Who Should Read this Book
First published in 1950, The Pianist’s Problems by William S. Newman is a classic, proven by the fact that its final (third expanded) edition (1984) is still in print. It’s essential reading for the serious mature (adult or older teen) pianist.
Answers to perennial (and some controversial) questions asked by piano students about basic musicianship, technique, practicing, performance, and strategies for learning new music.
The Pianist’s Problems consists of seven chapters, and concludes with a list of references for dedicated pianists.
Chapter 1: Musicianship
The abilities to play by ear, sight-read, and play with other musicians are valuable for every pianist.
Learning to play by ear is useful because it helps one to memorize music. There is also a correlation between ear ability and sight-reading skills. A better ear also leads to better playing in general. Knowledge of basic theory (scales, keys, intervals, chords) is essential for learning to play well by ear. Ways to improve one’s ear include sight-singing melodies, transposing songs, and practicing chord progressions like IV-V-I.
Sight-reading should be emphasized in the early stages of lessons. It should be done musically and at a tempo that allows 80% of the notes to be played correctly. If playing 80% correctly means the pianist must play significantly slower than the composer intended, easier music should be used. There are four useful strategies for improving sight-reading skills: (1) do it regularly, (2) keep your eyes on the music, (3) take in as much of the notation as possible, and (4) intentionally look ahead in the music.
Playing with others is enjoyable and develops one’s musical understanding and sensitivity. One of the best means for pianists to get experience playing with other musicians is with four-hand duets.
Chapter 2: Technique – The Basic Mechanisms
When there is an excessive amount of information available on a topic (as there is on piano technique) the best way to contribute is by reconsidering the evidence, jettisoning unnecessary information, and correcting false beliefs.
Technical ability is a necessary but not sufficient condition for technical achievement in a musical context. The latter requires an intelligent approach to technical problems, an understanding of how technical fluency fits into musical expression, and hard work.
There are four primary levers in piano technique: the finger, hand, forearm, and upper arm. The fulcrum (hinge) of these are the knuckle, wrist, elbow, and shoulder.
The fingers are best for playing legato and/or fast. They’re best for playing legato because it’s easiest for them to play from the surface of the keys in a “prepared attack.”
The hands are best for playing staccato.
The forearm is best for providing power and accuracy.
Playing with the hands and forearm generally involve “unprepared attacks” from above the key surface.
For maximum efficiency, use the least powerful mechanism that works.
Teachers may grasp a student’s technical problems better by observing them from the side they don’t usually sit on.
Chapter 3: More Technique – The Basic Exercises
On technical exercises and etudes: “It is hard to think of another field in which a complete formal program of extracurricular conditioning is maintained similarly alongside the main study…. It is doubtful that the typist who drills by the hour on ‘Now is the time for all good men’ learns to type as soon as the one who starts in with … drills based on real-life correspondence and manuscripts.“
“Yet the host of pianists, by and large, stick faithfully to their formal program of Czerny’s Art of Finger Dexterity [and] Hanon’s Daily Exercises, enjoying the exhilaration of the ascetic who contemplates the finer things that lie beyond.”
But … “for most of … Hanon and the like, there is really little excuse…. No harm is done, no tempers are ruffled, and – alas! – little or no good is accomplished.”
“The vital point … is that the practice of a Czerny study leads mainly to the perfection of that Czerny study rather than to Beethoven or Chopin or composers in general.”
There are five essential exercises all pianists should practice: trills, scales, arpeggios, octaves, and double-notes.
You learn what you practice. Technique doesn’t generalize.
Chapter 4: Practice
The primary goal of the piano teacher is to guide their students in a way that enables them to eventually become their own teacher. In short, the teacher should work themselves out of a job by giving the student the tools they need to meet their pianistic challenges and to become self-sufficient as a learner and player.
The piano teacher’s role is not only to provide instruction, but to be a guide who encourages their students to think critically and creatively about their playing. The teacher should question the student’s choices and suggest alternative possibilities, but allow the student to make their own decisions. This approach helps the student develop self-criticism, self-confidence, and a courageous musical personality. Ultimately, the goal is to empower the student to become an independent musician who can fully express their own musical feelings.
“Practice what and only what is needed.” Focus on what needs to be learned and the specific obstacles preventing one from learning it. Practice only what is necessary to achieve the musical objective. This means the pianist must have a clear understanding of his or her goals and be able to identify the specific challenges that must be overcome to attain those goals.
“There are three rudiments of piano playing that brook absolutely no compromise of exactness in practice. These are notes, fingering and counting.”
All other things being equal, a simpler fingering is usually a better fingering. It’s generally best to finger so that as many notes as possible can be played before the hand must move. When possible use stronger fingers for accented notes. Finger similar passages the same way.
While overusing the metronome can lead to mechanical playing, it’s nevertheless invaluable for all serious students. Students should count until they can do so without being confused. Having students count the pulse out loud and clap the notes is very useful.
The five basic Italian tempo markings (adagio, largo, andante, allegro, presto) are more meaningful than metronome markings. The chapter includes a table of tempos. For example, adagio is roughly equivalent to “the delayed step done in a funeral march [or] down the aisle at a wedding.”
It “has been established beyond reasonable challenge … that the style of striking the key cannot affect the timbre that results, whether the striking agent be a brick, a kitten’s paw, or a human finger.”
Piano students often underestimate how much more loudly the melody should be played in relationship to the other tones (accompaniment/chords). One can practice this by playing eight notes (four in each hand) and alternately trying to bring out each tone above the others.
“The pianist who makes mistakes in his practice learns them whether he means to or not…. [S]o what can you do? [Y]ou can catch yourself before you make the mistake, just as you would if you found yourself about to walk off a cliff or to run down a pedestrian.”
It’s better to hesitate before making a mistake than to make a mistake. Mistakes are learned, but hesitations are normal in the early stages of learning and can be easily edited out later.
It can be helpful for students to observe their teachers demonstrate careful, focused practicing.
It’s usually best to learn and play everything (the whole) at first, then later work on parts. This means everything: notes, fingering, rhythm, dynamics, articulations, and pedaling. If the pianist “does not do everything at once he is practicing incorrectly what he does practice.”
If an intermediate stage is needed, practicing hands separately is usually best (this is typically part of learning a new piece anyway).
Even after learning to play a piece well and at tempo, it’s important to continue practicing it slowly to some extent.
Memorizing is useful for the deepest understanding and best performance of a piece. There are at least four kinds of musical memory: auditory, visual, touch (muscle memory) and intellectual memory (conscious understanding). Pianists don’t need to wait to master a piece before memorizing it.
Chapter 5: Performance
The experience acquired by performing in recitals is overstated. A better reason for performing is that it gives the piano student a goal to work towards.
A common performance problem is attempting to play a piece that is too difficult, too long, or both.
Effective interpretation requires experience, understanding, and musicality (all of which ultimately seem to be indefinable).
One of the more important aspects of high level interpretation is an understanding of musical form.
Another important subject is how to shape phrases. There are two major principles: (1) if there’s an unusual feature (a strong dissonance, an unusually high tone) it usually marks the climax, and (2) if there isn’t, the climax is usually on the last strong beat before the final note of the phrase. It shouldn’t be assumed that slurs indicate phrases.
Nearly all performers experience some degree of performance anxiety. Three of the author’s best tips for reducing performance anxiety are to (1) acknowledge that you’ll probably feel it, (2) know the music as well as possible (i.e. have the fingering, rhythm, and memorization down), and (3) warm up before performing.
Chapter 6: Nine Steps in Learning a New Piece
Choose the piece. Explore a wide range of keyboard music. Acquire the best edition of the piece. Urtext editions (that show the music exactly as the composer notated it) are particularly recommended. That said, while Urtext editions are valuable, composers were sometimes confusing and inconsistent in their notation. So a well-edited edition is sometimes better than an Urtext.
Understand the piece. Get to know it by sight-reading it. Work out its form.
Plan. This may vary based on the piece’s style (e.g. Baroque with few instructions given) and whether one is using an Urtext or well-edited edition. Choose a goal tempo. Choose and/or optimize fingering. Decide articulations. Write out ornamentations. Consider the dynamics.
Practice. Learn the notes. Count and/or use the metronome. Memorize. Polish. Finally, reconsider and recheck your interpretation of the piece as a whole.
Chapter 7: Il Maestro e lo Scolare
This very brief chapter’s title is from a duet by Haydn in which each variation played by the teacher is imitated by the student. The chapter discusses two teaching approaches: learning to play by emphasizing sight-reading, and approaching practice and performance by emphasizing the “gestalt” or whole of the piece.
The Pianist’s Problems is a must-read for piano teachers and serious classical pianists (less so for casual/hobbyist pianists). While this summary presents the book’s principal ideas and topics, it could only highlight a small number of the hundreds of useful principles and strategies the book explains in detail. While Chapters 2 and 3 on technique provide still-relevant information, some ideas have been superseded by more recent approaches to technique (e.g. the Taubman approach and Body Mapping method). For example, the book recommends a few drills that many now consider best avoided in order to prevent tension and injury. Nonetheless, a close reading of The Pianist’s Problems is well worth the serious pianist’s time.