Piano Pedagogy and the Emporer’s New Clothes

Every field of study, including piano pedagogy, seems to have its own pantheon of theorists and thinkers who are above reproach.

An article in the November 2006 issue of Clavier Magazine, “Teaching Pioneers”, featured the works of the early twentieth-century theorists Abby Whiteside and Tobias Matthay and their impact on piano pedagogy. Reading the article recalled for me the excitement I felt years ago when reading their celebrated works—and the disappointment I felt at getting so little out of them. It is a marvel that so much brilliant conjecturing can be so contradictory and so utterly unyielding of anything useful. Both authors, for example, stress the importance of playing rhythmically, but neither one gives much practical advice on how to do this. Abby Whiteside contends that rhythm is felt or created above all in the torso and upper arms, but without offering a single demonstration of how this is achieved or any physiological evidence that the premise is even valid. Anyone, for example, who has sat down at the piano, tromped down on the damper pedal, and moved a finger up and down repeatedly on a single key for a few seconds knows that an perfectly captivating rhythm can be generated with the finger alone. And Mozart once joked that he could play expressively with his nose! Even wind and string players play the individual notes—and thus create rhythm—principally with their fingers and only marginally with their lungs and bows. Likewise the singer, who creates notes not with his lungs but with his mouth and tongue. No one questions the importance of the musculature of the torso and upper arm, but what exactly does it mean to feel or create rhythm in the torso? Is one supposed to rock or sway at the waist? Whiteside never tells us. (Artur Schnabel used to sit back in a straight-backed chair with his torso as still as stone, even in performance).

On the positive side, Tobias Matthay had some wonderful students, most notably the phenomenal Myra Hess. On the negative side, Matthay’s exaggerated emphasis on forearm rotation has actually done harm, with students taking him too literally and forcibly twisting their arms to aid in depressing the keys rather than simply rotating the arms in order to angle the contracting fingers to best advantage. Matthay also asserts that one plays with the weight of the arm—instead of, as is actually the case, with the mass and muscular power of the arm (which are very different from “weight”!) in support of the action of the fingers—and that one should practice this by using falling or resting arms and closed fists. Such advice only adds to the general confusion that—incredibly after more than 150 years—still reigns in the field of piano pedagogy, and increases one’s suspicion that Matthay’s conclusions, like Whiteside’s, are all too often the arbitrary products of guesswork. The article’s black-and-white photo of Matthay posing with arms high above the keyboard like a pawing lion is almost comical in its depiction of what is almost certainly, unless it was meant completely in jest, a faulty understanding of technique.