Music

In The Studio: Why is technical work always left till the “last minute”? – Part One

The short answer: because the majority of students just, plain and simple, don’t like it.

The long answer: it is difficult to be objective in this area of pedagogy, mainly because I love technical work. I love studies – I love Hanon – I love scales and arpeggios. Every time I convey this to a student, I get “you’re crazy” or “wow, what is wrong with you?” which, normally, then encourages  bouts of laughter before moving on to something else. There is something immensely satisfying about seeing your hands glide up a piano or swiftly taking an arpeggio at break-neck speed without fault. The majority of my students, however, just don’t see it this way (with the exception of one or two), and even when I present a masterclass, a top question that is always asked is “how can I get them to practice technical work?”

It really does come down to HOW you teach it and not WHY you teach it. We all know that the concept of technical work consists of the building blocks for successful pianism. So, why then, are there so many famous pianists (past and present) who lay claim to NEVER utilising a scale or an arpeggio in their practice? Why are there so many pianists who believe that it is the repertoire itself which provides all the technical work they need? It is because they have found ways of making technique work for THEM and not the other way around. Many of them DID start with scales and arpeggios when they were younger and later evolved into pianists who started deciphering, unraveling, and using the technical challenges in their repertoire to their advantage.

While I appreciate this, I am not an exponent of using JUST repertoire to teach technique (even though I can see the advantages), instead, I believe in a combination of all things from collections of exercises, scales, and repertoire. My aim as a teacher is to always try my best to provide pathways to solutions regarding current physiological hurdles (tension, posture, injury) and technical inadequacy. In discovering various methods of teaching technique (of which there are thousands), there are some core fundamentals I like to teach my students aside from the usual “scales and arpeggio manual” – first and foremost, I like them to become investigators. To me, this is the most important skill I can give to any of my students. Without it, technique is a pointless and, dare I say it, obsolete journey.

The concept of the ‘mistake’, why it happens, and when student needs to become investigator:

“When a car crash happens, the impact is NOT the mistake. The mistake happens before hand. When someone is illegally talking on their mobile phone while driving, someone has run a red light, or a driver misses a “Give Way” sign, THAT is what we need to be looking at. Anything that happens afterwards is the RESULT of the mistake.”

This is how I explain mistakes to my older pupils. The point is that so many people believe the crash itself to be the mistake when it isn’t. If this were the case, there would be no need for Crime Scene Investigators, Traffic Control, or forensic teams to rush to the scene of the resulting accident. These people are required to investigate the circumstances leading up to the crash in order to determine WHY it has happened. These “accidents” in music happen the same way.

By encouraging students to become investigators, we open up the doors for a “critical thinking” or “self-directed” approach to analysis of their playing and of their technique. For example (and one that I see a lot of) is the Dominant 7th of F. The keys which need to be played are C-E-G-Bb with the fingering of 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 ascending and 4-3-2-1, 4-3-2-1, descending. It is when the arpeggio descends that I tend to see a banging 4th finger (akin to hearing the triplet accented sound in three note arpeggios) it also when I have heard many a piano teacher say “stop banging that 4th finger” which, unfortunately, puts all of the focus on the fourth finger. The banging fourth finger is the RESULT of a mistake that happens previously. There are a tonne of reasons for this: incorrect hand position, inability to touch and release with correct weight, lazy or late movement of the wrist, lack of rotation, incorrect direction – the “where am I going to?” effect, flat fingers and inflexible forearm, shoulder and tension across the scapular, hunching and poor posture. This is precisely the moment where teacher needs to be encouraging student to investigate more thoroughly. One of the most popular “old wives” techniques of getting rid of this 4th finger accent is asking a student to count in 5 when playing the four note arpeggios (similarly, count in 4 when playing three note arpeggios), but, as successful as this can be, it alone is not going to fix the problem if it happens to be rooted in tension and poor posture.

I have seen many exciting outcomes with technique by teaching my students to investigate why something is going wrong, or, what is happening in the lead up to the “car crash”. Teaching technique can be a struggle, mostly because it isn’t fully understood by the student (and sometimes, too, by the teacher!). Furthermore, an analytical framework is often just left up to the teacher, when understanding mistakes should be encouraged between student and teacher. This stepping stone is paramount in all aspects of technique, from the physical to the mental.

In part two: questions to guide a student through the investigative process, methods for exciting technical work approaches such as books, games, resources, and personal studio tools. And also…why technique really DOES tend to be left till the “last minute”.

 

 

Perspectives: You Don’t Need To Be A Doctor To Understand Your Hand, But You Shouldn’t Be A Piano Teacher If You Don’t!

Many years ago, I had an expensive anatomically correct medical model of a human hand that was a regular feature on top of my piano at my studio. It was quite a unique model in the sense that the skin could be removed to see the muscles and the intricate vein systems underneath along with blood flow indicators and numerical signposts. I no longer display this model in my studio due to a complaint from a parent that it “horrified” her child no end! It looks very similar to this:

...it isn't really that scary!

…it isn’t really that scary!

I named him Frank and I purchased him when I was a first year Conservatorium student. My aim was to better understand what I was working with; what each muscle did; where blood moved and how tension collected and released. I still own Frank but he only gets brought out for my older students – which is a shame. I know that medical models can be horrifying or, “gory and unnecessary” (words used by the aforementioned parent), but they are a wonderful thing to see and touch; they can be purchased for all the organs and limbs of the human body and quite often adorn the shelves in many private doctor surgeries across the world. Mine has the removable parts just like the one in the above picture and my older students derive great pleasure (I suspect it is actually closer to morbid curiosity in some cases) out of putting it back together while following all the little number marks. Part of me wants to rebel and place Frank back atop his rightful throne, but sometimes it is just easier to leave him in the cupboard. On one hand (pun intended), I’d like nothing more than to share something with my students so that they, too, understand how the fingers function. However, on the other, it is difficult to talk a parent down from a ledge once their child has been frightened. Frank was displayed atop my piano with only the best of intentions. I guess now, looking back on it, I should’ve considered that (medical or not) this model had the potential to negatively imprint itself deep into the over-active imagination of a 6 year old.

I wondered for years after if my approach to demonstrating what the hand was really “all about” was a good one with my students. Was it too far? For small children, possibly, but for teenagers, adults, and especially teachers, definitely not. Understanding the hand is something that seems to be only taken seriously by few teachers (at least in my experience), when, in reality, ALL teachers of the piano should hold some sort of anatomical and physiological knowledge of the limb. I feel that regardless of other pedagogues of the Late-Classical and Early Romantic periods, the best person to start with for this brief blog, is Carl Czerny.

Czerny: A True Clinician of the Human Hand

Czerny: A True Clinician of the Human Hand

Czerny can be either a blessing or a curse to every pianist, this is mostly due to the divided academic discourse over the benefit of his piano studies. Many piano students the world over know of (and fear) the rigorous technical demands in the two infamous collections of etudes The School of Velocity Op. 299 and The Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740. It is quite often speculated as to how he amassed the hundreds of etudes in his oeuvre, the implication that the sheer volume may mean they are of no merit. On the contrary…

There is a tonne of anecdotal and historical evidence surrounding Czerny. Whether it be letters to and from pupils, pianists, and royalty, Czerny’s methods of teaching were well known. Perhaps the best and most insightful account was that during a piano lesson, he could sit beside a student, instantly recognise a problem in their hand, and have an etude on the technical issue written for them before the lesson ended. Such feats of pedagogy (unique for their time) added to his already sealed reputation as an exceptional pianist and teacher of some of Europe’s brightest pupils. These historical accounts have led to many recent editors to label him a “clinician of the hand”.

But what exactly is a clinician of the hand? What do they do?

A hand clinician nowadays comes under the medical banner of an Orthopaedic Hand Surgeon. These specialists treat many injuries concerning joints, muscles, and types of damage to the limb. Often times they work alongside Rheumatologists concerning some conditions like bone spurs, RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury), and arthritis; they also work alongside neurosurgeons concerning disorders such as dystonia and, in some cases, muscular dystrophy. Is it correct to place Czerny alongside these medical practitioners? The answer is no. Czerny was no more a doctor than he was a dentist! What is meant by “clinician of the hand” in Czerny’s case is that he understood how the hand worked, what to do with it, and what not to do. He understood how the thumb moved, how the fingers moved, how to change hand positions to create different sounds and effects, and how the arm and wrist worked in conjunction with tone, touch, and technique.

Czerny was no doubt aware of injuries at the keyboard (pianist/teachers like Kalkbrenner had a reputation for torturing their students with maliciously large amounts of repetitions which were restricted to finger movements instead of utilising other movements from the wrist backward up the arm) and, there is also no doubt that he understood tension and release, especially from the wrist and forearm. Czerny was astonished at the freedom that the young Franz Liszt displayed when he visited for his lessons. Czerny recounts how, regardless of Liszt’s whimsical whole body movements, his high fingers and flexible wrist, the playing was nothing short of astonishing; so much so, that Czerny taught him for nothing. The “finger school” of the baroque harpsichordists was still very much a commonly taught pedagogical method in Europe in the early 1800’s. Czerny used a unique blend of Beethoven’s long phrased “legato which breathed” and this “finger school” within his lessons, which eventually incorporated some further use of the wrist. The correspondence between Beethoven and Czerny (especially concerning the interpretation of Beethoven’s newly published music) gives great insight into Czerny as interpreter, transcriber, and pianist. Beethoven entrusted Czerny with performances, even after scolding him for taking excessive liberties via “adding things” to the original music (wonder where Liszt got it from, hmmm?) – they are wonderful to read.

Although Czerny missed the first publication of Gray’s Anatomy by 1 year, it is possible that he would’ve been well aware of the first few volumes of the most influential medical text of the time, the Atlas of Human Anatomy and Surgery by Jean Baptiste Marc Bourgery:

Please note: this book is NOT for the squeamish. Seriously.

Please note: this book is NOT for the squeamish. Seriously.

But would he have bothered to read it? While it is hypothetical that Czerny knew the preliminary volumes of this book (the entire collection was not published during his life), it is also equally hypothetical that he did not. The lithographs and illustrations (impeccably drawn by artist, Nicolas Henri Jacob) set the benchmark for all medical imagery and surgical procedures for many years after. This unbelievably large text book (yes, you could easily use it as a weapon should you ever face a home intruder!) is now published in its entirety to be purchased by serious collectors, academics, or just for those who have a keen interest in the human body. As for Czerny knowing the book (or knowing similar anatomy guides of the time), it bears mention that his observations on the human hand and its capabilities did not just come down to luck. When looking across the vast expanse of Czerny’s compositions, especially the etudes, those with a keen eye can see that he knew how to immediately, and successfully, solve a problem with beginner pianists, right through to the most competent of virtuosi. As someone who completed all 40 of the Op. 299 studies over the course of three years, I can attest to great results. These results improved the more I practiced them and, along with Op. 740,  I still consider them to be a valuable tool for myself and my students. Carl Czerny, regardless of the hatred that many pianists have for his etudes and his sometimes bland, “salonesque” harmonic framework, is still quite often referred to as the forefather of modern piano technique – for very good reason…

I am happy to say I, too, am a part of this tree (my teacher was a student of Arrau!)

I am happy to say I, too, am a part of this tree (my teacher was a student of Arrau!)

I’m just going to blurt this out: I do not believe you can be a successful piano teacher without even a cursory, anatomical knowledge of the hand. In fact, it’s quite absurd to consider anything otherwise. There is no need to begin a degree in medicine nor is there cause for several hours of reading the most dense orthopaedic text books at your local library: Google is your friend. There are also many concise books (including Gray’s Anatomy) that are just as beneficial for understanding the mechanics of the hand. Anyone can pick up Malwine Bree’s treatise on Leschetizky’s methods of teaching, and they can flick through to all of the drawings and pictures of his hand demonstrating how to correctly take chords, but are they REALLY understanding? Are they really understanding Wieck and his focus on the wrist as a reliever of tension? Do they understand the dialogue between the techniques of Matthay and Breithaupt whilst having no knowledge of weight and muscular movement in and around the hand? Finally, do they know and understand what is under their own skin? In a lot of cases, probably not. Reading book after book of pedagogical practices/ideologies is wonderful, but it isn’t the full picture. Just like a mechanic has to lift the bonnet of the car to better understand the problem, we have to lift the layers of skin off our limbs to understand how the machine works underneath (please, don’t take me literally!). This isn’t a direct stab at ALL piano teachers, it is aimed to bring forth the idea that maybe taking a closer, anatomical look could really open some doors and expand thought, creativity, and progression of technique.

Finally, I have to say, if I didn’t understand about the inner workings of the hand at an anatomical level (sometimes, also at a mental level!), I couldn’t ethically teach someone the piano. I mean, when a student comes and says that their 4th and 5th fingers have trouble playing the broken double thirds in Op. 299 no. 11, I don’t want to be a teacher who throws an exercise at them saying “practice this slowly, it will eventually happen” (I would just like to point out that I do know MANY teachers like this), I want to be the teacher who says “Well! Here is WHY they are doing that and here are some ways we may be able to fix it” and make sure they understand how their hands respond to such challenges.

As for the 6 year old who was scared of Frank, she is now 14. She still tells me, on a regular occasion, that should she ever see Frank again, she will most likely set him on fire for ruining her childhood with nightmares. She’s also currently having some trouble with Op. 299 no. 5 of Czerny.

There’s a twisted sort of irony there…somewhere.

Perspectives: Why I play with sheet music…

The last piece I played memorised was the Brahms Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor over ten years ago.

I perform with music because, simply put, I can no longer perform without it.

I still, to this day, get asked about it after nearly every recital, which leads me to believe that it is just as relevant a topic as it ever was. So, today, I would like to talk about my decision to no longer play without music and the two major events that lead me down this path.

My “second” university: 

Up until starting at this university, everything I played was from memory. I had recently finished at the Conservatorium and, under the advice of another teacher, I was sent to further my study at this second university, where the focus was to be on the music I wanted to play/specialise etc. Looking back on it now, not much good came from this experience other than meeting who was to be the greatest pianistic influence of my life. The university didn’t (and still doesn’t) have much going for it. I was beginning my third year of study and I was broke; I don’t even think I knew what money looked like anymore! I couldn’t afford shoes for my concerts, I couldn’t afford clothes, and I could barely afford to eat. The shoes that I did have were so close to breaking and falling apart that every day in them was like a torturous journey, hoping against hope that they did not disintegrate because they were all I had.

The last crushing moment on my memory happened at the hands of a staff member. I had been trying for years before hand to get my memory back up to scratch like it was during the Brahms days. I felt so good about the fact that I had all of my pieces memorised after so many years. I was set to play in a lunch time concert and everything that day was going to plan. We were all backstage waiting to go on. I was playing some Chaminade, Chopin, and Hyde – I remember that much! Yet, as I walked out on stage to bow, I felt the arch in my shoe split and the colour drain from my face.

It got worse.

When I sat down to play, I couldn’t lift the front of the shoe to pedal because it was loosely hanging and floppy. I had to, comically, lift my entire leg to place it down on the sustain pedal. To make matters worse, the pedal then got stuck in the underside, causing me to trip into the piano when I got up to bow. Enter mediocre staff member and her friends – who laughed and pointed. The fact that, as staff members, they went to the level of pointing and laughing so publicly, created feelings in me that I had never experienced before concerning music – crippling anxiety, humiliation, and shame. Suffice to say that said staff member was who we used to refer to as a “backyard pianist”, and really should have acted more professionally.

After that incident, I didn’t return to university for almost 5 weeks. I also never got to sit with the woman in question and explain to her how that felt and that what she did was wrong. I tell this story in a rather hilarious vein to my pupils. It almost always comes up when we have a joke about the pitfalls of playing the piano. Little do they know how much psychological damage that situation caused (short and long term!)

Medical:

Two years ago, I got sick. Very sick. The culmination of 12 months of the worst stress I had ever experienced caused my body to scream “no more!” and shut down. Test after test and scan after scan – all to no avail. Weight gain skyrocketed, my hands began to hurt, arthritis had begun to set in along my spine, and life really started to get me down. Health anxiety was, however, the worst part of all of this (sitting and waiting for tests should almost be outlawed due to the strain it can put on your well-being!).

ALL of the anxiety came flooding back ten-fold. I had convinced myself that, for the most part, it was all under control. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case and the same battles I had fought years ago were, all of a sudden, so fresh and new.

Frankly, I felt like a walking disaster.

Full Circle:

It is now 12 months on from my medical issues and 8 years since that awful moment at university. I feel better and I feel supported. However, I still choose to play with music. That will never change. That decision is firmly rooted.

Why?

Well, why not?!

I feel at one with music. I practice exactly the same way as I did before when I was memorising. I don’t see the issue.

I get asked about my students memorising all the time. The answer is, yes, I do encourage them to memorise the music. I also tell them that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t equate to much if (even from memory) it is unmusical, unmeasured, and overall poorly performed.

Ultimately, I felt like a circus animal. Even after bashing out a near 40 minute Brahms Sonata and being questioned about how I store that in my brain, I did not feel propped up. I felt like screaming “You’ve no idea what it took…” – but, that’s just me. My hat goes off to anyone who can do it and do it consistently well in spite of what life throws at them. I, however, am not one of those people.

Don’t me wrong, it was not without trying either. I saw many councillors concerning memory function, I wrote papers concerning it (I was a double degree psychology major!) and spent many years after the fact trying to retrain myself. I could memorise a few small piano pieces here and there, but never again to the level of the Brahms. I play fairly regularly across Australia and overseas and I still see a few raised eyebrows when I mention that I play with sheet music. Sometimes, you even expect patrons to ask for their money back. Very sad…

Just as Liszt changed attitudes with memorisation, I sincerely hope the attitude shifts on playing with sheet music. We are there for the music. There is no certifiable evidence to suggest that memorisation promotes a more musical performance. After all, put your headphones on and listen to the page turns in some of Ashkenazy’s recordings (he is only one of many where the sheet music can be heard “turning” in the recording). It is laughable that he is seemingly “allowed” to use sheet music while he’s in a recording studio away from an audience, but would be condemned by some for using it on stage. What is worse is that his musicality (which is of the highest order) would be challenged and, quite possibly, ridiculed. The entire notion is ridiculous and the contradictions many.

I play with music because it makes me feel safe in my job. It calms whatever nerves I have which can greatly affect the music.

Honestly, I would rather give a good performance with music, than a bad one without, for whatever that is worth.

As a side note, I also pay my page-turners rather handsomely.

Dan.

Books and Resources: Purrfect Practice

Each year, I am invited to the lovely community of Camden, New South Wales, to perform in honour of my last piano teacher, Dr. Marilyn Meier. As well as a wonderful teacher, Marilyn was a great friend of mine who welcomed me into her family and who became my two-piano partner professionally. She believed in me above all and sang my praises constantly; she was critical and investigative and made me strive for bigger, better things. Even though she is no longer with us, the boost she gave to my career is something I’ll never forget as long as I live. However, this line of thought is a story for another time.

The Amazing Grace Academy of Performing Excellence (AGAPE) is directed by pianist and teacher, Heather Bieman. Heather is a lovely, accommodating woman who fosters a love music in her students and is a kind, caring, knowledgeable mentor to her teaching faculty. It is always a pleasure to attend AGAPE each year and work with students on some beautiful repertoire. I am also very fortunate to meet a number of piano teachers in the area who come along for a chat and who always have a barrage of questions for me. Last year, I conducted a masterclass and was terribly excited because I was hoping to finally meet Jackie Sharp. Jackie is a pianist, pedagogue, and professional teacher, whose YouTube videos and pedagogical research was inspiring a great many private instructors both nationally and internationally. At this point in time, Jackie had been developing her Purrfect Practice Technique Trainer 1 e-book and a lot of interest was generated within the Australian pedagogical community. I didn’t get to meet Jackie on this occasion and discuss her technique trainer, which is a shame, but I did acquire my own copy of the e-book version to use and review for this blog post – I am sure we will get to meet in the future.

I have reviewed many technique books as part of university work/literature studies and, at one stage, as part of a thesis which heavily critiqued certain evolutionary aspects of the etude in everyday piano practice. As with a lot of this research, I obtained books of etudes and finger exercises and spent my days playing through them to assess their value overall (technical and otherwise!). There were always supplementary writings, pictures, and anecdotes to accompany a lot of the studies I practiced which was great help from an analytical standpoint. Purrfect Practice Technique Trainer 1 combines a lot of these similar approaches into one handy reference guide for teacher and student alike. These are the two main areas which were huge deal makers for me:

TECHNOLOGY

If there is one area where Technique Trainer REALLY succeeds, it is with the videos that Jackie uses in conjunction with her book. Jackie, herself a fine pianist, provides links to YouTube videos at the top of each exercise in the book. Once the link is clicked, we are taken to a clip that isn’t just another grainy hand demonstration with no sound (as is common with a lot of example videos given by some shoddy “pedagogues” on YouTube), but we listen as Jackie talks us through the exercise slowly, then, in some cases, with more speed. Her camera angles are more than helpful as we can actually see important movements of the hand, wrist, and fingers, making the illustrations in her book more pertinent. More often than not, many videos have camera angles which are missing the important aspects of hand movement and coordination.

The combination of technology with piano teaching nowadays is, I feel, par for the course. Jackie has more than succeeded with this approach.

RE-INFORCEMENT AND PRE-CHECKLISTS

Technique Trainer 1 encourages students to think before they play, think while they are playing, and think after. Each exercise comes with a checklist of things to be aware of while you play as well as things to think about after you’ve played. Checklists contain markers that focus on areas like strong joints, up-down motions, rotation, etc. These checklists promote positive re-inforcement of technical work as the book progresses. Quite often, Jackie will revisit certain areas of the hand just to keep things in perspective – you don’t just do something once and think you’re a master!

I, and other teachers whom I have spoken with, have found that some students are making an effort to focus better on what they are doing to the point where they will actively engage in a discussion about it afterwards. For me, that’s just another selling point for books like this.

(Let me tell you, getting students to converse on aspects of technique/musicality after they’ve finished is, by far, not the easiest thing in the world)

The format of the exercises is clear and concise. The colours are minimal but bright and contrasting. The book is certainly not exhaustive when placed alongside the likes of Joseffy and Berringer, but then again I don’t think that is Jackie’s aim either. Whereas these two books assume that a fundamental knowledge of piano playing has already been achieved, Jackie takes us right back to a bare bones approach. It is an approach that facilitates gracious piano playing with ease RIGHT from the beginning stages. It is an approach that promotes less tension in the limbs/joints/muscles by fostering carefully considered movements and motions. Finally, it is an approach that promotes musicality – that is the most important aspect about this book.

I don’t believe that this resource should only be in the hands of the beginner – it should be in the hands of every teacher. Jackie’s work is not a regurgitation of bygone pedagogical principles, it is a fresh work that has been made easily accessible to teacher and student. It is very affordable and comes in a studio licensing format or a single copy. It has used the advent of technology in the studio to its advantage and it doesn’t sacrifice musicality EVER for the sake of a dry exercise.

Well done, Jackie! I cannot wait for the other volumes.

5 Stars

Please Visit: http://www.purrfectpractice.com.au