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Class taught by Chris Lewis

Chris Lewis is a pianist, organist and teacher in Vermont, and is one of the regular faculty at the Sonata adult piano camp. I think he is an unusual and remarkable analyst of piano playing, and a uniquely terrific teacher. He is a fabulously talented performer, so his methods apparently have worked for him!

Chris has spent years thinking about what it is we do that actually makes the music we hear. The main points he makes are basic, and not exactly novel, but I’ve not met nor read a teacher who makes the points as clearly, firmly and compellingly. I’ll try to summarize one of his points (probably not very well).

Ignoring for a moment the pedals, there are only essentially only two things we can do to affect the sound (of a note) we make: change the velocity at which we make the hammer strike the string, and change the duration . That’s it. Pushing the key against the keybed does nothing to change the sound. Moving the elbow does nothing. Rolling the arms up and down like a bird’s wings or a wave doesn’t change the vibrations of the string. Whether we start with our finger on the key, a little above, or far above doesn’t matter — the speed with which we strike the key is all that matters (it may be easier or harder for us to generate or control speed depending on where we start, but the position itself doesn’t affect the sound). Likewise, the key raises itself when you release it. As long as you lift your finger the slightest bit faster than the mechanism, nothing you can do changes the speed of release. Lifting your finger 1/16th of an inch above the key (or even not at all) creates exactly the same sound as lifting an inch, or flinging the arm off. As Chris puts it, nothing is happening to the sound between the keyboard and the sky.

So what? Chris advocates creating strike speed and release with a minimum of muscular effort and motion. The occasional flourish is neither here nor there, but why spend energy and practice time on things that do not actually affect the sound we are making? Focus on the sound you want to hear, figure out what it takes to create it, and do that. And “that” is very little: it’s moving the key down at the speed you want, and releasing it when you want. Lifting the fingers high above the keys is generally wasted effort. Any wrist or arm movements that are not directly part of the vertical lever (that is, that are not directly affecting the speed of strike or release) are wasted effort. So what? Chris scoffs at “relax” — “if you just relaxed, you’d be a puddle on the floor”. But he believes in practicing and learning only the muscle motion necessary to make the sound he wants, and having the extra resources for speed and control.

To watch him play is amazing. His fingers rarely raise noticeably above the keys. His arms and upper body are quiet — not rigid but calm. But he can play blindingly fast (I’ve seen him play the Liszt B minor Sonata at breathtaking speed, and all of Chopin’s big works), and at the same time expressively (he is not a mere technical wizard).

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