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Building a healthy technique: Ideas from Matthay

The piano as we know it reached its full bloom in the late nineteenth century. Inventors have tinkered with the design in years since with varying degrees of success, but the acoustical grand piano we play today is largely the same piano on which the students of Liszt performed.

Would it then be fair to say that piano technique, too, has not developed since that time? That's a harder question. We can listen to historical recordings and hear that each of Liszt's students had a marvelous technique in every sense of the word. In that sense, no improvement would be needed.

I would argue, though, that rethinking piano technique should be an ongoing process. Our lifestyle and particularly the way we use our bodies has changed a lot in the last 100 years. We sit at keyboards (piano, of course, but also computer and video) for many hours a day. Learning the principles of pain-free, efficient movement is essential.

In this issue we revisit the ideas on piano technique of Tobias Matthay, the eminent British pedagogue of the first half of the twentieth century. Terry McRoberts has done an outstanding job of clarifying Matthay's basic ideas, which can work in your studio tomorrow. I know. They worked in mine! 

Healthy technique for every student

Terry McRoberts

by Terry McRoberts

The technical ideas of Tobias Matthay (1858-1945) are as relevant today as they were in Matthay's time, as they allow the pianist to play with physical ease, beauty of tone, and a wide range of musical expression. Matthay taught piano in England in the first half of the twentieth century, and his many famous students included Dame Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon, and Maura Lympany. Matthay's influence was established in this country through the playing of his students, the teaching of the American students who studied with him during the summers between the two world wars, and his books about piano playing. In the twenty-first century the principles of his teaching continue to be disseminated through his books, the teaching of teachers who have studied in the Matthay tradition, and the recordings of his pupils. 

Matthay had no standard method that he prescribed for every student. Since he taught individual students according to their needs, he did not a lways cover the same material with each student. He did, however, have general principles, based upon how both the human body and piano mechanism works, that could be applied to piano play- ing at all levels. The attention to the functioning of both the performer and the instrument led to the development of sound technical principles.

These principles are espoused by the American Matthay Association for Piano, which is an organization devoted to the dissemination of the teachings ofMatthay.The association holds a yearly festival in June, where Matthay principles are discussed and illustrated. The webpage of the association, located at, includes a list- ing of the complete works of Matthay, a history of the association, and information about the yearly festi vals.

Matthay's writing 

Matthay's books on piano playing include TheAct ofTouch, Relaxation Studies, The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique, and Musical Interpretation. Since The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique (1932) was written after The Act of Touch (1903), it is considered to be the more definitive of the two works by people within the Matthay tradition.

Some readers consider Matthay's writing style to be difficult to read, but it is representative of its time, and thus less direct than today's style of writing. Comprehension of The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique can be enhanced by reading the sections in reverse order. One should start with the Epitome, then read Additional Notes, and conclude with the Digest. This order of reading presents the material in its most direct form first with more detailed explanations following. While some of the books are out of print, others are available in reprint editions, and all are accessible through used book dealers and interlibrary loan.

Matthay taught that everything the pianist does should be for the purpose of producing the sound he has pre-heard in his head, as discussed in Musical Interpretation. Movements should be done in ways that can be performed repetitively, as the music demands, without causing harm to the play- ing mechanism. Physical actions should take into account the mechanical realities of the piano, so that the pianist works with the piano, rather than at or against it. In other words, the piano key should be an extension of the playing mechanism. 

Tobia Matthay. Photo courtesy of the American Matthay Associations for Piano.

Definition of technique

Technique is the physical ability to express the musical ideas conceived in the mind, and it should always be directed towards musical purposes. Practice is not just repetition, since it is for the purpose of exploring the music and learning the sounds of it more thoroughly. It is also to learn the sequence of physical movements necessary to produce the desired sound. In order to do this the pianist must be able to play notes at the desired point in time with the desired volume, to sustain notes for the desired duration, to play notes of differing volumes simultaneously, to play as quickly as the music demands, to comfortably hold some notes while other notes are being played, and to play quietly with presence.

The playing of the key and the act of moving to the key should be two different actions. The finger should move to the key while remaining flexible and then begin the playing motion. If this procedure is followed, the pianist can feel and accommodate the resistance of the key. When the pianist can feel the resistance of the key, he is able to give the key what it needs to pro- duce the desired sound. Lifting the finger in the playing motion takes away the finger's contact with the key, and that contact is vital to the process of accommodating the needs of the key.

The three technical points that will be the primary focus of the rest of this article are the use of arm weight to produce a full tone; playing to the point of sound with the cessation of expenditure of energy once the tone is produced; and forearm rotation. Freedom Technique, Boo!? 1 by Joan Last (Oxford University Press) contains exercises that can be used to develop technique within the Matthay tradition. I use this volume with every student regardless of age or level of

pianism, so that we can develop a com- mon terminology for discussing the actions used in playing the piano. Four examples from Freedom Technique, Bool< 1 will help to illustrate how these aspects of technique can be taught to students of any age. While this book provides exercises for both hands, only exercises for the right hand are used for illustration in this article. 

Arm weight 

What is arm weight and how should the pianist use it? To discover the sensation of arm weight the pianist should rest his right arm upon the left arm. He should then allow the left arm to act as a scale to weigh the right arm. Once this sensation has been felt, he should release the weight of the right arm. The left arm will automatically drop with this amount of weight released upon it. (He needs to ensure that the right arm releases the weight, and does not simply force the left arm down with exertion.) Once the pianist experiences the sensation of arm weight, he can use the weight of the arm to go through the turn-on spot of the key to produce a tone at the piano.

Example 1: Exercise 3a from Freedom Technique, Book 1

The student will release the weight of the arm into the key to produce the sound for each dyad. The teacher needs to check the student's arm when moving the arm up and down as instructed to make sure that the student has ceased the downward exertion of energy. (See Example 1.) 

Example 1

Release of weight 

After the pianist learns how to play with arm weight, he must learn how to release the weight. T he pianist should strive towards playing each note at the exact point in time he desires, and all motions and exertion should go towards this end. Note that exertion does not always includ emotion. Most unnecessary movements hinder the playing action. Each key on the piano has a place where the sound begins, which can be called the point of sound or turn-on spot. Since this place is not at the bottom of the key, one should aim only to the point of sound. Going to the key bed and continuing to exert energy there serves no useful purpose. Any motion or energy expended after the point of sound is unnecessary, and this is detrimental to comfort in playing and speed. A continued downward exertion diminishes the pianist's ability to choose the tone for the next note. Once the sound is produced, the pianist can have no effect on it other than the time of its release. Therefore, no exertion is needed to continue the tone once it is started. The term key-bedding originated with Matthay, and means apply- ing impulse too late during the key descent to affect the tone.

Example 2: Exercise 15a from Freedom Technique, Book 1, measures 1-2

The student will need to cease the downward exertion upon playing the dyad on count one, so that he can freely play the E on count three. (See Example 2.) 

Example 2

Forearm rotation 

Tobias Matthay. Photo Courtesy of the American Matthay Association for Piano.

What is forearm rotation, and how can it be used effectively in piano playing? When one is walking normally, his thumb is facing in the direction he is walking. Bending the elbow to a ninety-degree angle will place the thumb at the top of the hand. Thus, to get the hand into position to play the piano, the pianist must rotate the hand in the direction of the thumb. This action is similar to that of opening a doorknob. Every note played will have either physical rotation or an invisible rotational adjustment. Rotations may be repeated in the same direction or reversed.

Most of the rotation used at the piano is invisible. Invisible rotation is an exertion of energy in a direction without any visible movement in that direction. The use of an invisible rotation can help the hand and arm to stay in balance. Using more visible rotation in slow passages can assist in keep- ing the playing mechanism loose, but the use of too much physical rotation in fast passages can be a hindrance to speed. However, in the learning process, the rotation should be visible, so that the student learns the appropriate physical sensations.

Example 3: Exercise la from Freedom Technique, Book 1

The student will rotate the wrist for the playing of each note. In measure 1 the rotation will be left, right, left, right, left, right, and left. (See Example 3.)

Example 4: Exercise 8a from Freedom Technique, Book 1, measures 1-4

When playing a scalar passage, the rotation must be re-aimed. The act of re-aiming involves making an invisible rotation in the opposite direction of the previous rotation, so that two successive rotations can be made in the same direction. The rotation used will be left, right re-aim, right re-aim, right re-aim, right, left re-aim, left re-aim, left re- aim, left, right re-aim, and right. (See Example 4.)

Finger technique is dependent upon the rest of the playing mechanism, and understanding the rotational element can solve most fingerwork problems. If a passage is going badly, the pianist should play slowly and check the rotational adjustments. Proper usage of rotation alleviates the idea of weak fingers. One should note that when a finger rotates over the thumb, the rotation is outward. Passages that move in contrary motion use the same rotation, while pas- sages moving in parallel motion use opposite rotations. Thus, it is easier for the pianist physically to play passages in contrary motion than in parallel motion.

Principals for beginning students

While much of this article has discussed technical matters in very direct and precise ways, this technical approach can be used from the first lessons, because these principles can be stated simply. In fact, the simplest and most direct discussions of these principles are the easiest for any pianist to understand. The late Helen Parker Ford studied with Matthay with the express purpose of learning how to teach his principles to young children, and she developed a system for starting young students with these principles.

The arm muscles are trained first, since they are needed to provide energy and weight. At the beginning the student plays on the side of the fists, in some pre-reading pieces. The student is taught how to locate the "turn-on" spot of the key using a pencil and learns that releasing the tone immediately after playing it produces a staccato sound. Going through the turn-on spot quickly produces a loud sound, while going through the turn-on spot slowly creates a soft sound. Legato is taught after staccato is mastered, and the hand eventually rotates to play. Once the fist has learned how to support and release arm weight, the fingers will be able to handle it as well. Ford presented all of these concepts in From Fists to Fingers, which was edited by Marie Hasse and Carl Angelo, and is available through the webpage of the American Matthay Association for Piano.

It is hoped that this article elucidated some of the basic technical principles of Tobias Matthay. The use of these principles can assist the pianist in playing healthfully and musically. As Matthay would say, "Enjoy the music." 


Matthay, T. (1903). The act of touch in all its diversity; an ana lysis and synthesis of pianoforte tone-production. London: Long- mans, Green and Co. 2001 reprint available through Library Reprints, Inc.

Matthay, T. (1913). Musical interpretation, its laws and principles, and their application in teaching and performing. Boston: The Boston Music Co. (G. Schirmer, Inc.). 1970 reprint available through Greenwood Press.

Matthay, T. (1911). Relaxation Studies in the Muscular Discriminations Required for Touch, Agility and Expression in Pianoforte Playing. London: Bosworth.

Matthay, T. (1932). The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique, Being a Digest of the Author's Technical Teachings Up to Date. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Example 3
Example 4

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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