Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chapter 18

Ortmann’s work seems incredibly valuable… this was probably the most interesting chapter so far for me… I’d love to read his writings when I have some more time. I agreed with almost everything he wrote, and it’s good to see a lot of ideas supported with clear scientific data.

One thing that I am reluctant to agree with is his view on tone production… He writes that tone is only a result of the speed at which the hammer hits the string – so that the difference in tone is equivalent to the difference in dynamics, at least for any single note. Even though this may be proven and accepted as fact, I find it detrimental, in a practical sense, to how we approach playing the piano. Music must be expressive, not calculated in decibels. I would worry that if teachers do not believe differences in tone are truly possible they might try to teach students to interpret music by organizing the notes into a hierarchy of dynamics. We have to believe in “brilliant” vs. “velvety” tones on the piano – this type of interpretation will best result in achieving differences in tone color and expression. In other words, musical thought must dictate dynamics, rather than dynamics determining tonal contrast.

Ortmann also describes the differences between listeners’ reactions to music on page 440, suggesting that the visual aspect of the performer is largely responsible for often contradictory audience responses. I think the differences of opinion in judging a performance result from some people just being better judges than others, not to mention subjective preferences. People might differ in how they rate the visual aspect of someone’s playing, but still agree on the sound.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Matthay Addendum

There is, I think, a bit of an omission in Gerig's chapter on Matthay and the English School, particularly where the upper Midwest is concerned.

While Myra Hess is undoubtedly the most famous concert artist Matthay's teaching produced, one of his most important disciples deserves mention with regards to the piano landscape in the United States - Frank Mannheimer.

There is a great deal of biographical information on Frank Mannheimer here at the Matthay Organization website.

Of interest to those here in Iowa City is that Mr. Mannheimer, upon returning to the United States, taught summer classes at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, IA. He was concertized and taught in the Chicago area, and held additional classes later in Duluth, MN.

Among Mr. Mannheimer's students were John Perry (professor of piano at the University of Southern California, who also studied with Cecile Genhart, who I believe also has a Matthay connection), Constance Carroll, and Anne Kocielny (formerly at the University of Maryland.)

I would encourage everyone to watch this video of Anne Kocielny discussing Beethoven. At the end of the video, there is a brief clip of her playing, and I think you'll see in it some of the ideas that Matthay and Mannheimer cultivated in their students.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

American Man Ortmann

Fortuitously on this week of April, on the 25th day, 2010, I have reluctantly absorbed some of the genius of Ortmann. So what, he performed some studies, who cares? I could do that. Ah, but alas, I have spoken out of turn, because I believe I have been outdone by this dear sir.

Apparently, Ortmann is one of the most influential scientists, and has done quite a number on our modern piano technique. My first critique, however, will be that he seems to be more of a scientist, than of a pianist. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, and his information can do nothing but help us! But I wonder, if one studies the exact mechanics and science of pianism to the extent in which Ortmann did, can there still be a natural freedom that comes along with playing the instrument? It seems to me that if one were to spend that much time dedicated to the pure mechanics, it could not only make you paranoid, but also completely in your head. In a way, I agree with some of his critics, that perhaps this could be too much of a mechanical approach, myself, being an "emotionally dominated pianist" as well. I think while we can learn from his extensive work, it needs to be taken, like everything else, in moderation.

For example, we don't tell our feet to move, one at a time, left, right, over and over again to walk, they just do it. Our brain sends signals so quickly, we can't be consciously aware of everything! And just like walking, we don't think, A, C#, E over and over again to form A Major arpeggios, we can just think A Major, and BAM, we do it. I'm not trying to discredit his work, because it's incredibly fascinating to see how even the best pianists can have completely wrong perceptions about what is going on in their body while they play(p.420). My argument, or rather, question is, does it matter? If you can't play the difficult passage, thinking about thousands of seconds in attack time and minute differences in degrees of attack angle can't do much but frustrate you. The only way that we all figure out the difficult passage, for the most part, is to sit with it until we figure out what the problem is, in our individual body which is different from everyone elses, and keep making adjustments until we can do it.

This said, there are many, many interesting points in the chapter which I think we can all benefit from. Such as,

A. Massage may help relax the ligaments and muscles, creating more freedom in the joints (p. 416).

B. Muscular activity should not be carried out beyond moderate fatigue. Incorporate rest periods in practice.

C. Weight transfer demands fixation of joints, not relaxation

D. Teachers should train resistance in opposition to the desired movement. VERY INTERESTING.

E. Free arm drop has no use in piano technique other than for an exercise to feel relaxation.

F. Strong fingers for arpeggio, and arpeggio-like passage work.

G. Our fall-boards suck. Also, why don't all of the practice rooms have adjustable benches? I mean REALLY. After all of this work?

H. And finally, " Purely gymnastic training of the small muscles of the fingers, hand and forearm, in order to increase their absolute strength, is, therefore, from a mechanical stand-point, highly desirable for piano technique.

That's it, I'm going to the gym!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Chapter 18: Ortmann: Piano Technique Comes of Age

It seems interesting that we have moved from the invention of specific devices that attach to the piano to a specific piano (The Tekniklavier) designed for specific practicing. The Tekniklavier sounds like a good idea for passage work, but almost seems like a revisitation of the finger school.

It seems like piano schools just exploded in America, and became popular after World War I. I find it strange that piano was centered in Europe for hundreds of years, and in a few decades some of the most prestigious schools in America were established.

I find Ortmann's work fascinating. I have often considered pursuing such research myself in attempt to combine my love of music and interest in science (which I will be graduating with a second degree). Since studying piano at Iowa and gaining more awareness of my body and how it works while playing the piano, I have wondered if it was possible to enhance my understanding from a scientific approach.

I think the importance in Ortmann's method is not necessarily being able to understand all of the science, but to be exposed to it to have a more clear understanding of how our joints and muscles work. Knowing that muscle-tone does not allow for complete relaxation, and knowing the range of motion for a particular joint are all very helpful in playing the piano. A very basic knowledge of these concepts can save one from injury. I found the point on warm-ups to be interesting. Many authors of methods presented previously suggested daily warm-ups for specific amounts of time, but never really gave reasoning beyond limbering the fingers or to build finger strength. I think it is an important point that our muscles, nerves, and therefore, reflexes will work much better when vascularized, and these warm-ups will increase vascularization to the areas we use most when playing piano.

I thought it was particularly interesting that Ortmann claims that a teacher moving a students finger or arm won't be trained because the muscles are not being engaged, and if a teacher wants to teach a certain movement they should put force in the opposite direction of the movement desired in order to engage the muscles needed for the movement. Also, thinking about which muscles are best suited for certain movements can be helpful. Smaller muscles are best used for rapid and small range movements, and larger muscles for power and wide range. I think this can be helpful, particularly for the rapid movements as we often cause more tension by thinking it takes more power to play fast, and therefore, use the wrong muscles.

Ortmann's explanation of coordination and incoordination are interesting. Prior to reading this passage, I had tried to identify places in the music where I could take a second to relax, but never thought about the relaxation that occurs (or should occur) after each movement. Perhaps if we thought of using the smallest and shortest amount of contraction possible, followed by relaxation after every note, our playing would be more fluid (or coordinated) and certainly be less worry for injury.

It is interesting that Ortmann believes that the variances in tone production between two pianists are in the different lines of their movements. I appreciate his very scientific views and also his considerations for musical art. I did not find his explanations dry, and felt that his research in the end was to explain the variances between artists and maintain the heart and soul of music making.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Chapter 17

This chapter is quite a conclusion of the previous ones. After the explosion of the ‘golden period’ of numerous renowned pianists, then the decades of intensive studies on piano studies, Matthay finally decided not to again establish a ‘new school’ or ‘new technique’, but instead comment and criticize the former studies. By doing this he finally was the very first one to have try to embrace all those diverging schools of technique and make a balance among them. I think Matthay has done a pretty good job in this respect despite the super long and clumsiness in his literature.

Yet this is not the heart of his thought. The real innovative idea by Matthay I think is the thinking of being a pianist both inwardly and outwardly. He is simply saying we should be a truthful pianist inside out. I think the table he used to illustrate this matter is pretty clear listing out everything we as a pianist should know and should do. I wish I could have learnt this table earlier in my life, though maybe I won’t be able to comprehend it back then. Curious though, did Matthay have this sort of table in mind in his piano studies to list out the hierarchy of how he should learn or think while playing the piano? It would be interesting if he really did..

I didn’t ever relate tone with harmonic and overtones. I believe there’s some truth inside this thinking but I also am not totally convinced by Matthay’s suggestion. Absolutely agreeing though it’s achieved through different speed of the key hitting the strings. I think this is an interesting topic to study more on.

Chapter 17

I think Matthay is important for his efforts to scientifically approach and solve problems in piano playing and document the results. Apparently he “could not leave a fault uncorrected.” This pianistic perfectionism is something I also strive for – that any mistakes encountered must be given full attention. If something is unable to be corrected in one session due to time, it must be remembered and attended to later.

I also agree with Matthay that in general we should try to keep the fingers in “constant contact with the keys.” Townsend also writes that the best touch is one which produces the least amount of noise when the finger contacts the keys. This might seem obvious enough, but it is a useful reminder for me, since sometimes I will forget about keeping close contact with the keys when playing.

On page 373 Matthay talks about how every note must fit perfectly in time in relation to the whole piece of music, and therefore we must constantly have the entire piece conceived in our mind. I know I could benefit from working towards this type of memory, as sometimes I find myself just thinking about which notes come next. This relates to rhythmic precision, in which imperfections are often a result of a lack of mental concentration, I believe, rather than “trained” fingers.

Monday, April 19, 2010

English School

This chapter emphasized on English school, Matthey's Act of Touches. On page 374 shows the entire structure of the Matthey's system. His system includes intellectual and emotional perception, controlling key treatment and physical executions.


The chart for theoretical intensity of the partial tones of strings is really interesting to me (on page 377). Although we always mentioned the tone, no one really formulate it to the accurate statistics before Helmholtz. Of course, no one would recall these statistics in this chart when we need a kind of tone. But it helps us more understand the tone color if someone investigates and explains the length of time piano hammers remained in contact with strings which determines the nature of tone quality. In a sense, Matthey likes a physicist who attempts to investigate the nature of musical sound and the structure of piano itself.


Hand position is an anther important part in the Matthey's system. Matthey mentioned two opposing finger attitude, the thrusting finger attitude and the flat finger attitude. I don't both of these two finger attitude should be put in an opposing position. In my opinion, both of them are acceptable. Which finger attitude should be used totally depends on what kind of the tone you want and what kind of piano you play. I think the flat finger attitude only works well on a more sensitive piano. And flat finger attitude should employ with weigh touch by lapse arm support. To me, I prefer natural hand finger attitude, an attitude between thrusting finger attitude and flat finger attitude.


I think arm rotation is very important. If I am not able to employ front arm and rotate it when I play the piano, it must cause lots of stiffness and makes some hand motion on the piano hard to do. Arm rotation helps us to have good muscle coordination and relaxation. But I couldn't understand how to have an invisible rotation in fast movements. It is impossible to feel the arm rotation when I play a fast finger passage.

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