On Teaching Piano Technique
by Dr. Hao Huang
ianists perpetually face a dilemma about pianism - specifically, how to learn or teach piano technique. We encounter a myriad of different ways of playing the piano, and recognize that even "experts" of piano technique, whether they are teachers or performers, often disagree on what are the essential principles of healthy piano playing. At times, the paradox of the naturally gifted pianist reveals itself - there are instances of technically facile performers who are not aware of important elements of piano technique, because they have never had to examine or question them. Often, the refrain from piano teachers is "Practice, Practice, Practice". Scales, arpeggios, and technical exercises are prescribed, without acknowledging that an improper technical or practice approach will not lead to natural facility, and may in fact, damage it.
Given the level of stress on young piano students today, from family, school and peer groups, it should come as no surprise that piano teachers find them distracted - unable to focus and dedicate themselves to music making. Unfortunately, a common by-product of modern living is tension. Many talented young pianists struggle to overcome tension at the keyboard, and fail. They either learn to live with pain and insecurity, or, more often than not, they drop out. As a college teacher, I find that I do a lot of rehabilitative work with my students, trying to retrain their physical instincts and gestures at the keyboard. A spiral of incomplete technical thinking, over-ambitious repertoire and little time for easeful practice leads to a high incidence of serious injuries. Piano teachers have become more aware of piano playing casualties than ever before - carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and other repetitive motion related injuries are now familiar terms for many teachers.
Piano teachers can hold out a hope for a systematic pedagogical approach, which is based on certain physiological principles of motion. This can enable most musical people avoid the extremes of fatigue, pain, tension and insecurity -- symptoms of uncoordinated movements at the piano. We also need to break out of the mold of traditional finger technique, which is based on historical precedent but needs to be modified for modern application. Let us review our own history:
Piano pedagogy until the mid-nineteenth century appears to have been built on three concepts:
There are many names given to this early technique of finger action, which is a legacy of clavichord and forte piano technique: "hammer touch", "bent finger" and "finger stroke". It was believed that fingers could be trained properly only when their action was isolated from the disadvantageous influence of the hand and the arm. Interestingly, although early forte pianos were criticized for their hard action in comparison with that of the older keyboard instruments, principles of early keyboard technique were preserved. This was characterized by an extremely curved or bent position of the finger, preliminary to the act of tone production. The finger uncurved itself slightly while descending towards the key surface; the nail joint, remained vertical throughout. Teachers often advocated lifting the fingers as high as possible, bending them, then striking the keys with the finger tip. Muzio Clementi, who wrote the earliest piano method, Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Pianoforte, asserted that all five fingers must be equally strong and equally trained. He required the pupil's hand to be kept immobile as fingers were raised high and brought down on the keys with great force. The apotheosis of finger technique was achieved by Carl Czerny, whose copious technical exercises are even now part of the regular diet of aspiring young pianists. This focuses on finger agility and accuracy which is built on mechanical gymnastics, which is initially separate and independent from real music. His opinion was that after achievement of technical control through mastery of these technical exercises, hard won facility would eventually serve for the realization of artistic aims.
With changes in the action of the pianoforte itself, and new demands on performer-composer piano virtuosos by an avid and ever more demanding musical public, new approaches to piano technique were pioneered. Liszt suggested that each movement of the finger was connected with the whole process of movement of the playing arm, and that each rhythmic and dynamic change was linked to an inner pulse. One of Liszt's axioms was that technique does not depend on exercise, but the technique of exercise. Chopin also mentioned the importance of integrating hand, wrist, forearm and upper arm motions for proper piano playing. This led to a diversity of opinions among pianists regarding appropriate finger action. The anatomic-physiological school suggested "weight playing" and "relaxation", which was to be achieved through a far less curved, nearly unbent or flat finger position. Exertion was to be restricted to the undertendons of the whole finger. Termed "pressure action", this approach advocated that arms be held freely, and most importantly, avoidance of rigidity in the joints and muscles. While the arms and body still played a passive role, the more relaxed hand position enabled pianists to attain a more delicate and sensitive touch at the keyboard.
Tobias Matthay, professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London, laid the foundations of this "pressure action" as early as 1880. He suggested that:
If we want to acquire the feeling of the fingers being the elongation of the arm, the first prerequisite is the most delicate changing of the resistance (weight effect). That is, we must "stand behind" each tone.. The most important requirement of good finger technique is thus the reliable, delicate functioning of the elastic support... The raising of the fingers is, up to a certain extent, always indispensable in finger technique because continuous tone sounding can be carried out only by continuous motion... A movement of a certain extent is also indispensable in enabling the fingers to apply sufficient force within the legato.
Significant developments from this approach have occurred in the past half century. New terms such as rotation, shaping, arm and shoulder weight, grasping of the finger tips and walking arm, to name but a few, can be heard when discussing piano technique nowadays. The common denominator is that most pedagogues agree that finger action alone is not enough. Articulation sounds mechanical, and the tone is not sufficient. Currently, most pianists agree that an integration of finger motion and wrist and forearm movement is necessary to produce a full, open sound without tension. Emphasis on relaxation, particularly focused on the forearm, and use of the body's natural arm weight transmitted through a low wrist is often advocated to ensure that the fingers play deeply into the keys. Claudio Arrau, one of the supreme self-made romantic pianists of our time, once explained his teaching method, which incorporated the philosophy of relaxation and weight approach:
I never let the pupils use the fingers alone. I always ask them to use the whole arm with the fingers... Free falling of the entire weight of the arm should be the most natural thing... The shoulder should be entirely relaxed and used.
What kind of relaxation should one aim for at the keyboard? Obviously, an uncontrolled drop of the arm does not contribute to controlled sound. The "singing tone" which many pianists hold dear is produced, not only by pressing into the key beds, but also by lowering the keys at various rates of speed from slow (various degrees of softness) to fast (various degrees of loudness). Pressure is balanced by relaxation - neither is absolute. Transfer of arm weight onto a finger is followed by a release of pressure, preparatory to moving to the next note or chord. Relaxation at the piano is not a total surrender of control over the muscles. It involves responsiveness on the spur of the moment, to maintain musical as well as technical continuity.
My mentor and greatest influence is the noted author, composer and pedagogue, Seymour Bernstein. In his book, With Your Own Two Hands - Self Discovery Through Music, Bernstein advocates "controlled tension". He points out that once you consciously induce contraction in a muscle, you can begin to learn to relax it consciously. The key then is to learn how much muscle contraction is needed to master technical problems at the piano - the challenge is to translate into the real physical world the principle of economy of motion. Excess tension comes from over-contracting muscles, caused by a lack of organization of physical motion.
Bernstein writes about the concept of "keyboard choreography":
Were I to single out the most important of these movements, I would unhesitatingly draw your attention to the forward-backward movements of your upper arms. When properly coordinated, these movements must be considered the primary source of your musical and technical control. They influence the shaping of your phrases as much as they do the ease of your execution...
Bernstein emphasizes that freedom and flexibility of shoulder joints are necessary for efficient movement of the upper arms. Rolling the upper arms forward creates an upward wrist motion; rolling the upper arms backward towards the body induces a lowering of the wrist. Placing the fingers on the key and tracing a curve of energy with the upper arms, away from the body and down into the hands, is called an UPSTROKE. The reverse, tracing a curve of energy with the upper arms towards the body, with weight directed into the key bed is called DOWNSTROKE. This allows for concentration beyond the local action of the wrist, widening one's awareness to include causal physical movements. Not all accents are achieved by downstrokes. In fact one of Bernstein's maxims is,
Choreographic movements at the keyboard are determined solely by the structure of the hand and the topography of the keyboard, but never by rhythmic accents... Rhythm is one of the worst enemies of technique. That is because natural accents tend to make the wrist go down into the key bed. And often downward movements of the wrist may not be compatible with either the finger in question or the topography of the keyboard. If you play a C major scale in triplets, for instance, the third accent falls on the 4th finger, which, according to physiological comfort wants to swing up by means of the wrist (upper arm roll going forward) and to the right (rotation) by means of supination.
In his book, 20 Lessons in Keyboard Choreography, Bernstein focuses on the importance of a"soft landing". He points out that the piano is an indirect percussive instrument because of the lifting action of the hammer strike to the strings. A pianist's goal is to eliminate, as much as possible, percussive sounds by using a "soft landing" into the key beds:
The 'retroactive rockets' of your human mechanism are in your torso, upper back, shoulders, on top of your forearm and in your bridge. Activating these 'retroactive' muscles will slow down your fall and eliminate almost all percussive sounds... (about rotation) slow playing invites larger motions (visible) while fast playing, for the sake of economy, requires smaller motions (invisible).
Dorothy Taubman is a well known pedagogue who believes that given the proper technical advice, no impediments to natural, pain free piano playing should persist. The ultimate goal of piano technique is to enable pianists to possess essential skills so that they can move from one note or chord to another with the minimal amount of effort. Taubman deplores the hours of strenuous practice of technical exercises which many students endure, and believes that they often do more harm than good. She focuses on understanding the physiological basis of piano playing instead of training the nervous system through endless repetition. Once a pianist is physically and mentally exhausted, the possibility of injury through inappropriate movements becomes a major danger. Her concept of rotation is a key to understanding how to coordinate efficient motion at the piano. Single rotation involves a change of direction from right to left or vice versa. The power afforded by rotation enables the fingers to play deep into the keys, without cramping or discomfort. Double rotation is applied to running passages going in one direction (in other words, a rotation in two directions for each and every note). A preparatory swing in the opposite direction is completed by a full rotation into the key in the forward direction.
Posture is crucial - sit straight, with firm shoulders pulled back and the chest forward. This creates a proper sense of balance at the piano. The term "shaping" overlaps Bernstein's concept of keyboard choreography, referring to a physical manifestation of phrasing, through undulations of the wrist or hand which follow the musical shape of the phrase. The wrist acts like a springboard, and should not be forced down in a collapsed position. Total relaxation is not the goal - neither is holding extreme body positions. Joints must not collapse, because they prohibit free motion. Tension will result, just as it can be caused by excess muscular activity. Avoid isometric dual muscular contractions which create tension. The finger tip is a locus of activity, grabbing the key to create a full sound without harshness. Grabbing must be followed by release through rotation.
Interestingly enough, German-trained master pianist Rudolph Serkin maintained a different view of piano technique. He acknowledged that it took hours for him to feel warmed up, and expressed some solidarity with the old finger action school:
I am old fashioned. I practice scales and arpeggios that I might need but don't always use... I practice and have practiced long hours. After five hours I begin to get warmed up... I believe in a good system, a good technical upbringing such as Madame Lhevinne's. But from there out, I believe in finding your own ways according to the piece you are studying and the way you are constructed. (Serkin's daughter has said that her father practiced scales for nine hours before a concert, with only one hour devoted to his repertoire. That was because his fingers were so wide that they got stuck between the black keys. His long, systematic practicing of scales assured that each finger would place itself in front of the black keys.)
All discussions of piano technique must recognize that eventually, individuals must find their own way of playing the piano comfortably. Hopefully, this discussion of different technical approaches can contribute to further understanding of useful principles of piano technique. Egon Petri, world renowned Russian pianist and teacher, expressed a humanistic view of teaching: "Do not believe anything I tell you, but try it out. If it helps you, use it; if not, discard it and we shall look for another solution".