Pianistic Aphorisms – A Meditation on Piano Technique

I was sitting in a darkened auditorium, watching this film about piano technique. Suddenly I started writing notes. Everything that was going on up on the screen evoked a flood of responses in me. I could barely keep up. Below you’ll find a cleaned up version of that afternoon’s brainstorming…

- Alan Fraser

To Dorothy Taubmann and Edna Golandsky, whose valuable body of ideas inspired this page, I owe a debt of gratitude -
their work provided a springboard for the clarification my own thoughts…

Goal: a piano technique to maximize potential,
not just avoid injury

Health is a byproduct of good pianism, not the goal!

Going to extreme range of physical movement can develop rather that hurt you if done intelligently.

The more things you can do and the more ways you can do them, the healthier and better you are.

Maximize orchestral, coloristic possibilities of the instrument even while minimizing the risk of injury.

Learn how to twist, stretch cleverly, to utilize tension intelligently.

Expand your physiological repertoire to increase capability rather than limiting your options to avoid injury.

Or rather: your repertoire of movements (such as rotation for instance) will naturally expand as your expanding repertoire of musical gestures necessitates.

A piano technique where every physical movement serves a musical goal be it tonal, articulative or phrase

The arm’s function is to produce music, not tone. Thus if the arm is expressing in gesture the musical character, all other considerations become superfluous!

There is a specific body tonus for every emotion felt. This body tonus has a direct influence on your sound.

A tone is only as good as it is appropriate to the musical context (Prokofiev sometimes requires ugly tone: thisalsocan be produced in a physiologically sophisticated manner!)

The arm possesses a certain mass. The most efficient way to employ this mass in the generation of piano tone is maintaining optimum balance between relaxation and activity. For the result of muscular effort to freely move through the mass of the arm into the piano, it must be not be inhibited by too much tension.

“Slowing the key down”: an experience-oriented or subjective description of a complex physiological process. What we perhaps perceive as slowing the key down is in fact reducing the rigidity of contraction with which we move the key, increasing our physical sense of what we’re doing, increasing our ability to have an exact response which serves as a cushion to the shock of the key hitting the key bed. To increase our orchestrational range we must be able to vary the key speed maximally – to slow it down or speed it up as required but always in the most elegant fashion.

Legato as the foundation of piano technique

A ‘banging’ sound generally results from a type of weakness, not strength. Weakness of awareness: my alignment is imprecise; therefore Combo Adpost-attack I must “hold on” with certain muscles in order to stabilize a misaligned structure. I feel ‘jammed.’

What is certain: a properly executed physical legato is the foundation of piano technique! The role of arm movement in legato must be understood in order to create a true legato sound in either physical or inflected legato (inflected legato: a legato created by a choreographed gesture of the arm which replicates a phrase legato in situations where physical legato is not possible).

There must be a way to hang on, to physically make a true legato without stretching tight. Without the actual physical stability you have significantly less control.

We need an integrative approach to piano technique

‘Arm weight’ from the upper arm or wrist may feel good for awhile but then start to feel terrible. ‘Fingers only’ doesn’t work either. These are fragmented approaches which fail to integrate the movement into a whole being, whole body, or even whole arm function.

Be active, don’t just free fall.

Generate health, don’t just avoid sickness.

Although tension can interfere with speed, paradoxically tension is also the sole creator of speed: no tension, no speed!

Piano technique means how to create appropriate sounds.

Piano technique means how to create appropriate sounds

Otto Ortmann: what may appear motionless is actually a magical world of minuscule movements.

A set of basic movements combines to make a completely new shape: the whole does not equal the sum of the parts. What you see is result of a complex combination of invisible actions.

Finger lifting, power stretching will hurt you – unless you involve the whole arm and body, rendering these exercises not only benign but even beneficial.

If you break the wrist, the energy of the arm veers off through and out the wrist, never reaching the fingers let alone the keys. If we avoid this by keeping the forearm-hand bridge level, here we are right back at Czerny’s quiet arm, the traditional eraser on the wrist. This would seem to be antithetical to modern ideas about relaxation and movement, unless we allow for that wonderful invisible inner activity which is animating the fingers from above.

Some movements are so small, subtle as to be undetectable – a truly efficient movement may be felt as virtually no movement at all! Could this actually have been Czerny’s goal in his cultivation of the quiet hand?

In the “release of forearm mass” you have an inside feeling of effortlessness while making sure your frame, your bones, maintain their structure. This gives vast additional power, and may feel like an inner let-go aided by gravity and controlled by key speed and inner aiming. It is actually the result of appropriate inner intentionor activity, especially inner upper arm activity.

Reading a book while exercising is great if you are paying attention – there is benefit in being able to split the brain to do two creative functions simultaneously – note Liszt’s example.

Movements around the mid-range of movement are easiest, most efficient. If the hand goes to the extreme range of movement (as in extreme wrist flexion) there can be tension and the danger of injury. Yet the goal of movement development should be to reach even the extremes of your range effortlessly, elegantly, free of tension.

Correct position on the keyboard: 1) ‘hang on tightly’ – hold the keys firmly in the keybed and get a feel for the freedom, activity and mobility of your arm even as it is constrained by this point of stability. 2) ‘let go lightly’ – when you leave the key, feel your arm in motion, dancing in air, moving towards its next goal, inflecting musical line as it goes.

A piano technique where all actions can be useful, none need be avoided

Clinging is bad, but only in relationships.

Dropping down is most free, but not always most useful.

Finger lifting exercises – the so-called finger individuation exercises – are the main cause of tendinitis, because people fail to incorporate the arm into the movement.

Flexors and extensors always work in tandem: without the regulatory effect of one, the other could not operate in a controlled fashion. The extensor is the “anti-lock braking system” which ensures that the flexor’s motion doesn’t go too far, and vice versa.

The forearm has flexors and extensors. The long flexor is activated by finger curling or grasping, the most basic function of the hand.

Curving the fingers involves only short flexors whereas curling employs the long flexors. Curving circumvents the problem of tensing the long flexors, yet we need the long flexors for strength, colour, all sorts of things. Where would Horowitz be without his basic ‘cat-scratch’ technique: maximally curling to produce brilliance and sparkle?  Find a way to use those long flexors, healthily!

Curling the fingers can also be seen as that most basic and useful of hand functions, grasping. Just because one is easier, freer than the other doesn’t mean one must always choose it. I use the technique through which I achieve my goal, regardless of the effort involved. Of course the effort must be educated, elegant, sensible.

Piano technique is all about movement: inner & outer, physical & musical

The huge advantage to sitting low is that you get a much bigger sound with much less effort: it is possible to control the degree of arm weight coming in to the board, and when you are lower there is a lot more arm weight to play with!

External upper arm movement is not so useful, but internal upper arm activity is a crucial, central element of any movement lower down. It is true that the upper arm is not capable of efficient lateral motion, and that initiating movement from the upper arm can cause injury: too much movement anywhere leads to loss of movement elsewhere.

Fixation and maximum tension is a crucial tool in producing some forte legatos, large blocks of orchestral sound or the type of percussive ostinatos we associate with Prokofiev. It is achieved by opposing muscle groups deliberately working against each other to the maximum.

The slightest tension will limit motion. No tension means dead meat. All motion does need limits. Tension must be approached wisely and not dismissed out of hand (pardon the pun).

Informed function creates the most appropriate position.

We should learn to move in a way that there is nothing to relax from(thank you Edna Golandsky)

When the forearm moves the wrist it should do so in such small increments that there’s no disruption, interference, impingement on or inhibition of the flow of forces through the joint.

Play legato while stretching healthily, and stretch your orchestrational capacities at the same time.

Harsh tone is a result of 1) a hand structure that lacks integrity and “flexible solidity”, 2) Lack of control or organization, lack of exactitude and accuracy in the contraction of muscles and the direction of limbs producing the sound.

Relaxation equals inactivity: thus the fulcrums collapse – both sets of muscles are inactive. This form of relaxation does not equal a state of rest, readiness. Tension can result either from over-contraction or over-relaxation.

The way to work should be based on how it sounds.

To get sound you need activity. If you are able to respond to your own actions rather than being locked in over-contraction, you may experience the mass of your arm as weight. But you may just as likely feel locked contact with the board (for massive chords and sonorities), a flowing weightlessness based on the T’ai Chi walking legato feeling, or a flying activity for vigorous staccato strokes.

The proof of the fallacy of ‘arm weight’: lie on your back, ‘play the piano’ on the underside of a table. Of course it is possible. Where is the arm weight now?

Physical shaping – the path of musicality.

It’s not relaxation, it’s how to move properly.

The arm continues the sound of a long note invisibly.

For good tone, allow yourself physical sensitivity to the motions you’re implementing. Eliminate extraneous effort, especially immediately following impact. One way to do this is to imagine you are slowing down the key, by which means you naturally pay more attention, become more sensitive to what you’re doing.

The raison d’être of piano technique: how can we best maximize and exploit the tonal resources of the instrument?

- “Bong”: setting the soundboard into a freely vibrating motion as a drum stick does a drum skin.

– Differentiation of dynamic levels – voicing

– Legato

– Chordal legato – ‘catching’

It is not weight but activity, the sensible guiding of your arm mass, skeletal structures and force vectors which gives you power. Inner activity in the upper arm translates down through the freely transmitting forearm to give you true power

When mechanical solutions are generated by the musical context, the whole context changes, creating a whole new set of mechanical problems!

Form follows function.