By Stephen Siek
In the mid-1850s, Sigismund Lebert and his colleague Ludwig Stark issued a popular series of piano method books, formidably entitled Theoretical and Practical Piano School for Systematic Instruction in all Branches of Piano-Playing from the First Elements to the Highest Perfection. True to their Germanic heritage, their approach was systematic and thorough, though their advice was confined to the mere insistence that all pieces be practiced loudly and repetitively—to obtain “a firm style of playing.”
When Lebert and Stark published their books, the piano had undergone dramatic changes from the time of Mozart. It had grown in size and power, so that by the mid-nineteenth century that “firm style” became an obsession to many. When the American pianist Amy Fay arrived in Berlin in 1869, she complained in her correspondence about the draconian methods of her teacher, Louis Ehlert:
You have no idea how hard they make Cramer’s Studies here. Ehlert makes me play them tremendously forte. … My hand gets so tired that it is ready to break, and then I say that I cannot go on. “But you must go on,” he will say.
Yet even as many clung to the old ways, some teachers in Europe began to notice how unsuitable rigorous drills with stiffly held fingers (however effectively they may have served the harpsichordist) were for extracting artistic effects from the modern piano—and could even lead to incapacitating injuries.
But in 1903 a new era dawned when Britain’s Tobias Matthay (1858-1945) published The Act of Touch. This major work emphasized a more enlightened approach to piano performance. Matthay lived at a time when many believed that science could unlock the secrets of artistry, and that even virtuosic playing could—and should—be effortless. He disavowed the age-old credo of mind-numbing drill and calisthenics. Instead he stressed that all real practice demanded analysis of the causes of technical problems—analysis that rested on a study of the piano’s mechanisms and human physiology. Between the Wars, Matthay’s influence flourished on both sides of the Atlantic, spurred on by the successes of such noted pupils and master pianists as Dame Myra Hess, Sir Clifford Curzon, and Dame Moura Lympany.
How ironic today then to observe over 100 years later, in a blog posting from September 2009, a prominent teacher echoing the hortatory advice of Lebert and Stark than the thoughtful Matthay:
First have the student play each run slow, heavy, digging in. Repeat 3 to 5 times with the right hand alone. I play along emphasizing playing loud, slowly … If the hand gets tired during the slow, heavy, digging in practice, have the student practice the left hand chords.
Such advice is not unusual for piano teachers today in light of how Matthay’s ideas have all but vanished from the mainstream. And yet…and yet… not so coincidentally, nearly every piano blog today devotes a generous amount of space to the discussion of the injuries that Matthay’s lessons on piano technique studiously sought to avoid—begging the question of whether a re-discovery of Matthay’s teachings might not well be less expensive than physical therapy sessions or even surgeries some pianists undergo.
Stephen Siek is the author of England's Piano Sage: The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay. A pianist and musicologist with an extensive background in Matthay teaching principles, he is a professor of music at Wittenberg University.