Fundamentals of Piano Practice

I have had a few “comments” recently that were flagged as possible SPAM. On investigation they turned out to be other piano related sites, and I was wondering why the site owners had chosen to use a devious way of getting their URL onto my Blog, when they could simply have eMailed me and asked for a link.

When I checked out the sites it appeared that they were not entirely serious about helping people improve their playing, but were more interested in making money. But there was something else that worried me. Both sites linked to “Fundamentals of Piano Practice” and they both praised it highly. There is no way I could endorse any site that thinks this is a worthwhile source for anyone that is learning the piano.

For anyone that does not know already. “Fundamentals of Piano Practice” (FOPP for short) is a book by Chuan C Chuang that was first published as a PDF for free download, but is now available in HTML and as a printed book for purchase. It has gained wide acceptance on the Internet. I do not generally like to indulge in destructive criticism, but I feel very strongly that this book is not only misguided and badly wrong in many ways, but also that it is dangerous to anyone trying to learn piano without the help of a good teacher, and far from speeding up progress, will saddle them with bad habits and misconceptions that could take months or years to overcome.

There is so much wrong with this book that it is difficult to know where to start. Anyhow here, with a few improvements and corrections, is the review that I wrote for Amazon:

“This is really a very poor book. It pains me to say it because the author is obviously well intentioned and is probably a very nice man. It is clearly the result of a lot of effort, and you do not even have to pay for it (unless you want a nicely printed and bound copy) as it is available to download or to read on-line. But I simply cannot recommend it. In fact I would recommend any beginner or inexperienced pianist to stay well away.

The problem is not with the terrible layout, the lack of illustrations, the dense style, the profusion of new acronymns, the anecdotal evidence masquerading as science, the overblown claims, the simplistic deconstruction of how the great composers developed their masterpieces, the presentation of well-known techniques as if they were original, or the large number of distracting diversions from the subject at hand.

Nor does it bother me that Mr. Chang is neither an advanced pianist nor a practicing piano teacher. I have no time for reviewers who dismiss someone because of their education, profession, previous specialism, or number of years of experience. They should be judged on the work itself. As for my own credentials I have been playing since childhood and have studied with some fine concert pianists as well as with career teachers. I hold a performance diploma and a piano teaching qualification, and am also a qualified schoolteacher with music as my specialism. I play several recitals each year (some of them paid!) and I have a handful of private students.

There is plenty of good advice and accurate information in this book. The trouble is that is is mixed with large doses of wild speculation, utter nonsense, and irrelevance. The poor beginner/improver will struggle to decide which is which, while the advanced student who can recognise the good stuff and laugh at the rest already knows more than the author!

As I say I wanted to be charitable, but two things clinched my decision to write a negative review:

1. Nearly a third of the book is devoted to tuning a piano. It is not that this has no place in a book that is supposed to be about PIano Practice. It is just not a very good idea for an untrained person to mess about with the insides of a piano. It might be acceptable, even necessary, in an emergency, for a pianist to touch up the tuning of one or two strings that are grossly flat, so as to be able to give a performance. [My tuner tells me even that is not a good idea]

But for a pianist to attempt to tune a piano from the advice in this book is just a recipe for ruining the instrument, and landing yourself with a large bill from the piano technician that you bring in to fix it. Tuning, voicing and regulating a piano are very skilful jobs that take years of study and practice to master, ideally through an apprenticeship. There is no end of tricks of the trade that are vital, but are best learned by seeing them done by an expert.  And there is a more serious risk, of breaking a string and injuring yourself.  Those strings are under enormous tension and whip through the air with great force when they break.  You could also injure yourself, and maybe seriously.

2. The related web site has a video that purports to demonstrate the difference between playing a scale thumb-under and thumb-over. Leaving aside the fact that both techniques are necessary, are described by pianists writing long before FOPP was published, and have probably been around since the time of Clementi if not longer (Thumb-under for slow passages, “Thumb-over” the rest of the time), the demonstration is awful. I seen plenty of  terrible scale playing in my time – but is usually by an inexperienced pianist. I did not expect to see playing so bad in a video that is supposed to be demonstrating the right way to do it.

I admit that I am prejudiced against this book because of the arrogance and self-congratulatory tone of the author, and his cavalier dismissal of the fine instructional material that already existed before FOPP. A little humility goes a long way to earning the reader’s confidence and co-operation.

The reality is that there is a good book buried in there, but it needs an uncompromising editor to bring it out. First the irrelevant sections on piano-tuning and scientific method need to be removed, followed by the cringeworthy speculations about how the mind works, the pseudo-scientific use of mathematics and the simplistic account of the methods by which Mozart and others composed. After that all the quoted accolades that are nothing but sycophantic praise can go. One or two genuinely independent recommendations are enough.

After that lets be shot of the ridiculous overblown claims: that this is the first book about practice methods, that everyone else uses the inferior “intuitive” method, and that you will learn up to 1000x faster, amongst others.

Next the good and sensible material should be sifted from the remaining nonsense. If some of the new terminology and acronyms could be removed along with it that would also help. Finally more emphasis on understanding what the music means would be welcome, rather than such a strong focus on the mechanics of making the movements .

With a bit of work on making what as left as clear and easily understood as possible we’d have a much slimmer, but much more correct and more useful volume.

If you are seriously interested in improving your piano playing then I can recommend plenty of far better books. Here are a few of the best:

Principles of Piano Technique and Interpretation – Kendall Taylor
The Pianist’s Problems – W S Newman
With Your Own Two Hands – Seymour Bernstein
From the Pianists Workbench – Boris Berman
The Art of Piano Playing – George Kochevitsky

And for insights into the diversity of routes by which great pianists got that way and stay that way:

Pianists at Play – Dean Elder
Great Pianists Speak For Themsleves – Elyse Mach
Great Contemporary Pianists Speak For Themsleves – Elyse Mach


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