21st-Century Piano Study

The 21st-century student, like students of yesterday, arrives at university or conservatory eager to be recognized, eager to express his or her individuality, and uncertain about his or her place in the music world. Also like students of yesterday, he or she likely arrives with substantial gaps in intellectual knowledge, physical competence and musical mastery.

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

Unlike past students, today’s may already be a full-fledged member of WebWorld, uploading performances to be seen and heard by a huge audience. Mastery of this process is a “plus” (though exposure of their playing may not be). 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 spaces and non-traditional audiences; to be able to speak cogently; and still to fulfill the musician’s core functions of bringing emotional communication, catharsis and joy.

The student of today may need traditional ear-training; but also needs ear-training of other sorts:

To judge a recording of him- or herself. (Different from judging live music.)

To hear his or her own performance objectively. (I’ve known only two pianists who could do this without specific training. One was Leonid Hambro; the other was a Japanese student of mine, Saiko Okawa.)

To hear the emotion in the music. Of course we hear this from the start, but our perceptions can be greatly intensified and sharpened.

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

And there’s more. If I were a student now, I would love to learn from my teacher the role of the harmonic series in chord dispositions. The opening chord of Schubert’s B-flat Sonata, D. 960, is the 1st through 5th harmonics (Bb, D, Bb, F, Bb), except that the D should be two 8ves higher. The useful insight is that the displacement of the D downward gives it “potential energy,” which causes its voice to move twice as fast as the other voices: in eighth-notes, not quarters.

Or consider Schubert’s previous sonata, the “big” A major, D. 959. In its first bars, every right-hand note is a harmonic of the left-hand notes. Thus, the right-hand would “sound” even if one only raised the dampers, without playing the notes. This gives the pianist a huge range of choice in voicing, from the right hand merely “riding” on the left to itself being aggressive.

Twenty-first-century students should 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 is easier— and masking will do the rest.

As a student, I would be grateful to learn how to “change” the damper pedal without “thunking,” and that the pedal mechanism is designed with “free play” for just this purpose. The thunk is annoying in itself, creates a spurious rhythm, and destroys legato; yet most students, and many professionals, do it. Luckily, it’s easy and quick to learn how not to do it.

21st-Century Science—An enormous amount of student’s and teacher’s time can be saved in piano instruction when we have real knowledge; and in the 21st century, we are finally 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 our skills by depending on our native gifts, by observing ourselves and others, and by relying on our 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 am not claiming myself to be better than 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 rare; and even if their understanding be perfect, it is limited to their own students, becoming diluted and denatured as time passes.

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

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

I believe we now do have the power to address this very 21st-century goal of a scientific understanding of piano-technique–an understanding usable in the most concrete way–via two avenues: one is laboratory study of the kinesiology of piano-playing (an approach long accepted in athletics); the other is via the new field of “cognitive science,” which commands techniques like “functional MRI” (fMRI), which can elucidate the role of mind and brain in piano-technique and musical artistry.

One must begin descriptively: how do the best pianists play? For this, I’d like to see established an Archive of Pianism: pianists would play a standard menu of pieces and exercises while instrumented to track their motion, body-use and neuro-muscular activity. Only when confident of our understanding would we take the giant step of becoming prescriptive. That day will mark a revolution in piano study.

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

Most music heard by most people—In this 21st century, most music heard by most people most of the time is recorded; and we pianists, like all musicians, are overwhelmingly heard via recordings. We must be aware of how defects in audio gear and processes can make our sound less beautiful and compelling, and actually sabotage our interpretations. (Worse yet, listeners don’t realize the role played by wrong recording practices, and they attribute the ugliness and meaninglessness to us.)

We must learn enough to talk intelligently to the recording engineer; or better yet, act as our own engineers. Luckily, it’s easy to make recordings better than 90% of commercial releases. To learn to do this is well within the ability of music students.

Piano Technicians—If a piano’s touch and tone are grossly “off,” it’s difficult to learn to control them, and difficult to perform well on that instrument; so we are dependent on fine piano-tuner/technicians. Yet the supply of such people is critically low. (See my
Scientific American essay, “The Endangered Piano Technician”.)

We must learn to recognize which aspects of touch and tone are inherent in a given piano, and which can be altered; and learn enough of the technician’s work to communicate usefully, especially as few technicians have any interest in learning our language as pianists.

As Always—-The teacher’s main job, in the 21st as in other centuries, is to make him- or herself unnecessary. -The student’s motivation is the crucial element in learning; -the midwifing of such motivation is the crucial element in teaching. -Any one of us can 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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