Pianists behaving badly

Pianists behaving badly

The stresses and strains many pianists encounter can result from their own bad habits.
Peter Feuchtwanger goes back to basics to find where many are going wrong

'From the outset all manner of unacceptable behaviour, whether manifesting itself emotionally in false rapture or facial grimace, the stamping of feet to mark the rhythm, accompanied by an all-embracing unsightly body movement, the shaking and nodding of the head to and fro, snorting during a trill or difficult passage, all of these and more cannot under any circumstances be condoned or excused, regardless of rank or gender. Neither can politeness nor indulgence toward the fairer sex be permitted even a mere consideration. Despite music being perceived solely through the ears, there can be no excuse to offend the eyes with such wild antics being carried on in public. Those musicians who enrapture through their performance perceptibly tend to weaken an otherwise good impression when their caricature-like behaviour either induces laughter in us or their apparent convulsions tend to instil fear and horror amongst the listeners'. (translated from the German by Reta White).

In its time this somewhat amusingly written piece addressed to teachers and students of the piano, was meant as a serious introduction to his Clavierschule of 1789 by Daniel Gottlob Türk (1750-1813).
By the time the present article reaches readers of Piano I shall have addressed a medical congress in Berlin, held under the auspices of the Berlin Philharmonic. In attendance will be doctors, physiotherapists, psychologists and musicians, all of whom are continuously dealing and being confronted with musicians seeking help for their individual physical and mental disorders, sorely afflicting their lives and careers.
Although Türk's preceding comments allude more toward the aesthetic side of piano playing, it is those ungainly habits he describes so trenchantly which eventually lead to serious consequences, and in some cases disaster.
In a previous article I dealt with the 'importance of sitting correctly at the piano' (Piano July/August '97). Since then I have encountered scores of pianists with any number of disturbing physical complaints, namely tendonitis, ganglions and focal dystonia, in each case attributed directly to the individual's grave misuse of the body through ignorance of its correct function. Here I should like to quote from Harold Taylor's exemplary and far-sighted exploration of this subject, The Pianist's Talent (Kahn & Averill, London): 'the human body is an indivisible entity, in which the behaviour of any single part is dependent on the relationship existing between all the parts. Posture is therefore a totality which must take into account both the position and condition of its components, because the condition of one part modifies the position of its adjacent parts, and vice versa, throughout the whole structure.'
If pianists and piano teachers paid more attention to the above considerations, many of those disabling conditions could either be rectified or prevented.
During years of teaching, concert going and competition adjudicating, I have frequently been shocked and dismayed at the surfeit of bad physical habits exhibited by so many pianists, professionals and students alike, starting with the young aspirant. For example, incorrect posture acquired from sitting too high at the keyboard, the unnecessary tensing and lifting of the shoulders, stiffening of the neck, elbows, wrists and thumb, and so on, all result in a vicious circle of ailments.
Commencing with his very first piano lesson, the child ought singularly and properly to be made aware of the correct use of his/her body. For this purpose the teacher need not interfere with the child's natural body language, nor for that matter should the child be urged to 'play on the piano'. Rather s/he should be seen to play the notes as part of a perfectly natural movement, as if his/her unformed, immature hands are simply taking hold of an object, any object, by the most natural means known to him. This results in a quite different, yet wholly natural approach, at odds with conventional fingerings. The subject of fingerings is a complex one which cannot be gone into and written about without some form of demonstration. Hopefully the child is fortunate enough to come under the correct tutelage and supervision from the beginning, but as so often occurs, this is often spoiled by the wrong influence during the developing teen years.
We must reconcile ourselves to the fact that we live in an age in which exaggerated accuracy is demanded, especially in competitions, where the pianist is often seen tensing himself from sheer fear of not living up to the standards dictated by the recording studios.
Invited to a piano competition in Bologna in the 1960s by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the epitome of exactitude and accuracy, I found to my surprise an unsightly ganglion protruding on his right hand. I believe this to be a direct consequence of unnecessary tension resulting from a lifetime's obsession with note perfect playing.
It is true that exaggerated freedom of movement can cause stray wrong notes as is prevalent among several eminent pianists of older vintage, such as Alfred Cortot and Youra Guller. Concerning these two great artists, however, other undermining factors were also at work. Even so, a smattering of wrong notes issuing forth from such 'luminaries' did not distract from their unique playing, and might well be thought preferable to the right notes in lesser hands. Freedom of movement need not necessarily result in less accurate playing: however, a wrong note here or there should be accepted as part of a hazardous occupation.
At a recent competition, questioned on a candidate's performance, a renowned colleague of mine replied: 'without a wrong note, ready for the recording studio!' Meant as the highest compliment, to me this rather oblique statement revealed almost nothing about the competitor's playing.
Yet another reason for physical neurological problems is the obsession of today's pianists with loud playing, while they themselves remain physically unable to produce a beautiful forte; the latter alas is the prerogative of but a chosen few. This disturbing inability to produce the desired beautiful sound derives also from pianists having forgotten the art of listening to themselves, a factor not helped by our noisy age which makes us less sensitive to sound.
At a performance I attended of the Goldberg variations played on a clavichord, my colleagues and I scarcely heard the first minutes of playing. lt took us a little time to adjust ourselves and hear the notes with utmost clarity. Such an experience is an indication that, together with a sharper physical awareness, we are in dire need of relearning the subtle an of listening.
To sum up: let us reprogramme the 'computer' in our brain, and relearn from scratch those simplest and most functional movements so essential to our physical and mental well being. Who can say? This may even herald a return to a renewed sense of aesthetics in music.

Clara Haskil with the swiss soprano Maria Stader. Clara Haskil's over-long but, at all times, flexible thumb was humorously labelled by colleagues, 'the fastest thumb in the West'.
(Foto: Archiv Feuchtwanger)