While conducting research into my continuous passion — piano playing in general and how to improve my technique in particular — I was surprised to find a recently published book that claims to address piano pedagogy, yet fails to acknowledge some of the most widely discussed developments this field has to offer.
Internet and library searches on the subject have resulted in lots of different leads, often offering random discussions, very personal and vague observations, and a multitude of contradicting and confusing information. There doesn’t even seem to be a clear definition of what piano technique is, let alone what it should accomplish, and why it has divided the world of pianists and teachers into warring factions. It appears that in this minefield of theories no two approaches are the same, and wide discrepancies are almost impossible to overcome.
A lot of what is coined 'general knowledge' consists of old and mostly unexamined material that has found its way from one generation and teacher to the next generation of easily impressed students. As children, most pianists have had some of those bigger than life figures guiding our naïve curiosity and innocent love for the piano, and we carry the experiences of that relationship — good and bad — with us for the rest of our lives.
Without a doubt, the role of the piano teacher is a special one, and with it comes an endless array of opportunities that a good or not-so-good pedagogue can use to either empower or damage a student. Sure, many teachers who allow their students to explore their inner voice in following the great masters, and in so doing really teach them what music is all about, exist.
But who has not heard about a teacher who has been too strict, taking all the fun out of the equation, making the student want to quit? And what about those almost angelic teachers, always patient and (literally) holding their students’ hands?
Then there are teachers who take pride in an historic link between a young aspiring performer and the great traditions of the piano masters. How many times have we heard something like: "She was a pupil of that distinguished teacher, who goes back to Liszt himself." But does this really help the piano student in acquiring better tools for his or her own playing, or does it just inflate a student’s self-confidence? How useful is it to legitimize one's own talent through that of one’s teacher’s teachers?
The truth is that unless their teaching methods are rock solid, big name teachers do not automatically create great students; nor does the fact that they themselves play or perform well automatically make them interested in and knowledgeable about the difficulties and very specific needs of a student. One might argue that a pedagogue with less name recognition but more insight might prove to be the better choice for a piano student.
Yet there exists an utterly uncritical acceptance of authority, as well as a 'no pain, no gain' credo, both often very detrimental to the young or not-so-young pianist. Many of our great pianists, past and present, have and still are experiencing discomforts, some even pain and injuries. Though not the only ones, it is them, in particular, who need clarification of the different positions and motions that are at the basis of piano technique.
The more one investigates the history of the great piano schools, with their differing stylistic mannerisms and ideologies, each one worshiping their most famous exponents, the more the question arises: What really happens at the keyboard? What are the actual minute movements that give the playing apparatus its phenomenal speed and remarkable control? What creates the accuracy of timing and depth of key depression? What are the guiding principles of this process – those that are not really visible to the eye?