The History of Piano Technique (Part 1)

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 […]

Five Fingers

My piano chum, Leon Whitesell, has a brand new Facebook group called Piano Playing Questions. In a recent post, Leon referred to the five-finger exercise formulae of famous Russian teacher, Vasily Safonov (who was the teacher of Scriabin, Medtner, Josef and Rosina Lhévinne, amongst many others). This reminded me that somewhere on my shelves I had a copy of Safonov’s “New Formula for the Piano Teacher and Piano Student”, and after a bit of digging around I managed to find it. I assume it must be long out of print, but I have found the German edition on Petrucci and can link to the pdf here. I was particularly interested in what Safonov recommended for five-finger positions. Using a basic position from G up to D and then down to G again, he suggested changing the fingerings from 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 to various other combinations, thus: Having outlined the fingerings and referenced them with upper and lower case letters, he goes on to supply a formula for combining the fingers when practising hands together. This is well worth exploring:   While you’re about it, I like Leon’s suggestion carry this idea further by using additional fingerings, such as: 2-3-4-5-1-5-4-3-2 3-4-5-1-2-1-5-4-3 4-5-1-2-3-2-1-5-4 5-1-2-3-4-3-2-1-5 Practising in a whole variety of different rhythms enhances control. Experiment also with using different touches, and also different five-finger positions than diatonic major (minor, chromatic and whole-tone positions are also very useful). It strikes me that these alternative fingerings can also be applied to some of the Hanon exercises, certainly the first one. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I like to practise Peter Feuchtwanger’s five-finger exercise, played with reverse fingerings. Instead of 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 in a RH ascending/descending pattern, he uses 5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5. This necessitates the […]

Chess or Checkers?

I have written extensively about the subject of slow practice on this blog and elsewhere. Since slow practice is such a cornerstone of our practice routine I don’t apologise for making a few comments about it again now! Here is Angela Hewitt talking about slow practice. I totally concur that when we practise slowly we can do so with rhythmic integrity, musical expression, good sound and attention to pedalling and texture. This is important! If we think about slow practice as something dull, mechanical and unmusical we risk playing in this way. I’m afraid I cannot agree with Ms. Hewitt’s sentiment that nobody likes doing it! I get the same sort of satisfaction practising slowly as any dedicated craftsman would get from the process of making something beautiful, rather than just the end result. I actually love practising slowly, controlling every finger and every sound I make. Don’t you? It feels to me like a type of meditation, a discipline where I delay the gratification that comes from playing through a piece and make a serious investment in the quality, security and polish of my playing. I think of it as something other than playing actually, a totally different type of activity. In Issue 74 of Pianist Magazine, there is an interview with Steven Osborne. I really like what he has to say about slow practice: The thing that’s helped me learn things faster has actually been practising slowly, and very intently, trying to get it to feel good and taking time before speeding up. Two important things come out of this – doing the slow practice for long enough and having it feel good. I often think of slow practice as digging foundations for a building. The more […]

By |October 11th, 2013|Teaching|6 Comments

The Fantasie-Impromptu: Some Ideas (Part Two)

This is my second post on Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu. In the first, I proposed two different ways of choreographing the LH, the arm steering the hand in both. I also discussed practising the RH first of all slowly and firmly, and then in a bunch of different rhythmic groupings, and then using accents. I am going to do one more post next week, where I’ll talk about individual spots in the piece. This week, my suggestions are more general. I would like to suggest two other ways of practising the RH, which are in many ways much more effective: Finger Staccatissimo If we can reproduce at a slow tempo the exact length of time each semiquaver in the RH lasts at full speed, we will find this is extremely short! Now, if we retain this shortness and practise each note staccatissimo, we will be able to practise slowly and fast simultaneously. The tempo is slow, yet the key speed and the way we react to each note extremely fast. Think of each note as a grain of rice that we unclump from a piece of sushi and lay out with plenty of space in between.  We feel staccatissimo as a plucking or scratching motion in which the active finger tip moves towards the palm of the hand. This motion is generated by and confined to the tip of the finger – the wrist and arm remaining quiet. Start off by placing the finger on the key, and pull the finger quickly into the palm of the hand. Make sure the arm does not pull back, that the motion is only in the finger. Make sure to be in contact with the key before you pluck. Making […]

Some Thoughts on Five-Finger Exercises: Variations on a Theme by Hanon

Almost every book of piano exercises has a chapter dealing with five-finger exercises, and a lot of pianists won’t feel warmed up and ready to face their practice session without having spent some time doing these. I have several colleagues who are at the height of the profession who swear by this, and I know a number who don’t believe they help at all. It is like following the American primaries – you are probably either in one camp or the other! There have been those piano teachers who condemn five-finger exercises as not only a waste of time but also contrary to a holistic and natural way of using our body at the keyboard. But, like anything else we do in our practice, it is HOW we do them that counts. If we are doing five-finger exercises mindfully and for a particular purpose, then a few minutes daily can be of great value. My favourite warm-up (when I need it) is exercises in double notes followed by all major and minor common chords in all inversions, but I do occasionally assign five-finger exercises to students. I like to use modified versions of Hanon, whose patterns I use to my own devious ends. For those who like practising Hanon, have you tried doing them in other keys? Perhaps this is obvious, but I don’t understand the value of sticking with C major when no piece of real music ever avoids black notes. The point is how we steer around the keyboard, how we negotiate the ever-changing black/white terrain. Playing in other keys means we end up using the whole length of the key as the short thumb slides in to deal with the black keys, […]

Eliminating Tension(2): Braced Conditions Of The Hand And Wrist

Yes, I know I was going to talk about forearm rotation this week, but inspiration took me elsewhere. I’ll get to that soon, I promise! This post deals with how to achieve braced conditions of the hand and wrist without the firmness and solidity we need in the periphery travelling back up the arm, translating into tension.  I think it is uncontroversial to say that the upper arm (the part from the elbow to the shoulder) needs to remain loose at all times, no matter what is going on beneath it, and that the shoulder has to remain free and NEVER hunched up in a shrug. If you were to carry a bowl of fruit from one place to another, you would naturally achieve this state of affairs, with no thought required. The trick is to reproduce this at the piano. The finger is the point of contact between us and the instrument, and varies in its role from active agent (with the arm there behind, supporting it) to passive conduit for arm energy. Sometimes the finger needs to be very firm indeed in order to support the energy or weight of the arm, and there are occasions when any give in the wrist would be fatal. So how do we achieve firmness in one part of our playing mechanism while retaining looseness and flexibility in another? For looseness in the arm, let’s begin with an exercise away from the piano: Hold the arm at shoulder height while standing comfortably. It’s best to do this one arm at a time. Let go of all the muscles that have been holding the arm up, so that it falls like dead weight back to your side. Don’t […]

Tools for Memorisation

Here is the second part of my article MIND OVER MEMORY, published last year in Pianist Magazine. Remember, everyone who has ever played the piano in public has had that horrible experience of losing their way – including professionals and great artists. Here are some insurance policies you might want to consider taking out. Toold for Memorisation These tools may be used as part of the note-learning process (ideal), or after the notes have been learned, even partially, to check and reinforce the memory. One-finger Practice It may seem perverse to play a line from memory with one finger, but it is a marvellous tool for checking if the music is in the aural/analytic memories or merely in the muscular. If you only know the music by muscular memory, you’ll have difficulty doing this, and if it is only in the muscular memory, it might not be strong enough to withstand the stresses of performance. This technique works especially well for passage work and contrapuntal music (where two voices can be played simultaneously with one finger in each hand). If you are taking one line, you can ring the changes by playing the white notes, say, with one finger in one hand, and the black notes with one finger in the other hand. Making a Skeleton This involves playing only selected components of the music (from memory, of course!): Play the melody and bass lines minus accompanimental or background material Play the accompaniment alone, or the accompaniment with the bass line, etc. Play hands separately from memory, especially the left hand (the ear usually tends to focus on the right hand) Swapping Hands This is a glorified version of practising hands separately, by using both hands […]

On Passagework

There are innumerable examples in the piano repertoire of what is commonly known as “passagework”, a string of fast notes that lasts either a few bars, a whole section, or an entire piece. The function of this passagework may be decoratively melodic (rather like the singer’s coloratura), but is most often associated with bravura display. Even though I don’t really like the term, let’s stick with it as we all know what we mean by it. It is hardest to bring off at either extreme of the dynamic spectrum, loud or soft, but I think the difficulties are compounded by the sameness of the rhythmic value. If the passage were interspersed with slower or faster note values, this would act as terrain in an otherwise flatter landscape. Extended passages played fast and loud, or fast and soft, demand considerable control. I think immediately of two opposite examples from Chopin, the finale of the Funeral March Sonata (fast and soft, the difficulties compounded a hundredfold because both hands are in unison for the entire movement): and the Prelude in B flat minor (the right hand would be hard enough, but Chopin adds insult to injury with the left hand leaps): As a guiding principle, the finger plays from the surface of the key and releases to the surface (and not a squilimeter higher). The exception to this is martellato or when the passage (or elements of it) is controlled by forearm rotation. While the end result is that the fingers should be extremely close to the keys – in contact with the key surface – the practising dictates that we might regularly and deliberately use a raised finger. In the central nervous system, reciprocal relations exist between […]

By |November 27th, 2011|Practising|3 Comments

On Double Notes (Part One)

Technikos: “of, or pertaining to art, artistic, skilful” But there is no difference between interpretation and technique. Every dynamic and nuance must be produced simultaneously by a technical means (Walter Gieseking) The next few posts will be on practising exercises, and I decided to start with double notes. This week I will give some background, and next week some practical advice. I recommend doing some double notes every day, in the form of a scale or two, or an exercise, or indeed a study. It is the act of doing this that is more important than what you practise, and any book of exercises worth its salt will have some patterns of double notes. I favour exercises that transpose or use patterns of white and black keys – playing on just white keys is very limiting (how many pieces do you know, even elementary ones, that avoid black notes?). Playing double notes is, mechanically speaking, one of the most difficult activities at the piano, and one that requires superfine coordination. The pair of fingers need to sound dead together and, in order to do this in a controlled way, have to be played from the surface of the keyboard. The weaker outer fingers need to be as strong and agile as the others – stronger, actually, in the right hand since the top notes will need to be projected more.   “Nothing by finger without arm; nothing by arm without finger” (Leonid Nikolaev) I imagine a seesaw where one end represents “ARM” and the other “FINGER”. Because of the unhelpful assumption that we play the piano with our fingers, I am always trying to push activities of the finger as far as possible in the […]

Voicing Chords

A chord is officially two or more notes played simultaneously, but there are probably as many species of chords as there are of spiders. There is so much to say about practising chords that this is part one of a multi-part series of posts (not sure how many yet) on the subject. Except for percussive tone clusters, a chord on the piano is rarely intended as an amorphous blob of sound. It is a living organism where each finger involved contributes to the hierarchy of tonal priorities, so that the melody finger will be stronger than the filler (or harmony) notes. If both hands are involved, there will be this sense of top (melody) as well as bottom (bass), with harmony notes in between, graded by the ear of the individual player so that no two pianists will reproduce exactly the same tonal balance. I have often joked that piano playing would be easier if our hands were attached the other way round, so that strong thumbs (instead of puny pinkies) were on the outsides of the hands, and would be responsible for top melodies and foundation basses (the latter so often neglected). I am going to quote again from Heinrich Neuhaus’ The Art of Piano Playing (if there were one definitive book on piano playing, it would surely be this one). It is very appropriate here to remember that Anton Rubinstein called the two fifth fingers “conductors” leading the music. The limits of sound (both upper and lower) are to music what the frame is to a picture, the slightest blurr  [sic] (which is particularly frequent at the lower limit) in the bass results in a diffuse, shapeless picture; the musical composition then turns (as […]

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