“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019


     I was delighted recently to receive a thoughtful response to my essay on the value of etudes ("Scales, Arpeggios..."). My correspondent argues that "most exercises are NOT training for strength, but rather they are more NEUROMUSCULAR in
nature." And he has a use for exercises. I'm glad he agrees that strength training is not the objective. I suspect this is a forest-for-the-trees situation. But I think it's worth working through the concepts.
     Unfortunately, the impression many students and teachers take away from exercises has to do with strength training. The two most ubiquitous composers of etudes, Hanon and Czerny, have created a strength and 
Charles-Louis Hanon
finger-independence cult. In the preface to his 60 Exercises, Hanon states that "The fourth and fifth fingers are almost useless for lack of special exercises for these fingers, which are always weaker than the rest." There is nothing wrong with the fourth and fifth fingers unless at some point they've been slammed
in a car door. Our job at the keyboard is to learn how to use them according to their design. (Making the fingers feel "strong" is addressed elsewhere in these pages.) Further, he instructs students to "lift the fingers high." This is pointless and possibly dangerous, but again that is a different topic. The fingers are not physiologically independent of one another but can be made to sound that way.

     Czerny, on the other hand, gives almost no
Carl Czerny
instructions on how to master his studies—just play them. Some of the titles in The Art of Finger Dexterity, though, give hints as to what he is thinking: "Action of the Fingers, Quiet Hand." One of my favorites is titled, "The Passing Under of the Thumb." This isn't really about strength, but it is one of the old wives' tales that have come down to us. The most efficient use of the thumb is not achieved by "passing under." (Thumb crossing is discussed elsewhere.) I often wonder what studies the five-year-old prodigy practiced. (Doesn't he resemble Schubert?)

     But my correspondent's main point of contention, which he argues ever so politely, is that exercises are useful because they are not music. "They are NEUROMUSCULAR in
nature." "Technique," he says, "is in the brain, not the body." The first half of that statement is right on point. Yes, we think first. But we think about what the body needs to learn. This is what I call practicing on purpose, working into an automatic response the appropriate technical solutions which we first have to conceive of.  Everything we play is, of course, neuromuscular. We rely on physical conditioning, particularly in speed. He points out that students have "too many distractions" in a piece of music: "reading, tone productions, balance, phrasing, tempo." If he really wants to play unmusically (I'm sure he doesn't), he can do that in passages in a piece of music just as well as in an exercise.
     And this is really what I'm talking about. When I say ignore exercises in favor of music, I mean select challenging passages in the music to use as etudes. This might be a scale passage in one hand, an arpeggio, two measures of double notes or an octave group. In so doing, we have a head start on a piece we really want to play. If you master Hanon, say, you have, well, an exercise that trained your hands to play that exercise. This will not necessarily transfer to a piece of music. 
     "With exercises," my correspondent states, " we can revel in the beauties of pure technique." We can do that in technical excerpts from music, too. If a student has a problem in a particular passage, that becomes an etude independent of the rest of the piece. Personally, I see no reason to ever play ugly; we should always be aware of the quality of sound and maybe even articulation and dynamics. That's not too much to think about in, say, a four-measure excerpt. I have the sinking feeling that many teachers run to the shelf to select a book of exercises because that seems easier than thinking about what technical help the student needs for a particular piece. 
     I can hear my teacher now: "Dear, you can play whatever you want as long as you play it correctly." Of course, if you know how to play your exercise correctly, then you don't need to play it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Arthritis and the Piano, Repost

Here is a repost of one of the most popular posts:
     In a forum for pianists, a physical therapist remarked that one of her clients, a doctor, had
been advised to stop playing the piano because of painful arthritis. There ensued much discussion about whether or not piano playing causes, exacerbates or alleviates symptoms. My advice in these circumstances is—keeping in mind that I am not a medical doctor—first get a thorough evaluation from medical experts. After that, proceed gently using methods that do not interfere with the body’s natural design.
     My response to the poster was: Your client should find a teacher who understands how the
playing mechanism works. In brief: The fingers do not act by lifting away from the hand, but rather operate as a connected unit with the hand and forearm, through a forearm rotation. This particular action is a natural, quick and easy one and has proven to be therapeutic. It's not possible to play the piano without it; trying to thwart it causes injury. There is a series of DVDs published by the Dorothy Taubman Institute that might be a good starting point. Avoid at all costs exercises by Czerny, Hanon and the others. They are at best a waste of time and at worst can create a misunderstanding of what is needed to play.
     One possible approach for this pianist would be to explore how the forearm works. She could try this: Lift the arm up from the elbow and notice the
hand is in a karate-chop position with the heel of your hand facing the keys. In order to play at all we have to turn (rotate) the forearm toward the thumb. When this movement is not understood, it is possible that unnecessary tension will exacerbate the arthritis symptoms. This rotation gets the forearm behind the finger that is playing and is the
source of power and speed. But it is only a tool. We move laterally up and down the keys using other mechanisms which I don't have time to describe here. We play the piano with our fingers in alignment with the wrist hand and arm. Also, it is a mistake to think of originating a movement from the wrist because then the fingers, more often than not, turn to wet noodles.

      It was suggested that she study Czerny and Hanon, which many people use with enthusiasm—even today in the face of what we now know. My feeling is that if you know how to play them technically, then you don't need them. Their premise is that we train for endurance and physical strength similar to the way weight-lifters train. This is a fallacy. We train refined muscles for coordination. A small child is "strong" enough to play the piano. Repetition training of the sort advocated by the authors of these exercises falls too easily into the category of mindless rote.
     I think it's more important to examine how this arthritic pianist moves at the keyboard, rather than the issue of what repertoire to play. In general, though, she may want to take care not to extend
her hands to extremes. That is, avoid stretched intervals, particularly octave positions with a minor second in the index finger. And of course, if something causes discomfort, don't do it. Since she's a doctor, she may have an advantage.
     Some pianists argue that they don't use forearm rotation, so I repeat: Lift your forearm up from where it hangs at your side. Lift from the elbow. Do nothing else. Your hand will not be in a playing position. In order to be in a playing position you must rotate your forearm in the elbow axle toward the thumb. This is the first example of forearm rotation as an UNDERLYING TOOL. It is only one of many refinements we use. It is not  the only way to play the piano. But you can't play without it. Moreover, understanding forearm rotation as an underlying tool contributes to an efficient and fluent technique.           
     In all fairness, I think I understand where the rotation doubters come from. They can see applications in Alberti figures because that’s rather obvious. If they play naturally and with ease and if they had facility at an early age, it is difficult for them to understand what is underneath and why it's important for people with less natural facility to discover for themselves what works. 
     I also can understand why they might think movements originate from the wrist. In a well-coordinated technique in which lateral movements are incorporated—walking arm and shaping—the wrist moves in ovate gestures, giving the appearance of being the motor behind the fingers. The piano is played with the fingers in collaboration with the wrist. It is not useful to think of initiating the movement from the wrist,
but rather allowing the wrist to participate. This takes some deliberation. And unless a pianist is willing to give it thought, the understanding will never come. 
     So I say to pianists faced with arthritic pain, find ways to use the playing mechanism in the manner to which it was born. That is, use it according to its design. Never mind the rotation doubters. It’s possible to make music at the piano from many different points of view, or from no point of view at all, the latter approach being the most common. I choose to make use of knowledge. If the choice is between ease or difficulty, I choose ease. This knowledge can be therapeutic.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Scales, Arpeggios and, What? Again? Exercises

     A student writes: "It seems playing technically difficult passages
is only a matter of finding the correct motions. It also seems that most great composers wanted first and foremost to be piano teachers to all posterity, using their compositions (rather cryptically) for that purpose!"
     My Response: You are quite right in supposing that solving technical problems is about finding out how to move at the keyboard, keeping in mind how the playing mechanism was designed to work. Mindless rote is not the answer. I don't agree, though, that all composers wrote music to be teachers, at least not after J.S. Bach. Most composers of the great piano music that has come down to us were themselves accomplished pianists. They wrote music for themselves to play, by and large, incorporating into their pieces the technical devices that came naturally to them. We present-day pianists get to learn all of these techniques. 
     But this student allows as how he had other questions on his mind:  "I'm pondering whether I should get Seymour Bernstein's "With Your Own Two Hands." It seems [that] genuinely interesting remarks are mixed with other things I'm not sure about. For example [he] recommends some form of holding exercises and thumb under for scales. He also recommends scales & arps. I can attest first hand, that playing the Czerny Op. 821 made a big difference in my technique. Bernstein [thinks scales] are 'emancipating.'"   
     My response: Seymour Bernstein was an interesting character and you might enjoy his book. (I haven't read it.) He wrote to me  some time ago asking about aspects of technique that he didn't seem to have considered. "Holding" exercises such as those perpetrated by
Dohn├ínyi are some of the most destructive ever conceived and are evidence that he didn't understand the role of the forearm in piano playing. The use of the thumb in scales has also been misunderstood. (For a video demonstration, see above under the tab iDemos and select "forearm rotation." The thumb crossing is at about 430.) 
     I'll put it this way, and forgive me for sounding like a broken record: Anyone who advocates any exercises, including scales for technique, probably doesn't really understand that we don't train for physical strength, but rather for coordination of the refined muscles. We are not like athletes who train large muscle groups for maximum effort. It takes very little "strength" to play the piano; a small child can do it. It's more effective to practice technique in the music you want to play. Everything is there. 
     You say Czerny op. 821 advanced your technique. I find this curious. I wonder if you had spent the same amount of time on similar passages in, say, Mozart or Beethoven, your technique might also have advanced, the difference being that you would then have some repertoire under your belt. Incidentally, In 65 years of
Carl Czerny Op. 821
playing the piano, I have never come across a passage such as the Czerny example you attach (Op. 821, No. 143). So, I ask, why should I waste my time practicing something that I very likely will never need. I will learn to do that if and when the music demands it. It's unreasonable to expect to be able to do Y because you did X.   

     Scales are important more as an aspect of orientation on the keyboard and for keyboard harmony than for developing technique. Once major and melodic minor keys are understood and thumb-crossings coordinated, it is not necessary to practice them routinely for technique. Rarely, if ever, do scales occur in music the way we learn them in the practice room. I printed in my book the scales plan I once learned because some students feel the need to have a routine for a period of time until they are well worked-in. Sixths and tenths are helpful to train the ear for precision between the hands; it's easier to hear if the hands are out of sync than when playing in octaves.
     So, the short answer is that you don't need to practice scales and arpeggios routinely for technique if you know them well. Exercises,
which were originally designed to develop "strength and finger independence," are at best misguided and possibly harmful. So, toss out those books. Solve the technique in the music you want to play. If you want to be emancipated by practicing scales, practice the scale passages in the scales excerpt book.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Exercises for the Piano: Yes, Again

     A teacher posted to FaceBook a proud announcement of her new
Charles-Louis Hanon
volume of Hanon studies remade in the style of Bach, invertible counterpoint and all. She proposes that this will be preparation for  J. S. Bach. I asked her if these were meant to be concert pieces and if not, what is it about them that prepares the student for Bach. Why not play actual Bach, I asked. She replied that no, they are not concert pieces and have the same purpose as all such exercises. Needless to say, I was dismayed once again to learn that, even now, some teachers still cling to the notion that by practicing X the student will be able to play Y. Buried somewhere in this fuzzy 
thinking is the idea that it takes physical strength to play the piano and that lifting the fingers away from the hand will develop independent fingers. Both are false assertions. I felt moved to repost the following article:   

Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist,
60 Exercises
, Table of contents


      A pianist writes: "I have been told by some pianists that Hanon's The Virtuoso Pianist, In Sixty Exercises is a waste of time....it's stupid and nonsense. One pianist even asked me, 'Do you think Tchaikovsky or Mozart played these? Throw the book away.' On the other hand, a piano student studying for her PHD in piano performance told me that she plays them every day and that she believes it helps her playing? What is the general  consensus on this? I believe if it works for you then by all means play it. However if that's the case then should all teachers teach all their students Hanon?"
     My response: What do you mean by works for you? When 
playing something (an exercise) that is supposed to prepare you for 

something else (a piece of music), I think it's important to ask yourself why? What is the purpose of this particular exercise?
   Mr. Hanon, who was trained as an organist, only gives metronome indications and says to repeat the exercises. He doesn't really tell us how to play the exercises, except to lift the fingers high (!). He tells us that they will produce agility, strength (!), independence of fingers and evenness.
     The mindset from which this point of view stems has largely been replaced over the years, although some still cling doggedly to it, i.e., that it takes physical strength to play the piano. It does not. (A small child can do it.) We gain power not by lifting the fingers away from the hand, which is something they weren't designed to do efficiently, but rather with the discreet participation of the
forearm. Hanon's supposition is that by lifting the fingers they will become strong and independent, but we don't train like weight lifters, who work to build mass in large muscles. Rather, we train for refined coordination. The fingers never will be independent of each other, nor need they be; they can, however, be made to sound that way.
     In short, "you can play whatever you want, dear," to quote my teacher, but once you know how to play the exercises correctly, i.e., with the participation of the forearm, there is no longer any reason to play them. In fact, there's no point in playing them at all because the technical issues can be addressed in music.
     As for the Phd candidate, that routine may serve several purposes: provide a comforting and mindless routine, a delay tactic for avoiding the real work to come or some other obsessive/compulsive purpose. In graduate school I knew a wonderful pianist who drilled scales and Hanon for hours. They were indeed perfection and she played the 4th Beethoven concerto like an angel. I asked her why she did that particular routine, and she said she enjoyed it. Well, okay, that's perhaps reason enough. At least she knew why she played them. But the same compulsion that drove her to drill those scales, and they were beautiful, drove her into some sort of breakdown, and when I last heard she had given up the piano entirely and joined a protective order of some sort. Admittedly, that is an extreme case and this particular pianist was apparently troubled. Playing Hanon won't necessarily cause so severe a reaction and probably won't case any particular harm, unless the idea of lifting fingers is taken to extremes.
     Later in the post someone writes:
     "Any system, method, or approach is only as good as the teacher and the student practicing. The success probably goes beyond the method. I think that if something is repetitive, and if the person practicing it is wrongly guided or self-guides, there might be harm because a wrong motion done repeatedly will hurt. At the same time, if a right motion is well-guided, then you have a well-practiced set of right motions that will serve you well."
      My Response:
     You are right. But just as the success goes beyond the method, so too do the failures. By failures I mean conceptual misunderstandings. Perhaps this is what you mean by practicing "wrongly." But it's more than practicing wrongly. (Please don't think I'm just being argumentative here; I'm genuinely concerned about this issue.)

     The concept inherent in exercises in general is that repetition of note patterns will create strong fingers or independent fingers or that these patterns will occur in the same way in music. These ideas date from the 1880's and have their origins in the experience of keyboard players who were steeped in harpsichord techniques. I believe Czerny and Hanon and the others were probably sincere, although I don't completely discount the notion that money was to be made off of the burgeoning piano market. (I wonder what exercises the five-year-old prodigy Carl Czerny practiced, as he had 
Tobias Matthay

not yet written his.) When Hanon, for example, was popular and adopted by so many institutions, Matthay had not yet written about the use of the forearm. Keyboard players thought primarily about lifting fingers, despite Schumann's unfortunate experience. (Google the great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and look for the dramatic photo of her claw-like hands.)
     If you discard Hanon's "instructions," as I believe all pianists should, the exercises can be used to show how patterns can be grouped together for technical ease, how to shape. But I learned these techniques in a Mozart sonata.  If you don't believe in lifting the fingers away from the hand (as he instructs) or training for strength and therefore using repetition for endurance (wrong concepts), then I implore you to ask yourself what specifically you hope to gain by practicing Hanon.
     Let me be clear: I don't think the exercises themselves are "dangerous" and carcinogenic (LOL) but the underlying concepts that students take away are not in sync with a system of playing that uses the body efficiently, the way it was designed to be used. Students invariably take away the idea that repetition of patterns is the key to success, when the "working-in" of specific, local and correct physical movements is the key to success. By "local" I mean "what do the finger, hand, arm do in this spot to get easily and efficiently from here to there?" This, of course, requires knowledge of the working mechanism, but medical school is not at all necessary.  
     It is possible to play the piano with great success using many different points of view, or from no particular point of view at all. I choose to use a specific physical approach that allows my hands to be used according to their design. The fingers are strong and sound independent if the forearm is allowed to play its part, and there is nothing wrong with the 4th finger, just in case anyone was wondering.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Piano Technique Books: Summer Sale

             Click on the titles 
                    to visit Amazon!

The Collaborative Pianist's Guide To Practical Technique 

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                           Scales and Arpeggios

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The Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique

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