Piano Technique : Evolution or Revolution?by Lucie Renaud
/ February 1, 2000
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
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Weber, while Liszt was ready to listen to anything, including new, unpublished
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]