“my jump is not high enough, my twists are not perfect, I can’t place my leg behind my ear…..Sometimes there is such an obsession with the technique that this can kill your best impulses. Remember that communicating with a form of art means being vulnerable, being imperfect. And most of the time is much more interesting. Believe me.”
Mikhail Baryshnikov – ballet dancer
Music, like ballet, is a creative, artistic activity, but that creativity must be underpinned by secure technique – a range of mechanical skills, such as how we move our limbs, manage breathing and airflow, or control our embouchure, which enable us to execute musical ideas. These skills are developed and honed over time, and a large proportion of the musician’s training and practice is devoted to fine-tuning and maintaining their technical facility.
Musicians use a variety of means to practice technique, including scales and arpeggios, exercises, etudes and excerpts from the music currently being worked on. Technical skills require consistent nurturing, which is why regular practicing is so important. Mindless note-bashing achieves little; focused, deliberate, deep practice, on the other hand, fosters technical assuredness and artistic mastery.
Through a process of constant reflection and refining during practice, physical and creative obstacles are overcome and one has in place the firm foundations and confidence from which to develop greater artistry. Assured technique also gives us the tools to explore more complex repertoire.
As the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov says in the quote at the head of this article, “an obsession with technique can kill your best impulses”. The obsessive need to find perfection in one’s technique, coupled with the anxiety of achieving perfect arpeggio runs or intonation, can deaden musical and artistic expression, leading to performances which may be note-perfect and faithful to the score, but lacking in emotional depth and communication. In addition, this quest for technical perfection may lead to over-practicing and even injury. It can also rob us of curiosity and joy in our practicing and music-making.
“The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious.” David Mamet, playwright & director
Technique must always serve the music – the two are inseparable – but if one becomes too obsessed with technique alone, one risks overlooking the expressive, communicative and emotional aspects in the music. A willingness to look beyond technique, to accept that perfection is unattainable (because we are all human), leads to greater artistry and imagination in our music-making, and allows us to play “in the moment”, creating performances which are spontaneous, exciting and memorable.
This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site
Pianist, composer and teacher Peter Feuchtwanger has died. I never met Peter, though I wanted to, but I felt a connection to him and his wisdom via my teachers who studied with him, and also via pianist friends and colleagues who were taught by him and spoke of his inspirational, sympathetic and experimental approach to piano technique and piano playing.
In addition to his own piano studies with Gerti Rainer (a pupil of Emil von Sauer), Max Egger, Edwin Fischer and Walter Gieseking, Peter Feuchtwanger also studied composition with Hans Heimler (a pupil of Alban Berg, Heinrich Schenker and Felix Weingartner) and Lennox Berkeley, as well as Indian and Arabic music and philosophy. His Studies in an Eastern Idiom (Tariqas) and Variations on an Eastern Folk Tune are inspired by Eastern folk and art music and demonstrate inventive use of the piano’s sonority, texture and pedal effects to suggest Arabic, Indian and other Eastern instruments, styles and motifs.
Largely self-taught, he formed his personal conclusions about technique through experimentation that was free from the dogma or narrow approach of “schools” of piano teaching or formal musical training. As a consequence, he was regarded by some within the profession with suspicion, while those who studied with him and absorbed his wisdom are full of praise for his ability to think outside the box of traditional piano technique and talk of the transformative power of his teaching.
Most people are slaves to technique. But technique is not about playing mechanically and quickly, it is also about tone-balance, colours…. – Peter Feuchtwanger
His piano exercises were developed to relax the hand without making it completely powerless. The specified fingerings encourage the smooth, elliptical, natural choreography of the hands and fingers, and allow the instrument to be played with the greatest relaxation of the body, resulting in tension-free playing and a beautiful sound.
Touching tributes from some of his former pupils
I will never forget the kindness shown me by Peter Feuchtwanger……..without his guidance and generosity of soul I doubt I would be a musician today. He criticised perpetually (with characteristic vibrancy and charm), strove to make me realise my finest self, instinctively understood me, was a considerate listener, was a fountain of naughty jokes, never doubted me and proved to be far more than merely my piano teacher.
You haven’t died, Peter; your legacy lives with the vitality of every string set into vibration by the many pianists who’s lives you touched.
….his vast knowledge of styles of playing, along with his unique technical approach, have been incredible for my development, and I’m constantly amazed at his generosity, and commitment to teaching. (DR)
He brought out the absolute best in his pupils by his unquestioning faith in his pupils’ abilities, and his loyal support and generosity of time. The universal truth in his technique will live on in his many hundreds of students. (WMS)
Great teachers never die: their wisdom and enduring legacy is passed down to their students, and continues through successive generations of pianists.
A new website has been launched by Jovan Haji-Djurich, a student of Kemal Gekic and his studio teaching assistant for 2 years at the Florida International University, Miami FL. Prior to studying with Kemal, Jovan worked worked with Alan Fraser (The Craft of Piano Playing Method) for several years.
Here Jovan introduces his new project:
It’s a subscription based website/service where awesome piano teachers like Alan or Kemal Gekic get to upload their teaching videos, masterclasses for other pianists to watch and they get paid for it.
Some of the core features are:
Up to 70% of the money collected from subscription fees gets used to pay the teachers.
Teachers are paid by the number of cumulative video views at the end of the month.
Various algorithms prevent misuse by the students and teachers as well. For example, a teacher can not create views on his own videos…etc
I developed a a unique ‘cost per view’ mechanism, which determines a cost of a single lesson view based on the number of total users, lessons, and total number of lesson views.
I built it myself using latest web technologies. I felt the need to share Alan’s, Kemal’s, or any great teacher’s teaching videos to the general public. How often can we afford to travel and play for a really good teacher. Or even just observe their masterclasses.
I am delighted to present my third article for ‘Pianist’ Magazine’s e-newsletter, on the use of the sustain pedal, often misused and misunderstood by pianists and piano students. The article includes a helpful exercise to assist in mastering the art of good legato pedalling (an exercise which I know works as I have used it successfully with a number of my students).
There is also a link to a feature on the London Piano Meetup Group and the South London Concert Series, which I run with my friend and colleague Lorraine Liyanage.
People who know me well – and who have eaten at my dinner table – probably feel it was inevitable that I would eventually combine my twin passions of food and pianism in a blog post.
This time last year I was in the midst of final preparations for my ATCL Performance Diploma. I was also hooked on Masterchef the Professionals, a BBC TV competition for working chefs. This time this year I am once again immersed in Diploma preparations (for the higher LTCL), and nightly glued to Masterchef the Professionals.
So how can a cookery tv game show (which is how Masterchef began nearly 20 years ago) provide inspiration to the pianist, and musician in general?
The programme features some very talented individuals. Many of the dishes they submit to the highly discriminating judges are amazing: creative, imaginative and beautifully prepared. In order to progress through the contest, the participants must complete a variety of tests, including skills tests which examine things like the ability to joint a bird correctly, prepare a lobster or make Hollandaise sauce (three ways). They must also prepare a classic dish, set by Michael Roux Jr, as well as cooking and serving a two-course meal for food critics. As the competition progresses, the tasks become more challenging.
The more I watched Masterchef, and the further the competition proceeded towards its exciting denouement, the more it became apparent to me that the chefs who consistently came out top (and the one who eventually won the competition, Ash Mair), all had their “skills sets” perfected. At the foundation of everything they cooked was a solid understanding of technique, ingredients, flavour combinations, and time-management, combined with creative flair and imagination. And as I watched, it occurred to me that musicians, especially those preparing for concerts, competitions, festivals or exams, also need to have secure “skills sets” (i.e. technique).
Technique is at the foundation of everything we do as pianists (and this is true for anyone who works in a profession/craft requiring skill and dexterity – for example, sportspeople, surgeons, sculptors, plumbers). Piano technique is not just finger dexterity but – just as for a chef – an aggregate of many skills. It is an understanding of how movement can influence the way we play the piano, the sounds we make, our ability to move rapidly around the keyboard. It is “a way of using your body to play the piano” (Maria Joao Pires). I see technique as the solid architectural framework on which we hang our creativity, artistic and interpretative vision, our musicality, and our communication with the listener. And technique must never just be about acquiring “finger technique”; we should always practice in a musical way – because practically any technical flaw can be detected in the music.
Sure, you come across people who play the piano well, but maybe you wonder, when you hear them play, why their fortes are too strident, or their tonal control lacks true cantabile sound. Both aspects require an ability to understand how we use the body to create particular sounds and effects on the keyboard. So, like the chefs on Masterchef the Professionals, we must bring together our skill set and our musicality to enable us to play better.
Another aspect which was very obvious from Masterchef was that all the finalists were highly organised time managers. They knew how long their dishes would take to prepare and they were expert at multi-tasking. They also had a well-developed understanding of how the different components of a dish should come together to create a whole meal. In the same way, the skilled musician understands how to construct a programme that will delight, excite and surprise the listener. The ingredients of a good programme should pique the listener’s appetite well before the soloist arrives on stage (when I select concerts to review, I largely base my choices on interesting repertoire and programming rather than performer). A concert pianist friend of mine once told me that his teacher (Phyllis Sellick) described a programme featuring music by the same composer as “a list!”, but “seasoning” your programme well can make a concert focusing on a single composer a fascinating and engaging experience – for listener and performer.
Let me backtrack a little in the process and explain how Masterchef influenced my Diploma preparations in the run up to the exam last December:
Be well-prepared: allowing oneself enough time to fully prepare each piece. Last-minute preparations are never a good idea, whatever level of exam you are taking. Being well-prepared can also counteract nerves on the day.
Time-management: make sure your programme runs to the correct timings as given in the exam regulations. At Diploma level, you will be marked down if your programme is too short, or over-runs. Time your pieces individually as well as your entire programme. And think about the silences between the pieces too: some pieces hang together naturally (I played a Bach Toccata and Debussy’s Sarabande from ‘Pour le Piano’ virtually back-to-back in my Diploma recital, to demonstrate the connections between the pieces, but a longer pause between the Schubert E flat Impromptu and Liszt Sonetto 123 was necessary, in part to allow me to catch my breath!)
Plan your menu. Your programme is your menu: plan it wisely. In my experience, as a regular concert-goer and occasional performer, the best programmes are those which offer different levels of energy, perhaps building to the climax of a big virtuosic piece, or piano sonata at the midway point. If the programme is very weighty, remember that the audience needs a break too.
Presentation: at Diploma level you are marked on your presentation skills and stagecraft, and your attire and manner must be professional. Dress appropriately for an afternoon or early evening recital, and practice playing in your concert clothes ahead of the actual date. (I had trouble with my shoes, for example, as I cannot pedal in high heels! And make sure your page turner is correctly attired too: mine wore plain black shirt and trousers).
Stay focussed: nerves can get the better of you but if you are well-prepared you should have no reason to feel nervous (beyond the “positive nerves” of looking forward to presenting your programme to an audience/examiner).
A couple of other tips for practising have come up as I’ve watched this year’s Masterchef The Professionals contest:
Last year, I played the Schubert E flat Impromptu to a pianist friend, twice, as part of my preparations. He told me I was using the pedal too much and ordered me to practice the piece without the pedal (except in the trio). At first, I found this a difficult and unpleasant experience, not least because the piece sounded dreadful without pedal on my piano. After a while, however, I began to notice new details about the music, which had hitherto been hidden by my rather over-enthusiastic foot. Likewise, on Masterchef last year, one of the finalists made a ‘Deconstructed Chicken and Mushroom Pie’. He took all the components of a classic chicken pie, stripped them down and presented them in an elegant and witty way. When I made it myself, I realised why my friend had suggested practising the Schubert without pedal: when I went back to play the piece for my teacher, with one-eighth pedal, the result was more refined, musical and had far greater clarity.
So, it’s worth taking the trouble to strip the music back to its components: this does not necessarily mean doing an exhaustive analysis of the score, but being aware of all the little details that make up the whole. Practising sans pedal allows you to hear better what is going on in the music – maybe some interior voices or melodic lines were not obvious before? Understand what makes the whole and try to bring all the individual parts together to make a coherent and elegant finished version.
I’ve been working on my LTCL repertoire for nearly a year now, and soon it will be “decision time” as to when I take the exam (spring or summer 2013). The experience of the previous Diploma – and the inspiration from Masterchef! – means I feel far better prepared this time around. I’ve spent a lot of time fine-tuning aspects of technique including pedaling (specifically for Mozart A minor Rondo, K511, which requires very little, and very sensitive pedaling), and building stamina to enable me to play a brash and exuberant Rachmaninov Étude-Tableau (op 33, in E flat). I’ve done a lot of “tasting” – listening around my repertoire to gain inspiration from recordings, other works by the same composers, live performances etc. My ‘menu’ is nearly ready to be run by friends and colleagues who will sample it ahead of the exam:
Bach – Concerto in D minor after Marcello, BWV 974
Takemitsu – Rain Tree SketchII
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K511
Liszt – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
Rachmaninov – Two Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33 – No. 7 in E flat & No. 8 in G minor
I was learning a piece called ‘Baby Bear’, and I was having difficulty with it. It was about the sixth piece in my grade one book, and I think you actually had to play hands together or something incredibly challenging like that. My mother sat down with me and patiently helped me through it. For some reason that always stuck in my mind – it’s one of the few memories I have of a warm and caring feeling between my mom and I.
Who or what inspired you to start teaching?
The lack of good piano teachers. I figured there has got to be some way of offering students better than what I received. But it was also just by chance – some neighbourhood kids needed lessons, so I taught them. I was 16 which means I’ve now been teaching over 40 years.
Who were your most memorable/significant teachers?
First off the bat is Richard Hunt, an Englishman who ended up in Montreal and later founded Quartango, one of the best tango groups around. He taught me for only two years when I was 8 and 9 years old, but he instilled a love of music in me that I carry to this day. He was very clever and he let me have fun! We even had some of our lessons on the church organ instead of the piano.
Then there was Phil Cohen who had been Yvonne Hubert’s assistant (she had been a student of Cortot and taught such Canadian greats as Janina Fialkowska, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Ronald Turini who later studied with Horowitz, Andre Laplante and Louis Lortie). Phil was fascinated with the psycho-physical aspects of performance and would do strange things with your hand that made you play way better but you weren’t sure what exactly was going on.
When I finished my studies with Phil I wanted to understand what had just happened to me, so I did a training in Feldenkrais Method, and I count Moshe Feldenkrais as my next most memorable and significant teacher.
I concluded that Phil had given me an amazing degree of refinement, but I had never acquired the firm foundation upon which such sophistication needs rest. So I went to study with Kemal Gekić in Yugoslavia. More or less a product of the Russian School, he rebuilt everything from the ground up and indeed gave my hand a strength and security it had never had before.
Finally, in the past few years I have again been having occasional sessions with Phil – getting some reminders about that sophisticated part and synthesizing what I’ve learned from both Phil and Kemal to develop what I call Craft of Piano Method, the approach presented in my three books on piano technique.
Who or what are the most important influences on your teaching?
All of the above. Also Richard Feynman, the physicist and author of ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman – Adventures of a Curious Character’, and Werner Erhard, whose work now goes by the name Landmark Education. Also G. I. Gurdjieff. And various psychological disciplines…… what they gave me is the idea always to make it a positive, creative experience. To respect the person. To try to discover the person. Never to fault the student for not understanding but to fault myself for failing to discover the language that would have him or her understand.
Most memorable/significant teaching experiences?
Hoo boy, there are hundreds of those… Recently I worked with a violinist in Pensacola, Florida, who had shoulder pain. I had him continue his up bow way past the violin, towards the ceiling, then around in a big circle. Then his down bow expanded into a big circle in the other direction. Then I had him play not moving his bow at all but moving his violin back and forth underneath the bow. Finally I explained to him where his arms are attached to his body: do you know? It is only at the central end of the collarbone where it attaches to the sternum. I put my bunched fingertips one on each of these collarbone-sternum joints and palpated them while he played, just kept physically in touch with them. His sound went through the roof. It had been improving steadily but this was a quantum leap, it had power, sonority, richness, expressivity – it gave us all goosebumps.
I recently worked with a young Italian pianist in Geneva. She had been given a steady diet of arm weight technique and told not to move her fingers too much. When I showed her a way of moving her fingers which gave them activity and tonus without stiffening them or causing any stiffness elsewhere, her playing became amazingly poetic. I was blown away because I didn’t have to tell her to be more expressive or poetic, we just worked to undo the physical block which had been preventing her natural expression from finding its voice.
I taught an American pianist in Trossingen, Germany many years ago. Her hand suffered (as so many do) from over-relaxation, and I worked to build up its structure, just to get it to stand nicely on the keyboard even before we tried to play anything. All of a sudden she says, “Gee, I feel so muscular!” We all laughed, because of course, it wasn’t her muscles at all that were giving her the sense of power, it was her skeletal structure.
I remember teaching a Chinese student during my year in Wuhan. She was playing Liszt’s Dante Sonata and couldn’t really get the special atmosphere of the second theme. I tried explaining to her how Liszt was pulled in two directions, towards divine love but also towards carnal love, and that we don’t really know which one this theme represents. I myself feel it as towards the divine, how about you? No result. I try another tack: “Imagine you are the Emperor of China and it is your yearly pilgrimage to the Sun Temple. You must pray to the Gods for rain, and if you fail, your people will die of famine. You enter the temple, you pray with all your heart, and suddenly, a sound of brass from the sky, a divine melody descends from the clouds – you know your prayers have been answered. Play this theme as if it was that heavenly melody.” She played and we were literally in tears. It was indeed heavenly. It was a prayer. I was fascinated because I had to go into her culture to access the universal quality of that theme. Trying to get her to understand Liszt’s culture met with no success, but her own culture proved an admirable path for her to understand that music, music which does indeed speak to us all. She needed her own culture to access the right side of her brain, which of course possesses a perfect understanding of the spiritual element in this theme.
What are the most exciting/challenging aspects of teaching adults?
Exciting: their intelligence, their sensitivity, their curiosity, their receptivity, and their willingness to be beginners. Challenging: 1) the slightly rusty nature of their brains, compared to the incredible flexibility and speed of their younger colleagues. 2) having to fix the sometimes vast amounts of garbage they have been taught over the years…
What do you expect from your students?
Curiosity, engagement, dedication….
What are your views on exams, festivals and competitions?
They are excellent, a stimulus to high level work. Competitions are the equivalent of a scientific congress where people go to meet their colleagues, share ideas and be stimulated. It’s a chance to feel like you are part of a community instead of this weirdo who mostly sits between four walls practicing on his or her own. Whenever I prepared a competition I played better, because I knew I had to. Perhaps theoretically I should play my best simply out of love for the composer, but I find the practical stimulus of a concrete goal a much more effective kick in the pants.
What do you consider to be the most important concepts to impart to beginning students, and to advanced students?
Sing a simple song, sense your own voice. Let your fingers begin to find that song on the piano. Experience your fingers on the piano as an extension of your voice.
Tap simple rhythms, one hand on your knee, the other on a piano key. Let rhythmic sense be as important as the sense of the notes from the very beginning.
Play first, read second.
Never let the task of reading distract you from the task of making music.
Never let relaxation lead you into a state of emasculated collapse.
“Don’t bang” does not mean “play like a wimp,” it means “find a way to play where you stand up into your hand’s structure instead of letting it collapse. Banging mostly comes from weakness not too much strength.
Have your hands learn to stand, walk, run and jump well on the keyboard, then give them musical tasks that give them a reason for doing these things.
Never let technique distract you from the sound you are making, the music you are making. They are intimately connected.
Understand your hand’s structure and function, then find out where it is not working optimally for you. Find out how the body participates in supporting the hand in working well.
What are you thoughts on the link between performance and teaching?
They feed each other. I couldn’t really do one well without the other.
Who are your favourite pianists/pianist-teachers and why?
Passed on: Horowitz, Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, Ignaz Friedman, de Pachamann. They all had supreme virtuosity, compared to which most of the best pianists today only move their fingers well. This virtuosity is way beyond digital dexterity – it’s creating orchestral sonorities and emotional characterizations that grow naturally and organically out of the soundscapes the composers created.
Living: Kemal Gekić. He is the one pianist today who is breaking new ground in this realm. He is using his transcendent mastery of the keyboard to explore new emotional and spiritual elements in the music he plays, and dealing with adjustments to the sonority at the micro- or even nano- level to evoke unbelievably huge changes in the expressive dimension.
Canadian pianist Alan Fraser is best known as the author of three major volumes on piano technique: The Craft of Piano Playing (also in DVD), Honing the Pianistic Self-Image, and All Thumbs: Well-Coordinated Piano Technique. Fraser’s new approach grows out of his many decades’ study with Phil Cohen and Kemal Gekić, synthesizing the best features of previous schools of piano technique in order to move beyond them. Analyzing piano technique in the light of the Feldenkrais Method of neuromotor reeducation (Fraser is a senior Feldenkrais practitioner) allows Fraser to unlock the hand’s innate potency at the keyboard by returning to its inherent structure and function. Instead of distracting from musical aspects of piano playing, Fraser’s focus on the physical brings the pianist, by improving his physical relationship to his instrument, back into contact with his essential artistic self. Thus Fraser’s students gain not only in technical mastery; but in their artistic expression which develops a whole new dimension of tonal breadth, emotional subtlety and spirituality.
In 2011 Fraser inaugurated the Alan Fraser Piano Institute, a week-long intensive course designed to create a breakthrough in one’s piano technique. Branches of the Institute have already sprung up at Smith College, Massachusetts; Salt Lake City, Utah; Concord New Hampshire; Stuttgart, Germany; Geneva, Switzerland; Nice, France; and Haarlem, the Netherlands. In addition to his Institutes, Alan Fraser gives recitals and master classes throughout Europe and North America, and continues to teach at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. He has composed several vocal works including two masses and a Magnificat, and is a respected digital sound engineer who edited Kemal Gekić’s monumental recording of the 27 Chopin Etudes.
The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain.
If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site