Saturday, November 29, 2008

Beethoven, Czerny Liszt teaching technique and today's take on technique

I found this great dissertation of 1992 of the comparisons of how Beethoven, Czerny and Liszt taught. I took the liberty to copy this paragraph of Czerny's teaching that so much reflects what I am confronted with daily in my life as a piano teacher. Daily, I am speaking, teaching, breathing, telling, joking, the very same, unbelievably, almost 200 years later. Let's take a look, this comparative study is well worth reading, please click the link for the entire article:


Untitled: "Here I would like to mention briefly about teaching young gifted students. As Czerny mentioned, generally due to their high sensitivity to music, they may be negligent of their technique, and simply play in a messy way. They may be impatient during practice, and aim too quickly for the 'finished version'. Very often, instead of practising short passages in great detail, they would run through the whole piece as if it was an actual performance. They are too absorbed in listening to the ideal version of the music in their mind. They would not bother to listen carefully to what they are actually playing, nor do they have the discipline to slow down and practise in manageable short sessions. Slowing down is particularly difficult, as it appears to be going against the musical flow: the gifted student may perceive this as a conflict to his musical intentions and leads to frustration. Therefore, instead of insisting the student to isolate the difficulties from the piece and practice slowly, (which from my experience is virtually impossible for a musically gifted child) who would speed up after the first few bars, I propose to use short passages (a few bars) which do not belong to the text, but with similar technical demands. In this case, the student is clearly told that his aim is to acquire technique for subsequent musical expression, and he is only required to practice for technique. In an apparently incomplete "excerpt", there are no tendencies of musical flow which would urge them to rush through. Hence he would be better able to focus his attention in completing the task."

Czerny was one of the greatest teachers of the time. I grew up playing his exercises and the more I read about his teaching, the more I admire what he accomplished in his life. Czerny seemed to understand perfectly that each student was different and that each physique was different. His many exercises seemed to bring enough variety for developing each technical area.

I also agree with Beethoven to use a relaxed hand and to move each finger as little as possible. I show a similar idea to my students: the finger, comfortably curved, touches relaxed the top of the keys (hand is curved, fingers are curved, not flat) and you depress each key from the top of the key to the bottom of the key, about 5/8".
Liszt plays with a flat hand and fingers. It seems he had a very large hand and could acquire amazing dexterity in all fingers. Not everyone could do that, Schumann completely ruined his hand, his playing and technique by attempting something similar using a mechanical device.
Here is a reference to Schumann's injury: from attempting to acquire complete independence in the 3rd and 4th fingers.
Here is a reference to the Chiroplast device that Liszt suggested using:

Liszt: " Then he stressed the great need of flexing and relaxing the fingers in all directions by multiple exercises for at least three hours a day; these exercises would include varied scales in octaves, thirds, arpeggios in their inversions, trill, chords and finally, everything that one is capable of doing. When one has perfectly flexible and strong fingers, one has conquered the greatest difficulties of the piano."

Definite YES, not enough attention to scales, chords and arpeggios is given in most modern piano lessons. The foundation, regardless how tedious, must be acquired sooner or later or larger repertoire cannot be learned.

Almost 200 years later, Czerny's teachings are an absolute stand-out and still stand true today.

My conclusion, teaching piano technique, after a life long quest searching for answers:

1. You must sit correctly (weight over your feet, knees end about where the keyboard starts, midsection - your core - pulled up, slightly leaning forward, absolutely lose shoulders and arm)
2. Floating arm; the function of the arm is to move the fingers over the right keys and drop the gravity weight into the fingers.
3. The hand stays as relaxed as possible and returns to relaxation instantly, allowing instant tension (depression of the next key) again.
4. Pain is an indicator that you are doing something wrong. Stop, find a way to relax, find a motion that works and try again. Use the levers of your back, upper, lower arm, wrist and hand.
5. Finger movement up and down is too restrictive

Scales, chords, arpeggios, Hanon exercises are an absolute must. Starting very young students with scales is quite possible and fun using my fingering charts and practice instructions. They work with any physique and any age. The tone is singing, always musical and well timed. As suggested, there are also other great finger exercises for more advanced students -- I have not had a chance to look them over, but am certain they fulfill a 20th century purpose of developing physical motion and movement in varied exercises on the piano. (Take a look at Ganz and Persichetti)

Absolutely do not let your mind wonder while practicing; the suggestions of practicing scales for hours and reading a book at the same time, as Liszt had suggested, well -- I guess I could see the point -- but truthfully, I do NOT see the point. IMHO, we do not have that much time at hand to just sit and brainlessly wiggle fingers, even if it might be scales. Part of the exercise is to be there, while watching the fingers move and stay focused with the tune like a mental exercise to not let your thoughts wonder elsewhere. For a successful performance you need exactly that: stay with the music, the tunes, project the feelings and leave other thoughts out of the picture.

There is another interesting point, though: Liszt suggests to sit straight up and actually lean a bit back, with the head more backwards: On trying that, I can feel that the upper arm actually relaxes, making a gravity sound possible with a relaxed arm weight. Well, the singing sound will only emerse, once all unnecessry tension has vanished. Liszt experimented with various touches, devices and techniques.

Nevertheless, I stay with my conclusions which I have found to work with everyone, no exception.

I hope you enjoyed my little excursion to 160 - 200 years ago.

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