How to develop a young pianist’s musical bodymind.
Applications of F. Listsz’s Technical Studies
Kristiina Junttu, Doctor of Music, East Helsinki Music Institute, SibA
Katarina Nummi-Kuisma, Doctor of Music, Espoo Music Institute, SibA
In our present post doc project at the Sibelius-Academy we are searching for ways to adapt Franz Liszt´s Technical Studies easier to approach for very young pianists. In contrast to many prevailing views, stating e.g. that these studies are basically a way to learn to play Liszt’s own music, we see them as a means to fundamentally build up a pianist’s musical and psycho-physiological knowledge of the elements of classical and other piano playing. In comparison to its effectiveness the collection is quite infrequently known and used. This can be due to its massiveness: This he did after a lifelong career as a teacher. We think, that he actually has written out essential aspects of his way of being with his instrument and thoughts about how to teach it, with utmost humility. It had to carry a special importance to him.
We have a long experience of using these exercises, first studying them ourselves and then teaching both professional students and young children. Year after year it is baffling to notice how playing these exercises regularly – even in very small doses – almost immediately develops the playing hand and the whole physical apparatus in a very unique way. It differs from the result of practicing other studies, creating a special ability to listen to the body as well as to the sound, in other words, developing an alert body awareness.
Two types of awareness
We are convinced, that it is impossible to play the piano relying entirely on the reflective-conscious control. Instead, a pianist needs the ability to lean on the bodily, kinetic awareness. It is an innate human way of understanding the world: the way in which babies operate in it before words and verbal cognition. Music happens in this non-verbal, holistic domain of mind and body. This is why we need to take into account and encourage the students to get in contact with this bodily knowledge that is present in every adult’s life, and essential especially in artistic, creative activities.
Playing seems to involve two different kinds of awareness complementing one another: fragmentary and holistic. Detailed and slow practicing as well as deciphering new text need conscious, reflective control. This allows one to stop after small fragments, repeat them and to reflect the process verbally. However, most musicians report, that before black-outs or mess-ups their verbal thinking becomes conscious, louder and critical. So, verbal reflection and fluent playing don’t go well together. Verbal reflection also disturbs memory functions. Focusing on fragments happens slowly and stops the essential feeling of continuity and movement in playing. So one should leave behind the dominantly fragmentary approach as soon as possible. One can go back to it when needed, but the focus should shift to the holistic thinking from the start: combining musical elements and physical movements into totalities, intertwining music and the feeling body that expresses it. In a performance the holistic approach is dominant and enables one to direct ones mind forward, keeping the music in motion.
This letting go of excess reflective control can and should be taught. For instance: verbal criticism becomes impossible if one starts listening to the sound surrounding oneself, observing the outskirts of one’s vision or feeling the sound with the skin. One can also, when playing through, observe how one is playing, without criticism. By doing this one can reduce the effects of the destructive inner speech.
Every child is naturally holistic. This is a forte that should be nurtured. Piano playing is an extremely detailed activity that destroys the holism if we don’t take care. In our mind these both types of awareness should be actively practiced. Learning and memory depend on emotions: emotions carry the learned material to long-term memory. Emotions enhance synaptic contacts and make the scope of awareness larger. That is why it is absolutely essential to engage the child’s own mental images in the learning situations. Abstractions are internalized best as mental images that evoke automatically feelings. By posing questions concerning how certain musical gestures sound, feel taste, smell or look like it is easy to reach the child’s own imagery. This is essential in building up motivation: why resist your own invention?
Liszt’s Studies helping the virtuoso mind
Playing Liszt’s studies develops the understanding of the basic elements of classical music, such as scales, intervals and harmonic progressions in many variations of rhythms, articulations and nuances. It seems to us that understanding the basic musical elements makes finally virtuosity possible. Virtuosity is a capacity to be alert and to react in movement without delay. The studies also develop a deep understanding of the topography of the keyboard. This in turn enhances the ability to read music well.
As we see it, Liszt’s starting point to piano technique is to accept gravity: resting the hand on the keyboard before developing movement. This creates a special sense of repose and ability to listen to the body as well as to the sound that in turn creates the special body awareness we mentioned before.
Liszt uses the power of harmony and transposition in every exercise. Whenever some element of technique is practiced, it is done in context of a harmonic progression or scale. In our applications transposition is present from the start. Even small songs can be harmonized and transposed in many keys.
Learning to play legato on the piano is one of the most important and difficult skills. Legato is holistic as an idea: a connection that happens between two or more notes that melt together. In his studies, Liszt starts introducing scales by combining two note slurs, using different pairs of fingers. He continues by combining three, four and finally five notes in one slur. Repetitions follow, and there the natural direction of finger movement becomes self-evident. In the middle of the scale preparations he goes through cadenzas and inversions of chords in all tonalities. This combines the idea of a scale always to a harmony. In the end scales open up as musical material, harmonies and intervals, not fingerings.
We want to stress that through playing these exercises a pianist is building up her musicianship, not just exercising her fingers. She is developing a direct contact between her conscious and unconscious mind and the instrument. As we all know, music goes from very deep, early and basic layers of our experience and existence to the highest achievements of human intelligence. What one achieves through playing these exercises is the priceless possibility of communication between music, player and listener. This communicative ability is the essence of true virtuosity. It also goes further than just piano playing: it fundamentally transforms the young person’s being in the world, experiencing it and communicating with it.
Our presentation concentrates entirely on practicalities. We shall demonstrate with clear examples the basic principles of our applications of Liszt’s exercises using video material of young players.