Journey to Technical Mastery in Piano Playing

This is a living document and will be occasionally updated.

There seems to be at least as many ways to play arpeggios as there are pianists. What's more concerning is each pianist believes his way to be the One True Way(TM) and disregards the attempts of others at alternatives. I'd like to briefly go over a few of the most sharply contrasting manners in which technique is taught and conclude by synthesizing the One True Way(TM) as is most applicable to my hands and how I connect with the instrument. This is in no way intended as a prescription of how things must be done, only one of the many ways my hands feel most at home. The size of hands play a big part, unless you're a fan of alternatively sized keyboards.

As a descendent of Alfred Cortot a few generations removed1, that's the first school of technique I explored. The methodology of Cortot is well elaborated in written form by Thomas Manshardt in Aspects of Cortot. In this Book, Thomas begins by an overview of how he believes Cortot connected with the instrument emotionally and attempted to explain the physical connection in words. The book is dense and at times difficult to follow. For a mere mortal such as myself, I frequently felt frustrated by the mental gymnastics I exercised to try to understand what was being said. However, I'm fortunate in that my teacher has been taught by Thomas himself and so understands the nuances of not what is said, but also what is implied. The fundamental movements in piano technique in Cortot's view are the pull and the twist. The pull is a fundamental movement based on the idea that what we love, we pull toward ourselves2. For this movement to be feasible, the hands are outstretched3, and the arms pull toward the torso with the weight of the whole arm pushing the keys. The twist, a movement which first is demonstrated in section on arpeggios and scales, is the lateral horizontal rotation of the wrist. Cortot insists on elimination of rotation, which is the tipping of the hand caused directly by movement of the radius and ulna against each other. This is the same movement that causes the palm to turn upward or downward. Sadly, Cortot's method felt unnatural and uncomfortable to my hands, so I needed to explore further.

The most infamous of schools in piano playing technique is none other than the Taubman Technique. A quick search on the internet reveals numerous articles, videos, conferences, and training material on the Taubman approach to piano playing. This school of technique focuses on rotation as the main movement in piano playing and applies this fundamental motion to most aspects of play. The 10 video lecture series called "Virtuosity in a Box" purports to be the last stop before technical mastery and virtuosity is achieved.

The third school of technique I explored was a book written in 1907 by Ernest Hutcheson titled The Elements of Piano Technique. It's a book of basic exercises, but unlike those by Hanon and Czerny, there are detailed explanations on how to perform the basic exercises. In the section on arpeggios, for example, the fingering is detailed and additional expansions on the ideas give clear direction on how each movement is performed. I have so far enjoyed the book, although I'm still evaluating the techniques themselves.

Most crucially, I want to reiterate what I started with: that there are many ways in which to achieve mastery of piano technique and no single school of technique may be appropriate. In my case, my technique evolved to be a haphazard assembly of all the readings I had done in various arrangements until I felt what worked. The key, as my teacher repeats, is freedom from tension and pain.

Arpeggios

It's customary to start technical teachings with the C major scale. However, I'd like to start by what has puzzled me the most: tonic arpeggios4. For most, the tonic arpeggio presents a challenge in legato playing between one chord to the next.

To play an arpeggio legato and with ease, I found the wrist, forearm, and upper arm must be free of tension5, and the hand must be in its most natural position - the Normal Hand-position (The elements of piano technique, Exercise 1). I found point 4 under Exercise 1 to be important - do not let the hand slope download toward the little finger. My hands have always sloped, so it's something I need to be conscious about. We assume the ascending arpeggio of the tonic C major by the right hand. The same principles apply to descending arpeggio by the left hand.

To start the arpeggio, the thumb strikes C followed by fingers 2 and 3 striking their intended keys. As soon as the second finger starts to strike E and the thumb has done what it needed to do, it attempts to at once go toward its next target - C an octave higher. This movement of thumb underneath the palm of hand should not produce any tension at all, and neither should the thumb be curved to accommodate this movement. It is as if the thumb is looking at the direction of its target without much preparation.

At the same time as the thumb preparing its movement under the palm and while the second finger is striking the key, there is a minimal twist of the wrist toward the direction of the passage. The second finger the strikes E and there is further movement of thumb and twist of the wrist to better prepare the thumb for its target.

Whilst the third finger is striking G, there is an addition of wrist rotation inward counter-clockwise (away from the direction of the passage) akin to what Taubman describes in the lecture titled "Forearm rotation"6. The rotation is minimal and should be barely visible. When I play slow, I notice the rotation of the wrist, but fast playing precludes exaggerated movements. The twist is worth a second look at this stage of the arpeggio. The majority of the force which propels the wrist to the right and generates a twist movement is the forearm. The forearm motion to the right which twists the wrist and consequentially positions the thumb favourably, also positions itself favourably for the next set of keys. The forearm motion is not a conscious effort to push the wrist in an unnatural position; it moves in the direction of the passage and coincidentally assists the wrist in its endeavours.

Once the third finger strikes, the wrist is twisted to the right, the thumb is underneath the palm of hand, and the forearms impatiently awaits the continuation of the arpeggio into the next octave. The hand makes a small jump (the "Hand throw" according to Cortot) to aid the thumb in reaching its target and immediately, but without suddenness, the wrist straightens into the "Normal Hand-position" to repeat the cycle. The elbow is quiet and moves at most an inch when the wrist is twisted the most.

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Footnotes


  1. I admit, I do not understand nor agree with the insistence on piano teacher ancestry. In a preliminary outlook, it appears we're all descendants of Liszt and Beethoven as they taught so many.↩︎

  2. The contrary is not true. Although this is a fundamental movement in his view, Cortot insisted on a full palate of technical repertoire to be used as required by the piece.↩︎

  3. Interestingly, Franz Liszt also insisted on outstretched hands, contrary to more modern schools of technique.↩︎

  4. Tonic arpeggio here refers to the 3 note arpeggio built on the first, third, and fifth notes of the tonic scale. For example, C-E-G arpeggio for the C major scale.↩︎

  5. I use the term "free" as opposed to "relax". Due to my background in medicine, I always think of a relaxed arm as one that is wobbly and without any tension or structure, where muscles have no tone at all. This is desirable when doing a physical exam to assess reflexes and join mobility, but detrimental when playing the piano.↩︎

  6. Cortot argued against any rotation of the forearm in playing of arpeggios, but I have found some rotation to be helpful.↩︎

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