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The 3-D Piano Method

The 3-D Piano Method is a 6-DVD series on piano teaching and playing, produced by artist-teacher Fred Karpoff. It attempts to describe the graceful, efficient usage of the whole body to play the piano in three-dimensions, as opposed to tenets such as “making all the fingers the same length,” “thumb-under” scales, “high” fingers, and using opposable muscles simultaneously, with curled fingers.
In The 3-D Piano Method, these are replaced with concepts such as the Quiet Hand, Rotational Mobility of the Hips, Continuous Alignment Adjustments in three-dimensions (up-down, in-out, and lateral), the Throw, the Vibrato Technique (for playing repeated chords, octaves, and tremolos), Three-Dimensional Shaping, and Released Fingers.

Piano Street’s Patrick Jovell got the opportunity to interview Fred Karpoff, creator of the 3-D Piano Method:

Patrick Jovell: Thank you for letting us preview your thorough pedagogical project, the 3-D Piano Method. We would also like to congratulate you on receiving the 2011 Frances Clark Keyboard Pedagogy Award for your work, by the Music Teachers National Association.
We have learned that one of the catalysts for creating 3-D Piano was that you suffered from a piano-playing injury that led to an overhaul of your whole piano technique — something that included collaboration with a physiologist. Can you tell me about your initial thoughts after making the decision of starting from scratch so to speak.

Fred Karpoff: Yes, it’s true that one of the reasons I wanted to produce the DVD series was to assist those who are facing what I went through. My own injury came when I was a doctoral student at the Peabody Conservatory, as I was preparing to embark on the competition circuit. I increased my practice time to six or more hours a day. Under this stress, I developed tendonitis, bursitis, and other inflammation. It was a terrifying time until I began working with a Feldenkrais practitioner. I was led through a series of whole body exercises, including shoulder and hip circles, leg and back stretching exercises. This work helped me to move more fluidly and gave me hope that I was on the right track. After several weeks, I began to feel better. And that’s when I realized the importance of integrating whole body movement into piano playing. Soon I was taking piano lessons with Yoheved (Veda) Kaplinsky. She showed me new ways to play with optimal coordination, to use only the required muscle activity at the appropriate time. Later I also studied Tai chi and the Alexander Technique.

PJ: We know that the 3-D Piano Method was created by somebody (you) who performs at a high professional level, very conscious of pedagogical goals and with a rear-view mirror perspective. What kind of obstacles can you avoid by using the 3-D Piano techniques in your training?

FK: This is one of the most exciting features of the series. It offers pianists a method to improve their technique with less risk of injury. It contains detailed analysis of over seventy-five pianistic elements, ranging from basic foundational elements like sitting position, alignment and free fall, to advanced concepts such as arpeggios, octaves, trills and scales. By carefully demonstrating each element and providing step-by-step exercises that are easy to review, the viewer is given instruction not only on how to avoid injury but also how to employ the whole body in a fluid manner. This, in turn, provides viewers with guidance on how to fully express their musical intentions, to focus on freeing the imagination and the search for greater meaning within their music.

PJ: In the videos we see you teaching college-level pianists. When do you recommend teachers integrate your ideas into their teaching? Do the suggested techniques primarily apply to students that have played for many years with a lot of technique and habits already developed?

FK: It is very gratifying that the series is being used at all levels of instruction. The ideal is to integrate healthful, well-coordinated pianism from the very beginning. At a recent teacher’s convention in Texas, several teachers recounted how they have been getting excellent results using the 3-D Piano Method with children under ten years old, and as young as five. It is similar to ice skating or gymnastics: the earlier one learns the basic, fluid biomechanics, the easier it is to advance to higher levels of accomplishment. Teachers using 3-D Piano report that they are able to do more actual “teaching” instead of “correcting.” Most of us were taught paradigms that run counter to natural movement. For example, “Make all the fingers the same length,” “Hold the thumb under the palm during scale playing,” or “Keep a coin balanced on your wrist while you play.” These maxims are seriously detrimental to one’s prospects of mastering the piano. Each of these calls for unnecessary muscle activity, usually through the continuous co-contraction of antagonistic muscles. This is akin to having the skater or gymnast told to curl her toes during all movements.

PJ: There are a vast number of books and multimedia on the subject of how to play piano from world-renowned pianists and pedagogues sharing ideas and methods over the years. Can you say that The 3-D Piano Method represents a school or tradition in the sense that it is based on already discovered ideas?

FK: There is no question that in the age we live in, the ‘borders’ of schools and traditions are becoming more blurred—that is, since information travels so much more quickly today, there are more opportunities to integrate elements of piano-playing that were previously exclusive to a particular ‘school’. There is no question that the 3-D Piano Method is rooted in a wide variety of traditions. Some of these include Matthay, Whiteside and Sandor. Other important influences are Karl Ulrich-Schnabel, Leon Fleisher, Richard Goode, and my own major teachers, Ann Schein, Robert Weirich, and Veda Kaplinsky.

PJ: You meet a lot of students at different levels and with different skills and personalities. What kind of problems do you frequently encounter? What challenges are likely to show up among aspiring young pianists of today?

FK: I believe the greatest technical challenge for students at all levels is achieving optimal coordination—playing with minimal effort to produce the maximum results.
And, in my experience, here are the most pervasive obstacles to optimal coordination: An overly digital approach characterized by misuse of antagonistic muscles (especially flexors and extensors); misalignment (especially ‘twisting’ or ‘swiveling’ of the hand); and continuous ‘grasping’ with the thumb while playing. All of these are extremely common, and all of them impede the graceful, fluid movement that is necessary for mastering the piano. I recently worked with a terrific pianist on both books of the Brahms Paganini Variations. The playing was technically excellent but the rhythm was not vibrant enough and the tone was not sufficiently warm. This was the result of too much held tension, particularly co-contraction of opposable muscles. By moving away from a more ‘digital’ approach and integrating whole-body movement, he was able to free his body and to liberate the spirit of the music.

PJ: If you were to create a sequel to the 3-D piano, what would you address and why?

FK: What is unique about the 3-D Piano Method is that it is interactive. There are hundreds of teachers worldwide working with the series to supplement their instruction in their studios and classrooms. Many of these teachers report using the series as a kind of partnership where 3-D Piano supports their teaching without superseding it. As we look into the future, we see many ways to build upon this principle of interaction with new technologies. We plan to offer live webinars and workshops that will lead to teacher certification. We are in the process of translating the series into several other languages.

PJ: Piano Street is thankful for the opportunity to speak to you, and for letting us preview the 3-D Piano DVDs and study guide.

The 3-D Piano Material

With 280 minutes of video and a 84-page workbook to guide the review process, the total experience for the viewer normally ranges from 2 to 12 months. Over 75 pianistic elements are covered in the series and are detailed in the study guide.

Throughout the series there are mini-documentaries of Karpoff working with twelve of his students. The opening units present essential information for pianists of all levels, including foundation elements, basic three-dimensional movement, sound quality, and chord ensemble. These lay the groundwork for the more advanced concepts that follow, such as arpeggios, octaves, tremolos, repeated chords, trills, scales, and pedaling.

Introduction to The 3-D Piano Method:

Excertps from the video material:
Three-Dimensional Movement
The Vibrato Technique
Pedaling; Rhythm & Artistry

Read more and order the material at: 3-dpiano.com


Recommended Book: Famous Pianists and Their Technique by R. Gerig

Famous Pianists and Their Technique has been a standard in the field since its first publication in 1974. This widely used and acclaimed history of piano technical thought includes insights into the techniques of masters such as C.P.
E. Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Clementi, Czerny, Debussy, Godowsky, Horowitz, Levinskaya, Leschetizky, the Lhevinnes, Liszt, Mozart, Prokofiev, Ravel, Rubinstein, and Schubert, among others.

Called “the bible of piano technique” by Maurice Hinson, this book is a comprehensive resource for the student, teacher, and professional pianist who seek to discover the secrets of how the immortal pianists developed and polished their mechanical and musical technique. This expanded edition contains a foreword by Alan Walker, a new preface, and multiple new appendices.

“… the expanded part of Gerig’s book [is] so impressive that this section by itself is worth more than the price of the book. Just one of the cross- referenced ideas would be enough to spur a thesis, dissertation, or lecture- recital…. Scholars will not be disappointed at the array of obscure facts and hard-to-locate bibliography. Pedagogues will relish this text as an indispensable reference for their courses and daily work. Pianists will be able to constantly refer and return to their historical heritage. Gerig’s book has not only withstood the test of time, but will continue to do so.” – Piano Journal


Piano Technique – the Leschetizky Method
Piano Technique Book

Downloadable e-book on piano technique

This legendary manual in both English and German documents principles and techniques of the legendary piano teacher Theodor Leschetizky, who taught Paderewski, Schnabel and many other great pianists.

The book devided into two parts begins with explanations of hand and finger positions and proceeds to discussions of the touch; diatonic and chromatic scales; trills, chords and arpeggios, double notes, thirds, sixths and octaves.
The second part focuses mainly on musical performance, offering advice on playing Bach and Handel, rhythm, pedaling, melody, practice techniques and musical culture.

This book is now available as a downloadable e-book within our Gold membership from the new Special Content page.

The Polish pianist, teacher and composer Theodor Leschetizky was from an early age recognized as a prodigy, and after studying in Vienna with Carl Czerny and Simon Sechter he became a teacher at fourteen. By the age of eighteen he was a well-known virtuoso in Viennese music circles. Besides performing, he became a very influential piano teacher, first at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which he co-founded with Anton Rubinstein, and subsequently in Vienna.


Wilhelm Backhaus – Technical Problems Discussed

The legendary German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus (1884-1969) shares his thoughts on piano technique in an interview with Harriette Brower, published in her book Piano Mastery (1915):

– How do I produce the effects which I obtain from the piano?
The young German artist, Willielm Backhaus, was comfortably seated in his spacious apartments at the Ritz, New York, when this question was asked. A grand piano stood close at hand, and the pianist ran his fingers lightly over its keys from time to time, or illustrated some technical point as he talked.

– In answer I would say I produce them by listening, criticizing, judging – working over the point, until I get it as I want it. Then I can reproduce it at will, if I want to make just the same effect; but sometimes Iwant to change and try another.

– I am particular about the seat I use at the piano, as I sit lower than most amateurs, who in general are apt tosit too high. My piano stool has just been taken out for a few repairs, or I could show you how low it is. Then am old-fashioned enough to still believe in scales and arpeggios.
Some of the players of the present dayseem to have no use for such things, but I find them of great importance. This does not necessarily mean that I go through the whole set of keys when I practise the scales; but I select a few at a time, and work at those. I start with ridiculously simple forms – just the hand over the thumb, and the thumb under the hand – a few movements each way, especially for arpeggios. The principle I have referred to is the difficult point; a few doses of this remedy, however, bring the hand up into order again.

The pianist turned to the keyboard and illustrated the point very clearly.

– As you see, I slant the hand considerably across the keys, but this oblique position is more comfortable, and the hand can accommodate itself to the intervals of the arpeggio, or to the passing of the thumb in scales. Some may think I stick out the elbow too much, but I don’t care for that, if by this means the scale becomes smooth and even.


– I have to overhaul my technic once or twice a week, to see that everything is all right – and of course the scales and arpeggios come in for their share of criticism.
I practise them in legato, staccato and in other touches, but mostly in legato, as that is somewhat more difficult and more beautiful than the others.
Perhaps I have what might be called a natural technic; that is I have a natural aptitude for it, so that I could acquire it easily, and it stays with me. Hofmann has that kind of natural technic; so has d’Albert. Of course I have to practise technic; I would not allow it to lapse; I love the piano too much to neglect any part of the work. An artist owes it to himself and the public to keep himself up in perfect condition – for he must never offer the public anything but the best. I only mean to say I do not have to work at it as laboriously as some others have to do.
However, I practise technic daily, and will add that I find I can do a great deal in a short time. When on tour I try to give one hour a day to it, not more.

Speaking of the action of fingers, Mr. Backhaus continued:

– Why, yes, I raise my fingers whenever and wherever necessary — no more. Do you know Breithaupt?
Well, he does not approve of such technical exercises as these (illustrating); holding down some fingers and lifting others, for technical practise, but I do.
As for the metronome, I approve of it to cultivate the sense of rhythm in those who are lacking in this particular sense. I sometimes use it myself, just to see the difference between the mechanical rhythm and the musical rhythm – for they are not always the same by anymeans.

– Do you know these Technical Exercises of Brahms? I think a great deal of them, and, as you see, carry them around with me; they are excellent.

– You ask me about octaves. It is true they are easy for me now, but I can remember the time when they were difficult. The only alternative is to work constantly at them. Of course they are more difficult for small hands; so care must be taken not to strain nor over-tire the hand. A little at a time, in frequent doses, ought in six months to work wonders. Rowing a boat is good to develop wrists for octave playing.

– You ask if I can tell how I obtain power. That is a very difficult question. Why does one child learn to swim almost immediately, while another cannot master it for a long time? To the first it comes naturally—he has the knack, so to speak. And it is just so with the quality of power at the piano. It certainly is not due to physique, nor to brute strength, else only the athlete would have sufficient power. No, it is the ‘knack,’ or rather it is the result of relaxation, as you suggest.

– Take the subject of velocity. I never work for that special thing as some do. I seldom practise with great velocity, for it interferes with clearness. I prefer to play more slowly, giving the greatest attention to clearness and good tone. By pursuing this course I find that when I need velocity I have it.

– I am no pedagogue and have no desire to be one. I have no time for teaching; my own studies and concert work fill all my days. I do not think that one can both teach and play successfully. If I were teaching I should no doubt acquire the habit of analyzing and criticizing the work of others; of explaining and showing just how a thing should be done. But I am not a critic nor a teacher, so I do not always know how I produce effects. I play ‘as the bird sings,’ to quote an old German song.


– Your MacDowell has written some nice music, some pretty music; I am familiar with his Concerto in D minor, some of the short pieces and the Sonatas. As for modern piano concertos there are not many, it is quite true. There is the Rachmaninoff, the MacDowell I mentioned, the D minor of Rubinstein, and the Saint-Saensin G minor. There is also a Concerto by Neitzel, which is a most interesting work; I do not recall that it has been played in America. I have played it on the other side, and I may bring it out here during my present tour.


As I listened to the eloquent reading of the Brahms second Concerto, which Mr. Backhaus gave soon afterward with the New York Symphony, I was reminded of a memorable event which occurred during my student days in Berlin. It was a special concert, at which the honored guest and soloist was the great Brahms himself. Von Bülow conducted the orchestra, and Brahms played his second Concerto. The Hamburg master was not a virtuoso, in the present acceptance of the term: his touch on the piano was somewhat hard and dry; but he played the work with commendable dexterity, and made an imposing figure as he sat at the piano, with his grand head and his long beard. Of course his performance aroused immense enthusiasm; there was no end of applause and cheering, and then came a huge laurel wreath. I mentioned this episode to Mr. Backhaus a few days later.

– I first played the Brahms Concerto in Vienna under Hans Richter; he had counseled me to study the work. The Americans are beginning to admire and appreciate Brahms; he ought to have a great vogue here.

– In studying such a work, for piano and orchestra, I must not only know my own part but all the other parts—what each instrument is doing. I always study a concerto with the orchestral score, so that I can see it all before me.


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