Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Piano Techniques: A (very) short history of how we talk about technique

I've had, for about seven years now, a debate friend. We meet and argue everything from politics and philosophy to the relative merits of cold breakfast cereals. We once debated for almost two hours the meaning of the word fable.* Whatever the subject, however insignificant it may be, there's always at least one -- usually nitpicky -- point of contention. Yet the slow process, played out over the course of a discussion, of finding the right words to explain our ideas to each other, sometimes reveal that we are actually arguing the same opinion.

The misunderstanding comes from how we expressed ourselves (i.e. careless choice of words); or from not asking the right questions; from getting hung up in the minor details; or from entering the conversation with contrary assumptions and prejudices.

An obvious parallel can be made with piano technique. The innumerable disagreements that still exist today about piano study (take the question of Hanon, for example) conceal the fact that there is basic consensus on the core principles of healthy technique.

I've often wondered about the various schools of playing that have arisen since the development of the modern piano. And how technique has evolved, if at all, since Chopin's day.

After all, modern piano action is heavier than that of mid-ninteenth century pianos, implying a different physical approach to the instrument.  And then there are those perplexing pieces of advice passed down by some of the most eminent pianists of the time: instructions to lift the fingers as high as possible, or to keep the elbows tight and stationary near the body. Some of Liszt's advice to his students is almost comical, given how completely contrary it is to contemporary practices. Madame Boissier (one of his pupils) noted in her journal that the composer prescribed octave scales for two hours everyday in order to develop...wrist flexibility! Liszt furthermore explicitly recommended reading a book while practicing exercises in order to keep the mind occupied ("...qu'on lise en même temps pour se distraire.").

Apropos of reading, there is an interesting book on this very subject by Gerd Kaemper called Techniques Pianistiques: L'évolution de la Technologie Pianistique.** In it, Kaemper details how composers' and pianists' understanding of -- and way of speaking about -- technique has evolved over time.

If Liszt and his contemporaries were so verbally maladroit on the subject, it was only because the fathers of modern technique worked by instinct. Indeed, in the early to mid 19th century the very idea of technique was still a relatively new one.

Going back further in time, it has been noted that baroque harpsichord methods, such as Couperin's L'art de toucher le clavecin, are remarkably mute on technique (as we understand the term today), concentrating instead on general musical principles. The reason for this omission comes from the nature of the harpsichord itself: the smaller keyboard and individual keys mean problems relating to extension and force, central to pianoforte playing, are non-issues.

Furthermore, while the baroque harpsichordist was a well-rounded "generalist" musician (he had to be able to add harmonies and voices to a sparsely notated score, and deduce parameters such as tempo, character and expression without indications from the composer) the romantic-period pianist was increasingly a specialist who distinguished himself through technical prowess.

Thus the birth of the modern pianoforte, of the professional pianist-virtuoso, and of the preoccupation with technical virtuosity all happen more or less simultaneously with coming of age of Liszt and Co. Their intuitive understanding of technique simply didn't translate true understanding of the forces at work. Liszt and his confreres were reared by the masters of the transition period between the fortepiano and pianoforte -- Hummel, Czerny and the like --  for whom exercises were the source of technique.

It was only towards the turn of the twentieth century that technique, now a hard science, began to be thought of as the study of gestures. The history of technique followed then the most natural course imaginable: observation of the original masters (Liszt, Chopin, Thalberg, etc.), theorization (Tobias Matthay, Ludwig Deppe, Rudolf Breithaupt, Marie Jaëll, etc.), and finally application to pedagogy.

And it is to this later generation that pianists today owe a great debt of gratitude. For they are the ones who first theorized such fundamental concepts as free fall, transfer of weight, relaxation, momentum, anatomy and psychology as they relate to piano playing -- and thus, finally putting the right words to what technique feels like...

* N.B. to the friend in question: this was at the café Jolies mômes, corner of rue Condorcet and rue Turgot near Europa.

** The text, originally a doctoral thesis, was first published by the Éditions Musicales de la Schola Cantorum in 1965, and republished for the general public by Alphonse Leduc three years later.


  1. Interesting, thanks for this! Do you know if Gerd Kaemper's book is available in English?

    1. Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, I don't think the book is available in English; especially given that it's not a widely known text, even in French.

  2. Gyorgy Sandor's book, "On Piano Playing" has been my guiding light for the gestural approach to teaching and playing. I have quite a collection of the history of piano exercises, and keep them mostly to know what NOT to do and teach.
    I have read that Rachmaninoff used the Hanon method as prescribed at the Russian conservatories. All exercises in all keys.
    So, I wrote them out, and made one significant change to them. Hanon as it has come down to us is NOT a series of symmetrical shapes. I have made them so. If you wish to see it or purchase a copy, this link is to the J.W. Pepper MyScore website, where it is sold.
    thanks, MBB