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Letters To Teachers

Please explain the different kinds of touch for the piano.—G. E. N.

The shortest answer I can give to your question would be to recommend you to buy the first volume of ”Touch and Technic” and read it carefully through. But preparatory to that more elaborate discussion of the subject of piano touch perhaps the following may be of service: Taking it with reference to the result obtained, touch can be distinguished as legato and staccato. A legato touch is one which holds on and connects each tone with the next following; a staccato touch is one which breaks off as soon as possible after beginning, or, at any rate, before the next tone begins. Considered with reference to the manner of producing them, the touches can be classified as being made with the fingers, with the hand, and with the arm. In my own teaching I should begin with the arm touches, because the easiest manner of producing tone upon the piano is by allowing the arm to fall by its own weight, the fingers taking the weight upon the key. And the opposite of this, which in “Touch and Technic” is called the “up-arm touch,” the tone is made by springing away from the key with the entire arm from the shoulder. Touches from the elbow are very little used now by the best players. Hand touches are used in rapid chords and in fast octave playing, but the hand impulse, moving on the hinge at the wrist, is always complicated more or less with larger impulses from the arm, which commonly group the fast chords or octaves into groups of four or six. It is the ignoring of this element of fast octave playing which makes the ordinary conservatory teaching so faulty in the line of octaves. All heavy chords and octaves are played with the arm touches and never with hand touches. Very delicate chords are sometimes played with finger touches. The effect of the chords will be very different when they are done with finger touches from what it will be if done with hand or arm touches. If done with the arm, the entire chord has a full and massive effect; if done with the finger, the individual tones constituting the chord are more delicate and intelligent and are never available in heavy playing unless the arm element is added to them.

Finger touches are made by the hammer motion of the curved fingers upon the knuckle-joint, such as used always to be taught by means of five-finger exercise. There is, however, no one correct position of the hand or of the fingers. In melody playing the fingers are usually not quite so much curved as in passage playing, or, at least, in melody playing the finger must fall upon the soft cushion at the end and not absolutely upon the end by the nail. Many finger touches are made by drawing the points of the fingers in toward the hand. These are varieties of the finger staccato, of which in the Mason books two or three grades are specified. The staccato touch, usually taught in the European conservatories, is effected by springing the finger away from the key without drawing it inward.

The musical quality of piano touch depends upon two elements which, when properly developed in the pupil, will almost invariably give good results without any very great trouble. The first of these elements is the complete responsiveness of the entire playing apparatus from the shoulder to the tips of the fingers, so that nothing is rigid and nothing is flabby and uncontrollable. This condition of the fingers and arm, in my opinion, may be arrived at more easily by the use of the Mason two finger exercises and octave practice, even without the scales and arpeggios, than by any other instrumentality which has elsewhere been offered. In my own teaching I use the two finger exercise of Mason in four different forms ; three of these forms belong to what I call the super vitalized, being those which are proper for extreme effort; the fourth form belongs to what might be called devitalized or unvitalized, the object being to have it as fast and as light as possible and to free all the muscles from anything like cramp or spasmodic contraction. The first form is the two-finger exercise for the elastic touch, which I use always without overlapping of tones, in the same manner upon the white keys as it has necessarily to be performed upon the black keys. The second form consists of the down arm and up-arm in connection. The third form, the hand touch, followed by the finger elastic. These three forms are played from the music of the first two lines in the first volume of “Touch and Technic.” When a certain amount of skill has been secured in these touches the second rhythms can be used. The fourth form is the light and fast and it should be played from any of the later forms after number 6. When the two-finger exercise has been well mastered in all the varieties given in volume I, then the octave study in the first three pages of volume iv has to be taken up and later on the chord exercises on pages 21 and 23 of volume iv. These, together, constitute the staple of piano touch and afford at least the typical manners of eliciting tone from the instrument. They, therefore, furnish the student with the foundation for musical expression which he can not get from any other system of technics whatever. Inasmuch as the real force of these exercises and their value to the student lie largely in their being done without fault, it might happen that a student practicing by himself would pursue the forms here recommended with comparatively little advantage to his playing owing to faulty manners of performing the work. This it would be the business of the teacher to correct, and it is impossible, in any kind of explanations, to completely guard all the points.

 

1. What is the work and material required in cultivating a good position of the hand, especially in those pupils whose previous instruction in this regard has been sadly neglected?

2. What studies for small hands can be used in the latter part of grade 2 and first part of grade 3 to cultivate good scale and legato passage playing?

3. Do you know of any good manual or pamphlet, published in inexpensive form, on the subject of wise and careful practicing?

4. What are the chief uses of the “clicks” in the Virgil Practice-Clavier?—A. H. M.

In relation to your first question, I will say that what you mean by good position of the hand I suppose to be a nicely-curved hand, lying neatly upon the keyboard with the knuckle-joints of the little finger upon the same level as those of the first and second fingers. This position of the hand will only be attained after considerable training. But it is not so much due to training in position as it is a strengthening and developing the weak side of the hand, which you can do through the different forms of the two-finger exercise and especially by means of the two-finger exercise in sixths (two notes to each hand) played in slow forms with the wrist low, the weak side of the hand raised, and the finger-motions made as large as possible. There is no technical exercise available which improves the position of the hand and its strength and flexibility for chord playing more rapidly than this one does. I do not care at all for five- finger exercises, particularly for those where one key is held down and the other fingers move. These almost invariably result in stiffening the wrist, thereby fatally hampering the playing upon the musical side. In answer to your second question, I would recommend Vogt’s Op. 124 and Berens’ Op. 79. For the third question, see the article on “Practice,” by Wm. E. Snyder, in The Etude for July. The uses of the clicks in the Virgil Practice Clavier are very important indeed. In playing the piano it is very necessary to have the finger-motions prompt, both the descending motions and the up motions. When you undertake to play upon the dumb keyboard with the heavy pressure the weak fingers often fail to quite carry the key down, or perform their work sluggishly. In the Clavier the down clicks only act at a certain point of the stroke, and if the weak finger fails to operate with sufficient promptness the click does not come at all. When the down clicks have been well worked in, then, dismissing them, the up clicks are used in order to secure a prompt removal from the keys, and whatever you play upon the instrument with one set of clicks on and the other off should show exactly as many clicks as there are notes in the music. When you are using down clicks these will occur at the beginning of the tones; when you are using the up clicks they will occur at the end of the supposed tone.

 

What is the meaning of the short, straight line with the dot under it over notes, especially over bass notes? I find it, for instance, in J. Gilder’s “Amaranthus”; also the line without the dot, sometimes under the treble notes.—M. J. H.

The short straight line with dot, over or under a note, or the short straight line without a dot, generally signifies emphasis and an individual effect of the note. The same effect is indicated by a slur with a dot over each note.

 

Will you kindly inform me through your column in The Etude whether you think Bach fugues are out of place to be played at a church service? In one paper it stated that they were.—F. B. W.

Anything is proper to be played in church that the congregation will stand. There are various degrees of liberty and of cruelty. If your organ is a very strong one and the reed-stops are a little out of tune, if you will draw the full organ and play a very difficult Bach fugue without any attention to phrasing and voicing, you will perform an act which the recording angel perhaps will pass over. If you are doing this in the West, it might be advisable to hang over the front of the gallery the celebrated legend, “Do not shoot the organist. He is doing his level best.”

Whether your performance is religious or irreligious would depend upon the standpoint of the recording angel. If he takes it from your standpoint it may be that you have given a good deal of practice to preparing a difficult work because you thought it was a master work and ought to be prepared. From your standpoint, therefore, he credits you one. If he notices the effect upon the audience, however, he will find that in a full congregation there are many people who desire to whisper little things to each other during the unofficial parts of the service, just as the sexton passes the “sasser” while the organist is playing a sweet little selection. When they find themselves unable to communicate with their neighbors on account of the loud noise of the organ, the language in which their reflections would formulate themselves would depend a good deal upon their stage of sanctification; and as congregations are ordinarily composed, even deacons have been known to lapse under a provocation of this kind. All this the recording angel charges off to you; so the question is complicated, and I find myself unable to answer it.

On the other hand, if at the end of the service you should play a Bach fugue with a reasonable consideration, giving it as good a sound as you could, and making it clear and dignified, it would be very proper provided you did it in a proper manner. There are many things of Bach which a musician with sufficient technical mastery and with sufficient taste in registration might use in church service with excellent propriety. An organist who plays a fugue as clearly as the Frenchman, Guilmant, is always to be heard with delight. Just as one of these fine pianists like Paderewski or Godowsky is enjoyed in a selection from Bach just as truly as in one from Chopin or Schumann; and it is the work of a conscientious organist to bring his playing up to this standard.

The objection to the use of Bach fugues and organ sonatas in church, on the part of a certain kind of pastor and evangelical devotee, has no validity from an art standpoint. Many of them will tolerate anything in church provided it is soft and sentimental, and they will object to anything that is in any degree severe. At the same time one of these very gentlemen will stand up in the pulpit and read the most blood-curdling things out of the Old Testament or the Revelations without considering that the terrors of the law should not be permitted the pulpit and denied the musician.

 

I would like to mention how much I prize the book “Masters and Their Music,” but I have several times wondered why Weber was not included. Perhaps Mr. Mathews would explain this, since many other readers of The Etude would also be interested in it.—J. P.

In reply I will frankly say that the original intention of the work mentioned was to give the foundation of a knowledge of musical literature through the study of the works of the greatest masters. There is no reason why something of Weber should not have been included. While he was an important composer in his time, his works have little influence in art and are of slight value, either esthetically or technically.

 

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You are reading Letters To Teachers from the July, 1898 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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