About Falko Steinbach’s Method
“By way of introduction, I am probably Herr Professor (H.P.) Steinbach’s most ancient student, having received piano instruction on and off through the decades since early childhood through middle agedness, played at various bars with a wide variety of groups around Chicago & suburban N.J., as well as striven to maintain a modest classical repertoire. However, I’ve been primarily active in research and teaching in the general area of neurophysiology; specifically, what are the electrical and biochemical properties of single or small circuits of neurons that might enable the brain to store information (i.e. learn things).
Psychologists, who in the past largely regarded the brain as a totally mystical entity, had long proposed, vaguely, that sensory experience could somehow leave a record of its existence, a “memory trace” that would persist for days, weeks, or much longer. In the 1940’s Konorski and Hebb independently proposed that the most probable way of leaving such a trace would be to strengthen connections between neurons that were involved with certain patterns of use. That is: say, sensory input comes into neuron 1 and causes electrical activity; if neuron 1 is connected with a 2nd (or multiple) neuron(s), it will drive electrical activity there. Given enough repetitions of the sensory input of the proper form, the result will be that the connection between neurons 1 & 2 is strengthened. The connections are called synapses, and biochemical changes that occur there can be envisioned as having the ability to persist for long periods of time.
At the time of the original work, linking such a trace to neuronal activity seemed a stretch since most of what had been studied in neurons were things that occurred over a few thousandths of a second (milliseconds). The basic electrical signal at the synapse itself generally lasts only a few milliseconds, whereas the trace potentially persisted for years or decades! In the 60’s and 70’s as experimental technologies and designs improved, it was finally conclusively demonstrated that these millisecond electrical and chemical phenomena could produce long lasting changes in neuronal circuits; you just had to know how and what to look for. Lomo and Bliss were able to show that the strength (or effectiveness) of the chemical synapses connecting 2 different populations of neurons in the hippocampus brain region could be greatly increased by a given pattern of stimulation of the upstream neurons. (It was also shown, much later, to occur between 2 individual neurons.)
This change is sufficient to convert a connection that is ineffective in producing electrical activity in the downstream neuron to one that produces activity, and as a possible result, motor function. If you will, the upstream stimulus, which in the lab is administered by direct electrical stimulation, can be seen as mimicking ordinary sensory input. In the dentate gyrus of the rabbit hippocampus where this increase (or potentiation) was first demonstrated, the change was shown to persist for several days, about the limitation of recording in live animals at the time and was named long term potentiation (LTP). This was proposed as a likely model for a memory trace. Moreover this potentiation could be ‘erased’ by a different pattern of stimulation to the upstream neurons. (Hold that thought). To my knowledge this type of phenomenon, called Long Term Potentiation, has been demonstrated in all brain regions where examination is possible. It is still unknown as to how this modest ‘long term’ change is converted or developed into the form of memory that enables one to play selections of the Anna Magdalena songbook that one hasn’t seen since childhood.
There is a second concept regarding memory and motor function, ‘Executive Control’, that I believe is relevant to music instruction and practice. It has much more recent origins. The concept is usually explained by observing that walking, quite a complex motor function array (ask any 1 yr old), is something most people don’t consciously think about when doing it. (Here I’m excluding walking and chewing gum.) Much in musical playing is done without real conscious movement-by-movement input. [Musicians, I’ve noticed, refer to this as ‘muscle memory’; probably a poor choice of term, as many physiologists have tried and failed to show that muscles have memory. They can exhibit short term changes in responsiveness but not anything that would pass muster as memory.] The neuronal connections underlying executive control spread through an amazingly large fraction of the brain and are not well understood at this time. They are not at all limited to a single region, such as the motor cortex. The consensus view of involvement includes areas of the Prefrontal Cortex (the tippy tip outer front part of the brain), the Thalamus and Striatum, and several of the Basal Ganglia (deep in the middle).
So, skipping through the foregoing lengthy but totally overgeneralized background, to the evolution of my current condition: H.P. Steinbach agreed to take me on as a pupil in early 2015. At the time he did not know much of my prior career. Like others far more junior, I was started on Fingerbuilder and the Compendium. Fingerbuilder was an eye opener. The first etude is a charming example of non repeating note sequences that in one’s ordinary experience would never be played. But by the 2nd-4th etudes it was starting to become apparent to me that: This Guy was Messing with My Head, reprogramming my brain. (Actually, this is what I was hoping for as I’d grown tired of my existing technique, such as it was.) Almost nothing in the way my existing fingering, hand positioning, or movement anticipation either worked or was allowed by the scores. Moreover there was no harmony or melody line to connect with anything that I was familiar with even though I had done jazz and other varied stuff before. As an adult, I have had 2 very good teachers but they didn’t come close to having put the intellectual effort into pedagogy that H.P. Steinbach has.
Getting the etudes to ‘lie below my fingers’ took an inordinate amount of repetition to suppress what had been the ‘reflex’ behavior (see above), consistent with extinguishing an established neuronal circuit, and also to memorize inscrutable tone sequences and harmonies. As an ‘ancient’ pupil, I may be more aware of the difficulty than younger pupils with more plastic (or flexible) neuron circuitry, or fewer committed circuits. I came to view my Master as a composer of tangibly subversive music. However, I couldn’t be more gratified with the outcomes to date. Surprisingly, to me, has been a considerable improvement in my ability to organize spontaneous improvised riffs (not memorized patterns); these have nothing to do with what comes off a page in front of the eyes but out of ill defined brain mechanisms. Secondly, there has been about a 20 db increase in my touch dynamic range due to various lessons in the Compendium, mostly on the soft side. Thirdly, in what time I have been able to spare from the technical practice, I have experienced a much more competent feeling in the classical repertoire.
Overall, “Falko’s Method” seems to me to have a very strong basis in classical conditioning and extinction theory, and I’ve tried to give an (very superficial) overview of brain mechanisms that might be involved. The etudes seem to be involved in extinguishing existing patterns of activity, somewhat akin to Pavlov’s dog slobbering when a bell rings, then having that response extinguished when the bell rings and repeatedly yields nothing in the way of food, or else a yields a noxious follow up. [Note that extinction of interconnection patterns does not involve destruction of neurons, but alterations of synaptic connection strength between neurons, akin to the reversal of LTP as above.] On top of this, repetitive practice of the etudes (Fingerbilder and Beweglich) is probably establishing new, more generally applicable circuits, which the creative hand, wrist, and forearm patterns certainly suggest is the intent.
How he came up with his approaches, I certainly don’t know. However, I have held out on various occasions, the possibility of a Faustian Bargain having been struck.”
About John Connor
John Connor, former Prof. of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Illinois and head of the department of neurosciences at the Hoffman La Roche Research Center in Nutley, New Jersey, now retired, was primarily active in research specifically, about what are the electrical and biochemical properties of single or small circuits of neurons, that might enable the brain to store information. John Connor is also a pianist.