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A question of weight (Russian vs French vs German etc)

Discussion in 'Technique' started by mauvis sang, Mar 27, 2011.

  1. mauvis sang

    mauvis sang New Member

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    I've heard a lot of different things about arm weight and about the different "schools". I'm sure lots of it is misinformation, and I'd appreciate hearing what everyone here opines on the subject.

    I've had various teachers urge me to play with the "weight from the shoulders." People call it the "Russian" method and recently someone told me this was the method developed by Fanz Liszt, no less, and I've heard countless people say it is the only "true" way to play piano.

    To this day, I never understood what the hell they were talking about. I imagine the basic idea is that you kind of "dig in" or weigh down with your shoulder, so that the bulk of the force doesn't have to come from the fingers. But whenever I do this it's just uncomfortable. Moreover, I've heard performances from people who use the shoulder method and I've always found their tone too heavy, especially when playing pp. By contrast, I tend to be more drawn to pianists who supposedly represent the French school of playing (e.g. Pascal Rogé, Jean-Marrie Darré). I read somewhere that this method is more about finger work (like harpsichord technique, I guess), but that this leads to injuries (which I know from experience to be true).

    Yesterday, after 20 years of hearing people preach the shoulder method and having no one to defend my feelings against it, I came across a youtube video on the Taubman approach (thanks for the link, costas22), in which a Taubman expert explicitly states that the weight should not come from the shoulders, because this restricts action (as I always suspected), but rather from the forearm. Now this makes sense to me, and I began practicing with this approach and gotten wonderful results so far.

    There is also a German school; but I've never heard it explained.

    So from what I've said, what parts are myth and fact, and most importantly, which approach do you recommend?
     
  2. richard66

    richard66 Richard Willmer Piano Society Artist

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    I thought the French approach was arm weight while the Russian was finger. At least this is the case if you look at Horowitz.
     
  3. mauvis sang

    mauvis sang New Member

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    Thanks for the reply!

    I've heard that the Russian approach was shoulder weight, and that Horowitz wasn't a very good representative of any particular school, because he breaks a lot of rules, for example he sat low and played with flat fingers. I'm no expert on Horowitz's technique, but I doubt he was an "all fingers" pianist, judging by his enormous fff.
     
  4. Rachfan

    Rachfan Active Member Piano Society Artist

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    I'm hesitant to enter these types of discussions, as there is seldom a scientific basis or rationale, only a tradition guiding the actions of the pianist. I've been playing the piano for about 58 years now. My first teacher, a New England Conservatory of Music graduate, had several outstanding professors of piano and pedagogy while a student. One of those was Albion Metcalf, himself a student of Tobias Matthay, a British pedagogue who wrote and taught extensively about relaxed arm weight. So I got a large dose of that in my very early years. Over the decades, I reached some conclusions of my own in the matter.

    First, the playing apparatus is not simply the arm, but also the torso and the legs (for pedaling and balance)--that is, the entire body for all intents and purposes. The energy and motion for execution can and does start in the back before channeling into the upper arm and downward through the forearm, wrist, hand and fingers. So it's more than just the arm involved.

    In seated posture we note that the arm is basically positioned in a right angle as the hands are extended to the keyboard in a neutral and natural way. This fact is significant to me, because if the upper arm is perpendicular to the floor while the forearm, and hand are parallel to the floor, then the pull of gravity will seem to act more noticeably on the forearm. If you want to test this premise, grasp the end of a six foot pole and hold it out in front of you parallel to the ground. In short order, even if you are in great shape, you'll struggle to keep the pole parallel. Your arm will then begin to quiver and shake as you fight against the force of gravity acting upon your arm AND the pole. So at the piano, the extended forearm unquestionably will react more noticeably to gravity than the free-hanging upper arm which is perpendicular to gravity. This presents an opportunity to the pianist, where gravity is an available force of nature. The idea of a "relaxed arm" is to take advantage of gravity to create tone at the piano. But this does not mean relaxation to the extent of allowing the forearm to descend in free fall crashing upon the keys. Rather, there realistically must be enough subtle restraint to prevent absolute free fall, but also to allow gravity to some extent to assist the arm in, for example, playing the opening chords of Beethoven's "Pathetique" Sonata. In so doing, the mostly relaxed arm weight (controlled relaxed arm weight, yes a seeming contradiction in terms) will still be subject to a sufficient gravitational pull toward the keyboard resulting in a rich sounding chord which has more beauty than a chord struck forcefully from above resulting in a harsh tone. When I play I avoid having the forearms raised in the air anymore than they really need to be. So in playing chords, for example, I position my hands reasonable high above the chords, allow the controlled drop, sink all the way to the key bottoms, where I lower the wrists slightly as a follow-through motion, and then lift the hands out or move laterally as needed. Never do I feel tension in my arms, because they are relaxed from the shoulder on down. It's important too to make sure the shoulders are low and relaxed. High shoulders will inevitably cause tension and eventually pain.

    A couple more points: Although the fingers are the business end of the playing apparatus, they cannot be relaxed. In order to properly articulate, they must be taut at all times. They can be curved for Mozartian figuration, for example, or held flat in connecting octaves or for other applications; or they may be stretched open or kept fairly closed depend on the demands, but regardless, they must be taut. If they were relaxed, they would feel cottony and the music would sound cottony too.

    The other point I mention concerns the upper arm. Back in 1955 Abby Whiteside, a piano teacher, wrote a book, Indispensables of Piano Playing, which dealt with use of the upper arm ("top arm" she called it) in imparting power to produce tone in conjunction with the fundamental rhythm of the music. I've seen a few pianists (probably taking a cue from Whiteside) thrusting their arms from the upper arms into the keyboard. What a forced, blatant and ugly sound that results from that technique! It's not one I would want to use. I do agree with Whiteside, however, that the upper arm truly does act a a positioning mechanism to ensure that the elbow and forearm are moved into proper position to execute figuration. You can test this for yourself by simply playing an ascending four-octave scale. Watch the upper right arm as you play. You'll notice that in a timely manner the upper arm is pulling away from the shoulder of the right arm to get the rest of the playing apparatus laterally positioned to play the notes along the entire length of the scale.

    So to conclude, I do believe in arm weight and take advantage of it in producing tone. But as for the upper arm, I believe it has an essential role in positioning the playing apparatus, but not in directly producing tone.

    David
     
  5. richard66

    richard66 Richard Willmer Piano Society Artist

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    I would add one little thing about the fingers. They need to be flexed but at the same time loose, which might also sound like a contradiction. I feel this relaxation is somewhere in the muscles between the fingers, in order to allow up and down movement. I like to believe I use wrist movement more than fingers, but at the rate my technique is deteriorating I think this is but wishful thinking.
     
  6. RSPIll

    RSPIll New Member

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    Speaking of the upper arm for positioning. One instructer that I had when I was working on scales would tell me to let the elbow "pull" or "push" you up and down the keyboard. In other words, in an ascending scale the right elbow "pulled" your R.H. up while the left "pushed" the L.H. Essentially, this was a positioning maneuver which would actually act from the upper arm and shoulder. It minimizes the work that the fingers and hand do for the lateral motion; they are busy enough pushing the keys down. The idea helped to make the crossings smoother because I was not putting all of the lateral motion effort into the finger crossing.

    Scott
     
  7. mauvis sang

    mauvis sang New Member

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    Hey, sorry for the late read and thanks for the lengthy response!

    It's interesting that no one here has any definition of the "Russian" or "French" or etc. schools yet, though I've come across the terms so often in universities and with piano teachers and students.

    Again, thank you everyone who has responded.
     
  8. musical-md

    musical-md Active Member

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  9. StephenC

    StephenC New Member

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    I know there are techniques likes this but I really don't follow them, well I am somehow stubborn like my previous piano teacher said. Have you heard about the Taubman approach? It somehow works for me, well sometimes. :D
     

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