Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


There's more to music than meets the ear, said physiologist of the keyboard Otto Ortmann.
Opening photo courtesy Peabody Archives
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Scholarship

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Piano Playing as Science
By Dale Keiger

Otto Ortmann was obsessed with finding the right manner in which to play the piano. That fact alone was nothing odd. He was a 1917 Peabody Conservatory graduate (artist's diploma in composition), a member of its faculty (in harmony and piano) from 1917 to 1928, and then conservatory director. What was distinctive was Ortmann's approach to the problem: He became a scientist of piano playing. He established a laboratory at Peabody and set out to study and measure every aspect of making music at the keyboard.

In 1929, he published Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique, "an experimental study of the nature of muscular action as used in piano playing, and of the effects thereof upon the piano key and the piano tone." In an introduction to the 1963 edition of the book, musicologist Arnold Schultz noted that Ortmann did not say how the piano ought to be played, but how it must be played given the laws of mechanics and the realities of physiology. Ortmann measured and examined and observed, and concluded that due to the way the human arm and hand are constructed, there were fundamental things that every player had to do to get music out of a piano. "The book was revolutionary, and like all great shifts in thought, wore a certain air of strangeness," Schultz wrote. "Ortmann approached the problems of piano technique as a music teacher looking for scientific facts."

You glimpse some of Ortmann's method when you thumb through his book's 375 dense pages. Ortmann explained principles of force and fulcrums, and examined the skeleton, wrist flexion, musculature, and the geometrics of movement. He analyzed tremolo, posture, and "arm-work." His book included comparative photos of human arms and ršntgenograms (a form of x-ray photography) of hands. He devised ways of measuring the "contractions of finger-extensions." One photo shows a machine that Ortmann invented to record on a rotating drum the vertical movements of a player's fingers. Expert pianists, in Baltimore for concerts, would come to Ortmann's lab and allow him to hook them up to his devices while they played.

In photographs, Ortmann is always sober-faced, in jacket and tie, clean-shaven, his straight dark hair parted on the left. A trio of sepia-toned prints from 1926 records him wearing a boater. A picture snapped eight years later shows him standing on large stone steps, ramrod-straight in posture, with trouser creases sharp enough to slice onions. In 1928, he became Peabody's director. He apparently was not all that attentive to his duties, preferring his laboratory to receptions with donors. The Peabody board of trustees relieved him of the post in 1942. His book has gone out of print. But Schultz in his 1963 introduction noted that at least one pianist conformed exactly to Ortmann's scientifically researched ideal: Vladimir Horowitz.