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Glenn Gould Makes Music: Glory and Plight of a Concert Pianist

by Helen Mesaros, M.D.

Chapter V of Psychobiography of a Virtuoso

"The sound is all that matters...."
- Mitsuko Uchida

The Psychology of Gould's Piano Technique

In his pre-fame period, between the ages of 20 and 22, Gould was spending more time at the cottage on Lake Simcoe, which he turned into his music studio. By staying there for weeks on end, he not only had the ideal tranquillity needed for practicing and studying music in meticulous depth, but he was able to avoid tension and patronizing situations at home. From his early teens on, Gould developed a method of studying music by listening to the recording of a certain music piece; then learning the score of the same away from the piano; practicing long hours at the keyboard; trying various approaches; and, finally, coming up with his own concept of interpretation. He then taped his different renditions of a learned music work on a tape recorder. By comparative listening of music recorded by other great pianists and his own taped version, Gould was able to produce a range of interpretations, varying from the one exactly to the letter of the composer's wishes, to others that he modified with respect to the rhythm, dynamics, form, etc. Most other distinguished concert pianists tend to adhere to the written text and tend to deliver one final version of a music piece without venturing into experiments. Gould clearly differed from the main-stream of his colleagues in many ways, such as, by studying music scores first away from the piano and by changing the concept in his mind. All of these differences accounted for his innovative approach. Only after this "mental" experience of music was Gould able to phase into the "physical" expression of a composition through his finger work.

Gould brought to the cottage a wealth of his cumulative music knowledge he had learned from Guerrero, as well as his own creative music ideas. In fact, he adopted much of his teacher's approaches to music and incorporated them into his own music technique and philosophy. The incorporation is an unconscious mechanism which differs from conscious imitation. We propose that Gould did not merely imitate Guerrero's approach to piano music but identified with it and incorporated its aspects into his own music-making. In his adult life, Gould purported that he was self-taught. This was partially true, as he offered an originality of music interpretation. The fact that he learned from Guerrero, which he denied, was also true. Guerrero literally modelled for Glenn by playing parts of music in front of him and discussing the pros and cons of certain techniques. Also, Glenn heard Guerrero play in concerts in person at the Conservatory and at Toronto's Hart House. Wanting it or not, Guerrero's distinct music sound was etched in Glenn's mind and became amalgamated with his own. Unconsciously, Glenn's mind acted as a mixer to incorporate Guerrero's music and his own original rendition which was often diametrically opposite. Even when Gould's music differed from Guerrero's, it was still related to it. Over the years, Guerrero earned credit by giving to his student a universal and unbiased cross-sectional training through the five centuries of piano music literature. However, whichever music piece Gould learned, he put on it his own finishing touch.

In the world of athletics, competitors have to leave their coaches behind and pursue and attain the goal alone. Likewise, sooner or later, a trained pianist will have to walk on the stage by himself/herself and sit at that grand instrument without a whisper of support or an iota of coaching by his mentor. A pianist, indeed, is a special breed who more often than any other instrumentalist is supposed to sit at the center of a spacious stage and perform alone. Even more, he has to exhibit and "sell" his music assets and entertain his spectators for hours on end. It is all like a long solo drama where expectations are high, nerves are tense, and mistakes are not tolerated.

In 1952, at the age of 19, for better or worse, Gould decided it was time for him to stop formal music lessons with Guerrero. Mrs. Gould vigorously disagreed, which Glenn took as a lack of empathy and trust in his capabilities. Guerrero opposed too. By not formally releasing his student from didactic classes, the teacher implicitly gave his opinion that Gould was not ready. In reality, Guerrero was not ready to let go of Gould, thinking that his job was not quite finished; the job being to rid Glenn of his extraneous piano behaviours. Guerrero, who successfully taught Glenn music, was powerless to change his piano mannerisms. The ambitious teacher fell short of completing the task of making Gould into a "normal" virtuoso. Distinguished music pedagogue, William Newman, says:

... Working himself out of a job,...the teacher should help the student meet his pianistic challenges until eventually the student makes himself independent of formal teaching (1984, p.95).

In Gould's case neither his mother, as his first piano teacher, nor Guerrero felt ready to let go of him. In fact, they did not help Glenn be independent but unconsciously fostered his dependence and "misbehaviour". Glenn was left totally alone in his decision to break away from Guerrero. From the scholastic point of view, one can argue whether Glenn's decision to stop music lessons with Guerrero was timely or untimely. From the psychological growth point of view, Glenn's attempt to separate and individuate from his dominant teacher appeared to be necessary. As Gould put it himself:

Our outlooks on music were diametrically opposed. He was a 'heart' man and I wanted to be a 'head' kid. Besides, nine years is long enough for anyone to be a student of the same teacher. I decided it was time for me to set out on my own snowshoes, and I developed an insufferable amount of self-confidence, which has never left me.

Leaving Guerrero also meant pursuing on a large scale and all on his own the performing music career for which he was trained. His independent life as a concert pianist began. Every time Gould ventured to do a concert, he took the risk of walking into a hornet's nest. Standing ovations, fame, publicity, requests for autographs and interviews, new offers, correspondence, etc. were all stimulating for his self-image but too challenging for his solitary disposition. Another aspect of the hornet's nest was the "buzzing" feedback of the music critics, who hailed the quality of Gould's music artistry but disapproved of his extraneous piano-related behaviours. Gould played into their annoyance by his tenacious habit of sitting low at the piano, by humming and singing audibly and by conducting with whichever hand was free. While Gould's platform mannerisms, in the narrow sense, were not a part of his piano technique, they helped him allay his performance anxiety so that he could tolerate playing before an audience.

There were numerous attempts by music scholars and veteran critics to analyze and describe Gould's way of playing the piano, particularly his hand position and his method of sitting. According to W. Newman, there are "four main playing mechanisms", that is, "playing by the finger working from the knuckle at its base, or the hand from the wrist, or the forearm from the elbow, or the upper arm from the shoulder". Much is written on the subject of the proper use of the piano chair. "It is best to sit only on the front half of the bench; covering the whole bench induces slumping. A final comment of interest on the subject of the piano chair is: "Sitting too low, which is perhaps the worst of two evils, constrains the finger action by raising the wrists and knuckles; sitting too high constrains the hand action by lowering the wrists and elbows" (W. Newman, 1988, p.40-41).

Gould completely defied the above tenets of piano playing. Over a decade of his most intense formative years in music training, he developed a physically impossible piano technique. Not only did he sit lower at the piano, which is said to be the worst of two evils; not only did he slump, which is deemed unacceptable; but he used a chair with a back support instead of the conventional adjustable piano bench. Contrary to the expected failure of this type of sitting position, Gould developed and perfected a pure finger technique. The other principal features of Gould's art of pianism are high velocity, clear finger separation and minimal use of the pedals.

Canadian composer and music scholar, John Beckwith, and pianist, William Aide, both former students of Guerrero, made a comparative description of their teacher's method of playing, on one side, and Gould's piano technique on another. Beckwith agrees that Gould was a genius in possession of a "natural technique". However, having been in music training with Guerrero for nine years, Gould adopted two main features of his teacher's keyboard method:

  1. a pure finger-technique as opposed to a "weight technique";
  2. finger-tapping.

The "pure finger technique" means that the main action of playing is executed by the fingers with less employment of the hands, elbows and trunk. This technique was also characterized by finger separation, quick non-legato touch or so-called, playing in a detaché style. When practicing, Gould applied finger tapping, where the fingers of one hand are tapped by the non-playing hand. William Aide gave us this vivid description:

The left hand taps the fingers successively to the bottom of the keys. The right-hand fingers are boneless; they reflex from the keybed and return to their original position on the surface of the keys. The left hand should tap near the tips of the right-hand fingers, either on the fingernails or at the first joint. The motion of the tapping should be as fast as possible. The second stage of this regimen is to play the notes with a quick staccato motion, one finger at a time, from the surface of the key, quick to the surface of the keybed and back to the surface of the key. This is slow practice, each note being separated by about two seconds of silence (The Idler, No.38, p.59).

Gould doggedly persevered at the piano until he polished this painstaking method of finger tapping. It helped that he enjoyed hearing the finished product which made the tedious process of practicing worthwhile.

Though Gould applied both hands at the keyboard expertly, the power and agility of his left hand was special, and this hand was used most adroitly. Unlike the majority of great pianists in the past two centuries, Gould was left-handed, but at the piano he was ambidextrous. From the technical point of view, this is the most desirous gift a pianist could possess - the superior ability and equal control of both hands. In exceptionally difficult passages for the right hand, Gould used his adept left hand to execute them, turning them into cross passages. Gould's left-handedness was not hereditary. It is known that in the right-handed population the neurocentres of creative ability are, for the most part, stored in the right brain hemisphere; whereas the dominant motor, language and thinking functions are represented in the left side of the brain. By this token, Gould's brain functions would have been in reverse. However, since his left-handedness seems to have been acquired rather than hereditary, it is probable that both his creative and motor abilities were developed on both sides of the brain. It appears that Gould had the best of two worlds, which in part accounts for his giftedness. As a left-handed, or even better, an ambidextrous pianist, Gould could be compared to Franz Liszt and Joseph Hofmann, whose superior use of both hands accounted for the full expression of their virtuosity and genius at the piano. It is interesting that each of these two men stood out in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively as the foremost pianists of the world. Gould's left-handedness is to be credited for his mastery of counterpoint, which puts much emphasis on the left hand. Even his professed dislike of some of Mozart's music had to do with this subject. Once Gould stated with a tinge of annoyance: "I mentioned to my teacher that I could not understand why Mozart would ignore so many obvious canonic opportunities for the left hand". He obviously felt that in interpreting Mozart's music his left hand felt neglected and not as busy as he would have liked it to be.

While Gould's left-handedness was neuro-biologically determined, his performance mannerisms were more a function of his psychological development. Often music scholars and critics tended to ridicule Gould's piano mannerisms and consider them as attention-seeking devices. Toronto pianist, Anton Kuerti (in a personal communication, 1990), thinks of it as affectation, believing that Gould was able to give them up if he so wanted. This topic will be explored later, but here it is worth stating that we think of these behaviours as rituals, which are an obsessive and compulsive need to repeat in order to alleviate and control the unbearably high and uncomfortable performance anxiety. Every conscious effort to change and reduce those behaviours would, in fact, increase nervous tension and interfere with producing good and coherent music. Gould himself was perturbed by his piano mannerisms which is reflected in this pleading confession: "It's a terrible distraction. I would stop it if I could, but I can't. I would be like that centipede, I'd forget how to play the piano". This latter sentence confirms that he genuinely feared giving up his piano-related rituals at the risk of forgetting the music. In other words, Gould depended on his rituals, which served as a trade-off for his music performance. Mitsuko Uchida, one of the topmost pianist-interpreters of Mozart's music in the late 20th century, commenting on piano technique stated:

Purely technically speaking everybody has different metabolism, a different bone structure, different nervous system ... Some people think you have to curl fingers, some people think you have to stretch. Rubbish! ... The sound is all that matters, and so to make some sort of preconceived, moral premise about piano playing I am strongly against (Music Magazine, June/July 1989, p.20-21).

If the sound is all that matters, then any piano technique ending in excellent quality music sound ought to be deemed acceptable. By this model, Gould's critically acclaimed piano technique, which resulted in his critically acclaimed piano sound, is the only issue that matters. His extra-musical behaviours did not really avert or spoil the piano sound but rather served as little pacifiers to his uneasy, inner world. Realistically, his mannerisms were of no serious consequence to the music or to its listeners.

At times Gould was frisky and full of self-confidence at the piano, and at other times he approached it gingerly and with various degrees of anxiety and underlying tension. There were some instances at the piano when Gould seemed to be sedate, apathetic, almost paralysed looking. His attitude or mood did not just depend on the demands of the interpreted music but was more correlated with his inner psychology. When Gould was freer of anxiety, freer of fear of being criticized and disapproved of and when he felt more self-assured, he produced a finer quality of music performance. An example of that would be his memorable and completely successful concert tour in Russia. In this case, Gould was able to maintain a positive inner environment through the eight concerts while the audience was able to project an overwhelming positive regard for him and be perfectly receptive and grateful for his presence. The end result, Gould's music, was entirely enchanting and of the highest quality.

Gould had another innate talent that he developed to the fullest. He not only had excellent long-term memory for his previous mental acquisitions but also had a supreme haptic memory of his fingers. This haptic memory is facilitated by intensive and repetitive piano practice, during which both the mind and fingers remember the scores, fingering, sequences and other variables of a given music piece. In the end, the music that is memorized by the mind and by the fingers is played flawlessly by heart. Unlike some pianists who play from scores, or at least keep them on the piano in case of a momentary memory lapse, by rule Gould played from memory. He not only kept the music notes stored in his mind but often rehearsed measure by measure inside his mind without touching the piano. Only at the very end of learning a music piece would Gould sit at the piano, usually 2-4 weeks before a public performance and practice by using his hands. This was a specific faculty unique to him and regarded to be an innate endowment. Gould's memory capacity was legendary. Both his mental and finger memory made it possible for him to reproduce and play music literature many years after his last practice and performance of the same. A famous illustration of this statement would be an event that occurred in 1970, when the renown Italian pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, was unable to go through with his performance of Beethoven's Concerto No.5, Emperor, in Toronto. Gould was given a telephone call on Thursday evening. The problem was explained, and he was asked to substitute for Michelangeli the next morning, on Friday, when the Toronto Symphony and the conductor, Karel Ancerl, were scheduled to work with Michelangeli. Gould's answer was affirmative and good-spirited. In the space of the next few night hours, Gould rehearsed the Concerto he had not touched in four years. The program was televised and, subsequently, aired on September 12, 1970. To everyone's amazement, Gould played Beethoven's Concerto in front of the camera flawlessly and by heart.

Before concerts and recording sessions, Gould was in the habit of soaking his hands and wrists in hot water. Like a surgeon washing and scrubbing his hands before surgery, Gould carried out his task of hand-soaking with a compelling commitment. It is said that Guerrero condoned this routine of his special student, but it was really Gould who exalted it and then pursued it relentlessly to the end of his music career. Warm up exercises before a music performance are highly individualistic. Some great pianists practice the piano before their concert in order to improve finger motility, whereas others take a break and rest their hands on the day of a performance. Overt application of heat on one's hands is uncommon among top-ranking pianists, and there are only scattered examples of such a practice in the history of pianism. Sergei Rachmaninoff wore gloves and put his hands in an electrical muff to keep them warm and flexible before a performance. Those few who have chosen to apply heat usually behave as though it were their prerogative and private business, rather than to go about it as a public affair. Gould complained of having suffered stiffness in his fingers due to an ailment called "fibrositis", which he believed was relieved after hand-soaking in hot water, allowing him to "play with newborn fingers". Instead of keeping it a personal affair, both Gould and his watchful critics by rule overfocused on his soaking practices; thereby creating an aura of confusion as to its meaning. At the end of this "hoopla", which made him look more eccentric, nobody was clear whether Gould's hand-soaking habit was healthy and contributed to his brilliant piano technique or weird and, as such, exploited by his observers and critics and turned by them into a publicity stunt. Only through a precise analytic enquiry into Gould's life woven throughout this book does it become unambiguously clear that his hand-soaking practice was a necessary ritual which helped him relax and quell his inordinately high anxiety in the face of a public performance. It did not add anything to Gould's piano technique nor to his fame but added to his sense of confidence in surmounting the task of playing in public.

Source: Dr. Helen Mesaros, M.D., F.R.C.P.
© Helen Mesaros. Reproduced with the permission of Helen Mesaros, the Estate of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould Limited.

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