Like many of us, I have come from an eclectic background as a pianist. There are strong influences from the British School, with its emphasis on craftsmanship (especially in the practice room), the German school, with its focus on musical structure and clarity of thought, and not least the great modern Russian School (the Neuhaus line from Nina Svetlanova), with its rich traditions of pianism, artistry and attention to creating an incredible sound. Since one of my teachers studied in Paris with Marguerite Long and another with Artur Rubinstein, there will be some French and Central Europe in there too.

I also undertook an in-depth study of what has become known as the Taubman Method from a student of Dorothy Taubman in New York, and I worked for a time with piano guru Peter Feuchtwanger in London on his various exercises. No description of my background would be complete without acknowledging the enormous debt I owe to Leon Fleisher, whose weekly classes for piano majors at Peabody during 1982 were among the highlights of my pianistic education. And of course my masterclass and subsequent lessons with Andras Schiff in the early 80s were hugely influential.

My own approach to piano technique is therefore rich and varied with all these various influences, and I have found it possible to use the best parts of all of them. Consequently I do not subscribe to the view that there is one correct way to play the piano – rather many different and equally valid ways depending on the physiology, mind and aesthetics of the individual.

In my video lecture series on technique on the Online Academy, I offer some very detailed instructions on how to achieve results at the piano, often suggesting alternative technical paths that can also work. Naturally, I highlight ways of doing things that we aim to avoid. This is because movements that are against the natural workings of the human physiology will cause problems with coordination, which in turn lead to tension and later injury.

What is technique?

The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.
– La Meri (dancer)

The word “technique” has its roots in the Greek work “technikos” – of, or pertaining to art. Interpretation and technique are one and the same thing, since every sound we strive to produce has to be achieved by physical means.

I love William Westney’s definition of technique, which is “…making a physical commitment to each and every note” (The Perfect Wrong Note).

The are many different and conflicting opinions on piano technique, but surely each tradition of piano playing has its gold nuggets, and we can use them all if we can filter out those aspects that might no longer be true or relevant to the 21st century pianist. Technique is individual; there is no one-size-fits-all panacea. Indeed we might say there are as many different ways to play the piano as there are pianists!

The T Word

There is a lot of talk about tension in piano playing, and I think it’s most important that we distinguish between tension that comes from faulty or incomplete technique and tension that comes from anxiety.

I think of anxiety as mental tension, and since “the body is the heavy part of the mind” (to paraphrase a Buddhist saying), mental tension will translate immediately into physical tension. If you are feeling insecure, unconfident about your ability to interpret a particular piece of music, or nervous of other people’s reactions, the ensuing tension will inhibit freedom of movement, freedom of expression and cause stiffness and uncoordinated feelings in your body. The end result is dissatisfaction and frustration. You’ll be tempted to blame your technique, when performance anxiety – something different entirely – may actually be to blame. I’m going to talk more about this in a future blog post.

Click here to view on the Online Academy

The Practice Piano Technique Lecture Series which includes a further nine videos (with more coming soon!) is available for once-off purchase here or with an Online Academy subscription. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the series index if you are already a subscriber.

Further information & resources

  • The Piano Technique Lecture Series (click here to view the series index)
  • Practising the Piano multimedia eBook series – Part 2: Mastering Piano Technique (click here for more information)

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