Piano Technique Tips: How Not to Offend

By Samantha Coates

Technique is an incredibly subjective issue. Get
10 piano teachers in a room and you will have10 different techniques. Dare to
criticise someone else’s and you’re in for a long night. I’d like to start this
article by describing three personal experiences, all to do with comments on
technique.


Many years ago when I was a third-year
Bachelor of Music student at the Sydney Conservatorium, I received an
assessment report which made regular references to the shape of my fingers. The
assessor of my performance (which had gone very well, by the way) seemed to be
greatly concerned that some of my fingers were straighter than they should be.
My teacher at the time, who had been working with me intensely on technique,
was absolutely mortified that I should receive such comments (and indeed that
they seemed to have affected my mark). My teacher felt that we were ‘way past
that now’ and that a tertiary report should focus solely on the sound of the
music (on which the assessor had mostly declined to comment).

Examiner critique
I once had a student who came out of his
piano exam with a report which praised his lovely playing and his musicality
and tone and memory, but had frequent and quite scathing remarks about his
technique. The examiner commented on his wrist position, his movement when
playing double octaves (of which there were many, and which he played well),
and his general finger technique – none of which affected his playing
negatively and all of which the examiner clearly didn’t agree with. Despite the
fact that he played well and did well, I subsequently lost this student,
because the parent took the examiner’s word as gospel.
Dilemmas of learning
technique
Recently I had a potential student contact me
wanting lessons in her preparation for an A.Mus.A exam. She had only ever had
bits and pieces of formal teaching and had decided it was time to be
consistent. So we organised a trial lesson, and when she arrived I did my usual
trick with potential students, saying I wasn’t quite ready and they should play
some pieces and I’ll be back soon. (This gives me a chance to listen without
them knowing I’m listening, and without them feeling inhibited.)

Well I heard some beautiful playing from the next room – very musical, a nice
range of touch and tone. The passage work was very even. But when I came in to
the room and sat down to watch… I was horrified! Her technique was, well, awful
to look at. Flat fingers, no hand shape to speak of, flapping elbows – the
works! BUT – she played beautifully. Somehow. The sound was great, and her
technique, however aesthetically non-pleasing, worked for her. I was faced with
a dilemma as a teacher: do I take this technique apart at this late stage of
development, or roll with it and just concentrate (probably with my eyes
closed) on the music?

 

The stories above all describe situations
in which a particular technique, which is working well for one person, is
displeasing to another. So this begs the question: when is it relevant and
appropriate to criticise another’s technique?

 

Attention to the details
I recently saw a post on Facebook
from a piano teacher who had given his student a Shostakovich prelude to play.
He had uploaded the video of the student playing it after only 2 weeks of
learning – and it was totally amazing!
Incredibly fast, even, balanced and wonderful. Most of
the comments consisted of ‘wow!’ or ‘you’re such a lucky teacher!’ … but the
comment that really got my attention was ‘Just tell him to keep his left wrist
higher, otherwise it sounds great!’

This intrigued me. Why on earth was this random other teacher concerned about
the height of the wrist, when it clearly did not inhibit the playing? Vladimir Horowitz
plays with flat fingers. James Morrison plays with puffed cheeks. Should we
criticise these incredible musicians just because it doesn’t look right?

When technique affects musical performance
Of course, there are times when a
bad-looking technique is clearly inhibiting the performance, and this perhaps
warrants some helpful advice from an examiner or adjudicator. For example:
“Your semiquavers were quite uneven today – aim for a more curved finger shape
when you play.” This is helpful. Even if the student had for some reason never
been taught to play with curvy fingers, the comment is about the fact that the
sound wasn’t good and was pointing out a possible solution. The teacher may
wish to address the problem a different way, but the fact is that a problem
needed addressing. This is a very different situation to one in which there is
no fault with the sound, only the look – which means it comes down to a matter
of opinion.
 

Examiners of the Associated Board
of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM) are specifically instructed NOT to comment
on technique, and in many cases they are actually ill-equipped to do so, even
if they wanted to. This is because one examiner may spend the day examining a
multitude of different instrumentalists, having never played any of those
instruments him/herself. In ABRSM exams, it all comes down to how the
performance sounds.
 

Yet many of my examiner
colleagues (mostly for AMEB – the Australian Music Examinations Board) tell me
they feel duty-bound to comment on technique if they feel it will ultimately
let the student down (even if it hasn’t done so in that particular exam). If a
young pianist is playing with sunken wrists and flat fingers, an examiner will
be hard pressed not to say something about it in the report, because it is such
an inefficient way to play. (Yes, Vladimir Horowitz manages it, but that
doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to start off that way.) The trick here, I feel,
is for the examiner to make it clear that any comments on technique are not a
reflection on the mark given, unless that technique has been responsible for
something going awry in the music. In other words – an exam mark or eisteddfod
result should be based purely on what we can hear, and not on what we see.

Best practices
In my lecture/demonstration
entitled ‘The Inherited Student – Delight or Disaster?’, in which I discuss the
trials and tribulations of inheriting students from inexperienced teachers, I
ask the mostly-piano-teacher audiences to call out some areas of technique in
which most teachers differ from one another. They usually come back with:
  • Height of wrist
  • Position of pinky
  • Angle of arms/elbows
  • Height of stool
  • Position of fingers on the keys
  • Movement of wrist
  • Movement of thumb

But we then go on to discuss the elements that most piano teachers would agree
on:

  • Straight back
  • Supported feet
  • Arm’s length distance from piano
  • Curved finger shape
Photographs by Bridget Elliot

It appears that no-one would be offended if their
students were picked up on any of those well-agreed-upon points!

Even so, one has to tread carefully. Even a tip such as ‘play with curvy
fingers’ could easily be frowned upon by teachers whose students then turn up
with a very curved pinky (and who had perhaps previously been taught not to). 

Also, most of the agreed-upon tips refer more to the setting up of the sitting
position, rather than something one thinks about and adjusts while laying. 

In conclusion: the fact that it’s
possible to cause offence with specific technique instructions such as ‘keep
your wrist higher’ or ‘use your whole arm’ is an indication that there is more
than one technique that can work for any one person.
I often use the analogy of
Olympic swimmers, all of whom might have different coaches/techniques but any
of whom might win the gold medal on the day, because their technique works for
them. If we can remember this in the musical world, and perhaps not get so
uptight about it as long as we sound good, everyone might be a bit happier.
Although one thing I don’t know is… maybe the swimming coaches all go through
exactly the same thing.

About Samantha Coates

Samantha Coates is a Sydney-based pianist and
teacher and is the creator of the iPhone app ScaleBlitzer,
which motivates students to practice their scales and arpeggios. Samantha is
also author and publisher of BlitzBooks, Australia’s leading
music education series.

Photographs by Bridget Elliot

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