17. The Oxford Centre of the James Ching pianoforte school

An Autobiographical Excursion. I like to think of the School to which I have given my name as something more than an institution at which my own particular Method of pianoforte playing is studied and taught, as something more important, at least to me, than even the Method itself. For the School symbolises for me the growth of an idea which began to develop in my mind about twenty years ago. The idea began at that time as a somewhat vague conception, changed very gradually into what seemed a good provisional hypothesis, settled itself into a firm conviction, became modified and enlarged, took definite shape in that detailed Method of Technique which is now associated with my name, and came, finally, to stand in my mind for a personal “philosophy” of pianoforte teaching.
The idea in its original form arose from the fact that, after a not entirely unsuccessful debut as a pianist in my early twenties, I gradually came to realise that I was quite unable to play the piano in the way in which I really wanted to play I found that although I could visualise, as it were, in my musical imagination interpretations which were personally satisfying I could not actually produce from the instrument those artistic effects which were in my mind. I played, indeed, very much less musically than I felt. My teaching experience, moreover, seemed to confirm that I was not alone in having better interpretative ideas than I could express. For my students used often to apologise to me for playing so unmusically, saying that their playing seldom if ever represented their real feelings, their real artistic ideas and convictions. I helped them as best I could. I urged them to practise as hard as possible. I practised assiduously myself. Our playing, I think, gradually improved. But there always remained that wide gap between the effects we wanted to produce and those we actually did. Thus it seemed to me at that time that probably a great many people were, in fact, more deeply musical than their playing would seem to suggest. This was the idea in its original form. It was not, as I have already suggested, very clearly defined, nor was it in any sense an urgent idea. It drove me to no kind of immediate action nor, indeed, to very much serious thought. It was just there as a kind of background to the day dreams I used to have about my own future as a pianist and teacher.
Now also at about that time I chanced to come across an article by a man whom I afterwards came to regard as one of the greatest interpretative artists of this age, Sergei Rachmaninoff. In that article was one sentence which hit me with such force that the impression of it even now stands out vividly in my mind. “Without technique there is no interpretation.” Here, in those six words, was expressed, so it seemed to me, one of the most profound truths I had ever seen expressed about piano playing; here were six words, moreover, which not only expressed an idea which had been gradually dawning in my mind, but which summed up concisely and incisively the whole question of the relationship between technique and interpretation. A little later I came across Hans von Bulow’s well-known dictum: “There are three things which the pianist requires : the first is technique, the second is technique, the third is TECHNIQUE.” It seemed therefore, that what I had to do was obvious. I must somehow or other acquire a better technique for myself, together with a knowledge of how to enable my students to do the same. This was the idea in its second form, an idea now transformed into an incentive to action.
I need not say much about my preliminary efforts in this direction. It is generally known that I received my very earliest pianistic training at the hands of Mr. Tobias Matthay. The efforts to which I am now referring took the form first of a return as a student to my first teacher. This was followed a short time afterwards by studies with Teichmuller and, later still, with Breithaupt. The immediate results of this “post-graduate” work were by no means entirely satisfactory. From Mr. Matthay I learnt nothing fresh about technique. This was, however, hardly a matter for surprise. For he had in no way modified his views on technique since the days when I first studied with him. But it was a matter for some surprise that he failed in any way to cure or even alleviate an alarming complaint which was at that time beginning to develop in my playing, the complaint commonly known as pianists’ cramp. But of this more later. From Teichmuller I received a great deal of artistic inspiration, much valuable insight into the music of Brahms and a number of finger exercises which would certainly have shocked Mr. Matthay had he known anything about them! Breithaupt I also found a most exciting and inspiring teacher. But he gave me something more than artistic inspiration and encouragement. For he showed me all kinds of actual technical processes which were widely different (for the same artistic aims) from those I had learnt from Mr. Matthay. They were also, incidentally, much more efficient. Thus it came about that I finally left Breithaupt with a much better technique than I had had when I began my studies with him. But I left also with a further development my original idea, or rather, with two new ideas, the first a particular and the second a general and much more important one.
The first and particular idea was simply that, for certain passages and certain artistic effects, Breithaupt’s technical Method was much more efficient than Matthay’s. This was, admittedly, a somewhat startling idea for one who had grown up with the belief in Mr. Matthay’s infallibility concerning matters technical. However, there it was. I could now, as a result of Breithaupt’s technical method, produce certain artistic effects which I had always wanted but had never previously been able to produce. The second idea had much wider implications. It was this. Here were two celebrated teachers, each advocating two diametrically opposite ways of using the human body for the production of one and the same artistic result. They were advocating the achievement of the same end by entirely different means. Moreover each of them was convinced that his own Method was the right one. Now in the first place it was obvious that both could not be right. If Breithaupt were right then Matthay must be wrong (or the other way about), at least from the theoretical point of view. One inference from this peculiar state of affairs rapidly became evident. Perhaps there was a third way of using the body, still another technical Method more efficient than either of those with which I had so far become acquainted. Such was the idea in its third form.
Some time after my return from Germany with the idea that there might be the possibility of acquiring a still better technique by a different method, two things happened which caused this idea to develop still further. The first of these was that I read two books which immediately changed the idea from a possibility into something which seemed to offer almost a certainty of fulfilment. The books in question were “The Physical Basis of Piano Touch and Tone” by Otto Ortmann, and “The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique” by the same author. Here was something entirely new. For in these two books was to be found for the first time the idea that the technique of piano playing could and ought to be an exact science, a matter about which certainty could be obtained only by the use of the scientific method, by a scientific analysis of all the relevant factors. The pianoforte, so Ortmann argued, was a machine for the production of musical sound. As such its action was subject to the laws of mechanics and its sounds capable of analysis within the framework of the science of Physics.
The human body, according to Ortmann’s viewpoint, must also be regarded as a machine, a living mechanism about the working of which the science of Physiology had discovered certain laws and principles, by now well-established and fully accepted by competent scientific opinion. Ortmann’s final hypothesis was to the effect that the most efficient way of using the bodily mechanism in order to operate the mechanism of the pianoforte was capable of discovery and verification only by the application of the scientific method to the relevant facts of Physics, Physiology and Mechanics. Only in this way, he maintained, could piano technique escape from the absurd position it then occupied. He pointed out that piano technique in the early 1930’s was still a subject the theoretical principles of which were not in any way properly established. Such principles as did exist were nothing but a chaos of the conflicting opinions of individual teachers, most if not all of whom did not seem to have the knowledge necessary to venture even a sound opinion let alone to establish a theory of any validity. In his own books Ortmann proceeded to make a very detailed and scientific survey of many of the relevant factors and formulated from these a number of extremely revolutionary conclusions.
This important pioneering work produced, as you might have expected, two main types of reaction, indifference and neglect on the one hand and fatuous commentary and even abuse on the other. Ortmann himself quotes three examples of the latter from communications received by himself. “The soul of the piano,” the first commented reproachfully, “transcends all investigation.” From the second correspondent came this remarkable statement, “Your results may all be true but I don’t believe them even if they are.” A third, much more precise and forceful, wrote simply : “You are crazy!”
Now I found it impossible to regard either Ortmann or his method of approach as crazy. It seemed to me that the piano, considered as an instrument, could not reasonably be held to possess a soul. Nor did there appear any valid reason why its mechanism and the sounds which could be produced from it should “transcend all investigation.” It was certain that it the piano was nothing but a machine, constructed of various woods, felts and metals. That this machine was capable, by appropriate manipulation at the hands of the pianist, of producing that curious phenomenon we call Art was, of course, obvious enough. But the piano itself remained, for all that, merely an inanimate machine, possessing no more soul than the pen of the poet or the brush or colours of the painter. And as such it was, I could not but agree, a fit and proper object for scientific analysis and investigation. I was, therefore, entirely prepared to believe anything that the proper application of the scientific method to the study of the piano was able to prove to be true within those limits of truth which are accepted by the present-day scientists. I was also perfectly willing to regard the established facts of Physiology in the same light.
Considerations of this kind led inevitably to a further It was now possible at least to development of my idea. It was now possible at least to imagine a state of affairs when one would be able to say of any technical theory not only that it seemed less or more satisfactory than another but that it was either right or wrong. It was possible now to visualise a day when there would be one right theory and one only, one right method and one only of using the body for manipulating the instrument for the production of any one particular artistic effect. Ortmann had produced some theories which certainly seemed to fulfil these conditions. They did not strike me, however, as being by any means complete. Moreover, although they gave me a totally new orientation towards technique, these theories gave me no detailed information as to how to improve the practical aspects of my own technique or that of my students. They did not, for example, tell me exactly what to do in order to improve my octaves or my finger work. The essential clue to the discovery of such knowledge was, however, contained in Ortmann’s work. Obviously what I now had to do was to learn something for myself of Physiology and Mechanics. Here once again was an idea with a drive to action.
While I was turning this idea over in my mind and considering how I could best begin to take appropriate action, something else happened. I heard Rachmaninoff play the piano. It was the first time I had ever heard him. I was both exalted and depressed. I had never before heard playing of this kind. I also knew perfectly well that I had not the slightest idea of the technical means by which he produced his amazing artistic effects. I came away from that recital with the firm conviction that, even were it possible that I should at some future time find myself in possession of an artistic imagination of that order, I should nevertheless still be totally unable to produce the actual effects from the piano. I had not the slightest idea how they were produced. Neither could I imagine that any amount of practice could ever enable me to produce them. On that very day I telephoned University College, London, and asked for the name of the Head of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics.
I found in Mr. H. T. Jessop an ideal collaborator. We worked together for two years. At the end of this time we had acquired what seemed to be a reasonably complete knowledge of the theoretical mechanics of pianoforte technique. We knew, in other words, exactly what types of bodily movements, exactly what bodily conditions ought, from a theoretical point of view, to be the most efficient for every type of piano passage and for every type of artistic effect that the pianist could ever wish or be able to obtain. And by that time I had, to my own satisfaction at least, improved my own piano technique and that of my students to a degree which seemed almost unbelievable. My pianist’s cramp had vanished. I could, moreover, easily and without the necessity for much keyboard practice, do things which no amount of keyboard practice had ever previously enabled me to do. Moreover, I could now, by telling my students to modify this or that bodily movement or condition give them precisely that practical help which I had never before been able to give them.
The position, however, was even now not entirely satisfactory. For, in the first place, theoretical mechanics are one story and the living human body is quite another. We had, of course, consulted the standard text-books for the physiological facts we required. We felt ourselves, however, to be without quite all the physiological data necessary for a complete scientific proof of our theories in terms of physiological mechanics. Moreover, my own professional position was not a little delicate. For our results seemed to indicate that all the current theories about piano technique, and especially those individual to Mr. Matthay, were not only inaccurate but grossly and completely so. We were advised by Professor A. V. Hill, of University College, to consult Professor Hamilton Hartridge, Professor of Physiology at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. We prepared for him a list of questions. When he had studied them he said : “Well, gentlemen, I don’t profess to know the answers. And to the If best of my knowledge they are not known to Physiology. If you like we will try to find them out.”
And so began my first experience of physiological research. I worked with Professor Hartridge in the Experimental Laboratories at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital for a further period of nearly two years. At the end of this time we read a joint paper to the Physiological Society entitled “Voluntary Control in Rapid Movements.” But some time before this occasion the proof of all the theories concerned with piano playing had already seemed complete and final. As a last check we submitted possible doubts to Sir Charles Sherrington. He was able to set our minds at rest. My book, “Piano Technique: Foundation Principles” (Chappell, originally Murdoch) was published in 1934. It also appeared serially in The Music Teacher about the same time.
In this book was laid down what I believe to be the first scientific, theoretical foundation for a detailed practical Method of pianoforte technique, the first theoretical foundation to be impersonal and universal in that it offered established scientific facts and arguments there, from (instead of the unsupported and unverified statements of particular individuals) as the basis for technical theory, the first theoretical foundations to be properly confirmed by representative and competent scientific opinion. The original idea had had its first real materialisation.
The book provoked considerable antagonism and no little abuse directed against myself. For some time I continued to point out to my opponents that if my theories were incorrect all they had to do in order to prove them so was to submit them to an examination by representative scientists. No such steps have yet, after thirteen years, been taken by those who disagree with me. Or if such steps have been taken I have heard nothing about them. I feel, therefore, that I may safely leave the reasons for this singular reticence on the part of my critics to the imagination of my readers.
My long preoccupation with matters technical in no way, however, made me lose sight of the fact that what I was looking for was not technique as an end in itself but technique as one of the indispensable means towards the expression of musical feeling. I say one of the means because long before the publication of my book I had realised that, for what I was seeking, technique was not enough. I had, in other words, been compelled to acknowledge to myself the fact that it is not only necessary for the pianist to have musical feelings to express and the technical equipment necessary for their expression. It is also necessary that these musical feelings should not be excessively and “compulsively” inhibited, that they should not be forcibly imprisoned, as it were, within the depths of the personality of the pianist, but must be capable of being spontaneously released into the external world through the act of playing. And it seemed to me there were comparatively few pianists who were capable of this free, spontaneous release of the artistic personality.
Thus it came about that, during the ten years between the publication of my earlier book and that of my last publication : “Piano Technique: A Practical Method” (Bosworth) (a period in which I was occupied, as far as technique was concerned, with learning to translate the theoretical knowledge I had acquired into a detailed and practical Method of technical instruction) I became more and more concerned with the psychological background of the pianistic art. I had already for many years looked on music and its expression not as something to be divorced from life and the total personality of the musician, not as something to be considered in a vacuum, so to speak, but merely as one of the many means available to Man for the expression, in an indirect, sublimated way, of his feelings and emotions. And gradually the conclusion was forced on me by my experiences as a pianist and teacher that, even given all the musical feelings and all the technical equipment in the world, even given also all the conscious will and desire to utilise them, there could still be in operation factors capable of preventing the full and proper expression of the pianist’s musical power, factors which could and did hamper the fullest expression through piano playing of those emotional drives which are the motive forces which make people want to become pianists. Thus, for example, most of my students were convinced that they could always play more musically to themselves than they could to me, or to their friends, or on the concert platform. I had no reasons to disbelieve them. For I was by no means unaware in my own playing of this inhibition of artistic feeling under concert conditions.
One conclusion now seemed to be inescapable. Since this inhibiting factor (irrespective of the particular symptom by which its presence was made manifest) could be neither a technical nor a musical factor the difficulties which it created were not capable of solution by any purely technical or musical method of approach. Nor, indeed, did more practice or more knowledge of technical processes, more experience of life or of the concert platform, the exertion of greater will-power and application seem to offer any satisfactory means of coping with the problem. I became convinced in the end that what I now call the “extra-pianistic” problems of piano playing are the result of some kind of “maladjustment” of the total personality. I saw this maladjustment as something which displays itself in symptoms which are connected only more or less accidentally with the act of piano playing, as a maladjustment in many cases noticeable in connection with other activities and also in the form of general characterological traits and dispositions.
I approached the solution of the extra-pianistic problems connected with my own piano playing by way of psycho-analysis. I have not the space to say anything here of any significance about this particular experience. Some of my views on the relation between psycho-analysis and piano playing and piano teaching constitute, however, the sole matter of the twenty-fourth chapter of that recent book of mine to which I have referred. I would say now only that what I have been able personally to acquire by way of psycho-analysis has satisfactorily solved my own extra-pianist problems and has, in some cases, enabled me to solve, at least partially, some of the problems of a similar kind which I have encountered in teaching. And there I must leave the matter. I would, however, add that I am now convinced that the psychological method of approach is actually capable of solving such problems as memory difficulties and fears, concert and examination “nerves”, feelings of pianistic inadequacy and inferiority, and so on, in probably three cases out of four. The modern technique of psycho-therapy is also, to my certain knowledge, capable of transforming an apparent lack of any power to express any deep musical feeling into an ability to play with considerable artistic sensitivity.
Now you must not imagine from all this that I think that every student of the piano ought to be psycho-analysed. Heaven forbid! On the contrary I think that such an analysis should be undertaken only as a last resort. That psycho-analysis can bring about a development and a re-orientation of inestimable value in the private and professional life of a pianist I have had ample evidence. A full psycho-analysis is, however, not unlike a major operation, an experience which one avoids unless the facts of the case make it a matter of real urgency. And this will depend on the individual, what he is, what he wants to be and what it appears objectively that he might be able to become.
However, the value to the student of an adequate knowledge of psychology in general and psycho-analysis in particular on the part of the teacher is two-fold. In the first place the teacher’s knowledge of general academic psychology will enable him greatly to supplement the practical value of any technical or musical suggestions he may make. For he will be able to give his students a knowledge of the learning process as a whole. He will thus be able to help them to plan their practice in order that even short periods of time can be used to full advantage. In the second place any knowledge the teacher may have of psycho-analysis will help him materially in his ability to estimate the real potentialities of each of his students. Such a knowledge will also help him in making a correct differential diagnosis as between technical, artistic and personality difficulties. In cases of extreme difficulty he will be able to help his students by recommending the most appropriate kind of psychologist. Even a little knowledge of general psychology and psycho-analysis will, moreover, help the teacher to achieve that kind of understanding of the individual needs of each of his students, which, whether the teacher possesses it intuitively or whether he has come to possess it by way of knowledge consciously acquired, is one of the most important factors in all successful teaching.
The idea with which I began this excursion has now, at last, developed into a practical Method of teaching and playing. And with this development has come nearly the end of my story ; the story of the way in which an idea that most pianists were probably more musical than their playing would suggest led me to search for a means whereby this more musical playing could be actually achieved; the story of the search itself, first by way of eminent teachers and afterwards through independent scientific investigation ; the story of the way in which the idea that it ought to be possible to discover one right method and one only for the production of any one artistic result led to the formulation of a theoretical and practical Method which seems to fulfil this demand within the limits of present-day knowledge. It remains for me now to say what I claim that this Method can do and what it cannot.
In the first place, the application of the Method certainly cannot enable every student to become a great or even a good pianist. Neither can it necessarily enable the student of lesser natural aptitude to surpass the one of greater inherent talent. Indeed, all that I claim for my Method is that it is likely to help every student, irrespective of his age, temperament or potentialities, to play better than he would if he were taught by no method at all, or by a method which is seriously incomplete or inaccurate from the scientific, factual point of view. I am glad that I do not now, in 1947, have to prove myself that all the popular methods of both the remote and the immediate past are factually and scientifically inaccurate. For this has been amply proved in recent years by many eminent musicians and scientists. Indeed, Arnold Schultz has eloquently argued in a recent book “The Riddle of the Pianist’s Finger,”(University of Chicago and Cambridge University Press, 1936) that if any of the students of Leschetizky, Breithaupt or Matthay had actually been able to put into operation the physiological principles advocated by their teachers, none of them would have been able to play the piano at all! We must infer from this that successful students of these teachers have succeeded not because of but in spite of the technical theories by which they were taught. Such a manner of achieving results would appear, to put it mildly, an uneconomical proposition. Considerations of this kind do nothing, of course, to make my own theories, or the practical Method which has evolved from them, either intrinsically accurate, or, indeed, any more accurate than those of the past. I believe, however, that my method of approach to subject has at least saved them from those gross errors and wild theories which are unfortunately so characteristic of earlier methods of teaching.
In conclusion I want to say just a little about what I referred to at an earlier stage as my “philosophy” of pianoforte teaching. It is this. I believe that pianoforte teaching ought to encourage the development of the widely different artistic personalities of every individual student by means of what I call a “standardised” technique. The necessity for a philosophy of this kind would seem inevitably to be dictated real facts of the situation. Thus, in the first place, we have seen that the necessity for a “standardised” technique arises logically and inevitably from the use of a “standardised” body in the manipulation of a “standardised” instrument, from the fact that normal human physiology is largely standardised and that the essential mechanics of the piano are entirely so. On the other side of the picture we have to realise that our present civilisation not only welcomes but, indeed, demands artistic “individuality” from the pianist, it demands that the pianist should interpret any particular work not in a standardised fashion but differently according to his own individual personality. Our civilisation, moreover, sets the stamp of its approval on very wide differences of interpretations. Thus any kind of artistic standardisation, even were it indeed psychologically possible (which of course it is not) could never gain for the pianist that measure of social approbation which is always one of the deep underlying motives for serious pianoforte playing.
Any good Method of pianoforte teaching must therefore aim at the encouragement of artistic individuality. I like to believe myself that my own Method does this. For it has for 17 many years now seemed to me that one of the most damning statements that can be made about any teacher is that it is possible to recognise his students by the kind of interpretations they give! Thus, because this is the last thing I ever want to be said with any justification of my own teaching, it seems to me that both consciously and unconsciously I shall try to prevent it from happening. And of course, where artistic matters are concerned, it is the fundamental attitude of the teacher (and particularly his unconscious attitude, his unconscious motives for choosing teaching as a profession) and not the actual details of his teaching methods which determines whether his students are treated by him as individuals in their own right or as replicas or “extensions” of himself. Their success or failure as artistic entities will, in other words, depend not so much on what the teacher teaches as on whether unconsciously he regards them as individuals to be helped by him according to their individual needs and his individual powers, or whether unconsciously he looks upon them as a I do not think means to the greater glorification of himself. That any teacher can fail to hope that his students will do him credit. Nor do I think it would be desirable that he should. I think only that it is vital that the needs for self-glorification or self-justification shall not be his primary unconscious motive for teaching and that he should be consciously aware of his normal human weaknesses in this direction.
Finally, it is an essential part of my philosophy of piano teaching that the teacher must love and enjoy the work he does. For otherwise it seems to me that he is incapable of teaching anything satisfactorily to anyone.