On Piano Playing, Gyorgy Sandor and piano technique

Italian flag
Leggi in Italiano

On Piano Playing is a book by Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sandor, published in 1981. Born in Budapest on Sept. 21, 1912, the pianist was a pupil of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály and went on to become a concert pianist of international standing. Let us try to analyze his book and draw some useful lessons from it.

Gyorgy Sandor and his world. The classical piano

To fully appreciate On Piano Playing by Gyorgy Sandor one must understand the context in which it was conceived. The author is a classical concert pianist who has studied and worked with great composers and conductors. For Gyorgy Sandor, piano playing begins and ends with the European classical repertoire, ranging from the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin to that of 20th-century avant-garde composers such as his teacher Bela Bartok.

Gyorgy Sandor and Bela Bartok

Of course, Gyorgy Sandor’s is a respectable horizon, an extremely diverse and fascinating world. However, it does not take into consideration other modes of performance, for example, those of jazz music or electronic music. This partial viewpoint emerges mainly in the more philosophical parts and on the author’s conception of music in general.

In particular, Gyorgy Sandor attributes total centrality to the music score. For the author, the music score unequivocally expresses not only the technical gesture to be enacted to play a particular passage, but also the relationship between technique and emotion.

This partial approach does not render less interesting the main part of the book, which is devoted to piano technique. Whether one plays classical or jazz music, Gyorgy Sandor’s advice is indeed equally valuable.

In general, piano technique can be traced to two major Schools: weight technique and digital technique. Gyorgy Sandor briefly analyzes both schools and subjects them to severe criticism, trying to move beyond them.

Gyorgy Sandor and the weight technique

The piano school that focuses on weight technique tries to make maximum use of the force of gravity. Since the hammer is driven by key pressure, we can use the weight of the hand and arm to fall on the keyboard.

Weight is not always discharged in its entirety on a single key, but sometimes we try to dose the energy of the fall and distribute it over several keys, to perform scales and arpeggios, for example. The weight technique thus complements the use of rotation, which is used to better distribute the weight of the hand.

The weight technique favors a “top-down” approach to the keyboard and is particularly suitable for playing nineteenth-century repertoire, for example, the music of Chopin, Brahms and Listz. For example, Chopin’s famous Etude No. 1 Op. 10 can be approached very well using the weight technique and the rotation movement. A classic exercise book that seems somewhat inspired by this type of technique is Hanon, the Virtuoso Pianist.

Gyorgy Sandor points out, however, that the percussion of the hammer on the string does not depend so much on the weight exerted on the key as on the speed with which the key is set in motion. Indeed, it is true that even a very large weight placed on the keyboard very slowly does not produce any sound. Gyorgy Sandor thus shifts the focus from weight to speed.

Another element of criticism of the weight school is reserved for the concept of relaxation. Indeed, this piano school emphasizes the need to relax the hand and arms after playing a note, to then raise the arms and prepare to fall again.

Gyorgy Sandor is very clear on this: true and total relaxation can only happen … when we are lying in our bed! When we play the piano there is always some tension and control, we are never totally relaxed.

The author of On Piano Playing also spares no harsh criticism of the digital school. Let’s see what it is all about.

Gyorgy Sandor and the digital technique

Digital technique is certainly harder and more demanding than weight technique. In fact, this piano school seeks greater control of the sound and places the responsibility for it primarily on the fingers. For this reason, the student is required to practice the individual fingers more rigorously.

The digital technique favors a “bottom-up” approach to the keyboard and is particularly suited to the performance of harpsichord repertoire, as well as the music of Bach, especially the multi-voice fugues where it often happens that one finger must hold a note while the other fingers play other voices.

A famous technique book for adherents of this piano school is Pischna, 60 Progressive Exercises and its minor version The Little Pischna. In these books it often happens that one note is held down for many measures, while the other fingers are exercising by articulating to the maximum.

The digital school is very risky for a beginner because it puts a lot of strain on the muscles and tendons. If approached superficially, it can easily lead to tendonitis and other physical problems.

Gyorgy Sandor is extremely severe on digital technique, judging it to be totally wrong in that it aims for finger independence, which is an unattainable goal because of the very morphology of the hand.

To the concept of independence, Gyorgy Sandor replaces that of interdependence. Trying to develop strength and the ability to articulate individual fingers is for him useless and harmful. Instead, the pianist should play using the whole body, starting with the shoulder, arm, forearm, and arriving at the wrist, hand, and fingers.

Gyorgy Sandor thus seeks to transcend both major piano schools, proposing the concept of speed instead of weight, and replacing the quest for independence with greater interdependence between different parts of the body. Specifically, Gyorgy Sandor divides piano technique into five main gestures: fall, scales and arpeggios, rotation, staccato, and thrust.

Fall, scales and arpeggios, rotation, staccato and thrust: piano technique as seen by Gyorgy Sandor

After criticizing the two major piano schools, Gyorgy Sandor illustrates with great precision his vision of piano technique, breaking it down into five essential movements: fall, scales and arpeggios, rotation, staccato and thrust.

Gyorgy Sandor, un libro per la tecnica del pianoforte. Illustrazione

All five movements are based on one principle: smaller muscles are needed for precision, larger muscles for strength. The forearm should therefore always support the work of the individual fingers. In turn, the arm and shoulder should come to the forearm’s assistance, to help and orient it properly.

The fall motion is used to exploit the force of gravity. In this gesture, the main element lies not so much in the weight one employs as in the length of the lever. For this, the falling motion should be accompanied by the arm and forearm, so as to impart more or less speed to the key, and thus obtain a more or less intense sound.

Scales, arpeggios and five-finger technique are another fundamental element of piano technique. Without emphasizing the passing motion of the thumb, which cannot go below the palm due to the conformation of the hand, the finger muscles should always be aligned with the forearm. The height of the hand should also be adapted to the finger that is playing; the thumb tends to play better with a lower hand, the other fingers require a higher hand.

The third movement addressed by Gyorgy Sandor in his book On Piano Playing is rotation. Rotation is essential to help the first and fifth fingers, which can benefit more than the other fingers. In the case of wide intervals, rotation is done not only by wrist movement but also by using the arm and shoulder, sometimes involving the elbow as well.

The fourth fundamental gesture of the pianist is the one required to perform the staccato sound. For Gyorgy Sandor, staccato must start from the shoulder and involve the pianist’s entire apparatus: arm, forearm, wrist and hand. A staccato performed only with the wrist movement is in fact less controllable and less precise. In addressing staccato technique, the author insists that to play the piano correctly, it is essential to coordinate the different parts of the body.

The fifth and final gesture is called thrust. The thrust occurs when the hand needs to play starting from a position of contact with the keyboard, thus not being able to make use of the fall. The thrust occurs through a muscular contraction; it is a quick movement that must be performed expertly to avoid excess tension and fatigue.

Not pretending to summarize in a few lines a very thorough and rich work, yet these are broadly the five basic movements necessary to play the piano, as outlined in Gyorgy Sandor’s book. Let us now look at some useful hints, less related to technique itself.

Other interesting insights from On Piano Playing

On Piano Playing is a book devoted primarily to piano technique and the classical repertoire. However, some of Gyorgy Sandor’s observations can easily be extended to the study of music in general, even beyond the European classical repertoire.

Gyorgy Sandor emphasizes the importance of quality practice. Practicing in a habitual way, repeating the same exercises over and over again, is not only a waste of time but may even be harmful, because it leads to the consolidation of wrong attitudes and real mistakes. For this reason, the Hungarian pianist is against exercise books and argues that a pianist should train solely on the works of the great masters.

Another interesting topic is devoted to performance anxiety. The pianist should deal with it by trying to slow down the breathing, and consequently not to play too fast. It is also important not to disturb those automatisms that have been established during preparation. We need to let the music flow, without interfering with it with our control anxiety.

The part on musical memory is also very interesting: he discusses visual memory, auditory memory, rational memory and gesture memory. His insights are also very interesting for those who play modern and jazz music, and need to seek a balance between memory and musicality in order to play naturally and spontaneously.

In this regard, perhaps you may be interested in the article How to Learn 100 Jazz Standards.

Conclusions. A useful book, but not for beginners

On Piano Playing by Gyorgy Sandor is an interesting book, which nevertheless has some limitations. We have already mentioned its partial approach, limited to the world of classical piano. A second limitation lies in the author’s musical level: Gyorgy Sandor is a great concert pianist, and paradoxically this makes his book less usable for the many pianists who are not as extraordinarily talented and experienced as he is.

In particular, Gyorgy Sandor does not consider that most students need to work on hand independence for a long time in order to be able to perform different parts with both hands. Thus, somewhat repetitive study, often based on dedicated workbooks, is indispensable for maturing of independence and improving reading.

Evidently Gyorgy Sandor had no such difficulties, or had them for such a short period that he soon forgot them. Gyorgy Sandor’s book On Piano Playing is therefore aimed at advanced students, future concert pianists.

However, I also recommend reading it to less experienced pianists, because the perspective of a great teacher can be inspiring. Even without putting all the advice into practice, the book makes us think about piano technique and can improve the quality of our study. If you like, please write in the comments below your views about On Piano Playing by Gyorgy Sandor. Thank you in advance!

Do you want to receive my free lessons?

Sheet music, harmony lessons, music theory and musical analysis.