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Pianimals brings the ideas of The Craft of Piano Playing to the beginning pianist. Treating the hand as a mini-body, Pianimals offers exercises that help it lie down, stand up, walk, run and leap on the keyboard. Each exercise is linked to an animal who moves like that in nature, and compositions which turn the basic movement into music.
The teachers' manual contains:
The Pianimals exercises are demonstrated in online video tutorials
Pianimals is in pre-production and will be printed shortly. Pre-order it now and we will send you a pdf version which you can use until the print copy arrives.
From the introduction:
Pianimals examines the basic hand movements of piano playing developmentally. These derive from human body movements – the hand is seen as a mini-body, a little person that lies down, stands up, walks, runs and jumps on key. Each part of the hand has its equivalent in whole body structure, such that the:
nail joint is the ankle
middle joint is the knee
top knuckle is the hip joint
hand is the pelvis
wrist is L5-S1
forearm is a torso that breathes, and the
elbow is the head.1
Thus we can develop the hand’s movements on key just as a baby develops its movements in life. Babies have a pre-standing apprenticeship: they need a whole year to acquire the complex actions of standing and walking before they actually do it – but amazingly we force these things on a pianist’s hand the first day. What if the hand could learn like a baby, acquiring preliminary pianistic movements – flexion, extension, rotation, and a host of other skills – gradually, before it had to stand on key? This is the aim of Pianimals: to bring the movement components of pianistic standing, walking and running to the hand while it is still just learning to play. This makes learning stress-free – simple, easy, and joyful.
Each lesson presents an exercise exploring one of these components, then one or more pieces incorporating the movement into a musical setting. The pupils’ book has almost no written text. It is up to you, the teacher, to take the pupil through the exercise and suggest how to implement it into the music. Perhaps write the key elements of the exercise into the pupil’s score as a reminder – or have the pupil do it themself for improved learning and memory retention.
Discovering the structure and function of the hand’s skeleton step by step prepares the fingers to ‘walk’ effortlessly and confidently, free from trauma. Breaking an action down into its constituent parts and learning each part stress-free helps the brain assemble these components holographically into a new skill. The process is intention-driven but non-linear. The pianist doesn’t so much learn to play the piano as acquire a physical language2 of piano playing: a repertoire of movements that make it easy to play – a “pianistic grammar of spontaneity.” 3
Even those who already play can benefit from a refresher course of ergonomically efficient exercises informing the movements of piano playing. Many of these align the skeleton, helping the bones to take over the work of the muscles which leads to less strain, greater agility, freer playing, and better music-making. One might wonder what some Pianimals exercises have to do with piano playing at all – but that’s the ingenious part. Like Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons, they hone an action’s underlying components to achieve a general improvement.
My late teacher Phil Cohen’s epitaph: “There is always another way.” He used to fool around at the piano, knocking the keys in all sorts of peculiar ways to get unusual, percussive sonorities out of the instrument. He was like a kid, exploring in a carefree way, dreaming up never-before seen ways of using his hand. Doing these exercises should be the same kind of fun.
The “lying down” pieces are a case in point. The constraint of glueing the heel of the hand to the white keys could be seen as a limitation, but the sense of security it evokes improves ease of learning in the neuromotor system. Turning this into a game helps the pupil discover new ways of using the hand, new ways of making piano sounds.
Don’t force the pupil to learn the actual piece if that would be a chore. Improvise a musical game imparting the essence of the exercise, and then give the pupil full marks – not for learning the piece, but for learning. The child grows more in ability while having fun than while learning under duress. The whole thrust of Pianimals is to eliminate the drudgery in piano playing.
The learning is fun but not superficial. Reading even the simplest of motives (a three-note rising scale for instance) can be difficult for a beginning pupil – but turn it into an exploration of the keyboard from end to end by repeating the motive one step higher each time, and they suddenly discover “I can.” They are playing, not just trying to play. They are freed from the slavery of the page, becoming creators and developing a proactive relationship to the keyboard. They are making music; it is flowing out of them. Returning to read that three-note motive, they now recognize it as something they can do – they have made it their own.
The accompaniments have been composed with this in mind. Some of them challenge the teacher as well as the pupil – meeting that challenge can spark a heightened creative moment for both players. The sometimes dissonant harmonies can spark creativity as well, returning the pupil to that spontaneous state when they first mashed indiscriminate notes as a baby, long before learning became a job and harmony became a sterile, diatonic affair.
The exercises redress an unintended effect of the arm weight school – a plodding touch that inadvertently limits ability and musicality, caused by the hand relaxing but not standing. Claudio Arrau has noted the importance of the hand's standing up in weight technique,4 and Heinrich Neuhaus also stresses it.5 The hand produces the sound easily when it stands well, freeing the arm to do its own job – to join notes, to shape the phrase.6 Over-involving the arm in tone production, or over-relaxing it, robs the hand of its full potential – the hand goes to sleep when it thinks the arm is doing all the work. The hand comes fully into its own when it fully neutralizes the arm's weight, countering the “down” kinetic forces with an inner “up” action, standing well, harmonizing with the field of gravity instead of succumbing to it – just as the legs “float” the torso as we stand, walk and run in life. All strain in the arm results from the hand’s failure to do this.
1 See diagram, p. 58
2 Steven Krashen, Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use, Heinemann: London, 2003)
3 Ruthy Alon, Feldenkrais trainer, created a series of Awareness Through Movement lessons called The Grammar of Spontaneity.
4 Dean Elder, Pianists at Play, (Kahn & Averill: London, 1986), 38
5 Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing (Kahn & Averill: London, 1998), 124-5
6 A key element in the teaching of Alfred Cortot (my pianistic great-grandfather).