ABBY WHITESIDE (1881 - 1956) was a teacher. She was extraordinarily gifted in her profession and dedicated to it. Her unceasing search for more effective tools for teaching piano resulted ultimately in an analysis of the manner in which a physical coordination can function as the basis for both virtuosity and beauty in performance. This cast new light on the learning process and has a profound relevance for all instrumental teaching.
She was born in South Dakota, majored in music at the University of South Dakota and graduated with the highest honors. After teaching for several years at the University of Oregon, she went, in 1908, to Germany, where she studied with Rudolph Ganz. After her return to the United States, she settled in Portland, Oregon, where she became a very successful teacher. In spite of this, because she felt that New York would provide more scope for her teaching, she moved to that city in 1923 and started all over again. From then on she lived and taught in New York. However, for many summers she taught in various cities such as Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland. She also lectured and taught at several universities: New York University, University of Chicago, Eastman School of Music, Mills College and others.
She started her search for better teaching tools because she felt that a teacher should have concrete and effective answers for handling a student's technical difficulties which, in her opinion, traditional teaching did not provide. Reading books by other pianists and teachers brought no real satisfaction. It became clear to her that she would have to find her own answers.
She set herself the task of learning to play all the Chopin Etudes with virtuosity and ease as a first step in this search. This was accomplished. She also studied anatomy so that her native talent for diagnosing what the performer did would be strengthened by a more precise knowledge. Watching closely the performances of great instrumentalists — or, for that matter, athletes, dancers and anyone with any kind of physical skill — became a lifelong occupation, and all along she kept trying out her various discoveries on her pupils and modifying her theories on the basis of the results. In this sense, one may very well say that what she learned she learned from nature.
In the beginning all she wanted to find out was how to achieve speed without strain. To this day many pianists accept fatigue and pain in the forearm, hand and fingers as an inevitable corollary of speed. Another common belief holds that if many months and even years of long daily practice produce poor results in speed and ease, this must be due to lack of talent. The fact is that practicing a faulty coordination can also be responsible for this disheartening experience. Abby Whiteside found solutions for these problems through the use of a coordination which involved the torso and upper arms as well as the forearm, hand and fingers. The refinements of this coordination occupied her for the rest of her life.
It is obvious to everyone that the muscles which move the upper arm and forearm are much bigger and stronger than the muscles which move the fingers. A number of teachers, aware of this, have tried to incorporate the use of these two levers into piano playing. They differ widely in the analysis of how the two can and do participate.
Whiteside, after much experimentation, became convinced that the upper arm will produce speed without strain by a gentle but continuous pull which dominates and coordinates the activity of the forearm, hand and fingers. The fingers, because of their structure, are capable primarily of a vertical motion, whereas speed in playing, she thought, is a matter of horizontal progression. This horizontal progression is the specific domain of the upper arm which, because of the circular joint connecting it with the torso, can move laterally even as it exerts a continuous pull. It is this action, in her opinion, rather than the various actions of articulation which must dominate coordination for playing the piano.
Refining the application of this coordination helped her to make a discovery which truly sets her teaching apart from that of all others. The physical continuity which the pull of the upper arm engenders is not only the basis of speed without strain; it is also the physical counterpart of musical continuity without which there can be no beauty in performance. It is a much more fundamental factor in the creation of a beautiful performance than an intellectual awareness of the music's structure. The emotional response to the aural perception of the rhythmic succession of phrases in a composition must establish a basic rhythm in the performer's body which functions as the basis for both virtuosity and beauty. If such a rhythm is not present—and a preoccupation with the actions of articulation could destroy it or prevent it from ever functioning—the playing will not be beautiful no matter how talented the performer nor how profound his intellectual concepts. She was convinced that all great artists use this basic rhythm in their playing, whether they are aware of this or not. It must therefore be the first concern of every teacher.
A comprehensive statement of Whiteside's teaching principles can be found in her book, "Indispensables of Piano Playing." It is a matter of interest that six of the composers whose music is included in the album, New Music for piano/robert helps, pianist, CRI Inc., studied piano with her: Vivian Fine, Miriam Gideon, Sol Berkowitz, Morton Gould, Robert Helps and Joseph Prostakoff.
The Abby Whiteside Foundation was established by a group of musicians who felt that the principles of learning discovered by Whiteside were of great importance and should be widely disseminated. In accordance with this belief, they have distributed several thousand complimentary copies of her book, "Indispensables of Piano Playing," to various libraries throughout the world.