“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.”
Plato

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.

1 comment:

Cln. Richard Dickson said...

As usual, an intriguing read from Dr. Stannard. However, I would argue that most exercises are NOT training for strength, but rather they are more NEUROMUSCULAR in nature. Work in coordination, split second timing, and listening. Technique is really in the brain, not the body. I think critics of exercises often overlook this aspect of the exercises.

Why not just work on this stuff in actual music you ask??? Well, It is the very lack of musical content that makes exercises so effective. If I'm working on a Bach invention -- my students need to worry about reading, tone production, balance, phrasing, tempo, etc. There are too many distractions. With exercises, one is left to revel in the beauties of pure technique and movements, nothing more, nothing less.

However, props to Dr. Stannard for being willing to dispell centuries of misinformation and wives tales of "finger strength" - that takes courage!