Russian Piano Technique

Updated: Feb 20

As an instrument, the piano, plus its repertoire had developed for centuries; always changing in terms of sound and style. That we clearly know. However, much more difficult to record and document is how piano music was approached and demonstrated from a technical point of view.

Some mysteries remain, for example: how Liszt himself has played. He was known to have instructed advanced students on interpretation but not so much given information on technique. Very few accounts described his form of playing such awe-inspiring performances and piano works. Some clues into Paganini's style of violin playing have only now begun to surface- after nearly 200 years!

Briefly coming back to Liszt, there was some involvement he once had in the Russian school of playing. Russia had started to industrialize and develop quite late- including classical music. Even though they may have started in the 1800s, they developed- very fast. Not only did they catch up on the previous two centuries but created their style of playing and wrote many iconic works that dominated the Romantic and 20th century.

Franz Liszt

Before I had started to adapt to the Scaramuzza Technique, there were some elements to the technique I had that were closer to the Russian method.

In many ways, this entails movements that are in some ways the opposite to the Scaramuzza. It involved quite a lot of involvement from the body too. The Scaramuzza's creates a much more efficient, scaled-down and streamlined approach. Taking only what is fundamentally needed to be effective. It was a real challenge to rehabilitate my habits but is worth it to develop more versatility with the piano repertoire.

One particular pianist from Russia, Josef Lhevinne was a leading modern figure along with Rachmaninoff, Hofmann and Schnabel. He was the first artist to be invited to teach at the Julliard School of Music in New York. Lhevinne describes many elements of the technique, plus observations of Rubinstein's playing.

As students in Russia, they had been instilled from a very early age to achieve a perfect technique. This was not the complete goal, but it was necessary to express the composer's intentions and to create an interpretation.

Josef Lhevinne

The Most Important...

For any student was to know scales of all keys as it strengthens understanding of technique and the sound of repertoire and sight-reading in any key. Musicianship and ear training were other massively valuable skills to advance further.

In the technique, one major element is tone production. For this, it was necessary to keep a loose wrist (at least most of the time). The wrists here are treated as a kind of shock absorber to control the impact and weight to the hand. Lhevinne also states that to create the delicate tone necessary: the 'floating arm' had to be achieved by having elbows extended out by the side. Plus the fingers had to always be on the surface of the keys.

If we try this, we can see immediately that the wrist reacts to this a lot more as we are pushing into the key more. To get the power necessary, Lhevinne took Rubinstein as the example where he would lean towards the piano. The weight of his body would transfer through the shoulders to the hands, thus gaining the extra power needed. Yet the loose wrists enabled the 'shock absorbed' sound that stops any harsh tones.

For us to do this, this can demand a lot of energy in changing the sound of what we are playing.

The Scaramuzza Technique differs here...

As it describes the natural relaxation of the arms (the elbows would have to face down for this). Plus the fingers have a space from the keys rather than resting on the keys.

Vincenzo Scaramuzza

Although Lhevinne disagrees with the idea of having a heavy arm as it would be too loud in sound. This is not necessarily the case, as the weight can be adjusted while it is relaxed. We don't use weight but the speed of the attack to produce dynamics.

The main difficulty with this particular Russian method was although the tone is essential- producing it comfortably can be a challenge. If the keys push from the surface while the arm 'floats' around the keys: instead of using the relaxed weight and gravity (described by Scaramuzza), we are now using deliberate force and resistance. If we play like this on a piano with heavier keys: the piano may not respond in the way we want it to. We would be wrestling with the piano instead of working with it. Rubinstein had a bit of difficulty with this sometimes if some notes were unintentionally struck.

This really asks some questions that when we are playing in front of people: if we are feeling nervous before, can we consciously make these big movements from the body? As soon as we are stiff in our body movement, the quality of the playing suffers.

As the Scaramuzza technique relies on using the relaxed weight of our arm and the gravity on the finger movement, the sound we need is already available with barely any effort at all.

Why put so much large scale effort into producing a sound when we can use the bare minimum needed to produce the same sound anyway?


You can now join our Free Piano Technique Lessons about the Scaramuzza's method, via online.

Start learning the famous piano technique used by the best pianists such as Martha Argerich, Bruno Gelber, Carlo Zecchi, etc.

Martha Argerich

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