British concert pianist Nick van Bloss has written the third guest post in my new series. Technical exercises often receive a bad press by pianists, teachers and students alike, but, practised carefully and diligently, and with the help of a talented teacher, they can be extremely helpful for building various aspects of piano technique. In his post, Nick examines the forgotten exercises by German composer, Louis Plaidy. Over to Nick…
I was fascinated to see Melanie’s recent post (two videos) about the teaching of Rosina Lhévinne, particularly the accounts and anecdotes of her teaching by the late John Browning, who studied with her at the Juilliard School. In both of the videos it would be easy to miss a hidden nugget of information that was imparted about a wonderful book of technical exercises by Louis Plaidy which, in my opinion, puts the likes of Hanon to shame. It’s a book that should really be on the music desk of pianists of any standard.
But what about Hanon? Let’s face it, most pianists know several of his famous and catchy five-finger exercises – from amateurs to professionals, we hear people rattling them off, stuck in a monstrous, never-ending loop of C major, always messing things up halfway through, and playing them with little regard to shape, tone or evenness. Ultimately, Hanon does no good at all unless one diligently plays each exercise in every key – and no one does that. And I wouldn’t recommend anyone to, either, as those obsessive-compulsive little patterns would surely drive any sane person crazy! Like any catchy song, I’m convinced that Hanon is only still played and used today because people like the ‘tune’ of the first three exercises.
Years ago, when I was playing to John Browning in New York, he mentioned the Plaidy exercises to me – and I had no idea what he was talking about. At the time, we were discussing how best to warm up at the piano before actually grinding away at learning and polishing pieces. The answer: Plaidy. Well, actually, a specific exercise from Plaidy’s book, but more on that later. What Browning did say, however, was that the Plaidy exercises focus on a very natural way of playing, incorporating patterns that are found in works throughout the piano repertoire at every level. Unlike, say, Hanon, where the mind-numbing repetitive patterns are wholly unmusical.
So who was Louis Plaidy? I’d certainly never heard of him before Browning spoke of him, and I’ve never heard any pianist mention him since. Plaidy was a nineteenth century German pedagogue who taught, amongst others, Edvard Grieg, Janáček, Hans von Bülow, Arthur Sullivan, and many other notable musicians. He was clearly a big-wig teacher of the time, was friends with Felix Mendelssohn, and attracted pupils from all over the world. And he became famous for writing his book, ‘Technical Studies for the Piano’, which, in itself, makes him sound like a dull old goat who needed a life, but, in reality, and according to his pupils, he was the kindest soul who cared deeply about all of his students. And, more importantly, he really got results in his teaching.
There is, indeed, a ‘naturalness’ to all of the exercises in Plaidy’s book. Granted, his little essay, along with drawings, at the beginning of the book might seem a little old-fashioned to us now, but it’s all very sound advice. The exercises themselves, though, can certainly benefit pretty much any level of pianist. I’d never urge any pianist to go through a book of exercises from start to finish, working on each one. I recommend Plaidy as a kind of ‘go to’ book if you need a solution for something, if you’re struggling with a certain aspect of playing – rapid finger work, chords, scales, double notes… – then Plaidy has an exercise for you. And the great thing is that none of the exercises will do any damage – quite the contrary – which leads me to a specific exercise in his book, the one mentioned by Mrs Lhévinne and John Browning in the videos.
There’s a lot of performance-related injury going around at the moment. At least, to me, it seems there is. And it’s worrying. Perhaps, in reality, we’re only all becoming so much more aware of these injuries because of people sharing their experiences on-line – and that’s great, as we all learn from listening to others. But not a day goes by where I don’t hear ‘tendonitis, carpal tunnel, focal dystonia’ mentioned somewhere. Is it because people are being taught badly, have been taught badly, or that they’re over-working, or they’re just not in touch with their own bodies and don’t know when to ‘stop’ certain, destructive movements? I don’t know the answer, although suspect it could be a combination of all of the above. Bad teaching, though, has to be high up on the list. A good teacher has to be able to spot signs of potentially calamitous technical issues. That has to be a given.
Hand and wrist freedom, bodily freedom, relaxation, necessary and unnecessary tension, breathing, awareness – all of these must be monitored by a diligent teacher. It’s a crying shame, though, that many teachers are shamefully negligent in this area. I’ve seen some ‘big-name’ teachers produce injured student after injured student – and let’s be real here: historically, some of the most famous teachers have been more into their own egos and fat fees than the well-being of students. A caring and aware teacher is a godsend, a teacher who watches the student as well as just listening and correcting wrong notes.
One thing John Browning inherited from Mrs Lhévinne was an interesting use of the Plaidy exercises to not only prevent injury but also to treat and even cure injuries. One particular exercise, that is – the scales in double sixths. Yes, scales in double sixths! I’ve mentioned this to various pianists over the years and all have baulked at the idea – but, reality check again, many pianists, even top ones, struggle to play a smooth and even scale of any description in isolation, let alone in double notes. But, when I worked with Browning, he was adamant that playing scales in double sixths every day would benefit pianists of all levels, if they only but bothered to learn how to play them with the Plaidy fingering! Browning inherited this from Mrs Lhévinne, who speaks about their value in the video.
The belief with scales in double-sixths, is that they create a concurrent and healthy push and pull on the forearm flexors and tendons, thus strengthening and nurturing them, whilst simultaneously opening the carpal tunnel slightly. Indeed, once the fingering has been learnt, playing them is perhaps one of the most soothing and beneficial things a pianist can do. I begin every day of work at the piano by playing the double-sixth scales in all keys. It was hard going at first, but the benefits were such that I knew Browning was onto something. In my case, he suggested them as a way to warm up – to really render the hand malleable. But he used to use them to treat pianists who had tendonitis and carpal tunnel problems and I believe that most were permanently injury-free after only a few months. And, along with Mrs Lhévinne, he believed that they should be mandatory for everyone learning the piano at whatever stage.
I know that scales in double-sixths might sound out of reach for anyone but the most proficient pianist, but they are not. Give them a go. Whether amateur, professional, for warm up, or to treat injury, I genuinely think they will super-charge your technique, heal issues, and help prevent future problems arising.
As Mrs Lhévinne said: play scales in double-sixths with the Plaidy fingering and you feel like you’ve been playing for hours. In other words, they are powerful things!
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.