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Ossip Gabrilowitsch: Touch--the Great Essential of Fine Pianoforte Playing

From an Interview Secured Exclusively for THE ETUDE with


ossip-gabrilowitsch.jpg[Editor’s  Note.—M.Gabrilowitsch, who is now upon his fourth tour of America, is, without doubt, one of the foremost virtuosos of the day. He is still a young man, as was born in St. Petersburg, February 8, 1878. His father was a lawyer in that city. His brothers were musical, and his first teacher was one of his brothers. Later he was taken to Anton Rubinstein, who earnestly advocated a career as a virtuoso. Accordingly, he entered the class of Victor Tolstoff, at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which, at that time, was directed by Rubinstein. His frequent personal conferences with the latter master were of immense value to him. Thereafter he went to Vienna and studied with Leschetizsky for a period of two years, becoming one of that noted coterie of Leschetizsky pupils which has numbered Essipoff, Paderewski, Bloomfield-Zeisler, Hambourg, Goodson and others. American and foreign critics have particularly commented upon M. Gabrilowitsch’s tonal effects. As this is essentially a matter of touch and temperament, we have asked him to give some of his ideas on this matter in the following interview.]


“Modern pianoforte teachers in many instances seem to make deliberate attempts to complicate the very simple matter of touch. In the final analyses the whole study of touch may be resolved into two means of administering force to the keyboard,i. e.,weight and muscular activity. The amount of pressure brought to bear upon the keys depends upon the amount of arm weight and upon the quickness with which the muscles of the hand, forearm, fullarm and back permit the key to be struck. Upon these two means of administering force must depend whatever differentiation in dynamic power and tonal quality the player desires to produce. The various gradations of tone which the virtuoso’s hand and arm are trained to execute are so minute that it is impossible for me to conceive of a scientific instrument or scale to measure them. Physiologists have attempted to construct instruments to do this, but little of value has come from such experiments.



“Only a comparatively few years ago thousands of teachers were insisting upon having their pupils keep the arms in a still, even rigid, condition during practice. This naturally resulted in the stiffest imaginable kind of a touch, and likewise in a mechanical style of playing that made what has come to be known in later days as ‘tone color’ impossible.

“At this day the finger touch as it was formerly known has almost gone out of existence. By finger touch I refer to the old custom of holding the hand and forearm almost rigid and depending upon the muscular strength of the fingers for all tonal effects. In fact, I so rarely employ the finger touch, except in combination with the arm touch, that it is almost an insignificant factor as far as my own playing is concerned. By this the reader must not think that the training of the fingers, and particularly the finger tips, is to be neglected. But this training, to my mind, is not so much a matter of acquiring digital strength to produce force as to accustom the fingers to strike the notes with the greatest possible accuracy and speed. This belongs rather to the realm of technic than to that of touch, and behind all  technic is the intellect of the player. Technic is a matter of training the finger tips to attack and leave the keys under the absolute discipline of the brain. Touch has a much broader and wider significance. It is touch that reveals the soul of the player.



“Touch is the distinguishing characteristic which makes one player’s music sound different from that of another, for it is touch that dominates the player’s means of producing dynamic shading or tone quality. I know that many authorities contend that the quality of tone depends upon the instrument rather than upon the performer. Nevertheless, I am reasonably confident that if I were to hear a number of pianists play in succession upon the same instrument behind a screen and one of these performers were to be my friend, Harold Bauer, I could at once identify his playing by his peculiarly individual touch. In fact the trained ear can identify different individual characteristics with almost the same accuracy that we identify different voices. One could never forget Leschetizsky’s touch, or that of many another contemporary pianist.

“No matter how wonderful the pianist’s technic— that is, how rapidly and accurately he can play passages of extraordinary difficulty, it is quite worthless unless he possesses that control over his touch which enables him to interpret the composer’s work with the right artistic shading. A fine technic without the requisite touch to liberate the performer’s artistic intelligence and “soul” is like a gorgeous chandelier without the lights. Until the lights are ignited all its beauty is obscured in darkness. With an excellent technic and a fine touch, together with a broad musical and general education and artistic temperament, the young player may be said to be equipped to enter the virtuoso field.



“As I have intimated, if the fingers are used exclusively a terribly dry tone must result. The full-arm touch, in which I experience a complete relaxation of the arm from the shoulder to the finger tips, is the condition I employ at most times. But the touches I use are combinations of the different finger, hand and arm touches. These lead to myriads of results, and only the experienced performer can judge where they should be applied to produce desired effects.

 “You will observe by placing your hand upon my shoulder that even with the movement of the single finger a muscular activity may be detected at the shoulder. This shows how completely relaxed I keep my entire arm during performance. It is only in this way that I can produce the right kind of singing tone in cantabile passages. Sometimes I use one touch in one voice and an entirely different touch in another voice. The combinations are kaleidoscopic in their multiplicity.



“I have never been in favor of the many automatic and mechanical methods of producing touch. They are all dangerous to my mind. There is only one real way of teaching, and that is through the sense of hearing  of the pupil. The teacher should go to the piano and produce the desired tonal effect.


and the pupil should listen and watch the teacher. Then the pupil should be instructed to secure  a similar result, and the teacher should persevere until the audible effect is nearly the same. If the pupil, working empirically, does not discover the means leading to this effect, the teacher should call the pupil’s attention to some of the physical conditions leading to the result. If the teacher is unable to play well enough to illustrate this, and to secure the right kind of touch from his pupils, he has no business to be a teacher of advanced students. All the theory in the world will never lead to the proper results.


Rubinstein paid little or no attention to the theory of touch, and, in fact, he frequently stated that he cared little about such things, but who could hear Rubinstein’s touch without being benefited. I believe that in teaching touch the teacher should first give his model of the touch required and then proceed from this positive ideal, by means of the so-called Socratic method of inducing the pupil to produce a similar result through repeated questions. In this way the pupil will not be obliged to resign his individuality, as would be the case if he followed strict technical injunctions and rules.



“For the same reason it is advisable for the pupil to hear many fine pianists. He should never miss an opportunity to attend the concerts of great virtuosos. I can frankly say that I have learned as much from hearing the concerts of great performers as I have from any other source of educational inspiration. The pupil should listen intelligently and earnestly. When he hears what appeals to  him as a particularly fine tonal effect, he should endeavor to note the means the pianist employs to produce this effect.


“He must, however, learn to discriminate between affectation or needless movement and the legitimate means to an end. Consequent, upon a relaxed full arm is the occasional dropping of the wrist below the level of the keyboard. A few great players practice this at a public recital, and lo! and behold! a veritable cult of “wrist-droppers” arises and we see students raising and lowering the wrist with exaggerated mechanical stiffness and entirely ignoring the important end in which this wrist dropping was only an incident.



“I am continually amused at the thousand and one different ways of striking the keys that teachers devise and then attach with the label ‘method.’ These varied contortions are, after all, largely  a matter of vision, and have little effect upon the real musical results that the composition demands. Touch, as I have previously said, all comes down to the question of the degree of weight applied to the keyboard and the degree of quickness with which it is applied. In rapid octave and staccato passages the hand touch is largely used. This is the touch most dependent upon local muscular activity. Aside from this the combination of muscular and weight touch should almost invariably obtain.



“I desire to reiterate that if the ideal touch  is presented to the pupil’s mind, through the medium of the ear, he will be much more successful in attaining the artistic ends required. The pupil must realize clearly what is good  and  what is bad, and his  aural  sense  must be continually educated in this respect. He should practice slowly and carefully at the keyboard until he is convinced that his arm is at all times relaxed. He cannot make his sense of touch too sensitive. He should even be able to sense the weight or upward pressure which brings the pianoforte key back into position after it has been depressed. The arm should feel as if it were floating, and should never be tense.

 “‘When I am playing I do not think of the arm motion. I am, of course, absorbed in the composition being performed. A relaxed arm has become second nature to me. It comes by itself. Players are rarely able to tell just how they produce their results. There are too many contributing factors. Even with the best-known performers the effects differ at different performances. It is impossible for the performer to give a program repeatedly in identically the same manner. If he did succeed in doing this, his playing would soon become stereotyped.

“The teacher should, from the very beginning, seek  to avoid stiffness and bad hand positions, such as crooked fingers or broken-in knuckles. If these details are neglected the pupil is liable to go through his entire musical career greatly hampered. I would earnestly advise all teachers to discourage the efforts of pupils to attain virtuoso heights unless they are convinced beyond the possibility of a doubt that the pupil has marvelous talent. The really great performers seem to be endowed with a ‘God-given’ insight in the matter of both technic and touch. They are unquestionably born for it. They possess the right mental and physical capacity for success. No amount of training would make a Normandy dray horse that could compete with a Kentucky thoroughbred on the race course. It is a pitiful sight to watch students who could not possibly become virtuosos slave year after year before an ivory and ebony tread-mill, when, if they realized their lack of personal qualifications, they could engage in teaching or in some other professional or mercantile line and take a delight in their music as an avocation that they would never find in professional playing.



“To some, the matter of touch is of little significance. They are apparently born with an appreciation of tonal values that others might work years to attain in vain. Those who imagine that touch is entirely a matter of finger tips are greatly mistaken. The ear is quite as important as the organs employed in administering the touch to the keyboard. The pianist should in reality not think of the muscles and nerves in his arm, nor of the ivory and ebony keys, nor of the hammers and strings in the interior of the instrument. He should think first and always of the kind of tone he is eliciting from the instrument, and determine whether it is the most appropriate tonal quality for the proper interpretation of the piece he is playing. He must, of course, spend years of hard thought and study in cultivating this ability to judge and produce the right touch, but the performer who is more concerned about the technical claims of a composition than its musical interpretation can only hope to give an uninteresting, uninspired, stilted performance that should rightly drive all intelligent hearers from his audience hall.”

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