The quote in the title is from celebrated pianist Leon Fleisher, who died in August 2020 at the age of 92.

Leon Fleisher New York Times

In the many tributes to him, his wisdom and good sense, as a musician and a human being, and his rich legacy will live on in the memories of his performances, his recordings, his pupils (who include Jonathan Biss and Yefim Bronfman), and teachers, who pass on his wisdom on to their own students.

Back in 2008, in an interview with The Times newspaper, Leon Fleisher said of pianists: We are athletes, but we’re athletes with small muscles. There is a limit. Now you get kids who can do things with such extraordinary brilliance on the keyboard that they belong in the circus. But it ain’t got nothing to do with music-making.”

Fleisher was primarily referring to practising and the habit of pianists to work themselves too hard, to the point where practising becomes harmful rather than helpful. But I find his comment about the circus and keyboard athletics, and the artistry of musicians interesting too.

How many of us have marvelled at the fleet fingers of young pianists, some as young as 10 or 11 (and the internet is awash with videos of these mini ‘virtuosi’)? The ability to play very fast, very accurately is, for many, both inside and outside the profession, a mark of the pianist’s facility and executive function. For those less versed in the true exigencies of the profession, it is a sign of brilliance – and the younger, and faster, the player, the more we exclaim “genius!”.

And in addition to all those videos of fleet-fingered would-be Ashkenazys and Argerichs, there are any number of tutorials offering advice on how to achieve such velocity: finger drills and exercises to train muscles and reflexes, while simultaneously numbing the mind.

Fleisher is right: keyboard circus tricks have nothing to do with music-making. Pianists are not performing dogs – because the craft of the musician, and the art of music-making, goes far, far beyond mere piano pyrotechnics. It doesn’t matter how fast you can play, if you cannot communicate the deeper message of the music, its emotion and its truth, then you are nothing more than a circus showman, a mere typist albeit with executive function, and what you present in the music is merely surface artifice. The pianist’s repertoire contains plenty of music written to test the player’s facilities and display astonishing keyboard athletics, but pure virtuosity should never take precedence over artistic vision, tone quality, and a proper appreciation of the narrative structure and architecture of the music. Add to this one’s musical knowledge, accrued through training and experience, and a broader discernment of what music-making is truly about, and at this point the music is truly brought to life, with integrity, honesty and communication.

My husband laughs at my love of The Joy of Painting with American painter Bob Ross, which is broadcast on BBC Four in the early evenings. The programmes were originally created and aired in the 1980s and early 90s, and they do look a little dated now (along with Bob’s permed hair!). Additionally, Bob’s paintings – rather cheesy landscapes and snowy scenes – are not the sort of art I’d hang on my walls, but that hardly matters in the context of this article.

PBS Remix-Happy Painter

Bob is clearly a highly skilled artist. He exudes a quiet self-assurance which comes from confidence in his own techniques, and he uses his materials with a remarkable yet modest dexterity. He knows exactly which brush or palette knife to use to create a specific effect – the silvery bark of a birch tree or reflections on water. Watching a painting emerge from Bob’s palette before your eyes is mesmerising and strangely calming, but that is not the primary reason why I am hooked on these programmes: I am fascinated by Bob’s technique.

Musicians, like artists, need well-developed, secure technique in order to navigate the score and create music. Technique should always serve the art, whether it is painting or performing music; one demonstrates how finely-honed one’s technique is when it is no longer visible – when one plays, or paints, in such a way that it appears fluent and effortless. Bob Ross has mastered his technique to such an extent that we almost forget there is any technique involved at all.

Technical skills like this 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, a greater sense of intuition when we practice and perform, and the ability to play with greater spontaneity and nuance. The control of nuance will determine the version the performer performs. Much of this nuance will be pre-planned, practiced, memorised and finessed to such a degree that it sounds totally spontaneous in performance, but the rest comes ‘in the moment’ of performance – a genuinely spontaneous, quasi-improvisatory response to interaction between performer and music, performer and audience, the responsiveness of the audience, the performer’s mood and sensibilities, the ambiance of the concert hall, the time of day….It is this kind of musical “sprezzatura” that creates those magical, “you had to be there” moments in live concerts. It cannot be planned in advance – and yet it comes from the performer’s meticulous preparation, their deep knowledge of the music, their technical facility and mastery of their art, and their experience.

No one wants to watch an artist labouring with their work – this is one of the reasons why The Joy of Painting is such a pleasure to watch because Bob makes it look so easy (and he never lets his ego get in the way of the creation of art). Watch a performer like Martha Argerich in performance (a pianist I’ve been lucky enough to hear live in concert on several occasions) and you will see this same effortlessness.

“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.


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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.
RIP (DG)

….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.

Bel Canto on a percussion instrument – article by Peter Feuchtwanger

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.

Head over to www.pianotechnique.org to find out more.

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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.

Read the full article here