The Long Road to a New Piano Technique

A naïve beginning

How did I end up developing my “physical approach” to piano technique? To answer that, I have to go right back to the beginning. First you must understand that I was an extremely naïve student as a youngster. I remember in my first year at McGill, listening to a guy practicing some amazing piece where the left hand just whizzed along, and finding out that it was the Revolutionary Etude of Chopin. I was really uneducated!

But even then I had intelligent ears. My sister Norah felt I should upgrade my teacher, so she took me to see an advanced student of one of the top teachers in Montreal, and I remember listening to this young lady playing scales and thinking, “But she plays mechanically, it’s ugly! I don’t want to play like that!” Unfortunately, in reaction to that, I mistakenly decided to avoid developing technically, in order not to play ugly! I thought to play natural meant not to work too hard!

Phil Cohen, pioneering genius of piano technique

But there was one teacher in Montreal who was already investigating the questions that in time became my major concern. Phil Cohen had been a student of Yvonne Hubert, the grande dame of Canadian piano teachers who produced such greats as Andre Laplante, Ronald Turini, Janina Fialkowska, and later Marc-Andre Hamelin, Marc Durand and Louis Lortie. She herself had been a student of the great Cortot.

I studied for three years with Alan Belkin and another three with Laurie Milkman, both Cohen students, before finally going to the master himself. He was fascinated by the question of what happened physically and neurologically when the piano was played really well. He developed a way of teaching the movements of the hand and arm to translate into exact gestures that literally ‘sculpted’ phrase shape and emotional expression. Phil’s work is amazing, a pianistic equivalent to the pioneering work of Freud, but after ten wonderful years I still felt that more was possible: that perhaps his insights could be globalized somehow.

Linking piano technique to Feldenkrais Method

I used play tennis with my younger brother Scott, who characteristically slouched as does your typical modern adolescent. It was around that time that one day, in the shower after the game, I noticed that something had changed. He was more erect, full, but not forcedly so. He seemed more confident and more at home with himself. “What happened to you?” I queried.

“I’ve been doing Feldenkrais,” he replied.

“What’s that?”

Whereupon he said, “Well look what I can do,” and lifted his hip back, up, forward and down again in a beautiful circle.

“Who cares?” said I, “Big deal!”

But the change in his bearing was so impressive that I started going for a private Feldenkrais lesson once a week. What I experienced was mysterious and rather incomprehensible, but I liked the method because it had a scientific basis that distinguished it from all the New Age touchy-feely fads that were so popular at the time. Finally it hit me: use Feldenkrais Method to expand on what Phil Cohen (an instinctive Feldenkrais man) was already doing so brilliantly. And to do that really well, do a professional training.

Synchronicity: my meeting with Kemal Gekich

At that point synchronicity stepped in. In June 1988, one month before I was due to start my training, I met Kemal Gekich. The Yugoslav pianist was playing in the Montreal International Piano Competition, and he displayed all the technical qualities I had been looking for. Physically reposed, almost meditative in his stillness, but with an aware attention that watched fingers, hands and arms spraying out swathes of brilliant passagework, singing cantabile, stirring drama and exquisite poetry. His hands were very different from what you normally saw in pianists, and the gloriously rich palette of sounds was too. His bearing was composed, and lacked the effortful, trying quality we so often associate with artistic experience. He was simply capable, and his playing thus deeper and more personal.

Horowitz was the only other pianist I knew of who had this different look, and a correspondingly different sound: the actual stance of the hands on the board, the actual physical posture all oriented to create as wide as possible tonal spectrum.

When I went backstage after hearing his first round, I simply told him, “We have nobody who plays like this in Canada, and nobody who can teach how to play like this.” His instant response was, “Well, come to Yugoslavia to study with me. But you’d better do it soon; there’s going to be a war and you should get there before it starts.” It took him 5 minutes of conversation to “make me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” but it took me over two years more before I arrived in Novi Sad – and it was another two years before the war finally did start, just as he had predicted.

Gekic at the 1988 Montreal International Piano Competition

But to return to the competition: Kemal was the crowd’s favourite, and the critics’ too – the obvious choice for first prize. But when they announced the finalists after the second round, I was stunned to see nine pianists on stage, some of whom had played with notable mediocrity, and Kemal not among them. Something in me just reacted, and I started yelling: “C’est un scandale qu’il n’y a personne de Yugoslavie sur la scène!” (It’s a scandal that there’s no one from Yugoslavia on stage!) The crowd started cheering, crying “Bravo” and applauding. And interestingly enough, Radio-Canada was still taping, and so that outburst was broadcast across Canada the next day on the Arts Report.

Gekic plays “protest recital”

But that was just the start. I knew that we couldn’t just let this blatant “artistic crime” pass unnoticed. We had to do something, so in the end I rented Redpath Hall, went on Cross Country Checkup and local TV, and on the first night of the finals, half the competition audience wasn’t there because they were in our hall listening to Kemal play a free recital. We passed the hat, and out of that were able to give him a cheque for $2000 (albeit Canadian), the People’s Prize of the 1988 Montreal Piano Competition, the one and only time it was ever awarded.

A precious opportunity to forge a new piano technique

It was a nice way to start off a relationship that has been both a deep friendship and a professional collaboration of exceptional richness and creativity. While Kemal was re-building my technique from the ground up, my Feldenkrais training was giving me a new internal vision of the physical processes he was introducing me to: what alignment of the bones best served the finger activation needed to increase the colour and power of my playing, what internal whole-body state best allowed me to move my fingers instead of constricting them. While I was engrossed in physical organization, it was Kemal who often kept me on track, sublimating physical concerns to the absolute rule of musical expression. “After all,” he said, “you can’t very well play the piano when you’re thinking about your ribs.” He was right, but there is one part of your brain that needs to keep monitoring and self-correcting the physical apparatus of playing.

It was strange to conduct that investigation while there was a war going on. We were isolation – it was an almost monastic existence, sequestered behind the walls of the old fortress of Petrovaradin, delving into the artistic riches of the piano repertoire while around us a country was falling into physical and spiritual ruin. But perhaps that intensified our search: in those circumstances you realize how fragile life is, and how precious the chance to engage in a genuine search.

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