On Silence and Reflection in Practice

Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915) is an extremely important figure in the history of piano teaching. He was around at a formative time in the evolution of modern pianism, and produced a number of famous students (including Alexander Brailovsky, Ignaz Friedman, Ignace Paderewski, Benno Moisewitsch, and Artur Schnabel among many others). Leschetizky was himself a student of Carl Czerny, who was in turn a student of Beethoven. From there, it is possible for many of us to trace our pianistic family tree back to him, and we feel his presence as a sort of beneficent pianistic great-great-grandfather figure (I’m not sure how many “greats” I need in there).

Recently, I came across an article from a 1909 edition of The Etude Magazine, in which Edwin Hughes interviews the great man. How fascinating to find among the many pearls of wisdom many of principles that were passed down to me by my teachers. One of the most important, and one that is so easy to ignore or overlook, is the need to build in silences for reflection during our practice. We tend to think that when we’re sitting at the piano practising, all that counts are the sounds that are coming from our fingers. Leschetizky reminds us of the need for moments of silence to reflect on what we have just done. These silent moments are a part of our practice session, guiding us what to do next.

“How many come to me and say, ‘I practice seven hours a day,’ in an expectant tone, as though praise were sure to follow such a statement! As I say so often at the lessons, piano study is very similar to cooking,” with a hearty laugh.“A good cook tastes the cooking every few minutes to see whether it is progressing properly; just so a piano student who knows how to study makes pauses constantly in his playing, to hear if the passage just played corresponded to the effect desired, for it is only during these pauses that one can listen properly.”

I have expressed this principle in the practice feedback loop. It applies to every single thing we do in our practice, whether this is a scale, an exercise, repetition of a phrase or playing through an entire piece.

Leschetizky continues with his food analogy: “When I eat mushroom or tomato sauce I want to know that I am eating the one or the other. Some cooks there are who make concoctions which are neither one thing nor another—and they do not satisfy anybody when they come on the table. Nothing could better apply to pianoforte study than this comparison. A pianist must be an epicure—that is just the expression for it. He must taste, taste; not eat all the time. Out of four hours’ study, one who goes about his work properly will play perhaps only one-half of that time. The rest goes for pauses to think about what has gone before, and to construct mentally the following passage. This continual playing of a piece over and over again is not what I call study.”

I have written about mental practice and visualisation but I have noticed it is rather challenging to get students to fully embrace the idea that this actually counts as practice, and not just something we do when we don’t have access to an instrument.

Speaking about memorisation, Leschetizky recommends: “When I want to learn a new piece I do not keep the notes in front of me on the music-rack; I throw them over this back on the top of the piano, so that I have to get up every time to look at them. After the image of the passage to be memorized is well in mind I sit down at the instrument and try to reproduce it—notes, touch, pedaling and all. Perhaps it doesn’t go the first time. Then I get up and take another look. This time I make a more strenuous effort—to avoid the trouble of having to stand up once more! This I call intelligent piano study. Learn a passage just once; afterwards, only repeat it.” Wise words, and practical too.

There have been a couple of books written by Leschetizky’s teaching assistants on his method, one by Malwine Brée and another by Marie Prentner. But Leschetizky claimed he had no technical method as such. His approach was a deep knowledge of the score, right down to the minutest detail, from which he helped each student find a technical solution.

[youtube id=”HCVajLZrOqI” width=”600″ height=”350″]

Theodor Leschetizky was also an accomplished composer. Here is a list of works available in the Petrucci Library. 

In 1906, Leschetizky recorded 12 piano rolls for Welte-Mignon, including seven of his own compositions. Here is what is currently available:

  • Piano Concerto, Piano works – Hubert Rutkowski, piano Acte Prealable AP0191 (CD)
  • Piano Concerto, op.9; Overture to “Die erste Falte/ Contes de Jeunesses” – Peter Ritzen, piano. Naxos Records 8.223803 (CD)
  • Piano Works (with the left hand piece Andante Finale, op.13) – Peter Ritzen, piano. Naxos Records 8.223525 (CD)
  • Leschetizky Piano Music – Centaur CRC2319