“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.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Forearm Rotation

I once gave a lecture-demonstration to a group of piano teachers. When I asked for a show of hands in response to the question, "How many of you use forearm rotation," no one responded. Admittedly, it was sort of a trick question because not everyone is familiar with the terminology. But it's a good starting point for this topic. It is, in fact, not possible to play the piano without using forearm rotation.

If you you don't believe me, try raising your arm up to the keyboard. No, raise it straight up. Your forearm and hand will be in a karate-chop position. In order to place the hand on the keys in a playing position, it is necessary to rotate the hand in the direction of the thumb. Playing up and down the keyboard requires constant rotation toward the thumb. But this is only a starting point.

One clear example of rotation in music is the so-called Alberti figure, in which the music changes direction with each note. In this example it is called single rotation; when moving both to a given note, in a scale for example, and away from it to the succeeding note, it is called double rotation, except the thumb-crossing. Change of direction is always a single rotation and this concept is uniquely important in facilitating passage work. The nomenclature is not important, though a thorough understanding of the application of this underlying tool is essential to a well-coordinated and efficient technique.

This video of Edna Golandsky gives a very nice introduction to the principle. I highly recommend these videos for the serious pianist.

Golandsky Demonstrates Rotation in a Scale

Left Hand Octaves

If you are interested in the magic of fast octaves, have a look at this performance by Rubenstein of the A-flat Polonaise. This is a rare opportunity to observe octave shaping in action. Notice how he starts the passage using two hands (saving himself?) then switches to octaves. Notice also how in the first section, E-major, he starts out on the white key and moves in to the black keys in a continuous circular motion. Though difficult to see in speed, there is a slight under shape from the low B back up to the starting E. The movement is continuous and rounded, no sharp edges, and describes something like an ellipse. (I recommend fingering quick octaves one/five.) The shape is reversed when the passage repeats in E-flat.

I heard him play at Carnegie Hall and again later for a pension benefit concert with the New York Philharmonic. On both occasions the audience would not let him leave without playing the Polonaise, which was a signature piece.

Rubenstein Plays Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat 

Friday, December 16, 2011


If you happen to be shopping at Amazon or looking for sheet music, you can do that from this page. The prices are the same and the blog gets a few points credit. So go crazy!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Here is a marvelous echo of the romantic past. Mortz Rosenthal studied with Mikuli, a Chopin pupil, and later with Liszt. (And one of my teachers, John Crown, studied with Rosenthal in Vienna.)

From the Youtube poster: "Here, Moriz Rosenthal performs the second movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor in a concert that was broadcast live during the pianist's 75th birthday celebration, December 19, 1937. The NBC Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Frank Black. Celebrants shown enjoying a piece of the birthday cake that was presented to Rosenthal at the conclusion of his performance are (from left), Rosina Lhevinne (wearing brooch), Josef Hofmann, Adele Kanner Rosenthal, Moriz Rosenthal, Ernest Schelling, Josef Lhevinne."

Moriz Rosenthal plays Chopin Concerto

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Russian Tradition

I didn't have the opportunity to study with Mme Lhevinne at Juilliard, though some of my friends were her students and I heard snippets from their experiences: "What concerto did you learn over the weekend, dear?"

My only brush with her was a near disaster as I nearly crushed her 90-year-old legendary self while going too quickly through the revolving door at Juilliard's Claremont entrance.

Here is a marvelous recording of her playing Chopin 1st concerto, which I think is a study in the power of restraint. Rosina Lhevinne plays Chopin 3rd movement.

This interview is a bit of pianistic history :

Rosina Lhevinne Part 1
Rosina Lhevinne Part 2.
Rosina Lhevinne Part 3.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Lifting the Fingers

A student writes: 

I've started some new finger strengthening/independence exercises and my left pinky is giving me some trouble. In one exercise, I have all five fingers of left hand pressed down onto keyboard bed (proper wrist position, etc) and I hold 4 fingers down while taking the 5th finger and playing the key a certain number of times (16-20) with one finger- up and down, etc. 

I think she has a misunderstanding about how the fingers work. They don't want to play by lifting away from the hand; they want to play by rotating into the key with the forearm behind them. The 5th finger (and the 4th) are much maligned when called weak. There is nothing wrong with them. We pianists don't train for strength the way athletes do; we train for coordination of refined muscles. It takes very little physical strength to play the piano. She is definitely on the wrong track when holding down other fingers and lifting her 5th away. (Dohnany wrote some exercises along this line, which I think are destructive.) 

The fingers gain strength by having the forearm behind them. This is achieved with the 5th by slightly rotating the forearm toward it. The motion is rotary, like turing a doorknob. But this is very difficult to describe in words and has to be demonstrated, which I do an earlier post. 

I hope she doesn't hurt herself.

Friday, October 28, 2011

On Projecting at the Piano

 A pianist writes:

1.How would you define this word "projection" and what distinguishes a piano or pianist with good projection?

2.Some say good projection is the piano's (or pianist's) ability to be heard in a large hall even if they're "playing softly". Some say that when a pianist is playing a pp passage in a large hall, those that project well are just playing that passage more loudly (if one was standing right next to the piano).

Some say good projection ability of the pianist or piano to project over an orchestra which, to me, implies a certain degree of loudness (without becoming very unpleasant) or brightness in the piano.

Do you agree with either or both of these concepts of good projection?

3. If you think good projection is mostly due to the piano, can you describe why certain pianos have this quality? If you think it's mostly due to the pianist, what in their playing determines whether a pianist will have good projection?

4.Is the idea of projection only applicable to performances in rather large halls? (I can't see how this concept would apply in the home or in a small hall.) 

"Projection" has to do with both the piano and the pianist. The duller the former is, the sharper the latter has to be. The acoustical properties of the hall can also be a large issue. But projection is also about conveying the ideas of the music to the listener. Imagine standing on a stage and speaking of love to someone in the last row of a hall. You would use your voice differently than if the person were standing next to you. Similarly, in your living room you would speak differently to someone across the room than you would if he were next to you. This is about loudness, but also about focus. My teacher used to say that when we play we listen with three ears: one for the sound on stage, one for the concept inside our heads and one at the back of the hall.

Overtone Series
Pianistically, sound carries when the appropriate amount of weight and impetus are applied. This is about loudness, but also about quality. If we accept the physicist's notion that quality is determined by the number and prominence of overtones, then we have to consider how to control the overtones. Playing with a "cushioned" attack from the key will produce fewer overtones than striking the key hard and fast from above. We use both types of attacks in order to control the "meaning" of the sound, the ideas we want to convey to the listener. The brighter the sound, the one produced by striking harder, the more likely it will carry. Consider the oboe. It famously produces a small, "narrow" sound, but its quality and range can make it very piercing. Whereas the double bass has a thicker, "wider" sound and lower range, perhaps even louder in terms of decibels (not sure about that), and yet it is very difficult to hear clearly in a hall. So, depending on our musical intentions, the nature of the piano and the hall, we have to decide on what kind of attack will produce the desired results.

Practically speaking, in our rehearsing we should always listen with that 3rd ear for what I call a "usable" sound, one that speaks beyond the immediate environment of the instrument, often referred to as a singing sound. This needs to be worked into the technique just like any other skill. Sometimes students play on the surface of the keys; I call this whispering or talking to oneself. Our objective as performers is to create various illusions, one of which is the illusion of whispering, a stage whisper to put it in acting terms, achieved by combining the appropriate amount of weight and speed of key descent. That third ear tells us what is needed for a particular hall; the stage ear tells us what is needed for a particular piano. And the inner ear governs all of the above.

Friday, October 21, 2011

On Difficulty Memorizing Music

A mother, concerned about her 14-year-old son’s difficulty memorizing music, writes: “Do professional performers have serious problems memorizing pieces, so that it takes [them] much, much longer than average to memorize even using all the standard techniques (repetition, memory stations, practicing away from the keyboard, counting/humming the piece, identifying patterns, etc.)? If so, did it have a negative impact on your studies at conservatory or college? Did you fail to get the instruction on other aspects of the pieces? Did you ever get a pass on memorizing?”

Well, there is no "average" study time when it comes to learning music. The audience doesn't care how long it took to learn the piece, just that it sounds good. But this mother is really talking about being locked into a student’s situation, bounded by semesters and exams.

My personal experience is that I can memorize rather quickly, largely, I think, because I learned early on to read well. I am reading oriented, so I had to learn techniques for memorizing, which came more easily because I understand quickly what I am looking at. This understanding is the result, too, of years of experience studying and performing many types of music. (Some students are more aurally oriented and find it difficult to read. These students, I find, often present an approximation of the score when memorizing, i.e., incorrect inversions of chords or missing notes. A few are adept at both reading and playing by ear.) Most of the time in lessons I used the score. This did not have an impact on my studies, as I always had something prepared to play even if not memorized, or better still, I had questions about problem spots.

For me, the primary expenditure of time is in proving to myself that I really know the piece. In this regard, the best technique I know is to play the piece eliminating as much digital memory as possible. I use two devices: 1) I play excruciatingly slowly, placing fingers deliberately, thoughtfully, not automatically as we do in performance; 2) This one is harder. I play the piece in my mind, visualizing my hands on the keys (not looking at the score in my mind). These devices force us to use all the other types of memory, eliminating most of the digital memory. They are both excellent ways of uncovering shaky spots, spots that may only have been in the fingers.

A side note about the power of device 2: I once was waiting my turn to play Davidsbündlertänze in a master class, a piece I had performed often. I was so confident that I hadn't brought the score with me. As I waited outside, I went through certain passages in my mind, visualizing my fingers on the keys. Alas, I came to a spot where I couldn't continue. I could leap over the spot, but couldn't for the life of me find the correct notes in my mind. So, I imagined what it must have been and played it that way in class. Afterward, I checked the score and found that what I played in class was something I made up in my mind. It took precedence over all of the previous muscle training, mostly likely because it was fresh.

Here’s another thought: As this student gets a bit more experience, a few more pieces memorized and more comfortable with the methods that work for him, I suspect the process will begin to move more quickly. Again, I wouldn't limit his performance opportunities just because of memory issues (except where statutory, which is not in real life). Unless there's some disability, what the mother describes sounds to me as if there's something missing in her son’s understanding of the music. And of course, contrapuntal music is more difficult to memorize.

Peter Serkin began his performing career reading from the score and that was 40 years ago. I heard Lang Lang play a concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the score. Cellist Lynn Harrell played a concerto with the score. Pressler played Mozart concerto with the score. Admittedly, getting started through the usual channels using the score will be a challenge but if there are other compelling reasons why he should perform, then I say he should try for it. As for preparing for college level lessons, he can memorize pieces before he takes them in to class. One writer suggested that the only option for this student is to become a collaborative pianist. There's nothing wrong with becoming a collaborative pianist, but he should only do it if that’s his calling, not by default.

To this day I'm not convinced that all of the time and nervous energy expended on performing from memory is worth the trouble. It continues to be the standard for schools and competitions, but is gradually losing some importance in the professional world. Some personalities seem more at home playing without the score, but it seems to me that music making is not primarily about performing without a net. In the 19th century it was considered presumptuous to play another person’s music without the score. Maybe its time for performers to become a bit more humble and make the concert more about the music and less about themselves.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Relaxation at the Piano: A Snippet

A student wrote that when he returned to the piano after a long break because of injury, he intentionally chose pieces that were not physically demanding. He felt he had a tendency toward over-use injuries and wanted to take it easy.

Some four years later he is injury free except for some soreness that develops when he wants to “let go.” But he feels he has the same tendencies he had to overcome when learning to trill, which is to tighten up. Relaxing (my italics) in this circumstance seems even more challenging for him.

I think one should be able to play the music one wants without over use issues. One should be able to let go musically without experiencing soreness.

It sounds as if he might have some misunderstanding about how the playing mechanism works. Relax is just as problematic as tense when it comes to playing the piano. We can't really direct individual flexors or abductors to relax or flex.

My teacher used to say that if you relax you'll fall off the piano bench, meaning that the terms are too general. Her answer was to find out how much of each is needed (very little) to produce the desired result. And her solution was to direct the attention to how the fingers, hand and arm are aligned and what kind of movement is required, for example, to transfer the weight of the arm from one finger to the next. This automatically replaces the general concepts (relax/tense) with specific movements that can be monitored and controlled. The end result is a feeling of virtually no feeling at all; it is as if the fingers are moving slowly, though the passage is quick.

If this student is serious about wanting to correct these issues, I think some retraining is in order. How much effort does it really take to stand on one note or to walk from that note to the next?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Musicians Are Smarter

In case you were wondering whether to practice today or not, please read on:

A new study found that musicians might have brains that function better than their peers well into old age.

Courtesy of the Huffington Post - full article here

Researchers tested the mental abilities of senior citizens and discovered that musicians performed better at a number of tests. In particular, musicians excelled at visual memory tasks. While musicians had similar verbal capabilities to non-musicians, the musicians' ability to memorize new words was markedly better, too. Perhaps most importantly, the musicians' IQ scores were higher overall than those who spent their lives listening to music rather than performing it.

The experience of musicians also played a role in how sharp their minds were. The younger the musicians began to play their instruments, the better their minds performed at the mental tasks. Additionally, the total number of years musicians played instruments throughout their life corresponded with how strong their brains remained years later.

The study also found that musicians who took the time to exercise between symphonies had even higher-functioning brain capabilities. This finding supports another recent study that reported people who walk regularly maintain healthier brains. With that in mind, perhaps joining a marching band now will make you the smartest person at the retirement home in the future.


While it is known that practicing music repeatedly changes the organization of the brain, it is not clear if these changes can correlate musical abilities with non-musical abilities. The study of 70 older participants, with different musical experience over their lifetimes, provides a connection between musical activity and mental balance in old age. "The results of this preliminary study revealed that participants with at least 10 years of musical experience (high activity musicians) had better performance in nonverbal memory, naming, and executive processes in advanced age relative to non-musicians."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On Grouping Notes

The technical grouping of notes can be different from the musical or notational grouping of notes. An understanding of this idea is crucial to the successful playing of quick passages in works by Chopin and other pianist-composers, including composers from earlier periods. In Chopin’s “Winter Wind” Etude, for example, the four sextuplets sometimes fall technically into  groups of four starting with the fourth 16th note, played by the thumb. If this is not understood, the passages can feel quite difficult. Grouping notes together for technical reasons can make the difference between a very difficult execution and a very easy one.

The ability to play fast depends on an understanding of how to group notes. The longer the passage, the more important it is to find sub -groupings. The hand can’t “conceive” of an indefinite number of notes or a long string of notes without establishing milestones along the way. If the composer writes “17” over a group of notes that are to be completed within a certain time frame, it is important to decide on how to sub-divide that group, i.e., three groups of 4 and one of five, or some other grouping that makes sense in the context. This does not mean that accents will be heard; the group of “17” can still sound like a single unit, a flourish, if that is the desired effect. How those sub-divisions relate to the other hand is also a primary consideration.

Group from the more dense, the heavier combination of notes. For example, in passages where chords are interspersed with single notes, it is much easier to feel a starting point at the chord, regardless of which part of the musical beat it comes on. In Chopin’s G Minor Ballade, on the third page, an arpeggiated figure primarily in single notes contains a chord of a fourth placed on a weak part of the beat that occurs every three notes. By feeling a start on the chord (or a feeling of “down”), the passage immediately wants to move with ease. In my view, Chopin meant for these chords to add rhythmic interest to the passage, an agitated syncopation.

Group notes together in order to avoid stretching the hand. In speed, it is more efficient to allow the hand to remain in a relatively closed position than it is to keep it open. Over long passages of quickly moving notes, if the hand remains open, with the fingers trying to do their work against that “stretch,” it is possible to cause strain resulting in fatigue.

Group notes together in order to facilitate leaps with complex metric designs, i.e., short to long. The hand can’t go both to and from a quick note. In general, a short note belongs (technically) to the next longer note, as in dotted rhythms.

Group notes together in order to facilitate a change of direction. Notes moving in the same direction are often grouped together. It is at the turn-around where a technical issue may arise and this is a good place to look if a passage does not feel easy.

Practice hint: Having decided upon a particular grouping of notes within a longer, continuous passage, practice the group with a silent landing on the first note of the next group. Usually, the problem has more to do with how to get from one group to the next and not so much with how to play the notes within a group, that is, the notes under the hand.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

On Memorizing: A Snippet

A student who reads quite well but had been having trouble memorizing her music asked about a plan for memorizing. So often, students rely on mindless repetition to somehow hammer the music into their brains by striking the piano with their fingers. This can result in too much reliance on digital memory, to the detriment of the other memory tools: aural, visual and intellectual.

Here's a basic plan. Once you've tried it, you can adjust it to suit your own predilections. 

1) Make a conscious decision to memorize. "Accidental" memorizing is usually muscle memory primarily and this is not totally reliable.

2) Select a small amount of music to consider. This could be the first measure or the first phrase. It could also be a particularly complicated passage in the middle of the piece.

3) Look at the example and notice whatever you can about it, i.e., there is a broken chord figure; there is a scale figure; the R.H is the same (or different) as the L.H; one hand leaps while the other stays put; one hand makes a leap but to the same note 2 octaves higher. I even say these things out loud. (My cats seem to enjoy that.)

4) Play the example from the score very slowly.

5) Look away from the score and play as much as you can, still very slowly. Repeat this process until you can play that example reliably, still very slowly and deliberately. The slow, deliberate playing will help you engage the other types of memory: aural, visual, intellectual, minimizing the digital.

6) Move on to the next section and repeat the process. Do not try to connect the two sections yet.

When you can't concentrate anymore, stop. At the next practice session continue where you left off. When you have finished the new material for the day, then go back and review the old material, one section at a time, or if it feels right, try playing 2 sections together. You may need to refer to the score again; this is normal. But you can tell yourself that you know this material.

Once the piece is learned and up to tempo, practice playing the entire piece excruciatingly slowly. This takes away much of the digital memory and will help you locate places that are fuzzy. It is also a useful test, though more difficult, to practice away from the piano. Close your eyes and see your hands on the keys playing the piece very slowly, thinking of each note in advance of playing it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Legato Playing

Legato at the Piano, A Snippet                                                                          

In a discussion on legato, a contributor to Piano Forum opined that she didn’t accept the notion that the piano is a percussive instrument. This is like not accepting the notion that the earth is round. I have my faults, certainly, but I’ve learned to accept and deal with the laws of physics. When my head stopped spinning I thought to myself, well, she is probably lost in that world where we artistic types often go, the world of wishful thinking. I responded: “My piano has hammers that strike strings. What does your piano have?” I heard back: "Good point. My piano has a choir inside, with an organ to accompany it. Sounds like yours has a wrecking crew. What the heck, to each his own." This was a good response, I thought, and quite funny. And food for thought.

That writer has identified the place where opinion and fact collide. Or to put it in more useful terms, where imagery and practice collide. On the one hand, imagery is great. It can help us to conceptualize a desired result and for some pianists, some of the time, that may be enough. But if it isn't enough, what then? For me, knowledge wins out over fancy; I want to know how.

Legato on the piano is an illusion at best because the piano is a percussive instrument. Some of the advice offered in the forum discussion was right on the money, i.e., a finger legato is about over-holding until the next note is depressed. There is another important factor, though, and that is how the finger connects with the key. For a finger legato, always play from the key, not from above the key. This cushions the attack and makes the connections seem more legato. Since "quality is determined by the number and prominence of overtones," the faster you strike the key, the more the upper, more dissonant partials are set in motion, making an even more percussive sound. Isn’t physics a great science?

Consider  playing succeeding notes in or under the decay of the preceding note. This will give a very nice
simulation of legato; it also implies a dimenuendo, which may not be called for. In any case, take care to consider where in the phrase hierarchy each succeeding note belongs. After a long melodic note, for example, listen well to how the phrase continues. Does the phrase require a new impetus? Or should it sound like a continuation of the long note? Is the phrase rising dynamically or falling? Music is not a democracy; not every note gets an equal vote.

Finally, perhaps more importantly, it's the legato pedal, sometimes referred to as syncopated pedal, that needs particular attention. The pedal gives us the ability to over-hold a particular note while moving away from it, thus creating a sense of legato. The way in which the key is depressed is still important. With the pedal down, strike the next note with just enough weight to override the reverberating sound, to give the illusion of connectedness, the new note floating above the din.

Another contributor to the forum remarked, somewhat haphazardly, that everyone plays legato all the time and it isn’t necessary to practice it particularly. He maintained, “if it isn’t legato, it’s staccato.” At first I opted to let this go as, well, sloppy thinking, but it began to eat away at me.

Does everyone play legato all the time, even in Czerny studies (shudder), as he says? We know that up to Mozart’s time the default articulation was detached, changing with Beethoven, who reportedly quipped that “Mozart’s playing sounded like so many chickens dancing on the keys.” Since Beethoven’s time pianists have worked to develop a singing style, a legato touch. I think here the operative word is worked. I decided that arbitrarily putting one finger down after another thoughtlessly won’t necessarily produce the illusion of legato. It’s important to consider 1) over-holding slightly; 2) the manner of attack, i.e., from the key, not from above; 3) where the note comes in the musical hierarchy of the phrase; 4) how to use the pedal.                                        
Armed with this information, when imagery isn't sufficient, we can perhaps use the laws of physics to our advantage and bring that world of wishful thinking closer to a musical reality.

Saturday, May 14, 2011



By Christopher Fisher
Oxford University Press

Back in the days when piano instruction at the University of Southern California took place in the faded parlors of Clark House, a West Adams Victorian mansion, and practice facilities were located in old army barracks just off Exposition Blvd., I had my first piano instruction. It was summer. I was only ten and perhaps a touch more anxious than my age might suggest, but I was nonetheless a reliable ten and was allowed to take the red car by myself all the way to Exposition Park. I felt ever so grown up.

The trauma of that first day, though, found a place in my memory that no amount of therapy could possibly treat.  My mother read the announcement aloud: “Group piano instruction offered free of charge to children age 12 with no previous music training. The purpose of the class is to demonstrate group teaching techniques to university pedagogy students.” Well, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Piano! Finally! I’d been begging for years. Once when I was eight I underscored my frustration by announcing to my parents that “here I am eight years old and can’t do anything.”

One Saturday morning mother loaded us into the Plymouth, my older brother and me, and drove us to the edge of campus where a squadron of institutional green, wood-frame buildings stood. Miss Bishop greeted us on a landing at the top of stairs worn thin from the repeated scuffing of combat boots and led us inside. We were the last to arrive. She wore a gray skirt cut at the calf and a white shiny blouse, just like the pictures I’d been drawing from magazines, and there was a brooch pinned above her heart. I had plenty of time to study her, from her bobbed salt and pepper hair down to her sensible shoes, because she began with the first to arrive, the ones lined up at the other end of the room. There must have been eight or ten children and their mothers all waiting to be interviewed.

“What is your name?”

This part hadn’t occurred to me, the questioning. And as I was already an anxious child, I began to feel apprehensive.

“And how old are you?”

There it was. The question I hadn’t anticipated.

“Twelve,” came the reply. They were all twelve. My brother was twelve. You had to be twelve!

Miss Bishop came, one child at a time, closer to where I crouched behind my mother as I tried to disappear. But I wanted to be there even though I didn't belong. Well, the conflicting emotions became too much for me and just as Miss Bishop stepped up to me, to my mother really, looking around behind her, before Miss Bishop said a word, I started to cry. These were desperate, bitter tears, you understand, tears of complete and utter desolation because all hope of ever playing the piano was now surely gone. I was only ten. I was too young for piano.

Later when I entered the university as a piano major, Miss Bishop and I had a good laugh over that episode. And yes, she let me stay in the class. It was a wonderful experience. We made thunderous sounds that first day up and down the keyboard, two kids at each gnarly old upright. The class was taught by Bernice Frost from New York, if my memory is correct, and whatever her approach was, it worked for me. We began reading immediately from her book called “The Adult at the Piano.”  

I belabor all this here, excessively maybe, because some people feel that learning piano in groups lacks seriousness or effectiveness. I think Fisher’s book serves to dispel those notions. He introduces the topic with a history (but I searched in vain for a recounting of my own experience), including references to classes taught by Liszt, Chopin and Schumann. From there he continues with practical matters such as class sizes and logistics and a discussion of learning theories. All age clusters and levels of maturity are considered, including college-level major and non-major applications.

The writing style is academic; it smacks of the doctoral dissertation and is therefore on the dry side. But the information is valuable and considerable, well referenced and, though academic, clearly expressed. There is a passable index. The meat of the book, I think, is the section called “Instructional Strategies.” Here Fisher deals with the nitty-gritty and the esoteric. You’ll find strategies for teaching rhythm, ear training, reading, all aspects of keyboard harmony including improvisation and composition, repertoire and technology, including “Integrating Technology in the Group Piano Classroom” and “Videoconferencing Technology.” Many of these teaching strategies are appropriate in the private lesson, as well. I think this book is worth a look.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

ON LEAPS (With Video Demonstration)

A student came to a lesson and said, “Look how far I can stretch my hand.” I thought, ouch, are we doing yoga?

Then he said, “I measured it; I can reach a 10th.”

Oh no, I thought, it’s a competition.

Well, here is a student new to my studio, a rather advanced pianist already, who suffers from a fairly common malady. Somewhere in his early studies he developed the notion that stretching is better than moving, when in fact the opposite is true. It is more efficient and healthier to move than it is to stretch. I know this may seem counter intuitive to some, but stay with me. I don’t mean that the hand can’t be open, it can, and flexible, of course. But anytime the hand is opened to an extreme, danger lurks in the effort. (We select fingering to avoid a stretch, but that’s another topic.)

Let me explain. If our objective is to learn how to play the piano using the body according to its design, then we must exclude efforts that act against it. (Of course, there are many accomplished and successful musicians who play the piano using various technical points of view, or more likely, no point of view at all. We wish them all the best.) Well, what are some efforts that act against the hand’s design? Opening it so wide that it feels tense is one. Lifting the fingers individually away from the hand, especially the fourth finger, which has tissue on top that prevents it from lifting away, is another. 

So, here’s a useful question to ask, “What does the hand want to do? “ It wants to be in a relatively closed position. Try this: Drop your arm to the side and let it hang freely. Notice how the hand feels. This is what it wants to feel. Can we achieve this feeling in the act of playing the piano? The simple answer is yes, as long as we don’t fall victim to suggestions in the notation that seem to be saying “stretch, pull.” (More about “notation bound” in another blog.)

So how do we play the piano without acting against the hand, without turning it into a gnarled claw, veins bulging with tension?

I’m glad you asked.

One way to use the hand according to its design is to learn how to negotiate leaps. Other issues are at work, too, underlying tools that also contribute to efficient hand use. But for now let’s consider how to leap. By my definition, a leap takes place whenever the hand moves from one five-finger position to another without a thumb crossing, a shift if you like (as in string playing). It doesn’t matter whether the leap is to the very next note, i.e., if you want to play stepwise with the same finger, or if you want to leap several octaves.
Here is the rule: The note before the leap gets us the distance. That is, the last note in the group of notes before a leap takes us to the first note of the new group. It’s that simple. (Well, almost.) Anxious about making a leap, pianists very often neglect to finish playing the last note of a group; they tend to skip over it. This is a pity, sometimes even tragic, because that last note is the all-important springboard for negotiating the distance to the first note of the next group. So don’t be in too big a hurry.

It is just as futile to cling to that last note, losing the advantage of its thrusting power. With a well worked-in and coordinated combination of springing, forearm rotation and walking arm, leaping great distances feels like going next door. So don’t be afraid to jump.

Okay, I know I sprang some new terms on you. But I promise that leaping is a simple and safe movement, all of which will become clear when you view the demonstration video below.

A word of caution: Notice where you want to land before you leap.