Twitter is often full of meaningless chit chat which can be great fun, but last night I had a slightly more serious exchange with a fellow pianist about piano technique. It made me realise that I discuss very little about technique here on my blog, probably because most of the posts are aimed at beginners or those who are at a relatively early stage of playing the piano. However, sometimes it’s interesting to go ‘off piste’ and discuss more advanced piano playing which can also be helpful to those who are just starting out.
Tension is a huge problem in piano playing and although it often starts in the early stage of learning, if not continuely corrected, it can develop into full blown repetitive strain injury or tendonitis. There are so many musicians with this awful condition and once established, it is difficult to eradicate. Much of my time as a piano teacher is spent correcting bad or inappropriate technique especially in adults or more advanced players, who have unwittingly allowed the problem to get out of hand.
I love teaching technique and could wax lyrical about it for hours on blog posts (so do let me know if you want more info!) and I was extremely fortunate in having a brilliant teacher to help me with this crucial aspect of development. My professor insisted on Czerny studies (and other studies too). In fact all my teachers from the beginning have insisted on this and I also believe that they are the best way to learn complete physical freedom in piano playing. It isn’t a quick solution though because it can take several years to practice them in the correct way necessary for improvement.
The Art of Finger Dexterity by Czerny Op. 740 was the ‘bible’ (although I practised lots of the other Czerny study volumes too) which I was encouraged to play at great force and all from memory (in fact I memorised each hand separately to play to my teacher too – which wasn’t easy at all!). I studied two or three every week and remember practising them first thing in the morning for an hour or two. They were swiflty followed by a strong coffee and some Liszt incidentally!
When studying technnique, I find it necessary to practice with complete finger independence in mind i.e. all five fingers working on their own and preferably on the ‘tips’ of fingers (playing with flat fingers works for some but I find that using the fingertips is much more effective for clarity and rapidity too). The wrist causes problems for most students. High wrists or stiff low wrists merely exacerbate tension and if continued, make playing at speed and with great power impossible or at least very difficult. So it’s best if the whole arm is encouraged to be flexible right down to the wrist (this seems to be the best way to produce a rich warm and deep sound too). Fingers should work alone from the knuckles so in effect the whole arm is just supporting the fingers and allowing for beautiful tone production. Fourth and fifth fingers are always weak so they need special attention and lots of work normally. Try keeping your wrists as free as possible by keeping them moving so they are fluid.
Whilst I have explained (as best I can) the basics of good technique, it’s one area of playing that really needs to be coached in person. Adults and teenagers find changing the way they play awkward and soul destroying at first, but they soon realise they feel better once they start releasing their tension problems and almost immediately their stiffness goes away. No-one really enjoys practising Czerny or similar studies, but they do help significantly when developing a strong and free technique, provided that the students are shown correctly – like any piano study, it’s all too easy to sit and play aimlessly, so you do need to know exactly how to work at these exercises. Find a teacher who can explain and demonstrate all of the above.