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Technique Can only Takes You So Far

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Technique Can only Takes You So Far

When most people refer to technique, they are addressing issues such as how to use your fingers, hands and arms, how to find the right notes and how to accurately play each passage. Although these issues are important and should properly be taught to a young student, there comes a point in one’s studies where finding the right notes is no longer enough. What separates a good pianist from a great one is his/her ability to inflict the right tone, touch and colour. A pianist could play all the right notes as quickly and as accurately as possible but if there is no emotion or variety in tone and colour, the speed and precision is not nearly as great as it could be.

Tobias Matthay is well known for his writings and lectures discussing piano technique. He addresses all issues from proper arm, hand and finger movement, to weight distribution and muscle usage. Yet, I found his writings on colour and tone variety to be particularly interesting. I find that colour and tone quality is one of the hardest techniques to teach a student because the tone and colour that a player generates is so strongly connected to his/her own individual interpretation. I don’t believe that a child should be told what colour and tone is right and what colour and tone is wrong. Rather, a child should be taught how to inflict different tones and colours and how to achieve different characters by their way of touch. A child will eventually mature and be able to interpret a work on his/her own and will be able to choose what tone and colour quality is appropriate. Until then, a teacher has to illustrate the various colours and tones and what techniques are needed to achieve these.

Matthay enforces that music consists of two elements: the emotion element and the shape element (Matthay, 1937, Pg.1). Emotion is something that cannot be taught or explained because we either feel it or we do not. Emotion and feeling is different for each player. It is their individual interpretations that ultimately distinguish one musician from another. In my opinion, it would be a mistake to teach a child wrong and right emotions. There may be such a thing as too much or not enough emotion, but all emotion and feeling is subjective. Emotion in playing music is achieved through time, maturity and experience. Matthay claims, however, that the shape element can be reasoned about and has its Laws that can be observed and obeyed (Matthay, 1937, Pg.1). He begins his lecture titled Colouring versus Inflection by introducing his theory that shape in music can only be expressed through inflection. He continues to list the three forms of inflection that are possible: tone-variety and colouring, duration-variety and time-variety and rubato. A succession of notes remain musically meaningless unless one or more of these forms of expression are properly applied (Matthay, 1937, Pg. 2). For example, if we compare Chopin’s Ballade in A flat and a child’s piece, Schumann’s The Merry Peasant, it is clear that these pieces possess different levels of difficulty. However, both involve a certain degree of self-expression. A lot of our self-expression is developed over time, with maturity and experience. Matthay describes this process as having to “teach our subconscious to act and choose rightly” (Matthay, 1937, Pg.3).

Matthay focuses primarily on tone and colour quality. His theory of colouring is one of a particular interest to me because I find it to be a difficult task to teach it and to acquire it. He compares tone variety and colour changes to the many instruments and sounds in an orchestra. Even though the pianist is one body and has only one instrument, he/she can play as though it is many instruments. The piano can imitate the many instruments and varieties of sound within an orchestra through different tone qualities but there is a specific technique involved in this, one that is both visible and invisible. Matthay suggests that colouring means that instead of using inflections the whole way up and down, we must keep round certain levels of tone, high or low, down or midway (Matthay, 1937, Pg.3). Rather than covering the whole gamut of tone from fortissimo to pianissimo, Matthay enforces that we choose a tone-level and keep our inflections around it:


Not inflections covering the whole gamut of tone:

ff _______________

f ______________

mf ______________

p _______________

pp _______________

But instead, inflections around chosen tone levels:



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