The Pianist's Talent

"The Pianist's Talent" by Harold Taylor helped crystallise for me decades of thinking about how to improve musical performance. I still refer to this book almost daily during my guitar practice sessions.

Harold Taylor describes the teachings of Raymond Thiberge on the piano. Thiberge was a successful piano teacher, who also happened to be blind.

After many years he came to the conclusion that his methods of teaching had very little outcome on the results his students were getting. His search for the deeper principles which foster good playing led to very similar conclusions to Alexander technique: a broadening and lengthening posture.

Taylor gives the best explanation I've yet seen on how these principles are applied to musical performance and training.

From the forward by John Ogdon: "I think many performers have had the feeling... that the music is playing itself and that they are the agents through which the music passes. ... Harold Taylor has convincingly shown... that... this feeling is the result of being in a certain state of muscular co-ordination."

Harold Taylor - pianist and author

Chapter 1: Towards a Definition of Talent.

This chapter starts by discussing the phenomena of infant prodigies. Talent may be briefly defined as "the ability to perform without training."

Mark Hambourg aged 9

"The most untalented person can usually perform a 5 finger exercise without training; at the other end of the scale we find the 'super-talents' such as John Ogdon, whom I remember sight-reading the Brahms D minor Concerto at the age of nine"

"The integration of thought and action which the virtuoso takes for granted... is seldom achieved by lesser talents, even after long years of study and practice."

" There is no fixed quota of talent .. at the disposal of an individual... all aspects of existence contribute to the manifestation or inhibition of one's potentialities."

"The superiority of the virtuoso stems not from the possession of any extraordinary capacities, but solely from the way in which his capacities function." "Real mastery of the keyboard is delineated by the very absence of ... struggle. "

"To increases one's capacity for co-ordination, however slightly, is infinitely more rewarding than any amount of hard labour... which does not serve that purpose."

Chapter 2: The Basis of Co-ordination

" In these moments of co-ordination we veritably are different people, in that our total pattern of behaviour has unconsciously altered."

"... there are always two physical events (which occur during heightened coordination):

  1. ... an alteration in the balance of muscular activity...
  2. .... a subtle change change in the total posture.

"... those who feel no strain when accomplishing even the most demanding tasks at the keyboard must be the better pianists."

Sergei Rachmaninov aged 11

"The indivisibility of mind and body cannot be overemphasised ."

The Prodigy, by Honore Daumier

Chapter 3: Expansion versus Contraction.

"... there is no neutral state of posture... when the conditions of expansion are present, the conditions of contraction are in abeyance and vice versa."

"... practising 'relaxation exercises', a temporary expedient which has no lasting effect if he is in a contracting postural condition."

"Musical alertness and technical freedom certainly seem to go hand in hand."

".. that simple continuous flow of gesture with which the talented performer follows the line of a work."

Chapter 4: The Researches of Raymond Thiberge

In this chapter Taylor considers the familiar situation of people who don't seem to be able to improve no matter how hard and long they practise.

He relates how Thiberge went to the leading pedagogues in the early part of the 20th century in an effort to understand their approaches to technique. In this quest, Thiberge had an advantage... Thiberge was blind from birth!

This meant that he had to rely on touch, to feel what the expert were actually doing. To his dismay he found the even the leading experts were not aware of what their bodies were actually doing !

He concluded that "clumsiness in general, and technical failures in particular, have no other origins than in the making of simultaneous contradictory gestures."

Mal-co-ordinated gestures are fundamentally complex,

Co- ordinated gestures are fundamentally simple.

Ferrucio Busoni aged 12

Chapter 5: Are you well seated?

A firm seat is essential.

In this chapter Taylor goes into quite some detail on how to achieve conditions of co- ordination. It is in many ways also a concise summary of the Alexander Technique.

Erwin Nyegerhazi aged 9

Regarding the seat, Taylor says: "A firm seat is essential at any time, since any reduction in the chair's efficiency as a gravity-resister has to be compensated for by muscular activity."

Chapter 6: Coordination with the keyboard

Taylor mentions the work of Tobias Matthay, the "rotationist" and James Ching, the "fixationist" as being examples of almost opposite approaches to the question of technique. Both schools had a huge number of followers and both claimed to have discovered the basic principles of piano technique.

He then argues convincingly that instrumental technique is a gestalt, a whole which can never be fully explained or cultivated by the the reductionist approach.

"It is the talented performer's intuitive means whereby he initiates and maintains a co- ordinated dialogue with the instrument."

".. the flow of energy of a performance is a single, simple gesture of expansion which operates throughout the total posture, to which all other gestures are related as by- products or adaptive adjustments."

He argues that the player must rid himself of the illusion that because the fingertips are in contact with the instrument, that they are the instruments of tone production. Rather they (the fingers) are transmitters of the basic gesture of expansion.

My definitions

'Reductionism is the beaking down of an activity into it's component parts. A purely reductionistic approach to playing guitar would assert that by practising the identified component parts separately, they can then be brought together in a musical performance - These concepts are explored further in ' Guitar Playing and how it works ' by Peter Inglis.'

Reductionism is the beaking down of an activity into it's component parts. A purely reductionistic approach to playing guitar would assert that by practising the identified component parts separately, they can then be brought together in a musical performance.

Chapter 7: The teaching of Raymond Thiberge

Taylor says " the ability to make one sound by genuinely co-ordinated means was worth more... than showing... how to negotiate the supposed 'difficulties' of the music by... any 'end-gaining methods'. "

He also recounts that his first six lessons with Thiberge (undertaken when he was already a professional pianist) consisted of playing no more than a C major scale in double octaves !

"In the long run, only the quality of the work matters, not the quantity."

He then describes in detail how a typical lesson with Thiberge would go, with Thiberge constantly checking and adjusting the postural relations in the student and encouraging the optimum conditions in the body. He emphasises the extremely subtle nature of the work, which requires full attention.... a relaxed and alert quality of attention which doesn't interfere.

For example, to produce loud tones in this way, the student must be prepared to let go of their preconceptions of how that result is to be achieved, and instead focus on the clarity of their conception of the passage.

Chapter 8: Technical Notes on Some Chopin Studies

The basic thrust of this chapter is that by employing the correct means, these etudes become easier and easier to play, but incorrect means will have the opposite effect.... one which most students of instrumental performance will be familiar with I'm sure !

"Whether it manifests itself as a mere caress or a deeper pressure, one touch alone, resulting from the establishment of the correct conditions of coordination is all that is needed."

"The superiority of the virtuosi stems less from their exceptional faculties than from their discovery of an exceptionally simple means which allows them to use their faculties simply and naturally..."

Chapter 9: Studying, Repertoire and Performance

As a result of the principles outlined to this point inthe book, Taylor arrivers at 3 main categories of work :

  1. Improvement of coordination
  2. Acquiring of repertoire
  3. Practising of selected works with a view to performance

He describes the type of "sight reading" in which a coordinated reading of a work is given, which actually makes a kind of detailed engraving on the musical memory.

"The performer's repertoire may be likened to a collection of such engravings, amongst which he browses, choosing those which he will workover and polish up for public viewing".

He discusses at length the sight reading abilities of virtuosi, which he regards as a natural component of their musical being. He says that for them, "the act of sight reading and.. memorising are virtually the same."

My conclusion

All in all I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The basic concepts discussed therein I feel are the keys to cultivating talent in all aspiring performers, and making better performers out of those already on the trail.