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What the Piano Student Could Learn from the Violin Teacher

By the Well-Known American Violinist=Teacher


Formerly Assistant to the Famous Czech Teacher of Virtuosos, O. Sevcik


otto-meyer.jpgThere is a story that when Liszt had become a suc­cessful piano virtuoso he attended a recital by Paganini. The playing of the great Italian violinist, whom the people of his native Genoa believed to be in league with the devil, so fascinated the young Liszt that he exclaimed to a friend:

“Now I must start to learn the piano all over again,”

At any rate Liszt temporarily retired from the con­cert stage and devoted some two years to study, appearing again with vastly improved technic, — largely, “it is believed, as a result of Paganini’s inspiration and example. The great pianist saw in the magic of the Italian wizard’s playing heights of feeling and tech­nical mastery which he felt were lacking in his piano playing.

The average piano student would hardly believe it possible that he could learn anything from the violinist. As a matter of fact the art of fine piano playing has been influenced by the violin in many ways. If the piano student realized this he would attend more violin recitals and seek opportunities to profit by the advice and suggestions of good violinists.

In recent years it is not unusual to encounter the artist who is an acceptable violinist and also a pianist. Emil Paur, former conductor of the Boston Symphony, has appeared upon the same program playing a violin concerto as well as a piano concerto. The limited numbers of performances at the keyboard given by the great violinist Kreisler have sufficed to show what an artist he might have been had he chosen the piano. Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bach and many other masters also played the violin, although they are better known for their work at the keyed instruments.

Harold Bauer studied to be a violinist. During a period of financial stringency he was offered a position as piano accompanist on a tour. Like most violinists, Bauer played a little piano, but not enough to perform well the accompaniments that he would be expected to play. So he set to work by himself, and by utilizing the principles of technique that he had learned in his violin study, not only made a success on the tour, but did so well that his friends persuaded him to make the piano his chief instrument. His trained violinist’s ear and original technical methods brought such results that as a master of tonal effects he ranks among the greatest pianists.

Many of the principles that apply to violin study apply likewise to the physical part of piano technic.

When I was a student under Sevcik, he used con­stantly to say: “Relax the arm, and let its weight on the bow produce the tone;” and Ysaye used to shake his arm loosely from the shoulder to show how relaxed the muscles should be in bowing correctly.


Piano Obligatory

Abroad, nearly all music conservatories make it ob­ligatory that the violin student take several years of piano instruction as a second study, and it is there­fore obvious that the majority of violinists are, at least, fair pianists. Some of them, however, play exceedingly well, for the musical development and finger control gained in their serious violin study are also available in their piano playing. One might think that as the violinist fingers only with the left hand he would be handicapped in his playing of the right hand on the piano. Such however, is not the case. Investiga­tions undertaken by scientists in gymnasiums have shown that when one arm, for example, is exercised, the other develops proportionately, both in strength and in dexterity. This principle explains the fact that though the violinist trains chiefly in his left hand, his right hand also gains in strength and dexterity.

There are many violinists who could follow, if they desired, the example of Bauer, in becoming piano virtuosi. Fritz Kreisler and Francis MacMillen often amuse their friends by playing piano accompaniments and scores at sight that would tax the ability of most pianists.

In considering what the piano student could learn from the violin teacher let us first ask ourselves: “Of what does artistic piano playing consist? Opin­ions will, of course, differ, but I believe that most music lovers and judges of good music will have much the same general idea, namely, that the most important thing is musical grasp and appreciation of the melodies and artistic playing of the same, with proper proportion and sense of climax, polyphonic ef­fects and rhythm. Technique of course is important, but unless it is used for expressing the musical message it fails in its real purpose. As illustration I give the following anecdote: Two musicians walking along the streets of Berlin heard through an open window the sounds of the minute waltz of Chopin, played at tremendous speed. One asked the other: “Who can that be?” and his companion replied: “It is either so and so, (naming a pianist noted for his technical skill and lack of musicianship) or a pianola.”

The piano pupil, and too often the piano teacher, is apt to become so interested in the technical side of his art, that the proper playing of the melodies with beautiful tone, phrasing, and dynamics is too often neglected. Here the criticism and example of the violinist is invaluable. Not considering the pianist’s technical limitations, the violinist shows by example how the melody should sound, and the pianist strives to imitate the continuity of and beauty of tone. Lack of connection in melody tones is intolerable to a violinist. The prominence of the Leschitizky school of piano playing is largely due to its careful preparatory work in connection of successive tones, and in bringing out any one tone of a chord so as to be able to sub­ordinate the supporting harmonies to the melody.


Where is the Melody?

A question that I often ask after hearing a piano pupil play a selected piece is, “where is the melody?” Modern music is largely polyphonic in character, and the melody is not always the top note of the chords. Often it shifts from one hand to the other, or may be in any middle voice. A plan which I find useful is to indicate by a pencil line the melodies of a compo­sition. Of course the study of Bach inventions and fugues should teach the pianist to bring out melodies in the various voices, but too often the piano pupil thinks of the works of Bach as mere finger gymnastics and does not appreciate the beauty of the melodies. Many passages apparently merely harmonic or technical show hidden melodies when carefully studied, and the difference between the artist and the mere player consists in so bringing out the important tones that the

audience may be shown the hidden beauties of the apparently meaningless passage.

The playing of sonatas with a violinist furnishes an invaluable means for developing the ability to play mel­odies beautifully and to subordinate that which is not important. In the sonata form, part of the time the violinist is given the melody, and part of the time the pianist is soloist, and the careful study of a sonata with its weighing of the importance of the two parts is a great aid to musicianship. Also in the sonata very often the piano will have a melody to play which the violin has played just before, so that the pianist will unconsciously imitate any beauties of tone or phrasing which the violinist may have shown.

Now before we consider in what respects the violinist might be able to give aid to the piano student in technical matters, let me make one point clear: I do not mean to imply that a violinist could ever take the place of a good piano teacher as a technical guide. The traditions of the technical method of every instrument are an inheritance which we have from the past, and only the person who has received that inheritance can give efficient guidance to the technical development of the pupil. What your piano instructor teaches you is the combined sum of what he received from his teacher, plus what he in a life-time of study, has been able to add; and so on back to the first pianists who did not use the thumb in fingering. Only the pianist who has reached the top level of technical achievement himself can with surety show the beginner the best ways of doing things.


The Ultimate Goal

One often finds that the teacher objects to the pupil’s way of doing a certain thing, which, however, seems to produce the effect desired. The teacher knows, that though the way of the pupil seems all right inas­much as it produces the effect momentarily desired, yet, in later years difficulties will be encountered which cannot be performed with the particular hand position or whatever it may be. The pupil will then have to completely change his method of playing and in a way commence over again. This is the reason that often a piano pupil on going to a famous master is put on very elementary exercises, for the teacher forsees that although the pupil plays quite well the pieces at the time, yet, in order to master the greater tech­nical tasks, his ways of playing will have to be changed. Now of course the violin teacher cannot have this oversight of advanced technique, and therefore can in no way be considered a substitute for a first class piano teacher.

The principles of music are, however, universal, and therefore, if one has a chance to have the criticism of a good violinist, he will often be able to point out distorted rhythms, places where in chords the two hands are not together, wrong notes and so forth.

In recent years, more especially since the advent of Sevcik’s violin studies, the knowledge of how to study and master technical difficulties has advanced if any­thing more rapidly among violinists than among pianists, and as Baillot says: “To know how to study is in itself an art.”

In the old days, the violinist as also the pianist, used in a way, to be expected to teach himself. The teacher would give a series of etudes and expect that in repeating them endless numbers of times, that some­how the pupil would acquire a technique. Some es­pecially gifted really did so, but a large percentage never attained more than moderate ability on their instrument. And the reason that they did not do so was that they did not know how to study.

What is an etude? It is an attempt to make palatable a technical difficulty. In other words, all etudes have, or should have, some basic difficulty which they present. But in order to make the difficulty interesting, the writer would after presenting the difficulty in one key, have to modulate into another key, and in doing so would present other difficulties absolutely unrelated; so that instead of being able to concentrate on the arppegio (sic), scale, or whatever the etude should teach the pupil would scatter his energy.

Sevcik and Sevcik’s violin method taught the violin pupil how to study absolute technique systematically, and many of the study ideas that he evolved for the violin are also available for the piano.


“Jede Vier Noten”

For example: if given a certain page of music to study, the average pupil plays it through time after time in the hope that it will improve of itself, the Sevcik method would be to play it through at speed, and to observe the places that do not go well, or at all. Having picked out the difficult passages, the pupil then commences to dissect them to see what the difficulty really is, and if it is a combination of difficulties, to mas­ter them one by one, and then combined. A favorite prescription of Sevcik’s is: “Jede Vier Noten Hia Und Zurúck.” That means “every four notes forward and backwards.” It is not so unusual to find some pianist who has taken four notes of a passage, then the next four notes, and so on. But to Sevcik that was objectionable. He wanted the first four notes, then the four notes starting with the second note, then four notes starting with the third note, and always forwards and then back. In other words if we call the first four notes one, two, three, and four, the order of practice would be: one, two three four, four three two one, — first very slowly, and gradually more rapid­ly, until the four notes can be played more rapidly than the tempo calls for. Then two, three four five, — five four three, two, — and so on to the end of the passage.

Now why should this be especially beneficial? In the first place the pupil will find when he tries it, that to play the four notes backwards with the same finger­ing, (or rather the reverse fingering) is at first most perplexing. For it requires about ten times as much concentration to get the fingers right on the reverse, and that concentration is going to make the fingering so solid, that it would be impossible to take a wrong finger. Eliminate the element of uncertainty of finger­ing and a great advance has been made, for the speed is limited until the subconscious mind has learned the fingering so well that no matter what the speed the right finger always takes the right note.

Secondly, the advantage of taking four notes, then four notes starting from the second note, then from the third note, etc., is that one forms a chain every link of which is as strong as the others. Now when one takes four notes and then four notes starting from the fifth note, etc., the link from four to five will always be weak, because it has not been practiced.

If the passage is exceedingly difficult it is a good plan to practice every two notes forward and back, namely one two, two one, two three, three two, etc. Then take every three notes forward and back, then every four. Then try playing the passage at full speed and it should, to your probable surprise, go very well. Should it, however, not be fluent enough try every five notes backward and forward, then every six, and so forth.

When I was a student in Prague under Sevcik, I was initiated into this method of practice on the first variation of the Hungarian Airs of Ernst, and I carried this method of practice so far that I could play backwards the entire variation. Needless to say neither memory nor technique hesitated to respond after that.

This idea is also easily applicable to memorizing. At one time I undertook to memorize the twenty-four etudes of Paganini. As they fill two fair sized books, and are technically the last word in violin difficulty, I pondered the question of how to memorize them so that I should have them all memorized at the same time. In other words, I had to find some unusual way to memorize them in order to avoid forgetting part of the etudes by the time that I had memorized the rest. This was my method!


Practical Memorizing

I first took the first line of each etude for a day’s work. If I could not memorize them in one day, I kept at it until I could play from memory in one day the first line of each etude. The next day I memorized the second line of each etude, and after memorizing it played the first and second line together. The next day I memorized the third line of each etude and played the second and third lines, and so on until I had gone through all the etudes in this way. Some etudes were, of course, shorter than others, so that as soon as I had fininshed (sic) one or more etudes I would start at the beginning of those and repeat the process of two lines.

Having gone through the etudes in this way I then took three lines in succession each day, overlapping of course. For example lines one, two and three then lines two three and four, and so on to the end.

Then four lines each day on the same plan of over­lapping, so that you see each day, I was really only memorizing one new line and reviewing those done on the last three days.

I would have kept increasing the number of lines, five, six etc., but found by this time that I had the twenty-four etudes memorized.

Now to pupils who have difficulties in memorizing this plan is an infallible method. Your unit of practice will vary according to the quickness of your memory, but even if is it only a measure that you can memorize at a time, by overlapping, namely first measure, then second measure, and then joined to first, — third measure and join to second, etc., you will surely learn the composition by heart and it will stay.

Sevcik put the matter very tersely when he said: “If you can play by memory every four notes of a composition in time and tune backwards and forwards, you can surely play the composition.”

I have tried to indicate along what lines the piano pupil might benefit by contact with the violinist, but the wise pupil will not limit himself to the violinist. Be broad in your musical ideas, and that means forget at times that you are a pianist, and remember hat you are a musician. Go to the opera; hear the famous fingers, cellists, church choirs, etc.


Patronize Other Arts

The art of piano playing has drawn from all other arts. Chopin’s cello player prelude, the D flat nocturne in which he meant to imitate the style of the violin, the “chant of the monks” in one of the noc­turnes, etc., will all be rendered in a more musicianly way if you are broad in your tastes and learn, as did that famous pianist, to know of music, as well as of piano playing.

Do not even limit yourself to music. Go to see some pictures and read up on art in general. The arts are all related, and if you will try to absorb the inspiration that some famous painting gives you, you will play better a piece which was written with a sim­ilar mood. The greatest thing that foreign music study had to offer was, aside from a good teacher — and most of the greatest teachers are now in the United States — the contact with other musicians and artists, and the only reason that our music students do not have more of it here is that they have not realized its benefits. The opportunities are here in ever increas­ing measure.

The violinist is continually under the obligation to establish absolutely accurate jumps. Because the piano keyboard is so visably (sic) simple the pianist often neglects this very important matter of the automatic adjustment of the hand. If he secures it, it comes to him empiri­cally through a great deal of playing instead of through systematic training. Sevcik gave a great deal of attention to these jumps and contractions.

To give one instance of the application of the idea to the keyboard let us take such an example as a sim­ple jump of an octave. Let us suppose that your fin­gers are over the ordinary five finger position in the key of C. That is, the thumb is over C. Now, just what is a jump of an octave? If the thumb jumps the entire distance there is a passage of the entire hand for one octave. However if the jump is played with the second finger on the upper octave the hand has only moved the distance of seven keys or a seventh. This means a difference in transit of one half of an inch. In cultivating automatic playing this is a con­siderable physical-psychological factor. The use of the other fingers of the hand in a similiar (sic) manner upon the upper octave make a corresponding difference.


Automatic Playing

In general the development of automatic position playing depends largely upon three different opera­tions.

  1. Hand in Five-Finger position moving to other positions.
  2. Passing of the Thumb over or under the fin­gers.
  3. Large leaps or jumps.

In violin playing the maker of exercises, realizing how dependant the player is upon absolute accuracy of the fingers in taking different positions, goes about the solution of the problem in a more or less exhaus­tive or scientific manner. That is a Sevick will say to himself: “How many different positions of the hand are required to make all the changes necessary in given passages?” In piano playing, this does not seem to be the case. The exercises are collected very largely with the view to making the muscles stronger and the fingers nimbler with no thought of training the brain and nerves, so that the important matter of the automatic measure of distances is taken into consideration. Thus the most used and also the most wonderful part of piano playing is neglected, or at best treated in an unscientific manner.

Let us take the first principle we have given above. The movement of the hand from one five finger posi­tion to another. I have found that there are twenty-five jumps, or combinations, from one note to each other given notes. To practice these jumps until they become automatic is just as important as the five fin­ger exercises or the scales themselves.

Practical Exercises

The following test exercise will illustrate this. Place the hand in five finger position with the thumb over middle C. Now with this as the foundation, position strike the octave of C. above with the fifth finger and return to the foundation position. Repeat this four times. Then go through the same process playing the upper C with the fourth finger. Repeat four times. Then take the same exercise with the third finger play­ing the upper C, continue with the second finger and ten with the thumb taking the upper C.

Now move the hand up to the octave above with the thumb over the upper C. Reverse the exercises by jumping the thumb down to strike middle C, then the first finger, then the second finger, then the third fin­ger, then the forth finger then- the fifth finger. You will perceive that with every jump the hand is making a different measurement.

 After having accomplished this in the scale of C re­peat it in every other key.

The exercises should be done with the metronome at 40 with one beat to a note, then gradually accel­erated as automatic playing is developed.

In all cases they should be done with the eyes shut. The training should be purely a muscular one.

In the matter of passing the thumb under and over there are already in existence more or less exhaustive exercises. Long jumps can be treated in something of the way in which we have treated the short jump of the octave. The Exercises for Developing Accuracy by Gustave Becker have a number of exercises in long jumps.

These exercises indicate an infinite variety of poss­ible exercises which the ambitious player will be only too eager to work out systematically.


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