Home | Musicians' Health | Anatomy/Biomechanics | Piano Teaching | Richard Beauchamp

Random ideas about piano playing and teaching

  1. When starting to play again after a long period of being away from the piano, it is better to begin to play real music — however slowly — rather than to start with exercises. This is because real music encourages the muscles to work in a more fluid and natural way with a wider variety of movements than in, say, Hanon.
  2. Uncertainty and confusion are much to be prized, for out of these can grow much that is creative and original. An artist who believes he/she is in possession of unshakeable truths is best avoided unless one has a high tolerance for boredom.
  3. Every day we have to find our ‘voice’ on the piano, a tone that ‘rings’ and projects, in the same way that a singer has to daily experiment with resonance and awareness in the muscles so that a marriage between the vision and the feel of a sound becomes possible.
  4. Reliable technique is formed in response to a ‘need for sound’ (to paraphrase Patsy Rodenburg’s title, “The Need For Words”), just as reliable walking is developed by a ‘need’ to move from ‘A’ to ‘B’. To take a specific example: When practising overlap pedal, you first have to experience the desire or ‘need’ for a note, then the need to make the sound richer by raising the dampers - thus adding sympathetic resonance, next the need to hear two notes sounding together in the same pedal and finally the desire to hear the first note cease and the second note continue on its own. No amount of mechanical counting and up-and-downing of the pedal can produce such certainty and control, because it is not based on musical needs.
  5. First develop your powers for imagining the sound — ‘the vision’ — then develop your muscular awareness so that you can mate the vision with the physical feel of making the sound. This ‘mating’ can only be achieved by constant experimentation — by imagining a sound, trying to produce it so that it matches the image in your head and then by remembering the feel and associating the two together. All of this practice being driven by a profound ‘need’for the sound. “Feel the sound,” as Warren Jacobs has said. To which I would add “Listen with your muscles.” Ernest Empson used to say “The music makes the muscles.” Pupils do not often realise that this process is the way to develop a brilliant technique. They think that slow, thoughtful practice produces slow playing and that fast, mechanical practice, with little thought, produces showy fingerwork. In fact, once you have developed a reliable connection between mind and muscles, you have only to think music — at whatever speed — to physically produce it.
  6. Musical integrity is the single most important quality a musician has and should be encouraged from the beginning. Pupils should be constantly faced with interpretative decisions so that they can develop confidence in their own instincts and faith in their ability to solve problems. It is better that they develop these qualities, even if they play with what may be ‘bad taste’ to a more experienced musician, than that they should have another's instincts forced upon them — (musical ‘rape’). The teacher should certainly provide options and examples, insist on accurate score reading and encourage a responsible attitude to what we can discern of the composers wishes; but this still leaves plenty of room for individual choice. This is not subscribing to the cult of “The self is everything. Who cares what the composer thought? — He's dead anyway.” Far from it. I am talking about developing a sense of responsibility and the use of instinct to serve what one perceives as the composer's wishes. However, teachers should be wary that they do not regard their own instincts as being synonymous with those of the composer.
  7. Music hooks into meanings and associations far beyond the notes pure and simple. We should readily accept this richness into our musical vision.
  8. Do exercises for four fingers — checking that the remaining finger stays relaxed all the way through.
  9. Muscular breathing. There must be a cycle of tension and relaxation to keep the muscles healthy.
  10. The relationship between the voice and the fingers. Opening a channel between the vision and the muscles.
  11. Rhythmic curves in structuring a piece or a phrase. Likened to building a bridge with each block a different shape, so that every block depends on every other and is therefore an indispensible part of the whole. Unlike a wall where every brick is the same size and shape.
  12. Practising pianissimo. First with no sound, but put the keys right down. Float on the keys.
  13. Pedalling — various ways of finishing a chord from sudden stop to gradual feathering out.
  14. ‘Life’ in the touch.
  15. Develop the left hand's ability to ‘sing’.
  16. Shape left hand accompaniments.
  17. Change the condition of the hand for different dynamics and moods.
  18. The ‘dance’ of the hand. When the phrasing and articulation are right, the dance is right. The performer's task is to find the right dance for each piece.
  19. Play studies with musical phrasing — this often solves technical problems and reduces the risk of injury.
  20. Aural training should be an integral part of every lesson and practice session.
  21. Conduct, sing and think through pieces away from the instrument. Dance is a great help, too, in understanding the gesture, mood and rhythm of a piece. Some developers of AI believe that robots will not learn to think creatively unless they have a body.
  22. Constantly experiment with the many possible ways of balancing chords to produce as many colours as you can imagine.
  23. Animal intelligence in the hands — Ernest Empson advised me to study Maeterlinck's essay on “Intelligence in Plants,” how roots find their way to water (fingers, to the notes) Enjoy the feel of the hand constantly changing shape — and the fingers finding their way to the sounds. ‘Decentralise’. Don't feel everything is directed from the head, that the fingers are senseless props to be poked at the keys at the command of the brain. Use spinal intelligence and all the nerves and ganglia that are part of the brain in the wider sense. Although not conscious, they are super-fast and efficient. Develop an awareness of this unconscious intelligence that is working throughout the body and enjoy the ‘feel’ of using it.
  24. Transpose from memory to gain greater understanding of harmonic progressions.
  25. Use Schenker-style analysis in order to appreciate the often extraordinary nature of the composer’s invention over a simple foundation.
  26. The finest musicians play well because they cannot tolerate rough playing any more than people with sensitive feet can tolerate walking on broken glass. Practice therefore becomes a need, not just something they feel they ‘ought to do’.
  27. Music is a kind of hypnotism. The rhythm is vital to keep people ‘under’. Break the rhythm and the magic is gone - people feel they have been woken from a dream. We are all babies at heart. We love to be rocked. If the rocking becomes unrhythmic we cry.
  28. For tone control and sensitivity of touch: Take two notes in one hand. Press the keys down slowly right to the bottom of the key, but silently. Gradually increase the key speed until the notes just sound - but in a whisper. Concentrate on hearing the notes sound exactly together and at the same dynamic level. Keep the fingers feeling soft and sensitive. 'Listen' with the fingers. Then try the same exercise hands together.
  29. I have frequently noted, when observing piano workshops, that the best pianists often seem flummoxed when trying to analyse a technical problem or describe how to physically do something, despite most of them having had a rigorous training with a well known teacher. Could this be because they absorb technique so rapidly into their musical vision that the image of the sound and the physical feel become one and the same thing? Empson (quoting Godowski) used to say ‘The music makes the muscles’. Schnabel said that you had to learn technique and then forget it.
  30. When practising, practise a state of mind along with the other things you want to develop. Be confident and happy. Congratulate yourself from time to time. Feelings of well being can be learned like everything else. When you start to perform in public, the things that you worked on in private will re-emerge and reinforce each other and the state of mind you became accustomed to whilst practising will come along too.
  31. The teacher should not feel obliged to say something wise and helpful every time a pupil plays. Sometimes the teacher should shut up. Sometimes the performance doesn't need to be ‘improved.’ Sometimes there is a spark of originality which could be destroyed by the teacher’s well-meaning intervention.
  32. My love/hate affair with dynamics

    As a child I often felt that dynamics were a rather annoying add-on to a piece of music which was perfectly good without them; that they were a cosmetic touch-up beloved of teachers who couldn't think of anything else to say about the piece. “The composer says it should be ‘p’ here,” they would say, “and you made it ‘mf’.” Now, had they talked about the quality of sound or the expressive meaning of the phrase my interest might have been engaged, but their obsession with dynamics seemed to have nothing - or very little - to do with the stuff of music. It wasn't untiI I heard people talk about the ‘character’ of a forte or a piano that composers' dynamics started to make more sense to me.

    I still feel that dynamics are often used frivolously, rather like adding makeup to an otherwise unremarkable face, but there are times when they are clearly a more intrinsic part of the music. Beethoven's subito piano is a stunning effect, especially when preceded by a crescendo. Debussy's and Messiaen's extreme sonorities and elemental crescendos and diminuendo to ‘niente’ are also intrinsic to the music, as are Prokofiev's mysterious or taunting pppps and terrifying ffffs!

    Cosmetic dynamics in Baroque music are more suspect. Echo effects are pretty, and changes of register helpful for underlining changes of character between movements - or sections of movements, but beyond that use of lipstick, eye shadow and a blusher are, I feel, more of an embarrassment than a requirement.

    I am not, of course, talking about phrasing; the sculpting of living shapes, which requires subtle use of rhythmic variation along with dynamic shaping. Baroque performance on the piano should follow what is possible with the voice, wind instruments and strings in these respects, as it has more in common with them, nowadays, than it does with the harpsichord or organ.
  33. One of the most concise and profound descriptions I’ve ever come across of what is needed in a good piano technique is this, from Thomas Fielden’s book, “The Science of Piano Technique”. He says:

    “The aim of all technical practice must be the attainment of the greatest possible freedom of movement
    with all the arm and its parts moving actively in coordination
    and the inhibition of any impeding factors, whether in the nature of set positions
    or of spasmodic nervous or physical interferences.”

    Interesting that Fielden’s book was published in 1927 - two years before Otto Orttman’s remarkable and similarly pioneering work “The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique”.
  34. After many years of reading every book, article and paper about piano technique that I could clasp eyes on and having made a detailed study of the anatomy of the hand and arm, I am still trying to solve the mystery of arm support in finger technique, although I do feel a little closer to a possible explanation. Certainly I’m more secure about how finger coordination and independence works. (See: Curved Fingers - and Tension?)

    What I am sure of is that all those moments when I felt my playing was going well and easily have coincided with a feeling of liveliness and awareness in the arms and shoulders. In the distant past when I practised too much and concentrated only on the fingers, I sometimes suffered pains in my arms, but this has never happened when playing in concerts, and quite often, any pains which I may have had before the concert have left me during and after playing.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the arm is capable of supporting the fingers on every note, no matter how rapid the passage is. In fast playing the fingers should remain relaxed except for only the tiny pinpoint of time it takes to move the key, so that every note feels fresh, as though it is the first note one is playing. The arm has to support each of these moments; and this is where it becomes difficult to comprehend what the body is able do, because it seems that the arm can in fact adjust it’s weight at lightning speed with each finger stroke. A brilliant professional trumpet player once told me that the lips change shape and pressure on every note - no matter how fast. Think about what must be happening in a coloratura singer’s throat during a Handel aria! We will just have to accept that the body is more amazing than we can imagine.

    This technique can be practised by learning what I call ‘arm touch’, which you can see in the third section of this video: Broken Chord Tutorial and by aiming to relax the fingers completely exactly at the moment the sound occurs. As one plays more quickly, using arm touch, the arm movement should become smaller and smaller until it eventually becomes just a feeling of a kind of enlivened support from the arm and the movement itself is no longer visible. I can play with this feeling where every note feels as though it comes from the arm, at semiquaver speeds up to crotchet =192.

    With this kind of arm support, double notes also become easy, because each one feels as comfortable as though it is a fresh beginning. The same happens with rapid octaves and chords.

    I would heartily recommend ‘finger tapping’, which Glenn Gould famously practised, to develop very fast relaxation on every note. Aim to relax on the sound, rather than after it. See: Glenn Gould and Finger Tapping. Note that the key can remain down if you want, even if the finger muscles are completely relaxed, just by finger weight or natural muscle tonus. A slightly lower arm position will facilitate this.

    Please note that I am talking mainly about fast playing here. In slow, melodic and expressive playing one can maintain weight on the keys, sink into the key bed and ‘walk the weight’ as much as one feels is appropriate to create a deep and singing sound.

  35. Home | Musicians' Health | Anatomy/Biomechanics | Piano Teaching | Richard Beauchamp