Seminar Content in Detail

This page presents texts from several lectures Alan Fraser has given as a part of various workshop events.


FILM PRESENTATION
The Craft of Piano Playing
WORKSHOP OUTLINE
Feldenkrais for Pianists
& Other Instrumenatlists
LECTURE
Movement & Wellness
in Piano Playing
Movement & Wellness
Lecture Handout

Film Presentation:
The Craft of Piano Playing

As the information and exercises found in this DVD are too concentrated and numerous to be absorbed in one sitting, Alan Fraser’s lecture presentation of The Craft of Piano Playing screens some of the key sections and then opens up the floor for questions and discussion. Participants have said that the closeup shots of the hand seen on the big screen are particularly effective in transmitting the ‘feel’ and function of an exercise. This is an ideal opportunity to clarify thorny issues and to broaden the discussion to include themes not covered in the film.


Workshop Outline:
Feldenkrais for Pianists & Other Instrumentalists

This workshop presents a new and thought-provoking approach to playing the piano. Participants are led through a series of Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lessons based on the Feldenkrais Method, and might be introduced to some fundamentals of the ancient Chinese martial art, Tai Chi as well. These seeming diversions are in fact designed to familiarize participants with their own basic movement habits. Through this process they can begin to acquire new types of physical organization conducive to the enhancement of piano technique.

The ATM lessons explore the relationship of physical structure to movement in the whole body. This is then transferred to finger/ hand/arm function at the keyboard. Finally this physical component of technique is linked to musical, tonal, emotional and philosophical content. In the cultivation of sensible body structure alignments which are not imposed but rather arrived at through a heightened kinesthetic sense of what one is doing exactly, participants improve their ability do things that they may already have understood in theory. Each movement principle explored in the group lessons relates to a specific aspect of piano technique that is then addressed in a traditional piano master class setting.

This is preventative medicine at its best: the movement facts, learned first hand, allow everyone to advance. Students improve, teachers add a new dimension to their own work, aficionados acquire new insight and empathy for the mysterious alchemy practiced by their musical brothers and sisters. Secrets of tone production and keyboard facility are revealed – students play with more sensitivity and command even while reducing the risk of injury. Everybody gets a better idea of what is possible, and the seeds of curiosity that are sown facilitate further independent investigation and development.

Although some Awareness Through Movement lessons can be taught in an auditorium setting, it is much preferable to have a movement space. Adequate floor space works out to about 30 square feet per student. Participants are invited to wear comfortable, loose fitting clothing, and to BYOB (bring your own blanket!).

This workshop links the secrets of true pianistic virtuosity with those of movement mastery in other realms in order to empower all participants. This system leads to a way of playing the piano previously unsuspected, and allows one to attain at the piano what one thought to be unattainable, to achieve, as Moshe Feldenkrais so beautifully put it, “one’s unavowed dreams”.

This seminar has been presented with great success in Great Britain, Germany, France, Greece, Yugoslavia, North America and elsewhere, running anywhere from 1 to 10 days.

TYPICAL DAILY SCHEDULE

9 - 10 AM               Awareness Through Movement Lesson
10 AM - 12 noon     Piano Master Class
12 noon - 1 PM       Awareness Through Movement Lesson

1 - 3 PM                 Lunch Break

3 - 5 PM                 Piano Master Class
5 - 6 PM                 Awareness Through Movement Lesson

This schedule can be adjusted to fit the requirements of the group. For instance, we will often reduce the ATM classes to only 1 or 2 a day and run a longer series of piano lessons in the available time.


Seminar: Movement and Wellness in Piano Playing

This seminar consists of two parts. First, a presentation of some key themes from The Craft of Piano Playing, along with hand/arm exercises to be done by all audience members. This is followed by practical application of the ideas in a master class setting. This format is ideal for sessions limited by time or by lack of floor space, and can run anywhere from a half hour to several hours. This text was first given at the World Piano Pedagogy Conference 2001 in Orlando, Florida, as a part of a panel discussion on Movement and Wellness in Piano Playing.

Seminar Presentation Text

Moshe Feldenkrais said that movement is life – life without movement is unthinkable. Now there’s a pretty obvious connection! Movement and wellness: if you’re not moving, you’re likely far from well!

But how can we make this general truth relevant to the specific challenges we face in playing piano? Again Feldenkrais supplies us with some pointers. Moshe loved to say, ‘My principle is that there are no principles’, usually just before he explained one of his principles to you. He also loved to say, ‘If you know what you’re doing you can do what you want’. ‘Another obvious generality’, you think. But in his method we discover a very specific meaning for this. The more you can sense or feel, the more you know what you’re doing. The more relaxed you are (up to a point), the more you can sense. The smaller amounts of effort involved, the finer your ability to sense and control. Here’s an illustration:

Demonstration 1:

Hold a compact disk in the palm of your hand. Now have someone place a fountain pen or similar object on it. You can feel that the pen is there – it is easy to detect the difference in weight. Next try putting five thick books on your hand and then have your friend place the fountain pen there again. Now of course it is impossible to tell whether it’s there or not. This demonstrates the efficacy of naturally soft muscle tonus in graphic fashion. Do you see how drastically reducing effort drastically increases your ability to sense, to feel, and thus eventually to act effectively?

The better the alignment of your skeleton, the less effort your muscles will expend in maintaining structural stability and the more power will be available for them to do their actual job, locomotion – activation.

This brings us to the point where both traditional schools (finger action; arm weight) fall short. The finger action school neglected the participation of the arm and other parts of the body, which led to all sorts of physical and tonal problems. The arm weight school over-relaxed, and emasculated the natural power of the fingers.

Demonstration 2:

Take a moment to grasp one forearm with your other hand. Now squeeze firmly, even try to crush the bones of your forearm. DO you see how much power is innate in your hand? Most of us do not employ anywhere near all of that power when we play. A more complete understanding of the nature of human movement may allow us to.

Let’s return to skeletal alignment and how on the one hand structural integrity facilitates vastly increased effectiveness in movement, and on the other hand how effective activity is crucial in generating, re-building structure. There is a symbiotic relationship between activity and structure.

Demonstration 3:

Notice as you grasp, your thumb is under, your grouped four fingers are over. Each does 50% of the work. This is an important aspect of our hand’s structure and function – the thumb is equal in power to the other four fingers combined. Look at its muscle: larger in bulk by far than any other in your hand. What meaning can this hold, that our thumb possesses a full 50% of our hand’s grasping power? If we become present to that power our whole hand may function more effectively. The exercise I call ‘Thumb Pushups’ is an effective way to enhance our awareness of this power.

Demonstration 4:

Step 1: Put your thumb on a key,or your knee, then ‘standing’ on it, stretch your four fingers, lifting them as high as you can. Point them to the ceiling, 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.

Step 2: Make your wrist as high as possible, as if you were using your thumb as a screwdriver. Now take a look – has either of your thumb joints collapsed? We all have differently arranged thumbs – for some of you the distal joint might be the main problem, for others the proximal. Still others of you will fix one joint (‘un-collapse’ it) only to have the other collapse – it goes back and forth.

Find a neutral position where neither joint collapses. If you need to, reduce the amount of pressure on your thumb until it becomes easier to form your joints into some sort of sensible alignment.

You may feel a bit like Bambi as you wobble about on your thumb, trying to find a stable way of standing. Don’t get discouraged but stay with the new experience rather than falling back into your old organization, your tried and true (but perhaps not so useful) technical solutions.

Step 3: Once you’ve found that neutral, un-collapsed position, confirm that it’s the one by again gradually increasing pressure on your screwdriver/thumb while maintaining its supported, un-collapsed structure. If either joint again collapses, you still have some adjusting to do. Finding the skeletal arrangement that will bear even excessive amounts of weight without collapsing is the beginning of true strength and function for your thumb and indeed for your whole hand.

Thumb-forefinger isometrics

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 this gives you unbelievable exactitude and control over the sound of this note.

Step 5: When you release the note, still holding your thumb note and maintaining pressure, let your second finger rise slowly again to its fully open position. Still later you can try letting your forefinger spring up again to full extension. You should feel that the assembly between thumb and forefinger is like the suspension springs of an automobile, just like the yin and yang legs in T’ai Chi walking.

In thumb pushups the space between thumb and forefinger opens and closes just as the elbow does in real pushups. The hypothetical maximum range in real pushups is 180O. How close can you get to this in thumb pushups? Presumably you can close your thumb-forefinger joint to 0O, but only those of us who are double-jointed can open it all the way to 180O. Nevertheless, the closer you can approach a full opening of the joint, the better for you!

Through this exercise we see that although our thumb is most powerful, it cannot stand alone. Without an effective relationship to the rest of your hand it is useless. Thumb pushups serve to individuate our thumb from our hand in order to facilitate more effective cooperation. Cultivating independence leads to better interdependence. This can be seen clearly when we transfer the pressure we exerted down through our thumb into the key, to one of our other fingers.

Demonstration 5: Tai chi walking

Step 1: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Bend your knees, slightly lowering your D’an Tien (a point three centimeters below the belly button – for the Chinese the physical-emotional-spiritual center of the body).

Step 2: Slowly shift your weight onto one leg. This leg is now the yang leg, the one where all your power is concentrated. This frees your yin leg for light, nimble movement.

Step 3: When it comes time to actually walk, you’ll first tend to fall onto your yin foot, shifting your weight along with your foot. No! There must be a differentiation between yin and yang! You must place that yin foot at a 45O angle a comfortable, moderate distance in front of you without transferring any weight onto it. Try reducing the distance at first, giving yourself a better chance to let your foot snake out, touch the ground, feel it, sense it, as a Buddhist monk does when walking on rice paper without crackling it. Your sensing leg feels almost weightless, completely capable of light, feather-like movement, while your center of gravity is still completely grounded in the yang leg, solid, like a rock.

Step 4: Here your yang leg feels like the spring assembly on a car: not a spiral-type spring but a leaf spring that is trying to spring back as pressure is exerted on it. Bend your yang knee even a little more, then straighten it slightly so that your erect torso bobs lightly up and down like the body of a car on its springs. Have your yin leg maintains its spatial relation to your body, making your yin foot leave the ground and return, slapping the surface lightly, sensing it. This helps you become sure of your grounding in two ways. You are firmly rooted in your yang leg and can feel your stability, while your yin leg, by sensing, has a chance to prepare itself to receive your body weight.

Step 5: When you feel sure in this differentiation of function between one leg and the other, begin to shift your weight slowly, gradually. Feel every iota of the movement, each degree. Notice that somewhere around the midpoint in this transition you will feel like you have two yang legs. At this point your front leg has begun to bear some weight but your back leg has not yet really begun to ease off. When your weight finally does come to rest fully on your front leg, its knee now well bent, it becomes your new yang leg. Now your back leg becomes feather-light. This is why feeling each increment of the movement is so important: your two legs are exchanging their yin and yang functions. The difference in feeling between yin and yang is huge. The slower and more gently you move, the more you can begin to sense the profoundness of this difference.

Step 6: Only now can you begin to take your next step. That is, remove your back leg from the ground and draw your foot to a point hovering beside your standing ankle. Then let it snake out diagonally and use it now, your new yin leg, to sense the ground further in front of you. The clear separation of function of your legs is always maintained: one is the foundation spring, the other a mobile sensing antenna. Only when this separation is felt and understood clearly can the moment of transition be managed skillfully, effectively, elegantly.

Step 7: Perhaps by now you feel you have attained a certain degree of mastery over this strange but educative mode of locomotion. Trying all of this but walking backwards instead of forwards will certainly show you how perfectly you’ve learned it! Here’s your chance to smooth out any bugs that still may remain in the system.

Demonstration 6: Discrimination of functions – ‘Tai Chi walking’ at the piano

Try to maintain this sense of power and stability as we now introduce a new element, a discrimination of functions. While one finger maintains the stability it acquired in fingerstands, its neighbours will begin to move to take a step. This way of learning to walk on the keys grows directly out of the way your legs walk in T’ai Chi.

Step 1: Play one note. The finger that plays it becomes your yang, your foundation, your support. Your next finger, because it is yin, can feel its note, gauge the key exactly, even feel the very weight of the hammer as you might measure the weight of a book by holding it at arm’s length and jogging it up and down gently.

Step 2: Only when your yin finger has adequately felt its key does it play the next note while your yang finger does not release the first note. The moment when two keys are depressed is crucial. Here the two fingers exchange their yin and yang functions just as your legs did, while both maintain a perfect stance – total contact with the keybed. This means that for a moment you feel as if you have two yang fingers – you are already leaning healthily into your yin finger but have not yet begun to release your weight from the initial yang finger. This sense of walking, of shifting your weight so to speak, from the bottom of one key to the bottom of the next, allows you to connect your two fingers on the keybed.

A very slight adjustment of your wrist facilitates this. Don’t actively move your wrist so much, but simply let it follow your hand through its slight shift in position from one note to the next.
Just as in securely shifting your weight from one leg to the other, here as well there is at no moment any loss of structure or support, therefore in no way is your ability ever impaired. One fingertip connects to the other through the keybed, and your metacarpal-phalangeal finger joints, your knuckles, are also joined, creating a tetrahedral structure whose four corners are the two fingertips and two knuckles (illustration). When we walk on the street, we do not move from one foot to the other with a hop but with a sure stride. It is surprising how far we can stray from this sureness of step in our legato touch on the keyboard!

Now we have an effective basis to cure
- over moving
- an over-relaxed, powerless approach
- an overly tense approach

Cultivating structural alignments and a quality of movement that respects and uses those alignments, gives us a basis for healthy, effective, elegant movement – movement that makes us well.

Moshe’s definition of health (read ‘wellness’) was “being able to fulfil your unavowed dreams”. This for me is a singularly poignant definition. We all have stated goals, yet somewhere inside we cherish those little golden dreams, hopes so precious yet that appear to be so far from reality. It seems too good to be true that THEY could manifest! Yet this is what Feldenkrais Method, and my approach to piano as well, aim to cultivate – a state of wellness that is more than just lack of illness – a capability, a wellness that is vital and potent.


Movement & Wellness Lecture Handout

These notes were assembled as a memory aid for students who attended Alan Fraser’s seminar, Movement and Wellness.
They outline themes presented in greater detail in Fraser’s book, The Craft of Piano Playing.

Thesis

Piano technique is already highly and very widely developed; what more is needed? How can we build upon what we know? Is there an approach that can apply to all? Yes, if it is based on certain fundamental facts such as:

If you know what you’re doing you can do what you want.
The more exactly you can sense physically, the more you know what you’re doing.
The better your body alignments the more you can sense (not inhibited by holding contractions), the easier effective movement will be.
The smaller the efforts involved in your movements, the more you can sense – with a CD in hand, you can feel a penny being placed on the CD. With five books on your hand, you can’t feel the penny.

Three levels of development in all human activity – natural, individual, systematic (aborigines – boomerangs, N. Americans – snowboarding, rules of perspective in art…)

Greatest pianists constitute second level – individual achievement

We haven’t defined the physical ingredients of what they did. Piano method has been systemized more in musical than physical terms. We set a musical goal and rely on instinctive physical processes to fulfill it. New developments in understanding of movement physics can lead us to third level – a greater systematization of piano technique through the education of those instinctive processes.

Observation of Horowitz in the light of T’ai Chi – economy and effectiveness of movement, meditativeness – like the T’ai Chi master.

T’ai Chi, other martial arts. Meditation in movement. Awareness in movement, as in Feldenkrais. Not only quality of movement but exactitude of intention. Physical capability allows for better meditativeness in playing; the music acquires emotional content that is not a caricature.

Feldenkrais Method – new view of movement and learning. How awareness of use of self is important.

How practically to arrive at new systematization: a series of exercises that address certain key aspects of physical mechanics at the keyboard.

SECTION I: THE FOREGROUND

The Fingers and Hand

Basic idea – the hand is a structure that has function. Function should continually be generating structure (form follows function).

Legato – foundation of piano technique.

T’ai Chi walking

The same on the keyboard

First: lean against wall – ‘fingerstands’
Second: finger walking – from key bottom to key bottom – feel connection across metacarpal ridge
Knuckle-hummocks are high, not the wrist
Arm helps by flowing with the hand – NOT TOO MUCH MOVEMENT – as if it is passive

Thumb pushups

Overholding – Hanon with dynamic differentiations – make piano sound like two instruments simultaneously

Most basic function: grasping. Use ’’the sound of one hand clapping’’ exercise to maximally activate that function.

The Arm

Fingers make sound while the arm affects musical shapes, characters, tone qualities, pulse, etc.

’’The classic arm out’’ relaxation movement – creates two problems instead of doing what it is intended to do – because it is done unconsciously, automatically.

Wrist – a phrase machine like the arm, but more exact. If the wrist ‘breaks’, the forces coming down through the arm cannot be transmitted through the wrist and on down through the hand/finger into the key. Instead they sheer off at an angle, their effect nullified. On the other hand, if the wrist is locked, the bones and force vectors may well be lined up correctly, but the forces simply can’t get through – they’re blocked at the joint by static muscular contractions.
Ideal – loose, able to move but not actually moving or moving only minimally. All forces can get through, nothing is disturbed by overmoving.

Octaves and chords: again, fingers make sound, arm decides quality – don’t neglect role of finger.

Navigation or orientation – rotation (eliminate swivelling on the horizontal plane); oblique whole arm (elbow stays close to body in leaps). Swivelling – another useless, automatic habit like “the classic arm out”.

Natural Shape

Redo all of the above with new quality – let arm hang by side, notice shape of fingers: natural curve. Keep that in your playing!

Some contractions that maintain structure inhibit rather than help movement.

SECTION II: THE MIDDLEGROUND – Rhythm, Phrasing, Entasis, ORCHESTRATION.

SECTION III: THE BACKGROUND – Emotional & Philosophical Content; Templates of Human Experience

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