“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, September 12, 2019


     I was delighted recently to receive a thoughtful response to my essay on the value of etudes ("Scales, Arpeggios..."). My correspondent argues that "most exercises are NOT training for strength, but rather they are more NEUROMUSCULAR in
nature." And he has a use for exercises. I'm glad he agrees that strength training is not the objective. I suspect this is a forest-for-the-trees situation. But I think it's worth working through the concepts.
     Unfortunately, the impression many students and teachers take away from exercises has to do with strength training. The two most ubiquitous composers of etudes, Hanon and Czerny, have created a strength and 
Charles-Louis Hanon
finger-independence cult. In the preface to his 60 Exercises, Hanon states that "The fourth and fifth fingers are almost useless for lack of special exercises for these fingers, which are always weaker than the rest." There is nothing wrong with the fourth and fifth fingers unless at some point they've been slammed
in a car door. Our job at the keyboard is to learn how to use them according to their design. (Making the fingers feel "strong" is addressed elsewhere in these pages.) Further, he instructs students to "lift the fingers high." This is pointless and possibly dangerous, but again that is a different topic. The fingers are not physiologically independent of one another but can be made to sound that way.

     Czerny, on the other hand, gives almost no
Carl Czerny
instructions on how to master his studies—just play them. Some of the titles in The Art of Finger Dexterity, though, give hints as to what he is thinking: "Action of the Fingers, Quiet Hand." One of my favorites is titled, "The Passing Under of the Thumb." This isn't really about strength, but it is one of the old wives' tales that have come down to us. The most efficient use of the thumb is not achieved by "passing under." (Thumb crossing is discussed elsewhere.) I often wonder what studies the five-year-old prodigy practiced. (Doesn't he resemble Schubert?)

     But my correspondent's main point of contention, which he argues ever so politely, is that exercises are useful because they are not music. "They are NEUROMUSCULAR in
nature." "Technique," he says, "is in the brain, not the body." The first half of that statement is right on point. Yes, we think first. But we think about what the body needs to learn. This is what I call practicing on purpose, working into an automatic response the appropriate technical solutions which we first have to conceive of.  Everything we play is, of course, neuromuscular. We rely on physical conditioning, particularly in speed. He points out that students have "too many distractions" in a piece of music: "reading, tone productions, balance, phrasing, tempo." If he really wants to play unmusically (I'm sure he doesn't), he can do that in passages in a piece of music just as well as in an exercise.
     And this is really what I'm talking about. When I say ignore exercises in favor of music, I mean select challenging passages in the music to use as etudes. This might be a scale passage in one hand, an arpeggio, two measures of double notes or an octave group. In so doing, we have a head start on a piece we really want to play. If you master Hanon, say, you have, well, an exercise that trained your hands to play that exercise. This will not necessarily transfer to a piece of music. 
     "With exercises," my correspondent states, " we can revel in the beauties of pure technique." We can do that in technical excerpts from music, too. If a student has a problem in a particular passage, that becomes an etude independent of the rest of the piece. Personally, I see no reason to ever play ugly; we should always be aware of the quality of sound and maybe even articulation and dynamics. That's not too much to think about in, say, a four-measure excerpt. I have the sinking feeling that many teachers run to the shelf to select a book of exercises because that seems easier than thinking about what technical help the student needs for a particular piece. 
     I can hear my teacher now: "Dear, you can play whatever you want as long as you play it correctly." Of course, if you know how to play your exercise correctly, then you don't need to play it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Arthritis and the Piano, Repost

Here is a repost of one of the most popular posts:
     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.
     One possible approach for this pianist would be to explore how the forearm works. She could try this: Lift the arm up from the elbow and notice the
hand is in 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. When this movement is not understood, it is possible that unnecessary tension will exacerbate the arthritis symptoms. This rotation 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. We play the piano with our fingers in alignment with the wrist hand and arm. Also, 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.

      It was suggested that she study Czerny and Hanon, which many people use with enthusiasm—even today in the face of what we now know. 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.
     I think it's more important to examine how this arthritic 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.
     Some pianists argue that they don't use forearm rotation, so I repeat: 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. It is not  the only way to play the piano. But you can't play without it. Moreover, understanding forearm rotation as an underlying tool contributes to an efficient and fluent technique.           
     In all fairness, I think I understand where the rotation doubters come from. They can see applications in Alberti figures because that’s rather obvious. If they play naturally and with ease and if they had facility at an early age, it is difficult for them to understand what is underneath and why it's important for people with less natural facility to discover for themselves what works. 
     I also can understand why they might think 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. 
     So I say to pianists faced with arthritic pain, find ways to use the playing mechanism in the manner to which it was born. That is, use it according to its design. Never mind the rotation doubters. 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. If the choice is between ease or difficulty, I choose ease. This knowledge can be therapeutic.