Don’t Try This at Home! – Mechanical Aids to Practice

If you were a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory in the mid 1800‘s during the reign of Sigismund Lebert and Ludwig Stark, you would have had to practise a strict regime of finger exercises, preferably with the aid of a hand rail (a device attached to the piano enabling the player to rest their wrists on it). The point was to achieve everything with the fingers and the wrist, the rest of the arm remaining quiet and passive. The elbow was to stay close to the body and only the forearm was supposed to move if the hands needed to move outwards. The basic finger touch was known as the “hammer touch”, where each finger was lifted as high as possible and then slammed into the key fortissimo (with no help from the arm)When the key was released, the finger had to return to its high position. Lebert and Stark’s method book was first published in 1858 and was widely disseminated across the world, successful for over a century.

lebert and stark

Piano teachers at the time were trying to find ways of tackling the more powerful pianos and the different styles of music being written, and this was Lebert and Stark’s response – needless to say, crippling injuries were reported. A form of the hammer touch is still being taught to this day, and there are well-known and celebrated pianists who swear by this approach. The are plenty of others who would consider this harmful and unnatural, especially if the finger curls up tightly as it is lifted.

It was during the mid 19th century that we see a split between technical and musical work, so that it was possible (and prevalent) for the player to separate pure mechanics from musical thought and expression. It led to a group of piano students who had no real lively interest in music, but who were concerned solely with becoming showmen at the piano. Mechanical teaching aids, notably Logier’s Chiroplast, Herz’s Dactylion and Kalkbrenner’s Hand Guide (a simplification of the Chiroplast), were designed to speed up acquiring a virtuoso technique and were advocated by many teachers and players. Nowadays, such devices are generally considered not only futile but downright injurious and actually ridiculous. I have a feeling this period in the history of piano playing is why some teachers today have a dread of any type of mechanical practice, but as I have said before some mechanical work is necessary in the building of a pianist and how we do things is paramount. What we do has to be done intelligently and with care and attention, and without strong and reliable fingers no serious playing is possible. It is the fixation on the fingers and the blocking off of rotary and other arm movements where problems occur.

Regarding the Dactylion, it is widely believed that this terrible device was responsible for Schumann’s hand injury, but for more insight into this do read Jura Margulis’ excellent article on the subject.

If you are not familiar with the work of Natalia Strelchenko, here she is demonstrating the explaining Kalkbrenner’s guide rail on a period piano (the notion that pianists were once actually expected to practise like this fills me with horror).

It is important to add here that many of the studies from the Finger School and other method books from the period are musically interesting and can still be of pedagogical value. We can select from the vast range of material that is available and adapt it for our own use. This might mean ignoring the technical instructions given by the composer, and certainly the specified number of repetitions!

In conclusion, a caveat from a writer of the time, E. S. Kelley, concerning mechanical practice:

Some even go so far as to assert that it is better to study unmusical exercises, for if the pupil plays that which pleases him, his attention will be diverted from the position of his hands. Dr. Hans von Bülow, while commenting upon the effects of practising monotonous five-finger exercises, maintains that the flexibility thus gained is acquired at the cost of musical intelligence….Involuntarily the performer loses all thought of what he is playing. The great lack of charm and interest of the task produces absent-mindedness, and, finally, utter thoughtlessness. The player becomes a mere machine, forgetting that he has to be engineer at the same time, without whose care its progress, if not stopped immediately, will be greatly impeded. (E.S. Kelley, “Pianoforte Study: The Method Employed in the Conservatory at Stuttgart”, 169)

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There will be no posts for the next two weeks as I shall be taking a seasonal holiday. Festive felicitations to all my readers!


The Pitfalls of Mechanical Practice

I get quite a lot of inspiration for topics to write about on my blog from my students. During a lesson something might crop up that seems important, or certainly worth writing about.

On two separate occasions this week people had been attempting to solve what they perceived as technical difficulties by practising passagework in a variety of different rhythms.

Rhythm practice seems to be yet another of those divisive topics in the piano world. Some pianists swear by it and others dismiss it. My own teachers fell into both camps – two of them insisted on it, and two others told me it was not going to help and that I shouldn’t do it.

As my readers will have figured out by now, I tend to prefer a middle path. When done mindfully, in the right doses and for the right reasons, my own experience shows me that rhythm practice can certainly be beneficial as a part of the practice routine. However, it is not a cure-all and can have negative consequences if overdone (tension being a significant potential downside).

Someone brought the Schubert E flat Impromptu, and had been using the rhythmical variants I suggest in my own study edition. He said he was still struggling with the first bar, despite practising the rhythms daily. When I looked at what was going on the solution was extremely simple. The problem had to do with the pivot over the thumb F to the 3rd finger Eb, and the elbow was in the wrong position to negotiate this. To find the best position, we first played the thumb and the 3rd finger together and started the piece from this position (the elbow slightly raised and further away from the torso). Having solved this problem, occasional rhythm practice proved useful in developing and maintaining precision in control of the right hand.

For my video walkthroughs on the Schubert E flat Impromptu, click here

Another situation where rhythm practice had certainly helped, but was far from providing a complete solution of the problem the student was experiencing, was in Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, in particular the left hand from bar 33 to bar 36.

To me, it was interesting that in other places the left hand was fluent and all was working well. What was it about this spot that eluded her? When we slowed the passage down, it was clear that she had been thinking of the left hand mechanically, as a series of equal finger strokes. She had been working for rhythmic evenness and precision, no bad thing in itself, but what had been missed out in her practice was the idea of shaping a line, playing it with a feeling for intonation, timing, colour and inflection. As she played the line at a very slow tempo, we aimed to make it sound as though played as a cantilena by a cellist. As we sang along this with, we stopped when a particular interval had not been internalised in the voice (in particular the augmented second to diminished third at the end of the third beats in bars 1 and 2 of the above example). Once she was able to sing it, she was able to play it with more meaning and, while the technical difficulties did not exactly disappear, she was well on her way to creating an expressive line that the rhythm practice had obliterated.

There is a shadow side to everything. Too much slow practice and we don’t develop the right reflexes for up-to-speed playing; too much practice at speed and we lose motor control and finesse. Rhythm practice is no different – use it, but use it as a part of a balanced practice regime.

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