Earth, Water, Fire and Air

Earth, Water, Fire and Air


At the still-point in the center of the circle

one can see the infinite in all things.

~ Chuang Tzu



This variation of the five traditional Chinese elements is closely related to Speed, Weight and Compression.  Air is Speed, Earth is Weight, Fire is Compression; but what’s Water?  Water does not come directly from the fingers or arms – it comes of course mainly from your right foot.


Pianists can be categorized in relationship to the elements and placed on this diagram.  They translate into tonal colors.  Most pianists are not difficult to label by their most defining element. 

Let’s start with Earth.  The most definitive Earth pianist is Arrau.  He loves to sink his fingers into the earth with relaxed heavy arms.

Air is pure, weightless energy – Argerich embodies it beautifully.  Remember that Wind is an element of Air.

Fire comes from inner passion.  While Pogorelich is the greatest Compression pianist, Kissen more typifies the extreme of a controlled Fire approach. 

And although Horowitz may be the greatest pedaler of the piano, Gieseking (especially in Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit) best typifies Water.

Other pianists gravitate toward secondary elements formed by mixing two primary elements.  By mixing Fire and Earth, for example, you create Metal and Precious Stones.  The typical Metal pianist is Horowitz, and Gilels is a Precious Stones pianist par excellence.  The entire French School of pianism, such as Casadesus or early Cortot, can be placed between Air and Water { but closer to Air }.  The Czech pianist Ivan Moravec makes his home between Water and Earth, as does his Polish predecessor Ignaz Friedman and virtually the entire Leschetizky School.  Horowitz’ approach to Scriabin can be placed between Fire and Air.  (Horowitz, being one of the greater pianists, finds multiple placement on this chart.)  Another pianist between Air and Fire, although leaning more toward Air, is Zimmerman.

Where do you lie?  Challenge yourself on the one hand to be honest and define yourself by a single element or somewhere between two elements.  But as you study tone colors, try to become not one of the artists in the mix, but the artist holding the palette.


Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. 

I’ll meet you there.

~ Rumi



Let’s experiment with our Prelude.

First try by imitating Gieseking’s magical approach to Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.  Everything should float and there should be the illusion, even in forte, that the piano has no hammers.  Bells are welcome, provided they’re not struck directly or with hard mallets.  Imagine Water in all its non-violent forms and let yourself remain emotionally cool.  It should feel more like painting in watercolors than singing.

Now try Arrau’s earthy approach.  Every note should be planted lovingly into the earth – some of them roses or lilies, others full-grown Pines or Oaks.  The fingers, like spades of a shovel, sink in backed by the weight of the upper arms, the elbows not locked.  Although it’s all pedaled, let the attacks be dry when possible. Remember that Earth can be dry or wet.  It may help to imagine lying in the ocean near the shore, supporting the weight of your entire body with your fingers, the sand beneath them constantly slipping away.  It’s a sinking approach.

Try now applying Kissen’s Fire approach.  The emotional compression in the fingers and in the arms, the forearms especially, is intense, but never tight or forced.  It’s thick, living, flowing, hot energy, akin to lava, but much more controlled.  (Kissen is of course also a master of Ice and many other colors, but compressed Fire is his home-base.)  He uses a combined Height and Depth finger-based approach.  Let your fingers direct the energy, supported by the arms. They should attack always with oxygen – from at least a centimeter above the key surface – and descend at least a centimeter below the key bottom.  Remember that the Modern Russian School, which Kissen represents beautifully, is powered by expression.  The fingers must be inspired to compress the energy by the desire to play each note.  You must hear every note and sing it in your soul before playing it.  Compression without expression is simply dry, static tension and produces terrible, sometimes physically damaging results. 

Now let’s approach the Prelude with Air.  Let Argerich’s, light, fast, energy-based technique flow through you.  The attacks will be based on Speed, not Compression or Weight.  Release the sounds into the pedal at will.  The legato should always be loose, the hand always relaxed.  A certain amount of hand and arm rotation comes into play, making me imagine Argerich as a free-style kick-boxer.  Granted, hers is never a violent energy, but it’s full of free-flowing, graceful power.   Pull out an Argerich recording of Prokofiev’s 3rd Concerto or Tchaikovsky’s First, or any of them… and see if you can match her color and feel.

Experiment with other colors individually.  Try Horowitz’ singing metals approach, for example, or Friedman’s lightly flowing weighted approach.

Be as specific as possible about the colors on your palette.  Eventually, you’ll feel ready to try combining them.  Start by playing the Red line with Kissen’s Fire approach and everything else with Gieseking’s Water approach.  Continue by following the examples of the exercises for previous filters, and experiment at will. 

Like all of the filters, this is a life-time process. 


You are an aperture

through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.

~ Alan Watts