If you were to take a piano lesson with two different teachers, you may find that they may have completely opposing methods of executing a certain technique and may tell you two different things. While neither method is right or wrong, their approach to the instrument is vastly different for no apparent reason. However, there is no mystery here, as the cause behind this puzzling phenomena could be that they simply follow different schools of playing.
On June 10th, 2016 in UCSI University’s Institute of Music as part of the UCSI International Piano Competition and Festival, Dr Oh Yann Shie shed some light on the intricacies of the different styles of piano playing in her unique seminar about Russian Techniques and the different schools of playing.
Firstly, Dr Oh explained that a school of playing can be defined as a movement of piano playing. Each of the three major schools, which are the German, French and Russian schools, have a certain tradition in their approach to playing the piano. Dr Oh’s seminar would give us an overview of the different schools – but seeing as how Dr Oh studied for many years in Russia, she told us that she would explain the Russian school in greater detail by giving us an example of the Russian approach by inviting guest performers to take part in a mini-workshop at the end of the seminar.
Dr Oh then began the seminar by showing us diagrams that looked much like family trees, that illustrated where the first traditions of piano playing came from. From the diagrams, we can see that the Russian and French schools were in fact greatly influenced by the German School as Ludwig van Beethoven taught Carl Czerny, who taught Franz Liszt, who in turn taught major figures in the different schools, with his ‘great-grand’ student being Sergei Rachmaninov.
Nevertheless, over the years the three schools gradually established their own distinct traditions and approaches. For example, Fredrik Chopin, who is considered to be the first piano pedagogue, outlined his own five important elements of piano playing in his pedagogical book.s
The first point is obtaining the natural shape of the hand. Dr Oh said that usually the first position we learn on the piano is the ‘C Major’ position, or having our fingers on only white keys. However, Chopin believed that it was important to start in the hand position in the key of ‘B Major’ with the thumb on ‘E’. This is because our three naturally longer fingers – the index, third and ring fingers, are then resting on the higher black keys and are not squashed below.
The second factor for Chopin is coordination, for he believed that speed came not from how fast you moved your fingers, but how fast you moved your arms. Next, another important aspect was phrasing. Chopin believed that long notes, dissonances and high notes must be stronger and commas in the music exaggerated.
Fourthly, a famous element in Chopin’s works: rubato. Dr Oh pointed out that according to Chopin, rubato does not actually mean ‘stolen time’ as the common definition implies. Instead, he believed that the left hand, or the accompaniment, must always be stable and consistent, with the melody taking and giving time.
Lastly, when it comes to the balance and weightage of chords, Chopin believed that the balance was on the second and fifth fingers. Dr Oh noted that in a chord the important notes are indeed usually on those two fingers.
Next, Dr Oh outlined the four influential figures of the Russian School: Igumnov, Goldenweiser, Feinberg and Neuhaus. She noted that within the Russian School the actual technique and mechanics of playing the piano was the same, as they were all influenced by the same forefather of piano playing.
However, what differs between the figures is the approach. She explained that there are two major approaches – the visual and the audio approach. The visual approach was advocated by Neuhaus, and is a non-academic style of playing, with the imagination being of utmost importance. For example, they did not believe in listening to other pianists play a piece before learning it, as the subsequent interpretation would no longer be original.
On the other hand, the audio approach applied by Goldenweiser and Feinberg believed in following the score to the letter and listening to other interpretations before learning a new piece so that one would have a pre-formed interpretation already.
The differences of the three schools could be heard when Dr Oh carried out an interesting exercise, where she asked us to listen to three different recordings of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 “Appassionata” that were by players from the three different schools and to guess which recording was by which pianist. The contrast in terms of speed, interpretation and touch was stark and thus exemplified the the different schools of piano playing. Because of the great differences in schools, Dr Oh advised us to follow one school for the first five to six years of our piano studies for a solid foundation before moving on to absorb the different styles.
In order to explain better the Russian school of playing, Dr Oh called upon Lim Tao, 1st year IMus Piano major, to play piece from Papillons, Op.2 by Robert Schumann. After he played, Dr Oh showed him how to get more sound by taking time to listen and let the chords ring, as well as by using his body. She asked him to make the dynamics of the inner voices more extreme and to try playing without the pedal so that he has to sustain naturally.
After that, Meldy Tanako, 3rd year IMus Piano major played Scriabin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op.9 No.2 (for the Left Hand) by Alexander Scriabin. Dr Oh showed Meldy how to tackle the big leaps efficiently by not lifting too much. Instead, she asked her to stop, movie the hand from the higher register to the lower register, and then play. Dr Oh also suggested playing the piece with two hands to create better line and to bring out the melody.
“Through the short demonstration and coaching, I experienced an entirely different approach in playing the Scriabin Nocturne. I find the Russian School more straightforward in terms of rhythm and time-taking as compared to other Schools.” – Meldy Tanako
To round off the seminar, Dr Oh talked about Russian pedalling artistry and their sound production. In the Russian school, they make minimal pedalling changes and try to keep it as clean as possible. Following their tradition, they use more pedal in pieces by Bach and Mozart than in Romantic pieces, where instead they use just the right amount in order to hear the touch of the pianist. With regards to sound, she mentioned that in the Russian school, they believe that the sound comes most naturally from the weight of the finger, and then from the stomach.
Lastly, Dr Oh said that when it comes to the different schools of playing, there is actually no mystery. Indeed, all of the schools actually started from a few people, but it is when it came to interpretation that everyone found their own way.
This article was written by Andrea Sim, 1st year IMus Scholar reading the Bachelor of Classical Music (Hons.)