General Conclusions from the Reviewed Books
- 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.
- One concept that has not changed is that musical considerations, such as rhythm, tone, phrasing, etc., cannot be separated from technique.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
Bree, Malwine, "The Leschetizky Method". 1997 (1913), 92P, no references.
Although this book appeared in 1997, it is a re-publication of 1913 material.
Teaching lineage: Beethoven-Czerny-Leschetizky-Bree.
Book of exercises for developing technique, photos of finger positions. Advocates thumb under method. Hand position, finger independence exercises, scales, chords, touch, glissando, pedal, performance, etc., a relatively complete treatment. Read this to find out about the older "established" methods.
Bruser, Madeline, "The Art of Practicing". 1997, 272P, references.
The Art of Practicing
Based on starting with preparing the mind (meditation) and body (stretching exercises), then goes into some useful specifics of piano skills. The amount of piano instruction is unfortunately reduced by the parallel instructions for other instruments (mostly string and wind). Though physical exercise (calisthenics) is good, exercises such as scales are not helpful. Contains a small amount of useful information.
Chang, Chuan C., "Fundamentals of Piano Practice", 2nd edition. This book was inspired by Mlle. Yvonne Combe's teachings.
Combe's teaching lineage: Beethoven-Czerny-Liszt-Debussy (also Long, Cortot)-Combe
Combe's mother was a well-known voice teacher and probably gave Yvonne a good start in piano. Yvonne learned under Marguerite Long, and had won most of the piano 1st prizes at the Paris Conservatory during her time at the conservatory. The teaching methods at the Paris Conservatory were greatly influenced by Liszt and the "French School of Piano/Music" reflected many of his thoughts. Her main mentors in Paris were Cortot, Debussy, and Saint Saens, and her interpretations of the latter two composers were without peer. She was one of the most promising pianists of her time until she injured her right hand in a bicycle accident (she was quite an athlete), ending her performing career. She subsequently dedicated herself to teaching, organizing schools in Switzerland and later in Plainfield, NJ, USA, where she briefly coached Van Cliburn because her teaching methods were similar to his mother's. Though she was proud of her Beethoven-Liszt lineage, her interpretations of Beethoven were at times inadequate, and assigned only a few Czerny pieces to her students. She had lost most of her hearing by age 86, but taught till the year of her passing at age 96. -- biographic notes by C. C. Chang, from anecdotal accounts.
Chang's book teaches the most basic practice methods for acquiring technique quickly (hands separate practice, chord attack [parallel sets], shortening difficult passages, memorizing, relaxation, eliminating speed walls, etc.). No other book discusses all of these essential elements needed for rapid progress and correct technique. Also treats sight reading, preparing for recitals, controlling nervousness, gravity drop, which exercises are good and which ones are useless or harmful, learning perfect pitch, outlining, etc. Has a chapter on piano tuning for the amateur, explains the chromatic scale and tempering. Go to the above web site for downloading the 2nd edition free; it has been translated into several languages. A MUST READ.
Eigeldinger, Jean-Jacques, "Chopin, pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils". 1986, 324P, references.
The most scholarly and complete compilation of relevant material on Chopin concerning teaching, technique, interpretation, and history. Because of a lack of direct documentation in Chopin's time, practically all the material is anecdotal. Yet the accuracy seems unquestionable because of the exhaustive documentation, lack of any detectable bias, and the obvious fact that such deep understanding could only have come from Chopin himself - the results are in uncanny agreement with the best material available today. Eigeldinger has arranged the subjects into helpful groupings (technique, interpretation, quotes, annotated scores and fingerings, Chopin's style). I certainly wish that there were more practice methods, but we must all realize that the lack of documentation in Chopin's time has resulted in the loss of a large fraction of what he taught. In the case of F. Liszt, the situation is far worse.
Elson, Margaret, "Passionate Practice", 2002, 108P., a few references.
Written from the point of view of a psychologist. Contains precious little analytical advice on technical development and practice methods. Has a nice treatment of mental visualization (see Mental Play in Chang's book). Useful for those who commit psychological mistakes (who doesn't?), and covers the correct/wrong mental approaches and environmental factors from practice to performance. Good for starting students not yet familiar with daily requirements of pianists or those with no performing experience. Art and psychology can be surprisingly close –"artist type" readers may enjoy this short book.
Fink, Seymour, "Mastering Piano Technique", 1992, 187P., excellent list of references; video also available.
Most scholarly of all books listed here, as befits the work of a university professor. Scientific treatise using correct terminology (in contrast to Whiteside who was frequently unaware of standard terminology), easy to understand, starts with human anatomy and its relation to the piano, followed by a list of movements involved in playing, including pedal. Scale must not be played thumb under, but thumb under is an important movement (P. 115). Illustrates each movement and the corresponding piano exercises. Good description of gravity drop. Strictly mechanical approach, but this book emphasizes production of richer tone and playing with emotion. The motions are difficult to decipher from diagrams, making it desirable to purchase the video. You must read either Fink or Sandor; preferably both since they approach similar subjects from different points of view. Some readers may love one and hate the other. Fink is based on exercises, Sandor is based more on examples from classical compositions.
The first half is a treatment of all the basic motions and exercises for these motions. These include: pronation, supination, abduction, adduction, hand positions (extended, palm, claw), finger strokes, motions of the forearm, upper arm, shoulder (push, pull, cycling), etc. The second section applies these motions to examples from famous classics, from Ravel, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, to Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, and many others. MUST READ either this or Sandor.
Fraser, Alan, "The Craft of Piano Playing", 2003, 431P., bibliography.
Contains an incredible amount of information, some of which are the most advanced that you can find anywhere; however, the book lacks organization, leaving you to pick up the nuggets as he throws them out. The materials are extremely broad-based, taking teachings from Feldenkrais to awareness training and Tai Chi Chuan to Chi-Gung, but clearly from a well educated concert pianist/composer. The most useful are precise instructions on specific technical material: Chopin's glissando motion (finger "split"), the amount of note over-lap in legato, playing with sides of fingers, interpretation errors in otherwise useful concepts such as arm weight, correct use of thumb, chord attack type exercises, octaves, fortissimo, developing extensor muscles, uses of forearm rotation, musicality: rhythm-phrasing-orchestration, etc., etc. The only weakness I could find was that he comes so awfully close to the ultimate truth, but doesn't quite get there – there is still room for improvement, and the reader should look for these advanced areas where even newer ideas may be hiding. A MUST READ; more informative than Fink or Sandor in some respects.
Gieseking, Walter, and Leimer, Karl, "Piano Technique", 2 books in one, 1972, no references.
Teaching lineage: Leimer-Gieseking.
First book: Gieseking, 77P. Importance of listening, "whole body" method (a la arm weight school), concentration, precise practice, attention to detail. Excellent treatment of how to analyze a composition for practicing and memorizing. This book is representative of most books written by these great performers. Typical advice on technique is, "Concentration, precise practice, and attention to detail will automatically lead to technique" or "Use your ear" or "All notes of a chord must sound together" without any advice on how to actually acquire each particular skill.
Takes you through how to practice Bach's Invention in C major (#1), Three Part Invention in C major (#1) and Beethoven's Sonata #1, but more from analysis and interpretation than technical skill points of view. He guides you through the first 3 movements of this Sonata, then dismisses the most technically demanding 4th movement as "presenting no new problems"! Note that this last movement requires a strong, difficult, and very fast 5,2,4 fingering followed by a thumb-over descending arpeggio in the LH and rapid and accurate large chord jumps in the RH. These are where we would have wanted some advice from Gieseking. Chang's book plugs up this hole by providing the missing guidance in Chapt. One, section III.8. Worth reading even just for the specific guidance on the above pieces.
Second book: Leimer, 56P. Importance of rhythm, counting, accurate timing, phrasing. Excellent section on pedaling. Contains some specific information that is difficult to find elsewhere.
Green, Barry, and Gallwey, Timothy, "The Inner Game of Music", 1986, 225P., no references.
Mental approach to music; relaxation, awareness, trust. Almost no technical piano playing instruction. Only for those who think that mental attitude is the key to playing piano. Those interested in specific recipes for practice will find little useful information.
Hinson, Maurice, "Guide to the Pianist's Repertoire", 2000, 933P., large bibliography.
Very complete compilation of piano compositions, with brief descriptions of important information/characteristics of each, degree of difficulty, availability of music scores, useful references for each composition, etc. Main part is "Composers: solo works in Various Editions", then many useful groupings: Anthologies and Collections (by nationality, contemporary, Bach family, etc), Recital programs by Rubinstein, Busoni, and Gabrilowitsch, and special indexes (Black Composers, Women Composers, under Nationality, etc.).
Hofman, Josef, "Piano Playing, With Piano Questions Answered", 1909, 183P., no references.
Teaching lineage: Moszkowki, Rubinstein.
The first half deals with very useful general rules and the second half is in question and answer form. Most of the book discusses general concepts; not much detailed technical instruction. Not an essential book for technique, but makes nice side reading.
Lhevine, Josef, "Basic Principles in Piano Playing", 1972, 48P., no references.
Excellent treatment of how to produce good tone. Brief discussions of: basic knowledge of keys, scales, etc., rhythm, ear training, soft & loud, accuracy, staccato, legato, memorizing, practice time, velocity, pedal. Mostly superficial -- book is too short. Good general summary, but lacks specific details and does not contain material you cannot find elsewhere.
Lloyd, Norman, "The Golden Encyclopedia of Music", Golden Press, NY, 1968,
A handy music encyclopedia where you can find just about everything in one place.
Mark, Thomas, "What Every Pianist Needs To Know About The Body", 2003, 155P., can purchase companion video; no references or index but has 8 suggested reading material.
One of best treatments of human anatomy and its relation to piano playing (actually any keyboard), with section for organists and injury/recovery; scholarly and medically/scientifically/technically accurate. Book is not about technique but about preparing the body/arm/hand for technique and covers discussions on practically every bone/muscle from head to toe. Also has numerous discussions on correct/wrong ways to play, such as proper thumb motions that agree with promoters of "thumb over", dangers of curled fingers (debunks belief that flat fingers cause injury), need for acceleration of key drop (gravity drop), importance of the tactile awareness of the front finger pad, etc.
Mathieu, W. A., "Harmonic Experience", 1997, 563P., bibliography, extensively indexed.
An advanced book on the experience of harmony; I don't have the music theory education to truly evaluate this book, but will review it from the point of view of an amateur pianist curious about harmony. It starts with the just intonations: unison, octave, fifths, etc., and their relationships to primes 1,2,3,5,& 7. The harmonies are actually experienced by singing over a drone, such as the Indian tamboura. Then reviews the concept of a lattice of notes for tracking harmony, and then the scales, from Lydian through Phrygian. An interesting observation is how the 7th partial used in blues music fits into this scheme. Most of the book is devoted to the myriads of ways in which equal temperament affects harmony which may be great for composers confined to this temperament, but a disappointment for someone seeking simple fundamental principles of harmony and harmonic progressions (which don't strictly exist in reality because of the Pythagorean comma and its consequences). Thus musicians have no choice but to explore what is possible with the chromatic scale, and Mathieu does a terrific job of discussing the issues that harmony specialists struggle with. Thus cataloguing the harmonies in this imperfect system becomes an enormous task, even when confined to equal temperament, where you can base the catalogue on the various commas – remember, he does all this with respect to how you feel about these harmonies, not by counting frequencies. To give you some idea of the contents: "There are many books that this book is not: it is not a book about counterpoint, or figured bass, or melodic or rhythmic structure, or compositional development, although all of those subjects come into play. It is a harmony book that is meant to reconcile and go beyond, but not supplant, traditional texts. . . . . .
REVIEW OF THEORY: We recognize low-prime frequency ratios between tones as more than agreeable – they are affective in various ways. The primes 2, 3, 5, and 7 serve as norms both as given by nature and internalized by experience: inner/internalized norms. The overtone series is only one incarnation of this, not the source. . . . . . . . . .
Flaws and Limits of the Theory: . . . . Anyone can create a subjective tautology. The notion that affective commas are the driving force behind equal-tempered harmony can never be objectively proved. What is presented in this book is an elaborate, operative system based on what is presumed to be the clear sensibilities of the investigator. . . . . . ."
I certainly agree with that; this is not a conventional textbook on harmony for the beginner; for that, there is more practical information in the "Jazz, Fake Books and Improvisation" review section below.
Prokop, Richard, "Piano Power, a Breakthrough Approach to Improving your Technique", 1999, 108P., just a few references.
The Introduction reads like this is the book everyone's been looking for. However, the more you read, the more you get disillusioned. This author, pianist, piano teacher, and composer, started learning piano using the "intuitive method" and his teachings still consist of 50% intuitive methods (see Chapt. One, section I of Chang for ìintuitive methodî). For example, he does not know the thumb over method, and therefore encounters many "problems". The teachings consist of "Theorems" that he "proves". Reading through just a few such theorems demonstrates that in piano technique, you can't prove theorems like you can in math, thus invalidating basically the entire book. He does bring up a few useful ideas. (1) importance of extensor muscles (lifting fingers); accurate lifting of fingers (and pedals) is just as important as accurate key drop. He provides exercises for lifting each finger, and gives the best description of the bones, tendons, and muscles of the finger/hand/arm and how/what motions are controlled by each. (2) detailed analysis of the advantages/disadvantages of small, medium, and large hands. Since good ideas are mixed with wrong ones, this book can mislead/confuse the less informed students. There are no "Breakthrough"s (see title); recommended reading only for those who can separate the useful ideas from the wrong ones.
Richman, Howard, "Super Sight-Reading Secrets", 1986, 48P., no references.
This is the best book on sight reading. It contains all the fundamentals; they are described in complete detail, teaching us all the correct terminology and methodologies. It starts from how to read music, for the beginner, and advances logically all the way to advanced sight reading levels; it is especially helpful for the beginner. It is also concise, so you should read the whole book once before starting any actual drills/exercises. Starts with how to psychologically approach sight reading. Basic components of sight reading are Pitch, Rhythm, and Fingering. After an excellent introduction to music notations, appropriate drills are given. Then the sight reading process is broken down into its component steps of visual, neural, muscular, and aural processes that start with the music score and end up as music. This is followed by drills for learning "keyboard orientation" (finding the notes without looking at the keyboard) and "visual perception" (instantly recognizing what to play). Depending on the person, it may take from 3 months to 4 years to learn; should practice every day. Finally, about one page of ideas on advanced sight reading. A MUST READ.
Sandor, Gyorgy, "On Piano Playing", 1995, 240P, no references.
Teaching lineage: Bartok-Kodaly-Sandor.
The most complete, scholarly, and expensive book. Contains most of the material in Fink, stresses arm weight methods. Discusses: free fall, scale (thumb-over method; has most detailed description of scale and arpeggio playing, P. 52-78), rotation, staccato, thrust, pedals, tone, practicing, memorization, performance. Takes you through learning the entire Waldstein Sonata (Beethoven).
Numerous examples on how to apply the principles of the book to compositions from Chopin, Bach, Liszt, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, Schumann, many others. This book is very complete; it covers subjects from the effect of music on emotions to discussions of the piano, human anatomy, and basic playing motions, to performing and recording; however, many topics are not treated in sufficient detail. A MUST READ, but Fink will give you similar information at lower cost.
Sherman, Russell, "Piano Pieces", 1997, no references.
Consists of five sections dealing with playing, teaching, cultural issues, musical scores, and "everything else". The contents are arranged in no particular order, with no real solutions or conclusions. Discusses the politics of art (music), opinions, judgments, and observations that pianists can relate with; whether non-pianists can understand these musings is questionable but will provide insight. Seating position, thumb serves as momentum balance. Fingers = troops, but body = supply line, support, carrier ship, and manufacturing. Fingers vs body = sales vs CEO; thus controlling fingers does not result in music. Easy pieces are valuable for learning to make music. What is the value of learning piano? It is not even a good career, financially. Should you slide the finger? What is involved in beauty or character of piano sound? How important are quality pianos and good tuners? Pros and cons of competitions (mostly cons): preparing for competitions is not making music and often becomes more like an athletic competition; is the stress and effort worth it?; judging is never perfect.
Deals with issues faced by pianists, teachers and parents; describes many of the major problems but presents few solutions. This book touches on numerous issues, but is as aimless as its title. Read it only if you have time to burn.
Suzuki, Shinichi (et al), two books (there are more):
"The Suzuki Concept: An Introduction to a Successful Method for Early Music Education", 1973, 216P., no references, has large, excellent bibliography.
Mostly for violin education starting at an early age. One small chapter (7 pages) on piano teaching methods.
"HOW TO TEACH SUZUKI PIANO", 1993, 21P., no references.
A brief, general outline of the Suzuki Piano methods. The methods described by Chang are in general agreement with the Suzuki methods. Let baby listen; no Beyer, Czerny, Hanon or etudes (even Chopin!); must perform; teachers must have uniform teaching methods and open discussions (research groups); balance memory and reading, but memorizing is more important. Teachers are given a small set of graded music on which to base their lessons. Suzuki is a centrally controlled teaching school; as such, it has many of the advantages of the faculties of established music universities and colleges, but the academic level is, in general, lower. Suzuki teachers are at least one notch above the average private teacher because they must meet certain minimum standards. Describes many general approaches to teaching, but few specifics on how to practice piano for technique. Classic example of how an authoritarian system can eliminate bad teachers by imposing minimum standards.
Taylor, Ronald, "Franz Liszt, the Man and the Musician", Universe Books, NY, 1986, 285P., bibliography, index.
Biography – another endless accounts of his numerous liaisons, none of whom he married (that produced at least 3 offspring). The list of musicians, most of whom he met, is astounding: Wagner, both Schumanns, Paganini, Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, Brahms, Salieri, etc., not to mention the equally famous writers, artists, etc., as also covered by Walker (no need to read both books – read Walker or this one). Distressingly little information on how Liszt learned to play. He disliked the curled finger position as producing dry sounds (P. 32) and used a flexible system in which the fingers changed to meet each requirement. Other teaching methods mentioned are the well known litany of pedagogical tools such as encouragement versus criticism, too much body or arm motion, etc., that do not address the specifics of technical play.
Walker, Alan, "Franz Liszt, The Virtuoso Years, 1811-1847", 1983, 481P., references.
This is the first of 3 books; it covers the period from Liszt's birth until the time he decided to stop performing at age 36. The second book covers the years 1848-1861, when he mainly devoted himself to composing. The third book covers the years 1861-1886, his final years. I review only the first book here.
Liszt is known as the greatest pianist of all time. Therefore, we would expect to learn the most about how to acquire technique from him. Unfortunately, every book written about Liszt is an absolute disappointment from that point of view. My guess is that technique was like a "trade secret" in Liszt's time and his lessons were never documented. Paganini practiced in complete secrecy, and even covertly tuned his violin differently in order attain results no one else could. Chopin, on the other hand, was a composer and professional teacher - those were his sources of income, and there are numerous accounts of his lessons. Liszt's claim to fame was his performances. His success in this regard is reflected in the fact that practically every book on Liszt is an endless and repetitive chronicle of his incredible performances. My guess about this secrecy would explain why so many pianists of the time claim to have been students of Liszt yet they seldom describe Liszt's teaching methods in any useful detail. However, when these details are probed among today's teachers of the "Liszt school", they are found to use similar methods (hands separate, shorten difficult passages, chord attack, etc.). Whatever the real reasons, Liszt's teaching methods were never adequately documented. One legacy that Liszt did leave us is the well-chronicled fact that the kinds of feats he performed are humanly possible. This is important, because it means that we can all do similar things if we can rediscover how he did it. Many pianists have, and I hope that my book is a step in the right direction for producing a written documentation of the best known piano practice methods.
Walker's book is typical of other books on Liszt that I have read, and is basically a chronicle of Liszt's life, not a textbook on how to learn piano. As such, it is one of the best Liszt biographies and contains numerous discussions on particular compositions with specific pianistic demands and difficulties. Unfortunately, a description of an impossible passage "that was executed with the greatest of ease" does not teach us how to do it. This lack of technical teaching information is surprising in view of the fact that bibliographical accounts of Liszt number well over ten thousand! In fact, any useful technical information we might glean from this book must be deduced from the contents using our own knowledge of piano (see the "relaxation" example below). The section entitled "Liszt and the Keyboard" (P. 285-318) contains a few pointers on how to play. As in all three books, Liszt is revered as a demi-god who can do no wrong, even endowed with super hands somehow configured ideally for the piano -- he could reach a tenth easily. This bias reduces credibility and the incessant, repetitive accounts of superhuman performances create a boredom that detracts from the vast amount of revealing and fascinating historical details in these books.
From the point of view of piano technique, perhaps the most interesting point is that Liszt was a thin, sickly man from early youth. In fact, at age three, he was given up for dead after an illness and they even ordered a coffin. He did not start piano until age six and didn't even have a decent practice piano until seven, because his family was so poor. He was taught by his father, a talented musician and passable pianist, and was steeped in music since birth. Czerny was his first "real" teacher, at age 11, and Czerny claims to have taught Franz all of his fundamental skills. However, he acknowledges that Franz was already an obvious prodigy when they were first introduced -- which seems suspiciously contradictory. Franz actually rebelled at Czerny's drills, but nevertheless used exercises extensively for his technical developments. The things he practiced were the fundamentals: runs, jumps, repeat notes. My interpretation is that these were not mindless repetitions for building muscle but skill exercises with specific objectives in mind, and once the objectives were achieved, he would move on to new ones.
But how does a frail person perform "impossible" exercises to exhaustion? By relaxing! Liszt may have been the world's greatest expert on relaxing, out of necessity. Concerning relaxation, it may not be a coincidence that Paganini was also a sickly man. By the time he became famous, in his thirties, Paganini had syphilis, and his health further deteriorated because of an addiction to gambling and contraction of tuberculosis. Yet, these two men of poor health were the two greatest masters over their instruments. The fact that both were physically weak indicates that the energy for superhuman performances does not come from athletic muscle power but, rather, from complete mastery over relaxation. Chopin was also on the frail side, and contracted tuberculosis. A sad historical note, in addition to Paganini's poor health and the grotesque consequences of the primitive surgical attempts of that time, is the circumstances of his ghastly death, as there was a delay in his burial and he was left to rot in a concrete cistern.
Another notable teacher of Liszt was Saliery who taught him composition and theory. By then Saliery was over 70 years old and, for years, had been suffering under the suspicion of having poisoned Mozart out of jealousy. Liszt was still improving at age 19. His feats are credited with popularizing the piano. He is credited with inventing the piano recital (by bring it out of the salon and into the concert hall). One of his devices was the use of many pianos, as well as many pianists. He even played multi-piano concerts with Chopin and other luminaries of his time. This climaxed in extravaganzas with up to 6 pianos, advertised as a "concert of 60 fingers". In one stretch of 10 weeks, he played 21 concerts and 80 works, 50 from memory. That he could so enthrall his audiences was the more surprising because adequate pianos (Steinway, Bechstein) were not available until the 1860s, almost 20 years after he stopped concertizing.
I read this book with the intention of extracting information on how to practice the piano. As you can see, there is almost nothing we can learn today about how to practice piano from the greatest pianist of all time, although his life story makes fascinating reading.
Whiteside, Abby, "On Piano Playing", 2 books in one, 1997, no references.
This is a re-publication of "Indispensables of Piano Playing" (1955), and "Mastering Chopin Etudes and Other Essays" (1969).
Teaching lineage: Ganz-Whiteside.
First book: "Indispensables of Piano Playing", 155P.
Uses non-standard English, convoluted logic, biblical phraseology, unnecessarily long winded. Contents are excellent, but the terrible write-up makes learning unproductive. Many of the ideas she describes appear in other books but she may have originated (or rediscovered) most of them. Although I had difficulty reading this book, others have claimed that it is easier to understand if you can read it rapidly. This is partly because she is repetitious and often takes a paragraph or even a page to describe something that can be written in one sentence.
Almost the entire book is like this (P54): "Q: Can Weight - an inert pressure - help develop facility? A: It is exactly the inert pressure of weight which cannot be used for speed. Words are important in teaching. Words of action are needed to suggest the coordination for speed. Weight does not suggest the muscular activity which moves the weight of the arm. It does suggest an inert pressure." I did not pick this section because it was particularly convoluted -- it was picked at random by opening the book with my eyes closed.
Contents: Must follow her methods religiously; why rhythm is important, the body-arms-hand-finger combination has infinite possibilities of which we are mostly unaware; thumb under scale is reviled; functions of each part of anatomy for playing piano (horizontal, in-out, vertical motions); discussions on creating emotion, memorizing, pedaling, phrasing, trills, scales, octaves, teaching methods. Points out importance of rhythm to music and how to attain this using outlining (P. 141). Czerny and Hanon are useless or worse.
The following is her attack on passing thumb-under for playing scales (in understandable language!), excerpted from over two pages; the ( ) are my clarifications:
"Passing. Here we are faced with a welter of stress in traditional teaching concerning the exact movements that should take place with finger and thumbs. . . . .If I could blast these concepts right out of existence I would not hesitate to do so. That is how faulty and pernicious I think they are. They can literally cripple a pianist . . . . . If it (playing perfect scales) seems quite hopelessly impossible and you have no glimmer of an idea as to how it can be accomplished, then you are trying with a coordination which actually makes a scale an impossible feat. It means thumb snapping under the palm and reaching for position; and fingers trying to reach over the thumb and seeking a legato key connection. It doesn't matter if the performer achieving the swift and beautiful scales and arpeggios tells you he does just that (thumb under) -- it isn't true. No suggestion is meant that he is lying, but simply that he was successful in discarding the coordination that he was taught when the occasion arose which made it inadequate . . . . They (thumb under players) have to be re-educated physically to a new pattern of coordination; and that re-education can mean a period of wretched misery to them. . . . . . Action (for thumb over passing) can be taken through the shoulder joint in any direction. The top arm can move so that the elbow end of the humerus can describe a segment of a circle, up or down, in and out, back and forth, or around and about . . (etc., an entire page of this type of instruction on how to play thumb over). . . . .With control from center the entire coordination operates to make it easy to have a finger available at the moment it is needed . . . . The best proof of this statement is a beautiful scale or arpeggio played with complete disregard for any conventional fingering. This often happens with a gifted, untaught pianist . . . . For passing (thumb over), the top arm acts as fulcrum for all the "other techniques" involving the forearm and hand; flexion and extension at elbow, rotary action, and lateral hand action at wrist, and last and least, lateral action of fingers and thumb. . . . . Between rotary action and alternating action, passing is made as easy as it looks when the expert does it."
Second book: "Mastering the Chopin Etudes and Other Essays", 206P.
Compendium of edited Whiteside manuscripts; much more readable because they were edited by her students, and contains most of the ideas of the first book, based on the playing of the Chopin etudes which were chosen for their unequaled musical content as much as for their technical challenge. This is like a catechism to the above bible; may be a good idea to read this book before reading the first book above. Describes outlining in some detail: P. 54-61 basic description, and P.191-193 basic definition, with more examples on P.105-107 and P. 193-196. Although outlining can be used to overcome technical difficulties, it is more valuable for learning, or learning to play, the musical concept of the composition.
These two books are a diamond mine of practical ideas; but like a diamond mine, you must dig deep and you never know where it's buried. The use of the Chopin Etudes here turns out not to be a random pick; most of Whiteside's basic tenets were already taught by Chopin (see Eigeldinger); however, Eigeldinger's book was written long after Whiteside's book and she was probably unaware of many of Chopin's methods.
There is no middle ground -- you will either love Whiteside for the treasure trove of information or hate it because it is unreadable, repetitive, and unorganized.
Weinreich, G., "The Coupled Motions of Piano Strings", Scientific American, Jan., 1979, P. 118-127.
This is a good article on motions of piano strings if you need to learn the very basics. However, the article is not well written and the experiments were not well conducted; but we should be cognizant of the limited resources that the author probably had. Even more advanced research had surely been conducted long before 1979 by piano manufacturers and acoustics scientists. I will discuss below some of the deficiencies that I have found in this article in the hope that the awareness of these deficiencies will enable the reader to glean more helpful information from this publication and avoid being misled.
There is no information at all on the specific frequencies of the notes that were investigated. Since the behavior of piano strings is so frequency dependent, this is a vital piece of information that is missing. Keep this in mind as you read the article, as many of the results will be difficult to interpret without knowing the frequency at which the experiments were conducted and therefore become of questionable value.
The center plot in the lower row of figures on P. 121 (there are no figure numbers anywhere in this article!) is not adequately explained. The article, later on, proposes that the vertical modes produce the prompt sound. The figure therefore might be interpreted as showing the sustain of a single string. I know of no note on a grand piano having a single string sustain of less than 5 seconds as suggested by the figure. The left hand figure of the upper row of plots from a single string shows a sustain of over 15 seconds, in agreement with my cursory measurements on an actual grand. Thus the two plots from single strings appear to be contradictory. The upper plot measured sound pressure whereas the lower one measured string displacement, so that they may not be strictly comparable, but we would have liked the author to at least provide some explanation of this apparent discrepancy. I suspect that strings with very different frequencies were used for the two plots.
In reference to these figures, there is this sentence: "I used a sensitive electronic probe to separately measure the vertical and horizontal motions of a single string," with no further information. Now any investigator in this field would be very interested in how the author did it. In proper scientific reporting, it is normal (generally required) practice to identify the equipment (usually including the manufacturer and model numbers) and even how it was operated. The resultant data are some of the few new information presented in this paper and are therefore of utmost importance in this article. Future investigators will probably have to follow up along this line of study by measuring string displacements in greater detail and will need this information on instrumentation.
The four figures on page 122 are not referenced anywhere in the article. Thus it is left to us to guess about which parts of the article pertain to them. Also, my guess is that the lower two plots showing oscillations are just schematics and do not represent anything close to actual data. Otherwise, the prompt sound would be over in about 1/40th of a second, according to these plots. The curves plotted in these two lower figures are purely imaginary in addition to being schematic. There are no data to back them up. In fact the article presents no other new data and the discussions on the ensuing 5 pages (out of an 8 page article) are basically a review of known acoustical principles. As such, the descriptions of the springy, massive, and resistive terminations, as well as the sympathetic vibrations, should be qualitatively valid.
The major thesis of this article is that the piano is unique because it has an after sound and that the proper tuning of the after sound is the essence of good tuning and creates the unique piano music. My difficulty with this thesis is that the prompt sound typically lasts over 5 seconds. Very few piano notes are played for that long. Therefore, essentially all of piano music is played using only the prompt sound. In fact, piano tuners use mainly the prompt sound (as defined here) to tune. In addition, the after sound is at least 30 db less in power; that is only a few percent of the initial sound. It will be completely drowned out by all the other notes in any piece of music. What is happening in reality is that whatever is controlling the quality of the piano sound controls both the prompt and after sounds, and what we need is a treatise that sheds light on this mechanism.
Finally, we need a publication with proper references so that we can know what has or has not been previously investigated (in defense of the author, Scientific American does not allow any references except references to previously published articles in Scientific American. This makes it necessary to write articles that are "self-contained", which this article is not. According to Reblitz [P. 14], there is a 1965 Scientific American article on "The Physics of the Piano", but that article is not referenced in this report.).
Five Lectures on the Acoustics of the Piano
Royal Institute of Technology Seminar, Anders Askenfelt, Ed., Stockholm, May 27, 1988.
A most modern series of lectures on how the piano produces its sound. The Introduction gives the history of the piano and presents the terminology and background information needed to understand the lectures.
The first lecture discusses piano design factors that influence tone and acoustical performance. Hammers, soundboards, case, plate, strings, tuning pins, and how they work together. Tuners tune the transverse vibrational modes of the string, but the longitudinal modes are fixed by the string and scale design and cannot be controlled by the tuner, yet have audible effects.
The second lecture focuses on the piano tone. The hammer has two bending modes, a shank flex mode and a faster vibrational mode. The first is caused by the rapid acceleration of the hammer, much like the flex of the golf club. The second is most pronounced when the hammer bounces back from the strings, but can also be excited on its way towards the strings. Clearly, the backcheck is an important tool the pianist can use to reduce or control these extraneous hammer motions, and thereby control the tone. The actual time dependent string motion is totally unlike the motion of vibrating strings shown in text books with fundamentals and harmonics that are integral fractional wavelengths that fit neatly between the fixed ends of the string. It is actually a set of traveling waves launched by the hammer towards the bridge and towards the agraffe. These travel so fast that the hammer is "stuck" on the strings for quite a few passes back and forth, and it is the force of one of these waves hitting the hammer that eventually throws it back towards the backcheck. Then, how are the fundamentals and partials created? Simple - they are just the Fourier components of the traveling waves! In non-math terms, what this means is that the only traveling waves possible in this system are waves that contain mostly the fundamentals and partials because the system is constrained by the fixed ends. The sustain and harmonic distribution are extremely sensitive to the exact properties of the hammer, such as size, weight, shape, hardness, etc.
The strings transfer their vibrations to the soundboard (SB) via the bridge and the efficiency of this process can be determined by measuring the acoustical impedance match. This energy transfer is complicated by the resonances in the SB produced by its normal modes of vibration because the resonances produce peaks and valleys in the impedance/frequency curve. The efficiency of sound production is low at low frequency because the air can make an "end run" around the piano so that a compressive wave above the SB can cancel the vacuum underneath it when the SB is vibrating up (and vice versa when moving down). At high frequency, the SB vibrations create numerous small areas moving in opposite directions. Because of their proximity, compressed air in one area can cancel an adjacent vacuum area, resulting in less sound. This explains why a small increase in piano size can greatly increase sound production, especially for the low frequencies. These complications make it clear that matching the acoustical efficiencies across all the notes of the piano is a monumental task, and explains why good pianos are so expensive.
The above is my attempt at a brief translation of highly technical material, and is probably not 100% correct. My main purpose is to give the reader some idea of the contents of the lectures. Clearly, this web site contains very educational material.
The technical teachings are presented concisely on pages 23-64. These teachings are in almost complete agreement with those of all the best sources, from Liszt and Whiteside to Fink, Sandor, Suzuki, and this book (Chang). The presentation is in stark contrast to Whiteside; here it is authoritative (Whiteside sometimes retracts her own findings), brief (only 41 pages compared to 350 pages for Whiteside!), organized, and clear, while covering a similar range of topics. The second part, pages 65-89, covers interpretation and therefore contains much less information on technique, but is just as informative as the first section. It touches (very!) briefly on how to interpret each of his major compositions. The remaining 200 pages are dedicated to documentation, illustrations, Chopin's annotations on his own compositions and fingerings, and a 10 page "sketch" of basic material to teach beginners.
Notes on technique: Chopin was self-taught; there is little known about how he learned when young except that he was taught by his mother, an accomplished pianist. Chopin didn't believe in drills and exercises (he recommended no more than 3 hr practice/day). Chopin's methods are not as contrary to Liszt's as they might appear at first, although Liszt frequently practiced over 10 hours a day and recommended exercises "to exhaustion". Chopin, like Liszt, wrote etudes and Liszt's "exercises" were not mindless repetitions but specific methods of technique acquisition.
Learn to make music before learning technique. The whole body must be involved, and use of arm weight (gravity drop) is a key element of technique. He taught thumb over (especially when the passed note is black!!) as well as thumb under, and in fact allowed any finger to roll over any other whenever it was advantageous - the thumb was not unique and had to be "free". However, every finger was different. Thumb over (as well as other fingers) was especially useful in double chromatic scales (thirds, etc.). To Chopin, the piano had to speak and sing; to Liszt, it was an orchestra. Since C major scale is more difficult, he used B major to teach relaxation and legato; ironically it is better to start learning scales staccato, to eliminate the difficult legato problems although, in the end, he always came back to his specialty - legato. Wide arpeggios require a supple hand more than a wide reach. Rubato is one in which the rhythm is strictly held while time is borrowed and returned in the melody. [My opinion is that this definition is often misquoted and misunderstood; just because he said that a few times, it does not mean that he applied it to everything. This definition of rubato applied specifically to the situation in which the RH plays rubato while the LH keeps strict time. Chopin certainly also allowed that rubato was a freedom from strict tempo for the sake of expression.] Chopin preferred the Pleyel, a piano with very light action. His music is definitely harder to play on modern instruments, especially the pianissimo and legato. A MUST READ.
Jazz, Fake Books and Improvisation
Cannel, Ward, and Marx, Fred, "How to play the piano despite years of lessons", What music is, and how to make it at home, 239P., 1976, no references.
Starts by bashing misconceptions concerning talent, repeated exercises, superiority of classical music, etc., that discourage us from becoming musicians. Great book for beginners, starting with the most basic information, playing single note melodies, etc. You learn by playing melodies/songs from the very beginning. One major mistake is – no fingering instructions anywhere in entire book! Then basic chords (3 notes), then "skeletal arrangement", a universal scheme of RH melody and LH accompaniment that enables you to play almost anything. Then 4-note chords, rhythm (important!), arpeggios. Bolero (rhumba, beguine, calypso), tango, shuffle. Circle of 5ths and chord progressions: classical, romantic, impressionist, modern – very practical and useful. Playing by ear, improvisation. How to end any piece. A well-designed sequence from very simple to more complex concepts, leading you along the simplest possible route. A supplement with 29 popular songs to practice with and learn from (guitar and organist markings, changing arrangements on the fly, making things more interesting, etc.). Full of easy-to-understand explanations of basic concepts and useful tricks. This book is not for those looking to acquire technique and play difficult material.
Neely, Blake, "How to Play from a Fake Book", 87P., 1999; no references, but has a good list of fake books.
Excellent starter book; fake books are easy because you don't need to learn chord progressions – they are indicated on the music, so you won't learn about the circle of 5ths here. However, you must know scales and chords well; fake books are all about the accompaniments – the LH. Starts very easily, playing only one note with the LH (while RH plays single note melodies), then 5ths, and 3-note chords. Then progresses through all the useful chords, chord symbols, how to make things sound better, etc. From the beginning, each concept is illustrated by actually playing a song (60 in all). Inversions, common-tone voicing, arpeggios, major/minor chords, dominant 7th, augmented, diminished, larger chords, etc. Major faults are: no fingering instructions, almost no discussion of rhythm. Has complete list of: chord symbols and their notes, all scales & key signatures.
Sabatella, Marc, "A Whole Approach to Jazz Improvisation", 85P., 1996, no references, but has a bibliography of fake books, jazz instructional books, and jazz history literature. This book can be browsed free at Jazz Primer.
This not a beginner's book. No actual music to play; teaches the language of jazz, understanding how jazz players play, and improvisation. Detailed definitions/discussions of chords, scales, and chord/scale relationships (swing, bebop, fusion, free improvisation, etc.) – these are the heart of jazz theory, performance, and history; they are also where students must spend the majority of their time. Suggests many names of jazz players that you should listen to ("selected discography"), and a list of 92 "jazz standards" (no music score) including blues, swing, rock, latin, ballad, and standard/modal jazz.
Werner, Kenney, "Effortless Mastery", 191P., 1996, with meditation CD, references as footnotes and lots of suggested listening material.
Mental/spiritual approach to making music; almost no descriptions of the mechanics of playing or how to practice. Detailed instructions on meditation. In the same category as Green and Gallwey, but a different approach. Written for jazz players, but applies to all pianists and other instrumentalists. The first half of book consists of discussions of dysfunctional practice, teaching, performances, etc.; the second half provides solutions, but they are the classic exhortations of "practice until you can play without thinking", and controlling playing through mental attitudes – if you want to see a caricature of the "intuitive method" (see Chang), this is it! This book is for those who believe meditation can solve problems without technical knowledge. However, there is little question that controlling the mind/body system is an important factor in successful musicianship.