Some piano students think of technique as dull and dreary. Maybe that’s because they’ve been assigned monotonous études (studies or exercises) such as the famous ones by Hanon. Fortunately, technique needn’t be boring or monotonous. Technique can be a fascinating aspect of playing the keyboard, especially when you experience for yourself how it helps you to play the music you want to play, and play it well. Good technique will also enable you to avoid the repetitive motion injuries that unfortunately continue to plague a high percentage of keyboard players (and all musicians), including some world-class virtuosos.
What is technique? It is the awareness, knowledge and skills involved in moving your body to play your instrument. The goal of keyboard technique is to play effectively (i.e. musically) with comfort and ease.
Wanting to play the piano without learning good technique is like wanting to play tennis without learning how to swing the racket. It’s unlikely you’ll ever play well, let alone master the game.
The Finger Action School
When the piano was invented around 1700, teachers taught their students an essentially identical technique as for playing the harpsichord and clavichord (the most common keyboard instruments at the time). Both of these instruments needed only a light touch, so the technique for playing them involved a still hand and high, independent fingers. To acquire a still hand, some piano teachers would have students practice while balancing coins on the back of their hands. A few hardcore teachers would have students practice while balancing full glasses of water!
Playing the piano with a light technique was emphasized well into the 19th century. This became known as the “finger action” school. Countless methods of tedious finger-oriented technical exercises like Hanon’s or Czerny’s were used by generations of teachers (including some of mine). Composer Robert Schumann, who was also an influential music critic, summarized these mind-numbing exercises best when he said, “It would be difficult to find a failure of imagination greater than that of Czerny.”
The Arm Weight School
By 1800, bigger pianos with heavier actions and larger dynamic ranges were being developed. Many virtuosos sensed that finger action alone was no longer enough. A new technique was necessary. Some of the greatest pianists of the 19th century like Chopin began to use more of their body, particularly the weight of the arm, to control the more powerful instrument and its increasingly difficult repertoire. This became known as the “arm weight” school of technique.
The Two Schools Duke It Out
Predictably, the “finger action” and “arm weight” schools fought it out for many years, though neither ever completely dominated. For good reason – both schools are at least partially right. Keyboard players obviously need to move the fingers freely and nimbly to play. Yet taking advantage of gravity via arm weight offers vital support to the fingers. In fact, the whole body needs to be involved in playing.
Unfortunately, both the “finger action” and “arm weight” schools developed their methods based on how playing looked rather than attempting a deeper understanding of the way the mind and body work together. Over the past several decades, our improved understanding of the brain along with biomechanical analyses of movement have resulted in new and revolutionary understandings of keyboard technique. Two of the most cutting-edge approaches, principles from both of which I use with my own students, are the Body Mapping Method, which provides insights such as using the wrist arch, and the illustrious Taubman Method of Coordinate Motion.
If you’re a piano student, how have you been taught technique? If you’re a teacher, how do you teach it?