As a teacher, my chief aim is to assist my students in playing more freely and expressively. A big part of that process is helping them unlock their unique musical personality and equipping them with a solid technical foundation. There has been much discussion of late in the piano networks on technical matters, so I thought I would do my bit to put some of this into perspective.

I feel very fortunate to have had wonderful training as a pianist, fairly eclectic as I went along and culminating with intensive and long-term study with a representative of the very best of the modern Russian School. Someone asked me the other day what makes one school of piano playing better than another, and in what ways are they different? Interesting question! The piano is by now a fully evolved instrument, and the traditions of playing and teaching it are well established. Certain ways of manipulating the keyboard have been passed down because they seem to work across the board, while others have been thrown out as inefficient or injurious. There will always be differences between the national schools of playing – the French School is known for its fastidiousness to fine detail and its focus on the fingers, while the Russian School for its full, projected sound, its physical athleticism and ability to focus talent from a very young age. And yet there is really no such thing as “The Russian School”, since there are several lineages involved even here.

Yesterday I gave a day’s workshop on piano technique for Evoco in Belfast, under the auspices of the inspirational Sharon Mark-Teggart. Towards the end there was a Q&A session, and one diploma candidate asked whether it was more correct to play a particular Bach Gigue with curved or flat fingers. I immediately thought about two opposite keyboard players – the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Mme. Landowska played with exaggeratedly curved fingers and Maestro Horowitz with unfeasibly flat ones.

Any piano teacher faced with either situation would take steps to correct the hand position and yet who could possibly say these two great artists were in any way wrong? As I mentioned in last week’s post, a great pianist can come from any school of piano playing and there is no industry standard for hand positions. I think it is safe to say there are certain ways of doing things that are better than others, and certain movements and positions that will probably end up causing problems somewhere down the line. But as we will see in a bit, piano technique is not only a physical matter.

There was a time in the history of piano teaching when teachers were trying to find ways of tackling the more powerful pianos and the different styles of music being written. In the mid 1800s, Lebert and Stark (Stuttgart Conservatory) responded by taking Clementi’s ideas about active fingers and passive arms several stages further by introducing a mechanical device called a handrail with which their “hammer touch” was to be developed through endless finger exercises. Needless to say, crippling injuries were reported. It was during this time that we see a split between technical and musical work, so that it was possible (and prevalent) for the player to separate pure mechanics from musical thought and expression. It led to a group of piano students who had no real lively interest in music, but who were concerned solely with becoming showmen at the piano. I have a feeling this period in the history of piano playing is why some teachers today have a dread of any type of mechanical practice.

My last teacher, Nina Svetlanova, would often speak during my lessons of her own teachers and mentors. Apart from Heinrich Neuhaus another who stands out is Grigory Koganwho wrote books entitled At The Gates of Mastery and A Pianist’s Work. It was Kogan who coined the term Psycho-Technical School to describe modern trends in the history of piano technique. Here are some salient points he raises:

  • Results come not because of the amount of time we spend practising but by the quality of the work, the involvement of the mind.
  • Thinking about the mechanics of movement interferes with performance. For example, it does not help me one bit if I am thinking about the position of my wrist in a given place in my piece or whether I am producing my staccato from my finger or my forearm, I just need to exactly know what sort of sound I am trying to achieve at that point, keeping the musical and artistic meaning in mind. By concentrating on the purpose of my motor activity (rather than the activity itself) my body will better produce the result, naturally and automatically (provided I have the chops in the first place).
  • Dull drilling is meaningless and futile – the technical difficulty might have nothing to do with the motor processes but rather a lack of clarity on the musical meaning or the purpose of the movements.
  • We connect musical imagination and muscular sensations with careful listening to the sounds we make.
  • The clearer our aims, the clearer our means of accomplishing them.
  • Mental practice away from the keyboard is an important part of the preparation for a new piece.

Kogan’s three basic principles are a fitting way to round off this post and it would serve us well always to keep them in mind:

1. We need to be able to hear the music inwardly in all its details.

Before we can expect any kind of result, we need to have a sense of how we want the piece to sound. The more vivid our artistic image, the more convinced we are by our conception of the work, the quicker and more directly we will reach our goal. This presupposes some ability to absorb and comprehend the contents of a musical score away from the piano. A magnificent cathedral starts off as a vision in the imagination of the architect who puts it down on paper in the form of sketches and then precise directions for the building thereof. From there, manual labourers set to work and erect the thing. 

2. We need to have a passionate and intense desire to realise the image we have.

When I was a student, one day I listened to a recording of Schumann’s Carnaval played by Rachmaninov. I was bowled over by the playing and felt compelled to learn the piece. So intense was my desire to play this piece that I decided to substitute this work for another that was on an upcoming recital programme – in two weeks’ time! Nowadays I wouldn’t do anything so foolhardy as to learn a big work like this in two weeks and then perform it, but this is the sort of daredevil thing you are allowed to do when you are young.

3. We need our full concentration on this task in everyday practising.

When we are totally absorbed in an activity that holds our interest, we don’t notice the passage of time. Sometimes practising is a joy, other times it is sheer hard work. Not every practice session is going to be fuelled by enthusiasm and drive, sometimes practising can feel flat and routine. In the end it is the commitment we make to just showing up and doing it whether we feel like it or not, whether we feel inspired by it or not.

I will leave you with the legendary recording of Rachmaninov playing Carnaval – I think this is a remarkable performance.

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