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|book review: "the golden fingers technique" by jeroen riemsdijk|
Reviewer: Tjako van Schie, pianist
"The Golden Fingers Technique - the art of passage work"
Of all books about playing the piano this one is remarkable in several aspects.
‘The Golden Fingers Technique’ has a pleasant and very well done layout, is straightforward to read and well structured in several sections. There are many illustrations in the form of small photos, although some of the photos are a bit tricky to interpret, because when playing piano things ‘move’ and this is not easily captured on a still. A DVD with moving examples would make a nice addition to the photos.
The book focuses (from its nature: the art of passage playing) on an important aspect of playing the piano: i.e. the basis of motorial behavior of the pianists playing apparatus.
‘The Golden Fingers Technique’ works like a guidance in a laboratory situation. The pianist is put in ‘analysis mode’, where one should never forget when working through the book: when practising piano the motorial behavior is one very important one of them, but there are many aspects more to analyze.
The examples in the book are all “distilled” examples, most based on an elementary 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 finger sequence for pianists, which serve as ‘building blocks’ for later work on more complex tasks. So the ‘basics’ are given, with great care and excellent descriptions. It is a good thing that an expert gives his view and has done such thorough research into these ‘basics’ of the motorial aspects of playing piano.
The primary purpose of the book is to provide a solid technical basis, from where one can elaborate and deviate into the ‘real life’. I would have welcomed more examples from ‘real’ piano literature, in order to clarify the connection to this ‘real life’ end result. I also personally would have welcomed more elaboration on the spiritual, emotional and mental processes involved in piano playing (our mutual musical ‘grand-father’ Cornelis Berkhout was quite outspoken in these matters), but I can understand why the book limits itself to the laboratory situation.
I think it is inevitable that a book, like the one presented, focuses on a limited number of aspects at a time: a book cannot teach us 100% the way a real life teacher or coach can, how to be and become pianists, where playing piano involves so many more components, especially on the mental part of ‘educating’ oneself, on the artistic and creative side, and on the vast area of repertoire, interpretation, style, tempo, historical backgrounds etc. People are not robots, and every person has it’s peculiarities in the working of the brain and corps. Our job as teachers should be to help students to analyze rising problems and warn for pitfalls, and to become aware of their weaknesses and strengths, and giving them a wide-range palette of possibilities for further development. Nevertheless, The Golden Fingers Technique certainly will be a good assistant to teachers and students, to pianists who are eager to learn in general.
When reading the book one might sometimes experience that items are explained separately in “building blocks” (a bit of the reductionist’s way), where a more overall approach could be more appealing (like a holistic view), or one might wish some more examples from the vast piano literature, and then go into the details of that specific music. A scale or passage in e.g. a Mozart piece is different from the same scale in Debussy or Beethoven or Bach, and only when we have a clear understanding of the musical style we can start to shape our technique accordingly. Also there are many situations in the literature in which we need to go against these ‘principle’ and have to make use of the ‘exception’ in real life. This will not be found in the book, but has to be discovered by oneself.
I think a good approach would be to ‘correct’ things along the way when we learn to play the piano. From making ‘mistakes’ as a beginner (or even as a professional!) we can learn more, than doing it ‘all right’ from the start. In my opinion we have to start with developing the musical language and style aspects in our heads FIRST (the inner ear), and then do the necessary experimenting and fine tuning on the technical aspects in order to perform what we want to perform. And then we arrive on a point where this book can become a big help in providing material for studies and analysis. (But never forget, even in the ‘laboratory’ that we need to stay connected with the ‘core-business’: making music!)
When we have acquainted an image of a piece in our mind, and when we strive to translate it onto the piano, we might encounter ‘troubles’, which are not easily to solve without the understanding of the basics, which are so well explained in ‘The Golden Fingers Technique’.
Nowadays we see two wide-spread types of pianists: on one side there are the countless “empty” virtuoso freaks, with only speed and accurate fingers in their empty minds, on the other hand the countless ‘flamboyant artistic’ types, with only vague and intuitive performances and also without any depth and musical intelligence. I think the true way to play the piano is seen/ heard in a not so common third type of player: the one pianist soul who strives for reaching optimal musical expression in an optimized and efficient way of playing.
I believe that in order to help our students to embark into this adventurous direction cannot be done merely by a book (even in case of a well written and useful book like this one), this is the result of an inspiring teacher or coach, talent, good ears, imagination, hard work, lots of self reflection, and discipline. This usually takes a “lifetime to work out”, to speak with Cornelius Berkhout.(*)
The ‘Golden Fingers Technique’ doesn’t have this overall approach, but provides the important basic conditions to achieve that goal. ‘The Golden Fingers Technique’ is an elaborate intellectual approach/analysis/study to motorial behavior, and Jeroen succeeds very well and thoughtful in distilling the basic fundamentals of the motorial aspects of passage playing, on an abstracted, condensed level. Therefore it will for example also appeal to pianists encountering problems and serves as a self-help guide for self-analysis in solving these problems.
‘The Golden Fingers Technique’ should be read by all piano teachers, for them to acquire basic knowledge of the playing apparatus, and to enable them to help their students in discovering where things might go wrong and where one might encounter pitfalls. Back to the fundamentals, instead of keeping stuck in a certain level of learned abilities, without perspective on improvements.
The book provides good insights and will be of big value as an addendum to lessons and teachers. I think ‘The Golden Fingers Technique’ certainly is a good addition to the various piano methods and books about piano playing around these days, and I hope it will be read by and can help pianists all over the world in providing deeper insights. I think that when we wouldn’t use the book as a mere rigid ‘method’ but as another great source (and resource) of very useful and very detailed information, Jeroen has succeeded in presenting an excellent book of big value to the piano world.
(*) Cornelius Berkhout was performing pianist and teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory. From his work as a piano pedagogue resulted the book “The Art of Piano Playing”, which recently was published. In his book he describes .a.o. the intrinsic relation technique=expression. Among his students were a.o. Jan Wijn and Ben Smits.
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