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What Do We Mean by Technique, Anyway?
from the series: Let's Get Physical: Technique
There was a time when keyboard technique seemed a comparatively simple affair. There's nothing remarkable about it, a gruff J. S. Bach told his friend J. F. Kohler. Hit the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself. For Bach, as for Mozart, a quiet seat, small motions with curved fingers held close to the keys, and a modest demeanor sufficed for all events.
Was technique ever really that simple? It's hard for modern teachers to believe that it was so. Relaxation-yes, we all know that this quality is critical, and the great Bach himself even stressed its importance. But which joint of the finger is most important for curvature? Do we use different finger positions for different styles of music, or will this cause irremediable muscle damage? Should the wrist flex as we drop into the keys, or should it be relatively immobile? Maybe we shouldn't drop at all! Maybe we should push, instead!!
For those of us who teach young students, these issues inspire a sense of unease and even fear. The seeming prevalence of performance-related injuries in the modem world has made us aware of the importance of teaching good technique from the very beginning of study, thus avoiding debilitating problems later. But what, we wonder, should be done first? What technical tasks can children really accomplish? Should certain motions and activities be avoided altogether?
Questions, questions, and more questions. And there is no shortage of answers, either. Unfortunately, though, technical solutions from different authorities are often contradictory and based on examples from advanced literature. The application of these principles to young students can be confusing and difficult to apply in day-to-day teaching. Faced with difficulties in other areas that also need to be covered in weekly lessons, many of us teachers of young students throw up our hands and don't teach technique at all, beyond occasional reminders to "curve your fingers" and "stay loose." Or we spend so much time trying to achieve a perfect hand position and finger usage that our students become bored, inattentIve, and sick of the whole thing. And we may secretly even agree with them.
The word technique itself has an interesting etymology. It is derived from an Ancient Greek word meaning of or pertaining to art. The more narrow use of the word to describe the mechanical or formal part of an art is actually a relatively modem practice: the first use of the word in this sense was only in 1827, to describe the forms of poetry. How fascinating it is to note that the use of the word technique in its contemporary meaning corresponds almost exactly in time with both the rise in popularity of the piano and the increased publication of piano methods, each promising an easy, natural way of playing the piano, and each suggesting radically different means to that end.
It seems, as we study these books on piano technique old and new, that several issues are under constant discussion. The first, and to some the most important issue, is technique as it relates to artistic conception. "I shall be forever grateful to anyone who succeeds in making this instrument capable of expression," wrote François Couperin in 1713, neatly encapsulating the frustrations of many piano teachers. "It seems a fruitless hope at the present time . . . " Teaching our students to be aware of ideas and feelings as expressed in music, and then to communicate them in performance on a difficult and often recalcitrant instrument is a challenge that all piano teachers face daily. This is especially complicated in the modern world where so few students have any type of musical experience in their schools or families.
But, assuming that we do succeed in teaching our students some semblance of musical thought and imagination, we are then faced with the purely physical challenges of playing the instrument. This issue is usually discussed in technique books in terms of a repertoire of motions: rotation, extension, dropping, and the like, accompanied by sketches of muscles both flexed and relaxed, and photos of arms and wrists raised, lowered, and occupying every position in between. Authorities then apply these motions to examples from piano literature, even supplying indices of technical problems in works of various composers, and listing summaries of pieces for beginners which teach students to develop different parts of their musculature.
The instrument itself comes in for quite a bit of discussion. String size, key-weight, felt coverings both impregnated and pricked, different instruments for different styles--all of these are discussed in depth and in application to present-day performance. And modem psychology offers help to the poor studio teacher, too. Are your students confident at the piano? Are they anxious, fearful, laden with syndromes of all types and sizes? How about you? Do you feel crazy yet? Help is available in up-to-date books, periodicals, and workshops.
Of course, one may feel that all of this is much ado about nothing. Create technique through imagination, not mechanics, said the immortal Liszt, although at an earlier stage in his career he recommended newspaper reading while practicing exercises as an antidote to boredom.
"You have the hands of a little baby girl," a scornful Artur Schnabel once told a young male student, without offering a solution--and for an hourly fee of a then astronomical $50 an hour. "The role of a teacher," Schnabel said, "is to open doors, not to push the student through them."
Do you feel befuddled by this almost overwhelming barrage of information? I know that I did as I prepared to write this article. A humble love of a high art, the desire to express feelings otherwise inarticulate, a fascination with higher forms of artistic organization these are the sentiments that drew me to a career in music. And since I do not come from a musical family and did not study with a teacher who was in the mainstream of pianistic thought, my ideas of a career in music were drawn from reading and listening. I pondered the advice of Leschetizky, who felt that more than two or three hours of practice daily were a waste of time; one simply could not concentrate at any greater length. I thought about the practice of Czerny, who recommended building a technique through countless exercises and etudes, rather than on multiple repetitions of big pieces. And I read of Paderewski, who decided to become a pianist at age twenty-four, practiced like a maniac for three years, and made a sensational debut that established him as the great pianistic idol of his day. He toured heavily throughout a long career, playing constantly without any serious arm trouble.
With these historical models in mind, I really had no worries or preconceptions as I learned to play the piano. I more or less played what I wished, when I wished, how I wished, and for however long I wanted. If I liked a piece, I learned it, even if it was beyond me. I stayed relaxed because I had nothing to be tense about: I had no expectations of a career in music and no parental pressure to win competitions, since I entered few, and all at my own volition. In my own young days of study, there was a definite feeling of discovery. I used to get up 35 minutes early every morning to listen to one long-playing classical record, picked at random from my parents' meager collection or checked out from the public library. My favorite was the Sir Charles Beecham version of Handel's Messiah, which I proceeded to try to play at our upright piano. It would be correct to assume that proper performance practice was far from my ken, but I did develop a feeling for musical expression and an intuition for finding my own way.
My experience in today's world suggests that this simplicity and naiveté does not exist much anymore. Talented students here in California perform on a circuit of competitions and, like race horses, need to be trained, drilled, and exercised for those perfectly-timed bursts of speed at the key moment. And these key moments take place in pieces with a high level of difficulty; the music has to be hard or the students won't win. The level of teacher expectation and parental interference is high and, with it, student anxiety. Pupils in today's world often do not have the time, the mental tools, or the inclination for a "discovery" type of process. Instead, they are often taught in what I think of as a "predigested" manner: the piece is selected for them, in advance, by a teacher or parent, with an eye for what will showcase the student to best advantage. The difficulties, both musical and technical, are highlighted ahead of time, as are the solutions. Thus, the experience of discovery is often far from the practice of learning a piece for these students--it is more a matter of diligently following a plan laid out by someone else. And, often, the sort of student who will do this type of work is a hard-working, unusually self-disciplined rule follower who relates well to authority figures and can be somewhat lacking in imagination. "Yes, it's all very beautiful," Rachmaninoff told a very young and hard-working Gina Bachauer, who I once heard characterize herself as a drudge in her youthful years. "But when are you going to put something of yourself in it?"
This modem method of learning has several ramifications for our discussion of technique. It is perhaps not surprising that we see both tremendous musical accomplishments, and also more technical problems at an earlier age: students are learning harder pieces, following a pre-set schedule, and with higher expectations. With all the knowledge and resources available to present-day teachers, and the pressure of modem life, the situation could hardly be otherwise. But the complexity of teaching piano technique in today's musical environment should not obscure the basic underlying simplicity of what we as teachers and musicians are trying to do: instill a love of music and creativity in our students, which has as its expression an outstanding performance at the piano.
Michelangelo once described his artistic technique as "the hand which obeys the mind." This, I think, is a worthy goal for teachers on all levels, but especially those of us who teach young students. I confess that I do not as a rule pick pieces specifically to develop one certain part of muscular technique in its narrow sense. I am more interested in "technique" in its original meaning, pertaining to and partaking of the essence of art--the technique of the imagination. So I pick pieces that I think will be appealing to my youthful pupils; these works often have colorful titles with appealing illustrations that can be the subject of a certain amount of creative story-telling on my part, and by the students themselves. Pierre and Martin, the Two Fat Rabbits was a popular storyline in several of last week's lessons.
I use the inevitable technical problems that arise during this process as the basis of technical work. Traditional scale and chord work? Yes, of course, and I also feel that much can be accomplished by practicing the old-fashioned Hanon, Czerny, and Pishna. I also make up independent exercises myself and write them down on staff paper, calling them Richard's Top-Secret Exercise Number 1 or something else to the same effect. I remind myself that the physical process of tone production on the piano does not have to be difficult in itself; the keys move down very easily, and, by controlling the rate of speed and force of attack, it is not so difficult for young students to create sounds that are loud, soft, and with many degrees of difference in between.
I think often of the little we can reliably know of Chopin's teaching. He instructed his students to set up their hands on the notes E-F#-G#-A#-B# and to play them with a light portato touch, up and down, using the arm and not the fingers. What beautiful tone can result, along with a feeling of freedom and confidence, and what variety is possible too, if the student plays legato, staccato, loudly, softly, and expressing various moods through tempi and speed of attack. The imagination for good tone, and variations of tone color, too, can be developed in the early years. This can come as a result of active listening, demonstrations, and physical movement both at and away from the piano.
These, of course, are just a few of the various ideas that can be subsumed into the word technique. It's exciting for me to think that we will have the opportunity to share thoughts on the subject of technique in the coming months in KEYBOARD COMPANION. I am happy and honored that I have this special opportunity, as the new editor of this column, to contribute to this discussion. What, then, do we mean by technique, anyway? For me, it is not mechanism without soul or musical intelligence, but rather the ability to take an idea and express it with beauty, feeling, and intensity in performance at the piano, at all levels. It will be fun to explore the parameters of this task with you .