Updated: Sep 19
Maybe you've never heard of the famed pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938). Incredibly, he was self-taught.
“I would be very glad could I have stated with truth that I was a pupil of [Franz] Liszt or any other great man, but I was not. I have not had three months of lessons in my life. I have been told I was playing the piano before I was two. I think, however, an imaginative family perpetrated this story. I cannot vouch for the truth one way or the other. I have had some extraordinary experiences, and this may have happened. I do not remember whether anybody taught me the value and meaning of notes and the use of the fingers of the keyboard, or whether I acquired my knowledge in an autodidactic way, but I do remember that I had no help from [age five] on.”
I will refrain from making comments on his wishes to have been taught by a “great man” ....
In an interview with Etude Magazine, Godowsky starts by saying it’s hard to sum up the Art of Piano Playing. He then goes on to describe three “channels.” Notably, he doesn’t equate mechanics with technique.
Channel 1: The mechanics of playing: speed, power when needed, ability to execute awkward passages.
Channel 2: The brain side of piano playing: technique. The elements of technique include rhythm, tempo, accents, phrasing, dynamics, agogics, touch, etc.
“Technic differs from the mechanics of piano playing in that it has properly to do with the intellectual phase of the subject rather than the physical. It is the brain side of the study, not the digital or the manual. The excellence of one’s technic depends upon the accuracy of one’s understanding of these subjects and his skill in applying them to his interpretations at the keyboard.” Godowsky, Etude Magazine, Jan 1913
Channel 3: The emotional or artistic phase of piano playing.
“It is the sacred fire communicated from one art generation to the next and modified by the individual emotions of the performer himself.” (Godowsky)
“One may as well try to capture the perfume of the flower as define the requirements of the emotional in pianoforte playing.” (Godowsky)
To put things in today’s terms, piano playing requires a holistic approach, a synthesis of mind, body, and soul.
Channel 1: Body - Mechanics. The entire body – certainly not just the fingers.
Channel 2: Mind - Knowledge. Understanding how to interpret all the markings of the score and how to physically execute them. Thus far, these systems have been passed down from generation to generation, through instruction and performance practices. Who knows what the possibilities of the future might be?
Channel 3: Soul - Emotional. Conveying the spirit of the music is often referred to as “playing expressively.” This requires deep listening.
In your daily practice, keep these channels in mind while developing your physical and intellectual skills. Bring to the piano your vast life experiences, curiosity, playfulness, compassion – your humanness. Always remember, it’s the last channel that breathes life into your music.