About the Author
Phillip, Lillie H. 1969, Piano Technique Tone, Touch, Phrasing and Dynamics, Dover Publications Inc., New York
This book is based on traditional piano pedagogy wherein knowledge is passed from respected master to student, from generation to generation without ever attempting to prove anything using the scientific method. After all, the proof is in the playing...right? The book contains no references to any type of statistics, scientific research or experiments. As well the reader will find no discussion of the underlying anatomy or physiology. This book abounds with advice, which contradicts the scientific conclusions of modern functional anatomy. The technical solutions provided are inferior to the Taubman Technique in terms of both ease in achieving the musical objective and reducing stress in the body.
Note: This review deals only with the physical aspects of playing
The discussion of seating position is mostly logical and useful. The recommended seat-height is such that the elbow hanging loosely from the shoulder is at the height of the keyboard. Basic information about finger position is also included here. The implied premise that the fingers should be spread so that they each fall over their own note is especially detrimental to children and not recommended for adults. Spreading the fingers (abduction) and playing simultaneously is co-contraction which makes it harder to play and can eventually lead to injury. This is not to say that we may not spread our fingers but rather that we should not spread them unnecessarily.
Hand and Finger Positions
The first advice here is rather diffuse--that the student should shape his hand as if to hold an apple or a pear. Does everyone hold an apple the same way? I imagine holding an apple between my middle finger and thumb, as I believe most people do when they eat it. Anyway, a picture is provided which doesn't look too bad except for the fact that both the thumb and index finger are abducted. These abducted digits will reduce the strength and restrict movement. Also, teachers who work with retraining both healthy and injured musicians have told me that it often takes months to remove the apple from the student's hand.
The recommendation that the second and fifth fingers be placed in the center of the "ivory" keys is unnecessary. With a coordinated technique the fingers change position on the keys constantly based on the task at hand. The picture here shows a slightly cramped looking hand position, which is quite likely not optimal for anyone. The "position of function" (see definition) is identified by most research to be the most comfortable and efficient position. In the position of function with the fifth finger on a white key, the tips of the third and fourth fingers are usually in the black key area.
Thumb, Wrist and Elbows
Here the author advises cupping the hand more or less to compensate for the length of the thumb. It would be better to start in the "position of function" such that with the thumb on a white key, the second, third and fourth fingers usually fall into the black key area. Cupping the hand results in a co-contraction when extending the fingers in preparation to play down. This makes it harder to play and can eventually lead to injury.
In the paragraph dealing with the wrist, the author is nearly correct in asserting that the outside line of the wrist and forearm should be as straight as possible. The wrist should be neutral, which for most people appears slightly turned out (ulnar deviation). However, the wrist should by no means be turned outward actively.
The author also gives some examples of the strange habits of a couple famous pianists. That pianists can play (sometimes even incredibly well) using poor technique is not really useful information. What would be more useful is that which works for most students. For example, my students who come to me with straight fingers have much more difficulty than those with naturally curved fingers, without exception.
Depressed Knuckles, Collapsed Fingers
Although the author suggests that playing with collapsed knuckles is all right if it comes naturally, this is contradicted by scientific research. One of the basic truths of functional anatomy is that muscles and joints are most efficient near the middle of their range of motion and least efficient near the extremes. Collapsing the knuckles puts both the extensors of the fingers and the palmar interossi muscles near their extreme range of motion. The author is correct in asserting the fingers should not collapse. However, I have never heard of problems developing due to a collapsed distal finger joint.
The section regarding how to use the thumb is very unclear. The author speaks of a "flexible wrist" which will "do the turning". It appears that the author is speaking of ulnar and radial deviation, and not forearm rotation. The description of pivoting on the finger in order to position the thumb for playing seems to support this conclusion. This is unfortunate.
The author states in a previous section that there can be no absolute law for hand position. Nonetheless, ulnar and radial deviation (twisting the wrist) should be avoided as much as possible for a number of reasons. Most importantly, twisting the wrist compresses the carpal tunnel. This restricts movement and increasing wear and tear on the tendons and nerves, which pass through it. Radial deviation actually involves the muscles of the thumb thereby restricting movement of the thumb. Also, the muscles which accomplish ulnar deviation oppose the thumb and consequently restrict the movement of the thumb.
Another basic rule missed by the author is that the thumb should be played with the help of forearm rotation. The muscles that control the thumb are much too sluggish to play independently which can be remedied only to a certain extent through exercise. Unfortunately, exercising the thumb in an independent fashion leads often to injury. The other alternatives for playing the thumb are ineffective at speed and can also be injurious.
The section on scales provides little insight as to how they are to be accomplished. Some advice such as "the arm leads the finger to the next key" is unclear but not incorrect. This type of advice, which can be interpreted many different ways is especially problematic for beginners.
Weight of Arm
This section begins with an unconventional description of mass and weight that could only add to the confusion of anyone not already clear on the concepts. The author's conclusion that "you feel the weight of your shoulders, evenly supplied, in the finger tips" is one way of using arm (and shoulder) weight. However, this is not the most efficient way of playing and places unnecessary strain on the wrist and fingers by using more weight than is required. The weight of the forearm alone, if used in a coordinated manner, is optimal for producing and controlling key speed. More weight is simply harder to control. Key speed alone determines the energy, which is transferred to the hammer and subsequently the string. The weight of the forearm is sufficient to facilitate articulation and tone at all dynamic levels, even extremely loud to the point where damage to the instrument is likely.
Here it is also stated, that "there may be a slight bend in your wrist which, need not be corrected". It is left to the reader to decide if the picture showing a low wrist (slightly collapsed) is meant to demonstrate this. WARNING! The low wrist, especially with full arm weight, is very dangerous. This is a style advocated by a number of Russian teachers in the United States. My personal experience, under the instruction of a Russian teacher, was that it took less than a week to destroy my fairly decent natural technique. This style of playing, applied to the Rachmaninoff G minor Prelude, injured me to the extent that I never recovered my natural technique. It was not until I studied the Taubman Technique that I could play again without pain.
The difficulty caused by the low wrist can be easily demonstrated. Start with your palm downward (elbow hanging comfortably, upper arm and forearm at 90°), and extend (raise) your wrist. Then try extending (raising) your fingers. Now return your wrist to the neutral position and try raising your fingers. It will most likely feel much easier. The result is the same whether wrist flexion is active or passive. The same phenomenon is observed in connection abduction (spreading) of the fingers and thumb.
Later in this section, the author goes on to say, "The forearm will gain prominence as one discovers that it is the guiding vehicle…one will concentrate on hands, fingers and forearm". This is correct but rather diffuse. It is not explained, however, how the student should proceed in order to discover this "guiding vehicle".
Also covered is what may very well be an important component of coordinated technique although it is not completely clear. In order to get power and strength, the author recommends "throwing the entire arm into the piano" where "You literally take the chord into the hand before you throw it into the piano." Hopefully, no one has taken this advice literally. Nevertheless, this may very well attempting to explain the motion generated from the shoulder as in reaching out to shake someone's hand or pushing the mouse forward while using a computer. This can potentially produce a lot of power if combined correctly with other movements.
Massaging and stretching exercises are presented which are usually unnecessary with good technique.
Dropping the wrist is recommended for accents. This advice should be ignored in accord with the related problems previously discussed.
Very little useful information is presented regarding the physical nature of playing. Many exercises are presented which are meaningless without proper "how to" instructions. There may be other useful information in this book but this review is only concerned with the physical aspects of playing.
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Created 2002-01-14 Last updated 2004-04-13