THE PIANIST’S TOOL BOX: Developing Pianism through Technique in Repertoire

By Mary Tickner

Some years ago, I began to anticipate problems in advanced repertoire by applying some of the problems to the basic technical exercises assigned to the student. This occurred after reading Alfred Cortot’s prefacing comments to his 1914 edition of Chopin’s Etudes (Op.25) and I quote:

“The essential principle of this method is to practice not so much the difficult passages taken as a whole, but the particular difficulty it presents by reducing the latter to its elements. This principle will hold good for all pianoforte practicing; it does away with mechanical work which degrades the study of art….and though it may appear superficially slow, ensures in fact, definite progress”

No one questions that there is a need for basic exercises and drills but working exclusively on a Czerny exercise will ultimately lead to a perfect Czerny exercise, unless the same passage occurs in a Beethoven Sonata. I also found that concentrating only on the mechanics of technique (scales, triads, octaves, chords, arpeggios, trills, double 3rds, etc.) was not only boring but was also damaging because the student was using only their visual and kinesthetic skills and ignoring the aural skills…except to recognize a wrong note! My mantra became OUR EARS ARE OUR GREATEST TEACHERS!

William Newman pointed out that typist learns to type by typing and an accountant by doing daily accounts. My thinking was why not find the same types of patterns in repertoire that could be used in developing my students technical skills so that when they encountered a similar problem in a pieces, they would be ready.

The first step was to ascertain what composers actually write. A shock came when I found that composers rarely write scales hands together unless they are in combination with 3rds, 6ths and frequently did not begin on the tonic note! Only in concertos and chamber works are scales played unison and parallel. When I began to list the many ways of playing scales, I began to introduce them to my students. Thanks to my guinea pig students who were wonderfully cooperative, together we began to solve problems before they were encountered. I also found that they became quite creative about using rhythms and accents and evaluating different fingerings to facilitate the playing.

Space does not permit the complete list of the numerous ways all of our technical skills are modified by composers so the following is a partial listing of what composers actually write using scales: either HS or HT (legato, staccato, chromatic and parallel); 3rds, double 3rd, contrary motion, combing touches, rhythmic combinations, beginning in the middle of a pattern, polytonal scales, hand-over-hand tetrachords; cross-rhythms and so on. Similarly, one finds arpeggios doing rather unusual things beyond the normal examination requirements such as building various arpeggios on single note (see the 2008 syllabus for an example), contrary motion and combining different positions. We have octaves in scale formation, outlining chords, solid, broken, and cross-rhythms. The same ideas can be applied to chords.

Jane McGrath, in an ancient Clavier article, outlined what a student would have to be prepared to do when playing the first movement of Clementi’s Sonatina in C major (Op.36 #1): (1) playing a melody over an accompaniment; (2) producing an even sound, plus articulation and graceful phrasing with tonal control, nuance and slurs; (3) play legato and maintain an Alberti bass; (4) broken 3rds; (5) octaves; and (6) rests.

My final discovery was that many of my younger students were quite capable of executing alternate note patterns with triads and really enjoyed learning scales in 3rds (no Grade 10 traumas there!), and double 3rd (such great flexible fingers). The ideas presented here are equally applicable to other performance media such as voice, violin, flute, etc. and it is invaluable in assessing what repertoire should be assigned to the individual student. Please feel free to add to my list because there are always more ideas about technique and using it as tool to develop beautiful performances.