book reviews

Piano Books
Reviewed by: T.J. Nelson

Caution is definitely the byword in music theory. Nowhere were the hazards of thinking too much about music demonstrated more clearly than in an episode from the original Star Trek TV series in which one of the characters (Lieutenant Uhura) was forced by a rogue computer to “think about music” while she was singing. Because of one brief moment of exposure to music theory, her entire memory was erased and she turned into a zombie!

Of course, reactions that severe don't often happen in real life. When it comes to the piano, the worst thing anyone could do is to just start playing without some instruction on the correct technique. This would guarantee slow progress and probably give the student a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome. The more students study it, the more they realize how complex music is, physically as well as linguistically. Learning the piano will also take a good chunk of your life. If you use the wrong technique, the time needed to learn it could easily double.

Below are brief reviews of the books on piano technique that I have read. Most technique books say much the same thing, but in different ways, and at different levels, and with widely varying degrees of effectiveness.

Piano Technique Consisting of two Complete Books: The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection and Rhythmics, Dynamics, Pedal and Other Problems of Piano Playing
by Walter Gieseking and Karl Leimer

T his short book with the long title, originally two separate books published in 1932 and 1938, is a concise manual that approaches the subject with old-fashioned intellectual and slightly autocratic rigor. The authors emphasize precision learning of small segments of music. They frequently quote Hans von Bulow, the master of piano precision, whose book is also still widely used (see R. Zimdars, The Piano Master Classes of Hans Von Bulow). Precision, the authors say, is critical to prevent learning incorrect techniques that are often difficult to unlearn. The intended audience for this book is piano teachers as well as students. The goal is to train the ear to identify when a note is played inaccurately; this is an essential step in learning good technique. This book was written before the dangers and causes of repetitive stress injury (RSI) were fully appreciated.

The second half, Problems in Piano Playing, describes some of the common problems in piano playing. A problem-solution format (which this book is not) would be very useful to students. The students could identify the problems they are having, and deduce what they might be doing wrong. This book also contains what may be one of the longest paragraphs known to man, in which the author describes, in words, every note comprising Bach's French Suite in E major.

Mastering Piano Technique
by Seymour Fink

T his book presents a number of physical exercises for the hands aimed at improving piano technique, intended to be performed away from the piano using a metronome. This is followed by exercises in which the student plays a few bars of famous classical pieces using hand movements specified in detail by the author. For example, the exercise for strengthening the fifth finger involves turning the palm in a karate-chop position and playing notes by adducting the finger muscle. As such, the exercises may be useful. The question is, did Rachmaninoff start this way?

Abby Whiteside on Piano Playing
by Abby Whiteside

F ew piano students have neutral opinions on dear old Abby Whiteside's essays Indispensables of Piano Playing and Mastering the Chopin Etudes. There seems to be, however, a general consensus that despite the plethora of awkward sentences, ungrammatical constructions, and verbosity in her writing, Abby Whiteside's ideas about piano technique are something with which every piano student and teacher should be familiar.

Here are a couple of sentences typical of Abby Whiteside's writing style, parts of which are unintentionally almost Yogi Berraesque:

“If only we could remember that practice perfects exactly the coordination that it uses and not something else, and therefore we must use those practiced habits when the demand for playing is something quite different, we would know instantly that dull routine drill does not produce the blended activity needed for an exciting rhythm.”

“There are few short cuts in working for perfection. Imagery is one of them.”

There is also no escaping the fact that the ideas communicated by good music have an emotional component. Abby emphasizes throughout the book that experiencing those ideas subjectively is critical to playing well.

I found it somewhat amusing that a search for “piano injuries” on Barnes & Noble turns up this book as the only hit. The writing style may be bad, but it's not that bad.

The Craft of Piano Playing: A New Approach to Piano Technique
by Alan Fraser

T he author, a professor at the University of Novi Sad in the former Yugoslavia, gives a number of physical exercises to develop finger strength and has a good understanding of the ligaments, tendons, bones, and muscles of the hand. Later chapters discuss how to infuse your music with emotional content. The writing style is clear and readable. He describes piano playing like a form of t'ai chi, and the exercises sometimes give the impression that the goal is to turn the player into a kung fu piano master. The objective is to give the reader a consciousness of what the hands are doing so that better control over the sound can be achieved. To some extent, it emphasizes the physical at the expense of the intellectual. But for many students, this is exactly what is needed.

Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist In Sixty Exercises for the Piano


H anon is a collection of scales and exercises intended to be used to practice fingering. Nobody in their right mind would play Hanon from cover to cover; if they did, they would surely not be in their right mind afterwards. (However, as someone recently pointed out to me, this is exactly what Rachmaninoff, and many other great pianists, did. You can draw whatever conclusion you like from that.) If students also followed the crazy directions at the top of each page, their hands would soon be in a similar condition. The real value of Hanon is to illustrate what combinations of notes students should practice. For example, if you have trouble with descending thirds, you can check in Hanon to see the fingerings recommended by the world's greatest expert on piano fingering. As a reference, Hanon will show you what to practice. As for how to practice, just read what C. L. Hanon says and do the opposite. By all means, practice Hanon; just do it carefully.

Fundamentals of Piano Practice, 2nd Edition
by C. C. Chang

T his book is reviewed here. Chang not only tells you what to learn, but also how to learn--and has mathematical formulas to back it up.

The Piano Handbook
by Carl Humphries

S lick introductory book with CD. Tries to inspire the reader's interest in the piano by covering all types of Western piano music, including classical, jazz, and blues. Information is presented in short bites, at a very basic level, with color pictures, sidebars, and musical examples. Spiral-bound and intended to be used at the piano. Little information on technique. Oriented toward children.

Notes from the Pianist's Bench
by Boris Berman

O nce students get past the mechanics of hitting the correct note most of the time and keeping their fingers from getting stuck between the keys, they need to learn the far more difficult task of developing style. Writing a book on how to get the piano to actually make a nice sound must be frustrating because of the lack of a sensible vocabulary for such things in English. This book nevertheless does an excellent job, using examples from a variety of classical composers from the Baroque to postserial tradition.

The Leschetizky Method: A Guide to Fine and Correct Piano Playing
by Malwine Bree

T his book is distinguished by a concise, no-nonsense approach for learning the mechanics of striking the keys properly, accompanied by photographs of someone's hand--supposedly that of the great Leschetizky himself. Leschetizky emphasizes the necessity for making a nice tone, even during exercises.

Piano Playing with Piano Questions Answered
by Josef Hofmann

H ofmann gives much useful advice, such as avoiding the use of a metronome, and refraining from trying to exceed the limits of the piano by playing too loudly or too emotionally. He has many keen insights into how the brain memorizes information. Memorization, says Hofmann, is critical. The second half of the book is questions and answers, which reveal many of Hofmann's insights that he learned as Rubinstein's sole pupil and from a lifetime of touring and teaching.

Improve Your Piano Playing
by John Meffen

E xcellent advice on fingering, correcting mistakes, and phrasing for intermediate-level pianists.

Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding
by Arthur A. Reblitz

T his book will tell you when your piano needs a wippen.