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Modern Methods in Piano Study

Modern Methods in Piano Study

Modern Methods in Piano Study

by | Piano Study Modern Methods | 0 comments

“It is difficult to define such a comprehensive term as technic, for it means so much,” remarked Germaine Schnitzer the French pianist to me one day, when we were discussing pianistic problems. “There is no special sort or method of technic that will do for all players, for every mentality is different; every hand is peculiar to itself, and different from every other. Not only is each player individual in this particular, but one’s right hand may differ from one’s left; therefore each hand may require separate treatment.

“An artistic technic can be acquired only by those who have an aptitude for it, plus the willingness to undertake the necessary drudgery; practise alone, no matter how arduous, is not sufficient. Technic is evolved from thought, from hearing great music, from much listening to great players; intent listening to one’s own playing, and to the effects one strives to make. It is often said that the pianist cannot easily judge of the tonal effects he is producing, as he is too near the instrument. With me this is not the case.

My hearing is so acute that I know the exact dynamics of every tone, every effect of light and shade; thus I do not have to stand at a distance, as the painter does, even if I could do so, in order to criticize my work, for I can do this satisfactorily at close range. 

“I hardly know when I learned technic; at all events it was not at the beginning. At the start I had some lessons with quite a simple woman teacher. We lived near Paris, and my elder sister was then studying with Raoul Pugno; she was a good student and practised industriously. She said she would take me to the master, and one day she did so.

I was a tiny child of about seven, very small and thin—not much bigger than a fly. The great man pretended he could hardly see me. I was perched upon the stool, my feet, too short to reach the floor, rested on the extension pedal box which I always carried around with me, I went bravely through some Bach Inventions.

When I finished, Pugno regarded me with interest. He said he would teach me; told me to prepare some more Inventions, some Czerny studies and the Mendelssohn Capriccio, Op. 22, and come to him in four weeks. Needless to say, I knew every note of these compositions by heart when I took my second lesson. Soon I was bidden to come to him every fortnight, then every week, and finally he gave me two lessons a week.

 “For the first five years of my musical experience, I simply played the piano. I played everything—sonatas, concertos—everything; large works were absorbed from one lesson to the next. When I was about twelve I began to awake to the necessity for serious study; then I really began to practise in earnest. My master took more and more interest in my progress and career: he was at pains to explain the meaning of music to me—the ideas of the composers. Many fashionable people took lessons of him, for to study with Pugno had become a fad; but he called me his only pupil, saying that I alone understood him. I can truly say he was my musical father; to him I owe everything. We were neighbors in a suburb of Paris, as my parents’ home adjoined his; we saw a great deal of him and we made music together part of every day. When he toured in America and other countries, he wrote me frequently; I could show you many letters, for I have preserved a large number—letters filled with beautiful and exalted thoughts, expressed in noble and poetic language. They show that Pugno possessed a most refined, superior mind, and was truly a great artist.

“I studied with Pugno ten years. At the end of that time he wished me to play for Emil Saur. Saur was delighted with my work, and was anxious to teach me certain points. From him I acquired the principles of touch advocated by his master, Nicholas Rubinstein. These I mastered in three months’ time, or I might say in two lessons.

“According to Nicholas Rubinstein, the keys are not to be struck with high finger action, nor is the direct end of the finger used. The point of contact is rather just back of the tip, between that and the ball of the finger. Furthermore we do not simply strive for plain legato touch. The old instruction books tell us that legato must be learned first, and is the most difficult touch to acquire. But legato does not bring the best results in rapid passages, for it does not impart sufficient clarity. In the modern idea something more crisp, scintillating and brilliant is needed. So we use a half staccato touch. The tones, when separated a hair’s breadth from each other, take on a lighter, more vibrant, radiant quality; they are really like strings of pearls. Then I also use pressure touch, pressing and caressing the keys—feeling as it were for the quality I want; I think it, I hear it mentally, and I can make it. With this manner of touching the keys, and this constant search for quality of tone, I can make any piano give out a beautiful tone, even if it seems to be only a battered tin pan.


“Weight touch is of course a necessity; for it I use not only arms and shoulders, but my whole body feels and vibrates with the tones of the piano. Of course I have worked out many of these principles for myself; they have not been acquired from any particular book, set of exercises, or piano method; I have made my own method from what I have acquired and experienced in ways above mentioned.


“In regard to memorizing piano music I have no set method. The music comes to me I know not how. After a period of deep concentration, of intent listening, it is mine, a permanent possession. You say Leschetizky advises his pupils to learn a small portion, two or four measures, each hand alone and away from the piano. Other pianists tell me they have to make a special study of memorizing. All this is not for me—it is not my way. When I have studied the piece sufficiently to play it, I know it—every note of it. When I play a concerto with orchestra I am not only absolutely sure of the piano part, but I also know each note that the other instruments play. Of course I am listening intently to the piano and to the whole orchestra during a performance; if I allowed myself to think of anything else, I should be lost. This absolute concentration is what conquers all difficulties.


“About practising technic for itself alone: this will not be necessary when once the principles of technic are mastered. I, at least, do not need to do so. I make, however, various technical exercises out of all difficult passages in pieces. I scarcely need to look at the printed pages of pieces I place on my recital programs. I have them with me, to be sure, but they are seldom taken out of their boxes. What I do is to think the pieces through and do mental work with them, and for this I must be quiet and by myself. An hour’s actual playing at the piano each day is sufficient to prepare for a recital.

“It must not be thought that I do not study very seriously. I do not work less than six hours a day; if on any day I fail to secure this amount of time, I make it up at the earliest moment. During the summer months, when I am preparing new programs for the next season, I work very hard. As I said, I take the difficult passages of a composition and make the minutest study of them in every detail, making all kinds of technical exercises out of a knotty section, sometimes playing it in forty or fifty different ways. For example, take the little piece out of Schumann’s Carneval, called ‘The Reconnaissance.’ That needed study. I gave three solid days to it; that means from nine to twelve in the morning, and from one to five in the afternoon. At the end of that time I knew it perfectly and was satisfied with it. From that day to this I have never had to give a thought to that number, for I am confident I know it utterly. I have never had an accident to that or to any of my pieces when playing in public. In my opinion a pianist has a more difficult task to accomplish than any other artist. The singer has to sing only one note at a time; the violinist or ‘cellist need use but one hand for notes. Even the orchestral conductor who aspires to direct his men without the score before him, may experience a slip of memory once in awhile, yet he can go on without a break. A pianist, however, has perhaps half a dozen notes in each hand to play at once; every note must be indelibly engraved on the memory, for one dares not make a slip of any kind.

“An artist playing in London, Paris or New York—I class these cities together—may play about the same sort of programs in each. The selections will not be too heavy in character. In Madrid or Vienna the works may be even more brilliant. It is Berlin that demands heavy, solid meat. I play Bach there, Beethoven and Brahms. It is a severe test to play in Berlin and win success.

“I have made several tours in America. This is a wonderful country. I don’t believe you Americans realize what a great country you have, what marvelous advantages are here, what fine teachers, what great orchestras, what opera, what audiences! The critics, too, are so well informed and so just. All these things impress a foreign artist—the love for music that is here, the knowledge of it, and the enthusiasm for it. A worthy artist can make a name and success in America more quickly and surely than in any country in the world.

“For one thing America is one united country from coast to coast, so it is much easier getting about here than in Europe. For another thing I consider you have the greatest orchestras in the world, and I have played with the orchestras of all countries. I also find you have the most enthusiastic audiences to be found anywhere.

“In Europe a musical career offers few advantages. People often ask my advice about making a career over there, and I try to dissuade them. It sometimes impresses me as a lions’ den, and I have the desire to cry out ‘Beware’ to those who may be entrapped into going over before they are ready, or know what to expect. Of course there are cases of phenomenal success, but they are exceptions to the general rule.

“People go to Europe to get atmosphere (stimmung)—that much abused term! I could tell them they make their own atmosphere wherever they are. I have lived in music all my life, but I can say I find musical atmosphere right here in America. If I listen to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or to the Kneisel Quartet, when these organizations are giving an incomparable performance of some masterpiece, I am entirely wrapt up in the music; am I not then in a musical atmosphere? Or if I hear a performance of a Wagner opera at the Metropolitan, where Wagner is given better even than in Bayreuth, am I not also in a musical atmosphere? To be sure, if I am in Bayreuth I may see some reminiscences of Wagner the man, or if I am in Vienna I can visit the graves of Beethoven and Schubert. But these facts of themselves do not create a musical atmosphere.

“You in America can well rejoice over your great country, your fine teachers and musicians and your musical growth. After a while you may be the most musical nation in the world.”

By: Germaine Schnitzer

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