by Harold Taylor

Reviewed by Nigel Nettheim
(© 2000)

[This article first appeared in Key Vive, No. 78, May 1995, pp. 14-15. It may not be reproduced without permission.
To enquire about Key Vive and the Australian Society for Keyboard Music, send mail to 6A/8-12 Sutherland Road, Chatswood, NSW 2067, Australia.]

{p. 14} Two remarkable people lie behind the ideas in this book. They had independently come to similar conclusions which Harold Taylor, an English piano teacher, synthesizes in his small book.

F. Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) was an Australian educator who achieved world-wide success by directing conscious attention to the way we use our bodies. This could be in daily tasks usually taken for granted, such as sitting in a chair, or in more elaborate tasks such as singing. He was not himself a musician.

Raymond Thiberge (1880-1968) from France is far less widely known. He was a blind piano teacher who had great success with simple methods which he discovered not in spite of but because of his blindness. As a student he had placed his hands on the arms of his teachers to sense their muscles during their demonstrations and found that they were not doing what they had thought (p. 36).

Posture is illustrated by full-page photographs of six prodigies aged between nine and twelve years: Mark Hambourg, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff, Busoni, Cortot and Nyiregehazi. These show that they all instinctively adopted a certain posture, particularly in the relationship between head, neck and shoulders (p. 29); it would seem unlikely that this was due merely to the photographers' instructions.

One of Taylor's and Thiberge's main ideas is that of postural expansion, an understanding of which would require reading the book. For a pianist it begins with a slight contraction of the muscles under the thighs (pp. 63-66). It occurred to me that this use of the muscles we sit on is very important and that its implications could have been considered further.

The pianist has two solid bases. At one end is the keyboard. At the other is the bench and floor providing support for the thighs and feet which form a tripod. In between is the free pianist. At the keyboard end the activity of the fingers against the resistance of the key-bed is well-known. Less often mentioned is the activity at the other end: thigh muscle contraction against the resistance of the bench. Incidentally, a soft cushion would not be appropriate as it would lessen the resistance. This impulse leading to postural expansion may be slight, but it can greatly help in freeing up the pianist (p. 73) and, by its regularity, in controlling {p.15} the rhythmic impulse of the playing. This rhythmic application has been my own finding which I hope would meet with Taylor's approval. It is something like riding a rocking-horse very gently, the movement being hardly visible. Some confirmation can perhaps be found in Artur Rubinstein's occasional leaps right off the bench in vigorous music; that was usually greeted with mirth, but might well have instructional value.

The reader will find much that is thought-provoking in the book, not only concerning piano-playing in general but also in specifics such as the "Technical notes on some Chopin studies" in chapter 8.

As John Ogden concluded in his foreword, this book "should play an important part in bringing the conscious attainment of a beneficial muscular coordination within the grasp of students of any age".

The Pianist's Talent (96 pp.; London: Kahn & Averill, 1979, paperback edition Long Beach, California: Centerline Press, 1987) is available in Sydney, the best price appearing to be Da Capo Music's $12 (phone 02-9660-1825). Also available at Alexander Books (phone 02-9411-7488) and at music shops.

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