Part 3 – Psychic and Physiological Factors

Alfred Cortot

Just as Cortot and other pianists/pedagogues discovered before, if you look more deeply into this topic, you realize that two factors contribute to a pianist’s development.

The psychic factor that results from the development of taste, imagination, reasoning, discovering a “sfumato-sonority,” and all in all, the purpose of style, says Cortot, and the second factor, which is physiological, or based on the ability of one’s hand to convey what we hear internally.

The technique is, in a sense, what it takes to make your idea come through. One needs first to develop the inner ear and understand what one wants to achieve — the goal or purpose. Then, one must possess the ability to determine the gap between what one wants to hear (was hoping to listen) and what one is hearing at the moment during playing. The difference is honest criticism, which is necessary as a starting place to discover what one needs to address technically. 

At that point, the physiological act enters the picture, and we observe the following phenomena of motion.

Motion at the keyboard

– Movement of the five fingers in a stationary position (goals: finger independence, evenness of tone color, finger mobility). Try some exercises by Brugnoli. Even though the text in Italian might confuse you, perhaps you might still figure things out by reading some more below. I might need to explain this in person (and that is what I do in my class on technique, which I offer this summer but not at U of T). At any rate, see if you can use some Google translator with the photo app to better understand what Brugnoli recommends. Attilio Brugnoli was a well-known Italian pedagogue who wrote a fabulous book on technique entitled Dinamica pianistica, in 1926.

These are complex exercises as one obtains a good level of finger independence through these without holding any fingers and holding one or more fingers as pivots while moving others in diatonic and chromatic exercises. These are also helpful so one’s eyes can take their time to observe the oscillation of the finger up and down and learn the look of (and the feel for) a natural swing. The mobility of the fingers unrelated to that of the hand was promoted by various musicians. 

The complexity has to do with two points: are we holding the weight of the harm while striking, or are we releasing it (finger motion + weight of the palm or even arm)? If we are to hold a key, do we do so with the finger’s muscle or by adding the weight of the hand on it? And how much weight should we add? Will the finger that holds the key feel static on it or, with or without weight, will it be permitted some minor flexibility? These and other questions have made readings of treatises on technique nearly unreadable and, as we agree, prove that without someone’s help it is impossible to learn how to practice. Because, please make this your rule of the thumb, how to practice matters more than what one practices.

Pleyel (1757-1831) and Dussek (1760-1812)

Pleyel advised the pianist on how to practice in the method originally by Dussek (which came to be called the Pleyel-Dussek Method, in 1797). He wrote that a pianist should repeat each group of five-finger exercises according to the difficulty one finds doing it. One must play as slowly as possible and lightly, then crescendo up to FF for a few moments, then return to pp via a diminuendo. You will find that Clementi, the Fétis and Moscheles’ method, Liszt and Dohnányi all expressed themselves in similar ways and employed nearly identical exercises and described a way of playing them via articulations rhythmic patterns that were not unline what Pleyel mentioned. However, Pleyel did not answer all my questions above. Instead, he hinted that perhaps the exercises “as a gym” are to be utilized both with and without weight. One thing we know, I believe from Otto Ortmann: a finger’s weight alone does not reach the minimum weight to unbalance a key. That’s an essential factor to keep in mind. Then, how much energy is needed to win the weight of the key? Just enough as it is needed to realize the type of sound you have in mind – no more, no less. Usually, we overdo this and end up getting stuck at the key bed with a slightly (or more awful) painful sensation up in our wrists – has anyone ever experienced this?

Other motions found in the repertoire (and I bet I miss many since as my mind tries to collect ideas on this topic, many escape my labeling already):

– Motion of the Wrist (bichords, chords, octaves)

– Motion of the forearm (chords and octaves)

– The passage of the thumb (extends horizontal positioning of the hand, which is an extension of the earlier point on the movement of five fingers, except it is no longer based upon a stationary position).

Piano Technique: Reflections, Videos, Exercises, and Scores. 

Reflections on Technique