Russians; a Piano; the Legend.

(Fascinate story about Russian Classical Technique of Playing the Piano)

 Prof. Lev Naumov – probably the most EFFECTIVE teacher of the piano WORLDWIDE of the whole 20 Century; this photo has been given to the author of this Web-Site by Lev Nikolaevitch himself.

Famous Russian Piano-Schooling System fascinates piano students worldwide again and again. Besides, many piano music admirers become assured that the musical event the Russian artists might participate in, nearly MUST represent a truly higher artistic quality. As well the piano teachers who even very little, sometimes, somewhere... – still have been learned by the Russians, become likely more trustful for the students.

Quite a strange fact: very few musicians are able to take into consideration that each one Russian pianist truly CANNOT represent equally high artistic level as represent the Great Russian Masters of the piano, and consequently it is not truth that any Russian or in Russia educated piano tutor is able to work in equally high professional way. One ought to be sure as well that any sole & one, homogenous Russian Piano School really does NOT exist; that fact should be apparent to us all. On the other hand, factually many great individualities have appeared in the piano field in Russia, putting ultimate touches on development of the piano art NOT only in their homeland, particularly – in the first half of the 20th Century.

They were such artists as:

Felix Blumenfeld (1863 - 1931); among his students were Vladimir Horowitz and Harry Neuhaus...

Alexander GOLDENWEISSER (1875 - 1961) and his disciples - Samuil Feinberg, Dmitry Kabalevsky, Grigory Ginsburg, Tatiana Nikolaeva, Dmitry Bashkirov...

Konstantin IGUMNOV (1873 - 1948); he taught, among others - Lev Oborin, Jakov Flier, Maria Grinberg, Jakov Milstein...

Leonid Nikolaev (1876 - 1942); among his students were Vladimir Sofronitsky, Maria Yudina, Dmitry Shostakovitch, Pavel Serebryakov...

Harry NEUHAUS (1888 - 1964); among his students could be found such pianists as Svjatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Jakov Zak, Lev Naumov, Radu Lupu, Vera Gornostaeva, Evgeny Malinin, Evgeny Mogilevsky...

After them were coming the tens and hundreds students of their students (and pupils of their pupils), who, working around the World started to develop and evolve the Great Russian Piano Tradition. In this tradition, seeing the problem from professional piano pedagogical point of view, most interesting is the very special approach to the piano technique: Russians are used to INTEGRATE all the musical abilities and aptitudes, which commonly provide the pianists with the real skill of playing as naturally as the Italian singers sing.

The pedagogic art and artistic activity of all of above maintained masters, have been grounded under many various influences, mainly coming to Russia from the Romantic tradition via such masters as John Field (1782 - 1837) and Anton Rubinstein (1829 - 1894). Still before all, the Russian Piano Pedagogy grew under influence coming from the three other Masters yet:

- Theodor Leschetizky (1830 - 1915), who taught as genuinely Russian master as Vassily Safonov, more late the teacher of Alexander Scriabin, Nikolai Medtner, Josef Lhevinne and Rosina Bessie (later Lhevinne). 

- Franz LISZT (1811 - 1886), the artist who primarily influenced the Russians as the greatest pianist-virtuoso in the whole history of music...

- and Frederic CHOPIN (1810 - 1849), who put the most perceptible touches on the Russian piano pedagogical art.

However, the Russian Piano-Schooling System sometimes becomes considered as a phenomenon caused by the collective work, Russian piano masters' activity was strictly INDIVIDUAL yet. These artists did not work as members of any particular GROUP, and as well they did not represent any ONE & SAME point of view on playing and teaching the piano; surely no one of above maintained piano masters would like to accept such dishonorable summarization. Factually, this phenomenon – a Russian Piano Legend – should be interpreted in analogous way as it happens in the history of Art, generally. Though, we are used to define some particular eras or even informal groups of artists who simultaneously lived and worked in particular periods and/or places as the Viennese Classics, French Impressionists, Slavonic Romantics, etc – still in spite of all such categorizations the particular artists working even in the same cities in the same time are fully recognizable as clearly different individualities...

Seeing the problem from another point of view, we have to maintain yet that herein exists something HABITUALLY SHARED by all the greater Russian individual approaches to the piano question, which approves common evaluation related to the entire subject:

- The piano technique is being interpreted by elite of the Russian piano teachers as such kind of  ability to play the piano well  that cannot be obtained in any MECHANICAL way!

- The piano playing is being interpreted by them as an activity of the  evidently creative  character.

This is this main component of the whole matter, which – if superficially interpreted – might even cause the feeling of identity of many Russian teaching methods in history of the piano. Positively said: the technique of playing the piano according to Russian standards must be obtained in the artistically QUALIFIED way. That is why the piano technique is being interpreted by elite of the Russian piano teachers as a phenomenon that includes much more than the action of fingers and hands only. Furthermore, the artistically proper piano technique – according to the Russian piano methodical rules – cannot be developed as something of the one-track character: the artistic IMAGE, the creative HEARING, the IDEA – doubtlessly must always be present in the performance as well as in PRACTICING the piano!

Generally: the artistically clear musical INTONATION (a kind of the internal anticipative – ergo – creative hearing) is the most essential point in adequate understanding of the whole Russian Piano Miracle.

It is truly sorrowful that so many adepts of the piano from around the World deeply believe in existence of something that could be defined as the MYSTERIOUS RUSSIAN TECHNIQUE, which – according to the most common opinions – concerns exceptionally FINGERS and HANDS' action, and – if rationally used – finally must bring the ARTISTIC SUCCESS! Factually, nothing of that kind had ever existed in the Russian professional piano schooling. Any magical training system surely does NOT exist in the Russian modern piano teaching formula, too! And actually no one Russian teacher might show HOW one could duplicate the quickness of ones fingers using purely mechanical tricks.

In the Russian leading piano systems one cannot find any concept that would exceptionally be related to FINGERS or HANDS, once fingers' and/or hands' action have never been seen as the most fundamental elements of the matter. As well in the Russian leading schools or conservatories of music no one student is being forced to endless studies on SCALES, PASSAGES, DOUBLE TONES, OCTAVES – separately. In spite of it – or, better said – thanks to that kind of approach they ARE able to play such elements of the piano pieces much better then they who so desperately try to polish these elements, strongly believing in possibility to gain the proper piano technique just via improving their fingers' dexterity. Of course, due to the nature of theirs instruments – violinists, cellists and wind players must work on scales & passages much more then the pianists have to; the piano tuner decides the cleanness of the piano pitch yet, so the pianists have nothing to do with this problem. Therefore the exercising of pianists' hearing, focusing their attention on the EXTERNAL clearness of intonation factually has no great importance in the professional piano schooling. Instead, the pianists HAVE TO focus their attention on the anticipative ARTISTIC INTONATING that must constantly act, guarantying the actual smoothness and virtual vividness of performed sounds and phrases; generally – such activity firmly assures the fluency in developing the musical Form. As well the emotional colors and  dynamic values of the sound have to persistently be watched when practicing and playing the piano, because just these elements determine the whole future TECHNICAL progress of the piano students.

Of course, the mechanical part in piano technique doubtlessly exists and is the very important aspect of the whole thing. The Russian piano masters are interested in building the rational proportions between the usage of fingers' energy and the hands' weight in playing and – especially – in practicing the piano. They strongly avoid speaking about purely mechanical errors yet; instead they always try to solve the technical problems focusing students' hearing and fantasy on such VALUES of the SOUND that would help in recognizing any possible manual disorder in playing.

The grounders of The Russian Professional Piano-Schooling System perfectly knew that if something HAD NOT formerly been recognized, planned and shaped by the artistically skillful and active FANTASY, nothing positive could factually happen in the PRACTICE. When IDEA does not rule the practice – the practice becomes ruled by something UNKNOWN and it should be more than very clear that such kind of activity cannot yield anything of artistically valuable character...

This Supreme Law is valid at all of the schooling levels: from the first lessons up to the post-graduated studies.

Such pedagogic approach, at least, firmly supports the students' activity in their individual searches for instrumentally proper solutions. Indeed: this is the THEORY! But such theory means nothing else as a generalization made after many years long PRACTICE. And that is how the real everyday work in any schooling level really looks alike in the leading Russian schools and conservatories of music.

In my opinion, going THAT WAY along, not only Russians would be able to build the suitably integrated, harmonized, stable and solid piano technique. This is the "top-secret" idea of piano professional schooling in Russia in the past as well as today. And that is  one & sole, Chopin-based, in Russia practically tested piano pedagogic concept, which if becomes assimilated by any other piano schooling system, might bring much instrumental ease connecting its piano-technical thinking with the real essence of musicality.

Which aspect of the matter represents so high value in the Russian Classical Technique of Playing the Piano?

In my opinion - this is the real ARTISTIC approach to any piano pedagogic goal...

Let you have a look at the following model: as long as the student tries to "relax the muscles" in any particularly difficult phase of the musical piece, having no image of its MUSICAL IDEA – he is unable to gain the exact image of the whole situation. Relaxation, besides, had obtained nearly religious or, better-said, OBSESSIVE sense in several piano-schooling systems (as in the Taubman Approach, for instance). I feel the necessity to maintain that many years ago I have been infected by this truly dangerous "virus", too...

Working in the Russian-like, Chopin-based way, the students would gain just really working HABITS that in the future might efficiently provide them forward if any technical problem might happen. The students would getting sure skills then, which will give them the practical knowledge related to "WHAT & HOW " should persistently be observed in the sound's quality. As well, herewith they become informed about the way, the certain kind of  piano technical INCOMPETENCY could finally be thrown out. That should mean that the pure "relaxation" becomes replaced by the "energy & weight managing", which does not include any shadow of  PASSIVITY that – I am truly afraid – is so typical to relaxation, generally.

As it has been formerly maintained, this formula has straight relation even to the first phases of the piano schooling. Building possibly firm interest in FANTASY'S ACTIVITY the Russians especially emphasize its NECESSITY in the first phases of the children piano education IN SPITE of quality of their musical talents! According to Russians beliefs, again, the manually unfit students NEED even more help in activating of their likely dead FANTASY.

That is why they never try to improve the pupils' manual abilities focusing their attention on the hands' action! The magical circle of  piano technical incompetence  starts just from this point: THE FANTASY cannot be vitalized by any kind of the PHYSICAL (manual) ACTION, and because the any smallest physical MOTION is practically ruled just by FANTASY, it should finally become clear that any kind of relaxation or other manual acting definitely CANNOT ACTIVATE the pianists' fingers and hands. AMEN!

The Russians know perfectly well - what is  bad  and what is  good  for the acting pianists' hands. It should be however clear, that such knowledge might be possessed by any pianist, and everywhere! The hands' acting straightly shows: WHAT, factually, HAPPENS in the pianist's MIND. One has to be sure that hard, rude thinking and indeterminate emotions must definitely produce inharmonious, physically offensive motions, additionally – inducing hard and rude sounds that must come just as the simply LOGICAL consequence.

The best Russian teachers apparently believe in possibility to improve the quality of EXTERNAL, physical aspects of the instrumental skills – primarily – improving the INTELLECTUAL and EMOTIONAL approach to the playing, represented by such elements as hearing, thinking, creating emotionally clear images. The very interesting hereby is the fact that all these artistically most important elements of the matter represent as well the technologically most important side of the technique of playing the piano. As Prof. Neuhaus said: "Music lives within us, in our brain, in our consciousness; its  domicile  can be accurately established: it is our hearing." Therefore only affecting the hearing, causing changes in thinking, awaking the fantasy – the pianists (violinists, singers, etc.) would be able to achieve the stable, firm and permanent results in REALLY VISIBLE, mechanical side of their instrumental technique. This quotation verifies the straightest connection between Russians piano tradition and the Chopin's Method; as Prof. Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger wrote [in his Introduction to the Chopin's "Sketches for the Method"] – herein did not exist any discontinuity between the physical and mental domain in the Chopin's teaching. I hope, I do not have remain the fact that to understand the Chopin's Method even partiall, one should become acquainted with truly greatly larger material then the Chopin's "Sketches for the Method..." is.

It should mean, that NOT the NUMBER of played studies, scales and passages, exclusively – would decide the piano technical growth. The QUALITY or (better said) the MANNER these scales, passages and studies would be realized in, plays the decisive role in the piano technical progress as a whole.

Many pianists, worldwide, make the raw mistake understanding the hearing & artistically creative fantasy as a part or phase of work on the artistic INTERPRETATION only; these factors have to be seen as the most IMPORTANT and indispensable BASIS, necessary to any technically proper, PHYSICALLY adequate motion of fingers and hands. As long as this truth would be hidden to us, the actual ARTISTIC INCOMPETENCY would cause the instrumentally improper, ergonomically WRONG MOTIONS and rise very melancholic feelings among our students.

The Russian piano technical formula could be defined as follows: seeking for the best results, one should mainly remember the following things:

- The artistic IMAGE-MAKING instead of  looking for nuances...

- The active INTONATING instead of  playing by heart...

- The ergonomic ENERGY & WEIGHT management instead of muscle power's usage and the endless  hands' strengthening...

As you see, nothing of esoteric character could be found herein. Everybody can start to try this easy and truly effective way. The joy that comes from being CREATIVE is typical not only to all the genuine artists – it should come to any human being who dares to act in such way.

Well, only they who possess something – could be able to share this  with others. Who of us would like to become granted by the "relaxation" shining from the stage, or – to share the joy caused by "dexterity" of fingers? Piano adepts, who are getting no joy from IMAGE-MAKING, must seek for substitutes that would originate the illusion of  "being an Artist"; they actually need in any possible surrogate of  the "Art-making". As the result they overuse their hands and fingers only, trying to find the key to the doors of Art  in the absolutely wrong way. Seeking for the finally good result one has to be sure that they, who are looking for "relaxation" – PROBABLY could find it! Who looks for "fingers' dexterity" – probably will find it, too. As well: who wants to make his hands iron-strong  – probably sometimes will get as strong hands as the Finnish woodsmen have...

Still no one of them, who is seeking for above maintained elements, will achieve the goal they PROBABLY were looking for – because the artistically proper piano technique cannot be developed as the SIDE-RESULT of work targeted on clearly non-artistic objects. At this place I would like suggest reading the Prof. Harry Neuhaus great book about the piano art. It represents the genuine knowledge of typically Russian approach to main questions of forming the piano instrumental technique. It has being written in very condensed and attractive form; additionally, it brings up much larger view on intellectual backgrounds that have played very essential role in forming this surprisingly generous phenomenon recognized today as The Russian Piano Schooling System.

Additionally, I would like suggest to read this file, or - for instance - this one, too.

With my Very Best Wishes!

   Stefan Kutrzeba

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  Actualized: 2007-11-26