Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Are you using 200-year-old ideas?

In most fields of human endeavor, more is constantly being learned. New concepts, new information, new theories replace old ones on a daily basis. This is especially evident in science and medicine.

New world records are set and old ones broken every year in sports involving speed, for example, such as running, skiing or swimming. Of course the human body is not evolving or changing fast enough to account for this; rather, it is that trainers and coaches are constantly learning and applying new techniques to trim even a thousandth of a second off an athlete's time.

In the arts we are not competing for speed or strength or distance. As musicians we do, however, need to learn and acquire technique  -- physical, even athletic, skills -- to be able to play our instruments well, especially the advanced literature. Pianists work many long hours and years to attain a level of technical ability to play such literature as Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms.

In the 1800's, there were relatively few pianists who could play the demanding works of Chopin and Liszt. (Brahms even stated that "no woman" would ever be able to play his piano concertos because of their enormous technical difficulties. Of course women play them all the time now!) There are now many thousands of pianists able to play all the difficult literature, and they seem to get younger and younger every year. Every year new amazing pianists emerge on the scene and astound their audiences with their stunning technique. Some of them also amaze us with their incredibly artistry as well.

Again, the human body isn't changing at this rate. Why are more and more people, many of them mere children, able to gain this physical mastery? It is because more is known about the body and how to use it. Good teachers, insightful teachers who have really studied piano technique, can convey this to the student, and a student with the combination of natural talent and great instruction can go far. (Some people are so naturally talented that they attain great heights despite having poor or mediocre teachers.)

But unfortunately, there may be many people who will never acquire the technique they desire because they are using 200-year-old ideas.

The "mainstream" ideas about piano technique, the ones still taught by many teachers, were developed from the 1600's to mid 1700's or so. At that time, there was no piano as we know it; the keyboard literature was for harpsichord. The harpsichord has a completely different mechanism: the strings are plucked with a quill-like mechanism, versus struck with a hammer as in our modern pianos. The harpsichord has no ability to play at different dynamic levels. Our modern grand piano "action"  has literally thousands of moving parts, exponentially more than the harpsichord. This more sophisticated action enables pianists to have a large range of touch and sound in addition to the dynamic range, such as staccato or legato and everything in between. Before the modern piano, no technique for playing loud chords or shimmering soft passages or dazzlingly fast octaves was needed and no music was written requiring these techniques. Even though early pianos were around by Mozart's time, they were small and delicate compared with our modern piano. You just need to listen to the Mozart Piano Sonatas to know what kinds of capabilities his piano had. And yet, it was around this time, that many of the ideas about development of piano technique came into being. Czerny published his volumes of technical exercises in the early 1800's. Many others such as Hanon published similar studies over the next 100 years or so. But they all contain basically the same type of exercises, that is, those that would be somewhat useful for harpsichord or very early piano music.

With the harpsichord and early piano, a finger-based technique was taught. There was no need to employ the large muscles of the arm because there was no need for volume or great sweeps of arpeggios up and down the keyboard at great speed (for two examples). The idea was to use the finger as a "lever" to trigger the quill to pluck the string. This small action of the fingers is in no way adequate for the demands of mid- to late-Beethoven, Chopin, and all the composers of the mid 1800's and beyond. Chopin wrote his own etudes, intended not only to be gorgeous music, but to prepare the pianist for virtually anything that was written for the piano up to that point (and far beyond, as it turns out). Anyone teaching the piano at conservatories or other high-level institutions knows this. But your average neighborhood piano teacher may not.

I've had hundreds of students come to me having studied as children, and most of them were told to get the books of Hanon and Czerny exercises, and spend a great number of hours on them, to develop technique. Not only will these books never give you true physical mastery, but they may do harm. (See my earlier posts on this subject.) Knowledge about our anatomy and how we accomplish physical tasks has changed a great deal, especially in the last century. And that knowledge needs to be coupled with an understanding of the piano action and how the body and the instrument interact.

Sometimes old ideas die hard. For many piano teachers, who grew up with Hanon and Czerny and old ideas about technique, it may be hard to give those ideas up and even harder to find and embrace new ideas that work better. You would not expect to go to college and be given 200-year-old textbooks to use, but somehow too many piano students don't question it when they are told to use 200-year-old books of exercises. You need a teacher who has really made a study of technique, either on his/her own, or with a teacher who did so. There are many resources for this. One teacher who was a pioneer in new technique was Abby Whiteside. You can learn about her at www.abbywhiteside.org. There is a list of teachers who teach in this way on the site. My teacher, Joseph Prostakoff, was a student of Abby Whiteside. Her ideas, and those of many others like her, have begun to be widely disseminated. If you really search, you may find teachers who are no longer using 200-year-old ideas.

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