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Professor Tech 2 – Scales or Pieces? Part 1

Many years ago, I was told a story by a student of the great pianist Claudio Arrau. It was remarked that Arrau didn’t necessarily dislike technique, but that he wasn’t especially charmed by wasting many hours on tradiational forms of technique acquisition – namely, scales and arpeggios.

me: “Impossible! how on earth did he exercise the technique he had? how did he teach it?”

The myth goes that Arrau simply believed that students acquired technique by studying more and more pieces. As such, this notion has preoccupied my thoughts as I work through the 51 Exercises of Brahms. (Thankfully, Idil Biret has recorded this exercises on her complete Brahms collection for Naxos!). My brain is 50/50 when it comes to Arrau’s ideology on technique. While I can agree that a lot of what we learn in standard technique – or, what I like to call ‘examination technique’ –  is useless (such as all scales in double 6ths! Wtf?), I disagree with technique being derived from pieces alone. As an example, I remember this passage from the Mozart Rondo in DK485:

…and what I treasure about this passage was that it felt so ‘good’ when playing it. Why? Because I knew my D major scale! In fact, we can look at any passage work in any piece and see the benefits of knowing the scales and arpeggios before we attempt what is in the score. I shudder to think how any pianist would get through a devlish work like the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Hummel without having all the scales and arpeggios in their arsenal. See this jaw dropping work here:

The Arrau legend is one I can’t stomach. It doesn’t sit right that a man who played all Mozart, all Beethoven, all Schumann, all Debussy, a huge amount of Liszt and Bach, would have neglected serious technical work. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems incredibly pretentious even for a man who was believed to be one of the loveliest and kindest souls. I shall investigate further!

Part 2 tomorrow 🙂