The Piano Pedagogy of Alan Fraser: some key ideas

Alan Fraser’s groundbreaking approach to piano technique combines the philosophies of pedagogue Philip Cohen, virtuoso Kemal Gekich, and utilizes key principles developed by movement educator Moshe Feldenkrais.

He has discovered a set of simple technical secrets guaranteed to improve virtually every pianist’s ability. He utilizes the very nature of one’s physical structure to empower one’s playing while reducing the risk of tendonitisand other performance-related injuries – in fact, he guarantees to eliminate their occurrence.

His DVD and book, The Craft of Piano Playing, lays out these technical strategies in detail and provides a series of exercises that allow the pianist to develop his or her technique along these lines.

His analysis of hand-arm function in the light of movement principles from Feldenkrais Method and T’ai Chi Chuan pinpoints the essential elements needed to develope a confident, big and colorful sound.

Always fascinated by the creative potential of the pedagogical interaction, Alan Fraser provides a complete approach that meets a wide variety of students’ needs, even while offering stimulating food for thought to a master class audience.

The Pedagogy of Alan Fraser

The present-day orientation in music performance towards injury-free playing is well intentioned: entire piano pedagogies have been based on the premise that the first aim of piano technique should be to avoid injury. Alan Fraser’s approach respects our need for healthy pianism, but defines this primarily in terms of the sensible achievement of musical goals rather than the avoidance of problems. A complete piano technique should not only avoid injury but also maximize the tonal and expressive potential of the instrument.

A great deal of attention in piano pedagogy has been lavished on relaxation. Mr. Fraser focuses on the clarification of physical function to achieve the correct balance between relaxation and activity. The starting point for most of the pianists he works with generally rests in increasing the activity of the fingers in order to clarify, stabilize and activate hand structure, thus freeing the wrist and all parts of the mechanism above it to accommodate and follow the movement of the hand in a relatively passive, free manner.

One key idea is that the smaller and finer the efforts involved in a movement, the richer the sensory information available. The more one can sense, the better one can monitor and direct one’s actions. Sensitivity leads to physical as well as spiritual strength, contrary to our normal association of sensitivity with weakness. Another, contrasting idea is that sometimes an intense effort in the correct place is the best path to effective, powerful or empowered relaxation.

One attractive aspect of Mr. Fraser’s work is that principles which are valuable even to the professional can be demonstrated with a relative beginner, simpler repertoire sometimes even facilitating the clear presentation of an idea.

Some Basic Principles

Most attempts to imitate Horowitz or divine the secrets of his ravishing, devilish, incomparable and unattainable mastery of the instrument fall short partly because they fail to take into account all of the myriad disparate elements of such an art. Anyone can play like Horowitz, but only if they trouble themselves to acquire all aspects of his physical, mental and emotional organization. These include his experience of playing literally hundreds of large-sized halls and learning how to handle them. Then there is strength, which must not only be exceptional but extremely well directed. Integrity of physical structure is another absolute necessity, and this can only come from integrity of function. There is sensitivity: the more finely tuned your physical senses, the more capably you can direct your actions.

Everything you do, sounds. All your movements, both intended and unintentional, have their effect on the sound you produce.

More physical sensitivity = greater control. The more finely tuned and accurately honed your physical sensing capability, the greater control you have over your actions. In addition, there is a significant increase in the number of potential movements (more subsets, subtle variations evolving within the possibilities of each movement).

Anatomy of a pianistic approach (with apologies to Heinrich Schenker):

Background = musical content: music’s character, its emotional and philosophical meaning
Middleground = what sounds are needed to express that content (the why of orchestration and articulation at the piano)
Foreground = how to produce those sounds (the mechanics of piano technique)