“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.”

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Piano Keyboard Geography

You can choose?
    A student recently looked up at me from the piano in a momentary pause, her face a puzzle of disappointment and delight. "No one ever told me," she said, "that you could choose where on the key to play." We had been discussing how to get to the black keys in time to play with the thumb, walking in in order to avoid a sudden lurch. 

     This references the larger issue of where to be on the keys at any given time. String players are locked in, of necessity, to a perfect spot, one perfect spot where the correct pitch is located on the string.  Keyboard players have the advantage of being able to press down a key virtually anywhere on its surface and still produce the correct note. We do have to avoid playing in the cracks, though. As a matter of physics, the most control of the key is at the point farthest from its fulcrum because, as we know, the keys are levers. Still, even allowing for this principle of physics, we can find even more optimal spots for depressing the keys when we want to consider how to move laterally up and down the keyboard quickly and efficiently. 
     One of the topics I describe in this context is shaping, of which there are several types: under, over, in and out. As a child I learned that "every little finger lives in its own little house." This, sadly, is not true. The fingers are at best itinerant and the thumb is virtually homeless. We do not place all of the fingers and the thumb
automatically on all of the keys in a so-called "five-finger position" because this requires a curling in of the fingers, making the hand into a ball shape. Have you heard that expression? Don't do it. It creates extra work. Instead, allow the thumb to dangle, yes, dangle, freely near the edge of the keyboard—not over it—until it is needed, at which time it likes—loves—to play in the direction of in, toward the fall board. Notice I said "in the direction of." It does not particularly want to play in among the black keys. It can still land at the outer edge of the key as it moves inward. When approaching a thumb "crossing," allow the thumb to be approximately behind the finger that is playing so that as the thumb nears its objective it won't have far to go in order to play, which is achieved by means of a rotational movement. (Rotation is another topic, one dear to my heart.).
Where do you want to go and how and
 when do you want to get there?
The keyboard geography consists of plains and mountains, white keys and black keys, which to a large extent is what governs the placement of our hands on the keys. Long fingers on short keys and short fingers on long keys is a good general rule. But obviously we can play virtually anywhere in the landscape, including climbing mountains with short fingers. Shaping under (ascending right hand) and shaping over (descending right hand) can help us establish where on the keys to be, relative to each other and to the plains and mountains. Moving in or out can help us arrive in time to play with short fingers on black keys. Avoid sudden lurches at all  costs, as you might fall off a high peak or crash into the fall board.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

iDemos: Forearm Rotation, Shaping at the Piano (Technical), Leaps

Some of my readers have asked for illustrations of concepts in my book, Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving

Chapter 1: Forearm Rotation


Chapter 2: Technical Shaping at the Piano.


Chapter 4: Leaps at the Piano.

Chromatic Scale Fingering and Rotation

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique

     Bored with Czerny? Wondering why play exercises at all? Me too.

     Here's an excerpt from the introduction to a series of new publications, yes, by yours truly, for developing technique while learning repertoire. I expect the studies to be available in a complete volume containing vols. 1 and 2. Also available will be vol. 1, Least Complex to More Complex, and vol. 2, Still More Complex, Most Complex and Morsels. There's a nifty index where you can look up almost anything. These volumes should be available soon. Watch this space.


On Dexterity, Velocity and the Halls of Parnassus

     Given all of the negative information we have about smoking cigarettes, it startles me that so many people still smoke them. Likewise, given the wealth of scientific information we have today about the physiology of piano playing, I am regularly amazed at how many pianists choose to ignore it. Is it just human nature to cling to dogmas and old wives’ tales of the past, to what is familiar? Could be. To me it seems unreasonable to choose deliberately unhealthy over healthy, whether we’re talking about smoking cigarettes or playing the piano. 
       What constitutes healthy piano playing, of course, might be up for debate depending upon to whom you speak. For me it’s a settled issue. I choose to play according to the design of the body. That is, I understand and make use of the physiology of the playing mechanism—a unified finger-hand-forearm collaboration—avoiding gestures that work against it, gestures such as stretching to an extreme or actions mistakenly thought to increase strength. This collection of studies, while not offered primarily for the purpose of teaching specific techniques, provides a way to maximize the efficient learning of repertoire and, concurrently, increase technical awareness regardless of the technical approach. 
     In the mid-1960s, Rosina Lhevinne was still the reigning empress of piano at the Juilliard School.  I never had the pleasure of meeting her, this last vestige of the Russian Romantic tradition, though one frosty morning as I rushed to class, I came close to earning a place in infamy by nearly crushing the fragile octogenarian in a revolving door. A good friend studied with her and often reported to me details of her encounters with Madame. One such report made an impression,  though I wouldn’t know to what extent for many years. My friend wanted to play Robert Schumann’s “Carnaval,” and when she broached the topic with Madame Lhevinne, the response was, “bring in Paganini next week, dear, and then we’ll see.” Paganini, of course, is the devilishly difficult leaping movement and would be a stumbling block for any pianist. The wisdom of Madame Lhevinne’s remark reverberates all these years later and is, in a way, an underlying concept of this collection of studies: locate and solve the technical problems first, then proceed.  And for our present purposes I’ll add that no one should have to spend time practicing non-music, or something that isn’t particularly useful and that could, if misunderstood, cause harm.
Carl Czerny
"School of Velocity," "Art of Finger Dexterity," et al
     But does the world really need another collection of studies for the piano? The correct answer is yes, if that collection is the antithesis of all those well-meaning, yet misguided exercises we have inherited from the nineteenth century. Why misguided? Carl Czerny, Muzio Clementi and their ilk, exceptional pianists all, played rather different instruments from those we play today. Well, fair enough. Those composers wrote studies for the instruments they knew. More importantly, though, they labored under serious misconceptions about how an efficient technique
Muzio Clementi
"Gradus ad Parnassum"
works, misconceptions that arose, at least in part, from techniques associated with the piano’s forerunner, the harpsichord. 
     For Czerny and his colleagues, the technical emphasis was on “finger action,” a “light hand,” or a “quiet hand with fingers active to the utmost.” These suggestions are among the few that Czerny offers in his collection of studies, The Art of Finger Dexterity. In a similar opus, The School of Velocity, the distinguished pedagogue leaves us no instruction at all. Likewise, Clementi abandons us to our own devices in his highly commercial Gradus ad Parnassum (“Steps to Parnassus”), the assumption being, I suppose, that we should provide our own technical knowhow. This begs the question why study them at all? But I’ll get to that in a moment. 
     In the 1903 preface to Clementi’s opus, C.F. Weitzman states, presumably on the composer’s behalf, that the studies are “calculated to make the fingers independent or to develop the player’s agility, strength and endurance.” They will enable one “to play with ease similar runs and passages in the works of other composers and to acquire the confidence, clearness and routine requisite for the performance of any species of composition.” Did you notice in the preceding quote that Weitzman claims that by practicing X you will be able to play Y? I promise you that  even if you learn X by heart and can play it in a sleep-induced trance after a night on the town, you will still have to practice Y. What he is implying, of course, is along the lines of how athletes train, using weight training to strengthen the legs, for example, in order to run a race.
High Fingers
The great harpsichordist Wanda Landowska
High fingers that are separated from the forearm by means of a non-moving hand, seem to be the implicit premise in all of these collections. In order to achieve dexterity and velocity, it was supposed that strength would be required, strength that would lead to endurance. It follows, then, that in order achieve “strength” a certain amount of training must take place, repetition training of the sort employed by the afore-mentioned athletes. Hence, dating from about the 1830’s we have the appearance on the market extensive volumes of exercises designed to achieve those ends. It is no coincidence that from about this time the piano was fast becoming a ubiquitous household instrument and all the young ladies of the era required finishing in music studies.
     Suppose for a moment that we don’t accept the notion that a good piano technique requires strength training, or that it is even really possible to “strengthen” the fingers to any noticeable degree. Those concepts indeed have long ago been discredited. Suppose, too, we discard the notion that independence of fingers is a physical action and not instead a musical objective. Well, you might ask, for what then do we train? Why any repetition at all? I’m so glad you asked. 
Start with an idea.
In my studio we start with knowledge of how the playing mechanism wants to move, an understanding of the body’s design. Then we begin to train for the development of refined movements for efficient coordination, not in order to build muscle mass. Playing the piano requires very little physical strength—emotional strength, perhaps—nor does it demand a capacity for endurance. A small child can do it. Besides, how can we make music if we have to endure something? Really, why mindlessly repeat an exercise for which we have no other use if we don’t accept its premise? If our understanding of technique gives us the tools to solve technical problems, then why not solve those problems in music we want to play? We can then use repetition training for the purpose of working-in those technical solutions. Let me repeat that. Once we decide on the correct technical solutions, the physical movements required to play a passage fluently with ease, then, and only then, do we repeat those movements. And I would like to add that the brain must be fully engaged at all times.
Halls of Parnassus?
 I know, I know. My comments border on sacrilege. The inhabitants of Parnassus are doubtlessly reeling. If I seem to be attacking the collective institution of Czerny, et al, well, I suppose I am, though it is not out of malice. My hope is that new generations of pianists will put aside useless dogma and old wives’ tales in favor of reason-based study. 
     Though many fine pianists have worked their way through Czerny’s “mind-numbing, anti-music catechism,” as one highly-regarded concert artist put it, even at the height of Czerny’s success, not all musicians were on board. Robert Schumann in Die Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik (“New Musical Gazette”) wrote: "It would be difficult to find a failure of imagination greater than that of Czerny." This, I suspect, pertained to a concert piece, but one gets the drift. In Men, Women and Pianos, Arthur Loesser describes Czerny's music as "without depth, intensity, or wit, but always smooth and pretty and rather ear-tickling when played fast—endless variety of patterns and endless monotony of import." I reject Moszkowski’s alleged remark that “Czerny hated little children.” 
     Czerny died in 1857 having left behind over 1000 works. Only a generation later, though, his reputation had come under attack to the extent that Brahms felt moved to come to his defense. In a letter of 1878 to Clara Schumann he wrote: "I certainly think Czerny´s large pianoforte course Op. 500 is worthy of study, particularly in regard to what he says about Beethoven and the performance of his works, for he was a diligent and attentive pupil. Czerny´s fingering is particularly worthy for attention. In fact I think that people today ought to have more respect for this excellent man" 
     By most accounts, Czerny by the age of five was considered a prodigy. He studied with Beethoven for a few years and by the age of 15 was a highly regarded teacher. Do you sense an irony here? Yes, Czerny was able to play at the age of five in a way that was favorably compared to adult artists, and yet when he wrote his exercises for "finger dexterity" or to achieve "velocity," he seems to have thought pianists needed physical strength. 
     If you are one of those countless pianists who grew up studying Czerny, Clementi and the others and feel those studies made you the pianist you are today, or if you like to rattle them off, well, just because, I have no desire to take that away from you. Unlike cigarettes, they probably are not carcinogenic. I do ask you to consider, though, for the sake of music and your sanity, the why of it. I do hope to dissuade you from the conviction that by playing Czerny and Clementi studies you will somehow become “stronger” and therefore a better pianist, that they will enable you, necessarily, to play other music with similar passages or that you will become a better musician. Put your Czerny and Clementi and
Put them all in here.
the others in the closet and turn the key. Use the music itself for your studies. To that end, I have compiled and edited for our mutual convenience this collection of studies drawn from music we want to play. Whether you have suffered the mind-numbing dogmas of the past or whether you are as yet untouched by nineteenth century approaches to piano studies,  I urge you give this new collection a try. Make it a part of your daily routine, and at the very least you will give your pianistic self a colossal head start on much of the standard repertoire.