If you are taking piano lessons in London or elsewhere, you’ve almost certainly encountered technical etudes, scales, or arpeggios. These exercises may seem tedious, but they serve an important purpose — they improve your finger dexterity, your familiarity with the keyboard, and your ability to learn advanced piano repertoire as you progress in your studies.
We’ve also covered the importance of practicing scales, so we won’t belabor that point here. But if you are serious about becoming a better pianist, keep reading — your technique is almost as important as your ability to read music or play by ear.
Different Schools of Thought On Piano Technique
This topic deserves a bit of introduction. Technique is taught and practised differently around the world, and while we have our own preferred methods at the London Piano Centre, you may benefit from exposure to a number of perspectives.
Additionally, you may have heard of the “Russian School,” “French School, “English School,” and so forth — we’ll quickly gloss over these schools, but in the postmodern world, such distinctions are functionally extinct. We don’t have the same geopolitical barriers that pianists had 50+ years ago. Chinese pianists, Russian pianists, Italian pianists, American pianists — everyone has access to the same information, and musicians emulate the style they choose.
The Russian School of Piano Technique
The “Russian School,” so to speak, generally stems from the Soviet era of piano playing in Russia, when the government funding of conservatories and the desire for international recognition in the arts drove the success of a generation of pianists. Russian pupils were taught the necessity of perfect technique when playing, so the Russian Technique has become synonymous with scales, arpeggios and drills.
This shouldn’t be confused with later Russian pedagogues like Anton Rubinstein, who didn’t drill technique in such a draconian manner. Russian piano playing has been characterized as powerful, projected, and technically accurate. Physically, the arms become more of a focal point than the hands, which helps with the impression of a bigger sound.
Truthfully, the emergence of the Russian School probably has more to do with success of famous Russian musicians like Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and others — their greatness created the mystique of a “national school” more than the substance of an actual pedagogical style.
The French School of Piano
Perhaps this stems from a general French aesthetic (and the work of composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Saint-Saens), but French playing has traditionally been more delicate and fine. There’s more nuance in French technique, and you’ll find a greater emphasis on finger work than on arm weight and the like.
Teachers generally assign this school of thought to Francois Couperin. He published “The Art of Harpsichord Playing” in 1716, and it undoubtedly influenced the entire trajectory of French keyboard pedagogy. The influence of Chopin can’t be ignored either; while Polish by birth, Chopin’s most influential years were spent as a teacher to the intelligentsia in Paris. In French piano repertoire, you’ll find that you must master the art of fine finger dexterity to play the music well, and the notions of arm weight and projection are secondary.
The English School of Piano
While the “English School” isn’t discussed with the same gravity as the “Russian School,” one person did have an extraordinary influence on piano teaching: Tobias Matthay. He was one of the first well-known scholars to explore the healthy motion of the arm while playing, and his focus was on playing with a natural motion, producing sound with arm weight rather than force, and keeping your motion tension-free.
His teaching directly influenced the work of a more modern school of pianistic thought — the Dorothy Taubman method.
The Taubman Method
In sum, Dorothy Taubman’s approach to piano technique is derived from Matthay’s assertion that piano playing should be tension free and performed with natural motions. She espouses natural wrist rotation; in a way, this is a direct contradiction from the Russian habit of dropping the wrist while playing. She taught that up-and-down wrist motion is superfluous, and that it doesn’t allow a pianist to play horizontally at a high rate of speed. According to Taubman, natural rotation of the hand and fingers, coordinated with the forearm, is the fastest natural motion a pianist can make.
The Italian School
While the “Italian School” of piano thought isn’t often discussed, one teacher in particular bears discussing: Vincenzo Scaramuza. He was a well-known concert pianist who turned his professional focus to pedagogy, and his approach was parallel to Tobias Matthay’s — he advocated for natural, tension-free movements that worked in harmony with a pianist’s physiology.
The Bel Canto style of singing has also been influential on the art of piano playing as well. Playing the piano should certainly be thought of as a form of singing, and when playing a line (especially when that line is Rubato), imagining that you have to breath as a singer can help you express the music much more naturally.
Technical Exercises to Improve Your Technique
Technical exercises for pianists are akin to lifting weights or doing exercises on a daily basis — the exercises are not an end in themselves, but they help you perform other tasks more skillfully. Think of football players — they practise dribbling, passing, and they run every day. Is it because they enjoy these tasks? Not exactly — it helps them play the game better.
Similarly, practising technique on its own will help you develop the finger strength and quickness necessary for advanced piano repertoire. Keeping this in perspective will help you practise better and avoid injury.
Specific Technical Exercises
Before we jump in, please keep in mind that over-practising technique can be VERY dangerous. It can lead to tension in the arms and hands, and you can even injure yourself. Just like weight lifters have to limit their exercise to ensure a healthy and long athletic life, pianists must preserve their long term health. So as you do exercises, stay loose and don’t obsess.
Scales – these are the backbone of piano technique. When practising scales, pretend they are actual pieces of music — using phrases, practise them both loudly and softly, and vary the touches that you use (try staccato scales, legato scales, and everything in between). Most importantly, play them evenly; it is better to practise a scale at low rates of speed with an even touch than it is to play them quickly and sloppily.
Arpeggios – often practised in tandem with scales, arpeggios should include all of the above practise techniques. Play them musically and will proper wrist rotation, and they will benefit your piano playing greatly. It’s also important to try and keep your hand moving as laterally as possible — you don’t want the thumb crossover to cause your entire hand to flip around, so to speak.
Hanon – The Hanon books of technical etudes can be valuable when practised in small doses, but some pianists develop a great deal of tension by playing them too much. Just like vitamins and supplements, a healthy amount is good for you, and too much can cause a great deal of pain.
Dozen a Day – These simple exercises are excellent for young pianists who are looking to progress to the intermediate level of piano playing. They are simpler and safer than Hanon, and each exercise focuses on specific technical aspects of playing.
H3 – Techniques For Learning Difficult Passages
If you are learning difficult music, you’ll have to break down tricky passages and create technical exercises out of them.
Dotted Rhythms – take difficult, rapid passages and play them with dotted rhythms to help increase speed and evenness. The dotted rhythm gives you just a bit of extra time to think about the next note, and as you slowly speed the dotted rhythm up, you will see your accuracy and evenness improve.
Accented Notes – Try accenting every other note or every fourth note in a passage. This technique is similar to the dotted rhythm method discussed above, and you will see rapid improvement if you practise this way.
Staccato – Even if a difficult passage is written in legato, you will benefit from practising it in a staccato manner. The same is true vice versa – practice staccato passages in legato.
Forte Playing – For some reason, challenging passages are internalised better when practised loudly, so give it a try the next time you have to learn something difficult. Just remember to practise it quietly as well once you’ve gotten the notes under your fingers.
Call The London Piano Centre About Lessons
If you would like to take your piano playing to the next level, call the expert teachers at the London Piano Centre in the Marylebone neighborhood of London. We would love to work with you either in person or online, so get in touch at your earliest convenience!