Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Joy of movement, or how I learned to love Hanon

When I moved to Paris in June 2006 I needed money, and I wasn't going to make it playing Bach fugues -- at least, that is, not enough to eat and pay rent and have electric lighting and hot showers (and a big, frosty Leffe every now and again). In the beginning I couldn't get by on piano lessons either. And so I fell in line and did what just about every young anglophone here does.

I'll skip my English teaching horror stories and go directly to the point: Teaching required English to engineering students -- for most of whom the language of Shakespeare, of Dickens, of Poe and Hemingway will never be anything but a plain necessity, a basic skill, a tool, a selling point on a resumé -- has predisposed me, in a manner of speaking, to embrace the muted and obscure beauty of Hanon's Le Pianiste Virtuose. For if the English language is infinitely richer than what the attitudes of  my English students would admit, could Hanon's exerises not conceal qualities veiled by the prejudices of so many pianists and teachers?

Now, Hanon is pretty well dogged on. In The Art of Piano Playing, the great Heinrich Neuhaus calls The Virtuoso Pianist  "dry-as-dust exercises", "mere handicraft", and describes them as part of a general downward regression in teaching aids. Ouch. Many a time I've heard them referred to as dangerous, or unhealthy, and at other times ignorantly likened to type-writer exercises.

Neuhaus' legitimate grievance with dry-as-dust exercises is their detachment from musical composition. In short, from art. In as far as Hanon's exercises lack musical value, Neuhaus is absolutely right: Hanon is not art. But art is not synonymous with beauty. Yes, all honest art is beautiful, even when it's ugly and violent and offensive. Yet how many unartistic things in this world are beautiful too: an architect's blueprints, a centuries-old Lebanese Cedar, the mecanism of a clock, your grandmother's pound cake...

Neuhaus was, just as my own teacher, a proponent of developping technique through pieces of music. The problem with only learning technique this way is that it often doesn't allow you to wholly isolate a given difficulty, even when a passage is taken out of context and worked at alone. The vital concern for making music, "respecting the composer's intentions" (a worn-out phrase, hence the quotes), hitting the right notes, getting the right rhythms is always present , hovering over your head, breathing down your neck; meanwhile your concentration is monopolized, and rightly so, by your critical, interpretive and aural faculites. These become obstacles that can ironically perpetuate faulty technique (I'm speaking from experience here). Unless you're Sviatoslav Richter, momentarily stripping away all such distractions is a strict necessity for expanding the limits of your inherent talent.

The Virtuoso Pianist does just this. Piano playing is both a physical and mental process, both theoretical and practical. All sides must be worked on with equal care. The simplicity of Hanon's text is its strength, allowing one to focus not on what they're playing, but how -- the ultimate truism of piano technique. That is to say, how to efficiently use more than just the fingers but the entire upper body, starting with the torso, ending at the distal phalanx (fancy talk for the fingertip segment), in order to produce a given result on the piano. In so doing you begin to think of your body as a dancer or athlete might, and take pleasure in mastering movement itself.

So while Le Pianiste Virtuose may be dry as dust in an artistic sense, it's nonetheless a work of practical and kinesthetic beauty, that, just to venture an intuitive guess, very few pianists actually master from beginning to end.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks guy for your interest in sharing your thoughts along with other people who plays this marvelous instrument. Keep it up. I send here from Brazil my best wishes. I think that you hit the point with the Hanon`s matter. To use it in a productive basis, it demands, in reality, a good amount of creativity and intelligence. On the other hand I think that it is quite repetitive in the approach of one (or a group of) technical aspect(s). Even scales in different tonalities, distancing intervals and chords gives more opportunities for developing some dexterity (so to say).
    All the best!

    Piano professor
    Federal University of Pelotas
    Rio Grande do Sul