Growing the technique of playing and teaching the piano.
"Whoever is moved by music to the depths of the soul, and works on the instrument like possessed one, who loves music and his instrument with passion – will acquire virtuoso technique; he/she will be able to recreate the artistic image of the composition; he/she will be a performer."
"Music lives within us, in our brain, in our consciousness; its "domicile" can be accurately established: it is our hearing."
"A Pole at hearth, but due to his genius – a citizen of the World". This is how C. Norwid, a poet, wrote about Frédéric Chopin, whose music is enjoyed, studied and played with a greater love world-wide for more than 150 years. His compositions and life were examined and documented thoroughly. Unfortunately, his piano method, which has never been finished in writing, is being gradually forgotten even in teaching of the higher university levels. In truth, Chopin's Method had never been admitted in the Western piano tradition as an idea of the greater practical value. That is why it becomes much better known among musicologists, then familiarized by the pianists. Meanwhile, due to its far-sighted wisdom, the Chopin's Method should be seen as the remarkably profitable support for all of the pianists: as well beginners, as professionals, too. This formula fulfils all the requirements that contemporary student would expect from the professional piano schooling system. However, maybe, the students might need some kind of guidance, which could help them to assimilate the Chopin's teaching armory.
The article you actually are reading through, offers the help of such kind; this text actually interprets some basic aspects of the Chopin's Method that one could seen as elements of the key importance. My personal way to this formula was not direct and took quite a long time. That is why, as I feel, at first I should briefly explain some additional aspects of the matter before I start to introduce the capital substance of my discoveries.
I am still afraid that being not an English native speaker, I am probably unable to shape my explanations as clearly as it should be done. Therefore, I would like to appeal for your patience! Let us at least try to recognize the cantus firmus, which consequently would illuminate our searches for real truth related to real treasure of the piano wisdom. This is the name of the matter!
One of my Friends had given such comment to my interpretation of the Chopin's Method:
"I gather that we should concentrate on sound production and tonal control rather than thinking purely of the mechanical aspects of playing the piano."
However, his opinion is truly correct, as I think – it could better be shaped in such form as below, "We should firmly focus our attention on sound production and on the tonal & emotional control because only in this way we can truly upgrade the manual aspects of our entire instrumental technique."
As John Ruskin said: "Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together." My interpretation of the Chopin's Method is surely going toward this goal.
Searching for a system that could give guarantees of the decisive success in professional piano schooling, we might have to look for a special skill, which will give a possibility to combine the imaginable artistic image of the musical Form with the manual activity of the pianist. By surprise, in 1995 I have got some truly remarkable help in this way reading a book published by Barry Sears, Ph.D.: "The Zone; A Dietary Road Map" (Regan Books; USA, 1995). Dr. Sears took a zone, a notion this book tells about, from the sport's language: the American athletes' elite uses it for quite a long time. The zone means them – a near euphoric state of maximum physical, mental and psychological performance. Being a medical researcher, Dr. Sears describes such condition as the metabolic state, in which the body works at peak efficiency. Thanks to various free associations, the zone settled my thinking about piano technical schooling on the absolutely new path. Firstly I started to test, HOW could be possible to use the particular zone of the sound's quality in practicing and playing the piano? According to Chopin's statement, such zone should be used as the factor that should help to focus the pianist's attention on the most important aspects of the sound.
As Chopin wrote in his Projet de méthode: In this immensity of sounds we should find a region in which the vibrations are more easily perceptible to us (look at: J-J. Eigeldinger, Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils, Cambridge University Press, 1986).
This very precise and concrete suggestion, unfortunately, has never been noticed in theory of the piano as something of greater importance for the piano technical schooling. Just suddenly I discovered – how the zone should be applied in practicing the piano... Afterwards, in the Tellefsen's Treatise of piano technique (Frédéric Chopin. Esquisses pour une méthode de piano. Textes réunis et présentes par Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger. Paris, 1993; Chapter 3) I found some declarations of this Chopin's scholar that fully certify the adequacy of my suppositions in this matter.
In 1999, I found the next greatly intriguing Chopin's indication in the introductory part of the Sketches. This is, inter alia, how he wrote about real problems of the piano technique: "...[you have] to learn how to properly realize the long and short sounds..." (Frédéric Chopin. Esquisses pour une méthode de piano. Textes réunis et présentes par Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger. Paris, 1993).
Reading such advice I was truly confused – what does it should actually mean? Why just "long and short sounds"? Which kind of difficulties might be hidden herein? Why for he would like to introduce the "long and short sounds" as the particular piano technical problem?
These both indications: a zone of the dynamic value in which the sounds are most easily perceptible to us, and the problem of longer and shorter sounds must been used in our tries to interpret the Chopin Method's entirety as a real bottom of the matter. Having no evidences of such FIRM kind, still searching for the basically substantial information, we would be forced to operate among hypotheses and possibilities of the unverifiable character only.
In any case, these both indications, especially in alliance with easily determinable character of Chopin's definitions of the music, are giving enough much light on the problem. From this reason, quite soon after, I started to experimentally test their practical worth. I was sure that this path in thinking about possibilities of the practical usage of Chopin's Method could open surprisingly great perspectives. Of course, I was not the first teacher who tried to use the Chopin's Method in his piano practice. For example, this method has been very successfully used by one of the greatest, in my opinion, piano masters in the whole history of the piano teaching – by Prof. Harry Neuhaus (1888-1964). In particular sense of the word – he even developed and gave the Chopin's Method the form, which is more clear to piano teachers of our time; especially his clarifications concerning manual aspects of the piano technique should be perceived as the indisputably excellent, indeed. In any case yet, such objective elements of the Chopin's Method that are presented in this article, have never been formerly noticed, even in the Prof. Neuhaus' writings.
After sufficiently long and many-sided test period in Finland, Germany and Poland, I may actually say that the practical solutions proposed by the Chopin's Method that are presented in this article, are thoroughly helpful and seriously support the technique of playing and teaching the piano. After all, they represent such kind of clarity, that the each one pianist should be able to put them into his/her practice without any external help.
Many musicians are truly able to play the piano very well but in spite of it, they play poorly, without joy or satisfaction. That is the question, why?
For a long time I have been particularly interested in relations between the technique of piano playing and the artistic vision of the music that one tries to play. My attention, especially, has been focused on practical usage of such vision as a working background in the instrumental action. Because it was very clear to me that the result of any action strictly depends on way of handling the energy in it, I started just from this fundamental question. Here are my conclusions:
I. Irrational management of energy produces the most common tribulations in the piano technique; it appears as result of combined influence of some nearly inadvertent defects, as:
- The players' deficient desire to animate the interpreted music.
- The players' incomplete consciousness of an artistic sense of the musical Form that is being shaped in playing.
- The players' incomplete vision of the piano sound's quality as of something that definitely rules the piano technique.
- The players' inadequate knowledge of the "policies" that determine the energetic interaction between hands as organs of the body, and the piano keyboard.
Well, if the players' thinking, hearing and manual acting are organized on such deficient base – the whole work must bring only little effect. A conception that interprets the technical side of piano playing as something purely functional and therefore – artistically neutral, totally sterilizes fantasy, makes the play boring and, at last, overloads the players physically, too. Due to practicing directed by artistically and mechanically inadequate base, one obviously must feel a lack of satisfaction and try to look for the formula that will clear up this unpleasant situation. In this case, the idea of making the fingers stronger and stronger surely can appear at the first place as something "rational". The idea of that kind focuses the pianist's attention on second-class elements of the matter yet: the various finger-exercises must reappear in the center of regard...
Many pianists can interpret it as the most natural solution, but in fact such approach definitely establishes the whole work in a fully ineffective shape.
The wrong option, too – are attempts to acting in the world of pure fantasy and tries to solve all the operational problems in piano playing in this way only. These both magical circles: purely mechanical and purely mental – have to be conjoined "by and in" the pianist's hearing. Something at last should connect all the elements of playing into one fully effective system; unfortunately, such stimulus would very rarely arise from the player's own inside.
II. The technical education of pianists based on mechanistic, anatomic-physiological or purely psychological order induces the irrational management of energy in playing the piano.
Irrational management of energy in piano playing is at least not accidental only. It might even be determined by quasi-scientific theories, which in essence regard the pianist as a composite of mechanisms of nearly pure physical nature. However, sometimes, the pianist could be wrongly portrayed as almost metaphysical being that can solve all the technical questions in piano playing solely using his/her mental powers.
It has been known for very many years that a mastery in the piano does not mean the manual perfection only, but rather an art of creating the virtual Beauty in the really sounding musical appearance. So, it should be understandable, that the mastery in such kind of art might be reached only by the usage of the professionally appropriate techniques that would make possible many-sided processing of the one's own musical ideas. Consequently, the professionally adequate piano technique cannot be achievable via practice exclusively supported by the mechanistic, anatomic-physiological or solely psychological base. In such cases, the focus of attention to entirely mechanical or purely mental aspects of playing will automatically set the major questions of our art far away from any one possibility to solve them. It should be clear for us all, that because the Musical Art is being experienced via the hearing, therefore our attention has to firmly be focused on development of professionally proper hearing skills.
III. The conviction that physical power and velocity of fingers decide the technical development in playing the piano - is the fundamental mistake and reason for all instrumental troubles in the piano education.
Factually, I hope, each one piano teacher could agree that artistic growth in the piano is achievable, firstly, through development of creative musical hearing and through activation of the musical fantasy, which both should act in our work as the powerful command center.
At the same time yet, almost constantly, the power and velocity of fingers are the dominant problems in the piano technical schooling. Placing such elements at the central point of ones thinking about technique of the piano, certainly will cause very bad results because such interpretation does not respect the basic role of imaginary side of the sound's quality complex in shaping of the musical form in performance. Such interpretation, firstly, does not even conceive HOW musical fantasy's activity and the sound's quality inspection could induce the technically proper hands' action in playing the piano. That is why the everyday piano teaching practice is still usually divided into technical and the artistic parts. Due to this fact, for example, Chopin's art of touché (a kind of touch, beloved by Chopin as a manner of not only physical contact with a keyboard in his art of piano playing) is at time almost unachievable. It is nearly clear – why so. As I think, it happens because of very common tendency to handle matters in piano playing strictly logically. I mean, through all possible sorts of analysis that are natural procedures in scientific research. That tendency, unfortunately, destroys artistic creativity and totally dries the matter.
In our art we need of course analyses, but at first we have to obtain the skills of creating a musically rational [mobile] vision of the piano sound that could activate our desire for creativity. As well, we need some practical hearing skills that must actually direct the whole technical side of playing. The creative musical hearing that should guide the pianist's acting, must give the hands the proper operational commands. Of course, we have to intensely listen to our inner voices if we would like to create the musical form on the really abundant base. But at first we have to be adequately inform what about actually happens in the technically most essential levels of the sounds' external (dynamic) and internal (motional & emotional) features. Well, seeking for such specific hearing skills we have to determine the object that we ought to intensely watch over in playing. The Chopin's answer is very clear, "In this immensity of sounds we should find a region in which the vibrations are more easily perceptible to us"; of course we have to determine some specific attributes of this object that have to be primarily observed.
In opposition to many questionable orders that factually disintegrate the hands' action, Chopin's priceless touché smoothly connects all the elements on and in playing the piano. Such touch practically makes the fingers strictly dependent from quality of players' abilities to hear creatively and, as well, of acting of theirs artistic fantasy. Because the touché of Chopin's mode really means a great deal more than only a special kind of contact with a keyboard: it thoroughly assists the whole operational part of creating of the artistic idea in playing the piano. How is possible to achieve such kind of a touch – is the main question of my article.
I started my searches from the problem of energetic management within technical side of playing the piano. Not only in my opinion, exactly this question is being seen as the problem of the truly key importance to the whole piano technical schooling. In the all probability just F. Liszt personally said: "All technique originates in the art of touch and returns to it" (J-J. Eigeldinger, Chopin: pianist and teacher, op. cit., p. 17). Well, because unfortunately there is only one share of energy in a human being, the pianists ought to economize their own powers: if ineffective kind of touch would use up too much energy, the lack of energy for the higher, creative activity, must come to light "earlier or later". Pianists, of course, must exert their powers and however they do need rather not much of them, they do need the particular power only – the benevolent one. Unfortunately, in the same way as good and bad cholesterol exists, or good and bad super-hormones, which Dr. Sears wrote about in his book, good and bad kinds of power in the pianists' hands also exist.
In attempts to obtain such "good powers" I have written in the foregoing paragraph about, the pianist will get an essential help using the "sound's quality detector" alias, the Zone. The notion of The Zone should firstly be interpreted as "the dynamic vision of a sound in ones fantasy", and after then – it should practically be used as "the reference value" in practicing and playing the piano. Of course, an additional help could come from the another vision, too; I mean, from a vision of the KEAYBOARD'S BOTTOM that cannot systematically be smashed by the pianist's fingers, constantly attacking it with the huge, always increasing power. Working on the piano technique without any help of such virtual kind, one actually must engage much too much physical energy even for realization of the truly easy-care tasks. Whatever happens, only having the ideal pattern that the pianist should formerly create, he could be able to professionally censure the quality of his playing. Having such pattern in central point of the attention one become to be able to search for the best kind of power for one's hands. It cannot happen through purely physical exercising of fingers, but it should particularly be realized likely oppositely to any other type of the physical effort!
One surely will find and be able to develop the benevolent power in his/her hands, but solely through a distinct kind of a soft touch, born in assistance of precise ear control and of the active artistic imagination. Due to powerful impact of these factors, the pianist's co-operation with "resistant forces" of the keyboard will work without any disturbances and with minimal participation of a raw physical power. The pianist's fingers will consequently achieve the similar kind of contact with the keyboard, as the right hand of the skilful cellist has with the bow. Using the zone as the operational facility can help to install the genuine Chopin's touché into the technical practice of the pianists. It will develop the creative musical hearing up to such quality, that at last all the applicable elements in playing will be conjoined into the one, well-integrated system.
In my own experience, I may say that especially at the first phases of work one obviously should focus one's hearing on the quite thin, mezzo – still, dynamically – not weak zone of the sound's power. Even very small non-controlled growth of sound's energy mostly directs unskilled hearing into a specific insensibility. As well, even relatively small reduction of dynamic pitch could make such ears "non-interested" in hearing. That happens, probably, on the same physiological basis, as it could be observed in seeing, feeling of a taste, of a temperature, a lighting, etc. So, for the best, one should start one's personal search for the supreme piano technique exactly from this dynamic zone, he/she really can experience with the whole accuracy and with greater personal enjoyment. It should be – for her, for him, for you and me – just the most natural and beautiful kind of the sound. Chopin's scholar, Th. D. A. Tellefsen wrote in his Treatise of piano technique (Frédéric Chopin. Esquisses pour une méthode de piano. Textes réunis et présentes par Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger. Paris, 1993; Chapter 3) - "such homogeneous, peaceful and not exalted sound forms the basis of music and is being achieved not for many pianists".
An approach to the quality of such basic sound should remember the process of forming of the voice by the bel canto tutor. The everyday practicing must be started neither from shouting, nor from crying, but just from humming. After then the singer may carefully start to use any different dynamic levels. For me, the next very useful similarity could be found in the image of an ancient well. One cannot get the best water, drawing it from too low depths; it cannot be drawn, as well, from too high levels of the well – one has to draw it from just the exact level...
There exist the next, very important aspect of the matter: our imaginable source must be alive! The vision of the sound, which forms the virtual basis of the real sound – has to be mobile, it must actually flow along! If not, due to the uncompromising impact of the emotional resonance, all the played sounds (motives, phrases, the whole musical Forms) would be perceived as something emotionally stagnant, and therefore all the performance would be boring to the listeners as well, as to the player, too.
Well, a question of The Beauty must persistently be present in center of our work. As Chopin said, again: "In this immensity of sounds we find a region in which the vibrations are more easily perceptible to us". To catch it up there must be used in playing a next supplementary value: a feeling of the physical comfort and pleasure in the hands. Such one is achievable only through precise internal control and could be defined as the sensitively determinable level of the ease in the pianist's hands, which if crossed over, causes very undesirable consequences in the sound's quality. One should remember that even relatively small growth of non controlled stress in working unskilled hands readily directs into the specific muscle's insensibility which if combined with ears' passivity, gives at last the truly non-professional, boring and artistically unhappy piano playing.
Reversibly, even some minutes long, quiet, still intensive training in such a "region in which the vibrations are more easily perceptible to us", so - in the proper (basic) dynamic zone of the sound - will unconditionally bring the very improvement of playing quality. Various instrumentally important details will be explained some paragraphs below and, especially - in files that could be reached by links added at the end of this page.
Without special professional training only very great musical talents could achieve truly good instrumental technique. A commonly talented pianist just need in a tutoring of that kind to obtain the proper hearing skills by certain way of training. Unfortunately, there are not many sources that can precisely tell how one must listen to one's own playing as the truly skilful pianist does. As well it would be not easy to get an answer on such questions as:
- "how is possible to detect such details in playing that operationally are most important "?
- and "how they should be processed "?
Doubtlessly, the both of them are very important in the piano technical schooling. Generally, the question we are actually speaking about could be defined as "how exactly looks the object that one must strongly control if tries to find the technically most effective solution in playing the piano?"
In many occasions the students can read and hear about the sound's quality, or about the tone, timbre, color, etc. These words are very poetic. They all are the beautiful and instructively useful notions, but in the deeper sense of a matter using them only will bring not enough worthy results. The students need in artistically firm impulses for their fantasy. Therefore we have to use many characteristic notions, thoughts and ideas to growing theirs mental activity. At the same time they must obtain very simple, real and handy tools for developing their hearing technique yet; these tools must firmly serve theirs piano technique.
The main technical thought of the Chopin's formula is, as I see, just as handy and functional: the pianists should find the zone of exactly this kind of sound's quality that they really can control with the greatest accuracy.
The next step should be characterized as the phase of work that will give the sound's vision enough virtual energy to flow inside the Zone. This conclusion comes easily to light after joining together Chopin's indication concerning "the short and long sounds" and his definitions of the music in which he constantly tells about "speaking", "revealing", "presenting", etc. He always speaks about acting then, and this is very apparent - why so! It is because of the piano sound's terrible attribute of physical immobility and due to incontestable great impact of the emotional resonance. Just therefore the pianists have to put their fantasy into action and create the flowing vision of a sound despite real duration of the sounds. The staccato (short) sounds CANNOT destroy the general FLUENTNESS of the musical drive. As well the length of the longer sounds must be fulfilled with emotional and mental motion that will positively affect the listeners, giving the pianists possibility to practical realization of cantabile via the piano (likely) immobile sound.
Of course, I would not like to say that in my opinion Chopin has personally interpreted his vision of the matter in the similar categories. I must still admit that such interpretation of the problem to the dots agree with the all evidences one can get looking for substantial information about Chopin's manner of teaching and playing the piano. For me it is extremely joyful that exactly this model of the piano technical solution I am actually writing about has been practically approved many hundred times at my master-classes in several European countries. Furthermore it has been acclaimed as truly beneficial one by very many highly talented piano youngsters as well as by their teachers.
You, surely, remember well this J. Ruskin's sentence: "Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together." These all, nice, hearable and imaginable things – as "head, hearth..." could be practically efficient only in case if the students would be able to "find and touch" the third value of the similarly great importance yet: the particular level of freedom and sensual pleasure in theirs hands. And, reversibly: this value could be detectable and attainable only in case if they correspondingly would like to search for, and be able to find the proper zone in the sound's quality. Only creating the Flowing Vision of the Sound the pianist would at last be able to obtain his/her individual basic sound.
At this place I would like to bring in the Tellefsen's name again. He was the Chopin's student within about five years and Chopin appealed just personally him to finish up the Méthode. Tellefsen writes clearly that the quality and volume of a sound thoroughly depend upon the use of hands' weight. We may add here, "via rational help of fingers' agility and theirs energy", of course. In any case, it has to be really evident that there exist only the two eventualities:
A. Or - the pianists would like to utilize the weight of fingers, forearms and hands - separately or as an entirety, in agree to any concrete circumstances.
B. Or - they will persistently be forced to cope with the force of gravitation, use theirs muscles for keeping hands in the air, and in spite of it employ them in a fight against resistant force of the keys.
These both options concern the mechanic part of playing the piano. What can we say about mental & emotional part of the matter?
Chopin's texts constantly maintain ACTING. In my opinion, it should especially affect the "longer and shorter sounds" which remorselessly betray the pianist's artistic inactivity. The instrumentalists who play strings and winds, or the singers - they all have possibilities to form the sound within full time of its length. The pianists do not have such possibility and therefore they absolutely HAVE TO DO SOMETHING, I mean - they have to activate the piano sound (again: especially when playing the "longer or shorter sounds" which remorselessly betray the pianist's inner artistic inactivity). Because the emotional resonance works invariably always and everywhere, the pianists should seriously take under consideration such points as:
A. Or they will vitalize the vision of a sound, changing purely mental work into combined activity of fantasy and creative hearing.
B. Or they will be accursed to lose the fight against artistic immobility as well, as will lose the battle against the keyboard...
Many additional explanations concerning the technique of the piano could be found via links placed at the end of this page. At this place I just like to remind that wanting to get more clear image of the matter you unconditionally have to read Prof. Neuhaus' clarifications concerning manual aspects of the piano technique in his famous book "Art of Piano Playing"!
Constantly watching the alternations that take place in the sound's moving inside, the pianists can adequately guide the evolution of the artistic idea in the playing. And however, as I suppose, almost all piano players deeply believe in necessity of highly correct hearing - many of them are listening to the sounds just superficially, like concert listeners do. To be really well informed about what is going on in the playing, they should listen to the sound of the piano during ones playing on truly professional way.
So, they should simultaneously try to:
- generate the proper (mobile) vision of the sound,
- produce the sound in possibly effortless way (utilizing the weight of fingers, forearms and hands - separately or as an entirety, in agree to any concrete circumstances),
- verify its quality and realize the necessary corrections as soon as possible.
I would like to maintain now, and even stress again my deep belief in irrationality of every physical movement in playing - if it not directly promote the artistic idea of actually performing musical element. For many reasons, especially in practicing classical music, it is possible to use artistically "empty" movements to an alarming extent. The use of the zone might change such practice definitely; if the empty (artistically invalid) tone still arises - the player, as a result, will lose a feeling of pleasure in the hands! I have understood this aspect that put the finishing touches on my new comprehension of the piano technique just accidentally associating a zone, which Dr. Sears has used as a notion related to a medical question - with the idea of perfectionism in playing the piano. The nuance of this notion (a zone) has worked like a taste of madeleine or a sound of knocked flagstone in "À la recherché du temps perdu" (by M. Proust). Many things have appeared in my imagination in completely new colors. Relations and similarities between matters that seemingly exist so far one from another, like "Une Méthode de piano" of Chopin, TAO and the technique of using a bow in the Russian method of the violin - have come to light.
. Part II; follow this link, please!