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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 5

Piano Technique : Evolution or Revolution?

by Lucie Renaud / February 1, 2000

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As the new millennium dawns, numerous technical approaches to the art of playing the piano are competing for attention. The following historical overview may give readers a better understanding of what's involved.

18th century: Clementi and Czerny

Pre-nineteenth century teaching for piano had three basic rules:

1. The fingers must be isolated from the negative effects of the hand and arm.

2. Technical training is a mechanical process reinforced by hours of intensive daily practice.

3. The teacher is the supreme authority.

Muzio Clementi wrote the first textbook on piano technique. His Introduction to the Art of Playing the Piano (1801) laid down the rule that all five fingers must be equally strong. He insisted that the hand should be immobile, the wrist horizontal, the fingers curved and lifted very high, and the notes struck vigorously. This technique was exemplified in Carl Czerny's exercises, which are still part of many young pianists' practice schedule. Czerny's approach separated technical mastery from musical interpretation, as he believed that the former would lead to the desired artistic goals.

19th century: Chopin and Liszt

The development of the piano and the presence of virtuoso composer-pianists brought new approaches to the instrument in the 19th century. Liszt was the first to suggest that each finger movement was connected to the arm and that changes in rhythm and expression were inextricably linked to the musician's inner rhythm. Chopin stressed the need to blend hand, wrist, forearm, and arm movements in order to get a richer sound. The arm should have some freedom; joints and muscles should not be stiff. Chopin saw technique as an integral part of music.

Despite their new approaches, the teaching methods of these two virtuosos were diametrically opposed. Chopin liked giving individual lessons, whereas Liszt preferred public master classes. As a teacher, Chopin was kind and patient, while Liszt was arrogant and sarcastic. Chopin was very meticulous and worked on the same pieces until they were completely mastered. Liszt, however, dispensed his wisdom concerning any particular work once only. Chopin's preferred repertoire included Bach, Mozart, Hummel, Clementi, and Weber, while Liszt was ready to listen to anything, including new, unpublished works.

20th century technique

The benefit of a piano technique involving the transfer of weight was first mentioned in 1880 by Tobias Matthay, a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He felt that, for range and variety of sound colour, the fingers must always be supported by the body's weight. Numerous variations on this approach have appeared over the last 50 years. Rotation, direction, the weight of the arm and shoulder, and prehension (grasp) of the fingertips are familiar terms in piano circles.

Currently, many doctors specialize in the treatment of different forms of tendinitis and other music-related conditions. American Dorothy Taubman, founder and music director of the Taubman Institute of Piano has devoted over fifty years researching and studying the problem of musical injuries. She has developed what seems a radical though highly logical piano technique, and is convinced that tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome can be avoided if musicians learn to play in the right way. Taubman advocates eliminating arm and hand movements that make muscles work contrary to their specific anatomical purpose. In her opinion, technique and music can't be separated. Our bodies are what generate the rhythm, sonority, phrasing, tone, and colour of the music produced. All the thought and feeling of which a pianist is capable will be useless if the body does not function as it should.

Most pianists today agree that integrating the movements of fingers, forearm, and arm are essential for a rich, relaxed sound. Nevertheless, musicians must develop their own approach to the instrument. There's no point trying to put a square peg in a round hole. As the noted Russian teacher Egon Petri so succinctly put it, "Don't believe everything I tell you, but try my methods. If they help you, adopt them; if not, forget about them and find others."

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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