weight, or  maybe  NOT  the  weight...? Metropolitan Opera House, New York - 1937; Mr. Josef Hofmann at the piano...


Question 18.


Paul had sent this email:


"Dear Stefan,


I am writing you this time because I think I have an excellent topic at hand. As you know I am corresponding on the internet with a Russian pianist who studied during seven years at the Moscow Conservatory with Lev Naumov. What he wrote to me recently is puzzling me. I'm going to share with you some of his thoughts:


"As far as the weight technique concerned, one should approach it very carefully and as always in close relation to musical effect you want to produce... You have to have in your arsenal all kinds of technique and use in every particular moment for achieving musical effect needed. The most important thing is: it should be very effective and economical, with minimum energy loss, hence playing from the keys' surface."


Here you are the Paul's main question to his Russian Correspondent:


Dear M., a quick question here: do you personally use free fall when playing chords or do you take them right from the keyboard surface?


And the answer of Him:


"No! Never!!! At least I am trying not to. I play everything from the keys, only. When I need to put a big chord (for example, in Spanish Rhapsody the very first ones, or in the very end), I try to "pump" them up. It is like as if you slowly, but with great deal of pressure get into the dough and then realize this pressure immediately, ones you get out of it. I try to use the weight of whole my body, and whole the mass starts from your toes."


Paul wrote as follows:


I'd like to also quote what he wrote me a year ago (my question was: should we raise our fingers in slow playing):


"So let’s see what the mechanism of piano playing is all about. You have the image: your head sends impulse to your fingertips, you hear produced sound – like a feedback your brain compares this sound to the musical image you have, deciding what is the place in the music context it has – and next impulse is that one of correction, deciding how the next sound should be adjusted to fit into the whole picture.

If on the way there is any physical tension whatsoever (in your shoulders, arms, palms, or even in finger joints) it blocks this impulse. Since your brain sends the next signal of correction (feedback), but the impulse does not reach the destination (fingertip), either, the whole mechanism gets completely mixed up, and all these impulses get clashed in your body, without any way out, disturbing your musical image.

So the usual "relaxation approach" is not about injuries (although directly related), but about music itself: how your brain translates the music into the fingers. The funny stuff is that all this process is so natural (if you do it right); music comes the most natural way, and actually [it] is a part of your body. The injuries are irrelevant in this case.

And, now let’s think about it: all this energy, this impulse should go straight INTO THE KEY. Why would you want to waist even an ounce of it? If you raise your fingers, the energy is actually going OUT THE KEY. Instead of one task (directly translating the energy), you actually [will] do three jobs here -- first, you accumulate the energy; second, you go up
, dissipating this energy; then finally third -- you are trying to catch up, going down, but the energy of your image is already gone. The sound you produce is already not connected to the context of the previous one, [so...] you have already lost this energy of CONNECTION of musical image by disconnecting it with UNNECCESSARY PHYSICAL work.   

Fingers should penetrate into the keys
, closely following the musical image of the sound. They should not strike the keys, but follow the musical image in the most natural way, with motions suitable only to particular piece of music, directly translating the image into the sound. Any physical motion, which is out of the musical context is a WASTE, HUGE WASTE."


Do you have some thoughts? Is it close to your teaching principles?


At the same time, I would like to wish a Merry Christmas to you and your family! Best wishes for health, happiness and prosperity in the New Year!


Etc, etc."

Here you are my answer:

Dear Paul!

Thanks a lot for your friendly Wishes and Greetings! Same to you – Dear Friend! Thanks a lot for so important questions, too! You asked about my thoughts related to explanations given by your Russian friend. Maybe, I should firstly say that my feelings are truly mixed after reading them up, and however I see many positive points in your friend's writings, in my opinion no one logically thinking human being may accept such contradictory opinions as parts of any larger, yet VALUABLE entirety. Let you see, what kind of an intellectual mixture will product the thoughts of your Russian friend when we put them more closely one to another one:

"You have to have in your arsenal all kinds of technique and use in every particular moment for achieving musical effect needed."


"I play everything from the keys, only."


"If on the way there is any physical tension whatsoever ... the whole mechanism gets completely mixed up, and all these impulses get clashed in your body, without any way out, disturbing your musical image."


"When I need to put a big chord (for example, in Spanish Rhapsody the very fist ones, or in the very end), I try to "pump" them up. It is like as if you slowly, but with great deal of pressure get into the dough and then realize this pressure immediately, ones you get out of it. I try to use the weight of whole my body, and whole the mass starts from your toes."


As well, we cannot forget what your Friend had written some months ago about the technique of playing the piano; look at this, please:


"Think about darts. You throw the thing, the needle gets into the target, the whole energy gets released and the dart stays there just hanging – it GOT INTO THE CORE OF THE BOARD-THERE IS NO PRESSURE ANYMORE. Exactly the same way the finger gets into the core of the key (sound) and all the energy immediately gets released-the energy of whole your body, starting from your toes GOT INTO THE CORE OF THE SOUND AND IMMEDITELY SHOULD BE RELEASED!!! That's it, you are there, there is no point of any residual pressure anymore. This complete release (so much overlooked) is the fundamental of the piano playing, slow playing, fast playing, whatever you have in your mind, whatever your image tells you." 


I am not of the opinion that our views and beliefs must be unchangeable up to the last minute of our conscious life. Who does not try to modify and clarify his understanding of any aspect of the thinkable reality, he probably would not be able to improve himself at all! But even if changes might happen in truly revolutionary way, the one and sole thing should definitely be protected: a logical order of thinking. Unfortunately, I cannot say, I found something of that kind in declarations posted by your Russian friend.



I am nearly sure, I comprehend your negative feelings very well, but let you throw away your hurtful fears, please! They were born by the improper understanding of such notion as piano method, but especially of Chopin's Method, or even more – of Neuhaus-like approach to the piano teaching and playing. As [circa] 94% of piano students worldwide, you apparently again and again would like to see the PIANO METHOD as the structure of views and tricks (I am strongly afraid...) related uniquely to the manual aspects of playing the piano...


That is why the question: free fall versus playing from the keys' surface was so puzzling to you.


  After clicking on the photo you will be led to the famous video realized with participation of Mr. Josef Hofmann; you will see HOW one could play using very free fall of the liberated mass of his hands. Well...


I cannot say I know the Prof. Naumov's teaching style very well, once I did not study under him. On the other hand, yet, watching his lessons in the Moscow Conservatory within about four months long period, I experienced more than 200 fascinating meetings with His greater art and consequently, I became quite pleasingly associate with it. I saw, for instance, how Mr. Andrei Gavrilov has been prepared by Prof. Naumov for the Tchaikovskiy Competition, which he finally won being the 18 years old student only. How astonishingly effortless and natural process it was! His lessons were carried out as normally as lessons of all other students, indeed. The difference was hidden only in the measures of Mr. Gavrilov's talent... What I said about naturalness of the lessons given by Prof. Naumov to the future laureate should not mean: herein nothing special has happened at all. It should be understood yet in the directly opposite way: only very SPECIAL things had ever happened in the lessons given by Prof. Naumov to all of his students, and maybe, this is the most important aspect of the matter.

I must say, I have never met any other teacher – apart from Prof. Naumov – who so intensely would be interesting in the active IMAGE-MAKING when working on any musical piece. No one sound was unimportant to him and it should be very clear, why! As I see that question: it happens exactly equal with music as happens with the health of the living body – getting even one cell unfit, the whole organism becomes ill in the very short terms. As well – getting even one element illogically settled, one cannot rationally finish the entire intellectual procedure, in mathematics, but not only there. Furthermore: getting even one sound unmusically made, one cannot think about the full ARTISTIC success. Lessons of Prof. Naumov were overfilled with truly vibrant emotions conjoined with very deep wisdom built on base of his large erudition and his truthfully humanistic interests! Openly said, I have never noticed any sole opinion strictly related to the technique of playing the piano, given by Prof. Naumov to his students. All these free falls and "playings" from the surface of the keys were so far from his approach to the music-making on the piano! Let you have a look at the next video sample; in my opinion, after watching it, you could more fully realized how many-sided was the Prof. Naumov's teaching: Mr. Gavrilov approves hereby that he really possesses in his arsenal all kinds of technique and is able to use them in every particular moment for achieving musical effect needed. Let you be very patient yet and carefully watch the entire piece up to its final sounds. The camera will offer you the extra fine tutorial of how the pianist could use his natural armory: from unbelievably "free falls" up to the definite "takings from the surface"; even "raised fingers" will present their face...    

However, watching this or any other video even hundred times or more, one should be strongly assured that the secret of the real piano playing would not be revealed in this way to him. I mean, seeing the SURFACE of the matter one can obtain only restricted amount of the bits of information related to factual mechanisms ruling the entire process. That is so because all what could be seen – is FULLY DEPENDENT on the factors and elements, which factually decided HOW the human's body acts, being still  hidden  inside of our brains or even much deeper...

Clicking on the photo below leads you to the next video. This one was realized with participation of Mr. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli; you will see HOW one could play using very free fall of the liberated mass of his hands. Mr. Benedetti was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century. How interesting: he plays in a style, which – in my opinion – could be seen as the pure antithesis of that one, Frederic Chopin might like to accept as very close to his vision of the piano art...


Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995)


For sure, the real piano technique could be obtained only when the pianist would very intensely be interested in realization of the very concrete artistic ideas. THIS IS the actual core of the entire problem. According to particular artistic needs, many different manual customs should be in the everyday usage. Sometimes it could be the free fall of a liberated and flexible mass of the hand, sometimes – maybe – something of the actually opposite character. In any case, the core is always and again the same: one must strongly be sure WHAT he really wants to say taking any particular sound, phrase and building the whole Form! The biggest talents do ever not experience any shadow of fear about "what and how should happen" within the coming minutes. They just shape the phrases and do the real PLAY. The smaller talents must prepare themselves for months to any public performance and are always concerned about everything. The best solution for us all probably looks as follows alike: after changing the way we understand our own role in the matter and after drastically cutting down the number of elements we habitually are concerned about, we should start to be concerned about the factually musical structures, not manual tricks – as teaches the "good old" tradition.

Clicking on the photo below will lead you to the new video. This one was realized with participation of Mr. Thelonious Monk; you will see HOW one could play the piano in – instrumentally seen – the fully integrated way. Mr. Monk was one of the greatest jazz pianists of the 20th Century. How interesting: he plays in a style, which could PARTIALLY remember the way, in which Prof. Naumov was sometimes used to present very special aspect of the piano art! Let you especially consider the part of this video that starts after about 3' 30" from the beginning. You could be surprised, but I hope as well, you would be able to create something truly positive after watching this clip.   


   Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)

All the great artistic creators are known as the definite workaholics or at least as the human beings who were and are used to work enormously much; Rodin as well as Einstein or Oistrakh, who after enthusiastically welcomed concerts went to the hotel and practiced much again. What could be seen as abnormal to normal people is usual to unusual people. That is all!

Remembering my former students from my professional prehistory, I could name the only one sample of the person, who played all the time he could. After years, he became one of the most impressive Polish jazz piano virtuosi, here you are – Mr. Artur Dutkiewicz. As all of his brothers in jazz, he never practiced – if we might like to understand this notion as a kind of only formal musical activity that factually has very less to do with real music-making, but is rather close to some kind of purely physical action. Moreover, maybe, it could even be interpreted as an activity that is more close to the unconscious repeating of any sacral formula than to wise body training, indeed.

Moreover, again, it is not the miracle that, mainly, the actual artistic creators are able to develop and factually obtain the real technique of playing the piano. They can obtain it just via endless amount of hours spent at the instrument that for them is, as it should actually be, the medium, through which they can express their feelings, thoughts and emotions in form of the aesthetically passionate, beautiful images. Another bit of truth, however, is that sometimes the instrumental technique serves the fellows, who being highly talented manually, are still totally disinterested in the musical expression. Such Jokes of the Nature are not as rare as one could think, perhaps. These guys & girls, unfortunately, sometimes are ready to inform the public HOW they practiced and how the students should practice the piano to obtain the instrumental skills of the virtuoso level.

Is herein something bad? I do not think so. The situation could be change into the very bad one in case, such kind of "literature" becomes uncritically received and its content becomes put into practice. Fortunately, the human race is equipped by the Nature with enough powerful intellectual devices, which – if properly used – can preserve the piano adepts from strongly malicious influence of such poverty. 


Doubtlessly great Ideas, as Chopin's Method or the Neuhaus'-like approach to teaching and playing the piano, are substantially not related to such kind of purely physical phenomena as above quoted free fall of the liberated mobile mass of the hand or of hand's any thinkable part (as fingers, for the sample) and as playing from the surface of the keys. Both of these specific solutions should be seen as something that in some particular situation could be freely used, if really needed; means – if fits the actual musical requirements.

As I said for a while, I recognize many positive things in the writings sent by the Paul's Russian friend. As the two most important among them, I would like to maintain this one: When I need to put a big chord (for example, in Spanish Rhapsody the very first ones, or in the very end), I try to "pump" them up. Superficially seen, to pump something implicates pressing, and if pressing on the keys – being the pianist – one could interpret it as the action, which directs the powers down...

Still being the Prof. Naumov's former student, the Paul's friend would like to say he pumps his hand's energy UP. Consequently, we could identify his declaration as the very positive one. He apparently belongs to that Great Tradition that sees the piano playing as the activity, which is oriented towards CREATION, but NOT – towards formal physical doing...

The second very positive element I would like to point out at the last end of this article, is the truly sincere interest to the question of building the musical IMAGES, which is the problem of a key importance to the entire issue – Paul's Russian Colleague is strongly concerned about particularly that aspect of the piano practicing and playing.

Very well! In my opinion, all the other points presented by the Paul's Correspondent are of the marginal meaning. Thank you a lot for your attention!


- S.K.





Published: 2006-12-10