What is piano technique?

My favorite book on piano technique is  “What Every Pianist Needs To Know About The Body” by Thomas Mark. However, upon further investigation, I realized this book never describes itself as a book on technique, but rather as a book about how to move at the piano. When I reread the introduction, Mark actually says: “This is not a book about piano technique. I say little about how to play arpeggios and nothing about fingering the B-flat major scale in thirds.” and “The information in this book… brings about improved bodily awareness, a better quality of movement, and better piano playing.”

So, what is piano technique? I thought that how you move at the piano was imperative for proper technique which makes Thomas Mark’s book definitely a piano technique book for me. Reading that passage made me feel a little confused as to the definition of piano technique. I began to ponder the different definitions of piano technique (not for the first time) and subsequently felt need to create a definition that works best for me and my teaching.

Wikipedia’s definition of piano (musical) technique (paraphrased) is: “Musical technique is the ability of pianists to exert optimal control of their instrument in order to produce the precise musical effects they desire.” That’s a very broad definition and it includes all the mechanical ideas like posture, breathing, hand position, and even scales, but it also includes exactly everything. It’s kind of a wimpy definition because it is too general. For my teaching, I wanted a more workable definition of piano technique.

Another favorite reference book of mine is Gerald Klickstein’s book, “The Musician’s Way” and he defines technique a little differently: “The term “technique” refers to the means for executing musical ideas.”………”When we acquire robust technical skills, barriers to musical expression drop away. We internally “hear” musical gestures, and then we make those gestures ring out with a natural quality that seems effortless. Yet despite the spiritual nature of technical mastery, I find that aspiring musicians often confuse “technique” with “mechanics.” As a result, many students don’t develop the technical command that they need.”

So, if I interpret what Mr. Klickstein is saying, then he is admitting that having good technique means you have good mechanics, but that good mechanics is not enough. He wants to add an element of artistic vision to his definition of technique, because he thinks you can’t develop mechanics in total isolation from musical ideas. For instance, if you can play an absolutely beautiful arpeggio isolated from any composition, does that mean that your arpeggio will sound beautiful when trying to play Chopin’s Aeolean Harp Etude? I agree with Klickstein that artistic vision is an important concept for technique. It means we have to keep in mind the reasons why we are working on particular aspects of our mechanical technique and realize that technique is always subservient to the artistic demands of the music.

One of the greatest books ever written on piano technique is “Famous Pianists & Their Technique” by Reginald R. Gerig. This book is a compilation of insights into piano technique over the centuries of piano playing and pedagogy by all the great masters of the piano. Even better is that Chapter One discusses “The Meaning of Technique” with many useful quotations. After perusing this chapter, I discovered my favorite quote of all time on technique from Josef Hofmann: “Technique represents the material side of art, as money represents the material side of life. By all means achieve a fine technique, but do not dream that you will be artistically happy with this alone… Technique is a chest of tools from which the skilled artisan draws what he needs at the right time for the right purpose. The mere possession of the tools means nothing: it is the instinct – the artistic intuition as to when and how to use the tools – that counts. It is like opening the drawer and finding what one needs at the moment.”

I love this definition and allegory because it acknowledges that you do need a “mechanics” tool chest of technique just like you need money to live and fulfill your life. It also helps my understanding of technique to think that you could imagine a beautiful artistic vision inside your head, but without having a good technique tool chest, you may well lack the ability (or tools) to execute your vision. It makes having a good technique tool chest very appealing, so when you open the drawer, there is a tool already available to help.

Along the line of creating tools to fit the vision, Leon Fleisher says:
“It’s your musical ideas that form or decide for you what kind of technique you are going to use. In other words, if you are trying to get a certain sound, you just experiment around to find the movement that will get this sound. That is technique.”
I like this definition as well because it makes you realize that on some level you have to discover your own technique and when to use it. Even when a teacher shows you an excellent example to follow, you still have to make any technique part of your own personal tool chest. I have found in my practice that even if a teacher shows you how to move in a good technical way at the piano, you still have to understand how to make those movements and sounds your very own through practice and self-discovery. In addition, this quote implies you will encounter musical problems for which you don’t have a ready-made tool in your tool chest. A musician should expect to constantly being figuring out new tools and/or new uses for old tools for the various musical challenges posed by music.

And then there is this from Arnold Schultz:
“The general hostility to the idea of method derives much of its vitality, I believe, from a half-conscious and almost universal suspicion that there is a fundamental incompatibility between a mind interested in the mechanical phases of playing and a mind filled with what is loosely known as musical temperament. There is a fear, furthermore, that a persistent use of the reasoning mind in reference to the objective phenomena of technique results finally in the deterioration and atrophy of the subjective emotions upon which the interpreter’s art depends. This is not, I believe firmly, too bald a statement of the case. It explains the widespread custom of camouflaging purely technical instruction with references to expression marks and with what are often entirely gratuitous rhetorical flights on the beauty of the music in hand.” So, Schultz is highlighting for us suspicions that musicians who concentrate too much on the technical aspects of playing (left brain) and developing their tool box somehow forgo their ability to play with grand artistic vision (right brain).

Fortunately for us in the Gerig’s book, he examines both the empirical and metaphysical musical approaches and believes them to be entirely compatible and I agree. I don’t think concentrating on technical aspects of playing music will necessarily impair your artistic ability. However, I will admit that as someone who tends to be very analytical (left brained), I do need to practice being an artist and work on getting in touch with my emotional temperament (right brain). I freely admit to being jealous of my musician friends who just seem to have an effortless understanding of musical interpretations (right brained people), but I also think everyone brings something to the table and that helps to make every musical interpretation unique. Perhaps artists and teachers that don’t analyze their music thoroughly and just try to feel and hear the music in their heads are also missing certain elements of interpretation that would be available to them otherwise.

“Mastering Piano Technique” by Seymour Fink is not a book I refer to a lot, but it has a wonderful description of technique in its introduction and how it applies not just to the mature artist, but also to the student of piano.

“Technique is like grammar; once it is a part of you, you speak without conscious attention to it. In the same way, technical matters function below the conscious level in mature pianists. Experimenting first one way then another, pianists mine their deepest, most intuitive feelings about the music, seeking out a particular mood, tone color, or expressive nuance. Ultimately their inner musical thinking triggers the requisite movement so they experience no separation between muscular exertions and musical goals.

The circumstances of the novice differ radically from those of the seasoned player; consistent technical training must be made an integral part of the learning experience. When first coming to grips with the relatively awkward conditions surrounding purposeful movement at the keyboard, students should be instructed in a healthy and efficient use of their bodies. Poor technical training slows their rate of progress and inevitably limits pianistic growth.”

I love this description of technique because it applies to everyday pianists – the vast majority of us “piano mortals”. I have discovered that many of my piano teacher colleagues were students of accomplished teachers and were well-trained technically from an early age. For those lucky few, they learned early how to move well at the piano. Unfortunately, when I was younger, I wasn’t taught a usable piano technique and consequently thought I was not a “gifted” pianist. I never learned to play scales and arpeggios with ease at a young age. I thought my fingers were slow and didn’t realize that I could do exercises to work on finger speed and efficient movement. I simply didn’t know to listen for many of my thumb accents and even if I heard them, I didn’t have a lot of previous practice or tools for dealing with this issue. It is only now after many years of persistent practice and effort along with sound pedagogical instruction that I have managed to correct a lot of my original poor piano technique. So, you can understand why I’m a great believer in good instruction and understanding of technique. While I agree with piano pedagogues that talk about understanding their artistic interpretation before thinking about technique. I also believe it can help a lot to fill your technique toolbox early in your piano study, so your tool box isn’t empty when you finally start to think about your artistic visions. Not only that, but when you play with poor technique, it’s really hard to hear what you are playing without bias. You hear your thumb accents in your scales and believe it is normal. It is then difficult to develop an artistic vision of musical scales passages that really flow.

Getting back to “What Every Pianist Needs to know about the Human Body” by Thomas Mark, I’m going to disagree whole-heartedly with his narrow definition of technique. I believe understanding how your body works should be considered to be part of a pianist’s “technique” and a useful tool for the technique toolbox. For instance, if you understand that your body follows your head, it makes sense that when you are playing high notes at the piano, you would move your head toward the top of the piano knowing your body will follow. I believe technique encompasses everything about how to move at the piano because having a basic understanding of your hand anatomy, how to sit, and how to move (as covered by Mark’s book) means you have a solid foundation from which other aspects of your own personal piano technique can extend.

So, what is my new definition of piano technique?
Piano technique is the body positions and movements used to exert optimal control of the piano in order to produce desired musical ideas. Sound technique includes healthy and efficient use of the pianist’s body and needs to be taught from the very beginning of a student’s piano study. Pursuit of an excellent technique is a continual quest for an ever more complete chest of tools from which the skilled artisan draws what is needed in pursuit of an artistic vision.

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