Piano Playing: Art or Science ?

A couple months ago I joined a coffee making event, in which coffee lovers shared their enthusiasm as well as knowledge about coffee making and tasting. One topic they discussed was whether coffee making was science or art. Naturally I reflected on this and related this idea to that in piano playing: is it art or science?

Same as what we concluded on about coffee making, piano playing (or music making in general) is both – a combination of art and science. Certainly, there are many levels of coffee making just as those in piano playing. One can appreciate instant coffee like one enjoys pop music. Others might have preference on the origin of the coffee beans such as Guatemala over Yirgachaffe just like Mozart over Rachmaninov. Or one can be more refined and control each step of coffee making process with various apparatus (chemex, siphon, aeropress etc.), with much precision (timing, temperature) and technique: these steps and skills would directly control how the results (i.e. subtlety of various taste) turn out, which can be significantly different depending on the technique of the barista. Same is true for a pianist who is able to control and express the littlest details and subtlest changes in nuance, tone and musicality, with different levels of technical demand, artistic expression and life experience developed.

There remains a constant argument: what comes first, technique or musicality? It is that kind of question similar to “chicken or egg”. The technique part is the science of piano playing whilst musicality the art. Both cannot exist without each other. If technique is the sole element in piano playing there needs not be human but robots performing in Carnegie Hall. Yet musicality cannot be expressed fully and freely without the support of technical skills either, an essential tool without which musicality cannot even begin to exist let alone articulated. The two elements co-exist and are interdependent of each other.

As a teacher, I certainly have to take the balance and shape the two elements in a student’s playing. Some focus too much on executing perfectly and thus lose sense of musicality and fluidity while others are too concerned with the mood and feelings yet become too sloppy in their techniques and execution. Either way is an imbalance of focus; one has to work on both aspects, which go hand in hand with and even complement each other, so that as one grows the other also progresses.

Some students (and parents) say they just want (their children) to have fun and enjoy music, so me as the teacher need not be so serious about having them getting the precise technique properly understood and executed. The truth is, if there is no technique supporting the playing, there would be no fun at all, as the students would encounter lots of problem expressing themselves and enjoying the playing that even countless hours of practice would not help. And so yes, I am talking about the first knuckles, the hand grip, the wrist, the weight transfer, the arm movement, as well as the solid execution of scales and arpeggios to begin with. These are just some of the basics and fundamental aspects that students should pay close attention to, at whatever levels they might be, as long as they have never fixed these before. With these basics, students can start to truly have fun, enjoy their playing and express themselves at their hearts’ desire.

In the next post, I shall discuss about the various technique exercises on their pros and cons and their application.

Teresa Wong

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