The Craft of Piano Playing presents a new, comprehensive, and highly original approach to piano technique with a fascinating series of exercises designed to help the reader put this approach into practice. Alan Fraser has combined his extensive concert and pedagogical experience, his long-standing collaboration with the virtuoso Kemal Gekich, and his professional training in the Feldenkrais Method to create this innovative technique. Using numerous examples and sketches, he shows how many of our common movement habits at the keyboard can become counterproductive, and he provides a new way of manipulating the skeletal frame of the hand to produce astonishing sonic results from the instrument…

Excerpts from the Introduction

“The Craft of Piano Playing aims to extend the physical capacities of pianists, ranging from the dedicated amateur to the top-level professional. It takes principles of effective movement from Feldenkrais Method  and the Eastern martial arts and applies them to the dynamics of piano performance.

‘I suggest that even many advanced pianists now lack the sheer power and facility of our most illustrious forbears. This is due in part to the modern day focus on relaxation, indirect attack on the key for warm tone, and supple arm movements to avoid injury, which if taken too far unfortunately also tends to limit our pianistic sound spectrum. The piano no longer does what it alone can do so well – simulate the sound of an entire orchestra. Gone for the most part are the freedom and extravagance of expression, the ‘grand manner’ for which we admire artists such as Rachmaninoff, de Pachmann, Friedman and Horowitz.

‘We have failed to preserve and pass on to following generations crucial knowledge about the most advanced aspects of piano technique. Although some artists have reached unimaginable heights, a full understanding of what they did has not been incorporated into piano method. In the light of new insights into the physics of human movement, a further development of piano method is now possible.  Improved physical ability can free musical individuality to express itself more fully.

‘This book concerns itself primarily with the physical mechanics of piano technique. A series of movement exercises is presented which activates physical functions necessary to the pianist. These are always related to elements of musicianship, thus synthesizing musical and physical issues. The exercises help both students who need remedial work in basic strength at the keyboard, and those who seek a new dimension of musical understanding and a new path for the development of pianistic skills.

‘Thus the physical is a starting point that leads the reader towards more effective music making. By filling in a missing link between musical intention and physical execution, this book aims to advance the craft of piano playing.”

Selected Chapter Summaries

Background, Middleground and Foreground: A Plan for Work

We approach an interpretation through three levels. The background conception of music’s meaning (its spiritual, programmatic and emotional content) is the basis for a pianist’s decisions about the middleground, certain key principles of musical craftsmanship concerning what type of sounds best express that content, and the foreground, the specifically pianistic elements of musical craft and their physical realities. How does one create those sounds at the piano? Elements of the middleground include expressive strategies in rhetoric (such as the idea of playing long notes longer, short notes shorter to increase their expressive impact without distorting musical proportions); pulse; legato and orchestration. A new approach to the physical, to the foreground, may improve our ability in these domains.

Where to Start?

The foreground body of the book deals especially with four key elements of piano technique:

  • Hand strength and function
  • The role of the arm – lateral movement
  • The role of the arm – rotation
  • Natural finger shape

A general discussion of movement precedes these four central topics, which are followed by sections synthesizing the various strands of thought and chapters on musical and philosophical issues.

Some key ideas

  • We first focus on the physical because all one’s movements, both intended and unintentional, affect the sound one produces.
  • The smaller and finer the efforts involved in a movement, the richer the sensory information available and the greater one’s control over one’s sound.
  • A pianist’s hands must be extremely strong to handle the instrument successfully, yet their strength must be derived from functionality, not brute force. Most ‘banging’ one hears stems from an underuse of strength not overuse.
  • Activation of the hand’s natural strength firms up its structure, and eliminates the weakness of function that leads to tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome etc. By increasing rather than reducing functional options we can not only improve our music making but also avoid injury.

General principles of movement at the piano

Some Points on the Inner Workings of Movement

When a muscle is habitually contracted, as many of ours are, something that was originally designed for movement is being used for the opposite purpose.  Habitual muscle contraction holds a certain position rather than generating movement. When bones are aligned so that they support their own structure, the help they need from the surrounding muscles to maintain position is substantially reduced. This frees the muscles to do their real job, activation, and also clarifies perception, improving capacity to hear, sense and feel the sounds produced.

‘Slowing the Key Down’

This is an experience-oriented or subjective description of a complex functional process. What we may perceive as slowing the key down is in fact reducing the rigidity or convulsiveness of muscular contraction with which we move the key. Harsh tone does not result from overly quick key descent. Greater key speeds are necessary for greater volume. Harsh tone is a result of

  1. a lack of integrity and ‘flexible solidity’ in hand structure and
  2. a lack of exactitude in the contraction of muscles and the control of the limbs producing the sound.

Form Follows Function

Technique’s main concern should be maximizing the orchestral, colouristic possibilities of the instrument. Minimizing the risk of injury is only a welcome byproduct. A pianist’s function is to draw from the instrument a sound appropriate to the music’s character in the most orchestrally rich and emotionally significant way possible. Thus the form of the hand and arm, the correct position or movement, is simply that which fulfils the musical function, which articulates the desired musical sound or shape. There is no one correct hand position but a unique one for each new situation.

Arm Weight

Arm weight does play a crucial role in tone production, but not as is generally conceived. This weight is an active, alive, intelligent mass, flexible in its actions, not the weight of an inert, inactive substance. The weight of muscles can impart momentum and power to the arm, yet the same muscles also direct the arm’s orientation in space. Thus it is not weight but activity, sensibly guiding the arm mass, which actually creates piano tone. Lie on your back; ‘play the piano’ on the underside of a table. Where is your arm weight now? It is plain to see that activity is doing the work, not weight.

Matthay, Moshe and Movement

Tobias Matthay postulated that we cannot even play one note without first exerting a certain effort to rotate our hand from its ‘natural’ vertical position with our palm turned inward, to the horizontal with our palm lying flat. However, it is unnecessary habitual muscle contractions in the shoulder area that keep our hands vertical when ‘at rest’. There exist a series of Feldenkrais lessons that allow the hand to arrive at its true position of rest, by cultivating the cessation of involuntary efforts in the shoulder. Conclusion: a more comprehensive understanding of human movement can prevent inaccurate perceptions from leading us to faulty deductions.

Hand Strength And Function I: Perfecting Legato

Physical Legato is the Foundation of Piano Technique

Physical legato is the most dependable physical basis we have for musical control. The almost universal absence of real mastery of legato is a serious unacknowledged fact in the piano world. A direct correlation can be drawn between walking in T’ai Chi and physical legato on the keyboard (Applications 1,2,3).

The Second Main Component of Legato

To maintain hand strength successfully, the wrist and arm must also participate in the smooth transition of weight from one standing finger to another, following the hand’s lead and changing their position in space ever so slightly.

Applications: 1) Eliminate undesirable effort in the wrist and cultivate desirable activity in the fingers to confirm structural stability across the knuckles. 2) The benefits of overholding in legato. 3) Feather-light legato – maintaining perfect connection between keys without pressure.

Hand Strength and Function II – Special Role of the Thumb; Relationship of Thumb to Forefinger

The Thumb and Grasping

Grab someone’s forearm with your fingers over and thumb underneath. Squeeze and pull it towards you. You are now grasping, and notice that if needs be, you can do it with great strength. This is the natural strength of your hand that needs to express itself in your playing.

Thumb Pushups’: The hand as suspension spring

The transition from thumb function in grasping to its role in playing piano is not so simple. The series of exercises I call thumb pushups explores the development of thumb strength and function where we need it – on the keyboard.

Although this is a synopsis, inclusion of at least part of one exercise in detail gives some idea as to their form and content.

Application #10: Thumb I – Thumb Pushups

Step 1: Put your thumb on a key, then ‘standing’ on it, stretch your four fingers as high as you can, all the while letting a considerable, even close to unbearable amount of weight press down through the thumb into the key. Here the continuous pressure of your arm exerted on your thumb and hand imitates the weight of your body on your hands and arms in real pushups, and forces your thumb to find a way to maintain structural support and activity…

…Step 4: Now from its ‘reach for the sky’ position, ever so slowly bring your second finger down to play the adjacent note. Keep lots of pressure on your hand, as if there was some huge weight exerting itself on it, and your thumb must work hard to keep that weight from crushing your hand down. In addition, act as if there is some huge force keeping your thumb and forefinger apart, and you must work against this force to bring your forefinger to play. I believe this is called isometrics. Notice how, as long as you maintain support in your thumb, this gives you a graphic sensory experience of your thumb’s function and power. It also this gives you unbelievable exactitude and control over the sound of this note.

Often we neglect to play a true legato even between thumb and forefinger. We often do not physically connect two notes because we are not sensitive to the possibilities for structural security in the whole arch system that connects the two digits in question through the hand. How often have you caught the knuckle of your second finger collapsing as you play the following thumb note? The aim of thumb pushups is to increase our sensitivity to this problem, to educate our sensory nervous system so it can notice the problem when it occurs and effectively repair it.

Legato vs. finger articulation – the cooperation of two antithetical activities

This chapter synthesizes much of what we have discussed up until now about finger action, structural integrity and wonderful richness of speaking sound. It attacks a basic contradiction head on: the more you cultivate legato, the less your fingers tend to move, and the more you articulate your fingers, the more the stability of your legato touch is undermined. These two opposing functions, each of which tends to detract from the other, must both be working at peak capacity for your hand to be truly operational.

Hand Strength and Function III – Synthesis of Hand and Arm Function in Octaves

From the Thumb Across to the Fifth Finger: Hand Structure and Function in Octave Playing

This chapter presents exercises clarifying the functional nature of the classic ‘Russian Arch’ and the special role of the fifth finger in this.

Fortissimo Octaves

Increasing hand activity can actually generate stability. This variation on the basic grasping motion of the hand demonstrates the structural security and control needed to get a large, resonant sound in octaves without banging.

Do you see how important it is to minimize your movements in playing ff octaves? Any extraneous movement makes it more difficult for you to maintain the structure and function that gives you this amazing sound. For instance, that old villain, the classic arm movement out to the side to round out the phrase: this tends to weaken the top knuckle of the second finger, pulling it down, robbing it of its vitality. If you move your elbow out to the side, you are pulling your hand away from the keys, depleting its energy instead of activating it.

The whole rationale behind this most common of all pianistic movements is that it is a stiff arm that causes a banged sound. But what is the underlying cause of a stiff arm? A weak hand!  If the hand doesn’t do its job the arm must stiffen in a vain attempt to rectify the problem. Improve hand strength and function first, then use arm movements for their proper purpose: to orient the hand and to shape phrase and line, not to soften the sound!

Above the Hand: The Role of the Wrist and Arm

The Underlying Musical Purpose of Arm Movement

If not to beautify tone, then what is the true function of arm movement? First, your arm should serve to orient your hand in space in the most efficient way possible. Second, although all arm movements do affect the sound, a sound in isolation is meaningless. Sounds only acquire musical meaning when they are linked together, and this leads us to the arm’s true function, not to generate a sound but to shape groups of sounds into musical entities.


In lateral movement on the keyboard, horizontal movements of the wrist and elbow to the outside tend to make the hand swivel, pulling the thumb away from the keyboard and forcing the fingers to stretch sideways awkwardly. If when navigating a leap to the outside you raise your thumb but leave your wrist and elbow as much to the inside as is comfortably possible, you cultivate rotation of the forearm, a much more efficient form of movement. Rotation helps you leap with alacrity.

Natural Finger Shape

Granted we do need an activated, educated strength to achieve our goals at the keyboard. But cultivating natural finger shape allows us to explore the exact distribution of this strength – to have all the contrasting forces of the hand and fingers working together in harmony. Examining hand and finger function from the angle of delicacy and sensitivity clarifies how strength is most effective when it does not work against itself. Here you’ll discover how any deformation of natural hand and finger shape tends to slow you down, bind you up, and harm your tone as well. Maintaining natural shape facilitates the complete and exact transmission of your musical thought through the medium of piano sound.

Let your hand hang by your side, limp. Notice how, although your fingers are hanging in a gravitational field, they are not straight. There is a natural curve to them, maintained not by muscle tonus but by the normal length of your ligaments. This is both the shape and the muscle tonus we will be trying to adhere to as closely as is practically possible…

Some Other Touch Strategies and Combinations

Big Sound From A Small Hand

We are so used to playing with effort that when we finally learn to eliminate extraneous effort there is a constant strong tendency for unnecessary ‘trying’ to come creeping back into our playing. ‘Trying’ reduces the degree to which you feel the difference between your finger and arm functions. Here your whole aim is to increase the looseness of your joints on each attack, thus heightening rather than reducing your sensory differentiation. Doing this you can move less but get more sound – you have a more exact, efficient organization.

Feel the Mass and Vibration of the Key

The inherent goal of many exercises I offer is to become more aware of what you’re doing, to have a more tangible understanding of hand function, to hear more graphically. A part of this process is to increase the richness of your actual physical sensation. If you can feel the key more precisely, you can control it better. Use the key to bounce the hammer up and down, and actually judge the hammer’s weight. The looser you are, the better you can do this. Again, the exercise provides a practical means towards a new physical organization.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Disciples of Zen require years of contemplative effort to solve the ancient koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But the answer lies more immediately at hand (no pun intended), in an analysis of the precise finger movement needed for brilliant, full yet not overly heavy passagework. To produce a large volume of sound, many pianists use too much pressure from the arm, pressure that impinges on the natural shape and activity of the hand and finger, strangling the piano’s natural resonance instead of activating it. But large volume is best generated by finger activity, not pressure.

The Feldenkrais – Horowitz Connection

Let’s digress for a moment to acquaint ourselves with two key men whose discoveries in their respective fields eventually led me to write this book, Moshe Feldenkrais and Vladimir Horowitz. Both Russian Jews, born within a year of each other in the Ukraine at the turn of the century, and each in his own way a master of movement.

Flat Fingers

The intention to curl is still present in a flat finger attack. This form of the hand, if used to produce sound, fuses the three finger phalanges so they function as one big one, maximizing ‘juiciness’. It is the very opposite of the curled finger. I’m beginning to think that the value of curling the fingers lies mainly in the stimulus to functionality inherent therein. The basic motion of the finger is to curl, to grasp. But the force generated by a curling-grasping impulse can be transmitted even if there is no visible curling movement…

Parts Two and Three – Middleground and Background

The remainder of the book deals with issues of phrasing, emotional content implicit in melodic and harmonic structure, and the inner emotional state one brings to one’s playing. Appendices provide background material on Feldenkrais Method and on the development of the system of thought presented here.

Rhythm and Phrasing

Hierarchy of rhythmic structure is a practical reality! Downbeats and upbeats are not the same and should never be played as such. If the beats in a bar are completely undifferentiated, there is no basis for aural discrimination. Thus the listener cannot hear properly and the performer has no basis for control.

Exercises are given to stay in time even while cultivating the ability to play ahead or behind the metronome. Here you can cultivate a flexibility of both rhythm and melodic inflection that has both integrity and freedom. You can play with expressive intensity but no bombast. Do you cut melodies or craft them?

Emotional Content

Here we look at how emotional content is inherent in melodic and harmonic structure, and how to inflect that structure such that the content is felt in the actual piano sound. We also cover the objective nature of emotional content, and look at how we can access the same sources of emotion that originally inspired the music’s composition.

A Few Last Thoughts…

Looks at playing a large acoustic, recording, talent vs. craftsmanship, professional deformations, and surveys ways in which feeling emotion can hinder or help you in performance.