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Exploring the Repertoire: Mozart

Exploring the Repertoire: Mozart

Since 2015 I’ve hosted a series for piano teachers called, “Exploring the Repertoire” at The Art of Piano Pedagogy on Facebook. 3-4 times a year we pick a theme (Women Composers, Bartok, Bach, Sonatinas, etc.) and discuss teaching strategies, favorite pieces, share student and teacher…

MTNA SPOKANE (A Diary)

MTNA SPOKANE (A Diary)

Each year the Music Teacher’s National Association (http://www.MTNA.org) hosts a convention. There are presentations, exhibitions, masterclasses, competitions, and concerts. I’ve attended State and National conferences before but this year I decided to apply to give a presentation for the first time. Thankfully, I was accepted!…

Exploring the Repertoire: Kabalevsky

Exploring the Repertoire: Kabalevsky


“You must compose for children the same way you write for adults, only better.” – Kabalevsky after Maxim Gorky

Since 2015 I’ve hosted a series for piano teachers called, “Exploring the Repertoire” at The Art of Piano Pedagogy on Facebook. 3-4 times a year we pick a theme (Women Composers, Bartok, Bach, Sonatinas, etc.) and discuss teaching strategies, favorite pieces, share student and teacher performances, etc.

For our most recent edition, our theme was Russian composer Dimitri Kabalevsky. This proved extremely popular as Kabalevsky’s works for elementary to early advanced students seem to hold a special place in the hearts of teachers and students alike. It also offered an opportunity to explore pieces that were unfamiliar to many teachers, myself included.

In addition to moderating, I recorded 28 of the 30 pieces from, “Music for Children” op. 27 on my home practice instrument. You can listen to my performances here.

Below is a short introduction to Kabalevsky, his music, and his teaching philosophy. In addition I have put together a listening guide to Kabalevsky’s enormous pedagogical output. It is designed to be browsed and used as a reference when looking for new teaching choices rather than devoured in one gulp. When possible I have included corresponding RCM, AMEB, and ABRSM levels. If you are a teacher many of these may already be a part of your teaching repertoire, but no doubt you will find some new gems as well.

Who was Kabalevsky?

Kabalevsky was born in St. Petersburg in 1904. His contemporaries include Russian virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, who performed many of his works, and Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian.

While modern in style, his compositions are largely diatonic with a little chromaticism, quick shifts from major to minor tonality, quartal harmonies and lots of major 7th chords. As a result of his musical conservatism, he had an easier time as a composer under Soviet communism than Prokofiev or Shostakovich. But while his concert pieces remain popular, particularly “The Comedians” suite, he has not achieved the same status as a great composer.

It is perhaps his pieces for children which have the greatest staying power. This is not an accident as Kabalavsky loved working with young people, first teaching a class of seven year olds at the Scriabin Music School and then setting up a pilot music program whose syllabus was later adopted by every school in the USSR. His writings on the subject include, “Music and Education: A Composer Writes about Musical Education” published posthumously in 1988.

Kabalevsky died of a heart attack in 1987 at a conference in which he was to lecture on nuclear disarmament having devoted the last 30+ years of his life to teaching children music and promoting world peace.

Music for Young People

Of Kabalevsky’s 253 published pieces, nearly half are for children. Kabalevsky believed music for children should fall into three forms: march, song, and dance.

To illustrate this he published “A Story of Three Whales” in 1970. In the story, he relays an ancient slavic myth that the earth was supported on the back of three whales. For Kabalevsky, all larger musical forms (symphonies, oratorio, opera) were derived from the three basic building blocks of march, song and dance.

“Songs, dancing music, and marching music – these three main forms are unnoticeable because they are so easily woven into our lives, yet no one person can do without them, even when he may think he does not like music.”

In comparing music education to literature he believed that folk and fairy tales told to children before they could read formed the groundwork from which the great works of literature could be comprehended. Nationalistic and folk songs with a narrow vocal range play a large role in Kabalevsky’s compositions.

For ease of comprehension textures are generally clear, triads are played in parallel motion, melodies are often in five finger positions, and many pieces are written with the hands playing in unison. Virtually all of Kabalevsky’s writing is idiomatic to the instrument and a limited number of concepts and technical challenges are found in each piece, so as not to overwhelm the student.

Pedagogical Approach

Not unlike Kodaly, Suzuki, and Gordon, Kabalevsky took a sound-before-sight approach to teaching children. He believed that “music is experienced first through listening, then singing, and finally through seeing.” For Kabalevsky the role of the listener was as important as that of the composer and performer. At the core teaching children was the development of what Kodaly called “inner hearing” – hearing music inside one’s head without those sounds being externally present.

Listening Guide

Below I have put together an overview with video examples.

a. Music For Children op. 27 and 39

b. 35 Easy Pieces op. 89

c. Variations

d. Rondos

e. In the Pioneer Camp op 3/86 and From Pioneer Life op 14

Op. 27 30 Pieces for Children

Was written from 1937-38 and later revised. The pieces range from intermediate to early advanced and feature many studio favorites.

Fairy Tale (n. 20) was a favorite amongst our participants. It also provoked some controversy. It features a beautiful melody on top of broken first inversion chords. The controversy was in regards to the tempo marking: ‘andantino’. Andantino generally implies a little faster than one would walk but many teachers preferred a slower tempo to bring out the beauties of the line and harmony. Other teachers felt that too slow a tempo loses the child-like innocence of the piece.

RCM 6

For comparison I’ve included my own quicker recording with Diane Hidy’s beautifully crafted slower performance.

RCM 6

Etudes in A minor (n. 3), F major (n. 24) and A major (n. 26)

RCM 7
RCM 8

These are a wonderful ways to work on technical patterns in the context of exciting music. Both F and A major require the students to play arpeggios in one hand, scales in the other. I used ‘adult’ tempos but they needn’t be played so fast.

Toccatina (n. 12) and Sonatina (n. 18) are perennial favorites. Both are in A minor and are rhythmically dynamic without being too hard. I chose to interpret Kabalevsky’s slurring literally in the Toccatina but some teachers prefer longer phrases.

RCM 6
RCM 5

Playing Ball (n. 5) is an etude of sorts for playing fast repeated notes. It’s also a lot of fun as the ‘balls’ jump all over the keyboard. For the three repeated notes we had a wide variety of favorite fingering choices: 2-2-2, 4-3-2, 4-3-1, 3-2-3, 3-3-2, 3-3-3, and 3-1-3. The choice which received the least love was 3-2-1. To be a contrarian I recorded with this fingering.

Waltz (n. 1), A Little Song (n. 2), and A Night at the River (n. 4) are the simplest pieces of the set. The Waltz is music box like, the other pieces hauntingly sad and quintesentially Russian.

RCM 3

A Little Prank (n. 13) is playful and great for working on fast five finger patterns.

Song of the Calvary (n. 29) is regularly performed at festivals and competitons. Playing the left hand melody against the right hand chords is not easy to coordinate but well worth the effort.

RCM 6

Meadow Dance (n. 17) sounds like it belongs in a Miyazaki film. The left hand chord leaps are deceptively difficult.

RCM 4

Novelette (n. 25) was another favorite amongst are members. It is Schumann-inspired and tells a sad story.


Op. 39 24 Pieces for Children

Features some of Kabalevsky’s most beloved works. The first 12 pieces are at a late elementary level, the second twelve early intermediate. I’ve used my Art of Piano Pedagogy co-admin Jason Sifford’s recordings. You can listen to his complete performance of the set here.

Melody (n. 1) a simple three note tune with diads in the l.h.

Polka (n. 2) is a happy dance with a legato melody in the l.h. and staccato diads in the right.

A Little Joke (n. 6) is capricious with parrallel motion between the hand mixing staccato and two note slurs.

A Funny Event (n. 7) features copy cat play between the two hands.

A Little Dance (n. 9) is a jolly folk dance great for students working on primary and 7th chords.

March (n. 10) uses a short-long rhythm to create a pompous march. The black keys sections can be taught by rote.

RCM 1

Scherzo (n. 12) is heavily patterned and sounds harder than it is. This is always a favorite in my studio.

RCM 2

Waltz (n. 13) Melody in the r.h. with diads in the left and a little mode mixture.

Jumping (n. 15) is a fun coordinational challenge with the hands playing the same melodic figures but with different rhythms.

Clowns (n. 20) polled as our favorite Kabalevsky. The rapid switching between major and minor seems to represent the happy and sad painted faces.

RCM 3

Slow Waltz (n. 23) uses off beat chords in the l.h., single notes and sixths in the right. This is a funny and sometimes sardonic dance.

RCM 5

Op. 89 35 Easy Pieces

Was written between 1972 and 1974 and is similar in difficulty to op. 39. It represents a lifetime of experience writing for children and is his last published work for piano. One senses a feeling of completeness as he writes in meters and keys not contained in the earlier sets.

Amongst the simplest pieces are:

At Recess (n. 4) uses almost all thirds played with fingers 2 and 4, played as two note slurs or staccato quarters.

First Waltz (n. 5) Slightly melancholy with the melody in the l.h. Accompaniment and countermelody in the r.h.

Little Hedgehog (n. 8) Contrary motion broken chords and little dissonances depicting the playful, spikey animal.

Little Goat Limping (n. 19) The use of the irregular meter of 5/4 perfectly captures the limp. The drone bass gives the piece the feel of a folk song.

The Little Juggler (n. 21) is a lot of fun with one hand playing a broken octave, the other crossing over and back.

Chastushka (n. 25) A joyous folk song toccata with offbeat “wrong note” minor seconds and lots of crossing over.

Stubborn Little Brother (n. 27) A humorous piece with a gentle melody in the r.h. continually interrupted by accented repeated notes in the left.


AMEB Series 15 Grade 2
RCM Level 4

More Challenging pieces include:

A Merry Tune (n. 26) is rollicking song written in parallel motion with a brief excursion to the minor (played here by APP member Jackie Sharp).

AMEB Series 17 Grade 1

Rabbit Teasing a Bear Cub (n. 31) The l.h. lumbering bear moves slowly while the r.h. hare flits around interrupting his journey.

Almost a Waltz (n. 33) is a little sad a first but settles into contentment at the end. It is in a crooked 7/8 meter.

Melancholy Rain (n. 34) has ‘rain drops’ in the left hand, a fragmented sad melody in the left.

Trumpet and Drum (n. 20) is a hit with students. The ‘trumpet’ is in the right hand playing broken chords. The drum is in the left repeating a rhythmic ostinato.

Variations

Kabalevsky wrote many variation sets:

Variations op. 40 features two variation sets in D major (RCM 9) and A minor (RCM 10). They are a longer and more technically challenging than op. 51.

RCM 9

Easy Variations for Piano op. 51 features five sets based on Russian and Ukranian themes. These were familiar folk themes to his students and the pieces often sound harder than they are.

  1. Five Variations on a Russian Folk Song “The Mountain of Viburnum”
  2. Dance Variations on a Russian Folk Song
  3. Gray Day Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song “Good night, my dear”
  4. Seven Cheerful Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song (RCM 8)
  5. Six Variations on a Ukrainian Folk Song (RCM 9)

Variations on Folk Themes op. 87 uses well known international songs such as Sakura and “All the Pretty Little Horses”

Other collections by Kabalevsky include

Four Rondos op. 60 played at the link below by APP member Dan Severino (all are RCM 7). The first three of these pieces exemplifies Kabalevsky’s “three whales.”

  1. March – the r.h. play a long-short-long rhythm throughout. The left hand imitates a tuba.
  2. Dance
  3. Song

The fourth is a tocatta.

www.pianolessonsplus.org/40-p-iece-challenge-2018-2019

In the Pioneer Camp op 3/86 and From Pioneer Life op 14

The Youth Pioneers was a movement similar to that of scouting in the U.S., although they were government sponsored and part of their function was to teach children and early adolescents communist doctrine.

These works that can be played separately or as a set. Op. 14 captures the activities of Youth Pioneers at camp including drumming, sport, vacationing, singing, and march. Op. 3/86 is a day in the life of scouts from early morning, exercises, river hiking, forest and mountain trails, extraordinary events, and an evening by the campfire.

The teacher may or may not want to discuss or not discuss the communist roots, but these are delightful pieces that will be enjoyed by any student who enjoys scouting, hiking, and camping.

No. 2 “Morning Exercises” RCM 8

I hope you have have found this post informative. I’d love to hear from you regarding your own experiences with Kabalevsky’s music in the comment section!

Giving up guilt: Strategies for average to small handed pianists

Giving up guilt: Strategies for average to small handed pianists

The piano offers a richer and more varied repertoire than any other solo instrument. We can play as many notes as our ten fingers allow, which gives us an enormous range of sounds and colors. Unfortunately not every pianist’s hand is large enough to physically…

A Thousand Images: Effective use of touch in the piano lesson

A Thousand Images: Effective use of touch in the piano lesson

Playing the piano is fine motor skill requiring a complex set of coordinations between large and small muscle groups. For most students verbal descriptions and visual demonstration are not enough to convey the complexities of physical movement and a kinesthetic experience is necessary. This is…

“A Thousand Different Sounds”: Tone Quality at the Piano

“A Thousand Different Sounds”: Tone Quality at the Piano

 

 

 

The question of tone quality comes up amongst pianists regularly. It is often said that no matter what the pianist does all that matters is the speed of the hammer when it hits the strings. This is partially true from the point of view of physics where all that is taken into account is the relationship between the fundamentals and partials. But what we consider to be “tone quality” is a result of a complex and fascinating combination of the mechanics of the instrument, the body, and human perception. Without getting too technical here is a brief overview:

1. Pitch and Timbre

Pitch generally corresponds with frequency. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch. Few sounds are made of pure, regular sound waves. The number and intensity of overtones (partials) are what allow us to distinguish between a harp and a violin. This can be described as timbre.

 

2. Human Sensation

Our bodies react to external stimuli via the end organs of the inner ear (fine hair-cells), our retinas (rods and cones) and through touch (bulbs beneath the skin). In piano playing we are primarily concerned with auditory stimuli but when we play the piano or watch the piano being played our vision and touch can also play significant roles in our perception of tone quality.

 

 

3. What is tone quality?

What we perceive to be tone quality is a result of three different attributes combined to create a single aural experience.

a. Pitch- frequency

b. Intensity- tonal loudness

c. Duration- length of time the pitch is sounded

Each of these elements can vary greatly. It is through combining these elements that a vast array of tone colors are created at the piano.

 

4. Ortmann and the Oscillograph

Otto Ortmann, was an American educator who served as director of the Peabody Conservatory from 1928 to 1942. Beginning in the 1920’s Ortmann and other researchers began using a device called the oscillograph to record and create graphic representations of sound waves.

 

The results were fascinating. For instance, the higher a pitch is played on a trombone, the fewer partials are present and a more pure tone quality is produced.

 

The greater the intensity (loudness) of a mezzo-soprano when singing A=440 the greater the complexity.

 

The shorter the duration of a sound on the piano the more noise and less tone we perceive.

 

4. Percussive and noise elements

When we play a key we hear not only the tone produced by the instrument but also how percussively the key is played and mechanical noises produced by the instrument (finger-key impact, key-bed impact, hammer-string impact, hammer-check impact, and friction among the action parts).

A percussive sound is created by striking the key from above. A non-percussive sound by staying close to the surface of the key.

Ortmann showed in his research that these noise and percussive elements affect the way we perceive the quality of tone. Subsequent research, including this study published in Novemeber 2014 issue of “The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America,” support that view.

A fascinating blog post on the study can be read at Physics Central:physics buzz blog.

As Ortmann notes, the effect of duration in piano playing is particularly striking as the human ear is not capable of separating the noise elements present at the beginning of a tone from the tone itself. When the noise elements were removed in the recording studio even professional musicians were unable to identify the tone as being produced by a piano, and instead guessed double bass, flute, violin, and other instruments.

The piano does not sound like a piano without a human being playing it.

 

5. So how do we create different sounds at the piano?

I. Varying the speed of the hammer hitting the string

If you want to create a soft sound at the piano play slowly into the key. If you want to play loudly, play fast. However, volume is not the only thing that is altered by varying the key speed. The mix of overtones shift as well.

If you play too slowly the hammer will fail to hit the string and a weak sound, or no sound at all will be produced.

If you play too fast a harsh sound that fails to carry is created. This is due the suddenness of the attack which causes the strings to segment the vibrations rather than allowing the whole length of the string to vibrate, enforcing the fundamental sound.

 

Children and amateur pianists often make the mistake of believing volume is created by force and will press and push on the keybed. This is a waste of muscular effort and creates an unpleasant tone. As soon as the hammer has struck the string there is nothing we can do to alter the sound other than activating or releasing the dampers. It is important to separate our emotional response to the music from the physical means of tone production.

II. Touch matters

Despite some claims to the contrary, how we physically play the instrument matters. Small changes in alignment and balance can produce large differences in tone production due the way they vary transfer of energy into the key and alter key speed. I’m always astonished how simply unlocking a joint or balancing the finger into a key, a weak, flabby tone can suddenly sound rich and full.

As Thomas Mark notes in his book “What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body,”the kinesthetic energy delivered to the string is a function of mass and the velocity of the hammer. But kinesthetic energy fluctuates not with the velocity but with the square of the velocity. Consequently, a change in velocity by a certain percent…will result in a larger change in the kinetic energy delivered to the string. This means that seemingly slight changes in the speed of key descent produce large differences in volume and tone quality.”

 

At the 1:02:00 mark of this Masterclass, Leon Fleisher suggests to a student playing the opening of Beethoven op. 110 that she play more on the pad of the fingers in order to slow the descent of the key and create a more lyrical sound.

 

 

At the 2:20 mark of this Masterclass, Fleisher suggest that the pianist play the opening of Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata on the tips of the fingers in order to create a bright and percussive sound.

 

III. Arm Weight and Matthay

In order to drop into weighted keys without having to use excessive force, forearm weight is essential. While the weight of the arm does not directly affect the sound, it can indirectly change the tone quality by altering the speed of key descent. For instance, asking the forearm to release more weight into the key can cause the key to descend more slowly and less percussively.

One particularly useful way creating different sounds at the piano used by Tobias Matthay was to think in terms of “arm touch”, “hand touch”, and “finger touch”. We of course use all three in combination when playing (moving any part of the body in insolation is in-coordinate), but by slightly altering the proportions we can create different tonal effects.

This was first shown to me in a lesson with Nina Tichman, an expert in Debussy. I was preparing Book 1 of the Preludes for a performance and played for her “Voiles.” The opening passage depicts a sail fluttering in the wind. She suggested playing the opening third with a weighty “arm” sound to ring in the air, the descending thirds with “finger sounds” to create the light flutter of the sail, and the final gesture with “hand” sounds for the ending gust. Immediately the passage took on three distinct colors and sonorities.

 

You can see her masterful performance of the work here at 1:03:10.

It can be great fun going through your repertoire and experimenting with different combinations.

 

IV. Ortmann and Descriptive Imagery

Ortmann recognized that we mostly use visual and tactile imagery to describe sound. In his book, “The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique” he dedicates a chapter to unpacking what goes into creating these sound images for the listener. Here is a brief summary:

Image                             Pitch           Intensity                        Duration                     Percussion/Noise        Technique

  1. “Sparkling”         high            moderate to great        extremely brief          very percussive             rapid and short muscular contractions
  2. “Velvety”             varied         moderate or little        long                              non-percussive             molto legato
  3. “Crisp”                 n/a              at least moderate        short but marked       n/a                                  fast key release
  4. “Bell-like”            varied        moderate or great       short                             percussive beginning  rebound off the key
  5. “Dry”                    noise          small                              minimal                       very percussive             marked muscular contraction
  6. “Brittle”               n/a             moderate to great       variable                         abrupt/percussive       abrupt beginning
  7. “Singing”             n/a             moderate                      long                               non-percussive             gradual drop and release

The sound quality needed in the beginning of Schubert Sonata in Bb D. 960 will not be effective at the opening of Bartok’s “Allegro Barbaro.” Provided we create them in a way that is healthy for our bodies, the greater the range of sounds we can conjure up at the instrument, the more interesting our playing will be.

 

V. Other variables

The focus of this post has been on altering the tone quality of a single note. But there are many other ways to alter the tonal qualities including use of the damper and una corda pedals, balancing chords, melody vs. accompaniment, musical line, and timing. Some factors like regulation of the instrument and acoustics of the space are out of our control.

What is so remarkable about the piano is the seemingly endless sounds and colors that, with knowledge and imagination, we can draw from it. I hope this post will inspire you to experiment and enjoy all the possibilities that the instrument has to offer.

Please let me know if you enjoyed this post. Questions and comments welcomed!

 

The Point of Sound or, Why an Acoustic Piano is Not Interchangeable With a Digital

The Point of Sound or, Why an Acoustic Piano is Not Interchangeable With a Digital

A question that frequently gets asked by parents and pianists alike is whether a digital piano is interchangeable with an acoustic for learning to play the piano. The answer, with rare exceptions, is no. Often it is believed that if there are 88 keys and…

Junior Virtuosos: Dropping into a key

Junior Virtuosos: Dropping into a key

In my previous “Junior Virtuosos” post I described strategies for helping young students to find a natural hand position. This week I would like to a focus on the next essential step to developing a healthy technique: Dropping and balancing into a key using the weight of…

“But my fourth finger is weak”- the myth of finger independence

“But my fourth finger is weak”- the myth of finger independence

 

I recently had a new adult student come into my studio wanting to learn Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” I teach the piece often and suggested an effective fingering for a passage she was struggling with. She expressed horror upon seeing it because my fingering would require the use of her fourth finger. “But my fourth finger is weak!”

She had somehow managed to get all the way to late intermediate repertoire while avoiding the use of this digit. Why was she so afraid of her fourth finger? The myth of “finger independence.”

What is finger independence?

Finger independence is the belief that each of the fingers can be trained to be equally “strong” by applying calisthenic-like exercises to them. Usually vast quantities of Hanon and other etudes are prescribed.

The term is so frequently used in piano methods that when I read an article on “interdependence” a decade ago my brain immediately autocorrected it to “independence” and I was confused for half the article until I realized my mistake.

The structure of our hand is miraculous. In his book, “The Hand”  Frank R. Wilson argues that the evolutionary development of the hand is what separates us from other primates and is responsible for making us human. He profiles rock climbers who use their hands for gross motor tasks and jewelers who use them for fine motors skills. But much of his focus is on musicians as we represent the pinnacle of fine motor coordination.

‘Strong’ fingers

Our fingers have no muscles. Muscles in the forearm connect to tendons which are responsible for extension (straightening) and flexion (curling) of the fingers. The flexors run along the palm side of the arm, the extensors the top (dorsal). The intrinsic muscles of the hand also play an important role. Studies of grip strength show that the 2nd and 4th fingers are equal in their ability to grip yet we still experience a mechanical disadvantage when trying to use the fourth finger at the piano. This is because in playing we need both to lift and drop the fingers.

If you make a fist you’ll find that all the fingers flex without constraint. This is because the flexors are attached in the same way to the hand.

the anatomy of a hand

However, if you place the fingers on top of the fallboard and attempt to lift them independently you’ll find that the 2nd finger can lift easily enough, the 3rd and 5th less so, and the 4th finger barely at all.

This is due to the way the tendons responsible for extension are connected to the hand.

A brief (hopefully painless) anatomy lesson

The tendon most responsible for extension is the extensor digitorum. You can feel it working if you lift your fingers and touch the top of your forearm.  It passes through the wrist and then divides into three strands.

The first strand ties to the second finger.

The second strand ties to the third finger.

The third strand connects to the fourth finger.

 

The fifth finger does not get a branch of its own but it does get its own extensor tendon (extensor digiti minimi).

 

All is well until we notice that there are connections between fingers 3, 4 and 5. This greatly limits the ability of the fourth finger to lift on its own. The third and fifth fingers can lift better than the 4th but not as easily as the 2nd.

This has caused so much frustration for pianists that they have been known to take extreme measures including practicing pain-inducing etudes, wearing finger weights, and even undergoing surgery to sever these connections. Although there are other theories as to the cause of Robert Schumann’s ailments, the story is that he created a device to “strengthen” his fourth finger which injured his hand to the extent he could no longer play.

“Isolation” exercises:

Due to a lack of understanding of our physiology teachers will often assign “independence” exercises in the hope the fingers can be equalized through strenuous repetition. In these exercises the fingers are held down with one finger lifting as high as possible in an isolated manner.

Our forearm muscles were designed in pairs so that when one muscle contracts the other releases and lengthens. By using the flexors and extensors simultaneous an antagonistic pull (co-contraction) of the muscles occur causing strain. The weight of the hand is down, yet the finger must pull up against this weight. The fourth finger is particular stressed by these types of “exercises” as it must go to the extreme range of it’s motion. As a result these “exercises” are a common cause of injury amongst pianists.

The misguided belief is that a virtuosic technique is the result of many hours spent building muscles as if playing the piano were a gross motor activity like sport or rock climbing. Yet we have child prodigies who can play with the speed and power of an adult. This is because virtuosic playing is not a result of muscle building but of coordination.

 

If isolation and “strengthening” exercises aren’t the solution what is?

Despite these limitations many pianists have managed to play with ease and facility into their 90’s and beyond without pain or fatigue. The solution is working with, rather than against the biomechanical design of the body.

1. Playing down: The first thing to recognize is that the keyboard is below, not above the hand. The fingers need only lift so much as to cause the key to descend.

2. Lift all available fingers: When the non-playing fingers are lifted together as a unit by the hand and forearm they are able to lift the same degree and height without strain.

For instance, if I am playing legato between fingers 2 and 3 I will lift not only the 3rd finger but the 4th and 5th as well. In my studies with Dr. Teresa Dybvig she regularly asks if all the fingers are lifting and dropping at the same time. No one need stay behind.

 

3. The use of the forearm: When the forearm is balanced behind each of the fingers they feel equally strong. Rather than relying on the fingers to depress the key on their own, the weight and speed of the forearm can be responsible for key depression.

4. Forearm rotation: As was first discussed by Tobias Matthay and later greatly expanded by Dorthy Taubman, rotating the forearm at the elbow joint is capable of lifting the fingers well above key level without even involving the fingers.

When the fingers actively lift and drop simultaneously with the rotation of the forearm considerable height can be obtained without strain or the need to straighten the knuckles.

It is through maximizing the coordination and interdependence of our playing mechanism that we are able reach the greatest heights of virtuosity.

 

Please let me know if you enjoyed this post. Questions and comments welcomed!

 

 

 

 

 

Junior Virtuosos: What is a natural hand position?

Junior Virtuosos: What is a natural hand position?

One of the most common questions piano teachers have is: how do I help my student to develop and maintain a good hand position? To answer this question we first have to define what a good hand position is and what it is not. 1.…