Piano technique is the ability to get the right sound at the right time out of the piano. It is the ability to realize music, how we interact with our instrument. It is the ability to say what we want to say, to speak through music. Like our instruments themselves, technique is but a means to an end: music. An instrument, after all, is merely a tool without which we cannot accomplish a given task: Medical instruments allow us to practice medicine, scientific instruments give us access to facts the unaided senses are unable to perceive, and musical instruments enable us to make music that could not otherwise exist.
As a means, not an end, “technique” implies a musical object. Whenever we play any notes in succession we express a musical thought. Whether that thought is a coherent musical idea depends on the notes themselves and on their delivery. This latter is technique.
Piano technique could be thought of as the “interface” between a musical idea and the music that comes out of the piano:
Piano technique is our control over our instrument. After all, the most sophisticated airplane in the world is useless if you don’t know how to fly it. So it is with the piano.
It would seem to be the case that, ideally, we would eliminate this link in the musical chain altogether, and that ought to get us one step closer to the music. There have indeed been attempts to realize pieces of music on mechanically or electronically controlled pianos, and even whole pieces composed for them. There is great irony, however, in this approach: Machines sound mechanical, and music seems to need the human, which is to say emotional, component in the form of… dare I say imperfection?
It is tragic that piano technique gradually has tended to become more and more mechanical. It seems that as machines were invented to do the work of humans, humans in turn aspired to become machines, setting mechanical perfection as their standard. Mechanical perfection is only desirable insofar as it serves to express music more perfectly.
Indeed, there is even a musicologist who has publicly made the claim that one day machines will be better interpreters of Beethoven’s music than humans. I fear that nightmare might actually come true, though not for the reason this musicologist suggested. The tragic irony, as I see it, is that we’ve come so far from Beethoven’s world of sound that one day machines, with their artificial souls, may indeed come to decipher Beethoven’s foreign musical language better than humans as the aesthetic and culture that created this music recede into the black hole of history.
Instrumental technique is indeed akin to vocabulary in language: The better one’s technique, the more one is capable of expressing. A singer who struggles to hit the high notes or a person stuttering and stumbling in a foreign language is unable to deliver his or her message clearly. Yet a repertory of words by no means guarantees that one has something to say. Technique is mere expressive potential, the way IQ is not actual knowledge (and certainly not wisdom) but the mere potential to learn and to solve problems.
There is a hidden danger to piano technique. Rather unlike expanding one’s vocabulary, practicing “technique” all by itself is not only a contradiction in terms, it is almost always outright harmful. All too often piano technique is pursued as an end in itself. Students diligently practice their scales, arpeggios and octaves without regarding the sounds they’re making and they then go on to do damage to etudes and sonatas. It is exceedingly difficult to restore musical order in these pianists and teach them how to listen, which is to say to acquire a musical technique.
On the other hand, I do not count myself among those purists who believe that any display of piano technique is inherently distasteful. A lot of piano music, particularly from the 19th century, makes enormous demands upon a pianist’s technical equipment. Let’s face it: Virtuosity is thrilling. We enjoy witnessing feats of human accomplishment in athletics, dance and music. Indeed, part of what makes great art truly great is that it is an accomplishment. What distinguishes music from a circus show is that it is (or ought to be) performed in the service of an artistic message and not for mere display.
Technique is a necessary concomitant of art, for art without technique, as the past century of art has proven, is limited in its communicative power at best, and empty at worst. Part of the beauty of great music lies in the synthesis of brain, feeling and fingers in executing demanding music with seeming ease. Beautiful music is so much more than mere athletics, but athletic accomplishment should also not be discounted. What makes it meaningful (and in fact paradoxically more “athletic”) is when it is done with elegance and finesse.
I am reminded of the wise words of Nadia Boulanger, perhaps the greatest music teacher of the twentieth century, in reply to a pianist’s unsuccessful attempt to exceed her ability: “Technique is a veeeery little thing. [long pause] But without it… you have nothing.”
These words should cure any budding pianist attempting to obtain the world’s fastest octaves at the expense of mastering the critical musical fundamentals. I cannot say how many times I have heard nominally advanced students attempt to play complicated repertoire without knowing their musical ABCs.
Principles of piano technique
Before discussing actual elements of piano technique it is necessary to consider its principles, particularly as these have become endangered (even amongst professionals):
Every motion is connected to a musical thought. Proper piano technique, as opposed to mere Fingerfertigkeit, is a feedback loop between the ear and fingers. The ear always directs the fingers, which trigger a sound, which influences the next sound, which itself is directed by the ear:
$$The hardest task for any instrumentalist is learning to listen to ourselves.$$
(“Fingerfertigkeit” is a wonderful German word for which we have no equivalent in English, save for perhaps “prestidigitation” of which British reviewers are fond. That’s a shamelessly pretentious word which in my opinion ought to be replaced by what it really means: fast fingers. In any case, “Fingerfertigkeit” simply means “finger ability.”)
The primary distinction between proper piano technique and “Fingerfertigkeit” is that the latter is entirely independent of actual sound, which after all is the very musical object. John Cage’s nonsense experiments notwithstanding, without sound there is no music. Technique therefore need always have an aural referent: In other words, we always need to hear the proper sound in our mind’s ear first. Making the actual sound match what we want to achieve is piano technique—whereas Fingerfertigkeit might as well be typing proficiency.
It is unfortunate that piano technique does not involve sound production the way it does with melody instruments. In fact, it is possible, particularly on so purely mechanical an instrument as a piano, to remove half of the equation altogether and still produce sound. String players, by contrast, require years of careful training before they are even able to produce the right pitches accurately. Yet anyone or anything could press a key on a piano and the correct pitch will be heard (assuming the piano is in tune). This convenience is really quite a double-edged sword, as it obviates the need to fine-tune the ear to pitch. This lack of fine-tuning is compounded by the fact that pianos are out of tune most of the time. (Even when they are freshly tuned, the pitches themselves are the products of compromise since tuning a piano so that any one key—C major, B-flat minor, etc.—is perfectly in tune would cause all others to be significantly out of tune. Therefore, on modern pianos all keys are equally out of tune!) In practice, what so often happens is that students get good at moving their fingers but fail to develop adequate listening skills.
This does not mean that tone production at the piano—touch—is not highly involved. The good news is that, at least in principle, it is incredibly simple. The modern piano has one and only one variable, and that is the volume of a note, which is determined not by how hard but by how fast we strike the key. How fast we strike the key determines how hard the hammer hits the string. (The “hard and fast” rule states that hardness is itself a function of speed.) Yet there are many factors that influence how we accelerate the key, and these are the domain of touch.
Efficiency is the principle of least effort. It is generally better to use less effort rather than more effort to achieve the same result.
A corollary of this principle is that all our muscles should be as relaxed as possible at all times. A free technique implies that we move only as much as is necessary to achieve a given sound at a given time. (It is possible to be extremely tense and move little, but this defeats our purpose.) Tense playing leads to ugly sounds, fatigue and injuries. Yet more often than not tension will go unnoticed for years, often until it is too late.
At this juncture I wish to remark that if you are a pianist in pain, stop immediately. Pain is a sign that you are doing something wrong. I know of competition pianists who rely on prescription medications to play, and they are terrified of their pain becoming known to concert agents or the public for fear that they will be replaced by able pianists. Let me advise that no performance is worth risking your long-term health.
Elements of piano technique
Much of piano technique can be broken down into a handful of categories: single notes, double notes, changes of hand position, touch and the pedal. Single notes include piano scales, broken chords, repeated notes, trills and tremolos. Double notes are most common as double thirds, double sixths and octaves. Changes of hand position can involve going to an adjacent one (often passing the thumb, as in scales and arpeggios) or a remote one (leaps). Touch includes both the many ways to strike the key and articulation, which is what to do between the notes (legato, staccato and all degrees thereof). And pedal technique deserves a chapter unto itself. (These elements of technique will be dealt with in separate articles or lessons, as they are far too involved to be discussed in detail in this article.)
May these principles accompany you as you develop and refine a truly musical piano technique.