“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.”

Monday, April 25, 2022

Using the Thumb at the Piano: Awkward Lump or Full Partner

 There was a time, long ago, when the thumb was considered a useless appendage at the keyboard.

Officially, the thumb was not allowed on the keys at all. Personally, I think there must have been the occasional scamp who saw its practicality and surreptitiously snuck it up onto the keyboard. Papa Bach may have been one of these, as the use of the thumb became more or less normal during his lifetime.

Once the ignored and much-maligned limb gained full access to its rightful place, there ensued decades of debate as to how it might be used. Stretching and pulling became the default instruction. Exercises were devised to train the innocent, unsuspecting thumb to press itself under the hand and wait there until it was time to play, at which time all it could do was fall on the note, not play it like its finger colleagues. This resulted in a bumpy-sounding scale and not a little discomfort. When the time came to play scales hands together, the bumps and discomfort might often be compounded.

    Here's my modest proposal: Let's figure out how to play the thumb like a finger, without falling on it, and in so doing establish the ground-work for smooth crossings and excellent coordination between the hands. If a passage sounds and feels uncoordinated, it is most likely because one hand is trying to do what the other one is doing rotationally. (See below for demos on rotation and crossings.)

    1. The thumb plays rotationally, not by being pulled under the hand.

    2. When crossing, the job of the thumb is to play its note and move the hand into the new position.

    3. The thumb connects to the key at the fleshy side of the nail, not by falling on the first joint.

    4. If the scale sounds uncoordinated, check the movement of the thumb at its crossing and compare it to what the other hand is doing.

    Once the concept of crossing the thumb rotationally in a scale hands alone is mastered, create nutshell exercises at each crossing. It is not particularly helpful to play the entire scale up and back until the coordination at the crossings has been worked in.


    For much, much more on this and other topics, have a look here:

                Piano Technique Demystified

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Birds of a Feather: Technical Grouping of Notes for Pianists

      The technical grouping of notes can be different from the musical or notational grouping of notes. An understanding of this idea is crucial to the successful playing of quick, virtuoso passages. In Chopin’s “Winter Wind” Etude, for example, the four sextuplets fall technically into  groups of four:

This is, of course, only a practice technique, as in speed the pulse reverts to main pulses on every group of six. In this case, it helps here to think of eighth-note triplets.

     An even starker example of the importance of grouping begins in measure nine:

 In order to move from the fourth finger to the thumb, begin the passage with the hand at a slight angle to the right, placing the thumb nearer to its note. Use the thumb as a hinge to propel the hand into the new position. The thumb usually has two jobs—playing the note and flipping the hand into its new position. Always use the last note of one group in order to arrive at the first note of the next group.
 Grouping notes together for technical reasons can make the difference between a very difficult execution and a very easy one.

The ability to play fast depends on an understanding of how to group notes. The longer the passage, the more important it is to find sub -groupings. The hand can’t “conceive” of an indefinite number of notes or a long string of notes without establishing milestones along the way. If the composer writes “17” over a group of notes that are to be completed within a certain time frame, it is important to decide on how to sub-divide that group, i.e., three groups of 4 and one of five, or some other grouping that makes sense in the context. This does not mean that accents will be heard; the group of “17” can still sound like a single unit, a flourish, if that is the desired effect. How those sub-divisions relate to the other hand is also a primary consideration.

     Group from the more dense, the heavier combination of notes. For example, in passages where chords are interspersed with single notes, it is much easier to feel a starting point at the chord, regardless of which part of the musical beat it comes on. In Chopin’s G Minor Ballade an arpeggiated figure primarily in single notes contains a chord of a fourth placed on a weak part of the beat that occurs every three notes. By feeling a start on the chord (or a feeling of “down”—notice the red arrows), the passage immediately wants to move with ease. In my view, Chopin meant for these chords to add rhythmic interest to the passage, an agitated syncopation. Hint: use the thumb in the descending passage in order to "rotate" the hand into the new position.

     For more on grouping in order to avoid stretching, achieving leaps, in dotted rhythms, facilitating change of direction, practice hints and other topics for students and teachers, have a look at Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving.

                                                                                                     Piano Technique Demystified

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Piano Studies: Did Czerny Hate Children?


 By most accounts, Carl 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. I can't help wondering what, if anything, in his formative years produced this prodigiousness. I don't know off-hand what exercises were popular during Czerny's youth—or even if there were any—at the close of the 18th century. Chances are, if my observations of prodigy children of today can be a guide, Czerny was a natural. By that I mean he was probably one of those rare occurrences in which everything musical comes together in one being. He no doubt allowed his playing mechanism, without having to consider the how-tos or wherefores, to move according to its design, without stretching and pulling to extremes or considering "strength." With the possible exception of scales and arpeggios, I doubt he played much in the way of exercises at all.

       By the end of his life, Czerny had produced 861 opus numbers, more than1000 pieces for the piano. He is remembered today mostly for his vast number of exercises for piano students, exercises that are so ubiquitous that they found themselves parodied in scores by the likes of Debussy, Saint-Saens and others. Moskowski, another great pianist who wrote piano etudes, accused Czerny of "hating children." 

     Indeed, within a generation of his death, his reputation as a composer had so come under fire that Brahms felt moved to come to his defense. In a letter of 1878 to Clara Schumann, Brahms 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." The reference was to an essay Czerny wrote on the correct performance of the Beethoven sonatas.                                                                                                   

     It seems to me that somewhere along the line Czerny got the notion that pianists require physical strength, endurance, in order to play. (How can we make music if we have to endure something?) 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 thought pianists needed to drill repeatedly for physical strength. In fairness, though, to the best of my knowledge he doesn't actually use the words physical strength. If truth be told, he gives very little instruction at all. He tells us to "lift the fingers high" and to "keep a quiet wrist," but we are left with the notion that success will magically occur after hours of repetitions, which I refer to as mindless rote. Play the studies as much as you want. "You can play whatever you want, dear, as long as you play it correctly," I hear my teacher say. But of course, if you know how to play them correctly, then you don't need to play them at all. You can instead spend your precious practice time solving some technical issues in music you really would like to play.

    This brings me to my point. Yes, there's a point. I've finally gotten around to putting my time and effort where my mouth has been yammering for 30 years. In my teaching I stress getting to the technical issues first, the first step in tackling a new piece. So, for those who like to play studies or who
would like to have something useful to work on as a daily routine, have a look at
The Pianist's Guide to Practical Technique, a volume in which you will find technical "exercise" excerpts selected from standard repertoire. You'll then have a head start on concert repertoire.                                


  The Pianist's Guide