By Bonnie Nicholson, SRMTA Member
Bonnie Nicholson is a pianist, teacher and chamber musician from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her degrees include a Bachelor of Music (Performance, 1984) and a Master of Arts Degree from the University of Saskatchewan (1987), as well as an A.R.C.T. in Piano Performance from the R.C.M. (1984). Teachers and influences are varied and include her mentor Robin Harrison (Saskatoon) and Janet Wendland (Prince Albert). Bonnie enjoys chasing her grandchildren through their busy lives and maintaining a small private piano studio from her home (Studio Nic). She volunteers many hours towards the Saskatoon Music Festival. Bonnie is the pianist for the Saskatoon Fireside Singers.
Q. What do you feel is the function of gesture in a piano student’s playing? When and how do you teach gesture to your students? Any other gesture insights?
A. My favourite two teaching vocabulary words this 2023 fall season are “gesture” and “intent”.
I start every September teaching Canadian Piano literature to all of my students. I am a fan of David L. McIntyre, Alexina Louie, Jean Coulthard, Vincent Ho, Oskar Morawetz, Allan Gordon Bell, Marjan Mozetich, Allan Gilliland, Heather Schmidt, John Burge and so many other great Canadian composers. Their compositions give me valuable opportunities to discuss gesture and intent in piano lessons.
There was an interesting study entitled Sight over sound in the judgement of music performance (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1221454110) published by PNAS confirming that winners of high-level piano competitions could be identified more easily and accurately by having audiences only watch the performers, not listen and watch. And so, we know that gesture at the piano is important to expression and communication if it is well intended.
In September, I start by teaching/ confirming for students a healthy seated position at the piano with a healthy posture, strong core and torso, supportive legs, loose knees, flexible arms and a willingness to move behind the sounds that are created. (Racetrack body)
I use Hanon exercises to confirm rotary forearm movements. Sometimes Matthay exercises are necessary to confirm hand position and strong finger ends with loose knuckles. (The Visible and Invisible of Pianoforte Technique, Tobias Matthay).
Once a comfortable “rest position” is established for the student, it is easy to suggest flexible arm gestures that punctuate the phrase endings of the music. Most of the “choreographed” movements that I teach are fluid motions that suggest the continuation of a sound that is ringing in the pedal. Rarely do I suggest aggressive arm movements, and most often the score would have to indicate appropriate aggression in some way. Mostly we talk about releases – the release of tension, the act of breathing with the phrases and lingering closures.
It is normal to have to experiment with a student for many lessons regarding how a flexible gesture might best serve the music. It takes time for new students to trust me with this process. Some students enter the studio with sincere arm gestures that they have incorporated naturally and without guidance for many years. Some students have to learn to adjust body and arm gestures that detract from their technical competency and sincerity of expression. Learning takes time and requires patience. It takes an imaginative vocabulary of tricks and experiments.
More often than not, it takes many lessons to “slow down” a student’s gesture to suggest an ending of a lingering phrase or the final sounds of a composition.
The “intent” of the movement/gesture/choreography should be spoken about in as imaginative a way as possible. If the student resists telling a “story” with the music-making, it also works to have that student count/measure the length of the gesture’s trajectory in order to stay involved and interested in the gesture. Expressive arm gestures are often as simple as an ascending path from the keys, or sometimes towards the body, and once in a while a “freeze frame” gesture works best, accompanied by the student’s counting.
Gesturing simply does not work if the student is reluctant to listen to the sounds being created at the keys. Gesturing without listening has no intent and seems false.
Lingering gestures cannot be added successfully until the student has no more technical challenges with a new work.
It is also satisfying to help students create organic releases for their loudest sounds, or to help them identify composition climaxes with suitable body gestures that might include throwing the arms, or momentarily lifting off the bench onto the legs.
Again, listening and intent are key to successfully teaching arm gestures at the piano.