Tension is a huge problem in piano playing and although it often starts in the early stage of learning, if not continuely corrected, it can develop into full blown repetitive strain injury or tendonitis. There are so many musicians with this awful condition and once established, it is difficult to eradicate. Much of my time as a piano teacher is spent correcting bad or inappropriate technique especially in adults or more advanced players, who have unwittingly allowed the problem to get out of hand.
I was extremely fortunate to have a brilliant teacher to help me with this crucial aspect of development. My professor insisted on Czerny studies (and other studies too). In fact all my teachers from the beginning have recommended such studies, and I also believe that they are the best way to learn complete physical freedom in piano playing. It isn’t a quick solution though because it can take several years to practice them in the correct way necessary for improvement.
The Art of Finger Dexterity by Czerny Op. 740 was the ‘bible’, although I practised lots of the other Czerny study volumes too, which I was encouraged to play at great force and all from memory; in fact I memorised each hand separately to play to my teacher too – which wasn’t easy at all! I studied two or three every week and remember practising them first thing in the morning for an hour or two. They were swiflty followed by a strong coffee and some Liszt or other composer on which I was working at the time.
When studying technnique, I find it necessary to practice with complete finger independence in mind, that is, all five fingers working on their own and preferably on the ‘tips’ of fingers; playing with flat fingers works for some but I find that using the fingertips is much more effective for clarity and rapidity, too. The wrist causes problems for most students. High wrists or stiff low wrists merely exacerbate tension and if continued, make playing at speed and with great power impossible or at least very difficult. So it’s best if the whole arm is encouraged to be flexible right down to the wrist; this seems to be the best way to produce a rich warm and deep sound as well. Fingers should work alone from the knuckles so in effect the whole arm is just supporting the fingers and allowing for beautiful tone production. Fourth and fifth fingers are always weak, and, therefore, they usually need special attention and lots of work. Try allowing your wrists to be as relaxed as possible by keeping them moving fluidly.
Whilst I have explained (as best I can) the basics of good technique, it’s one area of playing that really needs to be coached in person. Adults and teenagers find changing the way they play awkward, and it can be soul destroying at first, but they soon realise they feel better once they start releasing their tension problems and almost immediately their stiffness goes away. No-one really enjoys practising Czerny or similar studies, but they do help significantly when developing a strong and free technique, provided that students are shown correctly; like any piano study, it’s all too easy to sit and play aimlessly; you do need to know exactly how to work at these exercises. Aim to find a teacher who can explain and demonstrate all of the above.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
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