technique – competition in what?

A fellow student once looked at my penciled figures in an Allemande by Louis Couperin, made a smart face and asked in a casual tone, “do you really need to write fingerings in a piece like that?” Matter of one geek telling another geek who of the two is the professional one. Yes, I do in fact put fingerings in all sorts of music, at least if I think I want to be able to tell myself something specific, now, tomorrow, or many years ahead. Figuring out fingerings is part of the work I’m doing, one of the manifestations of how my life is being filled with activity, why shouldn’t I record it in some manner?

In an intermission of psychology class (yes, we had psychology at the conservatory) another member of the group, a violinist, worked his way towards where I sat and spoke, “Ah, Er, do you harpsichordists also practice very much? Because we violinists need to practice very much.” Matter of one geek telling the other one who of the two is the better geek.

As is amply documented in Rudolf Serkin’s biography (Stephen Lehman and Marion Faber 2003. Rudolf Serkin: a life [Oxford: Oxford University Press]), Serkin used to begin his practice sessions with technical exercises, and he sometimes somewhat embarrassedly called himself “old fashioned” for that reason. I recall at least two interviews of pianists who do not play exercises, a fact they both announce with a total lack of that kind of embarrassment. Instead the one (Zoltan Kocsis) coyly admits that he might have played some scales when he was younger, while the other (Alfred Brendel) states more boldly that he extracts whatever technical exercise he needs from the music itself.

Is there any true reason to be bold, coy or embarrassed when talking about one’s personal choices in matters of keeping one’s playing in trim? I believe not. One keyboardist “brushes the teeth of the monster” every day, the other uses technical exercises to soothe his nerves, a third believes that they are the only manner of making him keep up playing at all, a fourth uses them as extended meditation and a fifth, finally, believes that they are disturbing and hinder his artistic approach. Such choices cannot be subject to competition. The grooming of one’s technique is – what a relief – totally private. Matter of all geeks going home and doing their little geeky things, alone.

As a matter of fact, in the phases when I play (as opposed to doing research) I usually do practice – even technical exercises. Where an indisposed violinist perhaps plays a little out of tune a harpsichordist inevitably plays a big pile of mistakes. Perhaps, as a malicious joke about an imprecise player suggests, one sometimes only needs to adjust the chair an inch sideways to solve the problem. I find it safer to keep my fingers up to date with the key relief on a more direct and above all: a continuous basis. I have experimented with “extracting whatever technical exercise I needed from the music” for a few years and I am not content with the results. I have returned to the use of exercises for warming up, for practicing a relaxed approach in an environment where no musical expression is required, for training my muscles and their precision at the same time, for waking up my brain and my ears and because I need that period every day where I just do this and nothing else. In this I am not feeding the universe with a spoonful-a-day of compliance to still-spooking First Year Must Dos, but with my being content with what I’m doing.

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2 Responses to “technique – competition in what?”

  1. Paúl R. Says:

    Hi, Tilman,
    I am with you on the need to write the finger-numbers in. I don’t agree with people who don’t teach their students this essential skill and who discourage them from learning it. I see their approach as manifestation of piano-playing being turned – gradually, and now completely – into a purely cerebral activity, with total overlook of its kinetic roots.
    Earlier in my career, I saw a number of my students actually write the finger numbers in themselves – after they had their pieces learned pretty well (with numbers written by me only at some crucial places). It helped their playing, since it freed their mind from constantly checking whether they chose the right finger. It was also a big lesson for me.

  2. Borys M. Says:

    I agree with writing in fingering, especially if certain interpretive details are directly linked to a specific choice of finger. If you find that one fingering gives you a certain articulation (for example) that can’t be obtained any other way, then what’s the problem with writing the fingering down? You are actually recording the interpretation, and not just a form of technical help.

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