Piano Master Class: Art Tatum, the Floating Arm and Playing Piano to Key Bottom

Ghenady Meirson
Submitted: Sun, December 30, 2012 - 8:06pm EST

Art Tatum's piano artistry is legendary. This video example speaks to the very subject described in Josef Lhevinne's book Basics Principles of Pianoforte Playing.

Josef Lhevinne was an extraordinary classical pianist. He graduated together with Sergey Rachmaninoff from Moscow Conservatory. Adding to the mix pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who was mesmerized by Art Tatum rendition of Tea for Two, these classical pianists also possessed monstrous piano techniques.

In his book, Lhevinne discusses the concept of a "floating arm", not the kind that "flaps around limply" but one that is free of tension, the wrist functioning as a natural shock absorber, and every note is played to the bottom of the key.

Lhevinne stressed that a student should repeatedly ask the following three questions:

"Is my arm floating?"
"Am I striking each note to key bottom?"
"Am I keeping my fingers on the surface of the keys?"

Lhevinne adds, "I also notice that when I am trying to secure a "floating arm" condition, my elbow extends very slightly from the side of my body."

This film clip of Art Tatum's playing is a true piano master class where we can see all piano playing principles at work. His arms are free of tension, his fingers are in perfect position on the surface of each key and every note is played to the bottom of the key at insanely fast speeds.

Here are recording examples of each above motioned classical pianists.

Josef Lhevinne plays Strauss-Schulz Evler "Blue Danube" (Audio)
Sergey Rachmaninoff plays Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (Audio)
Vladimir Horowitz plays Horowitz Carmen Variations at Carnegie Hall (Video)

Jazz pianist Art Tatum performs "Yesterdays" by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach