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How useful is it to read books on technique, really? (Read 816 times)

Offline anacrusis

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How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
« on: January 31, 2021, 10:56:01 PM »
Hello everyone. Back when I was a college student studying piano performance I had quite a lot of issues with my technique. I started experiencing pain and discomfort, and therefore I consulted a lot of different books and websites talking about technique to try to figure out what I was doing wrong.

Unfortunately, many of my attempts at doing what I read in the books created even more problems for me. For example, many books talk about many different movements you should be doing, but my attempts at imitating those resulted in quite artificial and inefficient movements and I was still too tense. What eventually ended up happening was that I basically threw out everything I had read I should be doing in these books, and worked to figure it out on my own.

My conclusion from this was that books can give you a general idea of what needs to be going on (needing to be free from tension for example), but are a rather poor medium for communicating the specifics of how to accomplish that, as everyone is different and perceives things in different ways. At least that is how it was for me. I cannot think of many descriptions I have found in books that I am directly following or thinking of while I am playing.

What are your experiences with learning about technique from books? Is there any point to reading books on technique? Are there any books you would recommend, and if so, why?

Offline ranjit

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #1 on: January 31, 2021, 11:09:47 PM »
I have found books and videos to be very useful, and I think I'm qualified to say so because i that is how I learned all of my technique. However, you I've found that you need to be very careful, critical and analytical to be able to use the advice. You need to experiment a lot and not take anything at face value, but rather use the ideas as springboards to come up with your own ideas. You can mess it up by understanding what is being said incorrectly. It's like people are describing how a forest looks like by the trees. It is certainly useful information -- as long as you are able to imagine the forest in your head.

Offline brogers70

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #2 on: January 31, 2021, 11:30:28 PM »
It's happened to me a few times in lessons that my teacher would say "Wait, that's a bad way to do such and such, what you have to do is this..." and then she'd describe some movement. I'd try to do what she said, and she'd say "No, let me show you." Then I'd do what she showed me and she'd say "OK, you've got it."

But....then I'd say "well, the way I'd describe that movement is thus and so," and she'd say "No, no, no that's wrong, you have to do what I said." But I just did whatever it was according to the description I'd given myself in my head, and it worked fine. So I think verbal (or written) descriptions of technique and movements have their limitations, because

1. Not all teachers actually understand the anatomy and mechanics but use specific anatomical terms and get them wrong.

2. The teacher may be describing what it feels like to make a movement rather than what's actually happening (e.g. "keep your fingers completely passive, the sound comes through the arm" even though you can see perfectly well that the teacher's fingers are not, in fact, completely passive.

3. Particular descriptions of technique and movements get attached to particular schools of pedagogy and since there's a certain polemic between schools of pedagogy, teachers may become more attached to a particular description of movements than is really justified by the results.

Videos can be a bit better than books, because at least you can see what's happening, but I teacher who can give you feedback (even if their description of what you should be doing is unclear) and show you what to do is best.


Offline ted

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #3 on: February 01, 2021, 04:15:13 AM »
I have read a good many such books by famous people. Most of them relate solely to classical repertoire, which is a severe limitation to start with. Aside from that any attempt to describe it has an even deeper problem in that technique is a quale. Movements as they appear can be described and communicated in words to another player but the internal sensations cannot. It is possible, even probable, that two players' movements look identical while their internal perceptions and consequent sounds are wildly different. So aside from obvious and gross generalisations, no, I have not found books useful. However, neither have I found teachers useful for physical technique so what do I know I suppose; I might just be peculiar.
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Offline ranjit

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #4 on: February 01, 2021, 06:10:07 AM »
Aside from that any attempt to describe it has an even deeper problem in that technique is a quale. Movements as they appear can be described and communicated in words to another player but the internal sensations cannot.
Of course, the internal sensation felt while performing movements is a quale, but so are a lot of things. The perception of a color is a quale, but it can be accurately communicated assuming the people involved aren't colorblind. So, I think that an approximation to the internal sensations can definitely be described. The meaning of the words involved, will in a sense assume implicitly that the people involved have similar nervous systems and so on, but that is arguably a reasonable assumption. Even metaphors such as "imagine a glorious fierce sunrise" can communicate things to the listener. I don't think it's correct to use the fact that terms cannot be precisely defined to mean that communication is not possible.

Also, it's possible that once you understand the physical motions, you can try and perform them yourself, and the internal sensations which that produces can then be remembered. I think you can get a reasonably close approximation if you know in great detail and can visualize the hand+body movements, as well as implicitly understand the musical intent behind them. If you end up having a different quale which produces the exact same result, it could be argued that you have indeed succeeded in what you set out to do.

It is possible, even probable, that two players' movements look identical while their internal perceptions and consequent sounds are wildly different.
Identical movements will, of course, produce an identical sound. The issue here is that you need a very accurate perspective of what is going on to be able to tell whether or not the movements are actually identical. I think that this can definitely be achieved, whether through description, or using medical imaging tools. So, it is essentially a question of resolution. Of course, the internal perceptions could very well be different.


So aside from obvious and gross generalisations, no, I have not found books useful. However, neither have I found teachers useful for physical technique so what do I know I suppose; I might just be peculiar.
In my experience, I have observed that I've sometimes thought that such instruction was not useful because (at least verbally) all that was being conveyed were the gross movements. However, I now believe that it sets off a kind of subconscious chain reaction which eventually ends up improving your technique -- it's just hard to perceive because it happens over a long timescale and progress is nonlinear. That is to say, it may feel like progress is being achieved through personal realizations and not via instruction, but perhaps the very purpose of instruction is to provide fertile soil for such epiphanies to come into being. Of course, this kind of generalized instruction may well be through books or other media.

Offline ted

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #5 on: February 01, 2021, 09:20:49 AM »
A simpler explanation in my case would be that I have not understood what the players who wrote the books were trying to communicate, or imagined an incorrect version for myself. I know I diligently tried most suggestions in several books and rejected them because I felt they caused me to play badly. Perhaps I completely misread the physical instructions, it is important to keep an open mind. The two teachers in my youth never discussed the physical aspect at all. At about forty I consulted a teacher about a particular problem. While her advice  did produce improvement in some areas it impeded expression in others so I decided on balance to revert to my old ways and develop my mechanism with the Virgil Practice Clavier, a course I have since had no cause to regret.

The books are still here, unread for the last thirty years. I might read them again now out of curiosity and see what my reactions are.
"We're all bums when the wagon comes." - Waller

Offline anacrusis

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #6 on: February 02, 2021, 04:31:53 PM »
A simpler explanation in my case would be that I have not understood what the players who wrote the books were trying to communicate, or imagined an incorrect version for myself. I know I diligently tried most suggestions in several books and rejected them because I felt they caused me to play badly.

Thank you for this perspective, it's pretty validating to read that someboy else has had what sounds like pretty much exactly my experience  ;D The result of me reading instructions on movements has basically always been that I seem to have misunderstood it or imagined the wrong thing based on the description, judging from the results I got.

The books are still here, unread for the last thirty years. I might read them again now out of curiosity and see what my reactions are.

If I may ask, which books are these? If you read any of the same books I did, I would be interested in hearing your persepctive on them!


2. The teacher may be describing what it feels like to make a movement rather than what's actually happening (e.g. "keep your fingers completely passive, the sound comes through the arm" even though you can see perfectly well that the teacher's fingers are not, in fact, completely passive.

Haha yes, I have experienced this too, and have problems with technique that says that things are done with the arm. I seem to be too literal to fill in the finger movements myself unless explicitly instructed to do so. For all the talk modern technique seems to focus on the arms, I do the best when I let go of thinking about them for the most part, and focus on using my hands instead.



Offline brogers70

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #7 on: February 02, 2021, 05:53:45 PM »

Haha yes, I have experienced this too, and have problems with technique that says that things are done with the arm. I seem to be too literal to fill in the finger movements myself unless explicitly instructed to do so. For all the talk modern technique seems to focus on the arms, I do the best when I let go of thinking about them for the most part, and focus on using my hands instead.

I did not mean to say that the arms (and back, and posture, etc) are not very important, they are, only that the claim that, in a certain passage, the fingers were completely passive was an exaggeration, and that I wasted a bit of time trying to do what my teacher said rather than what she (I suppose) actually meant.

Offline anacrusis

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #8 on: February 02, 2021, 09:39:23 PM »
I did not mean to say that the arms (and back, and posture, etc) are not very important, they are, only that the claim that, in a certain passage, the fingers were completely passive was an exaggeration, and that I wasted a bit of time trying to do what my teacher said rather than what she (I suppose) actually meant.

I agree with you! I think they are important too in the sense that if you are doing the wrong thing you'll have a lot of trouble.

Offline ted

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #9 on: February 02, 2021, 10:12:55 PM »

If I may ask, which books are these? If you read any of the same books I did, I would be interested in hearing your persepctive on them!

I have only three left now, those by Matthay, Neuhaus and Gat. Either the Matthay was wrongly expressed or I misunderstood it as nothing positive came from that one. Neuhausís seemed to be mostly a rant about his musical philosophy and how good he thought Richter was. Gatís book suggested that flexing straight rather than curved fingers better facilitated movement from the knuckle joint, a fact I verified for myself and have used to some extent ever since. As I was primarily interested in types of music and playing seemingly unknown to these three men I grew to regard their books as irrelevant to my personal direction. The fault if such exists probably lies with me but there isnít much I can do about it.
"We're all bums when the wagon comes." - Waller

Offline ranjit

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #10 on: February 03, 2021, 03:56:38 AM »
I have only three left now, those by Matthay, Neuhaus and Gat. Either the Matthay was wrongly expressed or I misunderstood it as nothing positive came from that one. Neuhausís seemed to be mostly a rant about his musical philosophy and how good he thought Richter was. Gatís book suggested that flexing straight rather than curved fingers better facilitated movement from the knuckle joint, a fact I verified for myself and have used to some extent ever since. As I was primarily interested in types of music and playing seemingly unknown to these three men I grew to regard their books as irrelevant to my personal direction. The fault if such exists probably lies with me but there isnít much I can do about it.
I read the first few chapters of Gieseking. I felt that he had especially interesting ideas on how to memorize (naturally) as well as how to acquire technical facility. Although I haven't thoroughly read and tried to apply the advice, I thought it was interesting and qualitatively different from a lot of the other things I've seen.

Offline lostinidlewonder

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #11 on: February 03, 2021, 12:35:18 PM »
For the matter of learning to play an instrument they are just not that useful and the time could be better spent training your skills on the piano.

When I come across people who have pain in piano playing I usually always find they are playing music which is simply too demanding for them. If skills are built up appropriately you don't come across finger breaking pieces which hurt you for long, they usually can be made gentle in your hands if your technique is capable. Of course you could have been playing something totally calm and still experienced pain, but I don't feel that was the case unless I'm wrong.

Many people must learn these difficult pieces because they are trying to prove something or compete with someone or some even unfortunately have a reckless teacher, this is just not a good relationship to have with your piano studies. If you treat your relationship with the piano with a sort of humbled respect and refuse to allow yourself to play with tension that cannot be effectively solved, you can build your skills up to make even the most complicated piece gentle to your fingers. The step back may not even be that large or long before you can return to the problem.

There is little use to try to make something gentle which is breaking your hands and hurting you already. The increments of improvement still will contain stubborn tension and it will still be a painful experience. You may be lucky and only a small correction will bring large relief but I would think that with a lot of experimentation already if that was the case you probably would have discovered it. Certainly reading a book will have little chance of correcting a specific problem for a specific hand with a specific piece, a good teacher is very helpful for that.

Did you end up solving your pain problem?
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Offline anacrusis

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #12 on: February 04, 2021, 11:27:06 PM »
For the matter of learning to play an instrument they are just not that useful and the time could be better spent training your skills on the piano.

When I come across people who have pain in piano playing I usually always find they are playing music which is simply too demanding for them. If skills are built up appropriately you don't come across finger breaking pieces which hurt you for long, they usually can be made gentle in your hands if your technique is capable. Of course you could have been playing something totally calm and still experienced pain, but I don't feel that was the case unless I'm wrong.

Many people must learn these difficult pieces because they are trying to prove something or compete with someone or some even unfortunately have a reckless teacher, this is just not a good relationship to have with your piano studies. If you treat your relationship with the piano with a sort of humbled respect and refuse to allow yourself to play with tension that cannot be effectively solved, you can build your skills up to make even the most complicated piece gentle to your fingers. The step back may not even be that large or long before you can return to the problem.

There is little use to try to make something gentle which is breaking your hands and hurting you already. The increments of improvement still will contain stubborn tension and it will still be a painful experience. You may be lucky and only a small correction will bring large relief but I would think that with a lot of experimentation already if that was the case you probably would have discovered it. Certainly reading a book will have little chance of correcting a specific problem for a specific hand with a specific piece, a good teacher is very helpful for that.

Did you end up solving your pain problem?

Yes, sort of I guess, but with some caveats. It took me about two years of trial and error to solve the original problem, which was wrist pain. After that, I still had problems with tension, tightness, fatigue, and having become clumsy/lost control due to trying to do things I read in books to fix my technique that did not work or I misunderstood etc etc. I had a very severe ingrained habitual tension response so even simple chord accompaniments would cause noticeable tightness, and it has taken many years to sort it out. I did spend a lot of time playing easier repertoire, but I was still rather tense and eventually I started challenging myself with more difficult problems to help myself figure out what I needed to be doing.  During my last three college years, if I paced myself and was mindful I could get in 3-5 hours of practise a day without hurting myself, even if I never was completely free from discomfort.

At this point I can practise uninterruptedly up to an hour without feeling much worse for wear if I am on form. After that, more and more of my older bad habits start creeping back in and if I then keep pushing I might feel tight or even sore afterwards (though not while playing funnily enough). It doesn't really matter if I play Chopin Etudes (on a good day I can play through Op. 10 or 25 at 75% speed and feel fine), Beethoven sonatas, Kinderszenen or slow scales for the duration, the effect will be about the same, so I view it as a general coordination issue rather than one tied to playing too difficult pieces. Getting to this point required me to unlearn most of the information on technique I had tried to implement from books, prompting the original question in this thread.

So in that sense I do not consider the problem solved since my goal is to be able to play for five hours straight without feeling any detrimental effects whatsoever physically, should I choose to. Right now, I still need to mentally supervise my body and be disciplined with it and be in decent daily form to avoid discomfort and I won't be satisfied until I can trust that my body will automatically chose a coordination that is tension free 100% of the time.

Funnily enough, in my teaching I have been successful in helping other people get rid of pain from playing but my progress with helping myself has been much slower. But I do not see many other options than to keep hacking away at it until I succeed.

Offline ranjit

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #13 on: February 05, 2021, 01:53:20 AM »
I've always found that when I finally have a breakthrough in terms of how to play without tension, my playing ability definitely goes up a notch. It's really hard to get away from that intuitive reflex to tense up, isn't it?

I've found that getting in a dreamlike state while playing (for me, while improvising) where you basically aren't judging yourself at all, is extremely useful when it comes to figuring out how to play without tension. Once you get out of that zone, you take the insights gained and try to store them in memory for future use. I think mental and physical tension are to an extent closely linked. Although it's possible to play mentally relaxed but still physically tense, I'm not sure if it's possible to do the converse.

Offline anacrusis

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Re: How useful is it to read books on technique, really?
«Reply #14 on: February 05, 2021, 04:14:07 PM »
I've found that getting in a dreamlike state while playing (for me, while improvising) where you basically aren't judging yourself at all, is extremely useful when it comes to figuring out how to play without tension. Once you get out of that zone, you take the insights gained and try to store them in memory for future use. I think mental and physical tension are to an extent closely linked. Although it's possible to play mentally relaxed but still physically tense, I'm not sure if it's possible to do the converse.

That's my experience as well. Only took me eight years to figure that one out haha :D I was very hard on myself as a college student and I did not realize it contributed to many of my tense habits. Needing to be mentally relaxed feels like the right term for it. I feel few of the technique books I have read explicitly mention this.

Another reason for my problems was also that I was taught to play in a tense, forceful way from the start, so I did not have a reference point for any other way of playing.