Sunday, February 25, 2007

OK, Shoot The Piano Player But There’s More To It Than That

Posted by olvlzl.
Listening to Liane Hansen and talking with Nathaniel Kahn the director of the movie “Two Hands” about the physical problems of the pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher several things were striking. First, the number of times NPR alone has done stories about Fleisher would qualify as enough, already. He’s a great musician with an interesting story but there are many thousands of pianists, not to mention players of less glamourous instruments, who could be the subject of interesting stories. Why not do something that hasn’t already been done to death on NPR? And why not do stories about classical music that aren’t centered on the movies?

Second, the stories and pieces about Fleisher have all been the same and superficial. They aren’t about music. Our media has just about a blanket boycott on actually covering classical music as music. With the exception of a few pieces done by classical music critics they’ve all been about his disability. The really important thing about that wouldn’t make very interesting radio for non-musicians. If Fleisher really wanted to say the most useful thing he could about his disability, it would be to document the aspects of his technique that could have lead to his problems. Fingering, in short. How was he using his hands when he got into trouble and what could that tell us about how to avoid those problems? Maybe a comparison with fingerings of pianists who worked for many decades without problems would tell something interesting.

The piano being my instrument, I’ll tell you that it was when I used other peoples’ fingerings without thinking of what they did to my hand that I got into trouble. This first came to my notice when I tried practicing with my eyes closed, concentrating on how my hands position in relation to the keyboard changed as they moved up and down. The keyboard is a very large object and the hands position has to change as they move from the middle of it. Fingerings that work perfectly in the middle don’t work nearly as well as they move up and down octaves. The use of the weaker small and ring fingers are especially difficult in the right hand. Having been taught the standard fingerings and using them well past the positions they really worked in for years it was necessary to really think about how to use them in a way that worked. And I did find out that what was physically most comfortable tended to work better musically.

I also got into trouble when I studied classical guitar in college. The very unnatural right hand position insisted on by the teacher lead to really bad problems in the ring and pinky fingers. After two semesters I dumped it and switched my minor instrument to one with a teacher who cared more about their students hands than their own teacher’s orthodoxy. That was what got me started on looking at my piano problems.

If NPR wanted to do a useful story about this kind of thing, they might look at the work of Dorothy Taubman. Or they could actually do something about classical music that wasn’t related to the movies or the Pulitzers. They could actually do some reporting on music that hasn’t been done to death already.