“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, May 30, 2013



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.

     Next came a response 
from another pianist, directed at my comment and not to the original poster : “Neil, I'm afraid I disagree with your statements. Rotation is a wonderful piano playing technique, but not the only one. Wrist movements (vertical, horizontal and in circles) is [sic] another wonderful technique. Yet there are more techniques. It is possible to play the piano without the rotation technique and not get hurt. Rotation is not the only technique, other techniques are quite natural too, as natural as piano playing can be altogether...” 

     I responded as follows: “Thanks for your note. You are quite right; forearm rotation is not the only movement we use. It would be silly to think that. It is, however, an all-important underlying tool. And it is in fact impossible to play the piano without it. Lift your arm up from the elbow and what you get is 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. This 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. You mention wrist movements. It's true the wrist moves. But we play the piano with our fingers in alignment with the wrist hand and arm. 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.

      As for Czerny and Hanon, many people use them with success. 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.

     Thinking the issue of rotation had been solved, I responded again to the original poster: “I think it's more important to examine how this 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.”

     Then out of the blue, another barrage from this doubting pianist: “I am sorry to disagree with you, it is not at all impossible to play the piano without rotation, and that is play well and with no injury. The wrist is the key to all other piano playing techniques.” He wades even deeper into the morass of incoherent misconception: “Most piano playing techniques are initiated/originating from the wrist, and it has nothing to do with finger firmness. 
Again, rotation is a wonderful technique, but 1) Taubman did not invent it. 2) If you're brain washed by her, you're not allowed wrist movements and you loose out on other wonderful piano playing techniques.”

     To which I responded: “Many thanks for your note. To the best of my knowledge it was Tobias Matthay who first wrote about forearm rotation in a work called
The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Playing. I call your attention to the word invisible. Did you try what I suggested? If you can play the piano without forearm rotation, you should publish an article about it. Best wishes to you.”

       His response: “Neil, correct re Matthay. I tried to imagine what you suggested, but you need first to be very precise about your wording and explanation... Of course I can play without forearm rotation but I have no desire to publish an article about it.”

      It seems this pianist didn’t understand what I meant when I said raise your arm from the elbow, so I elaborated: “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. However you decide to play, I hope it brings you joy.” 

      Then he sort of comes around, only to contradict himself in the end. It’s this misunderstanding of how forearm rotation contributes to success at the piano that contributes to a general failure in the teaching industry. This man is a teacher and, as you will see, brings “joy to millions.” Here’s his response: “Neil, this explanation is precise and clear, thank you. Yes, thank you, my piano playing not only brings me joy, it's my livelihood (hard work) and it brings joy to millions. Don't get me wrong though, I do use (and teach) rotation; all I was saying is that it isn't the only way to play the piano.”     

     Sigh. He hasn’t a clue. He says he uses and teaches rotation—I can only wonder what it is that he teaches. He probably thinks rotation is only used in Alberti figures, even though I just took the trouble to point out that in order to be in a playing position on the piano keys, one must rotate toward the thumb. He says it isn’t the only way to play the piano, though he’s just been shown that it’s not possible to play at all without it. 

     In all fairness, I think I understand where he’s coming from. He can see applications in Alberti figures because that’s rather obvious. He doesn’t understand, though, the subtler refinements we use in order to stay in the keys. I also can understand why he thinks 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. This pianist plays well, proving what I always say. That is, 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.
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