Bartlett - Established 1884 in New York City


The History of the Development of Piano Technique


Before talking about piano technique, we must start from the history of the development of piano technique. Only when we understand its history of about three hundred years can we have a comprehensive understanding of the present condition of the technique and can we teach and train the technique more effectively. This is to say that it is necessary to inherit, to improve and to develop.

The epoch before J. S. Bach, the main keyboard instrument was the organ, used for the accompaniment of singers. There were no solo pieces for keyboard music and only eight fingers were involved (the thumbs were not used) in playing. Then the clavichord and the harpsichord appeared. When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart started piano lessons at the age of four, he was using these instruments and only later switched over when the piano came into existence. The pianos in those days were not the same as the modern pianos. The structure was different, the keyboards were lighter, and so the tone quality and the volume were not the same.

The keyboard being lighter, it was possible to use ten agile fingers to play the piano. We will call this kind of technique the Exclusive (or Pure) Finger Method. This method only emphasizes on the independence and the agility of the fingers and do not use or need the weight of the arms. It was believed that the weight of the arms would hinder the training of the fingers. Sometimes even a coin was put on the back of the hand during training in order to prevent the arm’s participation. A complete, rigorous method was established. This method was widely received for an extended period of time. To tell the truth, it is still in existence now.

Why is the influence of this Exclusive Finger Method so extensive? First of all, this method played a positive and active role in history. It was consistent with the musical demand and the characteristics of the instrument. For a long period of time it was considered to be the best method, the most effective and the mainstream method. It was commended as the only traditional method. This method has many merits: systematic training, evenness of the fingers, fast running skills, precise, clean, elegant, exquisite and clear tone quality, etc….

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770. He was dissatisfied with the piano of his day. He required big dynamic range, broader and fuller sound, variety of tone color, more singing tone, more functions of the pedal, etc…. His demand pushed forward and expedited changes to the piano. Modern piano took shape in 1850. At the same time, many romantic composers emerged. The improvement of the piano, the development of music gave impetus to many pianists, who broke through the Exclusive Finger Method of piano-playing. A complete new era has dawned. This is a landmark of epoch-making significance. It is a qualitative change and a revolution in piano-playing. And it has become the mainstream of modern piano performance. The most important and crucial issue is the break through of the unscientific method of training, the freedom from fetters and restrictions, when pianists realize with astonishment that training time is distinctively shortened, and that training is now easy and simple! Playing the piano not only requires finger skills, it involves the participation of the arms, the entire body and mind. Technical training entered a scientific and rational realm.

What is unscientific and irrational about The Exclusive Finger Method?

For example: We all know that the fingers and the arms are always connected, their movements are harmonious and coordinated. This is a natural phenomenon. The Exclusive Finger Method forcefully separates the connection of the fingers from the arms, opposes the arms’ participation in playing and believes that the arms’ involvement would affect the training of the fingers; this is unscientific, runs counter to nature and should be changed.

The fingers are not of the same length or width, how does one play evenly and fluently? The training of Exclusive Finger Method takes a long time to achieve this goal, to let the weak fifth finger acquire the same strength and power as the second and third fingers in order to play with evenness. This method of training is unnatural. It requires painstaking and tedious muscle training. This is unscientific and needs to be improved.

Furthermore, our fingers are all agile and independent. We must keep this valuable, natural ability during training. To disregard this natural capability of the fingers and start from zero to train their agility and independence; to require the hand to be in an absolutely still state, then lift each finger from the palm knuckles to strike the key, this is unnatural and a new approach should be adopted.

Therefore, we come to the conclusion: improve and rectify piano-playing, discard the unnatural and over-elaborated method, let our hands get the most possible freedom; we will discover that piano-playing is actually not that difficult. We are able to use scientific training method, within a short period of time, rapidly improve the students’ technique, so that they are able to use minimum energy to achieve maximum effect in playing. This is the reason and the purpose of improvement, to make the training of piano technique simple and easy.

One might raise this concern: three hundred years ago, pianists only used eight fingers to play, but now, fingers are running so fast, with such big contrast in volume and meeting the requirement of endless musical variety, so should training not be more complicated, more difficult? Can training be more simple and easy, as you say?

It is understandable that these questions are raised. But reality tells us these doubts are not necessary at all. Music has become more rich and various; technical training has become more and more scientific, such is the present condition of piano teaching. From the view point of historical development, we are in a marvelous era: composers have composed such rich repertoire, successful pianists have provided us with such great examples, piano teaching is no longer a tiresome job and learning to play is no longer tedious work, the epoch is pushing us forward and we can no longer go back, we must improve and go forward!

We have to leave this important topic for now and talk about what was happening in piano teaching of a hundred years ago.

Copyright 2005 Project Seven Development