“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 14, 2015

Considering the Visible and Invisible in Piano Technique, With Thanks to Tobias Matthay


Even without reading Matthay's book, The Visible and Invisible in Piano Technique, much can be gleaned just from the title. It's my favorite title, I think, in the library of rhetoric on piano technique. I say this because much of what comes down to us from those proverbial old wives has to do with what can be observed in the playing of others. 
Tobias Matthay, England's Piano Sage

Even fine players sometimes report the opposite of what they do, only because they think that's what they've seen others do, or perhaps what they think they do. These are the so-called natural players, the Mozarts and Mendelssohns, the Horowitzs and others who arrive from the womb as fully formed pianists. They didn't really go through the how-to period of development the way mortals do.

     But how much can really be observed in an operation that is based largely on sensation? When observing a fine artist perform, never does the viewer sense a struggle—it all appears so easy. That's because it is easy, and most of what is observed is the "unobservable" that supports a fine, effortless technique. Yes, really, the structural underpinning of an efficient and brilliant technique is essentially invisible.
     I mention this here because of a recent experience I had with a student who came for a consultation. She had just finished an undergraduate piano major at an important school of music complaining of various unpleasant, if not debilitating, sensations. Her playing is secure, completely fluent and in virtually every way the playing of a young artist on her way to a rewarding career. If she hadn't presented with complaints, I would not have thought to look for inconsistencies in her physical approach. Rather, I would have sat back and enjoyed her performance.
     The usual indications of a flawed technique were totally absent. Her playing was immaculate, accurate and even thrilling. There were no moments of hesitation or fuzziness in passages. The tempos were appropriate and completely under control. So, what might be causing her discomfort?  I know that it is not necessary to experience physical discomfort when playing the piano. In her case, though, she sometimes felt tingling, strain and wasn't always happy with the quality of the tone. 
The Piano is Down, Not Up
 I asked her to play selected passages again. This time, on closer examination it was obvious that she extended her fingers into the air as if pointing. This was not a large gesture, but just enough to cause significant pulling away from the hand. I can hear my teacher now. "Dear," she would say, "the piano is down. The fingers only go up in order to come down again." 
     In other words, it is not efficient to isolate or separate the fingers from the hand individually and keep them pointing in the air, no matter how charming it may appear to the audience. When I pointed this out to her, the concept resonated and she was immediately able to incorporate a different strategy.  We talked about how to apply forearm rotation (see iDemo tab above) to these passages. 
     She won't need to retrain particularly, but rather just be aware of this sensation, the sensation of being down in the key bed in order to be at "rest" and walk from note to note by transferring weight. This will reduce the strain she has experienced over a period of time and help her find the sound she wants. Remember, the quality and quantity of sound is controlled by the application of the arm. Fingers alone cannot provide this control, no matter what you hear from those old wives.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Case of the Jazz Pianist and the Missing Thumb


My student brought questions about descending arpeggiated figures in the right hand. He is a very accomplished and much sought-after jazz pianist with considerable facility, so it was somewhat of a surprise to me that these arpeggiated figures were an issue. For most pianists, descending arpeggios are more reliable than ascending. 

     He has in his arsenal of licks (riffs?) many variants of chromatically-altered figures. These he tosses off at will as embellishments in whatever key happens to be current. This facility, it seems to me, is already remarkable. His complaint, though, was that he doesn't feel that they always sound clear and even.  
I asked him to play one for me, which he did. It sounded clear and even but I didn't tell him that at first. I asked him how it seemed to him, and he reported that it was not as clear and even as he wanted and that this has been a frustration for him for some time. After some repetitions, we found that these passages sometimes sounded uneven, too. Here we paused for a brief story.
     Many years ago my teacher, John Crown, invited me to play on his television program on public access, a program featuring new music. I had to play through without the option of do-overs, which added a touch of, well let's say— added excitement.  I played okay, I thought, but fluffed one descending scale-like passage. When the program aired, though, the passage in question sounded just fine. I was relieved, of course, but confused. What made me think the passage wasn't clear? It would be many years before I understood what had happened. 
In a nutshell, the note(s) in question sounded but hadn't been completed. That is, the weight of my forearm wasn't supporting all of the notes equally, I wasn't transferring weight from one finger to the next as if walking from note to note. This sensation is translated in the brain as "missed" notes, because, in a way they were. The brain didn't hear them because the arm didn't feel them. Stand up. Try walking as if one ankle is sprained,  not putting any weight on it. This hobbling effect is very like what happened to me on television.
     When we looked again at my student's arpeggios, we found that, almost without exception, his thumb wasn't doing both its jobs, the first of which is to play the note and the second is to throw the hand into the new position. In other words, he wasn't always allowing the thumb to toss his hand beyond the thumb cross-over note as he descended, which gives the hand the possibility of turning back to the next finger rotationally. I know, words fail here. Suffice it to say that rotation was missing. (For a video on rotation, click on the iDemos tab above.)