If you were a student at the Stuttgart Conservatory in the mid 1800‘s during the reign of Sigismund Lebert and Ludwig Stark, you would have had to practise a strict regime of finger exercises, preferably with the aid of a hand rail (a device attached to the piano enabling the player to rest their wrists on it). The point was to achieve everything with the fingers and the wrist, the rest of the arm remaining quiet and passive. The elbow was to stay close to the body and only the forearm was supposed to move if the hands needed to move outwards. The basic finger touch was known as the “hammer touch”, where each finger was lifted as high as possible and then slammed into the key fortissimo (with no help from the arm). When the key was released, the finger had to return to its high position. Lebert and Stark’s method book was first published in 1858 and was widely disseminated across the world, successful for over a century.
Piano teachers at the time were trying to find ways of tackling the more powerful pianos and the different styles of music being written, and this was Lebert and Stark’s response – needless to say, crippling injuries were reported. A form of the hammer touch is still being taught to this day, and there are well-known and celebrated pianists who swear by this approach. The are plenty of others who would consider this harmful and unnatural, especially if the finger curls up tightly as it is lifted.
It was during the mid 19th century that we see a split between technical and musical work, so that it was possible (and prevalent) for the player to separate pure mechanics from musical thought and expression. It led to a group of piano students who had no real lively interest in music, but who were concerned solely with becoming showmen at the piano. Mechanical teaching aids, notably Logier’s Chiroplast, Herz’s Dactylion and Kalkbrenner’s Hand Guide (a simplification of the Chiroplast), were designed to speed up acquiring a virtuoso technique and were advocated by many teachers and players. Nowadays, such devices are generally considered not only futile but downright injurious and actually ridiculous. I have a feeling this period in the history of piano playing is why some teachers today have a dread of any type of mechanical practice, but as I have said before some mechanical work is necessary in the building of a pianist and how we do things is paramount. What we do has to be done intelligently and with care and attention, and without strong and reliable fingers no serious playing is possible. It is the fixation on the fingers and the blocking off of rotary and other arm movements where problems occur.
Regarding the Dactylion, it is widely believed that this terrible device was responsible for Schumann’s hand injury, but for more insight into this do read Jura Margulis’ excellent article on the subject.
If you are not familiar with the work of Natalia Strelchenko, here she is demonstrating the explaining Kalkbrenner’s guide rail on a period piano (the notion that pianists were once actually expected to practise like this fills me with horror):
It is important to add here that many of the studies from the Finger School and other method books from the period are musically interesting and can still be of pedagogical value. We can select from the vast range of material that is available and adapt it for our own use. This might mean ignoring the technical instructions given by the composer, and certainly the specified number of repetitions!
In conclusion, a caveat from a writer of the time, E. S. Kelley, concerning mechanical practice:
Some even go so far as to assert that it is better to study unmusical exercises, for if the pupil plays that which pleases him, his attention will be diverted from the position of his hands. Dr. Hans von Bülow, while commenting upon the effects of practising monotonous five-finger exercises, maintains that the flexibility thus gained is acquired at the cost of musical intelligence….Involuntarily the performer loses all thought of what he is playing. The great lack of charm and interest of the task produces absent-mindedness, and, finally, utter thoughtlessness. The player becomes a mere machine, forgetting that he has to be engineer at the same time, without whose care its progress, if not stopped immediately, will be greatly impeded. (E.S. Kelley, “Pianoforte Study: The Method Employed in the Conservatory at Stuttgart”, 169)
If you want to read more about the history of piano technique, Part 2 of my eBook Series, Practising the Piano is now available. Please see below for details of how to get your copy.
Practising the Piano Part 2