they called ‘the last Romantic’, Vladimir Horowitz.

These great pianists constituted the second, individual stage of development in piano playing. Each of them brought the art to a new level. Nobody can duplicate their talent, but certain aspects of how they were organized physically can be analyzed and systematized. I propose the creation of a new generation of Romantics through an intelligent reconstitution of piano technique in its highest form. A further reaching, more global systematization of piano method can lead to improved physical ability, in turn freeing musical individuality to express itself more fully. This book aims to both physical and creative power to the pianist.

Much has been done already to systematize piano playing, but up until now the focus has been more on musical than physical issues. This is not a bad thing; it is the natural way. We conceive a certain sound, phrasing, emotion, and rely to a large extent on an instinctive process somewhere in our sensory-motor system to transform our musical idea into sonic fact. However in the light of new insights into the physics of human movement, we can now educate that instinctive process by recognizing and defining the physical processes involved in implementing our musical intentions.

We cannot expect a revival of the Draconian regime of Moscow 100 years ago. Instead I offer a series of exercises designed to develop hand/arm structure and function both intellectually and physically. If we cannot return to the old, let us invent new paths to pianistic perfection.

pianist Vladimir Horowitz: a benchmark in ability

concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz: transcendant piano techniqueOne of the prime forces driving me towards my discoveries was the playing of Vladimir Horowitz. It was not only the marvelous music he made but also the way he made it. There was something entirely different going on when he played. He existed in a different state, something akin to the trance state of meditation, but in which he was doing the most amazing and complex things. The meditator observes without doing; Horowitz seemed to observe the unfolding of a composition—as understood by his enchanted imagination—even while he was occupied with the myriad complexities involved in actually playing it!

Theoretically it should be possible to play as well as or even better than the master, but imitating him in any habitual way gives superficial results—you are more likely to produce a gross caricature of his mannerisms (many of which were unattractive in any case!) than the ineffable beauty he could create. If you want to approach what he did, you must first undertake a profound analysis of all the ingredients of his process, then attempt to acquire them. Our goal is not to play like Horowitz, but as capably as he did. These are two very different things!

Other movement disciplines feed view of piano technique

The more this analytical process encompasses, the better chance it has of bringing relevant new information into the picture—thus my 20–year studies of T’ai Chi Chuan and Feldenkrais Method. It was something about Horowitz’s quality of movement that led me to consider movement in its own right. The principles I learned away from my instrument allowed me to return to the piano with new insights.

One practical aspect of Horowitz’s meditative, trance-like level of awareness was his remarkable economy of movement. Many people thought he was very stiff, but that incredible variety and richness of sound he produced belies the impression. I believe that although he did not appear to move much, internally his movement was exceptionally free, exact and effective.

The Tai Chi formThis quality is exactly what the T’ai Chi master possesses. Studying Feldenkrais Method and T’ai Chi Chuan has allowed me to learn the qualities of precise, effective, meditative movement, and to develop a series of keyboard exercises designed to enhance those qualities in our playing.
Back to movement basics for fundamental, global improvement

In many sports and martial arts, certain basic movements are practiced which later on become the building blocks for more complicated techniques. Moshe Feldenkrais took that process (creating exercises based on the component parts of a complex activity) one step further, returning to the individual components of generic human movements themselves—movements such as bending and straightening, standing, walking—to improve the whole action by fine-tuning each constituent part.

All parts of our body tend not to be equally well-represented in the motor cortex, and these more poorly-represented parts do not participate in movement as well as they could. Feldenkrais Method uses directed awareness of specific sensations to bring these parts back into full neuro-muscular representation. This is one means by which we can refine the ‘building blocks’ of the most basic human movements, and bring a new ability and sophistication to the performance of more complex tasks.

In classical piano, the ‘basic exercises’ have always been scales, arpeggios, double notes and of course etudes. The exercises I present here aim to do for piano what Feldenkrais Method does for human movement. The plan: to examine every detail of the basic movements required to play piano, movements fundamentally defined by the requirements of music and sound, not only of scales and other traditional aspects of technique. The goal: by executing these basic movements with a new level of command, with an understanding that is not only intellectual but sensory: kinesthetic, physical, functional and practical, we bring a new level of physical skill to our playing.

Conscious analysis of normally automatic actions

Most of our actions are automatic, and necessarily so—the thinking mind simply cannot work quickly enough to keep tabs on everything proficiently. If I drove a car trying to observe and analyze every move I made, I would crash in no time. Yet to improve movement patterns learned long ago, or even while learning a new movement, I must undertake exactly that process of ‘disassembly’ and observation. If I do so intelligently, when I again put the action on automatic pilot I will have a new ability, elegance and ease of execution—a new functionality.

Primary focus on physical aspects of piano technique

Some colleagues claim that this book focuses too much on the physical, giving short shrift to musical and philosophical aspects of piano playing. But in my experience, sensing with increased awareness how I produce a sound physically, leads me to perceive that sound with much greater accuracy, and ultimately to consider musical and philosophical aspects of my playing in a new light as well. In any case the starting point of my approach, which I call the background, is character, emotional content, the message the composer felt and wanted to convey. Only from this do I proceed to its musical means of expression, the middleground. Yet sooner or later in my work (and more often sooner than later!) I end up back at the foreground, the physical means to achieve musical goals, simply because we don’t know enough about the physical realities of keyboard practice! Only the most talented of us can rely on an instinctive process of finding the best physical way. For many of us, starting from the physical can become an effective way to move towards more profound music making.

And so this book does concern itself primarily with the foreground, with good reason. I have tried to create movement patterns that activate a physical organization most useful to the pianist, and then relate these to elements of musicianship - in fact, to synthesize musical and physical issues. I aim to help both students who need remedial work in basic strength at the keyboard and those who seek a new dimension of musical understanding and a new path for the development of pianistic skills. I do my best to maintain an eminently practical orientation, avoiding as much as possible the time-consuming presentation of theoretical detail and instead guiding the student through an experiential process.

I have tried my best to transmit this knowledge in the spirit of service—service not so much to you personally, dear reader, as to music itself. I invite you to give your utmost in concentration and dedication, with a true intention to serve something higher. If you succeed in staying with me as I guide you through these investigative processes, we can look forward to a breakthrough in your ability at the piano.
 

CHAPTER 2 - HOW TO USE THIS BOOK

Be flexible—adapt this piano technique book to your own learning style

The main body of this text comprises the lesson transcripts found mostly in ‘Foreground’. It is difficult to communicate the real substance of a lesson through the printed medium, without the benefit of sound, vision and touch. I have tried to make up for this by an exact use of language, doing my best to be both precise and graphically descriptive.

Some of you will want first to familiarize yourselves with Section I, General Principles of Movement, while others will prefer to plunge straight into the more practically oriented sections that follow.

You do not necessarily need to read this book in the set order of chapters. You may very well find it expedient to browse, jump around a bit, get a feel for the material and perhaps happen by chance upon the points most relevant to you. For instance, although I deal first with hand strength and structure, arm function and arm rotation, for many students natural finger shape may be the most desirable starting point, a central locus. You must see what works best for your own particular needs.

Thumbstands to empower your piano techniqueMost important, try things out! Don’t sit there like a couch potato—get to a piano (or even a table top for some of the exercises) and do the things you are reading about. You will find through experience what feels good for you and what doesn’t. Remember the saying, ‘use it or lose it!’ My variant (with apologies to the famous manufacturer of running shoes): Don’t eschew it, just do it!

This is epecially important for pedagogues. There is a danger inherent in attempting to show a student these exercises without having incorporated them thoroughly into one’s own system. In the end, the knowledge you can most effectively transmit to others is that gained through your own experience. When I came to Yugoslavia I expressed to Kemal Gekich the desire to become a really great teacher. His response was to tell me to first become a great player. I tried my best to take him at his word, and whether I succeeded or not, without this attempt the book would not exist in its present form.

Listening

Remember that listening never ceases to play a crucial role even in these physically oriented exercises. Your ear should be your guide in everything. You should be constantly training and refining it, to better hear any deficiencies that might exist in your sound, and to evaluate that through the exercises your sound is indeed improving.

Over and over again I see pianists inadvertently sabotaging their own best musical intentions with automatic physical habits learned long ago. They simply don’t notice that their hand is acting in opposition to the desired musical result. For instance we may have a forte legato passage in the bass register to be played in crescendo, yet the arm is overly active on each attack, the fingers strangely inert, the notes not even really joined physically. But the pianist is accustomed to playing like this, and finds the resulting forced, non-legato sound acceptable! He thinks he’s doing what he’s not! He has lulled himself into a false sense of security because he is doing what he was told, moving his arm in the standard generic manner taught by ‘tradition’ (but really by default).
How can I help him? First I must call attention to the deficiency in his sound. But then, and perhaps even more useful, I call attention to what he is doing physically to create that deficiency! Monitoring his physical organization may help him notice flaws in his sound that previously escaped his attention. To couch it in terms of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), the physical sensation creates an anchor for the experience of improved hearing. He is can better produce the desired musical result when he understands and remembers the physical feeling of doing it.

The enriched kinesthetic picture cultivated by the exercises aims to open a whole new dimension of perception, and especially of hearing. If the physical is not aligned with the aural, even your most assiduous efforts will be for naught. Remember, your ear must be the ultimate judge.

Tendonitis—a cautionary note

I have been told that some of my exercises are actually dangerous and can damage the hand, cause tendonitis, etc. I acknowledge this legitimate concern, and would like to stress that if you are at all worried about tendonitis, approach the hand strength exercises with extreme caution. I developed them with a group of students who were in very good pianistic shape to begin with. If you have had problems, then do not begin at full power but at 5%. Try to divine and define function before you increase power gradually to full strength. Understand the principle before putting it into practice. Experiment, always taking care not necessarily to avoid strain entirely, but to manage it wisely. Your aim is to activate muscles that need to be activated while relieving stress on muscles that do not need it. If done correctly, you will find that in fact, these exercises, through accessing the hand’s true strength and function, can both relieve tendonitis and prevent its occurrence.

Tendonitis most often arises from constant, long-term overpressing. Even though theoretically, pressure on the key after it has been struck should have no effect on the sound produced, pianists will insist on maintaining a constant pressure for hours of playing, without adequate finger activity that would support it appropriately. This of course can exert a tremendous stress on the mechanism.

Many of my exercises employ very strong pressing, but rarely will you be required to play like that. The pressing exercises are designed to improve the kinesthetic representation of certain structural and functional attributes of the hand. The information acquired by pressing then should be incorporated into your normal manner of playing—pressing should not become your normal approach to the keyboard!

If the muscular contraction that produces the sound is maintained only for the minimum time required to achieve the sonic result, there will be no fatigue. Fatigue results from the muscles staying contracted longer than they need to. Fatigue is even doubled because this ongoing contraction also interferes with the free production of the next tone. Much of my text aims to have you produce richer tone through reducing the duration of your muscular impulses to effective lengths. This way of improving your sound also reduces stress on your physical mechanism.

Pain and piano technique

Once on a bus in New York I saw the most incredible advertisement for the U. S. Marines. A picture of a big, burly man climbing a rope ladder bore the caption, ‘Pain is just weakness leaving the body’! As a blanket statement nothing could be more ludicrous. Pain generally signals that something is not working properly and that the problem needs to be addressed. In piano playing, most pain anywhere above your wrist falls into this category. In grossly general terms, something below your wrist isn’t working as it should—something above is overworking in compensation. However, there are certain types of pain in the hand itself that may signal not a problem but the beginning of its resolution. Certain muscles may be starting to acquire proper function. Muscles that have lain dormant for too long may be finally beginning to do the work they were designed to do. Just like the ache in your calves when you run after a 3-month layoff, this type of pain may be not only innocuous but even desirable, if of course you act with moderation and not undue force. Learn to discriminate!

There are of course exceptions to these general guidelines—the bottom line: proceed with intelligence and caution!

Alan Fraser in his DVD - The Craft of Piano Playing: A New Approach to Piano Technique

 

Piano technique and performance anxiety

This approach can also serve as an effective antidote to debilitating performance anxiety, which I divide into two types. Positive performance anxiety derives from the knowledge that something wonderful might happen between you, the music and the audience in a performance, but there is never a guarantee that it will. There is nothing anybody can do to eradicate this type of nervousness, and so much the better as it tends to improve rather than impinge upon one’s performance. The inrush of energy and excitement it can engender has a great deal to do with the degree of inspiration one brings to one’s playing.

Negative performance anxiety derives from a sense of insecurity. If I have a real basis to feel confident then I won’t experience that kind of nervousness. But there’s the rub: I may think I feel sure when in fact an unacknowledged physical or technical insecurity may be the real root of the problem. I have found that the approach presented here can really uproot and resolve this type of performance anxiety. You will be emotionally secure when you have created the physical and musical basis for it.

These exercises are preparatory, developmental. Study and do them; incorporate their kinesthetic message into your reflexes, your senses, your physical apparatus, and then leave them. Forget them; just remember the feeling. Just play! With newfound power, ability, discrimination—play, and enjoy.

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Structural security in the hand's arch for a potent piano technique
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