Elements of vocal technique in piano technique

April 27th, 2008

The Integrative Power of the Breath in Piano Technique

In the past it has been an unwritten rule in master class teaching to “stay away from technique and just deal with issues of interpretation.” I have long felt obliged (reluctantly) to break that rule – to my mind, you can’t separate the two realms. This rule has often led to what seemed to me insipid classes that don’t get to the heart of the matter. That’s why it was so inspiring and refreshing to attend Thomas Hampson’s master classes last week as a part of the Heidelberg Spring Festival. The great baritone was here all week working with a group of really talented young singers in addition to singing a stunning recital of Schubert, Mahler and Schumann. His teaching is amazingly full of knowledge about technique and about the philosophical and literary content of the music – he is a man of Energy with a capital E. I learned so much from watching him work with these kids, who his synthesis of musical and technical understanding simply opened up and transported to a whole new level of interpretation and sonority. I also found many parallels between his use of the body in singing and my own approach to piano technique.

A breathing technique to transform your piano sound

Today when I sat to play the the F major Chopin Ballade, my colleague Anna Zenzius-Spengler began to talk about Thomas Hampson’s approach to the breath, why don’t I try it as I play the opening? He had taught largely in German so I hadn’t been able to follow the details of what he was saying, but now she explained to me the difference between Hampson’s “inhalation” and standard breathing. Normal breathing is a relatively mechanical affair of inbreath, outbreath, and there is a certain quality of stiffness or control. But the sense of inhalation is of a column of air coming in and expanding you, suffusing every tiny inner cavity and filling you out, and this continues all the time, even as you sing. It’s not logical to sense air continuing to come in and fill you up when you are breathing out, but when you cultivate the feeling, it engenders an amazing flexibility of torso and a corresponding richness of sonority. We had heard voices literally transformed in seconds as the singing students visualized and used this image, could I do the same at the piano?

The second element of breathing we brought to piano playing was the sense of the complete pharangeal column being open and available. This means you feel the laryngeal pharynx, the glottal pharynx, the palate (palatal?) pharynx and the nasal pharynx as you breathe. You get a sense of a long column going all the way up the back of your neck right into your brain cavity. If you breathe through your nose and slightly constrict the stream of air to make that slight, airy rasping sound that is a prelude to a snore, you can get a clear sense of this. You begin to actually feel the sensation of the slightly cool air flowing over the skin of the pharynx.

Integrating breathing into piano technique

Anna had me breathe like this a few times, then asked me to continue to pay attention to this quality of the breath not only before I started the first phrase, but all the way through the first page. When I tried this, the focus of my attention as well as my sound was remarkable – a new quality. The integration of what I teach in terms of physical organization was more complete, and more at the service of musical expression. I found I was doing all the technical things I talk about without having to think about it so much, and that this sense of breath made the piano sing more.

Previously I have always avoided thinking about breathing as one plays. To my mind, if you did everything musically and physically that was needed, one’s breathing would take care of itself. I had tried in the past to figure out whether I was breathing in or out at a particular point in a pianistic phrase, and the results were disaster: it distracted me from what was coming out of the piano – better not mess with it. But this way of working empowered my musicianship and served as an integrative force. Another nice strand to add to our thinking…

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