n Craft of Piano.com: The Complete Raymond Banning - Alan Fraser Arm Weight Debate Transcripts

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This page chronicles an exchange that took place in the U. K. Piano Teachers Newsletter,
a weekly email letter where teachers worldwide can ask questions and trade views.

It brings up many important questions concerning arm weight
and how Alan Fraser's method relates to it...

Alan Fraser, October 22, 2004

How to motivate piano students? Teach them technique!

At the EPTA UK Conference in Bath last summer, there was a work group held on the last morning to discuss the question, "What should be the prime focus in teaching young people?" I noticed that the teachers' prime concerns centered on "motivating the student". So universal was this preoccupation that in the entire morning I heard little said about musical values, acquainting students with the lives and spirits of the great composers, with the meaning behind the music they wrote, etc. These issues to me should be the prime motivators. Instead of reducing ourselves to begging dogs pleading with the student to 'become motivated', we should take their innate curiosity for granted and work to stimulate something that is already there. It is not logical even to have to address the question of motivating the student: presumably he or she shouldn't be there if (s)he isn't motivated. The search for ever more bland, insipid music to "motivate" students who find the classics too boring or highbrow or old-fashioned, simply leads us down the road to mediocrity.

A second point: technique can be a wonderful motivator. Too often, in our attempt to teach relaxation and the production of tone by arm weight, we introduce a basic structural weakness into the hand that renders the act of playing unpleasant. When the structural function of the hand is understood and taught, the student is immediately empowered, she or he feels better when (s)he plays, and voila, the motivation to play and learn more exists
without you the teacher having had to worry about it at all.

For more on how to teach structural hand function, I recommend THE CRAFT OF PIANO PLAYING, published by Scarecrow Press and authored by yours truly!

Best wishes,
Alan Fraser

Raymond Banning, October 28, 2004

Alan Fraser’s words on technique would appear to fly in the face of the principles that guided the greatest pianists in history. I suggest that it is entirely due to the fact that many teachers these days are unaware about how to encourage playing by arm weight that produces so much of the hard-toned, colourless finger drilling that is prevalent in modern piano playing. If we use our body in a naturally relaxed, holistic manner, the quality of our playing will improve beyond measure, and we will be at one with the instrument instead of battling with it. How on earth can such means produce sounds that are unpleasant? Alan says his book is all about hand structure. But we do not play just with our hands or fingers - or not if we want to make a beautiful sound. In fact, it is the stiff-arm, set-wrist, finger-jabbing style that generally causes an unpleasant sound.

And technique is a wonderful motivator? Surely the music is the motivator, and we find the necessary ‘technique’ to serve the particular expressive demands of the piece we are interpreting. I have heard too many performers who make technique the goal in itself, and I don’t want to hear any more.

Perhaps Alan prefers the abrasive modern sound now so common. Give me the tonal beauties produced by the likes of Leopold Godowsky, Claudio Arrau, Josef Hofmann, Myra Hess, to name just a few of those who extolled the principles of arm weight.

All good wishes,

Alan Fraser, November 30, 2004

Arm weight technique only detrimental when misunderstood

Raymond Banning has written an excellent piece opening up a discussion on technique and arm weight (Newsletter #286). I couldn't agree more with him. Yes, I too am aghast at the "hard-toned, colourless finger drilling that is prevalent in modern piano playing." By all means, yes, "if we use our body in a naturally relaxed, holistic manner, the quality of our playing will improve beyond measure, and we will be at one with the instrument instead of battling with it." And I believe that when he asks, "How on earth can such means produce sounds that are unpleasant?" he reaches the crux of the matter.

Because, to my mind, it is just when the hand cannot support the force coming down through it from the body and arm to the keyboard, that such unpleasant sounds can indeed be produced, even by arm weight. In my book I focus on the hand's structure because from what I have observed of modern piano technique, this at the moment is the weak link in the chain. I do not belittle arm weight, and yes, I agree that many of the greats used it to marvellous effect. However, I maintain that when using arm weight and relaxation lead to the collapse or inefficient use of the hand's structure, then these great concepts, which indeed we should revere, can become pernicious and destructive, and can lead to exactly that "abrasive modern sound now so common" that Raymond and I both abhor. I speak so strongly about this because I have to deal with it in my teaching virtually each and every day. heinrich neuhaus exercise

Piano technique based on structural function provides the needed link between hand & fingers and arm weight technique

How did the "stiff-arm, set-wrist, finger-jabbing" school arise? As I see it, again from a lack of "structural functionality" in the hand and arm. If fingers and hand are not doing their job, the arm stiffens, the wrist sets, in a vain attempt to compensate. Using arm weight will loosen things up and solve the problem, if the hand and fingers are doing what they should be. Otherwise, using arm weight can compound the very problem it is trying to resolve.

"Arm weight" is a subjective experience

I must also ask the question, what is really going on when we subjectively experience ourselves as using arm weight? This is important: for instance, in the fast scales at the end of Chopin's G minor Ballade, the E major Scherzo or the "Winter Wind" Etude, it is ludicrous to believe that arm weight takes a part in producing each individual tone. If this were so, there would have to be an individual 'down' motion on each note, which at that speed is of course impossible. A sense of using the arm's weight may well free everything inside it to function as it should, but surely the individual notes themselves are produced by fairly minute and precise actions of the fingers, actions generated by a complex combination of muscles running back from the fingers through the whole arm, shoulder and torso. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves, what is the complex relationship of arm weight to muscular effort? How can we best employ it? When I see pianists using such 'down' motions of the arm and producing a melody that, for all its beauty of tone, has a certain plodding and regular, note-by-note quality, again I must question the wisdom of blindly (or rather deafly!) adhering to the arm weight school.

I also agree with Raymond that music should be the prime motivator. However, I have found that a genuine, valid musical intention can often be thwarted by a technical lack of knowledge, and this can be disheartening. When the student is shown how to fulfil their musical intention, it can indeed be a great motivator. Again, strengthening the weak link in the chain.

Raymond starts off by saying that my words "would appear to fly in the face of the principles that guided the greatest pianists in history." Perhaps I need to be clearer in my presentation… When he concludes, "Give me the tonal beauties produced by the likes of Leopold Godowsky, Claudio Arrau, Josef Hofmann, Myra Hess, to name just a few of those who extolled the principles of arm weight," all I can add is "Hear hear!"

Warm wishes,

Raymond Banning, December 4, 2004

I am delighted that Alan Fraser and I agree about the vital importance of creating a desirable sound at the piano. I am interested in his concern, regarding arm weight, about the hand ‘not being able to support the force coming down through it from the body and arm to the keyboard.’

To me it is a simple thing to lift the arm, with the hand hanging, and to just allow the weight to drop through the hand, releasing all tension. The wrist can then continue the movement to fall to a comfortable level – even below the keys. I know that this often shocks teachers who themselves have been taught to keep the arm and wrist in a straight line, but that does not release all the tension. In fact, I generally ask students to let their weight go completely dead on to the keys, so that they know how it feels to be completely relaxed, then to attempt to feel as free as this when they play. It is important, however, and this may be what Alan means, that the weight does not sag into the elbow before sinking into the key.

Of course, one does not employ such an up-and-down arm technique on every note, particularly in such passages as Alan mentions. However, unless the arms - and not just the arms, but the whole body - are as physically at ease as possible, then the fingers are unlikely to work properly. This is why I insist on very slow work at first, so that students understand just how free and - yes, why not use the word - relaxed they can be when they play. In fact, I seem to see the matter from a diametrically opposite viewpoint to Alan.

He says, ‘Using arm weight will loosen things up and solve the problem, if the hand and fingers are doing what they should be. Otherwise, using arm weight can compound the very problem it is trying to resolve.’ I contend that the fingers and hand will only work effectively if the arm is completely free. Otherwise, there is always likely to be a barrier to playing such passages with ease and dexterity.

So often students come to me to sort out their technique. They say, ‘I practise my studies and finger exercises for hours, but I still don't play them comfortably.’ When I watch them, I see that there is sometimes not much wrong with the fingers - it is everything else, such as hunched shoulders, tense arms and high, rigid wrists.

Of course, when someone has gained a sense of ease and naturalness in their movements, then we can sort out the fingers. I wholeheartedly agree with Alan when he says ‘the individual notes themselves are produced by fairly minute and precise actions of the fingers, actions generated by a complex combination of muscles running back from the fingers through the whole arm, shoulder and torso.’

It may be that, by and large, Alan and I agree on most things and just see the same matter from a different angle, or use different terminology. But, as he says, it is good to air these views. He cites the Chopin G minor Ballade with regard to finger movement. If he wants to check on my passage work I am playing it at the Wigmore Hall on 9 March. Perhaps we can discuss these things over a drink afterwards.


Alan Fraser, December 17, 2004

Arm weight technique practiced correctly actually cultivates optimal skeletal alignments

I am indebted to Raymond Banning for his comments on arm weight which have led me to rethink the whole problem. I have been practicing using arm weight for a few days, and lo and behold, many things go much better! I am having a great time; many thanks Raymond! The benefits as I perceive them are as follows:

The structural-functional point of view says that good skeletal alignment is crucial to the efficient transmission of forces to the key. When I relax my arm so that its weight exerts itself down through my hand into the key, the resulting let-go in my shoulder allows the humerus to line up with my shoulder exactly as it should, facilitating the subsequent alignment of all the arm bones down to my fingertip and the efficient working of all the muscles involved therein.

arch joins fingertip to keyAdditionally, the complete joining of fingertip to key, real contact, is necessary for control of that key. Again, letting my arm's weight express itself is a wonderful, easy way to achieve this absolute contact, and because my arm remains supple behind my finger, the tone really is warmer and more resonant. And as Raymond so accurately puts it, the free arm facilitates ease and agility in all fingerwork. I find as well that it is easier to arrive at that mysterious form of interpretation where  inspiration or intuition play their part, supplanting that vaguely dissatisfying feeling that the intellect is too much in control. One's playing becomes more human.

When arm weight impinges on structure it becomes counterproductive

Now here's the qualifier: remember that in my initial newsletter contribution on this subject (#285), I did not criticize arm weight per se but rather the tendency when using arm weight to introduce a basic structural weakness into the hand. Letting the arm go allows me to feel my structural alignments superbly. Why then undermine that crucial structure by softening and caving in the hand in an attempt to relax further? Often this happens because a 'down' movement is used to help arm weight 'clamp' the finger to the key. No down movement is needed to have your arm's weight connect the finger to the key; indeed, a down movement can disturb the exactitude with which this is felt, and lead to the hand's structure caving in.

The confusion may lie in this idea of 'releasing tension.' When we "lift the arm, with the hand hanging, and just allow the weight to drop through the hand, releasing all tension", we don't actually release all the tension. The hand must make a significant effort if it is to maintain the wonderful key contact arm weight has just given it. It must maintain its natural arch shape. It can do this without effort as long as no stress is exerted upon it (observe your hand as it hangs by your side). However, as soon as a force is exerted on it such as the arm's weight, it must respond, take some sort of action if it is not to collapse.

Physically at ease does not equal flaccid

In playing; arm weight cannot be transmitted into the key if the hand and wrist are flaccid. If I fall into the key and then continue to let my wrist drop, releasing all the tension in my wrist, that tension should not disappear completely but move into the finger that's holding the key. If the tension did disappear altogether, my finger would slip off the key and my hand would end up on my lap. Arm weight, when used proficiently, facilitates the activity of the fingers, and woe betide the pianist who allows arm weight to replace crucial finger activity. If you notice that using your arm weight weakens your hand in any way, creating a sense of out-of-focus alignments or disempowered fingers, try to sense how that weight can instead galvanize your hand to find its structural alignments in a natural, effective way. Arm weight is a wonderful tool when used with a hand that is working well. Arm weight alone will not make the hand work well.

Raymond says, "Unless the arms - and not just the arms, but the whole body - are as physically at ease as possible, then the fingers are unlikely to work properly." Absolutely true. But even if the arms and body are physically at ease, it will be for naught if the hand and fingers don't do their bit. This is why I do often approach the issue from a viewpoint diametrically opposite to Raymond's. I start with the hand, encouraging it to 'stand up,' find its potent, viable arch shape, to express its innate strength where the fingers move well without undermining the stability of the hand structure. I especially focus on the tendency to collapse slightly in between two notes that destroys any chance of a real legato line.

When the student succeeds in this, frequently wrists will relax, arms lose their tension, hunched shoulders drop to a normal height, back pains disappear, without my ever having mentioned arm weight. Much of that stiffness was an attempt to compensate for a hand that was not doing its job, and when the hand and fingers do begin to work well, stiffness elsewhere in the system can disappear. It is at this point that using arm weight becomes a great boon. Using arm weight before the hand has been trained to handle it is sort of like encouraging a baby to walk before its spine has developed sufficiently to bear the pressures of verticality: you're risking back problems for that child thirty or forty years down the line.

As for the recital at Wigmore Hall March 9th, I would be delighted to attend and "check out Ray's passagework." And although I do have teaching obligations in Novi Sad at that time, Raymond, with EasyJet now flying out of Budapest I just might be able to swing it!

best wishes,

Lorna Leach, October 20, 2006

Do any of you have good cures for lightening thumbs? I am trying an exercise with the thumb playing staccato and the other fingers legato but could use any good ideas to make the learning of Bach's C minor prelude BMV 999 easier on the ear!

Alan Fraser, October 27, 2006

thumb pushupsIronically enough, an effective way of lightening thumbs is to first do the opposite. Thumbs are generally too heavy because they don't know how to stand up and support the hand. The 'bump' in the melodic line generally occurs when the thumb note is played by the hand collapsing down on top of it - i.e. the thumb actually remains inert and lifeless. Have the student press her or his thumb into the key and then have it push the hand up into the air away from it, expanding the space between thumb and forefinger - a sort of a 'thumb pushup.' Then have the student stand the four fingers on key with a nice, strong arch, and let the thumb drop in to its key without disturbing the integrity of the arch at all. This creates a sense of real activity in the thumb. Its independence from the rest of the hand gives it some real ability and therefore the chance to lighten up - to play its note with greater control.

Raymond Banning, November 3, 2006

I am afraid that I have once again to take issue with Alan Fraser with regard to aspects of piano technique. The procedure he suggests in order to lighten the thumb is not likely to work. If Alan keeps referring to finger movement without any reference to keeping the arm free and relaxed, then I do not see how the thumb will ever be lighter, nor will the sound be other than hard and percussive. Frankly, the fingers will never work properly until our arms, wrist, in fact whole posture, are in a state of relaxation. If there is any tension there then the fingers will not work effectively. This is the first thing that teachers should be imparting to pupils with regard to technique, yet Alan is recommending the thumb 'standing up', an extremely unnatural procedure!

Instead of creating ‘real activity’ (his words) with the thumb we should be lightly grazing the key with the thumb, preferably by gently rolling the arm, so that we maintain a sense of fluid, physically free movement. Without this, it is unlikely that anyone will ever feel totally at ease and in control at the piano.

I commend teachers to the teaching of Claudio Arrau on this matter, who was taught by Martin Krause, who was taught by Liszt. Arrau attested that every movement should be by dropping natural body weight into the keys. Having escaped the sort of techniques years ago that Alan advocates, and seen my own playing utterly transformed in the process, I can only concur wholeheartedly.

Alan Fraser, November 10, 2006

Raymond Banning seems to be belabouring a point with his obsession with arm relaxation. Let it be said once and for all that I take a free and relaxed arm as an essential element of technique, but I don’t feel I need to repeat myself ad nauseam about it when describing other important aspects. If you relax your arm and think that with this you have finished with your technical development then you are living in a fool’s paradise! Many times have I seen a beautifully relaxed arm being used to manipulate a thumb that was flaccid, inert, and in a word, incapable of fulfilling its function. The results, needless to say, were not brilliant.

If your arms, wrist, and your whole posture were in a state of total relaxation, you would slip off your chair and lie like a gelatinous blob on the floor! You couldn’t play a note! A thumb that can ‘stand up’ on key is like a body that can stand erect in the field of gravity. Would you prefer to stand and walk by yourself or to have somebody push you around in a wheelchair all day?

What Raymond means when he says we must relax, is that we must get rid of what Moshe Feldenkrais called “parasitic contractions,” that is, those muscular contractions that hamper rather than help free, easy and fluid movement. An empowered, sensitive thumb actually helps you to achieve this kind of potent relaxation.

Raymond’s idea to “lightly graze the key with the thumb, preferably by gently rolling the arm” is wonderful if it is done with an alive, responsive thumb. Thumb pushups aim to wake up a thumb that is inert and unresponsive.

I myself have benefited tremendously from the teachings that Raymond reveres – but I have also seen pupils suffer when they followed those teachings to the neglect of certain other aspects of hand structure and function, and this I aim to redress. I have even seen this over-concentration on arm relaxation lead to such ludicrous situations as a seasoned concert pianist getting lost in something as easy as Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ because he was so concerned with relaxing his arm that he seemed to lose track of the notes!

I invite Raymond to watch my film, THE CRAFT OF PIANO PLAYING to get a more complete picture of my ideas before he launches another attack. The DVD is available at www.maplegroveproductions.com .

Raymond Banning, November 17, 2006

Alan Fraser seems to regard my taking issue with some of his views on piano technique as an ‘attack’ (his words). He states that I am ‘obsessed’ with arm relaxation. Of course I do not suggest that a relaxed arm is the be-all and end-all of piano technique, but I strongly assert that without it one will never achieve a truly beautiful tone and technical facility.

A couple of quotes from Alan’s book: Harsh tone does not result from overly quick key descent. Greater key speeds are necessary for greater volume. On the contrary, overly quick key descent is exactly the chief cause of so much of the harsh tone we hear today. The sharper the movement the uglier the sound. A big, openly sonorous sound is achieved by a concentration of upper body weight into the keys, not by jabbing the notes down sharply. In fact the latter movement not only causes an unpleasant sound, the notes die away more quickly, too. It is perfectly possible to achieve a big tone with quite a slow arm movement. This is easily demonstrated on a good Steinway. Watch Josef Hofmann in the DVD of The Art Of Piano.

As if to prove his thesis that arm weight is not as important as finger strength Alan exhorts us to : Lie on your back; ‘play the piano’ on the underside of a table. Where is your arm weight now? It is plain to see that activity is doing the work, not weight. What on earth would we want to do this for? Of course arm weight won’t have any effect, but how many recitals do we give playing the piano upside down?

"Anti-arm weight pianist" Alan Fraser, author of The Craft of Piano Playing: A New Approach to Piano Technique

The whole rationale behind this most common of all pianistic movements is that it is a stiff arm that causes a banged sound. But what is the underlying cause of a stiff arm? A weak hand!
This is where I particularly take issue with Alan. As teachers I firmly believe that we must insist on a free arm with our pupils before we encourage hand and finger exercises. Quite frankly, unless a student has learned how to free the arm, and use natural weight, I do not believe that his/her hand will ever achieve its full potential, because the upper body tension will impair free movement.

Alan also talks a good deal about the need for physical power. But how much power does it take to put a key down?

Alan may be surprised to know that there are things in his book with which I agree, but I believe it to be of vital importance that he is challenged on some of his forceful assertions. Those who read Alan’s opinions on piano technique need to be aware that there are many pianists who hold diametrically opposed views to his. Perhaps he and I should hold a joint seminar some time, so that we can put our different approaches to an audience. I am sure that he will agree that it is a good deal easier to demonstrate aspects of piano technique than to talk about it.

Alan Fraser, November 24, 2006

Thanks to Raymond Banning for his clear and generous response to my last somewhat 'bristling' post. I must say that I seem to have gotten out of the wrong side of bed that day and regret that I felt so "attacked" - I also regret my 'counterattack!' I understand that of course Raymond meant nothing of the sort. And now to reply, hopefully in the spirit of collegiality and mutual investigation onwards!

Point #1: It's a simple law of physics that the quicker a key goes down, the louder the sound will be. However, this is far from the whole story: we live in a very subjective world at the piano. I agree that jabbing the key to make it descend more quickly gives an ugly, unpleasant sound. The trick is to get the key down more quickly without any convulsive, jabbing movements. So it may well be that you feel as if you are slowing the key down even as you visualize a bigger, richer sound - after all, we do have to play forte sometimes - and the intuitive wisdom of your neuromuscular system takes care of making a bigger sound in a beautiful way. But in the end, if it was louder, the key did move more quickly.

Point #2: We would indeed want to lie on our back and 'play' the underside of the piano if it were to teach us a very important point: that although we may perceive the weight of our arm moving the key, in fact something far more complex is going on. The sense of arm weight is indeed crucial to beautiful tone, but remember, the sense of arm weight frees the musculature to work properly and without tension: it does not replace the work of the muscles, only refines it.

Point #3: I agree that the arm must be taught to be relaxed from the beginning, and we must continually return to that point to ensure that undue tension is not developing to hinder things. However, I have come across students who in their studies never got to the next part! They (or their teacher) expected arm weight to do the whole job! Hence my emphasis (perhaps overemphasis?) on the work of the fingers and hand.

And it has been my experience many times to develop the ability of a student's hand to stand and walk well on key, and suddenly notice that their arm did relax a great deal without my ever talking about it. This was a natural reaction: the hand's stability offered the arm a feeling of security.

Lately however I have been moving more and more in the direction Raymond describes: of empowering the work of the hand and fingers by a release further up the arm.

Conclusion: I think Raymond and I are basically after the same thing - I certainly admire the exceptionally exquisite beauty of tone he achieved at his Wigmore Hall recital - we simply are following different paths to get there. I must say that in my own experience I am continually edging towards the type of approach he describes so well - but I am still wary of relaxation that emasculates...

I am really glad Raymond has seen fit to challenge some of my 'forceful assertions': it is through this kind of dialogue that we can achieve more clarity and thus avoid the misinterpretations that can lead one so far astray. I welcome more 'challenges,' not in the spirit of fighting back but of learning and growing. And a joint seminar is a wonderful idea - let's do it!

PS And let's not overlook Merle Stevenson's wise words - use your ears to fix the bump in the thumb!

Julie Moncur, December 1, 2006

The exchange of views between Raymond Banning and Alan Fraser has reminded of my own piano teacher, who (c 1963) taught 'The Matthay Method' and was very keen on using arm weight.  However, I remember that one of "Dear Mr Matthay's" oft-quoted maxims was 'steel fingers in velvet gloves', which suggests that a relaxed arm was intended to be combined with strong fingers.  On the subject of jabbing notes down causing harsh tone, as far as I am aware all the scientific evidence is that the piano player can only control the volume of the note, not its timbre, up to the point where the volume attempted is too great for the instrument, causing the string to vibrate longitudinally as well as transversely, which would then cause unpleasant overtones to be produced.  If this is true then all tonal effects must be produced by the way sounds are combined, i.e. in the connecting gesture rather than in the way individual notes are put down.  So I would like to ask Raymond and Alan whether they know of any more recent research having been done on this subject?

Alan Fraser, December 8, 2006

The hand's "Russian arch" crucial to a well-developed piano techniqueJulie's reminiscence of Matthay's "steel fingers in velvet gloves" reminds me of my own lessons in arm weight from Carola Grindea. She helped me loosen my arms a great deal (much to my astonishment, because I had thought they already were relaxed!), but I noticed that her hands had a wonderfully pronounced arch that was always there to serve her fingers well. Similarly the hands of Yonty Solomon, another great exponent of arm weight, have one of the most pronounced and natural looking pair of arches I have ever seen. Interestingly enough, in observing him teach, I noticed that his students tended to pick up on everything he was showing them except this aspect of his technique, and with their more "relaxed" hands could not fully achieve his amazingly stellar results.

About the gestures and methods used to join notes musically and artistically: a large part of my book and my film deal with just this problem - how to replace generic arm relaxation movements (such as the 'rounding' movement we see so often that I call "the classic arm out") with movements of the wrist and forearm that reflect the exact melodic contour and expressive shape of each particular phrase. I also deal with the fundamental problem of a physical legato, which for me is the foundation of piano technique. Too much material to put in a newsletter!inTracker();