Piano Power: Theories Contradicted
As piano teachers, we are placed in a unique position that may potentially influence the future of our students for years to come. When referring to the specific movements of the hand and fingers during a lesson, it is important that we provide our students with information that is scientifically accurate in terms of the principles of kinesiology (defined as the science of human motion). By relating proven facts instead of information that we feel to be true, we provide a valuable service to our students.
The following article entitled "Theories Contradicted," is an excerpt from my book, Piano Power, A Breakthrough Approach To Improving Your Technique. The article's purpose is to dispel many of the common myths associated with the development of piano technique. A naïve belief in many of these theories and a reluctance to question them led me on a wild goose chase that resulted in the delaying of my own technical progress at the piano for twenty-five years. Hopefully, you will avoid many of the pitfalls I encountered-as both teacher and student-by being able to distinguish between myth and reality in the future. In this way your students will be able to utilize their practice time more wisely and experience success and satisfaction at the same time.
In the scientific community theories or "theorems" must be subjected to the rigors of a "proof" before they are accepted as fact. It is important to note that only one contradiction is needed to disprove any theory, thus nullifying its validity. Additionally, a theory that is considered to be true must hold for all cases.
In the nonscientific world of the musician, theories are often confidently asserted without a shred of evidence to support them. Following are some of the theories that remain widely accepted in many musical circles. Perhaps we can find some contradictions.
THEORY: If you feel the music the technique will just follow.
PROOF: There are many people who, for whatever reason, operate on a purely intellectual plane and do have trouble feeling things. However, a powerful emotional response to sound is no guarantee that a person's fingers will be capable of expressing those emotions. The inference here, is that the person proposing the theory has reached a sublime level reserved for a select few, and that others have a long way to go in developing their sensitivity to music. My favorite response to those who espouse this theory is as follows: "If you feel the music so deeply, then turn your hands upside down with your palms facing upward and play the piece with the same facility as if you played normally. After all, you just have to feel the music. Let it just flow..." Another contradictory response: "Why can I sing or whistle this passage comfortably at the same time that I have difficulty executing it at the piano?" Not having or being in touch with feeling would prevent me from singing the passage well. (Contradiction)
THEORY: Sit higher.
PROOF: Glen Gould and Vladimir Horowitz sat relatively low. I think most people would acknowledge that they were great keyboard technicians. (Contradiction)
THEORY: Sit Lower.
PROOF: There are many great pianists who sit high...Arthur Rubinstein and Erroll Garner to name a couple. (Contradiction)
THEORY: Your fingers do not lift while playing a passage.
PROOF: If this is true, then each of your finger tips should remain in contact with the surface of its respective key while playing the example below [not shown]. However, it is impossible to precisely articulate the individual notes of the passage playing in this manner. The alternative is to lift each finger before it descends. (Contradiction)
THEORY: The articulation of the notes in a passage is produced by the transference of arm weight from note to note aided by the rotational motion of the wrist and the "larger muscles" of your arms and shoulders.
PROOF: Try using what are referred to as the larger muscles of your arms and shoulders to assist you in the realization of the above example. Do whatever you like...make circular motions with your wrist, pronate your wrist (as if you are turning a key to lock or unlock a door), swing your elbows in and out, lean forward with your upper torso...but do not move your fingers up or down. The notes of the above passage are not being cleanly articulated as I do this. My thumb and fifth finger are playing very sloppily, while my second, third and fourth fingers remain fixed at the bottom of their respective keys. (Contradiction)
Another contradiction: I am effortlessly playing the above passage solely with my fingers. The individual notes are cleanly articulated. Additionally, I am grasping my right wrist with my left hand to prevent any interference from the "larger muscles" mentioned above. I am also leaning against the back of my chair as I do this.
Rotational motion of the wrist and the use of the "larger muscles" of the arm and shoulder have a negligible effect on the precise articulation of the individual notes of a passage.
The above conclusion is not intended to discourage the use of the wrist, arms, shoulders and "larger muscles" while playing. Its purpose is to merely demonstrate the limitations of their use.
THEORY: Music and technique cannot be separated.
PROOF: Suppose that a composer has completed an extended piece for a huge xylophone that she has invented. Instead of using light mallets, the new instrument requires the use of ten-pound mallets to produce an optimum sound. She is familiar with two percussionists who are virtuosos on the traditional xylophone and must select one of them on short notice to premiere her piece. One man is a competitive weightlifter while the other man rarely exercises and is considerably weaker. Although weightlifting has nothing to do with music, it is logical to conclude that the stronger man-through his ability to manage the ten-pound mallets with relative ease-will produce a more controlled and technically polished performance than the weaker man. (Contradiction)
THEORY: Play with curved fingers.
PROOF: Horowitz played with relatively flat fingers much of the time. (Contradiction)
THEORY: Play with flat fingers.
PROOF: When I saw Charles Rosen perform many years ago he played with extremely curved fingers. Bach is known to have played with curved fingers. (Contradiction)
THEORY: When you practice scales you should be able to put a coin on the top of your hand and play in such a way that the coin remains there for the duration of the scale.
PROOF: If you have not yet developed finger independence it is likely that holding your hand in this manner will feel extremely awkward, leading to a stiffening of the entire forearm at the elbow. Due to a lack of finger independence, many beginners (out of necessity) will tend to forcibly drop their wrist on each note that they play-a perfectly normal reaction that would certainly send a coin flying.
Unfortunately, this theory puts the cart before the horse. It is only after one has developed finger independence that a certain stillness of the hand is likely to appear as one plays scales. As we will see, muscular development leads to finger independence. Stillness of one's hand does not. (Contradiction)
THEORY: Short people are better pianists than tall people because short people are more coordinated than tall people.
PROOF: To my knowledge, the claim that "short people are more coordinated than tall people" has never been scientifically proven. Extremely coordinated individuals exist within "short" populations as well as "tall" populations. Many great soccer and baseball players are short while some of the most coordinated people on earth are members of the United States' N.B.A. where the average basketball player is 6'6" tall. If large random samples of short and tall people were taken, they would most likely result in two normal distributions reflecting the fact that the majority of both populations were of average coordination with a small percentage of both populations above average and a small percentage of both populations below average. (Contradiction)
THEORY: Playing legato builds technique.
PROOF: I played legato over a five year period with no noticeable improvement in my technical ability. (Contradiction)
THEORY: Piano technique has nothing to do with the development or strengthening of muscles. Rather, the ability to play a piece or passage with physical ease is due to the proper coordination of opposing muscles.
PROOF: The ability to perform any task is based on the coordination of muscles. However, kinesiologists-physicians who are experts in the science of human motion-maintain that coordination is dependent upon, and is enhanced by the proper development of muscles. Here are some examples demonstrating this fact:
- An American League pitcher, capable of throwing a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, attempts the new task of throwing a heavier ball at the same speed. Although he understands how to coordinate the task of throwing a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, his muscles are not strong enough to coordinate the new task with the heavier ball.
- A woman capable of performing the task of walking bends incorrectly while lifting a heavy object and severely pulls a muscle in her back. The woman can no longer walk and must rest until the muscle can once again support the coordinated movements of that particular task.
- A stone mason capable of breaking 20 pieces of stone per hour with a sledge hammer attempts the new task of breaking 40 pieces per hour. He understands how to coordinate the new task through his experience of working at the faster rate for short periods of time. However, over a period of an hour he is incapable of coordinating the new task because of the incapacitating muscular fatigue that develops.
- A pianist capable of playing a physically demanding piece at half speed attempts the new task of playing the piece up to speed. She understands how to coordinate the new task through her experience of playing sections of the piece -which are shorter in duration-up to speed. However, she is incapable of coordinating the new task for the duration of the entire piece because of the incapacitating muscular fatigue that develops.
I could go on and on. However, I think I have made my point. People simply are not in agreement as to how to teach technique and most theories can easily be contradicted. So where does this leave us? I hope you will read on.