It is not even the end of the morning session and already some interesting technical issues have been raised on Kenneth van Barthold’s intensive piano workshop in Edinburgh. The physiognomy of piano technique was most apparent in discussions this morning when the playing of octaves which in turn led to talking about curved fingers versus straight fingers. Alexander Technique connects well with Kenneth’s approach to technique in that he encourages a quiet hand free of being locked and playing extended passages of octaves can lead to an unintended degree of tension in the hand. Avoiding such tension is essential not only to prevent injury but to create a more effective and consistent tone.
Alexander Technique develops improved sensory awareness and an improved connections with the mechanics of the body. Such awareness allows one to connect with the required parts of the body and leave those unnecessary to a particular musical gesture ‘quiet’. Kenneth explained that different sounds come from levers that get increasingly larger – moving from fingers through wrist, forearm and ultimately the whole arm. It seems straightforward to think that the larger the sound required the larger the lever that would be applied. Gaining awareness and some degree of control of the separate types of touch – from finger through to arm – requires focus and effective sensory awareness. Most importantly the decision about what touch is appropriate in a particular passage needs to made and consciously applied.
After four days of getting into practice I introduced some Hanon into my morning session. I had forgotten how useful these five finger exercises can be in focusing the attention on the action of the fingers in the pursuit of an even and clear sound. Playing through what some might consider ‘mindless’ exercises is actually a ‘mindful’ experience for me and an opportunity to work on my use. I can allow my body to be quiet and shift my efforts to movement of the fingers in a mechanically efficient way. Such exercises give the mind enough space to take stock of how the use is affected by movements at the piano – complex music, in the early stages of learning, might take too much of the focus away from use. There is something quite meditative about playing exercises that give time to settling the body and making an awareness of use a priority while warming up fingers.