2012 MTNA Conference – Monday Morning – Musicality & Technique: Friends or Foes with Barbara Lister-Sink

Subtitled, “The Relationship Between Healthful Technique & Compelling Artistry” Barbara Lister-Sink’s workshop promised to be insightful to the large collection of teachers gathered to participate in the session.


Barbara’s long journey into healthful playing began with a personal injury. First and foremost, she is a performer and a musician. But she is into the long line – taking the time to be patient with other injured players, be kind to them, help them explore their unique history, and get back into playing.

Today, she will be talking about her favorite thing – music-making. Compelling music-making. She opened with a music video depicting Lola Astanova at the piano playing the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The next clip featured Lang Lang at the piano performing Liszt to wild cheers on a stage full of flashing lights and atmospheric smoke. The last clip was Artur Rubinstein from his New York apartment playing the Prelude in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28, no. 8. She pointed out that his audience wasn’t even watching him.

Barbara loves performing art. She is a visual artist herself, and loves synthesizing the two. In our society, the eye is the dominant sense, with the ear taking a back seat. In the old radio shows you actually had to listen and use your imagination to create the visual for yourself.

Her teacher used to say, “Put your ears out on stalks so you can hear everything that’s going on.” She sat beside Barbara and they started going through the entire program. Every time she suspected that Barbara lost focus and wasn’t listening. Barbara couldn’t turn her ears on continually for a long time. Eventually, she understood and was able to hear the long line and get rid of false accents. Her teacher was only interested in what came out of the piano, not what was meant to come out.

There are a lot of things that we can look back to even if we aim to be teachers of the 21st century. A lot of it has to do with attention. What does this have to do with technique? It is a highly controversial topic. There are many views, but there are still many people who suffer debilitating injuries.

She recommended Famous Pianists and Their Technique as a fabulous book. She shared several quotes in which people attempt to define technique.

“Music is technique. It is the only aspect of music we can control…”

Technique means the power of expressing oneself musically.” Tobias Matthay

She tells all of her students, “You can be free as a bird, but dull as a brick. If you cannot draw people in with the musicality of the music, they won’t care at all about your technique.”

Being technically informed and musical are not incompatible. There are fears that if we really understand what we’re doing from a bio-mechanical point of view that it will somehow void our artistry. She read quotes that espouse this perspective:

“Piano playing will never be a science. If it was, it would cease to be an art.”

Barbara believes that it need not be either/or, but both.

She had audience members raise their hands to indicate if they have had playing-related injuries. About 25% of the audience raised their hands. Are technique and musicality foes? It depends on the technique.

Piano playing has become the darling of neuroscience.

Several more quotes highlighting the incredibly demanding nature of developing advanced piano playing skills.

Interestingly, one statistic revealed that women are two times as likely to suffer from playing related injuries as men.

“A well-coordinated technique leads to a more efficient use of the brain. Playing more efficiently and playing without distracting excess tension frees up “cortical real estate” for listening and making music.”

Barbara showed photos of various pianists and discussed their technical qualities. She had audience members slide forward in their seats, become aware of their posture, balance their heads on their bodies, release shoulders, breathe easily, torso balanced on sitting bones, legs falling, and feet supported by the floor. Arms should hang freely from the shoulders. All of this was done with closed eyes. “You are now using your kinesthetic sense, the starting place for all of this.” Maintaining kinesthetic awareness is critical when playing.

Healthful technique operates in harmony with the laws of nature.

[A list of how healthful technique can enhance musicality.]

“The brain has more room to think about real music making when it doesn’t have to deal so much with the mechanics…” – Sam, one of Barbara’s students

A collection of student performance video clips illustrated the harmony of healthful technique and artistic playing. Barbara pointed out the common technical elements in each student: balanced on sitting bones, free neck, and continuous listening. Another observation is that the rhythm is embodied in the body. The performer feels the rhythm in their arm, though not in a floppy way. She described the tone as “ear candy – it’s so delicious how that tone falls on the ear.”

Barbara concluded the session with a performance of several bits of pieces demonstrating the techniques she’s been discussing:

Her closing comment: With this, every piano becomes your friend. It’s like an arranged marriage. You learn to love each other and make music together.

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