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Kathleen Supové Redefining the Pianist as Art

Kathleen Supové is one of America’s most acclaimed and versatile contemporary music pianists, known for continually redefining what it means to be a pianist and keyboardist/performance artist in today’s world.

After winning top prizes in the Gaudeamus International Competition for Interpretation of Contemporary Music, she began her career as a guest artist at the prestigious Darmstadt Festival in Germany. Since then, Ms. Supové has annually presented a series of solo concerts entitled The Exploding Piano. In this series, she has performed and premiered works by a list of established and emerging composers that’s a Who’s Who of contemporary music for piano. She has especially championed music of compelling virtuosity and audience connection. In recent seasons, she has developed The Exploding Piano into a multimedia experience by using electronics, theatrical elements, vocal rants, performance art, staging, and collaboration with artists from other disciplines.

Piano Street talks to Kathleen Supové

Patrick Jovell: You are currently touring with something called the DIGITAL DEBUSSY PROJECT. What can you tell us about that and its background?

Kathleen Supové: Digital Debussy is something I came up with about two and a half years ago. I had noticed that almost every composer I talked with, from any background (classical, indie, jazz, noise), would include Debussy in the list of 2-3 composers that were influential to them. He was the one common denominator!! This combined with my own feverish love for Debussy and my memories of pieces of his I had played as a child. It just seemed like a natural way to start thinking: what would music sound like if Debussy were alive and composing today (and had access to all our technology)? So I asked a group of composers if they would like to write something for piano or piano + electronics that would reflect their personal answer to the question! I got a tremendous array of works from a dozen composers (so far)!

PJ: You are a classically trained pianist. What specifically made you open your mind to contemporary music?

KS: I think I can site two things from my early life: first, the teacher I had as a teenager, Elesa Scott Keeney, gave me a lot of what we Americans call “light classics”: Gershwin, “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”, “Malagueña”, etc. It was a point in my studies where normally one would be playing Bach Inventions, easier Beethoven Sonatas. I think it opened up my sensibilities to contemporary American harmonies, which are more rooted in French music, folk music, jazz, blues, etc. This already loosened me from the whole Austro-German thing. Second, in college (Pomona College in Claremont, California), the music department was very oriented toward contemporary music. One of my professors played Schoenberg’s Suite Op. 25 in class, and I flipped. I was so taken by the fact that you could put new sounds and materials into old dance forms!! After that, I realized that this was music where you could forge YOUR OWN performing tradition. By then, I was at The Juilliard School, where people were all playing the same music basically!! And trying to play it like everyone else had been playing it for 50 years. (And not that it wasn’t a real education!!) But I could see contemporary music as being so exciting against that backdrop.

PJ: There is an ongoing discussion in music media right now how classical music has to find new ways to produce itself in order to attract new audiences. How can old music become more attractive to new audiences and thus the future?

KS: Or new music, for that matter!!! This is something we think about a lot, and the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure I have the answer!!! (laughs). The verdict is out on whether “crossover” will have a lasting effect. I guess in general, I would say that demystifying the concert experience seems to have an effect. People actually listen to concert music, they honor it, and find it interesting if they can get to it! I’ve seen this with colleagues of mine playing for young professionals at NYC clubs like Le Poisson Rouge. I’ve also seen it with colleagues playing for formerly incarcerated youths working on getting their high school diplomas (this happened at a New York midtown office building where the students meet; my husband and I used to volunteer there). The best we can do is always try to PRESENT and REPRESENT the music in the most vivid possible ways, have some surprises that you can only get at the live show, and just keep doing it over and over.

PJ: Can you tell us about the steps you take when collaborating with composers writing material for you?

KS: I am mostly a hands-off performer. I want to let composers create the pieces in whatever way they see fit. With the exception of the Digital Debussy project, I generally don’t present them with a concept, and I certainly try not to tell them how to write or what to write. It has happened so many times that the composer has come up with something I never could have dreamt up!! But having said that, I try to be available for whatever they may need from me: tryouts of material, discussion, etc. I think the one thing I have worked on is being able to spot something that would be truly unplayable, but I’m also a person who loves the (eventual) thrill of taking on something that seems impossible and making it possible.

PJ: There is a clear orientation toward superstardom in the classical music world. In some cases to an extent that the star will overshadow the music itself and everything around it.

KS: Word! I think you’re talking about the “real” classical world, like touring pianists, violinists that play very traditional classical stuff night at night, year after year, yes? And…yes! But read the next part of my answer…

PJ (continued): In other genres the performers act anonymously. In your line of performing you have rather become the artefact yourself. Can you give us your thoughts on the relationship between the performer and the music?

KS: I have mixed feelings about it. It sounds, above, like I’m complaining about classical musicians. I’m thinking that I don’t object to their being superstars, I guess I have more of an issue with them playing the same repertoire over and over, some of them seem so dynamic and contemporary in every way except the music they play!

I think that being some kind of cultural icon can also get people’s attention and draw them in to actually experience the music! It’s probably a fine line. We also live in a multisensory age: I think it’s impossible to ignore the visual aspect of experiencing art, even pure musical art.

One of the most touching compliments I ever received was when I was in Rome performing a new piece. I was wearing this really wonderful mini skirt that has Andy Warhol-Mona Lisas on it. It caused a bit of a stir, people found it amusing, but a friend of the composer said to me something like: “yes, but the thing is: once you start playing, you forget all about it and just think of the music.” I would like to try and live up to that ideal.

Video from a performance at the Google Headquarters in New York City:

More about Kathleen Supové

Kathleen Supové isn’t ordinary in any way. From her sunset-tinged red hair to her penchant for doing almost anything on stage, she has striven to set herself apart from traditional musicians. She sees most musicians as gatekeepers of tradition, and she doesn’t want to be that way. Her unconventional ideas began when she was a child and started to pretend she was a one-person television variety show. Because she was a fantastic pianist, she would consider herself “the entertainment” that occurs on such shows during on-air commercial breaks. Ms. Supové continued to play recitals where she would, as with her “paranoid” persona, come on stage in unusual ways. In one such recent performance, her clothing was described by a critic as “hooker-chic vinyl and leather,” which is a far cry from standard, black concert attire. To Ms. Supové, everyone who’s on a stage at any time is playing a role; she commented in a recent interview that musicians most often don the mantle of “librarian,” which she found disagreeable.

Even after she ceased her play-time concerts, she continued on the path of irreverence and unconventionality. Her father brought her to a local teacher named Elesa Scott Keeney. Keeney was prone to showy displays on the piano and, as Ms. Supové describes her, wasn’t wearing “old-lady dresses” the way most doddering piano teachers of that era were. She even thought Keeney might have had a secret life. Keeney developed not only Ms. Supové’s classical chops but also her appreciation for light-hearted pop and show music.

Ms. Supové says that her studies with Keeney were seminal in her development as an unconventional performer. She began to eschew the masterworks of the classical and romantic periods to concentrate on avant-garde compositions, the more unusual, the better. At this point, she has completely abandoned anything that is not avant-garde. In fact, she champions works that might never be played were she not to intercede. To Ms. Supové, this kind of co-creation is an essential part of her musical makeup. Her favorite compositions have paired her with computers, pre-recorded speeches, doctored pianos, and even Indian table drums. Like a bizarre, female Glenn Gould, she mutters nearly incomprehensible, stream-of-consciousness observations about string theory.

All of this, of course, can threaten to overshadow the music itself and make the performance all about the performer. Traditional pianists speak of developing a rapport with the composer and his or her intent. Ms. Supové will, of course, take it a step further and the music has become the ultimate tool for her self-expression. Interestingly, her artistic persona has not damaged her critical reception, which has been largely enthusiastic. Critics hail her interpretative brilliance and desire to be more inclusive than reclusive on stage. Even when she’s gigging with her art-rock band Doctor Nerve or doing free-form hip-hop with young, urban performers, she stays true to her mantra of inclusion.

In 2004, Ms. Supové released Infusion on the Koch International Classics label, featuring four contemporary solo works for piano and electronics. It is available through CDBaby, iTunes, and other digital sales outlets. Other recordings can be found on the Tzadik, CRI, Innova, New World, Neuma, Bridge, Centaur, OO, and XI labels.

Ms. Supové has an undergraduate degree from Pomona College and a masters degree from the Juiliard School. Her teachers, in addition to Keeney, have included Karl Kohn and Russell Sherman. Ms. Supové lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her husband, internationally acclaimed composer Randall Woolf, and a lovable, if painfully shy, black cat named Frankie.


That Fascinating Dash of Blue

Since the early 20th century, jazz always had a significant impact on classical music and classical pianists. Composers found the rhythms, the blue quality in melody and harmony, as well as the spontaneous improvisation immensely fascinating and irresistibly modern.

Gershwin brought jazz into the classical concert venues

Even though composers like Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and even Soviet composers used jazz and blues in their works, it was Hollywood and Broadway which would enable jazz music to enter the classical concert venues and the key composer was George Gershwin. Gershwin’s symphonic works like An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F and the opera Porgy and Bess were influenced by French composers. In turn Maurice Ravel was strongly impressed with Gershwin, commenting, “Personally I find jazz most interesting: the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard of George Gershwin’s works and I find them intriguing.”

…but Ravel rejected him

In the mid-1920s, Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time, during which he applied to study composition with the noted Nadia Boulanger who, along with several other prospective tutors such as Maurice Ravel, rejected him.

Ravel (at the piano) and Gershwin (to the right, apparently more interested in what Ravel is doing with his hands than smiling into the the camera) in New York 1928

Ravel (at the piano) and Gershwin (to the right, apparently more interested in what Ravel is doing with his hands than smiling into the the camera) in New York 1928

They were afraid that rigorous classical study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. Maurice Ravel’s rejection letter to Gershwin told him; “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”. The orchestrations in Gershwin’s symphonic works often seem similar to those of Ravel; likewise, Ravel’s two piano concertos evince an influence of Gershwin.

Rhapsody in Blue – an experiment in modern music

Challenged by the question “What is American music?” and a comission by bandleader Paul Whiteman for an New York afternoon concert named “An Experiment in Modern Music”, Gershwin wrote the “American Rhapsody” which later was re-named “Rhapsody in Blue”. The version that was heard then was for a 24-piece jazz band, not for full orchestra which was written in 1942 and eventually became the most popular version. The opening clarinet glissando suggests a sound effect quote from a number of piano pieces by Ravel such as Jeux d’eau, Gaspard de la nuit or Alborada del Gracioso.

A performance by classical pianist with serious jazz skills

Let’s hear pianist Kirill Gerstein play the original 1924 version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Gerstein, a renowned international classical performer is also a trained jazz pianist from the famous jazz music school Berklee College of Music in Boston before attending the Manhattan School of Music, earning both his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Music degrees by the age of 20. In this particular concert Gerstein returns to his old Alma Mater in March 30, 2012 to perform togheter with students and faculty members at Berklee College of Music.

Gerstein plays Rhapsody in Blue (Jazz band version) at Berklee

Do you hear the jazz influences in Ravel’s music?
Grimaud plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G

How did George Gershwin play the piano himself?
Hear a live capture of I Got Rhythm from 1931

Read a recent interview with pianist Kirill Gerstein:
He got rhythm: Piano virtuoso Kirill Gerstein embraces classical, jazz… all that is unexpected

Reader Poll

While most pianists and piano music aficionados enjoy playing, or at least listening to, both classical and jazz, a combination of different musical genres can obviously compromise their unique genuineness. Or what do you think? Let us know in this week’s reader poll!

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Piano Vintage – Italian Excellence Bringing Old Steinways Back to Life

One of the most interesting exhibitors at the Cremonafiere Exhibition’s piano part – the so called CremonaPianoforte – this fall was a company and workshop called Piano Vintage. The company performs a type of restoration dictated from the work philosophy and experience of the “Steinway Academy”. The instruments on display at the Cremona exhibition were vintage Steinway grand pianos carefully restored into its original state maintaining the unique identity of each instrument. This is achieved by applying particular techniques that diversify and characterize each sound board according to its original type.

The greatest risk for a restorer is to insist on a certain type of sound quality result for the project on hand, but which is completely alien to the core identity of the instrument. Therefor Piano Vintage’s work consists in understanding the constructive details and the logic of every minute step towards a precise expressive sound finale. Being able to renew the original
sound with innovated techniques aimed at giving back its internal energy, Piano Vintage is able to bring back life to old Steinways while insuring a quality that meets the most demanding expectations.

Interview with Andrea De Biasi

Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell had a chance to talk to Andrea De Biasi, who is heading the workshop located in Pescatina in the Italian Verona province.

Patrick Jovell: It has been very interesting and inspiring hearing a large number of accomplished pianists trying your restored Steinway pianos during the exhibition. My spontaneous reaction is the freshness of sound as well as the balanced sonority character. How did the project and specifically the collaboration with the vintage Steinway instruments start?

Andrea De Biasi: The Piano Vintage project wasn’t born from restoring Steinway pianos, built in particular periods, but it is a necessary consequence determined by the level of deterioration of the original sound performance. I will explain myself better: because of its structural system and mechanical strength, in relation to one another, a piano is destined to lose its original sonority over a period of 30 to 50 years. Practically speaking, in as much as we are able to put an instrument in conditions, favorable for its perfect preservation, the sound that is generated from the soundboard undergoes an evolution with time. It manifest initially with loss of freshness and energy of the sound force, finding a balance and a good natured sound in its mid-life, but with an energetic load that gradually depletes, resulting in the end in a rigid sound and a loss of character. Naturally this evolution doesn’t take into consideration the deterioration of the materials, the unfavorable environment and the mechanical parts that generate the sound input and are a disturbance in the sound perception of the soundboard.

PJ: I would like to ask you about your clients. Who is asking for your services?

ADB: For Piano Vintage, with a new soundboard built on the original one, the market is in evolution because in Europe there are truly very few laboratories that take on work of this kind and in Italy we are the only one. As regards ordinary restoration, our clients are pianists who want to recuperate, in the best way possible, the sound of the piano in order to have an instrument capable of top class performances such as with brand new instruments. I would say even better from certain points of view, because the Vintage restoration is certainly that of exclusive, non-standardized, high-performing instruments.

PJ: Which are the reactions from professional pianists trying restored Steinway pianos?

ADB: The first reaction is astonishment when the year of conservation is revealed to them because pianists do not notice the age of the piano due to the freshness of its sound. At the same time they are fascinated by the beauty of the sound that has an image and imprint clearly different from new Steinway pianos, but at the same time very similar. For us, here at Piano Vintage, this certainly confirms our objective from which our work originates.

PJ: The domination of modern Steinway instruments today works as a sort of hallmark for how concert grand pianos should sound. What has happened to the Steinway sound during the last 100 years from your point of view?

ADB: Steinway is the inventor of the modern piano and his project was the result of an intuition, talent and musical sensibility abreast of the times but already projected into the future. Everyone knows the famous collaboration between the great pianists of the past and the house of Steinway, always attentive to technical interpretative developments of the pianist. From our point of view, and we are not alone, the Steinway sound is standardized at ever increasing levels of excellence but at the same time the instruments are homogenized. From the perception point of view they seem to be pianos very similar and the most beautiful or special is more difficult to identify. This factor is certainly positive from a business point of view and it is the result of the productive Steinway system, still handcrafted, but an industrial craftsmanship that uses technology in certain phases where it was once the work of expert craftsmen. In particular for the construction and assembly of soundboards, jumper wires and cast iron frame made by numerical controlled machines that are capable of improving with special software the construction parts beginning from the measurements and sounding echo, of the initial constructive elements – shaft and cast iron frame.

From my own personal point of view a piece of humanity was taken in the constructive phase that determined the difference of one instrument from another favoring a majority precision that excludes however the natural intuition for solutions that is man’s prerogative.

PJ: There has always existed a firm bond between the development of instruments and how pianists play them. Pianists 100 years ago did not play the piano in the same way pianists do today. Does this affect your work? I mean, you are actually recreating instruments for living pianists and not the dead.

ADB: We merely attempt to enhance the sound that these instruments, built in the past, already possess because we are convinced that if we offer pianists the possibility of playing instruments unlike those of today can be a stimulation for an interpretative experience and research with different horizons and maybe even more stimulating.

PJ: When you are restoring Steinway concert pianos, do you have to take acoustical questions into consideration? Concert halls today require a different set-up when it comes to overall sound production?

ADB: In reality it’s not the environment or the eventual use that influence the restoration process, even though it is taken into consideration. It is the personality and the characteristic sound of the piano that have to be enhanced . It would be risky restoring a piano that would play better only in a certain environment or lose its identity. The restoration process is always guided by the instrument itself, step by step using carefully selected materials and optimized in the best way possible. We have learned the following at the Steinway Academy: an obsessive attention to detail linked with a determined constructive method leads to the realization of the best sound possible for that instrument and not the best sound that we imagine because that doesn’t exist and above all each pianist has his own ideal sound that is the result of his cultural baggage of artistic and technical studies not to mention his talent and individual sensitivity.

PJ: Your work tickles our imagination and there is a feeling of entering a time machine when playing your instruments. What can we – as pianists – learn from playing restored instruments?

ADB: I believe that it will be the Vintage restored piano itself that will guide the pianists on this journey in time and past sound and what they will learn will be their own personal discover as if on a journey in a country never visited before.

We would like to offer this opportunity to make an ancient sound trip but which is actually in the present.

Visit the Piano Vintage’s website:


The Bigger Picture: A Personal Perspective on Practicing Routines

In the third and final part of the series on building a career as a professional pianist, Alexander Buskermolen gives a personal perspective on practicing routines at the piano with practising tips by Dutch pedagogue Jan Wijn.

The previous parts:

Part 1: Master Teacher Wijn is Growing Flowers and Plants

Part 2: Hannes Minnaar: The Path to Becoming a Concert Pianist

I remember watching the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition when I was about five years old. Deeply impressed I told my mother I wanted to be a pianist. It still took me some five or six years before I started my first piano lessons. Now, 16 years later, eight different teachers, several masterclasses and with a Master degree in Music on the wall, I try to summarise all of my experiences. What stayed with me the most after thousands of hours of practising and hundreds of hours of lessons? What knowledge is essential in becoming a skilled and confident pianist? Let’s find out!

Assuming pianists from all levels and backgrounds aim for the same goals, generally technical perfection and musical freedom, maybe it’s wise (and fun!) to have a look at how the pros have established their skills and expertise. Technically speaking, I’m still often baffled by the simple fact that today’s concert pianists can play full recitals without missing a single note. So, how do they do it?

Before I get into the practical insights of studying an instrument, I just want to mention the following. What you need to remember is that most of today’s professional performers have started playing their instrument at the age of four or five. The lucky ones have had excellent teachers throughout their educational path, who provided them with essential knowledge on key points in their development. The flexibility and eagerness of the young mind is part of the reason for their steep learning curve.

Ok, back to you and me. How can you intensify your daily practice and general musical approach in such a way, that it will result in (more) clean playing and (more) musical freedom, maybe even deeper musical understanding and well founded interpretations. First it comes down to a proper reading of the score. Not just the notes, not just aiming for ‘the right’ tempo.. A thorough reading and recognizing of all articulation notations, even the suggested fingerings. They all contribute to a better understanding of both the technical and musical requirements.

Practice tips

For example: staccato markings help you tremendously in quick and efficient jumps and general movements of positions, simply because you can (and should!) let go of the keys as quickly as possible. By landing on your next chord/position, you’ve saved precious time.
Another example: playing fast runs as required in for instance a Mozart sonata or Czerny etude. I’m sure you’re aiming to play these runs as smoothly and as clean as possible. First, choose a solid fingering as a basis for your technique: try avoiding thumbs and 5th fingers on black keys, simply because they’re short and require your hands to make time consuming movement.

After choosing your fingerings, play your semi quavers –or fast quavers – in groups (normally per four) and focus on linking these groups. Also, use syncope rhythms to create an equal quality of sound throughout the run.

A practical tip by Jan Wijn (Piano Street, Frebruary 28, 2013) regarding runs: When you keep making the same mistake during a run (or jump or other technical challenge), focus on the note or group of notes prior to the mistake.
Mistakes are the consequence of some kind of bad preparation. In a way, it’s all about the right focus for the right challenge.

Also, actively look for inspiration by your personal musical heroes. This will put some fire in your daily work but will also help you determine your personal sense of style and musicality.

A great suggestion by Jan Wijn: You need to find out when you should work on technical details or when you should simply play through the entire piece to get a sense of proportion and get used to playing non-stop for 30 minutes or more. Recording these ‘playing through’ sessions will give you an even better perspective on where you stand with this composition. Very confronting, but very helpful.

Another tip by Jan Wijn: playing slow, at least 30% under the concert tempo will help tremendously in getting a clean execution of the piece. My basic rule is: if you play half tempo, play four times as musical and well phrased. This will help you understand and feel the music better, and will have significant effect in learning the piece by heart.

Memorize and analyze

Jan Wijn on memorizing a composition: Many pianists will find it difficult to play through certain pieces without so called memory slips. I always advise my students to do more intensive mental practicing. Sit down in a chair and bring up the entire composition in your mind. If there are any sections in the piece that you can’t visualize or imagine the movements of your fingers and hands that go with it, this is a section that you’ll need to study more closely. Also, don’t neglect the left hand! It’s often to blame for these memory slips.

Essentially, you need to analyze your scores on how to deal with every challenge. During a practice session, altering the score in terms of articulation, dynamics, tempo, register of the keyboard, everything is allowed if it helps you to get a grip on that specific challenge. In other words, strip it down to the core problem, fix it and only then incorporate all the original aspects that you’ve previously altered.

What’s between the notes?

To end my part of this quick summary on tips for practicing, I want to share the following experience. Whenever I heard a musician talk about “the story between the notes” or “the composer’s meaning” I could only vaguely relate to their experiences. When listening to a good performance, I do get carried away into a completely different world. For me it’s about atmosphere and personal associations with sounds, colors and gestures. Becoming a professional pianist myself, I felt the need and responsibility to go deeper into this personal ‘language’ that is linked to the composer whose work I was playing. In other words, what makes Beethoven typically Beethoven, Schumann typically Schumann..?

These questions don’t end with a technical analysis, though it is the start. It’s about understanding what needs to be said musically on a deep level. It’s like getting to know a new person in your life: only by asking this person many questions, having conversations and spending sufficient time with him or her, at some point you can say you really know them, even relate to them. With the score in front of you, it’s about knowing which questions you need to ask in order to get to a fundamental (and still very personal) interpretation of the piece. Don’t look for right answers first, look for the right questions. It is my conviction that this process can be learned and will increase your overall musicality tremendously. Just stay open minded, inspired and curious!

PS: I’d love to read about all of the challenges you face during your musical activities. Please post a comment!

Alexander Buskermolen,
Piano Street Guest Writer


Natural Fingering – A Topographical Approach

“The black keys belong essentially to the three longest fingers” – CPE Bach

“Please do not think that I am so naïve as to ignore the logic of the circle around which our scales are built and the center of which is C. I merely stress that the theory of piano playing which deals with the hand and its physiology is distinct from the theory of music.” – Heinrich Neuhaus

The art of fingering is a huge subject, not least if studied historically. While many professional players stress the importance of good fingering we often find fingering suggestions offered by renowned editions to be clumsy, odd or simply out of place.

New York pianist and teacher Jon Verbalis book Natural Fingering is a rich resource on the subject of piano fingering. Verbalis delves into fingering techniques focusing on a topographical approach, and how they relate to the ideas found in F. Chopin´s un-finished Piano Method (Projet de Méthode).

Thomas Fielden appears to be the first to have introduced the term “topography” in relation to fingering in his 1927 work “The Science of Pianoforte Technique”. Fielden stressed knowing how muscles and tendons work and how the arms and hands move. He scientifically analyzed which of these muscles and tendons a pianist used when playing and described the function of the finger, hand and arm as a lever used in the act of touch.

Verbalis also talks about equal temperament and how it affected composers’ choice of key signature. Further, he discusses the significant influence of Charles Eschmann-Dumur, who extolled the virtue of new fingering patterns. These patterns balanced groups of notes in major scales with equal numbers of fingers, which is a concept called equal construction. Equal construction allows the pianist to invert the finger pattern and keep the desired symmetry. This technique is especially apropos to contrary motion, where the two hands move in opposite directions. Verbalis quotes Dumur’s Exercises Techniques Pour Piano in order to buttress his conclusions. He also develops a fingering strategy based on the physiological construction of the human hand.

According to Verbalis the three working principles for a basic topographic fingering strategy are:

1) Long fingers on short keys (black), short fingers on long keys (white)
This represents the very essence of a topographical approach; from it the basic patterns and their pivotal functions evolve.

2) Fourth on black, thumb on white
The fourth finger is the ideal black-key pivot in diatonic scales and arpeggios.

3) No unnecessary stretches or adjustments
In regard to range of movement, it is most important to strive for fingerings with the aim of reducing or eliminating any unnecessary stretches or adjustments.

Example 1: Beethoven – Sonata op 13, 3rd mvt.
This descending scale does not suggest a traditional c minor fingering. The 4th on e flat allows the thumb instead of 4th on b and the 3rd on a flat becomes the pivot (principle 2) avoiding any positional stretch (principle 3).

Example 2: CPE Bach – Solfeggietto
Traditional fingering suggests the thumb on c (right hand). The 4:th finger on e flat supports the previous scale idea in c minor. 54323 from the g (right hand), is the c minor chordal position with a long finger (3rd) on black key.

Example 3: Chopin – Fantaisie Impromptu
The descending alternatives are to be tried from a hand size point-of-view. 453 from the d sharp gives us a diminished chord position down to the a, with a spread hand. The 342151 solution means two positions in the run. 4351 (g sharp, f sharp, a, e) supports the idea of long finger on black key.

Example 4: Debussy – Clair de Lune
The right hand descending basically follows the pattern of an E major scale (thirds). The 5th and 3rd on g sharp and e on the 6th beat in the second bar anticipates the chordal position of f sharp minor. The full f sharp minor 7 chord of the left hand is obtained through the 4th on f sharp, 3rd on a, 2nd on c sharp and 1st on e. Long finger on black key.

Example 5: Prokofiev – Diabolical Suggestion, Op. 4
The right hand is presenting major and minor thirds chromatically descending by using the 1st and 2nd fingers. The top voice descends through the 5th and 4th alternatively 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd (in bar two) in order to safeguard the legato line. The pattern is favouring a longer finger on black key.

Available on the Natural Fingering companion website (accessible through an access code) are excerpts from the repertoire which are provided with topographically correct fingerings illustrating the principles and strategies applicable to the content of each chapter.

Historical background

General concepts of fingerings can be traced to different schools of training and traditions but should ulitmately strive for the best solution in the given musical situation. We also must come down to the individual player´s situation where size and construction of hands will be crucial for the choice of fingering. We might ask us if there is an actual gain in knowing about Mozart’s scale fingering when his fortepiano displays no resemblance to a modern grand piano what so ever.

Chopin’s fingering principles

Chopins fundamental hand position

Chopin's fundamental hand positions for the right and left hand

Chopin’s un-finished Projet de Méthode (Piano Method) was a groundbreaking study piece when he died in 1849. Although it was incomplete at the time, the work outlined a new pedagogy of the piano. Chopin brought this to the fore by pointing out the symmetry of both the keyboard and the music he and others had composed for it.

In contrast to other pedagogues of his time, who sought to equalize the fingers by means of laborious and cramping exercises, Chopin cultivated the fingers’ individual characteristics, prizing their natural inequality as a source of variety in sound.

“For a long time we have been acting against nature by training our fingers to be all equally powerful. As each finger is differently formed, it’s better not to attempt to destroy the particular charm of each one’s touch but on the contrary to develop it. Each finger’s power is determined by its shape: the thumb having the most power, being the broadest, shortest and freest; the fifth [finger] as the other extremity of the hand; the third as the middle and the pivot; then the second [illegible]. And then the fourth, the weakest one, the Siamese twin of the third, bound to it by a common ligament, and which people insist on trying to separate from the third-which is impossible, and, fortunately, unnecessary. As many different sounds as there are fingers.” (F. Chopin)

As an example of pure technique exercises that apply the concept of “keyboard’s proper relationship to the physiology of the hand,” Chopin would suggest that his students begin the study of scales with B, F# and Db Major (“following the basic fingertips 1-2-3-1, 2-3-4-1 and 2-3-1, respectively”). He considered that these scales follow the natural, comfortable position of the hand, due to the fact that the longer second, third, and fourth fingers would be playing on the black keys.

Neuhaus’ fingering principles

Legendary pedagogue and pianist Heinrich Neuhaus agrees with Chopin’s principle of each finger’s individuality but also refers clearly to the concept that the chosen fingering ultimately should serve the musical idea. Neuhaus says: “That fingering is best that allows the most accurate rendering of the music in question and which corresponds most closely to its meaning. That fingering will also be the most beautiful. By this I mean, that the principle of physical comfort, of the convenience of a particular hand is secondary and subordinate to the first, the main principle.”

Reader question

Which fingering principle do you use when playing the piano?
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Examples reprinted from the companion website for Natural Fingering: A Topographical Approach to Pianism (April 2012), by Jon Verbalis with permission from Oxford University Press © 2012 Oxford University Press


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