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WHY IS DEFINING THE ELEMENTS OF PIANISM SO DIFFICULT?

Updated: Jun 4, 2023


Why is explaining how do make something happen on the piano, or what a term in the piano vocabulary means, so difficult for my piano teachers and mentors to explain? Further, why is it so difficult for many teachers to admit that fact?


The answer lies in, but also beyond, my late beginner's or early intermediate piano "level" (as I've been told is "approximately" my level; another evident ambiguity since I have no desire or need to pass "graded" examinations in technique and musicality).


There never seems to be a crisp, clear answer to be given to a number of questions I raise, or when I read in a number of "how to" books. If one of my teachers or musical mentors offers an explanation, it is usually preceded with a statement that “it all depends on context.


I've railed against ambiguousness and vagueness in another blog.


Recently, I found support for my observation regarding the topic at hand, in the following.


First, I found THE most useful, practical, and clearly-articulated brief book on how to produce the critical elements of pianism! It has done a lot to clear up my confusion regarding some terms, and therefore I highly commend it to any beginning-level pianist. In 1967 Russian pianist and pedagogue (in 1933 he was jailed in Siberia for three years, and came to America in 1949) George Kochevitsky, wrote The Art of Piano Playing, a scientific approach.


Regarding "tone production" he says (obviously regarding those who wrote before his book's 1967 publication date) the following:


"Many theorists stumbled over the description of this procedure.

Nobody was able to give a comprehensible written explanation

of the movement of the playing apparatus--still less, of the

accompanying inner sensations."


In the next to last chapter he says:


"If I regret that in the technical domain of piano playing we have

to resort to vague definitions and metaphors, I admit that on the

highest creative level, the level of non-verbal symbolism, such

metaphoric language can enrich the imagination."


Composer and pianist Joseph Machlis seems to agree with Kouchevitsky (I was inspired by Machlis to write the poem below). In his 1955 book, The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening (W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1955, New York), in a chapter on the role of notation, Machlis said that:


“...the life of the music, its mood and feeling, cannot be written down

in symbols. This is where the sympathetic imagination of the performer

comes into play, her intuition, sense of timing, above all her understanding

of style. The performer makes the notes come alive, she unlocks the

composers’ intention, and her temperament serves as a kind of colored

glass through which is refracted the creator’s.”


He continued that the performer “enters imaginatively into the spirit of the creator and reverently transmits the latter’s intention.” The performer then, is the crucial link between the composer and the listener, and has a “high duty to transform the symbols on the page of music into glowing sound.” That is surely what I want to do!


But I need more than enrichment of my imagination! Two of my three teachers told me I am very creative, have a rich imagination, and already a sound grasp of musicality in my pianism.


As a final example, consider the Brazilian cellist Pedro de Alcantar's statement in his 1997 book "Indirect Procedures: A musician's guide to the Alexander Technique." He says that "musicologists have failed to come up with unequivocal definitions of rhythm and related terms."


Second, lest anyone dismiss the above observations as being antiquated, consider a statement by a respected modern music scholar, neurobiologist Daniel J. Levinton (McGill University professor emeritus, formerly teaching at Stanford). I found it in his marvelous 2007 book, This is Your Brain on Music, the science of a musical obsession.


Levitin said that even musicologist and scientists disagree about what is meant by some of these terms! Apparently, sometimes they “throw up their hands” and define a term by what it is not. Levitin points out:


"...the official definition of 'timbre' by the Acoustical Society of America,

that is, 'everything about a sound that is not loudness or pitch.'"


A this point I will mention one further possible resource, but be wary. Often the Oxford Companion to Music can be useful, but sometimes it repeats and suffers from the ambiguity and vagueness problem we are discussing; check out the amusing, abstruse definition of musical "texture," for example. After reading that definition, I was about ready to give up!


At this point I think I shall "rest my case" (as I used to say at the end of my trials when I was a practicing attorney), and continue my quest to find stability and definition in what I want and need to know.


LIFE AND MUSIC There’s no notation possible For the vibrant life of music That composer writes on lined score paper, In process slow or quick. He writes, but then performer brings To life the full intention That started in a composer’s mind, By performer is fine-spun. The pianist, feeling chaste respect Akin to reverence, Provides a colored mirror thru Which the music’s bent. Inspired by melody or complex structure, Once the piece is begun, She connects composer to the one Who listens in rapt attention. Performance rewards are great indeed, As lucky she can be, Beyond lifting spirits is why she plays, The unity of life, she sees.

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