The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: Some great piano music is inherently risky to hands, fingers

November 16, 2009
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

After I posted my notes about anatomically correct and pain-free, injury-free piano playing workshops that recently given here by the nationally renowned expert Barbara Lister-Sink (right), I got a response from a piano teacher who wanted to comment. (Below is a link to many YouTube videos by her): Lister-Sink

I think you’ll find it the response of The Piano Teacher as interesting and thoughtful as I did.

Here it is:

“Thanks also for reporting on Lister-Sink.

“Sounds like she had some good — if not startling — advice.

“I must say, though, that not all music can be played gracefully and fluidly. Sometimes the hands have to perform unnatural acts in the name of art.

“Beethoven, for instance, is rarely physically easy. His aesthetic is tied up with the idea of struggle, the will to power and the transcendence of spirit over the limitations of the flesh –and these qualities must to some extent be experienced and communicated to the listener. If Beethoven becomes merely easy, we lose something essential in the music.

“Isn’t piano playing something of an athletic endeavor? We don’t expect gymnastics to be easy for the novice. It requires much development of muscle, coordination, and conditioning to be able to do it. And it can sometimes result in injury. piano hands

“Is it worth it? Yes, to people who love and pursue gymnastics as an art.

“Why should piano playing also not cost us something?

“On the other hand, when the effort expended or the tension experience is too great to allow one the freedom to move (both physically and emotionally), then we have to learn to step back and to use only that which is truly necessary.

“We don’t just want to be the perpetrators of a pathetic struggle against our own limitations. We want to conquer; we want to succeed, to come out at least with the chance of meeting the music on its own terms. That takes courage, discipline, will, sweat, and grace and humility and patience all intermingled.

“For late Beethoven, or Chopin’s etudes, Brahms’ second concerto, or Debussy’s preludes or a 5-voice Bach fugue there are no easy answers or quick fixes, nor should there be.  If you want to be comfortable, better to play comfortable music.”

Do I agree? Yes, I do. Part of a great performance on the piano is seeing extraordinary hand-eye coordination and the element of sheer physical virtuosity.

I also think it is the role of a fine teacher to know how to help the student progress gradually in mastery – both musical and technical or physical — of the instrument. A good piano teacher knows how to suggest or assign pieces and practice techniques to help get the student to handle without injury the most physically taxing peaks of the vast piano repertoire the student is capable of.

Plus, let’s state the obvious: Talent matters. Not every hand or arm – let alone mind or heart — is capable of playing all piano pieces. Few of us will ever attain the physical mastery and ease of a Maurizio Pollini, a Martha Argerich, a Marc-Andre Hamelin (below right). Hamelin

Nonetheless, a lot of injuries can be prevented and I’ll bet that Lister-Sink is aiming to reach typical players, not the greatest of the greats, and to save people from avoidable and unnecessary and unproductive pain.

But that’s what The Piano Teacher thinks and what I think.

What do you think?

And, I wonder, if she ever gets to read this, what does Lister-Sink herself think?

Posted in Classical music

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