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A Physiologist's Comments on Piano Playing

In recent years two important books upon the philosophy of piano playing have appeared. While these books contain very little that can be put to immediate use by the average teacher, the works of Breithaupt and Steinhausen are significant of the interest taken in the scientific exposition of pianoforte playing. The London Music, commenting on Dr. Steinhausen’s book, says:

“Dr Steinhausen, one of Germany’s leading physiologists and a conspicuous surgeon-general in the Kaiser’s army, who is said to be a fine amateur pianist, has been causing no end of commotion among the multitudinous crowd of piano pedagogues and system builders. In a brochure published by him he vigorously denounced as unscientific and absurd some of their most cherished notions regarding the proper way of teaching pupils to play the piano artistically. In his animadversions on their peculiar theories with reference to the acquisition of technic, and, as he says, the insidious evils accompanying their application, he insists that, after attaining the age of consciousness, no pianist of any eminence ever existed who performed in the manner laid down in their methods; furthermore, no pianist ever would.

“Dr. Steinhausen holds that all those whom we acclaim as great technicians, irrespective of whatever other gifts they may display, became so solely in virtue of their perfect obedience to the physiological laws governing bodily movement. It would, however, be improper to affirm that they were all the while conscious of the fact. Indeed, when told, many of them would probably be as surprised as the bourgeois gentleman in Molière’s comedy when he discovered that he had spoken prose all his life without knowing it! There is, perhaps, no record of any of our great pianists ever evincing an overpowering desire for analyzing their own muscular acts while performing, with such consequent deductions as would be of practical benefit to learners.”

Says John Kautz, in the Albany Argus: “It is known that Beethoven, Liszt and Taussig—that wizard of the keyboard—all, at some period or other, contemplated writing piano methods, but hardly got beyond the intention. In their time the physiology of the muscular actions was yet in its infancy. Their projected methods would probably have turned out as unsatisfactorily as those of Hummel, Czerny and the rest.


The main facts of Steinhausen’s work and those parts which are of particular interest to students and to teachers are embodied in the following postulates:

“I. As to arm movement, he asks for its complete emancipation from the shoulder down, and the employment of the same as a means of tone gradation from the faintest whisper to the most sonorous utterance. Its natural condition when resting must be one of passivity; every tension to be momentarily followed by instant relaxation. This principle is familiar to all of our better educated teachers.

“II. The exclusion of isolated finger technics and the substitution of a more general rotary movement on part of the hand. You may, implies Steinhausen, practice the weaker fingers till doomsday, and you will never be able to make them equal the stronger. Those who think so are merely deluding themselves.

“III. A full utilization of the great muscles centering in the shoulder and back.

“IV. The complete cessation of mechanical, thoughtless practice. The brain and muscles must coöperate.

“V. Economy of power and a lessening of fatigue. No fixed hand position whatsoever.

“VI. The greatest possible variety of tone volume.

“VII. The least expenditure of energy after key depression. These, therefore, are the things that Steinhausen demands, and which are only attainable if pursued in accordance with the physiological laws of natural movement. It must be observed, that his arguments relate entirely to the mechanical aspect of piano playing.”


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