Article: Teaching piano and the way we perceive the instrument

Article: Teaching piano and the way we perceive the instrument

An Article by Dr. Yossi Reshef

The most difficult thing in playing the piano is to play a melody. On other instruments, that is perhaps the most learned thing, but in piano, having all its technical demands, learning to play a melody is perhaps one of the topics least addressed.

The first knowledge we get about the piano is from it’s topography, from touching and feeling it. To that we add the sense of motion in every key and the learning of that sensation. The pianist, even as a young child immediately connect this sensation to sound, and builds a world of associations between touch or moving the key and how it sounds. The main problem is that in piano playing, musical metaphors are counter intuitive to correct technique, and to change those after many years of a certain habit may be a very laborious process for the student and for the teacher. I will elaborate on that matter later in this article.

The best playing is based on intuition, namely a collection of all past experience, good taste and good judgment, with a strongly built system of rhythms, developed hearing and a deep understanding (intuitive or learned) of structure. The amount of different levels of consciousness, intuition, automatic motions, habits, and different types of memory we use are so elaborate, that it is practically impossible to write a prescription of the correct way to play. Describing a series of events that happens at once through a linear medium such as a written text is very limited. When you teach, you have to use words, and words can mean many different things, to many different people. I think that is why the only way to learn how to play is through the system of mentor apprentice. Some things in the art of playing the piano can never be understood from reading a text and It is why many attempts in the past to write about piano have failed to become effective or decisive. There has always been a strong relation between a great pianist and the people they learned from, met, heard or were influenced from.

I was once asked: what is the difference between a piano teacher and a piano pedagogue? Although the word pedagogue often means someone who is formal and dogmatic, nevertheless I do see myself as one. A piano teacher is often responding to the student, trying to apply his own (often intuitive) playing on a student in a way that doesn’t fit the students own weaknesses and strengths. A pedagogue builds a set of principles based on a thorough research of what he is teaching and his own experience in solving pianistic problems . In piano that means a combination of understanding the way the instrument works, the way the music should be interpreted and the way the student can relate the emotional content of what he is playing into the physical, action of playing of the instrument. It is in fact very helpful to understand the underlying mechanisms behind the act of playing the instrument and it is cardinal to good playing to better understand why a certain passage is difficult, how to practice more efficiently and how to avoid mistakes which can cause for example muscle burning sensation, or an inability to play in speed.

Let me give a few examples. Very often in piano we build a wrong perception of the way the keys move. Musically, we can perceive a certain passage going right or left, but the keys of the piano go only up and down. Any motion of the key which includes a leaning to the right or to the left, leaning forward, pushing forward, climbing up etc, can cause a reaction which would take the fingers out of their natural position and would result in excessive effort and in worse cases to pain. Many times the fingers are all in one simple position but we move the palm of the hand to the right or to the left because of the musical motion, making the passage feel difficult. Here is another example, many students believe that the dynamic of the sound is how strongly you push the key. To these students i say: press as hard as you can, but very slowly, the result would be a very small sound, not a powerful one. Understanding that the sound of the instrument is only the amount of acceleration you build into a key, downwards, might be counterintuitive and based on a wrong set of beliefs.

Now where its clear, that dynamics are created by accelerating the keys, lets see what it means to the following musical parameters. I want to discuss the crescendo, legato and chord balancing. Many students believe that crescendo is happening “between” the keys, thus constantly adding weight to each consecutive finger as they play. Crescendo in piano cannot be achieved this way. It is only a collection of different sounds, each produced separately, and timed in a way which they will be interpreted as crescendo. Legato is the same in that way, there are no muscles connecting the fingers in legato, rather, legato is a way you touch the keys, the way you move them and the way you listen how they connect.

I would offer any student the following axiom: any sound in the piano has a correlating KEY moving down, and a correlating finger moving that key. Very often in a chord, or in octaves, I see students fixate their hand into a position resembling a frozen statue, then trying to move that shape into the keys, the result, most often is either a harsh sound, often unbalanced (both notes are dynamically equal) or an inability to move to the next chord or octave with ease. Instead, one could look at every shape of a chord as something that happens as a result of finger motions and not as pre-set shapes. The downwards motion of the keys can only be done if the fingertips will go down, not in any other way, thus the part that touches the keys, i.e. the finger should be the one that moves the key. To be more precise, the tip of the finger is the front of the motion, and it is (connected with bigger parts) what should cause the key to move. If you pre-touch the key and then fixate the finger, the only option to move it downwards would be to press against your finger: instead of creating motion, you create tension. Release motions are only compensation for a wrong motion of the keys, I always say to the student: move the key don’t push it.

Then comes the psychological aspect of perceiving the instrument. At times a passage is difficult because it has been wrongly perceived. Let me tackle the concept of the “jump” in piano. A jump, in the real world or in sports, means using the bottom, or the lowest point as a way to collect energy for the next point of arrival. In piano, two events, being either done by the same finger or by different fingers, are in fact two separate down-up motions, connected by a shift. Using the bottom of any key for playing another key is usually difficult and more often results in hitting the next wrong note. The motion of each key is not an arch, thus an arch motion between two keys results most often in moving the key against its correct direction. In a conscious way, the correct way to play a jump is to think about playing the two separate places correctly, and timing the shift: only after finishing the first one, never before. There are more instances where piano playing is influenced by wrong psychological perceptions of the instrument. I will give another example. I have discussed topography at the beginning of this article. We often think as the piano as a land (white keys) with mountains (black keys). Despite this simplistic description, many times a black key is perceived as a key you have to climb to, which makes playing very difficult. The keys, black and white are going down, all in the same direction, and playing the key coming from under it (as in black and also sometimes in white) causes, again a wrong movement, which requires effort.

Let us briefly discuss the concept of relaxation. Playing the piano in a relaxed way is practically impossible. What people refer to when they talk about relaxation is in fact a freedom of motion, which describes the effortlessness achieved when nothing disturbs the motion from moving. What can disturb the motion from moving? Many things: wrong direction, added weight from below or above the finger (for example lowering of the palm, or raising the wrist to an unnatural position), a wrong perception of stopping the motion for control. Effortless is ideal playing, relaxed is not.

Perhaps the most crucial thing in playing is getting acquainted with the point in time when the sound happened. To this we can also say without contradiction: the sounds happens only after the motion happens. It can be proved easily through seeing the mechanism of the instrument. And yet, so many times, the sound and the motion are equivalent in our minds so that we think of the motion as equivalent to the sound. Understanding, in a deep way that motion is causing the sound, can be a moment of breakthrough for many, once thought impossible, passages.

And to end this brief article I would like to address again the subject of melody. In piano melody is about touch and time. Two notes created, each separately, connect to form one single idea. I would describe the main principle in piano: once you have played a note, you can only hold it or release it. But there is one more thing you have to do: you closely need to listen to it. This is in fact the most important element. The length, not just the volume of each sound must become clear, and perhaps the ideal approach to find a way to sing with the instrument.
Effortless is ideal – relaxed is not.