Appendices


THE PIANIST’S PROGRESS: A MINI-AUTOBIOGRAPHY

This essay was first written in 1993. It was revised and expanded February 17 1999.

Photo by Clarke Fraser

Alan Fraser – Early Years

I was born musically talented yet had neither the mad internal desire nor the external surroundings that occasionally see the early development of outstanding ability. My piano teachers until university kept me interested but did not contribute much else. Mr. Cook told me to curl my fingers; I, failing to see why, couldn’t be bothered, and that was the extent of my technical training.

Although the bulk of my technique was acquired later, my perceptual skills did develop well – I had a powerfully emotional, physically tangible response to wonderful music, and as my discrimination developed I became incessantly curious as to what separated great music making from the merely competent. Why did Ashkenazy thrill me to bits on one occasion yet bore me to tears on another? Could these radically differing qualities of performance be quantified, pinned down? This fascination, coupled with a dawning realization of the immense body of technical skills needed to play really well, led me to seek out teachers who might help me make up precious lost time, and perhaps offer some clues as to what constitutes transcendental piano playing.

My inquiry eventually led me to Phil Cohen, who had studied with Montreal pianistic doyenne Yvonne Hubert (a pupil of Alfred Cortot) alongside others such as Ronald Turini and Andre Laplante. Cohen’s interest in the psychology and neuro-motor organization of performance led to his developing a unique pedagogical method. I first became acquainted with Cohen’s principles while studying with two of his protégés, the first being composer-pianist Alan Belkin.

Alan Belkin – The Orchestrating Hand

Belkin was the first to show me the enormous world of orchestral sonority inherent in the piano. He could explain what he meant by ‘play fortissimo but don’t bang’, and showed me how to control and colour my sound in many aspects to a startling degree. I still remember the thrill of the suddenly blossoming, magically three-dimensional sound obtained by ‘pinging the pinkies’  – voicing the top and the bottom – and my delight in seeing passagework, when played with true evenness, metamorphose into something sparkling, bubbling, exciting. I began to realize that piano playing was to a large extent craftsmanship, involving much more than instinct, emotion and good intentions.

At this point in my academic studies I switched from the performance stream into theory, to  grasp more fully Belkin’spresentation of musical form and its inflection in performance. I studied voice and accompanied singers, in order to experience directly the singing quality I wanted to pull from the instrument. I studied composition: the pianist who thinks and perceives compositionally will more likely have a rich, three-dimensional sound.

Lauretta Milkman – The Choreographing Hand

Belkin eventually sent me on to Lauretta Milkman, who honed my physical approach to the keyboard even further. Laurie first acquainted me with many principles to be clarified and amplified later.

One thing she taught was a way of entering the keyboard that by appearances could be misinterpreted as a sort of ‘arm weight’ technique but which was actually an arm function technique: I learned how the particular organization of the arm’s mass and muscular activity can have a radical effect on the sound.
Rather than wrist position she taught wrist function: if I stopped at any point in a phrase could I be instantaneously at rest? Paradoxically, could I feel at rest even as I engaged in complex activity at the keyboard? ‘Enter’, ‘rest’, ‘move through’ and ‘release’: central themes of Laurie’s keyboard etiquette.

This queer feeling of ‘active resting’ was achieved partly by something like a flip of the hand, wrist or forearm before entering a note or chord. This flip can be used to define both rhythmic and phrase structure.

The hand-flip ‘catching’ technique – an exercise

Try resting your hand on a flat surface like the desk in front of you. Begin to pull your hand away from the table: first your elbow begins to rise, then your wrist follows, and finally your hand slides along the surface and then leaves it. Just at the moment your fingers become free of the surface, return to it suddenly, as if you want to “catch” something that’s on it with the heel of your hand. This movement is complicated to describe yet simple to do. The trick is, as the arm is going up the hand will follow – as the arm starts suddenly downwards the hand continues up, and only after it is above the wrist and fully extended will it be pulled in the opposite direction, following the wrist back down. It’s like the Hawaiian hula dancers – that wavy motion of the hand and arm that seem paradoxically always together yet at the same time moving in opposite directions. This flip I call ‘catching’.

When done properly – that is to say with true refinement and elegance, maintaining an exact balance between all opposing forces within the mechanism – it can free the fingers for truly independent, maximally effective movement. Most wonderful in all this is the resulting improvement in sound quality and musical expression. Aside from Laurie herself, Lublina Edlina, pianist with the Borodin Trio provides a stellar example of this playing style.

As I became more aware of what could be achieved at the piano, I longed to hear true mastery of the instrument, the fantasy-filled, tasteful, enormously colourful and fluid playing of so many old pianists I knew only through recordings. Horowitz alone remained to be heard live, and hear him I did, enthralled! He also best exemplified the highly sophisticated organization that is the keystone of the Cohen philosophy.

Phil Cohen – The Mindful Hand

Philip Cohen’s contribution to piano pedagogy has been twofold: a comprehensive analysis of the physical and perceptual organization of the master pianist, and the development of a method to effectively communicate much of this knowledge to the student.

Cohen knows that the specific nature of a music’s content, the very shape and character of its contour and inflection is reflected in the physical movements of the performer. His approach is to draw attention to this correlation, improving music by directly addressing and modifying the physical habits involved in its expression. Much is summed up in this little nutshell: Everything you do, sounds. In playing, every movement no matter how small, and even each sub-component of a movement, will have its affect on the sound you’re making.

Cohen’s method is somewhat unique in its characteristic focus on the physical: not simply on relaxation, but on the exact balance between tension and relaxation, the exact path of movement of one’s arm through space required to inflect a phrase shape and tone exactly as one desires. Through touch he communicates his ideas often more precisely and effectively than is possible through words, taking hold, moving, guiding one’s arm, wrist, hand or finger, sometimes to the extent of literally ‘playing’ the player!

The playing of Cohen’s students tends towards a noticeable sophistication of rhythm, depth of sound and musical integrity. My preliminary assimilation of his ideas with Belkin and Milkman perhaps facilitated the quantum leap in my abilities that took place when I experienced Cohen’s cultivation of a Zen-like awareness, of ‘mindful hands’, directly.

This leap forward did not happen overnight. To use these transformative choreographic habits in performance effectively, there must be a period of internalization – they must become instinctive. You can’t communicate with an audience when you’re thinking about your elbow! The process of integrating what Cohen taught me continued long after my studies with him were finished – and continues to this day! I owe much to Phil Cohen for the germination of many of the ideas that now constitute my new piano method.

Tom Plaunt – The Phraseful Hand

Tom Plaunt has a performer’s instincts, intuitively sensing just the amount of exaggeration needed to have a phrase shape or voicing really touch the hearts of an audience. Tom cultivates an extravagant lyricism and luscious tone, focuses on pedaling, voicing, crescendo and decrescendo to suffuse his students’ interpretations with expressive life. As I became familiar with the central concepts of his German training it was gratifying to see how radically differing logical trains of thought could lead to equally successful artistic results. But still eluding me was a conceptual framework that could integrate all aspects of true mastery.

All my teachers to this point had noticed a sort of visceral tension that seemed to hinder my finger, hand and arm movements. It seemed that a more global exploration of physical organization was the best next step, so I turned theFeldenkrais Method, a discipline not related solely to piano, which investigates the essentials of the learning process itself.

Moshe Feldenkrais – The Mindful Body

Feldenkrais is specifically designed to develop superb physical organization, economy of movement, clarity of intention and mastery of execution: the very qualities exemplified by the master musician, dancer or athlete. Evolving from many illustrious predecessors such as judo, Yoga, acupuncture, Zen meditation, Alexander Technique and Western neurophysiology, Feldenkrais scientifically, practically improves the actual neurological processes involved in learning.

Jerry Karzen and Moshe Feldenkrais
Jerry Karzen and Moshe Feldenkrais

Throughout my four-year Feldenkrais practitioner training and since then as well, my posture has improved to the point where I have a stable, consistent and dependable stance at the piano. My sound has become bigger, more colourful and controlled. I sense more clearly when I am moving incorrectly, and I know how to fix it.

Developed by Israeli physicist and judo master Moshe Feldenkrais in the mid twentieth century, the method has a four-fold functional focus: neural, muscular, mechanical and personal.

Feldenkrais lessons or exercises serve to improve

  • the sensory-motor feedback loop with which the body adjusts its movements, receiving information from thesensory nerves and controlling the muscles through the motor nerves.
  • This leads to the optimum balance of muscle tonus throughout the body, which in turn allows increased
  • mechanical efficiency in the system of levers and struts known as the skeleton.
  • All these three enhance the ease, elegance and effectiveness of one’s movements, causing a tangible, concrete improvement of one’s sense of self as a person: a physical entity with perceptions, desires, intentions and abilities.

These foci are quite distinct from those of Yoga, meditation or other related disciplines, and are achieved by increasing kinesthetic sensitivity through series of small, slow, easy, logically sequenced movements. In Awareness Through Movement (ATM) classes, students are guided through a movement series verbally, whereas in private Functional Integration (FI) lessons, the practitioner guides and senses manipulatively, tailoring movements to the student’s specific needs.

The primary effect of Feldenkrais is not so much relaxation as a heightened physical readiness, a clear, focused energy, an increased awareness of what one is doing and how one is doing it. Now when I sit at the piano, the clarity of my physical organization ensures that no muscle contraction or posture interferes with the fulfillment of my intentions. (For more on the applications of Feldenkrais in music pedagogy, see addendum.)

The Feldenkrais Guild Home Page
Phillippe Leblond, Feldenkrais Practitioner
The Hawaii Feldenkrais Professional Training with Jerry Karzen

Though it proved to be a crucial element of my training, Feldenkrais alone could not bring me to the level of pianistic ability I sought. My quest was not over. I had always been attracted to the Russian school’s healthy mastery of the instrument, so perhaps fate smiled on me the day I first heard Kemal Gekich play.

Kemal Gekich – The Masterful Hand

He reminds me of Horowitz in his quality of repose, of detached observation which none the less produces such a rich welter of sounds and colours. Most striking is the wonderful rhythmic vitality of his playing: his sound is virile, athletic, lithe, yet never heavy or unpleasant. His tremendous sense of pulse literally compels one forward through the music. In the playing of Kemal Gekich I have finally found that magical, elusive synthesis: musical expression and transcendental technical execution: he possesses all the qualities I have been seeking!

Kemal Gekich 1988 in Montreal. Photo by Alan Fraser.
Kemal Gekich 1988 in Montreal. Photo by Alan Fraser.

I have often marveled at the tremendously individual style of the great master pianists of the past. I have also wondered how to de-homogenize my own students’ sound and have them create something truly personal which nonetheless respects the rules of true musicianship. Gekich’s pedagogical framework (derived from the Russian tradition coupled with his own deep exploration of technique) combined with much of what I have previously learned, provides a body of knowledge whose globality can stimulate the evolution of each student’s individual style.

Content

A thorough, thoughtful pedagogue, Gekich stresses a logical progression which begins with musical content. The litany of each lesson: what is a composition’s emotional tone, its program, the meaning of each phrase or articulation? We feel that all music is programmatic, derived from human declamation, drama, ideas, emotions and abstractions. Interpretation is first of all the manifestation of music’s content – its meaning. Although this idea is nothing new, the style of its implementation in Gekich’s approach differs markedly from most of what I have seen in the West. How does one ensure that it ‘tells a story’? If one can’t immediately manifest a music’s meaning in performance, one must ask oneself ‘Why?’,  and then turn one’s attention to the practicalities of musicianship, to pianistic craft, in order to find the answers.

Schools of thought which focus on phrasing and expression before first ensuring a composition’s solid technical preparation actually shortchange the student: proper attention paid here does not sterilize one’s playing, but ultimately frees one to realize fully one’s musical conception and finally to play with true spontaneity.

Nuts And Bolts: Rhythm

The wonderful rhythmic integrity of Gekich’s playing is no accident: effective rhythmic execution is the central pillar of a solid technical foundation. I may seem to belabour the obvious, yet very few pianists actually play with good rhythm, 100%. The execution of this seemingly simple task is actually difficult and complex, and its constituent parts bear detailed scrutiny:

Meter

Meter (the pattern of strong and weak beats delineated in a composition) is manifested in sound by pulse (as distinct from accent). Pulse should always be present, articulated and felt by the performer – however the listener should not necessarily notice any accentual definition of pulse. If pulse is properly defined, one merely hears a certain clarity, richness, excitement or colour in the sound. The sound lives. Dynamic or agogic accents on the other hand are used to highlight structural or emotional content.

Pulse

The creation of healthy pulse involves slight stresses correlated to metrical structure. These stresses must not appear to disturb the even flow of attacks. However, to create an aesthetically pleasing illusion of true evenness, we must actually articulate minuscule pauses – just big enough to exist – before every stressed note. Doing this 1) highlights the rhythmic structure, making it more visceral, larger than life, 2) counterbalances the tendency to rush by forcing one to really listen, and 3) allows one to sense immediately any excess effortfulness accumulated in the last group, and to adjust oneself accordingly.

Practice with a metronome may help establish a rudimentary sense of rhythmic regularity, but primarily it should serve only as a catalyst for the internal generation of healthy pulse. Far more effective than using the metronome is the overemphasis of metrical stresses in practice, while playing the intervening unaccented notes absolutely evenly and with about one tenth the effort normally expended. This must be done with a positively manic intensity of listening, and if done successfully has many beneficial side effects. For instance, it frees up the upper arm muscles which tend by overwork to inhibit free rhythmic flow, and allows the discovery of new, more efficient finger movements.

The character of these stresses is crucial: they must have the maximum mass possible with no sense of weight or pressing. The sound must be absolutely clean and sharp with no ‘spread’ or distortion, yet rich, not thin or pinched. This ensures that one’s skeletal structure is used with maximum mechanical effectiveness: there is minimum energy loss through ‘shear’, the setting of one bone at an incorrect angle to another. With bones thus properly aligned, the muscles have no superfluous compensatory work to do and thus are free to maximally fulfill one’s intentions.

Learning can be defined as the process of making distinctions: the heightened perception of hierarchical metrical levels engendered by this practice ensures that musical structure is learned with maximum kinesthetic richness and clarity.

Phrase Inflection

Phrase inflection is achieved through dynamic, articulate and agogic accentuation and through manipulation of the even flow of attacks (as this last occurs continually I keep it distinct from its subset rubato).

Too often so-called ‘musical’ or expressive’ rubato, heartbreakingly uniform or predictable, is not generated by the internal compositional structure but is rather imposed from without according to current aesthetic tastes.  Thus nowadays we can seldom recognize an individual pianist’s playing yet often can spot ‘A’s student or a pianist from locality ‘B’ within the first few measures.

Only when one breaks habitual patterns of imposed, ‘expressive’ rhythmic manipulation and begins articulating the music’s internal rhythmic structure, can the wonderful world of phrase inflection be explored in a musically satisfying manner.

The playing of Rakhmaninov, a master of pulse and the dramatic accent, proves a peerless example. Like other masters he rends to put all the notes under a phrase mark a little closer together in time, thus allowing a little space between phrases. This is called “breathing”(!), and although I would again seem to belabour the obvious, the way he does it leaves us green with envy! Also, he inflects melodic contour through a tremendously precise and varied use of dramatic accentuation and discreet variations in tempo: these occur within the context of a cohesive pulse.

Sound

Listeners said that Rakhmaninov’s sound was wonderful, and surely his phrase inflection was a prime element of this. But of course a wide dynamic range is also crucial in producing a great piano sound. There are two ways to increase one’s total dynamic range: extend it either up or down! Extending it up requires increased strength and coordination.

An exercise: ‘Grab and shake’ to really JOIN with the piano:

Try this graphic way to discover the true upper limit of one’s dynamic range: grab a fistful of notes and attempt to shake the whole instrument like a dog shaking a bone. Can’t do it? Then close the piano, PUSH on it as hard as you can. REALLY try to send it bursting through the wall like a tank coming out of a barn. Notice how you mobilize ALL of yourself to do this, mentally, psychically, physically. The arms must be almost straight, almost locked at the elbows but not quite totally. You feel how each part of your body – torso, shoulder, upper arm, forearm, hand, all couple to each other supply but firmly.

Now grab the piano somewhere – on a grand, on that ridge which is available to  you when the fallboard is closed but the lid open. Take really firm hold of the instrument and shake it! Move it so it rocks on its casters! Ah, now you can achieve something! Now open the fallboard again and see what you can do while grabbing two comfortable (not too wide spread, not too compact, a chord which complies to the natural position of the hand) 5-note chords. I have had hilarious experiences with some of my more petite students who try this and it ends up looking like the piano is shaking them! However, with some determination and persistency, anyone larger than the average ten year old can do this!

Even if one can’t even make the piano budge a millimeter, the attempt itself mobilizes one’s forces, focuses one and gives a tangible, graphic impression of the feeling involved in producing a warm, resonant, rich and colourful fortissimo. Finding this procedure difficult (or ludicrous!) may indicate the limitations not only of one’s dynamic range but also of one’s imagination!

Extending one’s total dynamic range downwards needs delicacy and sensitivity: these must have a foundation of control. Paradoxically, the exercise above will also aid your finding a finer, subtler pianissimo, by providing you with a secure foundation on which such control can be based (see lesson excerpt on legato).

Widening overall dynamic range leads to the next element of crucial importance: dynamic discrimination. It is not easy to produce even five distinct dynamic levels of piano sound. To do this simultaneously brings us to another principal concern of pianists, voicing. Voicing of course is everything in piano sound. No matter how much voicing we do, more is always possible and will almost always enhance the sound. This is the central issue in doing what the piano was intended to do: creating a whole orchestra of sounds. The accentuation practices mentioned earlier are effective here as well for maximum control of colour and contrast in voicing.

Conception

The aforementioned details are just a few of the literally hundreds one must address in honing pianistic and musical execution. But of overriding importance is conception. A fortissimo, staccato chord played angrily will sound completely different from exactly the same articulation played scherzando. The way in which a performer mobilizes himself, first in a feeling state and then in a physical state analogous to that, is the prime influence on his or her sound.

The exact transcription even of a composer’s every note, phrase, dynamic, articulation and tempo indication cannot alone carry out his intentions. To create something of lasting value, musical sounds must express something of the intangible: another being’s direct human experience.

Alchemy

Clearly, attention to the nuts and bolts is the largest part of a pianist’s work. Though many are competent, why do so few transcend as a Horowitz, Rakhmaninov or even a Gekich? What process saw their tremendous natural gifts come to such full fruition?

My initial fascination with Feldenkrais stemmed from the realization that artists such as Horowitz were doing something radically different from the normal, and these differences were perceptible in their physical organization. However, when told by David Dubal that he had the most wonderful nervous system in the world, Horowitz cackled with glee at the absurdity: “I’m a nervous system!” Horowitz’s quality of organization seems to be a result of whatever process he went through in order to play great, rather than a prerequisite for it. Obviously, his primary concern was music, his exquisitely organized nervous system no more than a tool used in music’s expression.

Feldenkrais as well is simply a valuable tool whose ultimate usefulness depends on many other factors. A pianist must be able to discriminate fine differences in physical movement – without a highly developed sensitivity he simply cannot play well. Even Glenn Gould, who said he would avoid all technical considerations in his teaching, clearly had thought about it in great detail (as his journals attest), and in practice did work out his own highly idiosyncratic yet totally effective system. He said he wouldn’t think about it because he knew that to avoid musical suicide, physical considerations must only be a response to musical ones.

Kemal Gekich never had a Feldenkrais lesson, never had a Cohen for a teacher. He describes his own work as an intuitive, trial and error process. After solving a particular technical problem he may notice that his hand moves differently or is shaped in a particular way, yet it is as if the hand learned on its own, the organism found its own way. He has a strong capacity to remember the newly learned organization and apply it elsewhere as needed.

He seems to be working out a conscious system on an unconscious level, respecting as he does the very nature of the process. A musician’s art must grow not from technical concerns but rather be conceived in a world of fantasy and imagination, and be born of a burning desire to communicate something of that world through the medium of sound. One may have oodles of ability, intelligence, talent, aesthetic sense, dramatic flair, yet in the end it is a certain quality of intense desire which sees the greatest artist transcending the norm.

Synthesis

Moshe Feldenkrais defined health as being able to fulfill one’s unavowed dreams. For one such as I, who in the beginning lacked the burning desire and engaged intellect of a Gekich or Horowitz, Feldenkrais fostered a sense of health, not only of body but of spirit, which in the end empowered the tangible manifestation of one inner musician’s unavowed dreams. Feldenkrais empowered me to activate my passion for music in a practical way.

Kemal Gekich, approaching the problem from the opposite direction, feels that if one plays well one will be healthy – one won’t hurt oneself and won’t need Feldenkrais either! He is right, of course. Moreover, when one considers the startling fact that proper execution of all aspects of rhythm as expounded by Gekich leads to the easy resolution of many problems of technical facility, one sees that the synthesis of the essential elements of these contrasting conceptual frameworks can occur only in the context of pure music-making.

The optimal physical organization cultivated through Feldenkrais, Cohen’s choreographic concepts – these have been useful tools. It is appropriate that in their full, true integration into an artistic process they should fade into the background, sink into the unconscious, and thus manifest synthesis in the truest sense of the word.

Alan Fraser – The Activated Hand

Photo by Clarke Fraser

Photo by Clarke Fraser

As I work with students the world over, attempting to convey this conceptual framework in a practical way, I find their biggest immediate stumbling block is a simple lack of activity in the fingers and hand. For instance, although we feel that the 4th and 5th fingers are the weakest, in my experience it is the thumb and forefinger who are actually the most lax in the fulfilment of their duties. The most common flaw in legato playing is the failure to maintain support in moving to the thumb from one of the other fingers – most often 2 – or back again. In some scores from my student days I even used to draw a little lobster claw to remind myself of the desired shape of fingers 1 and 2.  The trouble with this image: it’s too rigid. Support must be derived from active function rather than through the dogged maintaining of a fixed position. The thumb – forefinger assembly is very strange: many students I’ve asked did not even realize that the thumb has three joints just like the other fingers, but that the third joint is up by the wrist! Bringing the third, upmost joint of the thumb into playopens up that space between 1 and 2. Maintaining this openness, feeling strength in that space, feeling it continually opening more and more, as if a balloon were continually expanding from within it, will empower this keystone of the hand and improve overall functionality (see another physical lesson).

In addition to these aspects of the physical, stimulation of a pianist’s imagination and desire provides the reason to wake their hands up. The resulting extra effort in the right place allows for freedom and ease, a well-deserved break from over-exertion in all the supporting places, and leads to a new blossoming of both ability and spirit.

Teaching

The acquisition in adulthood of skills normally learned in youth allows one to gain conscious insight into the workings of usually instinctive processes, insights of obvious utility to a teacher. A boiler repairman, confronted with a large, complicated malfunctioning furnace, contemplated for a time, then fixed the furnace with one hammer tap on a valve and presented his bill for $1000. When his client complained, the repairman prepared a second, itemized bill: “One hammer tap, 25 cents. For knowing where to tap, $999.75.” With a wide variety of solutions and approaches at one’s pedagogical fingertips, a teacher must perceive strength of temperament, ego and ability, and metaphorically tap with one’s hammer on exactly the right spot (of the students’ skull!).

Most of all one must fan that spark of desire, the essential fuel for all undertakings. The impetus to create must come from within – no one can predict or concoct the chemistry that makes a successful musician. Yet the utility of the right thing said at the right time is also incalculable. Art is communication, a joint effort between people, and it is in the teaching relationship that many of these alchmical processes first see the light of day.