György Kurtág’s Játékok brings the body to the centre of learning piano

The focus of this paper is to describe the pedagogical speciality of Játékok (Games) - a collection of piano music by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. György Kurtág (born in Lugos, Romania in 1926) is well known as one of the most highly esteemed contemporary Hungarian composers. Kurtág's musical language is aphoristic and his “explosive miniatures” can be seen as a synthesis of many different elements: the idioms of contemporary classical music, his Hungarian folk-music inheritance and many strands arising from the classical repertoire of previous centuries (Halász 1998, 3). 

In this paper I will present those aspects, which Kurtág’s contemporary approach brings to teaching the piano, especially in the early stages. I will also argue that using Játékok as part of the teaching material can help to awaken the possibility for children to experience music and movement in a sensitive way. Finding quality for body movement can reinforce musical experience and improve musical hearing (Juntunen & Hyvönen 2004, 199).  In my opinion, the actual role of the body as our primary mode of knowing has been neglected in teaching piano. There is a strong tradition of theoretical emphasis and fragmentation. One reason for this is that most of the current ways of teaching piano introduce musical notation at the same time as instrumental tuition (McPherson & Gabrielsson 2002, 99). Placed too early, an emphasis on notation can lead to decreases in aural and body sensitivity to the natural unified patterns that children spontaneously observe when playing music (Mills & McPherson 2006, 169; McPherson & Gabrielsson 2002, 105). Játékok pieces have also been notated with Kurtág’s special notation. However, the notation should be approached in an experiencing manner, or rather; the pieces can be learnt by imitating the teacher’s model. My primary interest is in bringing the body to the centre of learning piano. In that way we can broaden the ways in which we can approach piano teaching in the early stages. 

Introduction to Játékok

Játékok is a collection of short piano works, composed for pianists of all ages. It was designed to supplement traditional teaching material.  In Játékok, Kurtág combines the teaching of basic piano playing technique with the development of musical expression (Johnson 1998, 19; Halász 1998, 12-13; Cavaye 1998, 17). It also offers a fascinating insight into the world of twentieth-century music (Cavaye 1998, 17). The main pedagogical ideas in Játékok are the use of the piano as a toy as well as the use of the whole body for playing (Beckles Willson 2007, 150; Johnson 2002, 19; Cavaye 1998, 17; Haláz 1998, 12).

In 1973, the Hungarian piano teacher Marianne Teöke asked Kurtág to write a few pieces for her pedagogical collection.  Kurtág composes very slowly and every now and then has had periods, during which he has not been able to compose at all. When he started Játékok, he had not composed anything for three years.  Suddenly he wrote 200 shorts pieces of music within a couple of months. The task of writing simple pieces for a specific type of player, a child, shifted him out of his impasse. Játékok were intended to offer children a liberating approach both to making music and the piano itself, but it evolved into a liberating activity for the composer too. The piano was Kurtag’s toy and Játékok his very own playground (Beckles Willson 2001, 46; Halasz 1998, 12).

Following its favourable beginning, this series of pieces has expanded to become a collection of eight volumes, with hundreds of pieces for piano - for two and four hands and even some pieces for two pianos. This fortunate beginning is still continuing: Játékok is a work in progress. It can also be seen as a laboratory in which Kurtág tries out his new musical ideas (Beckles Willson 2007, 149; Beckles Willson 2001, 46; Halasz 1998, 12).

In Játékok, Kurtág is foregrounding music as a physical experience. Kurtág is using lots of clusters and glissandi in his pieces. He starts to approach the piano in ways other than the traditional. The hierarchy of learning is different: precedence is given to physical gesture and the manner of performance. Játékok is asking performers to bring their bodies into dialogue with the instrument. Kurtág tries to avoid abstracted intellectualism by bringing the body to the centre of the musical experience. (Beckles Willson 2002, 278; Johnson 2002, 284.) With Játékok, children can learn to use their body through music, and music through their body.

Some pieces are referred to as Duchampian objet trouvés (found object). This idea of elevating every day objects to the status of art originated with the painter Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp elevated every day objects to the status of art. It is only important that the insignificant trifle being positioned at the central point should be presented with an unexpected quality.  In Játékok, Kurtág play games with a single idea, musical element, sound or gesture. It can be a note: for example Prelude and waltz in C is composed using only one note. In Perpetuum Mobile, the single idea is a glissando. (Beckles Willson 2007, 152-153.)

In Játékok, Kurtág uses his own graphic notation to complement the traditional one (Cavaye 1998, 19; Johnson 2002, 283). He has created unique note figures to help visualize the style of playing and to help understand the physical movement involved in playing. Kurtág has a collection of various note heads to use to symbolize clusters. They are usually only approximately marked on a stave. Clusters are precisely notated to indicate which part of hand is to play them. Rhythmically, the notation is closely related to space-time writing. Moreover, he has lot of markings for various timings and caesuras. Notation is intended to stimulate the performer to experiment with sound and sensations and to revive spontaneity in interpretation, rather than analyse the score intellectually.

Kinaesthetic nature of children’s piano playing

Kinaesthesia is a special type of sense, which cannot be confused with the other five senses (sight, taste, hear, smell and touch). Kinaesthesia is essentially related to humans’ inner experience of space and movement. It is sensory information that is movement related; it is available prior to action, during and after action (feedback). Kinaesthetic feedback is believed to be of central importance for the development of motor performance of any type. Kinaesthetic experience is the increasing acceptance of the body as a form of intelligence, which is integrated into the mind. (Galvao & Kemp 1999, 129-135.)

Many writers have emphasized the kinaesthetic nature of young children’s music making (Burnard 1999; Cohen 1980; Davies 1992; Marsh 1995; Campbell 1998; Littleton 1998; Young 1999). The presence of multiple and integrated forms of bodily movement suggest the significance of a multi-sensory experience involving what they see, as well as what they hear and feel. A number of authors have proposed that the nature of musical experiences and their sense of bodily response are inextricably linked to the dynamism between the sounding object and the bodily experience of music (Clifton 1983; Clarke & Davidson 1999). Kemp (1990; 1996) suggested that the body permeates our relationship with music (Kemp, cited in Burnard 1999, 161). A bodily experience is a kind of kinaesthetic functioning of “body-thinking” which is realised as a sensitive and “feelingful” impulsive experience (Burnard 1999, 161).

Playing a musical instrument involves the accurate execution of fine motor movements. These are highly dependent upon kinaesthetic information reaching the central nervous system (Galvao & Kemp 1999, 136). The performance of music represents the integration of a physical and mental plan. It is then sensible to believe that kinaesthesia plays a fundamental role in this integration (Sloboda 1985, cited in Galvao & Kemp 1999, 136). There is both clinical and experimental evidence to suggest that control and perception of movements are very weak when the kinaesthetic channel is not working adequately (Bahrick 1970, cited in Galvao & Kemp 1999, 136; Autio 1997, 77).

It is important to enhance the ways in which children use their kinaesthetic sense in their playing. The natural physiological development of children proceeds from large bodily movements, (gross motor skills), to tactile ones, (fine motor skills) (Gallahue 1982, 83; Gallahue & Ozmun 2006, 54). With natural movements, it is possible to become concerned with one’s kinaesthetic link between sound and movement (Galvao & Kemp 1999, 133). This is helping children to develop kinaesthetic awareness. Orff insisted that the relationship between music and movement embraces a type of kinaesthetic activity that helps children to internalise feelings and experiences of rhythm, pulse and pitch (Kemp 1984, cited in Galvao & Kemp 1999, 133).

It is important to emphasis the bodily point of view when introducing the piano. It is possible to start piano playing in a way that it is not too far removed from the child’s natural experience of music and movement. For children, approaching piano playing in the early stages with gross motor movements is very natural. The teacher has to integrate music making with child’s existing experiences and skills. We have to create a learning environment, which helps the child to connect piano playing to what they already know, think and can do.

Kinaesthetic approach in Játékok

Body movement plays an important role in musical performance. The piano is one of the most physically engaging of all instruments. The body is not only essential to the physical manipulation of the instrument, but also vital to the generation of expressive ideas about music. Building up the child’s kinaesthetic awareness from the very early stages of piano playing is a challenge for teachers. Kinaesthetic experience should be understood as a form of intelligence, which is integrated in the mind. In recent years, psychologists seem to have developed the notion that cognitive, as well as neuropsychological structures are the very basis of any kind of motor skill performance (Galvao & Kemp 1999, 132).

Piano tuition in early stages is built up systematically, paying attention to the introduction of all the basic skills needed in piano playing. Játékok pieces can stimulate the child’s kinaesthetic approach to piano playing. Children like to experiment with extreme sounds and movements:  with Játékok they can use the whole keyboard from the start.  The extreme ends of the keyboard fascinate young students; with clusters and glissandi they have the possibility to explore it from the very beginning of their studies.  Despite the approximate notation, Kurtág is very accurate with the quality of expression.  Spiritual, physical and gestural dimensions are brought to the fore. The quality of playing is very important from the very first meeting with the instrument.

I will present certain pieces of Kurtág in more detail. The following examples will show the relevance of the previous chapters.

Tenyeres-Palm Stroke – Wrong notes allowed (Example 1: Tenyeres, Játékok Book 1) 

In Tenyeres, the main element is the cluster. The symbol for a cluster is a large round blob. One can read the score in more detail and notice that the clusters are covering an area the size of a fifth. This happens to be the size of the cluster, which naturally fits an adult’s hand. Children might play it over a smaller area. Clusters are played with the palm of the hand and they are mostly marked as approximated pitch. Only the two last clusters are strictly notated. The piece is to be played including all the white keys between f and a1. The restore mark above the cluster indicates that all the notes should be played on white keys. Kurtág also illustrates the different lengths of fermatas. A normal looking fermata is long, a fermata without a point inside is shorter and a fermata upside down is very short.

Teneyres’ character is accurate and explosive, full of strong will, or perhaps a great joy, almost nearing aggression.  Its fierceness and rapidity forces the player to react quickly, to be present. The lines between the caesuras seem to be arguing with one another. I will take you through the piece in one way in which I could play or teach it. 

The first cluster is building up a demanding atmosphere. It is followed by a long fermata, during which the player has time to think about how to respond to the demands presented before. The second cluster responds to the given challenge and is followed by a short fermata. The development unfolds itself here in a flash - first two, then three, then four clusters in a row. The fermata after the four clusters is travelling forwards in nature and is full of extremely charged emotions. This tension is brought to its culmination point by yet two more clusters that are played from the opposite ends of the keyboard. A short fermata follows, in effect stopping in panic after all the fierceness. The only imaginable answer is piano-dolce, in other words a complete change of emotion, which is actually temporary. The same cluster commences a raging crescendo towards the last forte-cluster. The composer has marked a fermata at the final double line to emphasize the pause, which the musician needs to make after the last note to experience the fury.

From a bodily point of view, the player should not lose the feeling of the centre of the body even though playing fast movements with the hands. A whole gesture or phrase should be played with one movement and prepared with one breath. It is helpful to practice the piece without sound, both on the piano lid and through pantomime (without sound on the keyboard). When the student is practicing tapping on the piano lid, he or she should especially concentrate on listening to the time between the sounds. This is what builds the tension in Palm Stroke. While practicing this piece as a pantomime, it happens in slow motion. In order to feel the clusters in your hands you need to slow down the tempo. Practicing through pantomimes also draws a path for continuity. The arms are in constant motion. A playful attitude brings a great deal of joyfulness to the movements.  It is inspiring to try to create a fresh version every time you play the piece.  Despite the fierceness and rapidity of the piece the movements are never to become totally rugged. The fermatas don't work as rests because they demand a continuation of what has been expressed before and are as if saying and...and...and...

In this piece, the player doesn’t need to be worried about catching the right keys; they can simply concentrate on the big movements and the expressions they wish to put into their interpretation. 

Virág az ember…Flowers we are, Frail flowers... (Example 2:  Virág az ember, Book 1.  Version 1a is notated with clusters.  Version 1b has precise pitch indications.) 

Kurtág’s original idea in Book 1 is to present the same musical idea twice; the first time with indefinite pitch materials, such as clusters and then, secondly, with more precise indications of pitch (Haláz 1998, 12-13). In Virág az ember…, version A is notated with indefinite pitch materials, portrayed here as clusters, and version B is notated with precise indications of pitch.

In version A, you can see once again Kurtág’s symbol for a palm cluster. The rhythmic notation is simple: a white blob is for a long note and a black one is for a short one. Accidentals in front of the cluster, glissando or group of notes apply to all the notes. In the case where there are no accidentals in front of the blob, one can freely choose the range. Using a dotted legato line, Kurtág shows which tones belong to the same gesture. He avoids using a 'normal' legato-line because the piece is played lightly using the pedal. The hands follow the lines and connect the tones which belong together. The player can feel the legato moving from one tone to the other as s/he plays them from one hand to the other. It brings forth the sensation that the melody is flowing through the body. This thought helps the player to feel the musical tension and space between the tones. Kurtág has suggested changing the roles of the hands: the right hand plays the lower staff and the left hand plays the upper staff. This change in the style of playing is meant to further reinforce the experience of tension between the tones. The movements of the hands require more concentration and trouble and this affects the tension in the interpretation

When playing clusters pianissimo, the movements of the hands can be compared to “walking on the moon” or to “a slow-motion movie.” It is important to find a smooth and continuous feeling in the movements. The pedal can be held down during the whole piece and the resonance of the last tone can be left to dampen peacefully. When we worked these pieces with Kurtág, he demanded that the post-resonance last never longer than the played part.

The B-version is also a motto for the Játékok Book 1. It opens on “G-dominant” to end on “C-tonic”. Its tones form a diatonic scale on the white keys, a certain kind of circle. The initial motif is formed by the first two tones. The gesture begins on an upbeat and one can imagine it being in a questioning manner. The second motif consists of three tones and replies to the previous motif. It also begins in an upbeat manner. The three last tones create the third motif and close the piece as a “cadence.”

It could be asked why the timing in the notation differed from version A. I, myself, came to the conclusion that a cluster needs to be “prepared” with more time and care, in comparison to preparing one tone. This is the reason why the upbeat “quarter note” has been changed to a long note. The upbeat quarter note in the third motif is changed into a whole note for the same reason. There is, however, an upside-down hold on it, which diminishes its value a little. The meaning of this type of fermata is clearly shown here - the music lingers but does not stop on the fermata. The fermata is part of the phrase and it’s striving towards the last tone. 

Pieces like Virág az ember… are challenging because Kurtág is moving the individual notes to the far ends of keyboard.  That is demanding to our inner hearing but at the same time it gives a freedom of time and movement, which, in turn, gives time for emotion. The player should imagine how the sounds are resonating and flowing through her or his body.  Then she or he is not playing distances on a keyboard rather s/he feels the distance through her or his own body.

Örökmozgo (talált tárgy) Perpetuum mobile (objet trouvé) and Preludium and Waltz in C (Example 3:  Örökmozgo (talált tárgy) Perpetuum mobile (objet trouvé), Book 1; Example 4: Prelude and Waltz in C, Book 1)

The only compositional materials used in Perpetuum mobile are glissandos. The piece is constructed of three almost identical passages and a coda. By using different nuances, the piece becomes consistent and musically interesting.  Putting this piece into practice requires careful listening and control of the body as a whole. The right hand plays the upward glissandos and the left hand the downward glissandos. The hand movements are similar to the glissando lines - very elastic and carefully formed. The aural sentiment of the piece can be associated with the sounds of nature - the crashing of waves, the sound of the wind in the trees - ranging from a small breeze to a storm.  Perpetuum mobile breathes the rhythm of nature and lacks a steady and determined pulse.

The composer has given Vivace, ma sempre tranquillo as the tempo (lively but peaceful throughout). I have understood this to mean that each wave is to be played to the very end and the bigger the wave the more time is needed. Vivace is present in each glissando movement and tranquillo is present in breathing the full waves. In addition, Kurtág has added the marking legato possible (you may slur the notes together), which I gather, indicates in particular the formation of the glissandos. The hand which changes the direction of the glissando is to be well prepared and in its position in time. The glissandos need to slur together extremely smoothly from one hand to the other - legato. The co-operation between the hand and the ear is of greatest importance in the curves where the direction changes. Therefore, what you hear must imitate (follow) the musical curves delicately and attentively. Special sensitivity is needed during moments where the “harmony” changes, in other words where the tones move from the white to the black keys or vice versa.

The player gets to define the nuances of the piece. One composer suggested it start in silence, as if from emptiness, and then continue sempre piano, continuously quiet. The repetition of the first passage was a massive crescendo- diminuendo, first increasing and then diminishing. The third repeat was played sempre diminuendo, continuously diminishing. The piece ended as if vanishing into emptiness on the long hold before eventually being interrupted by a surprising downward fortissimo-glissando, which was played by sliding strongly with both hands - the right hand on the black keys and the left on the white. The piece finally ends with a wild cluster in the lowest possible register. The composer’s instruction was to play the cluster with the hands on top of one another. This helps to control the strength being used.

Perpetuum mobile’s “strictly notated version” is (surprisingly) Prelude and Waltz in C (example 4.). The notation of Prelude and Waltz is very traditional: bar lines, traditional notation, and basic waltz-meter in ¾. The piece gives us two different styles of material: the prelude is free in timing while the waltz is in very strict time. The piece also presents a joyful way to find all the Cs on the keyboard. The interesting thing is how Kurtág combines the embodiments of Perpetuum and Prelude and Waltz. The physical gestures look different from the surface, but the root is same. In other words the gestures that are needed for glissandos and jumps are same: both pieces require precise, well prepared fine motor movements with fingers combined and the momentum coming from the arm, with a swing.

Both pieces, Perpetuum mobile and Prelude and Waltz in C, are very helpful when learning how to use the hands freely when making large movements. The player has to sit properly otherwise this piece is nearly impossible to play.  The playing and the joy of movement is great fun. These are preliminary exercises for the playing of romantic virtuoso pieces. 

When playing the piano, one can learn to prepare oneself in a kinaesthetic manner. The tone, chord, gesture, phrase, and other musical elements, or the piece in its entirety, can be felt as sensations in the body. According to the kinaesthetic nature of a player, it can be seen that she/he listens as much with the body as with the ears. The player also 'sees and thinks' with his or her hands. The physical experience also affects hearing - if you get to know a piece only through reading the music your image of it will be different than if you approached the music through playing. Many of the pieces in Játékok aim at enhancing the connection between one’s mind and body. Kurtág also talks about how the arm should feel the resonance of the sound played. This is what listening with the body means.

Entwining in Játékok

One of the characteristic traits of Kurtág's Játékok-collection is the entwining of sound, movement and phrasing.  What the player or listener experiences in music depends on the personality of the player or listener, their skills and past experiences. Playing Kurtág's music requires an intense personal presence in producing the music. Presence means participating in the playing as a physical phenomenon; listening and interpreting the music. Each player understands the musical events from his or her own perspective and the sequence of these events is only understood on a personal level. Even if the teacher concentrates on making music through pianistic means, the music will not touch the audience if the player has no personal relationship to the music.

In the music examples above, I have aimed to illustrate the entwining of different aspects of playing, including notes, movement, sound and phrasing. I describe it as entwining because it seems nearly impossible to separate the different aspects of playing into their component units, even though during the process of learning a piece the player focuses on one aspect at a time. Usually the player first learns the notes and works out their meaning. Secondly, she or he searches for ways of playing and practices in order for them to flow naturally. During the third stage he or she combines the first two stages and they begin to entwine. After this, the player begins to form meanings out of gestures and motifs and to create a complete picture of the piece. This is when the player begins to find out how the different motifs relate to one another. All of this results in physical movement and complete musical thought - in other words, music.

The entwining of musical expression and the player's physical movements in Kurtág's music affects the player's ability to hear and listen. The experience of movement and sound is corporeal and individual and it leads to musical interpretation. Kurtág stretches the tension of two notes to its limits by moving those notes far, far away from one another - to the opposite ends of the keyboard. This type of notation requires listening to the distances and tensions between notes. When moving from one note to another the experience is as if the arm were listening to the journey it has to travel and thus hearing guides the physical action.


In my work as a piano teacher I have observed with what affection piano students play various pieces from Játékok. Playing Játékok has enhanced the use of their body in a natural manner. It has also helped them to embrace their inner hearing, autonomy and motivation by helping them to find their own way towards a sense of themselves and music. They became more playful, brave and creative. The joyful spirit of the music liberates children from being too self-conscious. Indirectly it has affected their interpretation of the traditional repertoire.

In conclusion I would say that Játékok is supplying the means and opportunities to enable a more kinaesthetic approach to teaching piano.


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Játékok Article