ISSTIP UK Journal (Jan 2004)

(International Society for the Study of Tension in Performance)

pdf version: ISSTIP Journal Review of The Craft of Piano Playing, Jan. 2004

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

£25.00 – The Scarecrow Press

Fascinating new book on piano technique

The enormous collection of books devoted to the subject of piano technique and interpretation which have been published over the past century and more reflects the myriad of piano schools and ideologies that are in existence. Two main distinct schools of piano thought have grown up. The first was dominant in the early days of the piano and was clearly influenced by harpsichord technique, namely the ‘finger-action’ school, whereby the fingers were lifted high with the arm kept relatively still. The second grew out of a dissatisfaction with this rigid form of playing and focused more on the use of the arm and wrist relaxation. The in-depth treatises of Matthay and Breithaupt, most notably, sought to theorize this ‘arm weight’ school of thought. Both these styles of playing in one form of another are still in existence today. However, as Alan Fraser argues in this fascinating new book, while both camps contain many positive elements, there are many problems inherent in both methods of pianistic training. This book was conceived in an attempt to ‘fill in the missing link between musical intention and physical execution’ and to provide a more naturally functional approach to piano playing that works in harmony with what our bodies demand.

This study is the result of years of searching and thinking about piano performance and pedagogy; Fraser brings to it his astoundingly profound knowledge of body movement and structure, acquired through his training as a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method, and his study of Eastern martial arts such as T’ai Chi, in addition to extensive experience as a concert performer and pedagogue. The central tenet of Fraser’s teaching is generated from the belief that many of today’s pianists fail to use their body in a naturally functional way and thus their physical movements are often working against their musical intentions. Taking T’ai chi walking as a starting point, he demonstrates with a series of musical examples how the hand arch can be strengthened through a manipulation of its skeletal structure, resulting in a truly functional use of the hand and arm. The result according to Fraser is two-fold.

New approach to piano technique opens up untapped sonic possibilities by awakening muscles rather than strengthening them

It opens up a whole new world of sonic possibilities, untapped by most players, that lie hidden within the instrument. In addition to this he believes that a stiff arm is often a consequence of a lack of a functional hand strength: developing this strength does not involve going lo extreme measures to develop our hand muscles (as he notes, no Charles Atlas type muscle-building!!), but on the contrary it is acquired through the utilization of our muscular and skeletal structure in its most natural way, often awaking muscle areas that would otherwise lie unused. In this way he believes that many pianists’ injuries could be avoided through the proper organization not only of our visible muscular actions, but of the internal workings of our muscles. Numerous examples of exercises are provided throughout the book for the reader to try at the piano.

Fraser includes an important word of caution for those who have been afflicted with piano-related injuries: some of these exercises exert great pressure upon the arms and hands, and therefore should be approached with great care.

A piano technique book that’s fun to read

In the 400 pages or so of this book Fraser challenges many common pedagogical beliefs and ideas of movement with detailed discussions of such areas as arm weight and the role of the arm, legato playing arid natural finder shape among others. Although this study is devoted primarily to the physical aspect of playing the piano (what Fraser calls the foreground), fascinating insights and ideas are also provided into the middleground and background, namely rhythm and phrasing, and the emotional content of music. Despite its length and attention to detail this study avoids the dryness of many pedagogical manuals and is delivered with wit and charm, openness and a strong clarity of intention and thought, making it incredibly user friendly. In addition to all the answers it provides it is all the more admirable for the apposite questions it asks which are likely to stimulate any reader into their own personal thinking and to persuade them to jump onto the bandwagon in the search for a more functional and ‘sonically rich’  approach to playing the piano.

Manus Carey