Piano Technique IV

[anti-rclick]C.P.E. Bach’s Keyboard Treatise, “Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments”

When we mention the name “Bach”, we would certainly first think of the great J.S. Bach, Johann Sebestian Bach. Few would relate the same name to his son C.P.E. Bach, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach otherwise. For the general public and students (even to the ardent music lovers and music majors), C.P.E. Bach might not be someone they are familiar with or have even heard of. However, for the academic circle, especially for the scholars specialized in piano pedagogy and historical musicology, C.P.E. Bach is a very influential figure with regard to the area of keyboard playing theory and practice.

Though C.P.E. Bach was most familiar with the early keyboard instruments, namely organ, harpsichord and clavichord, he did play on the piano and praised the possibility that such instrument could bring to the future keyboard repertoire and playing. The major contribution of C.P.E. Bach should be his writing of the treatise “Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments” (or the original title, “Ein Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu Spielen”). Written in 1753, it was probably the most important instruction book concerning keyboard playing in the eighteenth century. Such visionary treatise not only lays ground for the fundamental keyboard performance pedagogy and practice, its writing also remains influential in the many centuries to come.

C.P.E. Bach started off with the concern to help improve the standard of performance of the day and to enlighten other teachers who were not capable of teaching their students “the true foundation of the arts”, which lied upon three factors: correct fingering, good embellishment and good performance.

C.P.E. Bach concerned most with the fingers, as it would be appropriate due to the keyboard technique demanded for the repertoire of the time, mostly sonatas by Scarlatti, or other equals. His advocation in using all five fingers on the keyboard, from his father’s guidance, is significant. To us it might seem odd, since obviously we use all of them almost equally nowadays. But in fact, the three middle fingers (index, middle and ring) were exclusively used and flavored before the eighteenth century. From here, we can start to see our practice is deeply influenced and shaped by C.P.E. Bach.

C.P.E. Bach wrote that the flexibility of the fingers depended on the extension and contraction of hands, and that the stretching of the fingers themselves required certain level of elasticity. Therefore, in order to attain more flexibility in the fingers, two technics should be trained: the turning of the thumb and the crossing of the fingers. To do so, C.P.E. Bach suggested practicing scales. In the treatise, he provided fingerings of major and minor scales. In general, the black keys were to be played by the three longer fingers, less so by fifth and only when necessary by thumb.

C.P.E. Bach stressed arched fingers instead of the flat fingers used by keyboardists before the time of J.S. Bach. Another major point is his emphasis on the turning of thumb, which was almost unheard of before C.P.E. Bach advocated it. He wrote, “they [the fingers] must remain arched as it [the thumb] makes its entry after one or another of them.”

Other than fingerings, C.P.E. Bach also mentioned about other rudiments of good keyboard playing. Among them, he stressed a good posture, with the forearm height slightly above the keyboard to permit more freedom in motion of the torso.

One suggestion I find most intriguing of CPE Bach is the practice of memorized pieces in the dark to train sight-reading, which I did so on my own when younger without knowing him mentioning it. For me, I thought it would be good to be more familiarized with the kinetic movement of the hands and fingers so that I could jump from one position to the next without hesitation.

More in next post,
Teresa Wong
Feb 6, 2010.

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One thought on “Piano Technique IV

  1. I enjoyed this article very much, as it reminded me of my years (10 of them) as a piano pupil. My teacher (Mrs. Schaeffer in Cordele, GA) taught me the things you described here, and I never knew from whence they originally came. (being C.P.E. Bach)
    Thank you,

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