My general emphasis on coordination and gesture in my teaching responds to a general flaw in current pianistic training. I’m not talking about a particular country, as this is something I’ve noticed everywhere. Essentially, basic piano training focuses on a lot of Classical and Baroque composers. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven are important, and I definitely play them a lot myself. It makes sense to start with this repertoire. But from the technical side, we must remember that we play on a modern piano, which is significantly different from the piano that belonged to Bach, Mozart, Haydn, or even Mendelssohn. So we have to deal with technical difficulties that are strictly connected with the piano of Chopin, rather than the piano of Hanon, Czerny, or Kalkbrenner.
Therefore, it’s vital to experience the technique of Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, and Rachmaninov, the science of playing, early in the learning process. At such a level, even if you don’t have such big hands (normally no one has), you can play enough to grasp the technical approach. I know that sometimes when I propose some Chopin études, it might be too much for the student. However, when I assign Chopin, I am not always expecting immediate or perfect execution. Sometimes I just want them to experience Chopin. Even when they go back chronologically to Mozart, Beethoven, or Haydn, after having played Chopin, they approach the earlier composers differently. Playing Chopin will more quickly guide them to a technique that works on the modern piano, which makes a big difference.
As one example of how applying techniques developed from earlier pianos can lead students astray, let’s consider a staple of the piano exercise repertoire. All over the world, we start students with Charles-Louis Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist. It’s an institution, practically a UNESCO heritage. I am not against Hanon; I did it, and I also assign it to my students. But Hanon writes on the first exercise that you have to play all these exercises making each note extremely clear with even articulation.
This hyper articulation is very dangerous and not functional on a modern piano. On Hanon’s piano, using that kind of force was nothing, because everything was so light and easy to play. If you do this today, the student gets tired quickly and plays very unevenly. Generally, the fourth and fifth fingers are weaker than the others. It’s absolutely normal, but not because we have something wrong in our hands. It’s normal because our modern piano requires a different technique. The technique today, derived from Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Busoni, is a technique of the flexor muscles, rather than the extensor muscles. That makes a difference.
When using extensor muscles, there is no real difference between the thumb, second, fourth or fifth fingers. You can pull out even a table with your fifth finger. Bringing up, pulling out, and catching are natural movements that are strong and take no effort. These movements, combined with the balance of our arm (a bridge which is suspended from the shoulder to the fingertips) give the pianist the most important thing: coordination.
The muscles, shoulder, fingertips, and the way we lean to the keyboard all work together. It’s coordination and cooperation between a lot of parts, but it’s also very intuitive to use your arm to support your fingers. Even beginners can grasp the concept quickly if you tell them, “Don’t just play with your fingers, help yourself a little with your arm.” It’s natural. Your thumb and second finger are close to the body in the usual starting position. That is good and convenient until the third central finger. But when you play with the fourth or fifth fingers, you then need shift position to line up the fingers with the corresponding muscles. If you don’t, you feel uncomfortable. When you feel uncomfortable, a lot of teachers will say, “Ah, you didn’t practice enough,” or “You have to articulate more.” And so students articulate more..
The result you know better than me. This is only a small, easy example of how misapplying earlier technique on modern pianos leads students astray. Can you imagine the difference if children were trained early on to follow the melody line more freely rather than playing a rigid accompaniment pattern, for example? I often have to make these points even to 30-40 years old professional players.
A good lesson or class should change your life. If it doesn’t, I failed, and you failed. Perhaps you failed as a student. But more importantly, I failed as a teacher. A recipe alone doesn’t work, because you can do that much better online by taking a tutorial on YouTube. But if I can give you a fresh perspective and change the way you think or hear in a significant way, that’s my goal. Then, even if you are working by yourself, you can apply what I taught you to another passage or piece. I give you the tools so that, step by step, you won’t need me anymore. Perhaps you occasionally might seek an outside listener you trust for advice. The goal of teaching, though, is to get students to a point where they don’t need you anymore. Reaching that point doesn’t mean that a student stops learning, however. Improving your sound and musicianship is a constant goal.
The Italian musical system was entirely performance-oriented for a long time. If you went to a conservatory (an Italian conservatory is what people in other countries often call a music university), you intended to become a professional performer on your instrument. With the European Union, the system has changed some, and the university opportunities have become more like programs in Germany or the United States. Everyone, no matter the age, can go, be admitted to the conservatory, and get a degree in music. It’s good because now music is a part of the educational system, which it wasn’t before. On the other hand, we lost the serious targeting of musicians. It’s harder to know what a music degree gets you, or what it means for your life and career. More depends on each student and teacher. We have a lot of freedom, which is good. But freedom requires maturity as well, and you have to do a lot more research on your own.
Every time I practice or teach, I deal with all these problems. When I speak with my students, I emphasize the practical side of performing and teaching. As musicians, we have to combine those things all the time. That’s why it’s so important to be able to show what you mean, not only by words, although those are also important. Images can engage the student and positively affect the student’s mind. But the live example that a pianist-teacher can provide is paramount. I always want to play what my student is playing, better than them if possible. That isn’t rivalry or competition. My purpose is for them to become better than me. Until that happens, they are my student, and I must be a real example.
Edited for length and clarity by Claire Thompson.