An Educational Conference with the Sensationally Successful Russian Piano Virtuoso
This conference was conducted in German
Vladimir Horowitz is one of the outstanding figures in the
pianistic world of today. Born October 1, 1904, at Kieff, Russia,
at six he had piano lessons from his mother, and later entered
the Petrograd Concervatory to become a pupil of Blumenfeld,
himself a pupil of Rubinstein. He made concert tours of Russia
till 1924 when he left for Berlin and became a favorite
throughout musical Europe. Three seasons in America have made
him one of the most welcome of pianists.
For the development of technic, it is important to know not
only how to practice but also what to practice. One cannot
choose any particular composition or any particular composer as
best to practice. Instead one should play all the good music,
all the good composers.
As a small child of six years I studied music with my
mother, and at the age of eight or nine I began to read music
for myself—whatever I fancied, easy or difficult. When I was
ten years old, I tried to learn the compositions of Rachmaninoff.
So I suppose that would be called "talent." But not
till I was twelve or thirteen did I seriously consider making
music my career.
My teacher who had been a pupil of Rubinstein had of course
learned most valuable ideas from him. And one of them was
this—to make his pupils acquainted with all the best music. So we
played duets together, the symphonies of Beethoven and of
Brahms, and much Russian music.
Playing Musically and Orchestrally
Our talk was of music, not of technic. My technic I had to
find out for myself, in order to play these duets. And, further,
whatever was played, it must be played musically. Further still,
it had to be played orchestrally. Moreover, I had to find out
for myself how to make the effects. In other words, we first
played not "the piano" but "music." Then we played music as it
is rendered by special instruments.
"How would a violinist play that?" my teacher would ask. Or,
"Play that like a 'cellist," or, "Like a flutist." Whatever was
the effect which he sought, I myself had to find out the way to
I cannot tell how I learned technic any more than I can tell
how I learned languages—French, German, Italian—which I
was learning at the same age. I only know that in the music
itself I found out what the fingers had to do.
I practice four hours a day and have done so for years.
An artist must keep up a large repertoire, and must continually add
to it. The new compositions require new technic also.
Different Technics for Different Composers
Every composer has a different technique. Bach, Beethoven,
Chopin, Brahms, each has his special technique. One must find
this technique with the fingers themselves, must feel it out.
The studies of Czerny, Clementi, Cramer and the like I have
never practiced. They are bad for the ear and bad for the touch,
because they are not alive; they are merely mechanical. No
mechanical playing assists the technique.
It is easy to understand why technique varies so much in
Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, for instance.
The early classics were not written for the grand piano, but
for a piano with a much lighter action. Therefore the technic of
the fingers was all-important. The contrapuntal devices in
which the middle voices were so prominent required the
sensitive, active finger. There is always an intimate connection
between brain and finger tip!
After the polyphonic period came the doubling of voices, the
expansion of the whole style of writing for the piano. This took
place in Beethoven's day.
So the development continued up to the time of Chopin.
Chopin was the first composer who wrote for the piano as a
piano. His objective was to produce a variety of characteristic
sounds from the piano to make the tones of the piano express his
With Beethoven the case was different. He wrote for the
piano, but he thought orchestrally. His piano was the means to
an end, and his objective was fulness of tone. He heard in the
piano the string quartet, the orchestra.
Arm, Wrist and Finger
Such differences in the style of writing brought about
changes in technic. Before Beethoven's time, the wrist had not
had much to do in technic. But since that time the use of the
wrist has been one of the chief elements of technic. Now the
ideal equipment for the pianist consists in movement in the
wrist and relaxation in the arm. The touch itself must reside in
the finger. This is the secret of avoiding a harsh tone.
In my own technic, the fifth fingers (both right and left)
are the basis for playing runs, chords and octaves. Great
strength is necessary in the fingers, but it comes with playing,
if one plays rightly, that is, musically. From the moment one
feels that the finger must sing, it becomes strong. That is a
quite different matter from playing exercises or etudes with
mechanical repetition merely for the sake of strengthening, and
saying, "I will exercise my fingers and make them strong." Such
playing as this latter sort does not help.
The fifth finger I might call the "guide" through passages of scales
or arpeggios ("runs"), chords and octaves. It is almost as if the fifth
finger, with its acute sensitiveness, strength and control,
taught the other fingers how to play.
In scales and other passages I play as the violinist does. A
good violinist does not play all the tones with equal strength.
The following from Chopin's Ecossaise
he plays thus:
He does not lose the intermediate tones; they are all
there. But the listener does not hear them obtrusively. Each
falls into place, and the emphasis is on the last tone to which
the others lead.
So if I play all the notes steadily along, without
graduation, or without relating one to another, and without
climactic or guiding emphasis, I have said nothing, even though
I may have played the notes correctly and in correct time. But
if I play in such a way that every finger feels its tone, as
it has learned to do from the sensation of the fifth finger,
then I have my effect. Finger strength one must have, however,
in order to make the effect.
Such a composition as the Etude in C Minor, by Chopin, op.
25, No. 12, affords a good example of how to practice and how
not to practice.
If, for instance, I play stiffly, holding my wrist low and
my fingers high and striking vigorously, I am soon weary, and,
moreover, the tone is very hard.
But if I carry my hand and wrist more nearly level, with
fingers near the key, and keep the fingers extremely free in the
knuckle, always feeling the tone, then I am using the suitable
technic. I can practice for a long time, and I have a musical,
The wrist must relax often, to help out in the skips, at the
change from the first finger to the fifth.
This skip is too wide to be made by the fingers alone. The
fingers would not be accurate, and the tone would be weak.
Therefore a slight sidewise movement in the wrist is needed.
For accuracy, constant care is required. I always practice
distinctly, never indistinctly. Then, if I do play false, I hear
the incorrect note at once. But absolutely distinct practice is
an essential for accuracy.
In long compositions the player must have endurance. Etudes,
such as this one, are built on one figure which is repeated
throughout the piece.
Endurance, in one sense, is a question
p. 164 for the
doctor rather than the artist—a question of prescriptions, of
physical condition. And yet the artist must so balance his
powers and distribute his strength that he can hold out to the
end. One must, therefore, not play all the time heavily and with
much strength. He must bring his mind to bear on the problem and
conserve his strength. The idea of the assistance of the fifth
finger is, of course, applicable here.
Endurance requires, nevertheless, long, strong, firm
practicing, with patience. It has to be, this routine practice!
But, after all, endurance is the least difficult part of
playing. In my rapid passage work (runs), I play very much of
the time half staccato, portamento, so that every tone is
very clear. This I find to be effective, even necessary, in a
large hall. If I play
as is called by some players legato, by others, superlegato
the effect will not be clear. The release of the note must be
accurate, perfect, or the tones will be blurred, especially in a
large hall. Therefore for rapid runs I prefer the portamento,
in which one note is practically connected with the next, but
not held over beyond the beginning of that note.
For slow melodies, cantilena, however, I use only the very
well connected legato.
I do not use a stroke in playing, either in runs or in
chords. In rapid runs there is no time for a stroke. If you wish
to strike something, your arm must be at a distance from it. You
cannot strike when your hand or arm is close to the object. So
in rapid playing there is no time to lift high and strike. The
fingers must remain near to the keys.
The tone made by striking is not agreeable to me. I prefer
the tone which is felt by the finger, and it is impossible to
"feel" the note and also to strike it.
In playing forte passages, such as those in the Chopin
Etude just referred to, I am aware of a slight movement in the
hips, in addition to the finger movements already described.
This movement in the hips brings the body to the assistance of
the fingers. But—the body is always assisting when the
playing has life, vitality.
Even when playing chords and octaves, I do not use the
stroke. Take as an example this phrase from Brahms' Ballade
Op. 10, No. 1:
The upper notes of all the chords make the melody or theme. Each
such note must be played by the upper finger, fifth or fourth,
as the case may be. The theme must stand out, must sing. The
accompaniment, whether legato or staccato, must be softer
than the theme. Both these effects must be made by one hand.
There must be relaxation in the wrist, in order to accomplish
the necessary connecting between the melodic notes played by the
upper fingers. But this idea is not enough! One must not merely
say "the upper voice is stronger than the lower voices, and it
must be legato or portamento." No! The wrist must feel the
movement which makes the connection; the fingers must have a
consciousness of the movement which makes the singing,
Here, again, the fifth finger is the guide through the
intricacies and proportioning of the chord tones. Finger
strength is necessary. In legato or cantilena octaves,
similarly, the fifth fingers feel the tone.
In playing chords, whether they are piano or forte, I
play close to the keys. I always use pressure, as it makes a
smoother, more agreeable tone. The Tausig arrangement of
Schubert's Marche Militaire affords a good example of what
may be done with pressure chords place of "struck" chords. One
manner of touch makes a clear, songful tone; the other is harsh,
with too many overtones. In other words it is "noisy."
Therefore I use the pressure touch, in all degrees of dynamics,
from pianissimo to fortissimo, and even for accents.
In this chord playing, I am conscious that there is a
connection between the hands and the sides of the body (the
body, again, is assisting!) In fortissimo, the pedal is, of
course, a most necessary aid.
The octave passage in the "Sixth Rhapsody" of Liszt is famous.
Here I use the wrist (hand) alone, not the fore-arm, not the
upper arm. The movement stops at the wrist. If I used the whole
arm, I should be fatigued, and the tone would be harsh and
clumsy. So I use the hand, moving it in the wrist only. Yet I
perceive, again, some connection between the wrist, or small
acting member, and the triceps, as if, in some way, the triceps
If, as I have said before, endurance is not the most
difficult thing to acquire in playing, what, then, is most
There are two greatest difficulties, tone and pedaling. And
the pedal is hardest of all to learn! Pedaling is a matter of
detail, but such details are most important, most significant.
Pedaling cannot be taught in words only, nor described in words
only. It must be learned by constant experimenting. But when I
have once decided on the pedaling in a composition, I rarely
deviate from it. The great question is which pedal to use! And
the next question is when to use it. I often play forte with
the una corda pedal for color. But pianos vary greatly. In
some pianos the una corda pedal gives a very unpleasant tone
which can almost be called a nasal tone. On some pianos only an
occasional note has this tone. But if it is present on any note,
I cannot use the una corda pedal.
In general, one must pedal according to the harmony. Thus,
if there are chord effects which sound well when sustained, then
the damper pedal must be used. Even in Bach I find this true.
For example, in the Prelude in C major from "The Well-Tempered
Clavichord, Book I,"
I use the damper pedal throughout. But in the Fugue which follows
there should be very little pedal.
Another test as to the use
of the pedal is the relation of certain melodic notes to the
harmony, as in Brahms' Ballade, Op. 10, No. 4:
If you wish to join these notes to the accompanying figure you
must pedal them as marked. But if you wish to detach them from
the accompaniment, as might well be the case, you must pedal
them as follows:
For each is a different kind of music!
In searching for tone-quality—the second of the most
difficult factors in playing—it is helpful to think of the
instruments of the orchestra. Some people say, "A piano is only a
piano." But I do not feel it so. I think forte, and think
"orchestra." I think of many instruments when I play. I do not
mean that one should try to imitate, for the timbre of the piano
is not the timbre of the violin nor the bassoon nor the flute.
But if one thinks of the quality or the sonority of the various
instruments, one is helped to play more beautifully. We have, in
the piano, all registers—flute, oboe, violin, viola, clarinet,
'cello, bassoon, double bass. If, when I play from
Beethoven Sonata Op. 10 No. 3
I think "double bass," then the color is better. This idea was
often dwelt upon by Rubinstein—so my teacher, Blumenfeld told
me. "Do not try to imitate, but think of color."
As concerns rhythm and rubato, no rules can be given which
are applicable to all cases.
Trifles, details, make greatness; but exaggeration, too much
"greatness," too much rubato, too much emphasis here and
there—these reduce greatness to triviality.
The rhythm of the mazurka is a case in point. These
mazurkas of Chopin appeal to me particularly. I have had great
success with them. They are little poems. The rhythm of the
mazurka is, as every one knows, accented for
1 2 3 | 1 as
¯ ˘ ¯ | ¯ ,
that is, strong,
weak, strong. In some of the mazurkas I begin with that rhythm.
But then presently I change and play several measures perhaps,
or a whole phrase or two with no marked mazurka rhythm at all,
but rather with the rhythm of the phrase. Because these
mazurkas are not absolute dances. They are poems!
Beginning a Composition
When the student would learn a composition he should first
begin with the "alphabet" of music, as I might say—the
A, B, C! If he were learning poetry he would learn the words, the
spelling, the punctuation, the breathing. So in learning a
musical composition, one must first learn the notes, the pauses,
the staccato, the legato, the pedaling and the technic.
Then only, second, after all this, can he take up the idea
of his own personal interpretation, rubato and other such
Memorizing is an individual matter. There are virtuosi who
memorize almost instantly, but the majority of artists rely on a
definite way of committing the compositions to memory. Eyes,
ears and brain are all involved in memorizing. Some musicians
depend more on the ear, others more on the eye. In my own case,
I must make use of eyes, ears and brain. Probably the eye
memory is strongest with me, for I do mentally see the page, and
also the keys. I must see both keyboard and notes.
Hands, also, are individual. Liszt's hand was very long and
proportionately narrow; Rubinstein's was short-fingered and
proportionately broad. Yet both hands played marvelous runs,
"passage work." It is the task of the teacher to discover what
type of playing is suitable for each hand, each personality. The
teacher must be the physician, to remedy the weaknesses and
prescribe the treatments. No one style is possible for all
Music a Cultural Study
Here in America the cultural influence of the study of music
should be more strongly emphasized than it is at present. Your
modern life, with its sports, machines, dances and what not, is
greatly in need of the influence of the musical classics.
Whether the student is talented or not, these great works
have an influence on his character. It should he remembered that
the study of them is not a "substitute" for education, as some
educators would have us believe. No! it is one phase of education itself!