PIANO TECHNIQUE REVIEWS

Untitled Document

Alan Fraser and The Craft of Piano Playing


Alan Fraser is the ‘junior member’ of the group of pedagogues whose work is reviewed on these pages. Born and raised in Montreal, his first exposure to physical issues in piano technique was through his teacher Phil Cohen, a student of Yvonne Hubert who herself studied with Alfred Cortot in Paris, and who produced such luminaries as Janina Fialkowska, Andre Laplante, Ronald Turini, Marc Andre Hamelin, Marc Durand and Louis Lortie. Cohen focused on the choreographic movement of the arm to sculpt exact phrase shapes instead of using the arm for generic relaxation movements. Cohen also knew which arm movements would best cultivate the healthy maintenance of the hand’s natural arch structure, and which ones work against that structure. By subtle touch he could involve the whole body in a balanced way in producing tone, and the effect was a profound relaxation which left one empowered and aware rather than limp. After ten years in the Cohen school and a Master’s Degree at McGill University under Tom Plaunt, Fraser was looking for a way to globalize the exciting principles he had been exposed to by Cohen. The teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais, nuclear physicist, mechanical and electrical engineer and European judo champion, seemed to offer the most scientific body of knowledge and practice, and so Fraser undertook a training in Feldenkrais Method.

One month before his 4-year professional training in the Method was to start, Fraser heard Kemal_Gekic play at the Montreal International Piano Competition, and his world changed. This pianist had the physical poise, the athletic prowess, the blistering octaves, blazing passagework and exquisitely poetic, sinuous singing lines of a Horowitz, and the appearance of his hands on the keys was very different from those of average pianists (as Horowitz’s were too). Could there be a connection between the look of the hand and the phenomenal sounds coming out of the Steinway? Here was the chance for Fraser to analyze a consummate piano technique at close quarters and to define the nuts & bolts of optimal movement at the piano. He moved to Yugoslavia and for the next 20 years worked with Gekic while developing his Feldenkrais skills. And he developed a series of exercises to evoke Gekic’s exceptional physical organization – from hand structure & function to the optimal involvement of the arm and whole body – in himself and others. As Gekic’s assistant at the Art Academy of the University of Novi Sad, Fraser saw his job as empowering the students physically to be more able to fulfill the musical intentions Gekic was demanding of them.

This is how Fraser developed Craft of Piano Method as presented in The Craft of Piano Playing (book published by Scarecrow Press, 2003, DVD released by Maple Grove Music Productions, 2006). Craft of Piano Method encompass aspects of both the finger action and arm weight schools, linking both of these back to the hand’s innate structure and function to define exactly which elements of these older, alternately revered and reviled schools can still prove useful to us today.

Kinesthetic Learning

Fraser consciously cultivates kinesthetic learning, enhancing our natural learning processes through the improved functioning of the sensory-motor feedback loop (our neuromotor system’s means of communication). Each chapter or section begins with exercises that minimize effort and maximize richness of sensation. This conscious lowering of effort allows the brain to create a richer and more exact kinesthetic picture of the fingers, hand and arm. The brain can now create new patterns of movement based on the new enriched body image. This is a fundamental learning process, one far older than verbal conceptualization and far more primordial: it is the brain’s basic mode of acquiring new physical ability, present and active in infants from birth.

Subsequent exercises in each chapter increase effort and activity, allowing pianists to integrate the newly acquired capability into their daily keyboard regime.

A crucial difference

This evolution from low-effort, sensory-rich exercises to more vigorous ones in each chapter points out a key difference between Fraser's approach and several others that specialize in healing and reducing the risk of performance injury. Whereas Fraser advocates and cultivates the same relaxation as they do, the crucial reduction of effort needed to free our hands and arms from bad movement habits, he doesn't stop there but moves on to introduce a new, vital form of hand activation based on the skeleton's innate structural power and the neuro-motor system's incredibly sophisticated means of controlling that skeleton.

Hand Structure & Function

The DVD’s crucial first chapter addresses hand structure and function, zeroing in on its natural arch shape that must be stable and yet remain moveable if it is to stay functional:

 


He also shows how grasping, the fundamental action of the hand, generates that potent arch and thus plays a crucial role in virtually all piano playing – even though the keyboard is flat and it would seem you can’t easily grasp it:

 


Fraser makes a beautiful visual comparison between the arches of the hand and the arches of a cathedral:

Fraser departs from optimal keyboard hand position

Note that to demonstrate his hand's 4-ribbed double arch structure, Fraser departs significantly from the hand's optimal shape in piano playing. Fraser's metacarpal ridge slopes down from the 2nd to the 5th knuckle, which on the keyboard would rob the 5th finger of much needed structural support from the hand. His hand would fare much better if the 2nd and 5th knuckles remain more or less level - as they would if the thumb were not being used at all, as with the harpsichordists of old. This is clearly demonstrated in Seymour Fink, chapter 12B (link).

Legato

Fraser then address legato (DVD chapter 2, book chapter 10), which he takes to be the physical and musical foundation of piano technique.

He shows how virtually none of us have really mastered a true physical legato, and how we continue to fail in really playing legato because we think we can already do so. The simple act of truly joining two notes galvanizes the hand’s innate arch structure into potent standing, forcing or rather encouraging the hand’s skeletal structure to rise up into its natural dome shape, simply in order to truly control the joining of the two keys. It also creates the aural illusion of a singing line, because holding two keys down for an instant in time blends their sounds in the ear, which interprets the resulting dissonance as a true melodic join.

Fraser first demonstrates this ability in slow motion, allowing the viewer/reader to gain maximal physical appreciation of the new sensations involved. He then moves to overholding and other exercises designed to consolidate this newly learned function. This approach differs radically from the Taubman theory that grasping and hanging on should be avoided as potentially leading to injury. Fraser shows us how to access the hand’s structural potency to grasp effectively, hang on fluidly, and thus expand our pianistic capability.

The Thumb

The thumb is the next stop in Fraser’s pianistic investigation (DVD chapter 3, book chapters 12-16). Similar to Seymour Fink, Fraser sees the thumb as a unique digit so different in its movement from the fingers that it can be virtually be considered another hand. One key theme is pianistic co-dependence, the idea that when thumb and hand ‘mess’ with each other instead of leaving each to do its own job effectively, weakness and a disempowerment of the hand’s potent structure result.

Fraser devotes so much attention to the thumb's role as a potent, moveable part of the hand because it tends to be one of the 'blind spots' in a pianist's self awareness. Fraser goes on to give many more exercises developing the thumb’s sensitivity, strength, independence, and unique capacity for movement, showing how when the thumb is fully potent, the whole hand experiences a profound empowerment.

Octaves & Chords

Octaves & Chords (DVD chapter 4, Book chapters 17-23) get special attention because we tend to stiffen the hand into immobility to maintain the shape of an octave or chord. Fraser begins by teaching our hand to let go of the tendency to stretch against inner resistance when it expands. Though he seems to contradict his cultivation of the hand's potent arch structure, it is crucial to release unwanted tension from the hand: this is a preparatory step in rendering the hand more functionally powerful. When the hand learns to relax into an extension, it often gets perceptibly larger as it lies on the keyboard. A hand that can remain moveable in extension can continue to move the fingers independently while playing octaves and chords, making the sound blossom and acquire richer colour.

Brilliant splashes of chromatic interlocking octaves close out this chapter to show that relaxation isn’t an end in itself but can lead to a surprisingly brilliant and powerful sound.

The Arm

Fraser first demonstrates the various wrong uses of the arm commonly seen in pianists (DVD chapter 5, Book chapters 28-34). Some of these may be distressingly familiar to the viewer, but recognizing a problem is the first step to resolving it. He then shows how the arm plays a crucial role in

Pulse generation
Hand orientation
Tone enrichment (arm weight)
Phrase shaping

Take special note of Fraser’s humorous illustration of relaxation taken to the extreme (DVD chapter 5 part v) – this is one of the many instances in this film where Fraser entertains even as he educates.

Rotation

Fraser also looks at rotation (DVD chapter 6, Book chapter 35), presenting a whole new take on this controversial and potentially confusing movement component. The hand is seen to subtly rotate through groups of notes in scales and arpeggios, facilitating the smooth melodic transition along with the choreographing arm. But rotation can also completely eliminate the sense of leaping when the hand must fly to a distant area of the keyboard.

Aural Entasis – The Enhancement of Pulse, Phrase & Orchestration

Fraser takes a break from the physical aspects of technique to discuss how the careful distortion of pulse, melodic shape or harmonic colour can actually enhance the innate musical content, making it more expressive by bringing its unique internal characteristics of shape and content into heightened profile instead of distorting those characteristics (DVD chapter 7, Book chapters 3, 51-58).

Maximal Finger Articulation

The final chapter of the DVD integrates all that has come before, bringing it all together to create the palpable and visceral vitality that characterizes a healthy and capable technique (DVD chapter 8, book chapters 24-27). He shows how to raise the fingers in an integrated way – creating no tension but rather empowering the fingers to feel their full potential for powerful yet sensitive movement. He also takes a look at hyper-curling the fingers for a super-articulated staccato.

The common thread of logic running through the entire chapter is to maximize the colours one can draw from the instrument: it turns out this is best achieved by developing a physical coordination also guaranteed to leave one free from injury for a lifetime.

 

The Craft of Piano Playing represents a new stage in the development of piano pedagogy – an approach that respects both the finger action and arm weight schools, an approach that includes the various forms of relaxation needed to treat performance injury but that also goes beyond, reconstituting and restoring to the hand its natural power to make it a fully capable, totally healthy entity.

 

The Craft of Piano Playing can be purchased at

Maple Grove Music Productions

Price/Value Quotient

Book $34.95; DVD $39.95 (€29.95)               Excellent value for money

 

Piano Technique Reviews is a division of Piano Technique.net, a site owned and operated by Maple Grove Music Productions, the company devoted to developing the pedagogical materials - books, DVD's, online video lessons and live piano institutes - associated with Canadian pianist Alan Fraser's Craft of Piano Method.