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Piano Technique - Theory

2. Elongated fingers, the bridge and the crane or the inaccuracy in pedagogy

2.1. Students and pedagogues
   2.1.1. One of my former students, currently studying in London, wrote this to me:
“I can say with my hand on my heart that now I play so much easier than before thanks to one of your comments: do not play vertically in a downwards direction, but as if you want ‘to push the piano forwards’. In all simplicity, this is magical - I feel no resistance whatsoever! I only wonder why no one explained this to me before...

Actually, when I myself was student, no one gave me such advice, although I had excellent teachers. Not having what is called an innate technique, during my school years I faced the same technical problems as the majority of young pianists. That is why I have not only trained for many years, but have also studied many specialized books to find the origins of my mistakes. This has allowed me to obtain very precise and spectacular results that I will talk about here.

Concerning the “bridge”, I explain this to my students in different manners, but apparently it is the imagined comparison of “pushing” the piano that best appeals to their imagination (cf. the second to last paragraph in point 2.4.4 d below).

   2.1.2. In this chapter I will introduce the basic techniques that permit "this magical loss of resistance of matter,” but before I do so, it is important to give some essential information to further the student’s understanding. I'll start by recalling two pieces of advice of Grand Masters, apparently contradictory:
Liszt: “The hands must hover over the keyboard rather than stick to it”. Glossary
Neuhaus:...comparing the arm from shoulder to fingertip with a hanging bridge, one end of which is fixed to the shoulder joint and the other to the fingers on the keyboard”. Glossary

Okay, but we really do not know how to proceed: not only how to make a “bridge” with the hand, but also, above all, how to reconcile it with “hovering”, since these tips seem to mutually contradict each other. Neither of the authors of this advice - excellent by the way - clearly indicate how to do it, while both are obviously speaking about the same thing. Unfortunately Neuhaus’ concepts of “the bridge” and “the crane” are static images of the motor apparatus system, like some unique and inanimate shots from a film. On the contrary, the “hovering” of Liszt is more like a moving film, i.e. a dynamic action involving the bridge and crane. And, as one of my students can testify, sometimes a correct execution of the “bridge” can lead automatically to “hovering”.

   2.1.3. For Neuhaus, the term “bridge” corresponds to the temporary locking of the motor apparatus that permits the pianist to transmit the weight (muscular weight - we will study that later) from the shoulder all the way to the bottom of the key. Other pedagogues call this “the correct contact of the finger with the key” (“of the hand with the finger”, “of the shoulder with the key”, etc.), as for my first teacher, her favorite expression was: “the entire hand must rest upon the finger.” All of these attempts to show the student the proper manner of playing are nonetheless too vague, too blurry, because they do not concretely indicated how to obtain this contact or this weight. I repeat once again what I have already said in the Introduction: he who knows this has no need of complementary information; on the other hand, he who does not know this needs more precise information. In any case:

There is not a good pianistic technique without the bridge!

2.2. Inertia: how NOT to play?

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Advanced Piano Coaching Online - information
    2.2.1. Principal pianistic error
    2.2.2. Statics of incorrect playing
    2.2.3. Dynamics of incorrect playing
We can assume that it is precisely this way of playing that Chopin, then aged 20, referred to as “playing from the elbow” (“The little Leszkiewicz plays very well, but from the elbow for the most part” - from Chopin’s letter to Tytus Woyciechowski, April 10, 1830).
    2.2.4. Conclusions

2.3. The motor for playing and the model of the “bridge”

    2.3.1. What is the motor for playing, that is to say,
the pianist’s source of energy?
    2.3.2. Test 1 - model of the “bridge”
       a) Test n° 1 - preparation
       b) Test n° 1 - how to do it
       c) Test n° 1 - conclusions

2.4. Elongated fingers: how one must play

    2.4.1. Concretely, how does one make a pianistic “bridge”?
    2.4.2. Locking the joints
    2.4.3. Straight fingers
Photo: the hands of Horowitz (1978). Video without sound.

 

I intentionally do not use posed photos, but frames from my videos, which explains why they are slightly blurred.

 

Photo: the hands of Kissin. Video (½ speed): Kissin, Argerich and Gulda.

 

The question of the finger’s position on the key is presented thus over the course of pianistic history:
● Chopin said not to scratch the keys but to caress them (exact quotation), which implies he saw the fingers flattened and not positioned vertically - cf. Touch in Chopin’s method (point 8.2).
● Liszt said simply that the surface of the distant part of the finger must rest almost entirely on the key.
● Playing with flat fingers was also a characteristic of certain great Russian pianists, like Anton Rubenstein and Felix Blumenfeld. This latter taught this playing technique to young Horowitz.
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To resume
The best position of the finger in relationship to the keyboard is one that guarantees the pianist a maximum ability to perceive the resistance, at the same time of the piano’s mechanism (vertically), against which we can do nothing, and at the key’s surface (horizontally), which we can control by the force of friction of the finger’s skin** on the key. In practice...
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    2.4.4. Test n° 2 - we are building a bridge

       a) Test n° 2 - preparation



       b) Test n° 2 - execution

You can observe in the videos here the mechanical working of the head and torso of one of the greatest pianists of all times: Josef Hoffmann.

Josef Hoffmann plays the Prelude in c-sharp minor by Rachmaninoff (the only preserved film of him playing)

And now I shall divert a bit from the subject, but it is important that I speak about this. When watching the film “The Art of Piano - Great Pianists of 20th Century” which contained this recording, I had the disagreeable surprise to hear Piotr Anderszewski speak of Hofmann’s alcoholism. Completely irrelevant, this allusion added nothing to the film; and the laughter that accompanied it was completely inadmissible to me. It was a pity that Anderszewski omitted to mention that Hofmann’s problem began with the death of his wife. I presume that he was unaware of this detail; nonetheless it would have been better to verify certain facts before speaking of them, especially in public.




       c) Test n° 2 - explications
Move the cursor over picture n° 3b



       d) Test n° 2 - scissors mechanism
Move the cursor over picture n° 3c

2.5. Little exercise: the “silent” keyboard A good way to control creating a bridge is to observe the movement of the hammers when slowly pressing and releasing the keys, while being careful that the hammers do not touch the strings. So, this is how we feel the resistance...
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Hover the cursor over the photo and notice the depth at which the keys are pressed. Click = video.
Liszt - Consolation n° 3, the last measure.

 

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