Thinking About Practice: Part Five

Reducing Music to Technique: Intelligent Bunglers and Brainless Acrobats

First, some disclaimers: 1. The words in the title after the colon are not mine, they’re Carl Flesch’s and are from an age when musical invective was more a feature of pedagogy than it is today (so I assume—it is not in my studio); 2. I’m not addressing those whose technique is already highly developed and who are well-trained; 3. I’m not directing my argument to the teaching of children; 4. My comments are intended for those who aspire to the highest levels of performance, although even those with modest aspirations can benefit from thinking about these things.

Here’s the general thrust of this post: thinking one can learn technique solely or primarily through the study of repertoire means believing in an inherently unmusical practice. This may seem counter-intuitive, but such an approach is specious, pedagogically lazy, and not well-thought-out. Although one may be playing a piece music and keeping oneself amused, one won’t have the freedom to play artistically and focus on interpretive nuance. If one manages to acquire some level of technique this way, one’s ear will have become so inert by the mechanical repetition of something that should never be repeated mechanically that if an interpretive vision for the piece does develop, it will be derivative and lack discernment.

This should be self-evident, but I have had a profusion of conversations with auditioning students, students playing for me in master classes, and colleagues discussing their approach to teaching that I’ve been stunned more than once by the statement and its variations: “My teacher didn’t have me study scales and said I would get all the scale practice I need by playing pieces with scales in them.”[1]

Part of the problem may lie in the pedagogical advice artists often present to students: the artist may speak (or write) about how they practice now, not how they were trained. The problem of training is further complicated by the legions of atomized individual guitarists who had to find their own way before guitar study at the university level became possible, which in the United States wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1960s, and then it was a rarity. Even now, guitar study—good or bad—is not available at every college or university that has a music program.

Pedagogical Advice?

Much of the pedagogical advice that Andrés Segovia dispensed to students throughout his career is probably unknown to guitar students today, and many guitarists who came of age in the latter years of Segovia’s life consciously rejected his approach, but one of Segovia’s ideas still permeates guitar teaching: that of making technical exercises out of pieces. In The Guitar And I, a 1970 recording in which he spoke about his early career, he said, “Out of difficult passages I made a new exercise. Often I ceased to regard the motif I had chosen as part of a specific work and elevated it to a superior level of studies in which was latent the promise of victory over more general difficulties.”[2]

After all these years, I’m still not sure what the second part of the quotation means. Does it mean he created a new exercise modeled after the technique needed for a passage, or does it mean he extracted a passage from the piece and the passage itself was the exercise? Or could it mean something else? “Ceasing to regard the motif… as part of a specific work” says only that he changed the way he thought about the passage. Did this change in thinking cause the passage to become “elevated,” or did he “elevate” it in some other way? And the nature of this elevation is unclear, other than it contained the “promise of victory.”

Whether Christopher Parkening’s approach, as articulated in his method, was shaped by Segovia, I can’t say: “…for the most part I learned the guitar by playing pieces I loved and trying to perfect them.”[3]

Thinking one can develop high-level skills by only practicing repertoire (or parts thereof), is akin to an aspiring professional tennis player thinking that simply by playing games of tennis—and ignoring strength training, sprints, footwork drills, coaching on his/her backhand, serve, forehand, etc.—he or she has a chance of becoming a tournament-level player. Analogies between musicians and athletes break down when carried too far, but this one hasn’t yet: athletes need their dexterity to be able to respond effortlessly and quickly to the ever-changing demands of the game; and musicians need their technique unimpeded to realize their artistic vision of a work. But the practice of using a piece of music to acquire and develop one’s technique ensures that one will not be fully engaged with interpretation. Even if one can think about interpretation a little, one won’t be able to do much of it because of technical shortcomings.

Guitarists, athletes, and other artists haven’t always had the most eloquent of voices when writing about how they can do what they do and how they got there. Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990), English philosopher and political theorist, offers some insight why this might be: “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.”[4] David Foster Wallace has a more damning explanation.[5]

…those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.

The Bungler and Acrobat Part

Carl Flesch (1873–1944), whose words I used for the title of this post, rebuts the use of pieces for technical development in his book The Art of Violin Playing from 1924.[6]

Practice in itself is taught in two ways by pedagogically gifted teachers. Some recommend musical practice on a logical, others on a mechanical basis. In reality, a technically perfected performance can only result after the student has formed the right conception of the movements required for it, and then is able to find the proper transferring mechanism for them. An exaggerated preoccupation with one of these factors develops either intelligent bunglers or brainless acrobats.

Flesch makes a distinction between general technique and applied technique. General technique includes the mastery of scales, arpeggios, slurs, intervals, and so on; applied technique is the cultivation of general technique in repertoire pieces. Flesch outlines what happens if general technique is neglected:[7]

…the repertoire piece itself… is reduced to the rank of a practice piece, the musical meaning of the work is entirely lost in the course of time, and we are no longer able to feel and express it with that immediacy and freshness which is an essential prerequisite for its transfer to the auditor’s emotional receptivity. The technical level of ability demanded for the reproduction of a work should already have been attained by means of general technical studies.

Flesch certainly had more experience training violinists than Segovia had training guitarists. Segovia was never responsible for the long-term development of a student (except for himself).[8] Flesch maintains that if a repertoire piece becomes a mere practice piece, its musical meaning is gradually lost.

I’m with Flesch on this, but he doesn’t go far enough. The act of mastering scales, arpeggios, slurs, and other techniques, means one has learned to solve problems, the solutions to which can be quickly transferred and applied to the requirements of a composition (technical practice is not so one can mindlessly repeat technical patterns on auto-pilot). The more one is preoccupied with a technical problem while playing a piece, the less one will be able to participate in making music; the longer one is unable actually to make music while playing, the more damaged one’s artistic sensitivities become. When musical meaning is lost, impersonalization begins and priorities begin to shift.

A Smattering Will Not Do

Even if concert guitarists of the past had written extensively about practicing and how they attained their ability, I’m certain that whatever gems or insights could be found would be buried within a “crippled epistemology,” to use legal scholar Cass Sunstein’s term. But, pianists did write a lot, and much of what is true for piano study is true for guitar study. There’s much pianists were working out, but there’s much they got right.

Tausig: Every note you play is golden

Carl Tausig (1841–1871) didn’t publish anything about piano playing while alive, but he was an influential figure and one of the great pianists of the nineteenth century. He was one of Lizst’s favorite students and many thought he surpassed his teacher in pure virtuosity. Liszt said of Tausig, “Briareus[9] himself, had it occurred to him to play the piano, could never with all his hundred hands have equalled this Tausig of the ten brazen fingers.”[10]

Lest you think Tausig was a mere technical wizard, consider what Hans von Bülow, another of the great nineteenth-century pianists, said to Tausig the last time he heard him play, “You have become unapproachably great, my dear friend. Unfailing as my admiration of your gigantic talent has always been, I never believed it possible that I should one day esteem you as highly as I did Joachim, when I heard him play the Beethoven Concerto. Every note you play is golden, the quintessence of musical feeling.”[11]

Oscar Beringer (1844–1922), who studied with Tausig and who became a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music, was “lucky enough to come into personal contact with nearly all the great pianists of that time, including Moscheles, Liszt, von Bülow, [Anton] Rubinstein, Tausig, and the rest of that glorious band of artists to whom the credit of raising the standard of pianoforte playing throughout the world is chiefly due.”[12]

Beringer relates that during three years of study with Tausig, Tausig never showed him a single technical exercise. Yet, after Tausig’s death at the age of 31, an “enormous amount of purely technical material was found among his papers.”[13] These were collected, systematically arranged, and published in two volumes after Tausig’s death. There’s little text (what little there is, is by H. Ehrlich, the editor), but there are numerous exercises covering all sort of pianistic textures and problems. I don’t know whether they’re much used today, but they were part of the foundation of the Russian piano school.

Leschetizky: No friend of theoretical methods

The most famous piano teacher of the late nineteenth century was Theodor Leschetizky (1830–1915), who taught a number of legendary pianists, including Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Ignaz Friedman, Artur Schnabel, and Mark Hambourg. Although Leschetizky did not leave behind any writings about piano playing, his student and assistant, Malwine Brée,[14] published The Groundwork Of The Leschetizky Method in 1902 with Leschetizky’s blessing: “I am from principle no friend of theoretical Piano-Methods,” he wrote, “but your excellent work, which I have carefully examined, is such a brilliant exposition of my personal views, that I subscribe, word for word, to everything you advance therein.”[15]

Brée’s book was intended mainly for pianists who already possess more than rudimentary training. Yet, she insisted that they refrain from playing their repertoire while mastering the numerous exercises within: “Pianists re-forming their method according to Leschetizky, will arrive at the goal only through entire abstention from playing in their former style while forming their new one.”[16] Even after having mastered the exercises, she cautions students from playing their old repertoire: “…play nothing from your earlier repertory for some time, but take up études and pieces which you have never studied, playing none of the old pieces until you are sure not to lapse into the former manner of playing.”[17]

Rachmaninoff: Hanon, Tausig, Czerny

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), writing about the essentials of artistic playing, states that, “The technical ability of the performer should be of such a nature that it can be applied immediately to all the artistic demands of the composition to be interpreted. Of course, there may be individual passages which require some special technical study, but, generally speaking, technic is worthless unless the hands and the mind of the player are so trained that they can encompass the principal difficulties found in modern compositions.”[18] Like Flesch, Rachmaninoff says one needs to have already developed the technique required to play a piece. This is first done through the extensive study of exercises by Hanon, then Tausig and Czerny. Rachmaninoff thought “this may be one of the reasons why some of the Russian pianists have been so favorably received in recent years.”[19]

(Note that what Rachmaninoff has articulated is the inverse of the approach articulated by Parkening: Rachmaninoff acquired his technique through a regimen of rigorous technical exercises, practicing individual passages for technique when needed; Parkening seem to have mainly played pieces and passages from pieces, supplementing his practice with exercises if a particular technique was found wanting.)

Lhévinne: Never omitted from daily work

Josef Lhévinne[20] (1874–1944), another outstanding pianist and Rachmaninoff’s classmate at the Moscow Conservatory, elaborates on what Rachmaninoff said: “During the first five years the backbone of the daily work in all Russian schools is scales and arpeggios. All technic reverts to these simple materials and the student is made to understand this from his very entrance to the conservatory. As the time goes on the scales and arpeggios become more difficult, more varied, more rapid, but they are never omitted from the daily work. [Italics mine.] The pupil who attempted complicated pieces without this preliminary technical drill would be laughed at in Russia. I have been amazed to find pupils coming from America who have been able to play a few pieces fairly well, but who wonder why they find it difficult to extend their musical sphere when the whole trouble lies in an almost total absence of regular daily technical work systematically pursued through several years.”[21]

Still unconvinced? Here’s what Lhévinne wrote in 1924 about students who come to him having learned a handful of show pieces by rôte: “Study of this kind is not only a great waste of the pupil’s time but also a disgusting waste of the time of the advanced teacher, who realizes that he is not training a real musician but a kind of musical parrot whose playing must always be meaningless. Often these pupils have real talent and cannot be blamed. They simply have had no teacher in the early years with patience and sufficient will power to hold them back until they have been exhaustively drilled in scales and arpeggios. A smattering will not do.”[22]

Lhévinne would have agreed that trying to learn technique through repertoire was damaging. He wrote in his Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing: “Always divide your practice periods. Do your technic at one time and your pieces at another. Approach the two sections with different aspects.”[23]

Cortot: Reduced to elementary principles

Alfred Cortot (1877–1962) opens his 1928 Rational Principles of Pianoforte Technique[24] by writing, “…the mechanical and long-repeated practice of a difficult passage has been replaced by the reasoned study of the difficulty contained therein, reduced to its elementary principle.”[25] Cortot’s exercises provide concentrated practice of these elementary principles, which can then be applied to repertoire as the student improves.

The organization of Cortot’s book is more obvious and clear than those of Tausig or Brée. Cortot’s book contains five main chapters:

  1. Evenness, independence and mobility of the fingers.
  2. Passing under of the thumb—Scales—Arpeggios.
  3. The technique of double notes and polyphonic playing.
  4. The technique of extensions.
  5. The technique of the wrist—The execution of chords.

Within each chapter are several series of exercises. Cortot makes the relationship between exercises and repertoire explicit: the last section of the book contains a list of repertoire (Frescobaldi through César Frank) showing which group of exercises one needs to have mastered to present a “perfect interpretation” of the piece.

For Students The Equation Flows In One Direction

Although there are no recordings of Tausig or Leschetizky, there are recordings of Rachmaninoff, Lhévinne, and Cortot. Some might disagree with their interpretations, but no one can deny that these pianists were artists with a vision for the music they played, and they had the means to express that vision. None of them advocated a method of study that ignored the rigorous practice of well-organized technical exercises.

Everyone writes that technique is only a means to an end, the end being the artistic performance of music. Of course it is, and it hardly needs restating. That technique is the means to an end indicates that this equation should only flow one way. Trying to develop technique by only playing pieces is no different from thinking that playing pieces is an end to a means, which is pretty confusing, and rightly so. Try it like this: playing music is only a means to a technical end. Who wants that? Both will end up compromised.[26]

Thinking About Practice, Part One: Practice is About Thinking

Thinking About Practice, Part Two: Principles or Directives?

Thinking About Practice, Part Three: Dagobah and East Coker

Thinking About Practice, Part Four: Practice By Design or Waste Your Time

  1. It would be an interesting study to see whether this is at all connected to other declines in education, e.g., the decline of rigorous instruction in grammar in the second half of the twentieth century. ↩︎

  2. Andrés Segovia, The Guitar and I LP (Decca, MCA S 30 020), 1970. ↩︎

  3. Christopher Parkening, The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method, (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998), 7. ↩︎

  4. Michael Oakeshott, What is History? And Other Essays, Exeter, UK, (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2004). ↩︎

  5. David Foster Wallace, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, (New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, 2007), 155. ↩︎

  6. Carl Flesch, The Art Of Violin Playing, Book One, (New York: Carl Fischer, Inc. 1924), Revised Edition 1939, 107. ↩︎

  7. Flesch, 107. ↩︎

  8. Although Segovia didn’t have much choice in the early years of the twentieth century, the old proverb about serving as one’s own lawyer—he who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client—applies to those who attempt to teach themselves, especially during initial study. ↩︎

  9. Briareus was a figure in Greek mythology who had a hundred hands. ↩︎

  10. Quoted in Oscar Beringer, “Pianoforte Technic of the Past, Present and Future,” The Etude, July 1914, 492. ↩︎

  11. Oscar Beringer, “Pianoforte Technic of the Past, Present and Future,” The Etude, July, 1914, 492. ↩︎

  12. Oscar Beringer, Fifty Years’ Experience of Pianoforte Teaching and Playing, (London: Bosworth & Co., 1907), 1. ↩︎

  13. Beringer, “Pianoforte Technic of the Past, Present and Future,” 492. ↩︎

  14. It was Malwine Brée who taught Artur Schnabel during his first year in Leschetizky's studio at age nine and from whom he received rigorous technical instruction. Schnabel’s other teacher at the time was Annette Essipoff, Leschetizky's wife. ↩︎

  15. Malwine Brée, The Groundwork Of The Leschetizky Method, (Schirmer: NY, 1902), iii. ↩︎

  16. Brée, 100. ↩︎

  17. Ibid. ↩︎

  18. James Francis Cooke, Great Pianists on Piano Playing, (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Co, 1913), 209–210. ↩︎

  19. Cooke, 210. ↩︎

  20. Lhévinne taught at Julliard until his death. ↩︎

  21. Cooke, 176–177. ↩︎

  22. Josef Lhévinne, Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, (Philadelphia: Theo. Presser Company, 1924), 9–10. ↩︎

  23. Lhévinne, 44. ↩︎

  24. One can’t help wonder if Emilio Pujol’s books were inspired by Cortot’s book. The titles are similar: Escuela Razonada De La Guitarra, which I’d interpret as The Rational School of Guitar (although the English translation that appeared in 1983 was titled Guitar School: A Theoretical-Practical Method for the Guitar Based on the Principles of Francisco Tárrega). But Pujol’s books are too diffuse, and they’re based on the principles of Tárrega, of which there are none. ↩︎

  25. Alfred Cortot and Métaxas Le Roy, Rational Principles of Pianoforte Technique, (Paris: M. Senart, 1928), 1. ↩︎

  26. Don’t forget my disclaimers: I’m writing about those undergoing a process of training, not those who are already highly developed. And as interesting as it, I’m also not writing about the insight difficult pieces and challenging interpretive ideas can give us about technical refinement. Perhaps more on that later. ↩︎