Three Essays on the Fundamentals of Piano-Playing


These three essays are the result of my efforts over several years to gain a fundamental understanding of what I was trying to do when I sat at the piano. I am not a professional musician, but an amateur; before my retirement I was a mathematics professor. And while many have claimed, without explanation, that music and mathematics are related,1 that hardly makes me an expert on the former.

With trivial exceptions, my formal musical training has been limited to piano lessons, - about four years as a child, then nothing, through lack of opportunity, until age thirty-eight - with a number of reputable teachers (in three countries) but, except for my present teacher, Lawrence Pitchko, they were all extremely reluctant to consider the kind of analytical approach that is so natural to me. This reluctance even extended to the teaching of technique which was largely limited to such remarks as, "Keep your elbows out," or, "Chopin Etudes will give you all the technique you'll ever need." There was no question of the quality of their ears or their musical knowledge. They were not only teachers but experienced performers. They knew a good result when they heard it. But it forced this poor student into a trial-and-error procedure, praised when rarely lucky and criticized otherwise. Although horribly inefficient, such a system can work in the long run and, for a student with great musical gifts who needs only guidance and not instruction, it can work well. But it was not for me; I made no progress for years. An alternative, if unwieldy, title for these essays would be: 'What I wish my teachers had told me years ago.' Part of my problem was language. A certain lack of precision in musical terminology is probably unavoidable; even metronome markings are subject to interpretation. But more difficult for me was the fact that almost all musical terms, whether used by composer or teacher, refer only to the desired effect. They say nothing whatsoever about how to produce that effect. This is obvious with a term like "misterioso," but it is true to some degree of all. "Allegro" and "andante" are more an expression of mood than of tempo, and "allegro" is not necessarily the faster. As we shall see, "legato" and "staccato" denote differences in tone quality as much as note duration.

While my teachers seemed unable to explain how to achieve desired effects in physical terms, they did have a number of psychological tricks up their sleeve. For suitable phrasing, "Sing the melody."  To establish a meter, "Count aloud." To shape a rhythmic figure, "Set words to it." Needless to say, I find this approach frustrating. While it may work, it explains nothing. As for the concept of "weight," my complete inability to come up with a physical or physiological justification of it makes me wonder if it, too, is more of a psychological device than a genuine technical procedure. And there is no point in telling a student to listen if you don't tell him what to listen for.

What are the physical means by which a performer communicates to a listener? He can act with facial expressions and bodily movements, even sing along, but these are distracting rather than communicative, and suggest that the performer lacks confidence in the music. This listener shuts his eyes.) Unless one believes in mental telepathy, there is only the sound he produces. And there are only three independent elements in that sound: Tone, Timing, Dynamics. (Improvisation introduces a fourth element.) Any desired effect can only be obtained by the manipulation of these three fundamentals. There is nothing else.

We begin with a discussion of that long disputed topic, tone.





Published by Sandstone ePress