Students often find the concept of tension breaks challenging. What do I mean by this expression? Most pianists understand the idea of tension and release; we need a certain amount of tension in our bodies to play a note or a group of notes, but the second (or millisecond) the note or notes have been played, we must adjust immediately by releasing that tension. If we don’t, and we continue to keep fingers/wrists/hands/arms taught or rigid, then tension builds and, after a certain amount of time (or a certain number of notes), the pianist will become taught and tight. If this is allowed to continue for too long, the player could eventually become injured. Pain and discomfort often follow this type of unsatisfactory way of playing the piano. Therefore, it is crucial to, firstly, become aware of this type of tension and comprehend how it feels, and, secondly, know how to alleviate it.
I spend a large amount of time addressing this problem during lessons with my students, and it can take a good few months before they use tension breaks automatically, that is, without thinking. Until they reach this point, we routinely discuss where we can ‘break’ (or alleviate) tension in a piece, and how we should ideally go about implementing it.
There are many ways to ‘break free’ from such tension during practice and performance, but the most important factor to start with is noticing where and how the body responds to difficult passage work; in reality, the passage work may not be that tricky, it all depends on a student’s level and their muscular flexibility. The ‘feeling’ of tension is basically one of discomfort; muscles and ligaments feel tight, restricted, often during fast, prolonged figurations, or during chords and rapid octave passages. If this situation continues, then pain might eventually follow.
I have been working on Chopin’s Etude in G flat major Op 10 No. 5, sometimes known at the ‘Black Key’ Study, with two students, both of whom needed to learn how to ‘free’ themselves of perpetual tightness as they moved swiftly up and down the keyboard, negotiating the copious florid passages that inhabit this difficult piece.
The following right-hand passage work, which forms the opening six bars of the piece (Ex. 1), poses several problems, namely the figurations, which do not sit comfortably for many, what with the necessary constant use of the fourth and fifth finger, which, if not firmly placed on each note, will slide off the keys, or, at best, will skim over the note passages, which is what can happen if fingers are flat and not working optimally – the right hand part demands clarity and a bold, bright touch:
In the beginning, during slow practice and preparation, we employed a very deep touch on each note (in the right hand) for an extended period, playing extremely slowly, using wrist rotations on or after every note, in order to produce a heavy, full sound and to assimilate the note patterns precisely. Accents on the fourth and fifth fingers were also beneficial, as they encouraged finger tips to solidly plant themselves in the centre of every note, so when finally played up to speed, fingers do not skim over keys, which can cause both rhythmic and evenness issues. We also employed several other finger touches for practice purposes, and, after a while, we also gave the third finger special attention, too.
When secure, we then started to increase the speed, still using a deep touch. However, this type of exaggerated, detailed work, if practised too much, will cause discomfort in the arm, wrist and hand, and, therefore, needs to be managed carefully and only practised for short periods of time. During such work, tension breaks become very helpful. Here’s a practice plan for the first six bars (RH):
At speed, tension breaks were needed every two bars during early practice stages (marked by the bars rest). After the student had played the first two bars, I encouraged them to take their hands off the keyboard, put them on their knee and consciously ‘release’ any tightness or taught feeling in their arms, hands and wrists (we did this when practising both hands separately and together). This tense feeling, whether due to muscles or ligaments, often builds-up during several bars of intense finger activity such as this passage work requires – it’s for this reason that we always employ wrist rotations, encouraging loose, relaxed wrists, in between notes at the start of the learning process, and then we use them, sometimes during every bar (in this piece), when up to speed. This is because continual movement aids flexibility in the arm, hand and wrist, whilst allowing fingers to still be firm. This form of practice generally lasts for several weeks, as in the case of my two students; it takes this time to learn to ‘feel’ the release.
Eventually, the tension breaks become shorter (marked by the arrows in the example above); they are still there, but are only needed for a second or two (denoted by the pause), just to provide a brief gap, usually signified by a swift wrist movement or rotation, to quickly ‘release’ building tension, incurring a short break, where students stop playing momentarily to release their muscles and ligaments, before continuing.
Both students used these breaks or ‘gaps’ in the sound for every two bars throughout the whole piece, and once their hands and wrists became used to the feeling of that release, they were then able to keep wrists flexible for four bars without a break, and, therefore, they paused every four bars instead of every two. We also found it useful to use a tension break each time the passagework or musical texture changed, such as at bars 15, 23, 27, and 33.
Finally, when played up to speed, tension breaks were still required, but they are were no longer noticeable, as wrists and hands have, by now, learned the ‘feeling’ and both students were able to swiftly disengage any building tension without disturbing the pulse. However, even at this late stage of learning, they were, and probably will always be, employed to aid a relaxed, flexible wrist and hand movement throughout, which prompts adherence to rhythmic precision.
You can hear the piece, here:
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.