Essentials Of Piano Technique

Painting by Lyubov Popova in 1914.
The Pianist by Lyubov Popova, 1914. 1
The piano is the easiest instrument to play in the beginning and the hardest to master in the end. 2

Vladimir Horowitz, quoted in David Dubal's book Evenings with Horowitz, perfectly illustrates why there are legions of piano students, but so few piano virtuosi. In the beginning, many students desire to learn piano; and of those, some possess the desire to practice. Few students exhibit the focus needed for effective practice. And even fewer students show profound musical potential, especially from a young age. Fewer still simultaneously possess these qualities in sufficient quantity to have any hope of achieving the status of virtuoso. The handful that do must then spend the rest of their lives maintaining and improving their formidable talents, lest their improbably won achievements be lost to atrophy and disuse. In the same interview, Horowitz claimed, “Nothing is ever conquered.” The aspiring pianist should consequently take Horowitz's original statement as a challenge—a quest for perfection. It is a quest that will never end, even for the foremost pianists of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Included in this article are three essentials of piano technique, the mastery of which guarantees only proficiency, further allowing the artist inside to emerge, transcending the chasm that exists between Clementi's pale mechanicus and Mozart's genius.

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Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.

Apocryphally attributed to Brahms, this statement's practical relevance is nonetheless apropos. Honing the tools used in any trade allows for the creation of works greater than the sum of their parts. The deeper significance of the resulting oeuvre can then be appreciated by those well-versed in the intricacies of its genesis. Forming the foundation of nearly all musical creation, scales are the simplest of tools used in the grandest of designs.

But why learn scales? If notes are written to be executed extempore, what benefit is conferred by repeating, ad infinitum, the litany of scales prescribed by the works of Czerny, Hanon, and dozens of others, in preparation for a moment that may never come? Music teachers the world over encounter the same recalcitrance from their students when scales become the focus of their studies. Major and minor scales are just the beginning, to be followed by numerous, more complex structures: chromatic, whole-tone, half-tone, octatonic, pentatonic, blues, etc. These constructs are infrequently found in their unadulterated, educational forms, being primarily used in fractured bits and pieces to create recognizable melodies. The ability to execute impromptu these arbitrary figures is what allows for spontaneity in performance—a quality highly valued by critics and audiences alike. The ability to recall the perfection of the practice room in the moment of a performance—instantly, artistically, and consistently—is virtuosity defined.

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Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit I. Ondine, performed by Martha Argerich. 3
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Arpeggios, Chords, And Harmony

We do not play the piano with our fingers, but with our mind.

Traditionally associated with piano virtuoso Glenn Gould, this statement exemplifies the approach of a true master. Even tremendous physical ability will not compensate for an intellectually uninformed or emotionally vacant performance. While it is true that terrific physical prowess is required, the underlying cerebral nature possessed by many of history's greatest virtuosi rarely goes unrecognized. The analytical skills of these musical paragons have led to established interpretations of monumental and historic works. Even when in direct contrast, as in the case of Glenn Gould's and Andras Schiff's performances of The Well-Tempered Clavier (Das Wohltemporierte Klavier), it is difficult to deny the genius of either interpretation. It is not a surprise, then, that many virtuosic pianists also happen to be preeminent composers and conductors, recognized for their abilities both on and off the bench.

But why learn arpeggios, chords, and most importantly, harmony? These critical factors underpin musical form and progression, allowing for coherence and consistency throughout musical compositions.

Beyond the technical proficiency required to perform the nearly impossible Gaspard de le Nuit by Maurice Ravel, there are indescribable nuances to the performance of this work, ebbs and flows in the harmonic progression that only someone with perfect mastery of harmony can appreciate and execute. View a performance of Martha Argerich playing the first movement of this work to understand why.

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Music creates order out of chaos; for rhythm imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous. 4

Yehudi Menuhin, in his 1972 book Theme and Variations, remarks on the importance of rhythm and harmony. Rhythm does indeed impose continuity upon what would otherwise be a rambling cacophony of competing harmonies. Contemporary experiments in aleatoric music notwithstanding, rhythm is a pillar of intelligible music; the most primal of all musical elements, predating both pitch and harmony. Even across disparate world cultures, spanning millennia, rhythm is the most commonly shared musical concept.

The syntax of rhythm was only recently codified, well after the standardization of scales and harmonies. This can be taken one of two ways: perhaps rhythm only became important in cataloging the works of the first neumatic composers; or, because rhythm was something that was intrinsically understood, the notation of rhythm was unnecessary, and performers of the time did not need it. Either way, the imposition of rhythm on what previously had been unorganized harmony allowed for rapid musical evolution: quickly progressing through the medieval, renaissance, baroque, classical, and romantic eras, leading to the complex music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Listen to a work by George Antheil, a composer so extreme for 20th century Paris, he was labelled l'Enfant Terrible.

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VideoScore of George Antheil 's Jazz Sonata, performed by Marc-André Hamelin. 5
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Page Sources

Popova, Lyubov.  Image: The Pianist.  1914.  The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.  Commons Wikimedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 28 Sept. 2007.  Web.  18 July 2015.  Public Domain. 
Dubal, David.  Evenings with Horowitz: A Personal Portrait.  Secaucus: Carol Pub. Group, 1991: p. 61. Google Books.  Web.  18 July 2015.
martha argerich.  "Martha Argerich Ravel Gaspard de la nuit I. Ondine."  Online Video Clip.  YouTube.  YouTube, 6 July 2012.  Web.  17 July 2015.  Standard YouTube License.
Menuhin, Yehudi.  Theme and Variations.  New York: Stein and Day, 1972: p. 9. Print.
MuseScore.  "VideoScore: Jazz Sonata: George Antheil."  Online Video Clip. YouTube.  YouTube, 5 September 2010.  Web.  17 July 2015. Standard YouTube License.