Why the Greatest Pianists Could Not Teach

Very few of the greatest pianists were good teachers. This is eminently natural because artists train all their lives to be artists, not teachers. I experienced an analogous situation as a graduate physics student at Cornell University where I took courses taught by professors who specialized in teaching, and where I also attended weekly lectures by famous physicists including numerous Nobel Prize winners. Some of those renowned physicists could certainly present exciting lectures that attracted great interest, but I learned most of the skills needed to find a job as a physicist from the teaching professors, not the Nobel laureates. This difference in teaching ability between teaching and practicing scientists pales in comparison with the chasm that exists in the arts world because of the nature of the scientific discipline (see Chapter Three). Learning and teaching are an integral part of being a scientist. By contrast, the greatest pianists were either reluctantly, or by economic necessity, pushed into teaching for which they received no meaningful training. Thus there are plenty of reasons why the great performers may not have been good teachers.

Unfortunately, we have historically looked to the famous artists for guidance, under the rationale that if they can do it, they should be able to show us how. Typical historical accounts reveal that, if you were to ask a famous pianist how to play a certain passage, s/he will sit at the piano and play it out because the language of the pianist is spoken by the hands and the piano, not the mouth. That same great artist may have little idea about how the fingers are moving or how they are manipulating the piano keys. In order to move the hands in the proper way, you must learn to control thousands of muscles and nerves, and then train the hands to execute those motions. There are two extremes among the ways to acquire technique. One extreme is the analytical one, in which every motion, every muscle and every physiological information is analyzed. The other extreme is the artist’s approach, in which the person simply imagines a certain musical output and the body responds in different ways until the desired result is obtained. This artist's approach can not only be a quick shortcut, but can also yield unexpected results that may exceed the original idea. It also has the advantage that a genius without analytical training can be successful. The disadvantage is that there is no assurance of success. Technique acquired in this way cannot be taught analytically, except by saying that “you must feel the music this way” in order to play it. Unfortunately, for those who do not know how to do it yet, this kind of instruction is of little help, except as a demonstration that it can be done. Also, even knowing the practice methods isn’t enough. You need the correct explanation of why they work. This requirement is often outside the expertise of the artist or piano teacher. Thus there is a fundamental impediment to proper development of piano teaching tools: artists and piano teachers do not have the training to develop such tools; on the other hand, scientists and engineers who may have such training have insufficient piano experience to teach piano.

The old masters were geniuses, of course, and had some remarkable insights and inventiveness as well as intuitive feel of mathematics and physics which they applied to their piano playing. Therefore, it is incorrect to conclude that they had no analytical approaches to technique; practically every analytical solution to piano practice that we know of today was re-invented many times by these geniuses or at least used by them. It is therefore unbelievable that no one ever thought of documenting these ideas in a systematic way. It is even more amazing that there does not seem to have been even a general realization by both teachers and students that practice methods were the key to acquiring technique. The main difficulty seems to have been the inability of the artist approach to identify the correct theoretical basis (explanation) for why these practice methods work. Without a sound theoretical explanation or basis, even a correct method can be misused, misunderstood, changed, or degraded by different teachers so that it may not always work and be viewed as unreliable or useless. These historical facts prevented any orderly development of piano teaching methods. Thus the understanding, or the explanation of why a method works, is at least as important as the method itself.

In addition, piano teachers tended to be poor communicators in the sense that they tended not to share teaching ideas. Only at large conservatories was there any significant mixing of ideas so that the quality of teaching at conservatories was better than elsewhere. However, the problems of the preceding paragraph prevented any truly systematic developments of teaching methods even at these organizations. An additional factor was the stratification of piano learning into beginners and advanced students. Conservatories generally accepted only advanced students; yet, without conservatory type teaching, few students attained the advanced levels necessary to be accepted. This gave piano learning a reputation as something far more difficult than it really was. The bottleneck created by a lack of good teaching methods was historically attributed to lack of “talent”. When all these historical facts are assembled, it is easy to understand why the great masters could not teach, and why even dedicated piano teachers did not have all the tools they needed.

Although I started writing this book as just a compilation of some remarkably effective teaching tools, it has evolved into a project that deals directly with the historical deficiencies responsible for most of the difficulties of acquiring technique. Fate has suddenly turned the future of piano into a wide, open unknown with limitless possibilities. We are entering a brave, new, exciting era that can finally be enjoyed by everyone.