Keep Calm and Carry On Practising

When I was on the selection committee for the 11th Unisa International Piano Competition, we listened to two solid days of audio recordings, one after the other. Our selection of those pianists who would go forward into the competition was made purely by listening – we weren’t given their names, ages or any other information about the entrants, they had to make their impression on us solely by the sounds they made.

There are viral performance on YouTube of young pianists playing their exam pieces. Judging by the number of hits and likes they receive, they are (all) destined to be the next Horowitz. I wonder if the wow factor has anything to do with the antics they have been taught to do, such as swaying around and flailing their bodies across the keyboard? This may look impressive to the layman, but I would invite you to experience such a performance in two ways. Mute the sound and just watch. Now for the acid test, replay the clip but turn the screen off and just listen. Doing this experiment, I have been struck by the disparity between the way the playing has been packaged to look and the actual quality in terms of skill – musical comprehension and technique. There’s something of a gulf here.

In my adjudication work I notice constantly how excessive physical mannerisms detract from the quality of the playing. It is often the most musically intense who seem to need to do this. In their desire to be expressive, their bodies contort as a substitute for the real thing – having a sound in their head and calling on the body to produce the sound in the most natural and economical way possible. This is real technique, surely. The reason players move around in this grotesque way is because their fingers, arms and body are not synchronised and they have not found the rhythmic groove necessary for the playing to feel effortless.

And yet we don’t want the opposite of this either, a stiff and wooden performance where only the fingers are involved. As I am always saying, we don’t play the piano with our fingers. Playing the piano is a complex physical operation requiring blended coordination of the fingers, hands, arms, torso, feet and legs. Let’s not forget the ears, eyes and mind! We need to distinguish between functional movements (movements of the arm and finger we need to make in order to produce a sound) and gestures (motions that convey firstly to the player and then to the audience the meaning of the sound). There was a masterclass I once witnessed where it went further than this. Extraneous movements and grimaces were, if you can believe it, actually being taught to the student. At this moment, they were supposed to look up to a fixed point on the ceiling of the room, make some pained face and breathe in; at that moment, it was necessary to look down at the floor with a toss of the head. This struck me as vacuous then as it does now. Gesture is something different – gesture not only aids communication from player to audience but (more importantly perhaps) helps the player to feel a specific emotion or to express a particular idea. Our gestures at the keyboard are translated immediately into sound. If we use smooth and flowing movements, we get a smooth and flowing sound. An actor friend uses the gestures and body language associated with a particular state of mind or emotion to get into character, to evoke a particular emotion and then to communicate this. Lang Lang makes full use of gesture, not just with his hands but also in his face. This not only helps him to tap into the spirit of the music but is also part of the theatre of performance. We must never forget that an audience listens with their eyes too!

I would like to end with a few video clips of great pianists who sat completely still when they played. Vladimir Horowitz in particular was the very model of tranquility no matter what sounds were coming out of the piano. Apart from his splayed hand position, there really was nothing to see during one of his recitals (I was lucky enough to hear two).  Artur Rubinstein and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli are two other examples of peerless pianists who scarcely moved a muscle.


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