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What are the essential principles of a student's technique?
Back in the spring of 1989 Richard Chronister asked me to become the first Associate Editor for Technique of a new publication with a focus on piano study from beginning through intermediate levels. Thus began my association with KEYBOARD COMPANION.
I think Richard asked me to assist him because he knew of my great interest in technique. Whatever the reason, he honored me and presented me with an opportunity for service to our profession which I hope I have not abused since the inaugural issue in the spring of 1990.
Along the way, I have met others who share my passion for technique, and I have enjoyed the conversational yet eminently practical style of KEYBOARD COMPANION.
Now as I take my leave of these pages, I want once more to thank the teachers who have written responses to the questions I have posed for each issue. These good folks labored long and hard to share their wisdom with all of us. We are in their debt.
To you, the reader, I send my gratitude for your attention and careful consideration. May your technical problems all be small ones with ready solutions, and may your every caress of the keyboard lead to consummate fulfillment.
Don't dismiss tradition, just recloak it...
by Steven Roberson
What are the essential principles of a student's technique? Wow! What an impossible question! Of course, I have no one to blame except myself- I chose this question, after all. So my just punishment will be to answer it. First, the question assumes that "essential principles" exist. My dictionary defines "principle" as "an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct; a basic law, axiom, or doctrine."
Getting people in our profession to accept rules and laws when it comes to technique is about as difficult as getting students to beg for more Hanon. There are many, many schools of thought on this subject, most of them contrary to one another. If you put a group of piano teachers in a room and bring up the topic, you'd better be prepared to duck. Technique talk has been a casus belli more than once.
Lack of agreement, however, should not be considered a justification for collective avoidance and denial. First, let's assume that we are all built about the same way, that all pianos operate similarly, and that the laws of physics and physiology do not change. If the foregoing is true-as it is-then there just might be some basic principles of movement that apply in some way or another to all of us.
Several brilliant investigators have exhaustively researched piano technique (e.g., Jozsef Gat, George Kochevitsky, Otto Ortmann, and Arnold Schultz), and they have discovered a host of important rules that should govern the way we play and teach others to play. As in other disciplines, the scientific method has shed light on this subject, and it is a light worth examining. I have seen that light, and while I am not blinded by it, it does dazzle me. There is great truth in these writings, but it is shielded from many because the works themselves make such difficult reading. Based on my study of the findings of these wise men, I am convinced that there are indeed basic, essential principles of technique, and that a d ear understanding of them is critical to our profession.
If one accepts the proposition that there are essential principles, then what are they, and how do they apply to the technique of beginning through intermediate students? It is with these students that we must be at our best, for with them we lay the foundation. All the basic principles must be dearly and resolutely established in these early years of study. The following list is my attempt to articulate those principles that must be so dearly instilled:
1. The large hand-knuckles should remain arched whenever possible. As Ortmann points out, the arched hand (slope on either side of the big knuckles with the wrist lower than the big knuckles) creates the most efficient leverage system and delays the onset of fatigue in the muscles. A good way to create this idealized shape is to keep the thumb horizontal all the way to its base while maintaining a rounded second finger.
2. The more the fingers are spread apart in octaves and other wide reaches, the flatter the hand becomes. In no instance, though, should the large knuckles be allowed to collapse beneath the level of the finger knuckles. Some d egree of dome must always be present in the hand. This crucial caveat means that students should not be allowed, particularly in the elementary through intermediate levels, to open the hand to its maximum reach.
3. Fingers two through five should remain fixed and strong without bend in the smaller joints. Only in light, fast passages, when maximum control over dynamic intensity is desired, should the fingers be allowed to bend and break.
4. For maximum tonal control, the finger tip must begin on the key surface. Also, non-playing fingers should stay on or near the key surface, but this state of independence must arise from conscious relaxation and not contrived tension. A slight reactionary tremor of adjacent fingers cannot and should not be eliminated, but a raised and bent fifth finger should and must be controlled.
5. A flexible, movable wrist is a fundamental technical requisite. Most people, though, when asked to move the wrist will instead move the hand in a waving motion, in which case the wrist has not moved at all. Students can be taught to move the wrist and not the hand by the following exercise: hold the finger tips of one hand with the other hand while moving the wrist (base of the palm) up and down; next, try the same exercise without holding the finger tips with the other hand, but keep the finger tips absolutely stationary.
6. The hand and forearm should remain in a straight line whenever possible. Find a way even in arpeggios to make this happen.
7. Sit far enough from the piano that the forearm has to reach, thus eliminating the right angle at the elbow.
8. Keep the upper body quiet and the shoulders relaxed.
9. Sit on the front half of the bench. This encourages the upper body to lean forward slightly, a position that allows for the greatest possible control over dynamic nuances.
10. Sit at a height that will keep the forearm horizontal to the floor. This allows maximum efficiency of the finger movement into the key.
11. Regarding pedal, play with the toe and not the ball of the foot for greatest control. Also be aware of the ten levels of the pedal (as suggested by Rosina Lhevinne).
12. Avoid the intentional use of forearm rotation except in loud, widely-spaced tremolo passages. Otherwise, forearm rotation reduces velocity, reduces tonal control, reduces fluency in passage-work, and reduces efficiency.
13. The most economical and efficient movements should always be sought. Developing technique is more about studied refinement than about mindless playing.
14. Since the brain remembers everything, as much care as possible must be taken never to practice a single note incorrectly. Therefore, practice slowly and accurately.
15. Passages practiced slowly must be played as they will be at their final tempo. Use rhythmic variants in difficult passages only as a means of last resort when all else has failed.
16. The principle of "overkill" suggests that conditioned reflexes must be firmly implanted through countless slow and accurate repetitions. If 10 repetitions are sufficient for the practice room performance, then maybe 100 are needed for the lesson and 1000 for the recital.
17. Relaxation and weight, contrary to widely-held belief, are rarely present in pure forms in piano playing. A completely relaxed arm would simply hang down at the side. Actually, a small amount of tension is almost always necessary at one of the joints, often the wrist. Tension should be minimized but not eliminated.
Well, there you have my list of the 17 essential principles of piano technique. Of course, playing is much more difficult than that, but these are the basics. I remember once asking my teacher, the great Hungarian pianist Lili Kraus, to summarize what she had learned about technique. At the time, she was 80 years old and at the end of a distinguished performing and teaching career. Her answer: "You must keep a firm finger and a relaxed wrist." That's certainly boiling it down to bare bones, but what she meant of course is that these two contradictory physical achievements (and it is really hard for a student to firm a finger while relaxing the wrist) are the nuts and bolts of playing. If a person can accomplish this much, the other "details" will likely fall into line.
You will notice that I gave precious few instructions on how to teach these basic principles Thank goodness that wasn't part of the question. But a good deal of the joy of teaching is figuring that out on your own. One thing you might want to do is give this checklist of essential principles to your students for their own consideration. After all, knowledge starts with awareness. Together you and the student can decide how best to fix the problems.
Technique, like everything else, grows one step at a time, but the steps have to begin at the first lesson. Constantly insist that your students stay on the right path. You do no favors by letting them stray. Watch everything; move around the room; video-tape the students' playing and watch it together, analyzing technical points. Observe, analyze, discuss, and encourage. The results will be worth all the efforts.
Finally, I'd like to ask, and answer, one more question: "Is technique really a viable topic in American piano education?" There are those who say that such issues belong to the nineteenth century; today, they argue, should be devoted to making lessons fun. Well, I don't disagree with the fun part, but I've concluded that without high goals and lofty expectations, nothing important is accomplished. Someone very wise in our profession once observed that you can't love anybody into learning something. A discussion of how to play the piano efficiently and safely is as important today as it ever was. Don't dismiss tradition; just recloak it in ways that are meaningful to students of the 1990s. The Bible promises, "Ask and you shall receive." So go forth and ask your students to give you their best effort and, I believe, they will.
-Gat, Jozsef. The Technique of Piano Playing. London: Collet's, 1965.
- Kochevitsky, George. The Art of Piano Playing. Princeton, N.J.: Summy-Birchard Music, 1967
-Ortmann, Otto. The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique. New York: DaCapo Press, 1929.
-Schultz, Arnold. The Riddle of the Pianist's Finger. New York: Carl Fischer, Inc., 1936.
Steven Roberson teaches piano pedagogy and piano at Butler University in Indianapolis . He is President of Indiana Music Teachers Association, member of the Editorial Committee of American Music Teacher, and Board Member of the American Liszt Society. He has published extensively, particularly in the areas of technique and motivation. He also frequently presents workshops on both sides of the Atlantic, including two lectures recently at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia.
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