Piano Technique II

Jan 19, 2010.
On Piano Playing: Motion, Sound, and Expression by György Sándor
New York: Schirmer Books, 1981.

If there is only one book about piano technique one should ever read, this is it. An inexhaustible and comprehensive resource for any pianists and piano teachers who want to understand in details the topic of piano technique, I highly recommend this book by Mr. György Sándor, a great pianist himself and a student of Béla Bartók.

Although the language is not difficult, with simple writing and clear ideas, this book is for sure not an elementary manual for beginners and players of graded levels. Students with higher level efficiency of piano playing-at least diploma levels and undergraduates of piano major or above- would find it challenging yet fascinating to read.

Many have mistaken piano technique as something you could gain by repeating mindlessly some boring finger exercises thousands of times. Here I quote from Sándor’s book (p.17):

“Independence of the fingers is essential; but instead of trying to acquire it by forced and muscle-stiffening exercises, our fundamental approach to technical solutions is to search for the correct positions in which the right equipment helps the fingers work independently and provides them with the power they need.”

I cannot agree more. Many of us who have tried to work on the strength and independence of fingers must have experienced, after hours of practice, fatigue or even pain due to overstrained muscles. It is not because that the muscles are weak so we have to keep training them until them become strong. Like Sandor puts it, it is rather the correct use of muscles and their coordination that would help us gain mobility in our hands and freedom in our playing.

The alignment and structure of our fingers have determined how we should use them. We should learn how to use them wisely and effectively in order to get the best result. Each finger, except the thumb, has three segments which technical term is “phalanxes”. Therefore the thumb, which has two phalanxes, requires special attention and plays in a different position than the other four fingers. In fact, each finger should be played with a slight adjustment due to the different alignment to the forearm but the thumb is positioned in an entirely different position alien to the other fingers so that such subject is discussed separately (To read more about the thumb, see Chapter 5 of the book). I have still heard some teacher advocate students playing with the first phalanx of the thumb straight and vertical to the key! How wrong the idea is to hurt the thumb like that in a completely unnatural position!

It is also essential to understand the anatomy of the arm since the fingers cannot simply stand on their own and play by themselves (I always use the example of the chopped hand in the box in the classic movie “the Addam’s Family” to illustrate this point!). The fingers are controlled by the hand, the wrist and the forearm, with the strong support of the upper arm and upper back (shoulder blades). if we keep abusing the smaller muscles(fingers) without activating and connecting to the stronger muscles (forearm, upper arm and back), we get tired easily and even hurt ourselves from playing long hours.

The upper side of the forearm- the extensor muscles- contracts while the lower side of the arm- the flexor muscles- relaxes. It is thus the constant alternate tightening and relaxing of the two sets of muscles that keeps the forearm generate power to the fingers without feeling strained. When we have acquired this appropriate use of the forearm, we can avoid the first cause of fatigue, which is the muscular tension that usually occurs in the forearm, the overstraining of one particular set of muscles.

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