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Craft of Piano Lessons


CRAFT OF PIANO LESSONS

'Levers' in Appassionata Sonata,
First & Second Movements

 

 


This lesson became chapter 20 of Alan Fraser's
Honing the Pianistic Self-Image: Skeletal-Based Piano Technique


Several key points were well-illustrated in this lesson. Mladen was so caught up in doing the various physical things I had shown him that he missed the main point: appassionata! His approach lacked the emotional intensity, bordering on manic, needed to communicate the content of this music.

First Movement

Misuse of the physical apparatus leads to faulty piano technique

At the ff chords, measure 17, I noticed a classic physical organization that was unwittingly working against his intentions. Mladen wanted to play fortissimo, but he thought that the force for that loud sound must come from his arm (It is not an uncommon idea, yes?). I could see his arm bearing down on his hand, trying to communicate its force through his hand to the keys. Unfortunately, this served only to impinge upon his hand structure, pushing down on it, weakening and compressing it and drastically limiting the fingers’ ability to move instead of empowering them. It was for naught that he attempted to make his forte with the force of his arm, because that force simply couldn’t get through his hand to the instrument. As I have said elsewhere, pressing down is mainly an instructive technique – in actual playing our need for movement supercedes that for stability.

Perceiving fingers as a set of levers transforms your piano technique

I showed Mladen how his fingers are levers, and for the purposes of this particular passage, how using the whole-finger lever is most efficient.

Flat finger levers empower piano techniqueStep 1: Keeping your four fingers completely straight and stuck together, draw your thumb and fingers rapidly together so your thumb slaps the underside of your third finger. Your four fingers and hand make a flat board, and your thumb slaps the center of it.

You probably did this with your palm facing upwards so you could see how your thumb slaps this board-like structure, or more exactly how that board-like structure slaps your thumb. Now do the same motion with your palm facing down, as if that board is waving goodbye to somebody. This is a variation on “the sound of one hand clapping”, but an important one. Each subtle change we make in a movement’s organization brings it a new quality and a new possible application.

Now play the first chord of the ff passage using this arrangement and motion, which has several advantages: for one, you get a kind of roaring sound out of the piano, and yet you used much less physical effort. Also, you have completely evaded the problem of the arm’s force bearing down on your hand and impinging upon its structural integrity.

Bring the mechanical efficiency of levers to your piano technique

This technique pays respect to several simple facts: the louder the sound you want, the quicker the key descent you must have. You can’t escape basic physics: the slower the key speed, the less volume in the sound. This use of leverage affords you a way to get maximum key speed with minimum impingement on your hand structure. We arrive at an essential pianistic truth: we need structural integrity but in the midst of playing, we often cannot afford to actually stand on our hand or press down through it to consolidate that integrity. There’s no time, and even if there was, standing is not moving, and playing is fundamentally movement. For the purposes of the various manipulations of various keys in various fashions in rapid succession, we need a type of movement where the movement itself cultivates structural integrity. Using the whole-finger lever generates and affirms your hand’s function and structure, freeing you from the need for a separate effort to do the same.

Trying to play forte creates problems in piano technique

Fingertips as levers - a simple effective strategy. From Alan Fraser's Honing the Pianistic self-Image: Skeletal-Based Piano TechniqueYou may more easily learn this technique by trying to make the key go down quickly but consciously refraining from any effort to play loudly. We tend to associate the experience of playing loudly with a sense of effort, of weightiness, and the experience of producing such a roaring, virile fortissimo with so little effort may even be disorienting at first! So: disassociate “forte” in your mind from this technique. Just use the technique to make the keys go down fast, and notice the result. Thus learn that you can play forte without “playing forte”! You can make a louder, more healthy sound by not trying to play forte, than you can by your old effortful way – if you are sly. Remember I said that we tend to associate playing forte with a sense of weight and effort. This sense of weightiness in turn stems from an insidious collapse of structure. When you use a technique whose movement in itself affirms structure, a tremendous sense of freedom appears that stems precisely from this lack of any weight in your touch.

Forte with no weight, no effort - an entirely new piano technique!

Now when you do want to add a little more pizzazz  to your sound – to edge towards forte without reinstating your old cramped organization, just increase the speed of your attack a little but don’t clench! For an even more electric, galvanized, manic sound, don’t go back to binding up when you intend to play louder. Just keep those levers moving freely, slapping quickly, and you’ll be fine.

Auxiliary moves such as curling or staccato reduce the efficiency of 'levers' technique

Another cautionary note: do not curl your fingers – this spoils the whole thing. It’s not curling! The instant you curl your fingers you are no longer doing the ‘whole-finger lever’. You lose the ease and clarity of contact with the key. The relatively flat finger is fundamentally a much simpler entity than the curled one. Leave them relatively flat, keep it simple!

Alan Fraser in The Craft of Piano Playing

Also, don’t make the mistake of playing staccato. Just because it’s a quick slapping motion doesn’t mean it needs to be staccato. Let’s analyse why you get such a fantastic sound with this technique: the quick movement of the four bound fingers (the flat, board-like structure) clamps their tips to the keys. If you play staccato, you disengage your fingertips from the keys prematurely and subvert this process! But remember, no feeling of weight: for some of you, just the mention of the word “clamp” will predispose you to re-introduce some sense of pressing. But notice, it’s the quick movement that clamps them ‘automatically’, without you even intending it. And that’s why it’s so effective: the reflexes can do it much more precisely than our thinking mind…
 

Levers: an advanced piano technique

A warning: “levers” aren’t for everybody. I seldom teach this to a student unless they are quite advanced. There needs to be a fundamental sense of security and capability already in one’s system before one can with ease acquire this new organization. Occasionally I will notice that someone’s particular configuration, type of hand structure lends itself to “levers” and so I will introduce the idea earlier rather than later – it’s a judgment call…

Second Movement

Don't let feeling emotion block your hearing

Here Mladen showed a really fine sensitivity to the nobility of feeling that must characterize any interpretation of this calm, dignified chorale and variations. He was trying so hard to feel exactly that, and yet his interpretation failed so miserably: why? He made a basic error: he thought that if he forced him self to feel the noble sentiments of Beethoven’s musical thought, then his inner feeling would influence the musical sounds and suffuse his interpretation with the same dignity. Big mistake!

He was trying so hard: it was touching to see it. But there was no corresponding result in his playing. He was so present that he was absent. He was so present to the emotions that he was absent to the sounds! To achieve what he was aiming for he needed to go a radically different route. He needed to a 180-degree perceptual about turn.

Let your listening evoke your emotion

Tune into the sounds themselves. If you merely attend to your craft, your pianistic job, you will create the noble dignity you desire without even trying to. His sound was not really even. He brought out the top voice in the opening chorale but so extremely that the lowest voice of the right hand was often inaudible. It is the absolutely controlled relationship between all the voices that creates the nobility of feeling Beethoven sought.

Mladen had been playing with a slight unevenness to his melodic line and harmonic shadings. Nothing disastrous, mind you, but enough to rob him of the special atmosphere he sought, and enough to signal to me what his perceptual mistake was. I knew this because I know he has a good ear. He has an excellent ear, in fact, he was just distracted from using it properly by his preoccupation with ‘all those intense emotions’.

When the sixteenth-note variation begins, watch that the 16ths are absolutely even. You must cultivate a perfect physical legato to succeed in this. An ever-so-alight awareness of pulse ensures that the in-between notes are even and present without drawing undue attention to themselves, while the pulse notes themselves are not over-accented yet full, possessing the rhythmic integrity which will give the passage the depth of character and expression it needs…

An evolved piano technique necessitates an evolved listening, an evolved perceptual organization

You’re not really listening: Beethoven’s nobility, dignity and profundity of expression are in his notes, not inside you! Don’t think that you need to feel the emotion first and then inject it into the music: listen to the sounds you are producing, and try to discover the emotion inherent in those sounds themselves… let that emotion, that exists in its own right, as a separate entity, evoke the corresponding emotional understanding in you…

It’s a question of direction – which way are the emotions flowing, from you to the object or from the object to you?

 

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