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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000344.txt from 2002/05

Subj: [kl] Keeping your fingers straight
Date: Tue, 14 May 2002 12:10:42 -0400

Tony Pay wrote,
>The bit about curved fingers is something I definitely go along with.

I'd go along with it, too, if my fingers would go a little longer--and a lot
wider at the tips. I play with nearly-straight (not completely straight)
fingers because it's the only way I can seal all the holes and reach all the

>I find it much more effective to play with curved fingers,
>but it has to be said that some pianists play very successfully
with straightish fingers. I seem to remember that Horowitz
>was one of them.

"Straightish" sounds better than the notion that Horowitz played with
"straight" or "flat" fingers. Existing films of Horowitz's playing belie
that myth, but it's encouraged by several contributors to _Remembering
Horowitz: 125 Pianists Recall a Legend_, compiled and edited by David Dubal
(my copy is a set of Schirmer- Macmillan page proofs with handwritten
corrections, scheduled for publication in October, 1993). John Browning (p.
42) writes, "Horowitz played with rather flat fingers." Hans Graf (p. 45)
goes further: "Normally a good teacher would say that one cannot play the
piano at all with Horowitz's flat finger position." Julien Musafia (p. 201)
gives a more detailed, accurate description: "In a video tape made in his
home, one can see his method of producing a sudden diminution of sound by
pressing the key very close to the fulcrum, where resistance is greater. The
flat-finger technique Horowitz acquired from his teacher, Blumenfield, must
have been crucial to this aspect of his playing."

Horowitz, born in Russia in 1903, studied with Sergei Tarnowsky in Kiev from
age 11 to about 17. At the time, though he later modernized his views,
Tarnowsky was an old-school pedagogue in the "finger-stroke" tradition of
Carl Czerny. Horowitz rebelled and left Tarnowsky to study with Blumenfield,
an early proponent of what's now known as the "weight-relaxation" method.
For a description of this method, see Josef and Rosina Lhevinne, _Basic
Principles in Pianoforte Playing_ (first Philadelphia: Theo Presser, 1924,
reprinted New York: Dover 1972 and subsequently). A diagram in Ch. 2 of
Lhevinne shows the relaxed wrist and moderately curved fingers--the natural
position of the hand while walking, though less thoughtful teachers later in
the 20th century sometimes pushed "weight-relaxation" to the point of
absurdity, too. The Lhevinnes' idea is to play without unnecessary stress
and strain, exactly as Tony Pay has described for the clarinet. As advocated
by the Lhevinnes, weight-relaxation looks similar to the natural position of
an average-sized hand while playing the clarinet. The old Russian and
European school pictured in the other figure on the same page of Ch. 2 shows
the extremely curved fingers and high finger action of the Czerny
"finger-stroke" school.

Czerny and other "school of velocity" teachers based their piano technique on
a Baroque harpsichord and organ technique. For example, see the photograph
of Wanda Landowska at the harpsichord on p. 398 of Harold Schonberg, _The
Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present_ (New York: Simon & Schuster,
1963). However, piano keys require considerably more pressure than organ and
harpsichord keys. Applied to the piano, this technique caused an epidemic of
crippling injuries in the 19th and early 20th century, as piano key action
got stiffer.

Tarnowsky started that "flat fingered" Horowitz story, shortly after Horowitz
dumped Tarnowsky for Blumenfield. According to Tarnowsky, Horowitz was
forgetting all his good lessons: He now played with empty virtuosity instead
of emotion; he played too fast; he played too loud; zub zub zub.... Well,
there may have been some justice to the "empty virtuosity" disparagement in
Horowitz's early years; and compared to Czerny method, Horowitz generally
played with his fingers flatter than *that*, true. But when I saw him play in
his maturity, Horowitz varied his hand position with great flexibility,
according to the demands of the music. Nobody needs to take my word for
anything, since a lot of film footage is still in print from his long career.

I first saw him play in San Francisco, in 1965 or 1966 when I was a high
school senior, shortly after he returned to giving concerts after a long
sabbatical. I also went to his last concert at Constitution Hall in
Washington, D.C., in either 1985 or 1986--can't find my program. In both of
those recitals twenty years apart, he used a bench lower than most pianists
prefer. With the low wrists, he sometimes dragged the palms of his hands
along the outer edges of the keys, though not enough to depress the keys. He
sat quietly, without unnecessary gestures and without flinging himself
around. Meanwhile, his finger position shifted swiftly, all over the place,
from nearly flat (especially his middle and ring fingers) to extremely
curved. His fingers sometimes nearly touched the scratchboard when he
flattened them out in a pianissimo (just as Musafia describes). But Horowitz
also performed astonishing feats of digital dexterity with his unusually
strong, elastic and independent fingers--including forte trills with fourth
and fifth fingers in a Scriabin sonata. When he didn't need to play notes
with his right hand pinkie finger, he often curled it up so completely that
it made a neat little closed scroll, with the tip of the finger pressed into
the mound at the top of his palm! When he needed that finger again, it would
zip out of its curl like a paper party horn swiftly unrolling when someone
blows into it. The closeups of his hands in the "Horowitz in Moscow" video
(first shown on CBS in 1986 and now available on VHS and DVD) prove I'm not
imagining things! In short, he possessed--and trained--the physical
equipment to do whatever would get him the result he wanted to hear,
regardless of anybody's hidebound idea of pedagogically correct hand

BTW, I attended that San Francisco recital despite my piano teacher formally
forbidding his students to go to it. He made a big deal about it. He was
afraid we would fall under the fatal spell, try to ape Horowitz and cripple
ourselves. I recognized several other Arthur Eisler students in the
jam-packed audience and nearly tripped over Eisler's feet on the way out. I
pretended not to see him and he pretended not to see me. ;-)

Tarnowsky also emigrated to the West. According to Horacio Gutierrez (Dubal,
p. 348-351), who was a Tarnowsky student in the 1960s, Tarnowsky maintained a
strange and rather unfriendly relationship with Horowitz even then, through
the peculiar habit of attending his concerts, going backstage afterwards and
criticizing his playing, as if Tarnowsky were still Horowitz's teacher!



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