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The Craft of Piano Playing
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hand structure in legato



CRAFT OF PIANO LESSONS:

 

WHY FOCUS ON
THE PHYSICAL?

 



This lesson became a key introductory chapter to Alan Fraser's
Honing the Pianistic Self-Image: Skeletal-Based Piano Technique


Commentary on a lesson I gave Julia Bal

The fundamental link between physical organization and musical expression in piano technique

I noticed a weakness in Julia’s physical organization that prevented her from getting the sound Mussorsky needed for the opening Promenade in ‘Pictures’. Her hand wasn’t standing well on the board, and her arm position wasn’t helping matters either. I showed her the required feeling of skeletal integrity in her hand, then I held her arm and guided it in space in such a way that it empowered her hand to play powerful, open, free, stable chords instead of cramping them. Quite suddenly her sound improved dramatically: all at once healthy and resonant, but most fascinating of all, it now had dignity and magnificence; the character and emotional tone was now correct as well. How did that happen?

I could have asked her to imagine the dignity and magnificence of the passage, and probably, after much struggle, searching and failed attempts she would have succeeded more or less. But by showing her the physical organization involved, I allowed her to succeed 100% immediately. Why? What is going on here?

Literally everything you do has an effect on the piano sound

It stands to reason that every sound, every emotional colour produced by a pianist has a corresponding physical organization. If your body is organized to do A, you are not likely to get B, C or D as a result of your action. By physical organization I mean a specific pattern of muscular contractions and relaxations, bone alignments, thought patterns that is unique for each and every act we conceive and then do.

Systematize the elements of piano technique to better empower your students

The systematization of an art involves specifying the physical organizations involved, learning their nature and learning how to communicate them. Every student of medicine learns anatomy from a textbook and in the dissecting lab, and does not need to repeat the work of the many who first made those discoveries. But at the piano we often demand a certain sound or emotional tone from the student but leave them more or less to their own devices when it comes to producing it. Or as is often the case, we demonstrate, playing it the way we think it should be played, then ask them to do the same. Yet we may have learned instinctively, and may be more able to demonstrate than to explain what it is we actually did. This leaves pedagogy in a kind of hit or miss situation. If I understand my physical organization so well that I can guide the student physically in recreating it, I stand much more chance in successfully empowering the student to succeed.

Physical touch: an important mode of communication in piano pedagogyStimulating the moveable arch by touch to bring piano technique to life

Why should I leave Julia to her own devices in discovering the appropriate sound for this (or any) passage, as well as the appropriate technique to produce it? I can shorten her learning process dramatically by guiding her in the actual physical alignments and muscular impulses needed to make a piano behave in a specific way. In a way, when I physically guide them, it’s imitation taken one step further. I am now showing them my internal state, what I am doing inside in order to produce that external result they’re trying to imitate. Of course, once having gone through it in the lesson, she will still have to learn how to recreate that sound on her own. But having the experiential template already recorded in her experience goes a long way towards having her succeed in the shortest time.

Link touch to artistic expression

If I speak only about the physical, again I mislead her and create a wrong impression of what artistic work consists of. She then believes that piano playing consists of holding your hand a certain way, moving the fingers so and so, feeling effort in this or that part of your arm. Poppycock! The physical organizations learned always serve a musical purpose, in this particular case the stately dignity and alive magnificence of Mussorsky’s Promenade. She must have the artistic image in her mind  - she must understand clearly the artistic goal she is striving for, and the physical experience must be linked to that. At the end of this long apprenticeship, the physical organizations will be learned so well that she thinks no more about them, but uses them automatically to fulfil her artistic intentions.

Learning to speak is a natural process. Children don’t go to a special school to learn how to pronounce each word. Of course, there is much coaching from family and friends, but for the most part they just pick language up from their surroundings. But an actor takes lessons in diction, voice projection and voice production, elocution, breathing, posture, all the better to know the specific physical sensations associated with each expression, every nuance in emotional tone.

Emotional expression is rooted in physical technique: this is the craft of piano playing!

I remember the story of an old London stage veteran rehearsing in his studio. A friend arrives; the actor tells him, “listen to this, I’ve been working on it a bit”. He delivers an oration that literally has his friend in tears, but the instant it’s over the actor says in a completely normal, conversational tone, “Not bad, eh? Would you like it again?” He delivers the same lines with the same power and emotional impact, and again afterwards he immediately returns to a normal, everyday state of existence. It is his craft. It is his job. His art is to create specific emotional tones and impressions, and his voice and his body are the tool he uses to achieve this.

The more we pianists understand the exact physical organization we use to produce this or that type of sound, the more command we have over our means of expression, the more fluent we are in our pianistic/musical language. The more I show my students physically what we are doing, how to do it, the more they can do what... the composer wanted.

Touching the first dorsal interosseous that plays a crucial role in an empowered piano technique

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