Monday, February 26, 2007

OK, Shoot The Piano Player But There’s More To It Than That
Listening to Liane Hansen talking with Nathaniel Kahn the director of the movie “Two Hands” about the physical problems of the pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher, several things were striking. First, the number of times NPR alone has done stories about Fleisher would qualify as enough, already. He’s a great musician with an interesting story but there are many thousands of pianists, not to mention players of less glamourous instruments, who could be the subject of interesting stories. Why not do something that hasn’t already been done to death on NPR? And why not do stories about classical music that aren’t centered on the movies?

Second, the stories and pieces about Fleisher have all been the same and superficial. They aren’t about music. Our media has just about a blanket boycott on actually covering classical music as music. With the exception of a few pieces done by classical music critics they’ve all been about his disability. The really important thing about that wouldn’t make very interesting radio for non-musicians. If Fleisher really wanted to say the most useful thing he could about his disability, it would be to document the aspects of his technique that could have lead to his problems. Fingering, in short. How was he using his hands when he got into trouble and what could that tell us about how to avoid those problems? Maybe a comparison with fingerings of pianists who worked for many decades without problems would tell something interesting.

The piano being my instrument, I’ll tell you that it was when I used other peoples’ fingerings without thinking of what they did to my hand that I got into trouble. This first came to my notice when I tried practicing with my eyes closed, concentrating on how my hands position in relation to the keyboard changed as they moved up and down. The keyboard is a very large object and the hands position has to change as they move from the middle of it. Fingerings that work perfectly in the middle don’t work nearly as well as they move up and down octaves. The use of the weaker small and ring fingers are especially difficult in the right hand. Having been taught the standard fingerings and using them well past the positions they really worked in for years it was necessary to really think about how to use them in a way that worked. And I did find out that what was physically most comfortable tended to work better musically.

I also got into trouble when I studied classical guitar in college. The very unnatural right hand position insisted on by the teacher lead to really bad problems in the ring and pinky fingers. After two semesters I dumped it and switched my minor instrument to one with a teacher who cared more about their students hands than their own teacher’s orthodoxy. That was what got me started on looking at my piano problems.

If NPR wanted to do a useful story about this kind of thing, they might look at the work of Dorothy Taubman. Or they could actually do something about classical music that wasn’t related to the movies or the Pulitzers. They could actually do some reporting on music that hasn’t been done to death already.

Having been taught the standard fingerings and using them well past the positions they really worked in for years it was necessary to really think about how to use them in a way that worked. And I did find out that what was physically most comfortable tended to work better musically.

I always thought the standard fingerings were over-rated. I've tried to teach students however, that they should come up with their own fingerings and know what works for them, but somehow I've not yet gotten to a point as a teacher where I can get this accross to the whelps who expect either to memorize standard fingerings or to be able to willy-nilly let their fingers fall where they may.

And how do you teach students the technique of how to actually approach the keyboard as they play? Even so many so-called good pianists of today simply don't know how to make a proper contact between the piano and their hand. I'm a pretty crappy pianist in the grand scheme of things, but even I know a thing or two more about how to actually adjust the approach of my hand to the keyboard so as to produce different subtleties of texture, etc. And I started on the organ too, where such things don't really matter!

I could go on ... and I agree with you 100% ...

But speaking of classical music related to the movies (and while I'm complaining), why doesn't my local library have a recording of Korngold's violin concerto?

Oops ... I shouldn't let myself get started on violinists today who are so afraid of being maudlin and take their instrument so seriously they dessicate whatever they play ...
Alberich, what I say is that you have to look at what you're trying to do and to find the best way for your hands to do it. Taking into account the differences in the lengths of the fingers, the positions they have to take on the keyboard to play the passage in question are what is important. I'd say that keeping the hands in as natural a position as possible, especially not twisting the wrists in unnatural ways is the general rule. Certainly not trying to make a painful position work, except in the rarest of occasions and only when absolutely necessary is a good idea.

Sometimes you find an editor whose fingerings work well for your hands, those of Heinrich Schenker generally agree with my hands. Sometimes even those of a great pianist who worked without problems for decades don't seem to.

Fleisher's having had such horrible problems makes me wonder what he teaches his students and what problems they might or might not have. Does he teach the practices that got him into trouble? Now that would be interesting to know.
Nasty thought you have in comments. It would give credence to the idea "those that can't, teach ..." Wheras you want to make accommodation to physical reality a routine part of performance art. ( Duh ! Yes )
I always liked the quip about Classical ( so called ) music as being "Hit Parade" that is well aged.
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