In a pianist‘s life, a proper physical and technical development is vital to adapt our body and hand movements on the piano. During history, some pianists and pedagoges have divided piano technique into two types: the “mechanic” and the “technique”. The first one is focused on the study of physiological aspects of interpretation and the movement of the extremities which are involved in the musical interpretation, while the second one is focused on how these movements adapt according to esthetic and stylistic criteria (Chiantore, 2001). This means that “mechanics” involves all kinds of exercises that are meant to study certain movements isolated from the piano repertoire: scales, arpeggios, chords, trills, octaves, etc.
In my case, I have never been a person who studies “mechanics” without any musical purpose, so I don’t teach my students this way. The reason why I don’t do it can be very easily explained by comparing learning piano with learning a language. When you learn a language, you have to master different disciplines: oral, writing, listening, comprehension and analysis, etc. Wouldn’t it be useless to learn the letters if you don’t put them in a context (a word, a text), or to learn all the grammatical rules without using them to write a text? If the answer is “yes” (hopefully it is), why should we think that this works with piano? Is it useful to practice scales, arpeggios, chords, octaves, trills, etc. without placing them in a context?
What do great pianists think?
Great pianists such as Martha Argerich have shared that they don’t study exercises or “mechanics”. In fact, there is a short film that shows an interview with the conductor Charles Dutoit and the great pianist Martha Argerich (which is a jewel in my opinion) where Martha shares how she has approached the study of technique during her pianist career. Here I share this video, which is available on YouTube. Unfortunately, it is in French, so it might not be possible to watch and understand for non-french-speakers, but I share with you a translation of the main parts of this interview below.
Interviewer: Is it possible for you to stop playing the piano - even for a few weeks?
Martha: Yes. I’ve done that.
Charles: Because there are those who think that it is totally necessary to do work every day.
Martha: That depends what you need to do. To be in top shape, it’s best to practice a little – or at least to be in shape. It’s very psychological also.
Charles: What do you mean by that?
Martha: I mean that constantly working on piano technique doesn’t mean that you will play better. Myself, sometimes, I’ve been working constantly and yet not playing well. In other times, I have been working less but playing better. It depends on many things. It depends how long you’ve been working, whether you’ve been working calmly or more hysterically. Where you’re thinking “I absolutely must do ‘that’ within 4 days” and then you don’t have the time. At that point it’s a different challenge.
Interviewer: Isn’t there an element, let’s say of ‘technical maintenance’, that means you need to practice regularly?
Martha: No, it doesn’t work like that. Your technique doesn’t disappear in that way – and thank goodness.
Interviewer: For example, people who do their scales every day.
Martha: No. That I’ve never done.
Charles: So what did you do then?
Martha: Not scales, never. Exercises, never.
Charles: So how do you work?
Martha: You know how I work. I work on my pieces.
Charles: Yes, that’s now. What you do now doesn’t tell me what you did when you were two and a half years old.
Martha: But I’ve never done scales.
Charles: So what did you do then?
Martha: Other things. I worked on pieces. Then if that didn’t work, I’d work on individual passages.
Charles: So you worked on technique from within the music?
Charles: You never did any exercises at all?
Martha: No. Well, a little, when I was 11 or something like that. That you work on an exercise book that is aimed at a specific difficulty that you are going to be able to accomplish doesn’t mean that you will accomplish that same thing within a piece, as it will appear differently quite often. Just because you can play double thirds doesn’t mean you can play Chopin’s double thirds [etude]. You see what I mean?
Charles: But surely there is an amount of purely mechanical practice required.
Martha: It doesn’t mean because you’ve practiced octaves that you can play the octaves in this or that piece of music.
Charles: Yes, but purely mechanical work. How to isolate the fingers. There are surely methods to work on finger independence and certain physical problems [at the piano] … so how do you do that?
Martha: So when you’re very young or when you’re older? That depends.
Charles: No, but I’m talking about you.
Martha: What, when I was a child?
Martha: My fingers became independent because I played the pieces I was learning. At six or seven I practiced how I was taught – working on actual pieces.
Interviewer: Does that mean that you didn’t have any real technical difficulties?
Martha: We always have technical problems. But that doesn’t mean… Technique is not a separate thing. I can’t say ‘I have my technique, it’s there’. So, now I can play whatever… I don’t think like that. I believe that every piece has its problems, which are very personal to that particular piece. And you can’t… anyway in my case, I’ve always said it like that. I can’t say that I have good technique. There are people who say to me ‘you have incredible technique’, but when I start working on something I still find it difficult.
Also, the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter has shared that he never did scales or other exercises and he learnt by playing and studying the music. The same happened with Arthur Rubinstein, who even said “better work on the music away from the piano than the mechanics at the piano”. Heinrich Neuhaus (writer of The Art of Piano Playing), who was a pupil of A. Scriabin and teacher of E. Gilels and S. Richter, says that his own teacher didn’t find any benefits in scales and that he thinks that everything must start with music, not with mechanics.
And then… What should we do?
I agree that the isolated practice of some mechanisms is needed sometimes. Of course, you first need to know the letters in order to write a word. However, you don’t write letters without a context for years until you dare to write a text. The way I approach this when teaching piano is similar. When studying a piece, we (the student and I) identify the difficulty, we extract it from the piece and create our own exercise using the same pattern. This way, it is normally much more engaging for the student, as he/she is aware that this practice is the path to be able to play that fragment properly (instead of just an exercise), which is motivating for them. At the beginning of this process, a lot of coaching from the teacher is needed, but I have realised myself that little by little students get a lot of autonomy and start to be able to do it themselves.
However, it is a bit daring to say that not studying “mechanics” is better than doing so, or the other way around. Anyway, I want to share with you what I do myself.
When I get one student that is a very beginner and doesn’t have any experience playing piano, then I take this opportunity as a blank canvas which gives me multiple opportunities. The first couple of lessons with this student are always crucial: we play easy songs or patterns on the piano to get to know the “piano landscape” (I will share how a first piano lesson looks like with my students in later posts), but what is more important for me as a teacher is to have a very observant attitude towards how this student uses his/her body in a natural way and what are his/her shortcomings regarding “mechanics”. These are the basic aspects I observe the most in first piano lessons (of course there are much more aspects to think about, but I deal with them after):
A flexible wrist.
A good balance between active fingers (the ones that are playing) and relaxed fingers (the ones that aren’t playing).
The elbow must accompany the movement of the forearm in a natural way.
The strength of knuckles.
The feet are on the ground.
After observing this and getting conclusions about the pupil’s shortcomings, I choose a repertoire that contains patterns which are useful to work on these problems and then we work on this within the pieces, without the student realising. However, this is the starting point of a very long process in which a lot more problems and questions will come up, so it is an exciting cycle that never ends.
When a student is more advanced, the process is different as it normally consists of modifying habits instead of creating them. In these cases, I like observing what the shortcomings are and recommending etudes which help to solve this problem. Moreover, the method shared at the beginning of this post (extracting the challenging material from the piece and creating exercises with it) is also very helpful with advanced students.
On the other hand, studying “mechanics” with my pupils is not always a bad idea. It can also be used as a tool to complement and help to improve certain aspects from the pieces we are working on. Here I share some of the methods, books or exercises I find useful, divided in different levels. As I said, I hardly ever study “mechanics”, but there are some resources I find interesting.
For the very beginners:
Pianimals, by Alan Fraser. “Pianimals offers the pianist's hand the same developmental experiences we all had in childhood when we first learned to stand, walk, run and jump. The Feldenkrais-style exercises empower any pianist's connection to the keyboard, and especially the beginner's first steps at the piano. The illustrations draw children into a fantasy world where the hand really becomes a bear or a bird, and the evocative compositions develop the child's musicianship along with their fantasy.” (Fraser, n.d.) On the website, you can find tutorials for teachers to use this method.
Studies in style by John Thompson. I like this one very much because every little etude has a lot of variety in articulations, dynamics and motive transformation. It is very easy to analyze with the student to find patterns in the piece which also give you the opportunity to create extra exercises out of it.
ABC der Klavier Technik by E.C. Scholz. It is a German method divided into 3 books increasing the level. Some exercises in this book remind me of the famous The Virtuoso Pianist by Hanon, but what I like the most about it is the order of the exercises, as it increases the difficulty in a very logical way in my opinion. Anyway, I mostly use it to extract some patterns from the exercises and transpose it ourselves (my pupils and I) to create exercises.
For the advanced students:
51 exercises WoO 6 by J. Brahms
Principi razionali della tecnica pianistica by A. Cortot.
Essential finger exercises for obtaining a sure piano technique by E. Dohnányi.
As I mentioned before, I like practicing technique within pieces because there is a context where you apply it. Nevertheless, we can take this idea and do the opposite process: instead of practicing mechanics within a context (technique), we can create a context for these mechanics! For example, instead of playing a scale without any goal or context, we can play it in very different ways: grow from piano to forte, play it with different articulations, with melodic variations, changing the accent, etc. And we can do the same with other exercises like arpeggios, chords, etc. In the video below, you can see a lot of inspiring examples to apply this:
In upcoming posts, I would love to share different examples of exercises, pieces and methods I use with my students in order to solve specific difficulties. Would you like to read (or watch) this kind of content on the blog? Let me know in the comments!
What do you think about this approach towards teaching “technique”? You can share it in the comments or let us know if you have more ideas. Thank you for reading!
Chiantore, Luca. (2001). Historia de la técnica pianística: un estudio sobre los grandes compositores y el arte de la interpretación en busca de la Ur-Technik. Madrid: Alianza.
Fraser, A. (n.d.). Pianimals: The easiest way yet to transform the pianist's hand. Retrieved from https://www.alanfraserinstitute.com/pianimals.php