Today’s post was originally printed in the recent edition of Piano Professional, a magazine for piano teachers published by EPTA (European Piano Teachers Association). It focuses on an aspect of playing which I feel is extremely important: flexibility. This article concentrates on simple exercises which students find helpful as they start their practice sessions.
Playing the piano is a fascinating but complex activity. It can transport human beings to another plane, allowing us to interpret and become close to great master pieces, and it provides a wonderful background for education too, teaching us discipline, mental and physical agility, coordination, and, above all, patience. But it can also cause much pain and discomfort if not approached in a healthy way. Some pianists experience minimal tension as they move around the instrument, but for others, tension issues can go far beyond minimal. Tendonitis, repetitive strain injury and focal dystonia are just some of the physical problems caused by extreme physical tension, or a ‘locking-up’ of the muscles and tendons. As teachers, we need to be able to identify, and have the capacity to help, students who present themselves in this condition.
Physical issues generally form over time, whether a student has studied with a teacher (or several teachers) or has been self-taught, the underlying tightness has taken a while to take hold, and once it has, changing the physical and mental mind set so that a student can begin to unravel themselves, needs patience, great care and understanding.
I have had some experience in this arena, and over the past few years have worked with a cohort of students who have presented various stages of physical discomfort. Alleviating these issues can take much time and effort – often over a period of a few years, so it goes without saying that a healthier approach would be to encourage pupils to move in a relaxed, flexible manner from the outset. But what can we do to change the techniques of those students who have already ceased moving flexibly and are in the grip of pain and discomfort?
One particular mental aspect associated with pain or movement issues of any kind are the feelings of inadequacy or not being able to play the piano in the manner which they believe they should. Students can tend to think that they need to visit physiotherapists, chiropractors or osteopaths and so on. But in my experience, none of this is generally necessary. Once a student knows they have support and guidance, and they learn the following physical exercises, they not only begin to release their physical tensions, but also the associated thought process which might have led to their problems in the first place. Some pupils will need constant and continual reassurance, and therefore it can be beneficial to move through the following exercise suggestions slowly, thoroughly and with humility and sensitivity.
For those who have already manifested physical difficulties, here are a few ideas to hopefully start releasing any tension held in the upper body whilst playing the piano.
Tension issues or a feeling of tightness frequently manifests in the shoulders or back. This might sound far-fetched, but it’s surprising just how many students are able to ‘lock’ their shoulders and their backs as they play, often without even noticing their awkward position. I begin by asking students to sit on the stool in an upright position (with a straight spine), and with their feet firmly on the floor; it might be easier for some to sit on the edge of the stool (nearest the keyboard), so they are fully supported by their feet and legs. They will now be in a solid secure position playing position. I encourage their arms to drop from the shoulder in a completely relaxed manner, so that they are swinging by their side; this should feel akin to having very ‘heavy’ arms, as their muscles completely relax. I refer to this as ‘dead’ arms, which seems to suitably spark their imagination! After a while, it will be relatively easy to spot if a student is still tensing shoulders or other parts of their upper body.
This position can be viewed as ‘a starting point’ or a ‘default’ position during practice; students with issues benefit from returning to this position frequently, and once they have ‘learnt’ the feeling, they start to understand how to release themselves. Much emphasis must be placed on learning the feeling, because this is the most effective way to loosen muscles and tendons. As the arms swing heavily by their side, the back and shoulders will begin to release their tightness, and should return to a more ‘standard’ position, that is, with the shoulders in the expected horizontal position without being raised, and with the back completely relaxed and comfortable. It’s important to do this before any actual playing occurs, so they are free to feel and understand muscle release without the distraction of playing.
Many tension problems stem from pupils not quite grasping the tension and release concept which is so necessary in piano playing, and as teachers, it is up to us to demonstrate how this works, and offer solutions. I will work with a student, sometimes for many lessons, just on the particular exercise mentioned above, until they know how to release themselves.
Now we need to find a way for students to put their hands on the keyboard in the ‘playing’ position without feeling any tightening or ‘locking’ at all. I ask students to lift their forearms up from the elbows, whilst keeping flexible, and rest their entire hand on the keys; they need to be at the correct height sitting at the keyboard, so that they can then release their arms, hands and wrists of any tension as they rest their hands in the correct place (see photo 1).
Many students will feel tight just by putting their hands in the position to play, so the next step has to be to release their muscles and tendons whilst in the playing position. To do this it might be necessary to work separate hands, and hold one hand on the keyboard with the other, or free, hand (see photo 2). The whole arm, hand and wrist must be completely loose and ‘hanging’ down for total relaxation to have occurred. It must be noted that this is NOT a position in which to ever play the piano; it is merely an exercise to loosen muscles and alleviate tension. Wrists should never appear as low as in my photo, but ‘dropping’ the arm, wrist and hand can be extremely helpful when trying to achieve the task of releasing tight muscles:
With adult students or teenage students, I always help here (with their permission), and often hold their hands in place for them on the keyboard, so they are free to be completely loose and at ease in their upper body. Hands will almost certainly fall off the keyboard without my assistance, although after a period of time, students can learn to hold their hands in position whilst feeling loose in their upper body; again, it’s all about learning the feeling.
Once the back, shoulders and forearms are starting to feel loose, which may take a few weeks of solid work, we can turn our attention to releasing the hand and the muscles/tendons within it. The hand can also be locked especially between each finger (as shown in the photo 3). This is particularly true of the fourth and fifth finger, and it’s this issue that precludes successful octave, chord and finger agility.
Firstly, make sure the hands are ‘loose’, with the fleshy areas feeling relaxed. Secondly, it can help to rest the hand on the top of the keyboard. Now ask your student to open their hand out in a comfortable position, stopping as soon as they feel any tightness (see photo 4).
They may not be able to open their hand very far to begin with, but if they do this exercise, little and often, eventually the hand will be able to open progressively further without feeling any tightness. To achieve this, hold the hand in position using the other free hand (see photo 5), allowing the tendons and muscles within the hand to release; this is challenging to do when the hand has to keep itself in an ‘open’ position, and therefore with the help of the other hand, this exercise is much easier to grasp.
Eventually, the hand starts to feel relaxed in this out-stretched position. Although it can take time, it’s well worth the effort, because it gives pupils the chance to feel comfortable and secure when playing in the position needed for octaves, awkward chords and it can also foster the development of independence within the fingers.
My ideas might seem exaggerated or even counterintuitive; students occasionally find it difficult to comprehend the concept of complete relaxation in the arm, hand and wrist, when they do in fact need to apply a certain amount of tension when playing notes. However, it’s only the fingers and knuckles which must remain firm, with the remaining upper body being totally relaxed, so that they can support the fingers whilst also providing the possibility of allowing the arm to move freely, for arm-weight and a rich, full sound.
Once a student has released their shoulders, back, arms and hands, we can move onto probably the most important joint in the body when it comes to playing the piano: the wrist. My second article in this series will focus on wrist exercises, with the aim of keeping it relaxed and flexible.
You can read the original article by clicking on the link below:
For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.