Marie Jaell (en)

A century ago lived an exceptional woman, a pianist, a composer, and a pedagogue: Marie Jaell. Through her observations, her practice and long research, she has developed a brilliant and revolutionary pedagogical approach for the teaching of the piano, the so-called Jaëll Method. Renowned by many contemporaries such as Franz Liszt, César Frank, Gabriel Fauré and Camille Saint-Saëns, this method has reached us thanks to her pupils and the attention of great piano masters or pedagogues such as Dinu Lipatti, who have developed their musical approach and the art of interpretation thanks to it.

Marie Jaëll has foreseen things that were difficult, if not impossible, to deepen with the means of her time. But nonetheless, once she decided to put an end her career as a virtuoso pianist, she developed her research from a scientific point of view, through the analysis of physio-psychology. She decided to work with Doctor Charles Féré to have a deeper understanding of the way pianist play and transmit music. Nowadays, Jaell method is validated by recent research in the neurosciences, the insight of the modern apparatus joining the insight of Marie Jaell thinking.

This website presents Marie Jaëll and her « method » in its modernity. Not only is it used for the musical awakening of young children, but it also goes much further with high level pianists who find a richer and complete relationship with their instrument. It is on this basis that the International Association Marie Jaëll develops its activities: training in the teaching of piano, training in musical initiation, piano master classes, seminars, conferences, concerts, shows …

 The specificity of great performers is their ability to feel two wonderful sensations, the first one in the domain of audition, the second one in the sense of touch… If a great artist manages thoroughly to bond the sense of audition with a tactile sensitivity, it must be true that this linkage should be the basis for teaching…  — Marie Jaëll, Le Toucher

Through her method, Marie Jaell defines with accurate and minute details the movements of an artist, and the link to a musical thought. She encourages the student to discover the unity that should prevail between thought and sensation. Studying the piano becomes an activity of awakening, not systematically directed on the mechanical activity of the fingers. The standpoint of the pedagogue becomes different; she no longer teaches some pre-established knowledge, that the student would be keen to learn by some repetitive and mechanistic works, but teaches how to implement the musical thoughts.

The way Marie Jaell considers teaching is far away from an automatic apprenticeship. It is based on educating the sensitivity of the hand, searching for the true musical movement. This sensory emphasis, placed where the hand is working, leads to an education of ears. Auditive and tactile sensitivities are linked together.

In order to achieve this goal, some exercises are conceived to develop dissociation, speed, and sensitivity. They are practised away from the keyboard and consist in bending, extension, spreading, ring form, etc.

Others are done practising the piano while seating on a low stool. This position is favourable to the right tension of muscles, leading to a continuous attention and a subtler kind of touch. Playing is enhanced with a richer diversity of tones. The ear gets educated and the musical thought is being developed.

There is an interplay between the organ and mental capabilities. Nowadays it is well established that a movement imposes some actions on the activity of the brain. Modern neuroscience research has revealed how far the senses influence our way of thinking and learning; We think with our body! This poetic idea has become a scientific proposition, and the intuitions of Marie Jaell are now confirmed by scientific experimentations.

The books by Jean-Pierre Changeux, The Neuronal Man (« L’homme neuronal »), or Alain Berthoz, The sense of movement, Decision making  (« Le sens du mouvement, La décision ») …and many others are in line with Marie Jaell’s research; they confirm the relevance of her ideas in our time. The whole body is involved in any whisper of our thought. And the hand is without doubt the most remarkable part of it, the subtler. To raise the sensitivity and conscience of the hand linked to hearing leads the musician-performer to a universe of sense, sensibility, devoted to music.

Your organ is a musical instrument that you should be able to tune; this instrument is nothing but yourself, your mind, your whole structure, your hand — Marie Jaëll

The pianist Eduardo del Pueyo presents a superb description of Marie Jaell ‘s method, in an article entitled “About the Marie Jaell ‘s method and its contribution to piano teaching” (Autour de la méthode de Marie Jaëll et de son apport à l’enseignement du piano in Revue internationale de musique, 1939):

Here, we do not have one of these methods, so called “progressive”, which boils down to a collection of pieces labelled “easy”, “middle”, or “high difficulty”. On the contrary, we have a vast doctrine stemming from a rigorous analysis of a large number of facts and phenomena, a doctrine governing some seminal work discipline. This doctrine is based on a most original idea: movements that transmit musical expressivity are open to analysis.

At the heart of her research, Marie Jaell laid the question of pianistic execution on a psycho-physiological ground, thereby orienting it in a new way. Like most pianists, Marie Jaell was aware of the weaknesses of traditional teaching methods, and was enduring some bad consequences that come with them. As a performer and a pedagogue, she felt the results obtained through traditional teaching were not commensurate to the provided effort.

Not only did Marie Jaell have the great merit of showing a new direction to studies on piano playing, but beyond, she detected, classified, and explained a great deal of facts and phenomena of most interesting value, and this had not been previously clear to artists and pedagogues alike.

Should we be puzzled by this lack of understanding by artists and pedagogues? Not if we recollect the common prejudices that were reckoned as “laws”. One of them, maybe the most malign in its consequences, consisted – and still consists- to accept the concept of the predestination of an artist. That is to say, the belief in the sovereign and central value of the “gifted individual being”, coming straight from birth. That prejudice precludes any possibility of understanding, by scientific means, the process of aesthetic creation. And consequently, artists and pedagogues do not try to investigate this mystery!

Detached from such prejudice, Marie Jaell could venture in uncharted territories leading to new horizons, with a vaster and more illuminating perspective. She thought it could be possible to link Science and Art, she laid the pillars to build bridges, in order to attain art from science. Thanks to Marie Jaell was born the analysis of an action that gives birth to musical expression, an analysis that allows everyone to learn how to implement an action that is tantamount to the unconscious action produced by the artistic instinct.

I have presented to Charles Leirens one of the fundamental ideas of Marie Jaell: we have to consider the musical performance as a direct function of the implemented movements and their mental representation. Mr Leirens was kind enough to report what the French poet Paul Valery transmitted about an English man who followed Paganini for many years in order to unveil the secret of the art of the Genovese violinist. One day in a hotel, the English man full of curiosity happened to be luckily lodging next to the room of the artist. He drills a hole through the partition, and the very day of the concert he sees Paganini lying on his bed for hours, without a single movement, his eyes wide open. Confessing his indiscretion, he begs Paganini to tell the reason for his attitude, and whether it is related to his art. The artist replies that all along his lying immobility, he was having a mental representation of every movement to be done during the performance.

Whether it is true or not, the anecdote is striking. In any case, the attitude of Paganini can straightforwardly be explained by quoting an excerpt of Marie Jaell’s book Mecanism of Touch (Le Mécanisme du Toucher, Paris, Alcan ed). She is interested in the evidence recorded by M. Fleschig on the cast of the internal surface of JS Bach skull:

“Acknowledging the important size of the part of the brain linked to mental representations of muscular senses -of arms and hands-, the scientist wonders if there is more than the fine development of the hearing organs. Could the musical capabilities of J S Bach derive from an extraordinary development of muscular sensitivity? And does it come from the faculty to link visual perception of scores to the representation of movements?”

At first sight, it is often assumed there is no such link. But that is but a prejudice and Marie Jaell after a long experience in developing mental representations of movements could feel some new faculties arising, with a great benefit to piano performances. Marie Jaell ‘s experience is attainable by anyone. The mental representation of movement places the mind in the forefront, and prevents the movement to be automatic, a problem that is bound to happen with a method based an a continuous repetition of a piece of music, of a line in music, of a few bars (a process meant to memorise and perform easily).

On the contrary, Marie Jaell thinks movements should not be done mechanically, automatically. She prescribes a method that imposes the awakening of consciousness of every movement, with a conscience leading to musical attainment, since the movements convey a musical expression, as do “the signs of script that convey the thought”.

The aim of Marie Jaell is to create the conditions appropriate for revealing the capabilities of individual, the possibilities that are present only in a latent way. Does an artist who can elaborate the proper means to achieve his art have less merit than someone else who spontaneously has from birth all the necessary tools?

The gifted performer needs the knowledge about his capacities in order to surpass them and also in order to be able to use them whenever he wants. What would he do, should his capabilities fail to obey his musical impetus, if he is not aware of how to control them? He would probably seek to counteract his failure by seeking being more and more moved by art, assuming he would move the audience that way too. But this strain and irritation of his sensitivity is bound to fail to reveal the aesthetic beauty to the public. Looking forward to being moved or to move the audience is a great error a performer is imposing on himself.

Why should an artist expect everything from intuition? Should he expect being most of the time in a harmonious state of mind that allows the inspiration push? The idea of Marie Jaell is to have a discipline leading to the guidance of mind, in order to be close to that harmonious state that comes from time to time thanks to the gift of the performer. Whenever Providence’s grace is not present with the pianist, to a large extent this discipline can cope with that lack. By awakening the conscience of movement, Marie Jaell enables us to analyse and control it.

The traditional teaching of piano inherits too much from methods issued from other instruments; it does not take sufficiently into account the possibilities of the instrument. Pianists suffer as a result, since the instrument is more reactive. The organ produces a stable sound, and the harpsichord is on the contrary fleeting, but the piano is different. Musical thought is driven faithfully by the span of sound, its quality, tone and intensity. With such a sophisticated instrument, movements have to be refined to an equal magnitude.

The movement that consists in playing a note first by lifting the finger away from the keyboard in order –so it is said- to gather momentum is to be rejected. Even the minute time used for this to and fro oscillation leads to a discrepancy between the musical thought and the implementation by the finger. The finger is going up precisely when it is meant to be activating the keyboard.

Marie Jaell prescribes a unique movement! Right at the time a note is thought of, the finger goes on the key! In the mainstream practice, the finger goes on the key but this force is used with no other effect than pushing the key, without any action on the following movement. Therefore, another impulse is presently needed to raise it away of the key. This way of doing things induces another discrepancy, since for just one sound two opposite impulses are needed. Moreover, when the sound lasts while the key is maintained down, the movement of the finger is stopped. Few pianists have noticed the difficulty resulting from this immobility of the finger. The hand has some difficulties to move again around the keyboard, because of the immobility following a strike movement; the finger reaches a dead point before moving up.

Marie Jaell ‘s proposals to solve these difficulties hinge around two principles:

1) The posture and bearing of the performer before and during the movement are important.

2) The continuity given by a circular movement allows a match with the continuous musical thought. Moreover, this movement leads to a constant action on the key, even after the sound is produced, that controls the dampening and extinction of the sound, as required by the performer.

Marie Jaell rejects the idea that relaxing the muscle is beneficial. She advocates a continuous tension of the hand, where the finger is felt active even without being in movement. This constant impression of the activity of the hand awakens senses on the long run, and acts powerfully on mental disposition. Hence, we can follow Marie Jaell when she says that “attention is matched with muscular tension, like differences between heat and cold is matched with the indicator of a thermometer”. Attention is enhanced with the tension of the muscle that is ready for an action.

Immobility allows a consciousness of movement. For Marie Jaell, immobility is always a prerequisite to movement. It persists in the fingers that are not participating to the movement and creates a kind of “silence” around movements and thoughts, thereby simulating attention. Also, immobility is securing the development and intensity of muscle sensitivity, a prerequisite to the dissociation of the actions of various fingers. (…)

Immobility should not be confused with idleness; in other words, resting the muscle is not the contrary of moving it, but of activating it. These are important distinctions: Without an active immobility, fingers are not ready for movement, they do not have a potential of strength needed for muscular activity. During immobility, the static tension induces more energy, and warms up the muscle more rapidly than a dynamic action. This is the basis for the relation between muscular tension and attention. It is a way to attain attention by means of the muscles.

About the circular movement of the finger, a testimony written by J. N. Forkel (“Vie, talents et travaux de J. S. Bach”) tells us that J. S. Bach was using this process. Liszt himself was an adept of this practice. Marie Jaell looking at his performances had come to the idea of analysing this circular movement.

Learning to play the piano is for Marie Jaell an analytical observation of the movements toward the keyboard leading to musical expression. Studying the piano is studying the movement. Contrary to traditional playing, she identifies musical thought with movement, and immobility –not idleness- with silence. These two phenomena are always present while playing: creating the sound, and deleting it. The latter is as important as the former, they are indissolubly linked together. For this to happen, the movements at the origin of both should be smoothly intertwined without discontinuity. The circular movement, by putting down and up the key, provides the continuity of movement, and also develops the tactile sense thanks to the gliding of the finger on the key. The surface of the key that provokes the tactile sensitivity is expanded by the circular movement.

Tactile sensitivity is of the utmost importance in playing the piano. It commands the reaction of the finger after the strike. Timbre depends partly on this reaction, whether the notes are detached (the reaction of the finger gives birth to an infinite variety in the shortening of the span of a note), or slurred. In the latter case, the reaction is at the core of the difficulty of performing. One must carefully quit a key only after having stricken the next one; as Marie Jaell puts it, these are microscopic syncopations that the performer should be aware of, by listening and feeling the execution.

According to Marie Jaell, timbre and strength are also influenced by the area of the finger striking the key: a large one produces a round and loud sonority, a small one, obtained by striking with the very end of the finger next to the nail, leads either to a weak sound or if forte to a dry one. Thus, an infinite variety of ways of striking the key comes with the movement and reaction of the finger obeying tactile sensations (as was mentioned above for detached or slurred notes). The use of the surface is also a means for dynamism. Traditional teaching does not take that parameter into account; to play louder is just to strike harder. But it is wrong to think that a crescendo -for instance- is obtained by striking harder and harder. It will lead only to an approximation of the idea of a crescendo, with no difference between one sort of crescendo and another, regardless of what is wanted by musical aesthetics. The artist is to find the most harmonious developments for his musical thoughts, he seeks to use differences in tone and at the same time to envelop these in a general framework. But, traditional teaching often leads to uniformity and equality of tones.

Before Marie Jaell, the aim of training relied on the development of evenness of fingers. It is still at the core of mainstream teaching, and few people have acknowledged that this claim to equality leads fingers to become unfit for playing. Nature has introduced unevenness of the fingers, and discarding this fact can be harmful. (…) Every sound nuance is obtained through a movement that comes with a tactile sensitivity of its own.

Most of the time, traditional fingering aims at facilitating the performance. However, fingering that eases the performance does not produce per se a nice musical interpretation. I would go as far as saying that easiness as a choice for fingering comes because no musicality was searched for at the beginning of this process. On the contrary, a fingering stemming from a musical thought is always “smooth”, even if it is a complex one –depending on the specific thought-, but “smooth” is not exactly the same as “easy”.

A teacher facing a mediocre pupil tries to explain what to do (but does not explain how to do), or goes to the piano and plays. Liszt behaved like that, it is said. Of course, a result obtained that way is purely coincidental; it does not go beyond a mere imitation. Great pianists convey Music through movements they are not fully aware of, movements that they have not analysed, movements are done instinctively. Hence, it could not survive in someone else.

To sum up, the doctrine of Marie Jaell hinges on two basis: a) a close coincidence between movements and musical expression, b) an absolute coincidence between physiological and mental functions, between movement and thought, thereby awakening the conscience of a movement that leads to musical expression.

The means are: a) a mental representation of movements, and a tension of the muscle, b) a continuity of the movement of the finger, thanks to a circular movement, with the finger gliding on the key after the attack, c) a rational use of the surface of the finger along tactile sensations.

It is difficult to describe in an article the work discipline created by Marie Jaell; it is easier to have a direct feeling of it through an actual teaching experience. But I must acknowledge how powerful and creative it is. It even leads continuously to a physiological transformation of the hand, and as a by -product to a mental transformation of the representation of sounds, of the memory, of the aesthetic sensitivity, of style and in more general terms to an expansion of cerebral activity (…)

Marie Jaell did use the discoveries of psycho-physiology created in the XIXth century, she interacted with scientists and pinpointed to them many subjects for further studies. She has even thought of ideas that were to be developed many years later. She used the complexity of touch to develop auditive perception, even if she had no theoretical ideas on conditioned reflex that were studied later by Platov.

Piano teaching, and some chapters of Music and Psycho-Physiology by Marie Jaell (“La Musique et la Psycho-Physiologie”, Alcan ed, Paris, 1896) could have found its way in Dr Carrel’s writings, Man, this Stranger (“L’Homme, cet Inconnu”), written 40 years later, in which theories agreed with Marie Jaell‘s methods:

“Usage of speech, as well as the hand, was very useful to develop the human brain. In the brain, parts related to the hand, the tongue, the larynx spread on a large surface of the outer layer. While these nervous centres command movement of prehension, writing, speech, they are in return stimulated by action. They are both leading and led It seems the activity of intelligence is facilitated by the rhythmic contractions of muscles. (Man, this Stranger, pp. 113-114) Altogether, mind and body are two views of the same object, taken with different methods; they are two abstract concepts that our mind has created for one being. The opposition between flesh and mind is but a technical one. Descartes’ misapprehension has been to take for granted the veracity of these two abstractions, therefore considering the physique and the spirit as heterogeneous. This dualism is pregnant on the history of knowledge about mankind. It is at the origin of the false problem of relations between soul and body; but it is useless to examine the nature of these relations, since soul and body are not observed separately, we can only grasp a mixture in the being, that has been arbitrarily divided between physiology and mind” (Carrel, ibid., p. 137-138). This very idea is expressed and developed by Marie Jaell in her book Music and Psycho-Physiology (p 4-5). “Science has neglected the analysis of consciousness as a whole. Mankind has not been examined through the converging light of physiology and psychology” (Carrel, ibid., p. 140). The same criticism is addressed by Marie Jaell to pianists and pedagogues of the piano (only to them because she declines any competence on other fields). “Mental activities obviously depend on physiological activities. We observe the organic modifications corresponding to the succession of the state of consciousness. Conversely, psychological phenomena are determined by some functional state of organs. Altogether, the set composed of body and consciousness can be modified both by organic factors and mental ones. (…) The mind cannot be detached from the body; in the same way as in a statute, form cannot be separated from marble (Carrel, ibid. p. 166). Most probably, any state of consciousness has an organic expression (p. 170). When there is a coordination of activity for a precise aim, mental and organic functions are fully in harmony (p 172).”

Finally, the scope of teaching according to Marie Jaell goes far beyond piano playing, and to be more precise, there are no more noble terms as her own ones (Music and Psychophysiology p 12): “We could say that the progress of musical training is not the only output of the method, it leads to a movement toward the perfection of human being, under the influence of musical teaching based on the specific knowledge of modern physiology.“

Catherine Guichard

Marie Jaëll on BBC radio 3, Composer of the Week: Podcast BBC (UK only)