Book Reviews

General Conclusions from the Reviewed Books

  1. In the last 100 years, the piano literature evolved from attention to fingers and finger exercises to using the entire body, relaxation, and musical performance. Therefore, the older publications tend to contain concepts that are now discredited. This does not mean that Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt didn't have proper technique; just that the literature recorded mostly the great performances but not what you had to do to become that good. In short, the piano literature has been woefully inadequate, up to modern times.
  2. One concept that has not changed is that musical considerations, such as rhythm, tone, phrasing, etc., cannot be separated from technique.
  3. Almost every book deals with a subset of the same subjects; the main differences are in the approach and degree of detail that each presents. Almost all of them are partial treatments and are incomplete. They treat first the human mind and anatomy and their relationships to the piano: mental attitude and preparation, sitting posture, bench height, role of arms, hands and fingers - often with appropriate exercises, and discussions of injury. Then concepts of technique and musicality: touch, tone, thumb, legato, staccato, fingering, scales, arpeggios, octaves, chords, repeated notes, velocity, glissando, pedal, practice time, memorization, etc. There is surprisingly little literature on sight reading.
  4. With a few older exceptions, most discourage the use of "thumb under" for playing scales; however, thumb under is a valuable movement for some specific applications. Chopin preferred thumb under for its legato, but taught thumb over where it was technically advantageous.
  5. The lack of references in many books is a reflection of the fact that piano teaching methods have never been adequately or properly documented. Each author in effect had to re-invent the wheel each time. This is also reflected in the actual teaching methods. Piano teaching methods were basically handed down by word mouth from teacher to student, reminiscent of the way in which prehistoric humans handed down their folklore and medical practices through generations. This basic flaw almost completely arrested the development of teaching methods and they have remained basically unchanged for hundreds of years.

    Whiteside's book was widely acclaimed mostly because it was the first real attempt at a scientific approach to discovering the best practice methods. However, according to anecdotal accounts, most of her "discoveries" had been taught by Chopin, although this information was apparently not available to Whiteside. However, it may be more than just coincidence that she used Chopin's music most extensively in her teachings. Whiteside's book failed miserably because, although she conducted experiments and documented the results, she did not use clear language, organize her results, and make any cause-and-effect analyses, etc., that are needed for good scientific project. Nonetheless, her book was one of the best available at the time of its publication, because of the inferior quality of all the others.

    An inordinate number of teachers claim to teach the Liszt method, but there is only fragmentary and preciously little documentation of what that method is. There is abundant literature on where Liszt visited, whom he met and taught, what he played, and what magical feats of piano he performed, but there is practically no record of what a student must do to be able to play like that.

  6. Chang's book is the only one that provides practice methods for solving specific technique problems (overcoming speed walls, relaxation, stamina, memorizing, slow vs fast practice, etc.) that should have been learned at the beginner stage, but have been infrequently taught. The other books deal mostly with "higher" levels of piano playing, and assume that by some magic, the student had acquired the basic techniques. Obviously, it is important to learn those "higher level" skills from the beginning, together with the basics, so that Chang's book fills a gaping gap in the literature on learning piano.

Book Review Format: Author, Title, Year of publication, number of Pages in book, and whether References are cited.

The references are an indication of how scholarly the book is. By this criterion, Chang's 1st edition is not scholarly at all; this deficiency has been corrected in this 2nd edition. These reviews are not meant to be objective or comprehensive; they are concerned mainly with how relevant these books are to the piano student interested in piano technique. Most "irrelevant" material has been ignored.

Reviewed Books

Classical Music

Jazz, Fake Books and Improvisation

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