American Music Teacher (Oct-Nov 2003)

The Craft of Piano Playing: A New Approach to Piano Technique, by Alan Fraser.

Scarecrow Press (4720 Boston Way, Lanham, MD 20706), 2003. 448 pp., $34.95.

Much to absorb in this articulate and often eloquent book on piano technique

Alan Fraser has written a formidable and insightful volume on piano tech­nique. Using the Feldenkrais Method as his foundation, he has presented 417 articulate and often eloquent pages. It is not an easy read, for there is so much to absorb. Indeed, a course based on the content of this book alone, especially the lengthy first section, strikes me as a possibility for a pedagogy teacher.

Brings new light to many perplexing problems of the standard piano repertoire

Fraser divides his book into three sec­tions. The first he calls “The Foreground: Pianistic Problems in Musical Craft.” It is truly a book in itself, with much attention paid to economy of motion, developing a good legato and concepts of a reliable physi­cal approach to the keyboard. He stress­es hand structure, finger articulation, arm activity and finger shape. There is an excellent discussion on legato. And he stresses brilliantly the benefits of cul­tivating effective stillness—bravo for addressing this issue! Fraser is not afraid to address many perplexing problems students and teachers alike face in the standard repertoire. In particular, I would mention his short but valuable discussion of tremolando octaves in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, and the “Pathetique” Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 (pages 121-122), and his excellent discussion about prac­ticing the opening arpeggios in the “Appassionata” Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57. Of special interest, too, is the brief chapter on “The Phil Cohen Arm-Swing Exercise.” His discussions of “The Underlying Musical Purpose on Arm Movement” and his comments on “Forearm Rotation in Liszt” (with spe­cial attention to Jeux d’eau and La Campanella) are as clear and sensible as anything one would wish to read. Fully aware 1 am skipping vast amounts of material in this large first section, 1 would focus on the charming chapter titled “The Feldenkrais-Horowitz Connection.” Using principles of Moshe Feldenkrais’s method, Fraser probes Horowitz’s astounding mechani­cal genius, postulating that while Horowitz had no knowledge of Feldenkrais, he nevertheless arrived at some of Feldenkrais’s ideas “solely through his intention to realize his artistic conception” (pages 281-282).

Links musical and physical issues for creating an intelligent approach to piano technique

Section two he calls, “The Middleground: Some General Aspects of Musical Craft.” Here the focus is on rhythm, phrasing and orchestration. There are many valuable suggestions throughout this shorter section, but of greatest interest is the chapter on orchestration and his lesson on the Rachmaninoff  Etude Tableau No. 5 in E-flat Minor, Op. 39. In the closing paragraphs, here dealing with the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, the first movement’s second theme, he stresses the contra­puntal element in the left hand. It truly is wonderful to read these comments from a musician who realizes that left-hand “Alberti basses” and their myriad derivations are far more than filler and motion, containing melodic elements that must be highlighted.

Newfound physical ability is applied to emotion in music to create a piano technique that’s far from sterile

The third section is titled “The Background: Tell a Story.” Here, Fraser addresses the emotional content of music, and his discussion of J.S. Bach’s Prelude in B Minor from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier is fine. He bases his ideas on the concept, stated at the top of page 364, that in this and other contrapuntal music, interpretations result from “a continuous fluctuation between dissonant tension and conso­nant relaxation.” He further suggests that interpretive strategies be sensitive to the clever juxtaposition of legato and staccato/portato, to place stresses on dis­sonances and the approaches to a disso­nance, and relax the dynamic as the melody flows into a consonant tone. In the chapter entitled “You Must Be Willing and Able To Live Emotionally When You Play,” he advocates creating a program for the music. Of course, this was a nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century reaching technique that sometimes ran amok. (Hans von Bulow’s fanciful explanation of the Chopin Preludes immediately springs to mind.) But going to the other extreme, as we have in the latter part of the last century, produces technically inadequate or colorless performances. The discus­sion of this concept revolving around his work with a non-responsive student on the Chopin Ballade in F Major, Op. 38, is bound to raise some eyebrows among this book’s readers.

And that brings me to a word of warning. This book is not—I repeat, not a self-help method. While thor­oughly readable, it requires much thought. A teacher should read it carefully before applying it in his reaching. In the discussion on emotionality, for example, Fraser admits his frustration with the student who “couldn’t get it” regarding the Ballade. It can be fright­ening to a student to urge them on beyond their emotional capacities. Some students amply have not devel­oped emotionally to the point where they can “feel” the anguish of the “Presto con fuoco” section of the F-Major Ballade. I have made that error far too many times in my own teaching to not at least be sensitive to the dan­gerous territory emotionality can explore. But then, repertoire choice is critical here. Maybe Fraser could have reached this student with a less “fear­some” work in preparation for the Ballade. The examples he explores are all, without exception, from the top-of-the-line concert repertoire: difficult works such as Liszt’s La Campanella and Feux Follets, the aforementioned Rachmaninoff and Beethoven pieces, Scriabin’s Etudc No. 5 in C-sharp Minor. Op. 42, and so forth. So, the teacher working with younger students might find his book of great interest, but not as useful in her teaching. And, of course, any instruction dealing with the physical at the piano requires great sensitivity on the part of the teacher who is applying the methods with stu­dents—each psyche and hand is indi­vidual and unique.

With these gentle caveats, I am pleased to recommend Fraser’s book on The Craft (Also the ART?) of Piano Playing. Reviewed by Louis Nagel, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

American Music Teacher (MTNA) Book Review of The Craft of Piano Playing, Oct-Nov 2003 (.pdf)