Writing about the history of piano technique for my new eBook I recalled vividly my harpsichord studies with Ruth Dyson at the RCM, and her insistence that the fingers play from the surface of the keyboard, not striking from above. In addition, no involvement of the arm was either desirable or necessary.

During the 300 year history of the piano we have seen two main technical approaches – what we might call the Finger School and, later, the Arm School.


Since the early pianos were similar in touch and action to the harpsichord, it was appropriate to approach them in the traditionally accepted way – using individuated finger strokes with no active participation of the arm. As the piano and the music written for it evolved, so the size of the instrument increased. The range and touch weight of the keyboard also increased, making greater technical demands of the player.

Pianists responded by doggedly sticking to what they knew, believing (erroneously, as it turned out) that all that was necessary was to make the fingers stronger. The futility of this eventually became apparent and a new school of playing based on anatomic principles and the use of arm weight, transplanted the Finger School. The pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, with the idea that the arm should now take over from the fingers. Rather than work like little pistons, the fingers should instead remain fixed for the weight of the arm to be transmitted through them. Thus during this phase active fingerwork tended to get neglected, and players forgot that no matter what was going on in the arm the finger still had to put down the key!

In the modern age, new schools of playing have emerged that bring together the best of the two earlier schools. Movement in the fingers and hand is restored and coordinated with the arm (and indeed the rest of the body). This enables us to move freely across the keyboard and to produce the huge range of sounds and colours the modern instrument is capable of. In addition, vital new elements have revolutionised piano technique – an appreciation that the central nervous system and the mind are integral to developing technique. According to most modern schools of piano playing, the type of repetitive mechanical practice advocated by our forebears is largely a waste of time.

The many diverse schools of piano playing each have their own history, traditions and proven track records. Great virtuosos have come from each of them, becoming what they were despite erroneous or incomplete teaching – nothing or nobody could hold them back. Therefore, it would be arrogant and incorrect to dismiss one tradition in favour of another – there is no such thing as the one right way.

The technique and means of expression between the classical harpsichord and the piano are poles apart. Grammy-nominated harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, who started out as a pianist, has this to say about harpsichord technique:

Reflecting on how effective harpsichord playing differs from what is required to play the modern piano, I immediately think that in harpsichord technique everything comes from the finger alone: articulation and contact with the key is everything. There is no escapement (or double escapement) to intervene between the touch of the key and the contact of the quill to the string. A fine harpsichordist is utterly sensitive to this feeling, using that contact to finely gauge agogic details, and nuances of touch and articulation. The forearm must not be tense, of course, but the concept of muscular force coming from the arm or shoulder is alien to convincing harpsichord performance. With earlier, simple escapement forte pianos, such as those Mozart would have known, the earlier technique still seems relevant: key dip is very shallow, note repetition is not quite as rapid as with the later, double escapement mechanisms. Excessive force will cause this delicate mechanism to jam, and can even cause structural damage to the instrument. At around the beginning of the 19th century, the piano moves rapidly away from its harpsichord-like predecessors, and the involvement of the forearm and upper arm (as well as the use of rotary technique) becomes necessary.

So, the action of the finger alone is more than adequate for the harpsichord repertoire and music written for the early piano. The arm is suspended weightlessly over the keyboard with the finger playing from the key surface, certainly not striking the key from above. As the piano evolved, the way pianists handled the instrument changed. Martha Beth Lewis has written a very good short article on the difference between piano and harpsichord touch.

In next week’s post, I will look at the early pioneers of the piano, and the legacy of Czerny, Clementi and Hummel (amongst others).   Further details on the history of piano playing are also covered in Part 2 of my eBook series on technique. Please  click here to find out more.

Practising the Piano Part 2

Buy all three volumes of Practising The Piano Part 2  for 25% off the individual volume prices or click here to view the full Practising the Piano eBook Series catalogue.