We have all attended concerts where a performer dazzled us with technique that seemed hardly humanly possible – a phenomenon that has been a part of musical performances throughout history. In a 1783 anecdotal memory by Johann Matthias Gesner, the ability of J. S. Bach’s playing was described to “effect what not many Orpheuses, nor twenty Arions, could achieve.” And who can resist the Franz Liszt caricature in the April 3, 1886 edition of La Vie Parisienne, replete with eight arms flailing about in technical wizardry, to showcase a talent some say resulted from a pact with the devil? Although achieving Lisztian or Bach-like technique may be elusive, by turning to the wisdom and advice from eighteenth-century keyboard masters, tackling and transforming one’s personal technique is within reach.
Eighteenth-century musicians instruct that music must have something to say and technique or “good execution,” as it was described, is the means to this end. Although the fortepiano (the eighteenth-century instrument) had a lighter, quicker, and more responsive action with a more immediate attack and decay than today’s piano, much of the technical approach is directly applicable to the modern piano. By incorporating these tips, performing repertoire from all eras and genres will be substantially elevated.
- Deportment. Commonly held beliefs regarding the body at rest are timeless: calmly address the keyboard in the middle, at an appropriate distance from the keys, at a comfortable height on the bench to facilitate ease of movement. Descriptions of Mozart and Beethoven support this natural posture and Türk ruthlessly warned against distorted facial expressions, grimaces, snorts, and grunts!
- The Gesture. Most musical concepts are germinated through small gestures (oftentimes delineated by two-four note groups slurred together) that combine and develop into phrases, sections, and the complete whole. Physical gestures should match the music.
- From the Neck Down. The forearm lies naturally, just as it is attached to the arm, and the hand extends naturally from the forearm. The arm supports the hand, the hand the fingers. The forearm carries the hand sideways to each new location. The full arm works from the shoulder and is used to shift the hand into or back from the raised keys and navigate large shifts in keyboard location.
- The Wrist. Execution of the gesture is initiated by a supple wrist. Using Beethoven’s advice, develop the feeling of musical impulse while playing two-note slurs. “The purpose is to withdraw the hand lightly. This will be achieved if it [the hand] is always placed firmly on the first of the two slurred notes and is lifted almost vertically [by the wrist] as the second note is touched.”
- The Hand. The best position is with a compact hand. It is the default position. The calmer the arm and hand, the more sure the motion of the fingers.
- The Fingers. The fingers do the lion’s share of the work, with a natural arch and relaxed muscles as when in a D major pentachord with fingers on the outer edges of the black keys: a constantly curved, at-the-ready attitude, resting lightly on the keys unless extending for a large interval.
- Fingering. For most instruments wrong fingering equals wrong note. Sadly, pianists can stumble along, playing the right pitches, while all the while making a complete mess of the musical message! And, fingering is unequivocally interconnected to musicality and is inseparable from interpretation. Fingering serves a musical function that is equally important to, and may surpass, the technical role. The best musical effect trumps the easiest fingering choices. Determining the best fingering oftentimes produces the easiest means. For instance, using legato fingering in a passage that contains breaks in the line with gestures articulated by slurs is not the best effect and actually creates execution difficulties.
- Consistency. Keeping a consistent hand shape provides greater reliability in outcomes. For instance, if a gesture is repeated in a different place on the keyboard and the hand shape (and fingering) remains consistent, it is more likely that the same type of sound will be duplicated in the new location. Or, as dynamics change, the focus of the tone will be sustained with a consistent hand shape.
- Structural Function. The bass line (or left hand) is the foundation. It is responsible for setting the tempo and rhythmic energy, providing direction and timing, and clarifying harmonic rhythm. Listen and build from the bass up. Many technical difficulties will melt away.
- Willingness. Willingness to develop and incorporate concepts from the eighteenth century will result in a style that is easier to execute, contains new palettes of color, and provides unimagined sound energy. Weaknesses will be exposed, magnified, and become quite transparent; for there is no hiding behind the long legato line, the thick pedal, or weighty chords. Yet, working through these issues provides great opportunities for improvement. The hand and body will adjust. Improved responsiveness and control will emerge. Technique on all repertoire will become better. It is well-worth the effort.
Image credit: “fortepiano” by Giovanni Morelli. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.