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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

BOOK REVIEWS


1)  Piano Magazine November/December 2004 -Daniel Stearns
2)  American Music Teacher June/July 2004 - Linda Cockey
3)  American Music Teacher October/November 2003 - Louis Nagel
4)  Journal of the International Society for the Study of Tension in Performance, UK (ISSTIP) - Autumn 2003 - Manus Carey
5)  Journal of the European Piano Teacher's Association, UK (EPTA) - Autumn 2003 - Nadia Lasserson

 


“… the most detailed and intensive study of the subject since Otto Ortmann's seminal work, The Physiological Mechanics of Pianoforte Technique (1929)…”                                                                   PIANO Magazine, UK

“… shows an astoundingly profound knowledge of body movement and structure… challenges many common pedagogical beliefs and ideas of movement… full of fascinating insights and ideas… this study avoids the dryness of many pedagogical manuals and is delivered with wit and charm, openness and a strong clarity of intention and thought making it incredibly user friendly.”                                                                            ISSTIP Journal

“All serious piano students should acquire this book which is well-devised, carefully structured, and always laced with humour on this very serious topic…”                                                                                  EPTA Journal, UK

“Alan Fraser has written a formidable and insightful volume on piano technique. A course based on the content of this book alone strikes me as a possibility for a pedagogy teacher.”                       American Music Teacher

“While the book may at first appear to treat physical phenomena in isolation, its whole raison d’etre is more eloquently to communicate the emotional, spiritual, philosophical and dramatic content of the music we play. Indeed many of the detailed, and admirably illustrated, discussions of specific works reveal a very high degree of musicianship.”                                                                                                                  PIANO Magazine, UK


Complete Reviews



Review of The Craft of Piano Playing in PIANO MAGAZINE November/December 2004
(in ‘The Pianist‘s Bookshelf‘) (Rhinegold Publishing, Great Britain)

‘the most detailed and intensive study of piano technique since Otto Ortmann‘

Here is a book so radical in approach, so meticulously and sometimes densely argued, so far beyond the scope of any short review, that anything like a serious discussion of it must be postponed until a feature article can at least begin to do justice to the thought and research that lie behind it [Noted! Ed.]. Based on the author‘s 20-year immersion in the far-reaching, movement-based Feldenkrais Method and T‘ai Chi Chuan, the book is the most detailed and intensive study of the subject since Otto Ortmann‘s seminal work, The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique, first published in 1929 but now sadly out of print.

As Fraser puts it in his introduction, the 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.‘ Lest we be in any doubt as to what he means by ‘top-level‘, he writes, ‘Our goal is not to play like Horowitz, but as capably as he did.‘ [Italics mine]. Nor is he in any doubt as to the challenge lying ahead of him. ‘The process of reforming pianistic habits by means of a written text,‘ he admits with epic understatement, ‘is not easy. However, this system of Understand hand structure to empower your piano technique 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.‘

New way of manipulating the skeleton greatly enhances piano sonority

This is emphatically not a ‘self-help‘ manual. Though the writing is perfectly readable, and its meaning generally clear, many of the book‘s 417 pages are heavy going, if only by dint of the concentration they require. The verbal text, however, is buttressed by numerous musical examples and sketches, showing how many common movements at the keyboard can be counterproductive, and proposing new ways of manipulating the skeletal frame of the hand to draw greatly enhanced sonorities from the instrument.

A piano technique that brings out the richness of the music we play

While the book may at first appear to treat physical phenomena in isolation, its whole raison d‘etre is more eloquently to communicate the emotional, spiritual, philosophical and dramatic content of the music we play. Indeed, many of the detailed, and admirably illustrated, discussions of specific works reveal a very high degree of musicianship.

Daniel Stearns

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Review of The Craft of Piano Playing in AMERICAN MUSIC TEACHER
October/November 2003

for a .pdf version of this review click here

Much to absorb in this articulate and often eloquent book on piano technique

Alan Fraser has written a formidable and insightful volume on piano technique. Using the Feldenkrais Method as his foundation, he has presented 417 articulate and often eloquent pages. It is not an easy read, for there is so much to absorb. Indeed, a course based on the content of this book alone, especially the lengthy first section, strikes me as a possibility for a pedagogy teacher.

Brings new light to many perplexing problems of the standard piano repertoire

Fraser divides his book into three sections. The first he calls “The Foreground: Pianistic Problems in Musical Craft.” It is truly a book in itself, with much attention paid to economy of motion, developing a good legato and concepts of a reliable physical approach to the keyboard. He stresses hand structure, finger articulation, arm activity and finger shape. There is an excellent discussion on legato. And he stresses brilliantly the benefits of cultivating effective stillness–– bravo for addressing this issue! Fraser is not afraid to address many perplexing problems students and teachers alike face in the standard repertoire. In particular, I would mention his short but valuable discussion of tremolando octaves in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, and the “Pathétique” Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 (pages 121–122), and his excellent discussion about practicing the opening arpeggios in the “Appassionata” Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57. Of special interest, too, is the brief chapter on “The Phil Cohen Arm-Swing Exercise.” His discussions of “The Underlying Musical Purpose of Arm Movement” and his comments on “Forearm Rotation in Liszt” (with special attention to Jeux d’eau and La Campanella) are as clear and sensible as anything one would wish to read. Fully aware I am skipping vast amounts of material in this large first section, I would focus on the charming chapter titled “The Feldenkrais-Horowitz Connection.” Using principles of Moshe Feldenkrais’s method, Fraser probes Horowitz’s astounding mechanical genius, postulating that while Horowitz had no knowledge of Feldenkrais, he nevertheless arrived at some of Feldenkrais’s ideas “solely through his intention to realize his artistic conception” (pages 281–282).

Alan Fraser in The Craft of Piano Playing: A New Approach to Piano Technique DVDLinks musical and physical issues for an intelligent piano technique

Section two he calls, “The Middleground: Some General Aspects of Musical Craft.” Here the focus is on rhythm, phrasing and orchestration. There are many valuable suggestions throughout this shorter section, but of greatest interest is the chapter on orchestration and his lesson on the Rachmaninoff Etude Tableau No. 5 in E-flat Minor, Op. 39. In the closing paragraphs, here dealing with the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, the first movement’s second theme, he stresses the contrapuntal element in the left hand. It truly is wonderful to read these comments from a musician who realizes that left-hand “Alberti basses” and their myriad derivations are far more than filler and motion, containing melodic elements that must be highlighted.

Newfound physical ability is applied to emotion in music to create a piano technique that's far from sterile

The third section is titled “The Background: Tell a Story.” Here, Fraser addresses the emotional content of music, and his discussion of J. S. Bach’s Prelude in B Minor from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier is fine. He bases his ideas on the concept, stated at the top of page 364, that in this and other contrapuntal music, interpretations result from “a continuous fluctuation between dissonant tension and consonant relaxation.” He further suggests that interpretive strategies be sensitive to the clever juxtaposition of legato and staccato/portato, to place stresses on dissonances and the approaches to a dissonance, and relax the dynamic as the melody flows into a consonant tone. In the chapter entitled “You Must Be Willing and Able To Live Emotionally When You Play,” he advocates creating a program for the music. Of course, this was a nineteenth- century and early-twentieth-century teaching technique that sometimes ran amok. (Hans von Bulow’s fanciful explanation of the Chopin Preludes immediately springs to mind.) But going to the other extreme, as we have in the latter part of the last century, produces technically inadequate or colorless performances. The discussion of this concept revolving around his work with a non-responsive student on the Chopin Ballade in F Major, Op. 38, is bound to raise some eyebrows among this book’s readers.

And that brings me to a word of warning. This book is not––I repeat, not a self-help method. While thoroughly readable, it requires much thought. A teacher should read it carefully before applying it in his teaching. In the discussion on emotionality, for example, Fraser admits his frustration with the student who “couldn’t get it” regarding the Ballade. It can be frightening to a student to urge them on beyond their emotional capacities. Some students simply have not developed emotionally to the point where they can “feel” the anguish of the “Presto con fuoco” section of the F-Major Ballade. I have made that error far too many times in my own teaching to not at least be sensitive to the dangerous territory emotionality can explore. But then, repertoire choice is critical here. Maybe Fraser could have reached this student with a less “fearsome” work in preparation for the Ballade. The examples he explores are all, without exception, from the top-of-the-line concert repertoire: difficult works such as Liszt’s La Campanella and Feux Follets, the aforementioned Rachmaninoff and Beethoven pieces, Scriabin’s Etude No. 5 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 42, and so forth. So, the teacher working with younger students might find his book of great interest, but not as useful in her teaching. And, of course, any instruction dealing with the physical at the piano requires great sensitivity on the part of the teacher who is applying the methods with students–– each psyche and hand is individual and unique.

With these gentle caveats, I am pleased to recommend Fraser’s book on The Craft (Also the ART?) of Piano Playing.

Louis Nagel, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Alan Fraser writes in response,

I am very gratified by the warm, perceptive critical appraisal Louis Nagel has extended to my book The Craft of Piano Playing. His enthusiasm for and appreciation of my work are really touching, and his remarks helpful. I agree that my talk on Chopin’s Ballade in F major may have gone a bit overboard, and thus I plan to do a small rewrite for the second edition.

There is one small point I would like to clarify. When he writes, “This book is not a self-help method”, if he means that it is not a quick fix, superficial compilation of handy hints at the keyboard, then by all means I agree. However, he later writes, “the teacher working with younger students might find his book… not as useful in her teaching”, implying that the book is for upper-echelon pianists only.

A piano technique for all levels of ability from begining pianists to concert pianists

Nothing could be further from the truth. I used examples from the virtuoso repertoire in the spirit of the book’s aim: to help all pianists up to consummate professionals. But the same technical principles hold for much less demanding music, and I think very few teachers or amateurs will have any trouble finding easier repertoire in which to apply these. Judging from reader response so far, even beginners have found significant improvement to be had from employing my ideas about hand structure and function in their playing. What’s more, many readers have enjoyed sinking their teeth into some of the technical nuggets tackled in Craft – you don’t have to learn all of La Campanella to experience the thrill of solving the problem of the double octave stretches, for instance, and that experience will stand you in good stead when tackling other similar problems more within your capabilities. Thus I would maintain that The Craft of Piano Playing is a self-help book in the best sense of the word.

May I once again express my appreciation for Mr. Nagel’s kind words.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Fraser

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Review of The Craft of Piano Playing in The JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL
SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF TENSION IN PERFORMANCE, UK (ISSTIP)
Autumn 2003

Fascinating new book on piano technique

The enormous collection of books devoted to the subject of piano technique and interpretation which have been published over the past century and more reflects the myriad of piano schools and ideologies that are in existence.  Two main distinct schools of piano thought have grown up.  The first was dominant in the early days of the piano and was clearly influenced by harpsichord technique, namely the ‘finger-action’ school, whereby the fingers were lifted high with the arm kept relatively still.  The second grew out of a dissatisfaction with this rigid form of playing and focussed more on the use of the arm and wrist relaxation.  The in depth treatises of Matthay and Breitaupt, most notably, sought to theorise this ‘arm weight’ school of thought.  Both these styles of playing in one form or another are still in existence today.  However, as Alan Fraser argues in this fascinating new book, while both camps contain many positive elements, there are many problems inherent in both methods of pianistic training.  This book was conceived in an attempt to ‘fill in the missing link between musical intention and physical execution’ and to provide a more naturally functional approach to piano playing that works in harmony with what our bodies demand.

‘astoundingly profound knowledge of body movement and structure...”

Legato generating hand structure and empowering piano techniqueThis study is the result of years of searching and thinking about piano performance and pedagogy; Fraser brings to it his astoundingly profound knowledge of body movement and structure, acquired through his training as a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method, and his study of Eastern martial arts such as T’ai chi, in addition to extensive experience as a concert performer and pedagogue.  The central tenet of Fraser’s teaching is generated from the belief that many of today’s pianists fail to use their body in a naturally functional way and thus their physical movements are often working against their musical intentions.  Taking T’ai chi walking as a starting point, he demonstrates with a series of musical examples how the hand arch can be strengthened through a manipulation of its skeletal structure, resulting in a truly functional use of the hand and arm.  The result according to Fraser is two-fold. 

New approach to piano technique opens up untapped sonic possibilities
by awakening muscles rather than strengthening them

It opens up a whole new world of sonic possibilities, untapped by most players, that lie hidden within the instrument.  In addition to this he believes that a stiff arm is often a consequence of a lack of a functional hand strength: developing this strength does not involve going to extreme measures to develop our hand muscles (as he notes, no Charles Atlas type muscle-building!!), but on the contrary it is acquired through the utilisation of our muscular and skeletal structure in its most natural way, often awaking muscle areas that would otherwise lie unused.  In this way he believes that many pianist’s injuries could be avoided through the proper organization not only of our visible muscular actions, but of the internal workings of our muscles.

‘delivered with wit and charm, openness and a strong clarity of intention and thought...

In the 400 pages or so of this book Fraser challenges many common pedagogical beliefs and ideas of movement, with detailed discussions of such areas as arm weight and the role of the arm, legato playing and natural finger shape among others.  Although this study is devoted primarily to the physical aspect of playing the piano (what Fraser calls the foreground), fascinating insights and ideas are also provided into the middleground and background, namely rhythm and phrasing, and the emotional content of music. 

A piano technique book that's fun to read

Despite its length and attention to detail this study avoids the dryness of many pedagogical manuals and is delivered with wit and charm, openness and a strong clarity of intention and thought making it incredibly user friendly.  In addition to all the answers it provides it is all the more admirable for the apposite questions it asks which are likely to stimulate any reader into their own personal thinking and to persuade them to jump on the band wagon in the search for a more functional and ‘sonically rich’ approach to the piano.

Manus Carey

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Review of The Craft of Piano Playing in the
JOURNAL OF THE EUROPEAN PIANO TEACHERS’ ASSOCIATION UK (EPTA UK)

Autumn 2003


‘All serious piano students should acquire this book.”

Slide thumb on the keyslip to empower your piano techniqueThere are almost as many books on Piano Technique as there are pianists and each claims to have all the answers to problems encountered by other pianists. Always fascinated by the magical and emotionally stirring performances of Horowitz, with his economy of movement and flat fingers, Alan Fraser has spent many years on his quest to discover the how and the why of producing these sounds at the keyboard.

Highly original exercises covering every aspect of piano technique

“The Craft of Piano Playing” takes us through a comprehensive range of highly original exercises covering every conceivable aspect of technique, including thumb push-ups, tremolando 8ves, forefinger arc swings, feather stroke, double notes, internal finger activity to name a few of the graphic and illustrated examples. Finger legato is likened to Tai Chi walking as a direct result of his extensive study of this discipline, and his extensive training as a Feldenkrais Practitioner brings deep insight into the minimal but effective use of body movement that is needed to accomplish these exercises.

A well-devised, carefully structured book on piano technique

The recurring “leitmotif” of the book is that ”strengthening the fingers and their bridge (i.e. the knuckles) by improving their alignment will open up a new world of pianistic sound and brilliance” for Alan Fraser firmly believes that harshness of sound does not come from playing too loud but from poor finger/hand organisation. Orchestrating the sound is another topic that is discussed at length, alongside the detailed lessons on specific passages from advanced repertoire which, apart from being most helpful, are highly entertaining with the personal anecdotes that accompany them. All serious piano students should acquire this book which is well-devised, carefully structured, always laced with humour on this very serious topic and although slightly lengthy in style, always resonating with Alan Fraser’s thinking that we need more exuberance, colour and life in our playing.

Nadia Lasserson

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Review of The Craft of Piano Playing in AMERICAN MUSIC TEACHER June/July 2004
(In the Annotated Bibliography on Musician Wellness)

A thought-provoking read for the advanced pianist

The Craft of Piano Playing: A New Approach to Piano Technique applies the Feldenkrais Method and Eastern martial arts concepts to piano playing. Not surprisingly there are topics in this text not really addressed elsewhere. It would make a good “alternative“ pedagogy text for courses about piano technique and a thought-provoking read for the advanced pianist.

Piano technique needs both refined skills and basic strength

Alan Fraser‘s underlying philosophy is outlined clearly in the introductory chapter and in Chapter Two, “How to Use This Book.“ He examines the physical attributes of changing habits and tackles a controversial subject quite effectively: “A hundred years ago, all Russian conservatory students underwent an exceptionally rigorous technical regime; although the modern pedagogy scoffs at the mindless mechanical drill, hardly ever see that kind of physical mastery today.“ (page 2) He compares a pianist with an athlete, stating that both need to acquire “refined physical skills“ and “basic strength.“

A synthesis of different historical approaches to piano technique plus some new ones

The text is divided into three sections but does not necessarily need to be read from cover to cover. Section One, “The Foreground: Pianistic Problems in Musical Craft,“ examines general principles of movement, hand strength, perfecting legato, the thumb and its relationship to the forefinger, finger shape and ideas about the phsyical approach to the keyboard.

Lifting the fingers generates the arch in yet another way and empowers your piano techniqueAlthough Fraser gives some sample exercises to complete throughout this section, his approach to the physical aspects of piano playing is more analytical then a “how to“ guide. He brings into his discussion the different historical approaches to piano technique from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are ten parts to this section.

Orchestration: a key concept not often addressed in books on piano technique

Section Two, “The Middleground: Some General Aspects of Musical Craft,“ is about rhythm, phrasing and orchestration. The heart of this section is Fraser‘s discussion of the pianist as an orchestrator. The uniqueness of being a pianist and having the ability to play the circumference of an entire orchestra is a discussion not often addressed in books about piano playing or technique.

Linking the physical to the emotional for a truly comprehensive piano technique

Section Three, “The Background: Tell a Story,“ explores the emotional content of music. Fraser relates playing musically to the technical aspects of playing. He examines asking students to go beyond their emotional capabilities. His honesty with regard to teaching musically is commendable and brings important points to the reader accurately and forthrightly.

Throughout the text, Fraser uses standard concert repertoire that clearly addresses the seasoned teacher of advanced pianists. Appendices and a short bibliography are included. Audience: advanced pianists

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