21st Century Piano

Not long ago, I had occasion to makea few notes on “what it means to study piano and to be a pianist in the extraordinarily varied contexts of the 21st century.” Here are a few excerpts:


The 21st-century student

Piano students of today, like those of yesterday, arrive at university or conservatory eager to be recognized, eager to express their individuality, and uncertain about their place in the music world. Also like students of yesterday, they likely arrive with substantial gaps in intellectual knowledge, instrumental competence and musical mastery.

These students can learn from scratch as well as we would like—observe their mastery of computers and the Web, acquired without teachers! But much of what they’ve been taught was likely less than optimal, when it wasn’t outright wrong—or omitted. When I interviewed 72 piano teachers for an article, almost half said that the ear had no role in learning piano!

Unlike past students, today’s may be full-fledged members of “WebWorld,” uploading performances to be seen and heard by a YouTube audience. Mastery of this process is a “plus” for their dealing with the world (though exposure of their playing may be premature).

But the world hasn’t stood still: it now expects pianists to be conversant with different styles, genres, and modes of playing; to be comfortable dealing with alternative concert venues and non-traditional audiences; to be able to speak charmingly and cogently; and still to fulfill the musician’s core functions of bringing emotional communication, catharsis and joy.

Thus, while today’s entering students need traditional ear-training, they also need ear-training of other sorts:

   To hear their own performances objectively. (I’ve known only two pianists who could do this without specific training.)

   To hear in detail the emotion in the music. Of course we all hear this to a degree—it may be what brought us to music—but our perceptions can be, and should be, intensified and focused.

   To judge the acoustics of a venue, and find where best to place the piano.

   To judge their recordings.


And there’s more. If I were a student now, I would love to be taught the role of the harmonic series in chord dispositions. For instance, the opening chord of Schubert’s B-flat Sonata is the 1st through 5th harmonics (Bb, D, Bb, F, Bb), except that the natural position for the D is two 8ves higher. The useful insight is that the displacement of the D downward from its natural position gives it “potential energy,” which becomes kinetic energy, causing its voice to move twice as fast as the other voices: in eighth-notes, not quarters.

Or consider the previous sonata, the “big” A major. In its first bars, every right-hand note is a harmonic of the left-hand notes. Thus, the right-hand would be audible even if played silently, just raising the dampers. This gives the pianist a huge range of possible voicings. The right hand can merely “ride on” the left—being played more gently than one would normally consider—or it can be aggressive.

If I were a student now, I would be fascinated to learn of the psychoacoustic phenomenon of “masking,” by which a loud sound masks a softer sound following it, making it sound even softer. This means that when a composer calls for fff followed immediately by ppp, we can play the latter p or pp—which we can do more reliably—and masking will do the rest.

I would be grateful to learn how to change the damper pedal without thunking, and to know that the mechanism is designed with free play for this purpose. (At a festival, I taught dozens of pianists from 10 countries, and heard recitals by fine professionals. All but two students thunked the pedal, as did at least three of the recitalists; so this is not an unusual problem. It is a problem, though; for the thunk is annoying in itself, intrudes a spurious rhythm, and destroys the legato. Luckily, one can quickly learn how not to do it.


21st-Century Science

An enormous amount of student’s and teacher’s time will be saved in piano instruction when we have true knowledge; and in the 21st century, we are ready to put to rest the vexed question of piano tone. I pass on that for now, moving instead to the thrilling promise of understanding piano technique.

As students, we acquired piano skills by depending on our native gifts, observing ourselves and others, and relying on teachers’ guidance. But our gifts are incomplete, our observation may have been directed to the wrong aspects of the situation; and, with the best will in the world, our teachers, like most people on most topics, may have been misinformed. (I’m not representing myself as better than the average.)

No doubt there exist teachers with deep understanding of how the piano is played, and the ability to teach it. Their pedagogic magic will always be priceless! But they are beyond rare; and even if their understanding be perfect, it is limited to their own students, becoming diluted and denatured as it’s passed on.

Ideally, we would fully understand piano technique, and know how to use it. We would know how to evaluate each student’s potential, and how the student can best reach that potential.

Technique is intimately entwined with the musical impulse, of course; and infinitely individual. But some amount of scientific knowledge—a large amount, I believe—will work for every pianist who wants its help. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that knowledge! Think of the energy that we could instead apply to learning more repertoire, giving more concerts, teaching more students!

I believe we do now have the power to address the very 21st-century goal of a scientific understanding of piano-technique, via two avenues: one is laboratory study of the kinesiology of piano-playing (long useful in athletics, this was introduced to the piano by pioneers like Otto Ortmann); the other is “cognitive science,” in which techniques like “functional MRI” (fMRI) can help elucidate the role of mind and brain in technique and artistry. Scattered efforts at such approaches have begun, not always keeping in mind that one must begin with description—how do the best pianists play?—and progress to prescription—how can we play best?—only after our knowledge has become mastery.

My idea is not to make piano-playing and music-making cold, clinical and mechanical. Not at all! It is to use the marvels of the 21st century in the service of music, enhancing pianists’ ability to express emotion with subtlety, intensity, and physical ease.


Most music heard by most people

Most music heard by most people most of the time is recorded; and musicians are mostly heard via recordings. We must be cognizant of how defects in audio gear and processes can make our sound less beautiful and compelling, and can actually sabotage our interpretations.

We must learn to talk intelligently to the recording engineer; or better yet, act as our own engineers. Luckily, it’s easy to make recordings better than most commercial releases. Many music students already record themselves, but they need further knowledge and insight.


Piano Technicians

If a piano’s touch and tone are grossly off, it’s difficult to control them, and difficult to perform well. Thus, we are dependent on piano-tuner/technicians; yet the supply of such people is critically low. (See “The Endangered Piano Technician”.)

Students can learn which aspects of touch and tone are inherent in a given piano, and which can be altered–and over what range; thus learning enough about the field to be able to communicate usefully with the technician.


As Always

In the 21st as in previous and future centuries—

Our main job as teachers is to make ourselves unnecessary.

The crucial element in learning is the student’s motivation; and midwifing such motivation is the crucial element in teaching.

We teachers know only a fraction of what we need to know and what our students need us to know.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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