Book Review: “Piano Technique Demystified,” Neil Stannard

I recently decided to learn how to play the piano to help me advance as a composer and songwriter, and, hoping to stave off many of the challenges I faced with learning to play guitar and sing, decided to start by looking around for books and lessons that would help me build the right foundations.  If you’re a technique-dummy like me – someone with no appreciable instinct for figuring out the right way to perform on instruments without a lot of hand-holding – then finding someone who can show you the right thing to do is incredibly important.

One of the first works that was recommended to me was Neil Stannard’s “Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving.”

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Stannard’s work is really an introduction to Dorothy Taubman’s approach to piano playing, as filtered through the lens of the Golandsky Institute.  Now, I had never heard of any of this stuff, so I’m indebted to Stannard for introducing me to the basic concepts.  Taubman’s approach is about learning to play the piano acknowledging the realities of the physical skills involved.  It’s about learning the right motion to use to do all the little bits and pieces: playing a note, moving between two notes, shifting the hand between octaves, leaping, etc.

Stannard starts with some of these very basic concepts, and then moves into more complicated issues like grouping notes, shaping to take advantage of the natural way the arm moves, breaking apart complicated passages into shockingly easy little fragments that can be chained together.  It’s all about making the piano easy to play by avoiding physical actions that are difficult.

The book explains how to do the motions, and then, far better, also provides links to YouTube videos where Stannard himself demonstrates the techniques.  Sometimes it’s almost impossible to figure out what he’s saying from the book, but incredibly easy to pick up once you can see him do it.  The YouTube videos are pretty poor quality (it’s literally Stannard holding an iPhone in one hand and demoing with the other), but they get the job done.

The Good

This is pretty much exactly what I was looking for, so I was thrilled to get right at it and start understanding the “right way” to play piano.  My only complaint is that the book is pretty unintelligible to the beginner.  It’s full of very complicated sections of classical pieces and references to things that I’m sure I’m years away from encountering.  What was incredible is that, after watching the videos and with almost no previous experience with the piano, I was able to play along with the slow demonstrations of Chopin pieces after watching a couple of times.  Clearly this stuff works.

That being said, the core concepts as introduced really helped me understand what I should be looking for in a teacher and in source material, and I’ve been able to find some references to follow up with that offer a much more beginner-friendly introduction to the Taubman approach.

Beyond the core concepts of the physical skills of piano playing, Stannard also offers sage advice about how to approach music.  His chapter on practicing where he explains how to approach new material, work pieces up to speed, and then refine is, alone, worth the modest price of the book.  He has one of the most clearly framed descriptions of practicing that I’ve ever heard, which I really liked: work out, and then work in.  That is, you spend the first part of practicing figuring out exactly what you’re supposed to do in a tempo-free zone (work out), and then you drill the skills into your muscle memory until you can bring them up to speed (work in).

He also offers some great general advice on memorization, performance anxiety, calls to “relax”, and expressiveness in performance.

The Bad

The downside of the book is that the flow seems desultory.  There’s no clear organizing structure to the work, and no advice on how to progressively learn the concepts he describes.  The work tends to bounce from one example to another, and while there’s a lot of great advice, much of it is difficult to absorb since it comes so fast and furious.  I think the book will be worth a re-read down the road when my piano playing becomes more advanced (it’s a quick read at a little over 100 pages).

The Ugly

There’s nothing terrible about the book, but the author could certainly benefit from investing in a tripod for his videos.

The Takeaway

I’m glad I bought the book, even though for me it was really just a gateway to other, more comprehensive works that more seriously treat the idea of teaching the Taubman method progressively and systematically.  This is a book better suited to a frustrated intermediate pianist, but I’m glad I’ve absorbed many concepts that will hopefully help me avoid becoming one myself.

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