Piano Exercises

Piano Exercises for Curing Playing Related Disorderns and for Acquiring a Functional and Natural Approach to Piano Playing

© 1998 by Peter Feuchtwanger, London

During a long career as a piano teacher I have come across a growing number of pianists with tendinitis, ganglions or even worse problems such as focal dystonia. These complaints leave them unable to realise their musical intentions, often resulting in a loss of inner hearing. Watching pianists at work one quickly realises that most of them use non-functional movements which could lead to serious physical damage. My exercises help to correct this. Even amongst well-known pianists there are many who are constantly seeking medical attention, and some have completely lost the use of their right hand. Of course, there are also those, maybe of a more robust constitution, who are lucky enough not to suffer the consequences of their unfunctional movements. The purpose of my exercises is to allow every pianist to eliminate his bad habits and rediscover a natural approach to playing, and to ensure that children do not develop bad habits in the first place. Harold Taylor writes in his exemplary study, The Pianist's Talent (London: Kahn and Averill, 1979, revised edition 1994):

The human body is an indivisible entity, in which the behaviour of any single part is dependent on the relationship existing between all the parts. Posture is therefore a totality which must take into account both the position and condition of its components, because the condition of one part modifies the position of its adjacent parts, and vice versa, throughout the whole structure.

If pianists paid more attention to such advice, many disabling conditions could be treated or prevented. For instance, Glenn Gould, despite his perfect use of hands and arms, sat so low at the keyboard that he lifted his shoulders unnaturally, leading to back pain, numb fingers and immense strain on his neck. The tension incurred by such faulty posture may even have been partly responsible for his premature dearth. By contrast, Louis Kentner, who sat almost as low as Gould but used his body correctly, suffered no ill effects and played magnificently well into old age. Unfortunately, some teachers are less than helpful to their students regarding the physical aspect of piano playing. I once happened to be sitting next to a respected French pianist and teacher on the jury of an international piano competition. As one of the competitors played, he turned to me and complained about her exaggerated and unfunctional movements. Surprised, I remarked that she was one of his own students, and asked why he didn't tell her about her bad habits. But he insisted that it was not his duty to correct such physical shortcomings.
Let me give another example. A colleague, a professor at a prestigious music college, asked me to look after an extremely gifted student whenever he went on concert tours. During one such period I failed to hear from the student for some time. When she finally rang me up and I asked the reason for her protracted silence, she confessed to having developed tendinitis. When I asked what her teacher had suggested she should do, she replied, He told me either to stop playing, or have a cortisone injection, or learn the Bach/Brahms Chaconne or the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand. (Such advice is, sadly, not uncommon.) I told her that should she practise these pieces the left arm could also develop tendinitis. I suggested she see me at once and after a week of practising my exercises she was completely cured!
I would like to take a little time to describe how I came to devise these exercises. In order to do this I have to go back to my early years which had a direct influence on devising these exercises. Owing to my poor achievements at school I was not allowed to have piano lessons as a child. In any case, following our emigration we had no piano at home. So I often played truant and went instead to visit a neighbour - an elderly lady from Munich - on whose piano I was able to try out everything that I'd heard on gramophone records. (I was unable to read music at this stage.) I played all the Chopin Studies according to recordings by Cortot and Backhaus, nearly all the Beethoven Sonatas as played by Schnabel, and many other piano pieces. As I had perfect pitch and both our home gramophone and that of my neighbour ran too fast, I played all these works a semitone higher than written. When I subsequently heard them at the right pitch in concerts, I immediately and without difficulty corrected my performance. Thus I learnt how to transpose in a completely natural way (and I believe it is very important for my own students to develop the same skill if they can). When I was thirteen my parents finally allowed me to have piano lessons. My first encounter with a piano teacher, one of the most respected in town, went something like this: "Have you ever had lessons before?" "No." "So, can you play something for me?" "Yes." "Well then, show me what you can play." I played La leggierezza by Liszt, with the alternative ending as played by Simon Barere on my recording. It seems that my performance must have excited the teacher, for he fetched his wife from another room and said, "Listen! The lad's never had a lesson and plays better than my most advanced pupils." I had to play the piece again for his wife. His next question was, "Can you read music?" "Yes," I lied, ashamed to be unable to play a single note at sight. He opened a volume of Beethoven at an Adagio. I thought it might be the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, and played it as I knew it from Schnabel's recording. He opened another volume, again at a slow movement - the second movement of the Pathétique? When he gave me a third test, once more with a slowish tempo marking, I played the second movement of the Appassionata. When I'd finished, he said, "Peter, why don't you admit that you can't read music? For one thing, you played the wrong sonata each time, for another, everything was semitone too high, and besides, you never once looked at the music. And by the way, La Leggierezza is in F minor, not F sharp minor." He played me the opening in the right key. Embarrassed, I admitted that I'd never learnt to read music. He asked me to play La leggierezza again, which I did, this time a semitone lower and - as always - with a flat hand. He said, "You must play with rounded fingers, as if they were little hammers. Imagine you're holding an apple." (How often I've heard these words from other teachers much later in life!) As I didn't play nearly so well when I followed his advice, I never returned to this teacher. Shortly afterwards I began studying with a former pupil of Emil van Sauer and went to an old lady who'd played to Clara Schumann in her time. Both recognised at once that I had a completely natural technique and didn't interfere.
What I teach today, including the exercises I devised, is based on these early experiences and on observation of other pianists with a natural technique. The best example is Clara Haskil, who despite severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) had the most natural approach to the keyboard of any pianist I can remember. She told me that she had played the piano from her earliest Childhood and that no one had ever needed to teach her technique. One might also recall Rachmaninov or Horowitz, who even during the most hair-raising feats of bravura remained very still. Beethoven seems to have had a similar approach: Czerny said that

"his posture during playing was exemplary, quiet, dignified and beautiful, without even the merest grimace (only through increasing deafness he crouched over the keyboard)."

I have many memories of the magnificent Youra Guller, sitting regally at the piano, for all the world a goddess attired in a red Lanvin evening gown, producing amazing fortissimos with no apparent physical effort. And how ugly the behaviour of many a modern jazz pianist compared with Fats Waller, who sat so quietly, yet performed uncanny leaps with his left hand.
Absurd movements and mannerisms at the keyboard appear to have been rife for hundreds of years: they were a cause for comment by Girolamo Diruta as early as the sixteenth century. Likewise, Couperin felt the need to write on the importance of beautiful bearing at the keyboard in his L'art de toucher le Clavecin of 1716 (though his advice to turn to the audience with a smile whilst playing shouldn't be taken too seriously nowadays - this option ought perhaps to be reserved for the wonderful David Helfgott!). The most strongly-worded description of unnecessary physical indulgence at the keyboard is to be found in Daniel Gottlob Türk's Clavierschule of 1789:

"All manner of unacceptable behaviour, expressions of delight and facial grimaces; the stamping of the feet; the marking of the metre by unsightly body movement; the shaking and nodding of the head to and for; the snorting during a trill or a difficult passage: all of these and more cannot under any circumstances be condoned or excused, regardless of rank or gender. Neither should politeness or indulgence allow any consideration for the fairer sex. Music may be perceived solely through the ears, but there can be no excuse to offend the eyes. Many a musician who delights with his performance weakens an otherwise good impression when his caricature-like behaviour induces laughter, or when his apparent convulsions instil fear and horror in those present."

The young Liszt played with excessive and exhibitionist gesture and movement, though not in his later years when he sat absolute still. At the end of one of the young prodigy´s recitals, John Field turned to the person next to him and asked in mock horror, "Does he also bite?" Returning to our won times, have you ever watched a pianist (or indeed any instrumentalist) on television without the sound? It can be a memorable experience, for all the wrong reasons!
I´ve often been asked whether I studied Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais Method, or even martial arts. But I came to know all of them long after discovering the most natural way of playing the piano, and they merely confirmed that my approach is correct and that we should strive to achieve as much as possible with minimum use of energy. My exercises help the player to reach this goal. When demonstrated, the exercises appear easy, as if anybody could do them at once. Surprisingly enough, this has never yet been the case. Once one has mastered them, though, one cannot understand having been unable to perform them straight away.
The exercises can only be taught by demonstration, not by writing about them, but I shall now endeavour to outline some of the main principles. Their most important initial effect is to allow the player to discover that rather than playing on the piano, he should regard the key as an extension of the finger (which means that the basic position of the fingers is flat rather than curled). The fingers don´t strike the keys but manipulate them: we don't need to raise the fingers, just release it so as to allow the key to bring it up. The fingers or the hand leap off the keys rather like a flat stone that is skimmed over the water in a ricochet action. The hand is brought back to neutral position as quickly and as often as possible without interfering with the arms natural weight. The wrist is always loose; the arms and elbows follow, without interfering, the movements which are initiated by the fingertips. When the fingers play the thumb remains free. The right hand generally makes elliptical movements anticlockwise, the left clockwise. It is very important that everything is the result of an impulse and that nothing is prepared. When playing an octave, for example, the hand opens at the last moment; it should not be fixed in position beforehand. (After all, I don't let my mouth hang open before saying hello!) This of course concerns single octaves as when ever a pianist plays a cascade of octaves after the unprepared fist octave there will be no time to close the hand for the ensuing ones. We must seek never to hold the arm rigidly. One might compare moving from one position to another with a dancer´s leap: even Nijinsky was unable to remain in mid-air but returned elegantly and smoothly to the ground, landing on his toes rather than the soles of his feet. Similarly, a pianist should arrive with his fingertips first, without tensing the wrist (try to imitate a parachute landing). Gradually, you learn to think in terms of making a movement hat enables you to take in the keys in a larger gesture. In the martial arts, one takes advantage of the opponent's indwelling energy to overcome him, and similar principle should apply in piano-playing (though it would be unwise to regard the piano literally as an opponent!).
The exercises are designed to rid the player of bad habits acquired over many years. They result in a completely new and free system of fingering, and revive the all-important elasticity of the hand that has in many cases been lost. As both Alexander and Feldenkrais observed, we often feel at home with bad habits; some people have no idea, either in everyday life or at the piano, which gestures are functional and which unfunctional. But no one shakes hands with curled fingers or as if holding an apple in the hand, and there is only one natural way of taking hold of an object such as a glass of water. There are many ways of playing the piano, but only one that is functional, and only one ideal way of sitting at the instrument: the elbows should be in line with the keys, and, above all, the neck must always be free. Many books concern themselves with matters of freedom of movement, and I recommend that everyone read both Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel (London: Penguin, 1985) and Harold Taylor's already-cited The Pianist´s Talent. The writings of Alexander and Feldenkrais are also of great significance.
My exercises help those suffering pain (whom they generally cure completely), but also serve healthy pianists. They are as useful to successful performers as to beginners, for they are designed not only to develop piano technique but also to refine our all-important sense of hearing: no one can play better than s/he can hear. Intimately bound up with sensitive hearing is the ability to imagine and realise a beautiful sound (which is becoming more and more difficult in a noisy, muzak-dominated age that seems determined to dull our sensiblilities). Many of today´s pianists appear to be obsessed with loud playing (often leading to physical tension), yet seem incapable of producing a beautiful, clear, round forte. My students find that practising the exercises allows them to discover how to maintain beauty of sound throughout the dynamic spectrum without apparent physical effort by learning to listen to themselves and imagine beforehand the sound they wish to produce Finally, I should like to claim that the function of my exercises is as much psychological as physiological (in so far as these aspects can be separated at all). The release of physical tension is an important step on the way to resolving psychological problems, and thus my exercises can lead the individual to self-discovery and greater inner peace.