Piano technique is by no means an easy element to teach and it’s even more tricky to learn and assimilate properly. Few tutors teach it successfully, whether this is because they know little about it or possibly because they find it difficult to relay to pupils (it is!). A good tutor must be able to break it all down thoroughly, building technique slowly over a period of time. They also need a compliant pupil who is prepared to practice and implement all the necessary ideas and physical movements.
One of the most interesting elements regarding piano playing is comfort; how many students really feel comfortable and relaxed both physically and mentally when they play? Mental happiness usually stems from physical comfort and the satisfaction that arises from truly ‘knowing’ your piece. Physical comfort is something entirely different. Many students have ‘comfort’ issues which are apparent as soon as they sit down at the instrument. I have discussed posture and hand positions here on the blog several times (here and here), but feeling ‘comfortable’ is a step further than merely sitting correctly at the instrument.
There are many who have an aversion to pianists moving around abundantly, perhaps rolling their head whilst playing, but movement at the piano is vital. One of the most basic mistakes to make as a pianist is to stay in one position; how do you propose to get from one end of the keyboard to the other without moving swiftly and without any tension? The keys don’t come to you, but rather you must go and find them. This requires movement. Constant movement, from arms, wrists and hands generally indicates a relaxed torso and usually a relaxed mind too. Creating this scenario whilst playing can be very taxing indeed, especially if you have a fairly stiff torso and despise moving. When you are tense, you will automatically feel uncomfortable and this will usually reflect in your playing; it will certainly affect sound production too. I should add here that movement must always feel and look natural; I’m not suggesting extraneous movements or facial expressions at all, but merely ask pianists to play easily using tension only when necessary i.e. actually to play a note.
Here are a few tips for creating flexibility and movement when sitting at the instrument. Nothing can compare with or replace proper and regular teaching, but start by thinking for yourself about how best to ‘free’ your body and move in a natural painless manner. Get acquainted with your comfort level. One way of ‘checking’ your posture and movements is by using a mirror; apparently, the great pianist Claudio Arrau often did this to ascertain which muscles were being employed when he played. You might be shocked at how frequently parts of your upper body ‘tense up’ as you play; this can be a most useful exercise.
1. In order to move effectively always try to sit up straight before you start practising and keep that way during practice sessions! Slouching is not conducive to comfortable piano posture. The feet should be flat on the floor, firmly supporting the torso.
2. When sitting at the piano shoulders must be down and remain there. This is an issue many pianists have to deal with; one idea is to check your shoulders copiously as you practice, you might be surprised at just how regularly they rise. Correcting raised shoulders is the first step to moving freely.
3. Once the shoulders feel free, arms must also be totally relaxed, almost like a ‘dead weight’ by your side. Even when engaged to play, they must feel free and be able to move swiftly, supporting the wrists and hands. The merely act as a support and should act as a ‘lever’ allowing you eventually to use proper arm weight aiding a warm sound (more on arm weight in another post).
4. The wrists are the most complicated part of the body to ‘free’, this is because many students are taught to keep them in a rigid position or sometimes even a ‘high’ position. If you can develop a rotational (or a circular) motion when employing the wrists, this will make it almost impossible for them to ‘seize up’ and be rigid. This is why movement is so important, if employed correctly it will aid stiffness completely allowing total comfort when playing. Generally you will need a good teacher to help you here.
5. As the wrists move in a rotational way (normally involving imperceptible circular motions), so the hands will also move laterally and this will stop them ‘freezing’ rigidly too, allowing taxing florid passagework to be easily negotiated which in turn will stop anxiety. When learning to master this, make large movements to start with as this will only aid freedom. I normally encourage students to play single notes with each hand (separately) allowing a rotational wrist and hand motion for each note; the idea of tension and release seems to be easier to grasp this way.
6. The fingers are the only part of the piano ‘mechanism’ that really must not be too flexible. Fingers must work independently as I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog. That means without the ‘help’ or reliance of other fingers. They work best whilst being supported by the knuckles and by the whole arm, hand wrist mechanism. Finger strength will normally be built up in conjunction with freeing the upper torso over a period of time. This in turn encourages ‘comfortable’ playing.
7. You can test how comfortable you feel by observing how your body reacts to difficult passagework or sections of a piece; if you find it stiffens and feels tight, then this can be a good indicator of what you need to work on. Observing our body’s reaction is a factor that is often ignored when we practice, usually because we are so caught up in the music and its complexities. Try to develop a ‘sixth sense’ and be aware of your comfort level here. This is especially important if pain or repetitive strain has been a problem in the past.
8. Be conscious of using tension correctly. To play well tension must be employed, but as soon as a note has been struck, the finger, hand, wrist and arm must be ‘released’. This involves freeing the muscles used to play the note in the first place. So there will be many sequences involving tension and then release. Where some players come unstuck, is they can’t ‘release’ at the given moment; they stay rigid hence feel uncomfortable. You may be able to find ways of doing this as you practice, however this particular element usually requires a knowledgeable teacher, as mentioned above, to help release (and make you aware of releasing) certain muscles.
9. Be patient. This is one area of piano playing which is hard to amend; once the body is used to playing in a particular fashion, it won’t change easily. It will require tenacity, commitment and perseverance, but it IS possible. Easy movement and flexibility are imperative and fundamental to comfortable playing.
I hope you are now acquainted with your comfort level, and will hopefully be able to start improving your body movement at the instrument.
Image: So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music.
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.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.