FAQ’s & Alan Fraser’s Answers

Does this approach to piano technique work for small hands?

Question: You do all the demonstrations in the film. When will we see how your methods work with a small hand?

Alan Fraser: I talk about ‘small hand syndrome’ in chapter five, but I agree, it would be great to actually see it in action. I promise it for a future film. But in a way, this question misses the point – I am teaching hand function, which is pretty similar no matter what the size. What you see in the film works exactly the same for a small hand, there’s no difference. When your hand gets functional, its capability is pretty similar no matter what its size. Skeletality does away with the perception that you even have a small hand. When you stop behaving as if you have a small hand, you know what? You don’t!

Alan Fraser’s own technique is really great, but will his teaching really get one there?

Question: Alan Fraser’s playing in the film is really great, but it seems to me that what he teaches in the film won’t enable a pianist to play like that. What is going on here?

Alan Fraser: The lessons and philosophy of this first DVD aim only to lay the groundwork for the development of a really complete technique. There is no shortcut in the long and complex process of developing virtuosic ability, and too many pianists have injured themselves trying to go the quick route. This DVD aims to create the foundation of optimal physical organization that ultimately allows the pianist to play with true ability and freedom. Of course, the film can’t do the whole job in 90 minutes – it aims only to fill in some of the most important holes in our knowledge base. The book fills in some of those holes, and my new book takes us even closer to a comprehensive approach.

Why do some think you do follow your own advice on piano technique but others think you don’t?

Heard in the audience at an evening where Alan Fraser showed clips from The Craft of Piano Playing and then gave a recital: “Wonderful how in his playing he does exactly what he shows in the film…” “A pity that in his own playing he doesn’t follow the excellent advice to be found in his film…” Question: How can two people at the same event have such diametrically opposed perceptions?

Alan Fraser: To some it may look like I myself don’t do what I teach. Perhaps they see only the external appearance rather than divining from that appearance what I am doing internally. I do talk about the hand’s skeletal structure and the importance of its keystone, the second metacarpal-phalangeal joint, and I do at first show it as a secure standing structure. But remember, that structure must in the end be completely moveable, so my hand in playing might appear quite malleable and unstable, not at all like the standing-hand-church-arch structure I demonstrate early in the film.

Feldenkrais saw standing as an inherently instable activity. The skeleton “makes peace with gravity” by balancing vertically somewhat as a gyroscope would. The muscles don’t clench the skeleton to hold it vertically; they stay loose, constantly letting the bones balance and readjust, allowing one to find security in instability, to maintain an equilibrium that is constantly in flux. Thus one is always capable of free movement in any direction at any time. ‘Skeletality’ is not so much the fixed aspect of structure as the maintaining of potent skeletal connections while remaining extremely moveable.

Why are there so many contradictions in this approach to piano technique?

Question: I have a problem with the book: from one chapter to the next Mr. Fraser seems to be contradicting himself, sometimes outrageously so.

Alan Fraser: There’s a good reason for this: no one way of playing the piano is exclusively right: we aim to acquire as many different ways of playing as possible to maximize the variety of our tonal palette, and to make our hand maximally capable. I tried to structure both the book and film so that the abilities best acquired first come at the beginning, but each person’s organization is unique, and often one will do best to jump around a bit, discovering by trial and error which aspects of overall organization she or he first needs to address.

Why does this approach to piano technique not include the whole body?

Question: The movements & structure of the arm and hand still come across as priority no 1 in this teaching. At least, that is what I perceive. From my own (painful) experience I can only say that these teachings are incomplete, if the most important (balanced) relationships of the head, neck, torso, pelvis and spine are not clearly and unmistakably priority no 1.

No muscle-group (e.g. the important hand-muscles) can work optimally in isolation. Just take a look into a good anatomy book and see where for example _all_ the nerves of hand/arm are passing through and where they originate. My hand was in much trouble, because of problems with over-tense muscles in the shoulder, torso and neck… not because my hand wasn’t doing its job. Of course a ‘good hand’ has helped ‘some’, but it did not alleviate the root cause.

What do you think?

Alan Fraser: I couldn’t agree with you more!

OK, so if I agree with you, why are the materials I have released so one-sided?

Because they address a perceived gap in the information that’s available. There are lots of other people working on the whole body relationships so essential to good playing; I don’t know of anyone other than myself who focuses in on what I focus on. And I think it is needed. I see the positive results with many of my students. I have had the experience of working on the hand’s structure and function and watching in amazement as the student’s whole body organization improves BECAUSE their hand is no longer exerting a ‘black hole’ influence on the whole system. I have also seen cases where a pianist cultivated exceptionally fine overall body organization, only to have the hand still be a catastrophe because it didn’t know what it was doing!

But what you say is absolutely key and absolutely right: ‘No muscle-group (e.g. the important hand-muscles) can work optimally in isolation.’ This is of absolute importance, and a fundamental principle of Feldenkrais. In Feldenkrais we often WILL work on a part in isolation, but we always then relate it back to the whole. The work in isolation aims to enrich the kinesthetic sensation of that particular part, in order to free it from parasitic contraction (contractions that serve no movement purpose), and finally to enable that part to work BETTER in conjunction with the rest of the system. If I work on the hand alone and let it remain in isolation, I do that hand a disservice – and I have to admit that I have made that error more than once.

The Craft of Piano Playing focuses in on the hand because of the perceived lack of information. My future work aims for sure to fill in the rest of the picture. Honing the Pianistic Self-Image: Skeletal-Based Piano Technique will feature several full-length Awareness Through Movement® lessons that cultivate and investigate that crucial link of hand to body.

In much of my work, improved hand function DOES lead to improved overall body organization, but this is precisely because the hand and arm are NOT at that point working in isolation. However, I realize that when you & I worked together, I got stuck in my own ‘specialty’ and that did not help you – at least, not as much as I could have helped you if I had remained a ‘pure’ Feldenkrais practitioner with you for instance… and for that I apologize. And if you did get help elsewhere, I am really glad!

One more thing: please be aware that my whole ‘approach’ or ‘method’ is still very much a work in progress, as are the effects that my investigations have had on my own playing. In fact, over the past several months, I been fleshing out for myself precisely what you describe: how optimal whole body organization is a necessary ingredient, a support, to optimal hand and arm organization. Lately my improved body organization, especially a radical reorganization of my shoulders and hips, has led to me being able to fulfill my own precepts concerning hand structure and function far more effectively than I did earlier on! For instance if I sense that my BODY is generating rhythmic pulse rather than my arm alone, there is a much more vital, profound and virile sense of rhythmic and musical health in what I do.

So I am at this point working on bringing whole body organization more and more into my teaching. But I think this increased attention to the whole body does not invalidate my previous attempts to address the perceived lack in our overall body of knowledge about Technique, by focusing in on the hand and arm. I still feel this was needed and that its validity stands.

Thank you very much for an especially meaningful question.

Why does Vladimir Horowitz curl his fifth finger all the time?

Question: Hello! Congratulations on your very good book “The Craft of Piano Playing”. I think it is one of the best books dealing with anything that has to do with piano technique and piano music and specific elements dealing with common “pianistic” problems, and it offers great solutions to the reader.

I have been reading this book with great interest. I became extremely interested when I read chapter 46, The Feldenkrais-Horowitz Connection. That chapter made me realize that Horowitz’s unique style of posture and use of his body was not his personal idiosyncrasy, but instead the very good internal organization of his playing apparatus, something that all pianists could use, take advantage and improve in many areas of piano playing.

I have one question regarding the use of his fifth finger. After watching many videos of him performing various piano works I noticed something about his right hand pinky. The fifth finger always seemed to be curled tight until it needed to play a note. And it seems to me it would be very difficult for someone to have his pinky so curled, and play.

Is this something like a “finger cobra strike” motion?

Alan Fraser: Very nice to receive your kind comments on my book, many thanks! As for Horowitz’s fifth finger: I interpret it less as a cobra strike and more as a kind of “priming” motion. I suspect that curling his fifth had the same effect as raising all the fingers would have, but achieved in a more economical fashion. Activating the extensors gives a kind of “slingshot” effect, lending more zip to the attack of the finger when the flexors are brought into play.

How do I deal with the finicky problem of piano bench height?

I seem to have some troubles, regarding the bench height. After reading your book and especially after reading the Horowitz chapter, I understood that sitting lower always has some advantages and as long as the wrist is not pressed hard down and is functional, the quality of sound – (especially in places where maximum sonority is needed) – becomes much more easy to produce and with fewer movements as long as the hand has a good supported structure and the joints are aligned.

When I play I try to sit on my pelvis with no tension in my shoulders or other areas of my body, to have my whole skeleton aligned, and to be “covered” with a muscle soup as you say in your book, to have my torso aligned and floating, and always to monitor my whole body and the status of my muscles and bones. However I seem to have trouble understanding how low or how high I should be sitting.

The problem (I think) lies in the fact that only the bench height is adjustable as the piano keyboard height is always the same.

Would you happen to have some advice for these problems?

Your comments are very perceptive. It’s not as easy as simply putting the bench down low and then waiting for that wonderful sound to come out. I myself over the years have gone up and down like a yoyo: most of the time sitting rather low but sometimes going quite high, to resolve some other issue or some aspect of the issue.

I basically go by feel. Once you get into this whole process of allowing your whole-body organization to educate your actions, it gets complicated and you have to be willing to adjust and try something new. The number one rule: it must feel comfortable!

One other thing: I carry some small pieces of plywood with me on tour to place under the legs of the piano. This raises the keyboard and allows me to sit low relative to the keys without having my knees in the air… John Browning also did this.

It’s not so much a question of keeping the forearm parallel to the ground, but of finding the angle where you feel a sudden empowerment – all of a sudden ALL the angles, of each finger joint, the crown within the palm, all of it conspires to facilitate MOVEMENT.