Painless Piano Playing Part 1

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).

                                                                                              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:

Photo 2

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.

Photo 3

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).

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.

                                                                                               Photo 5

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:

Painless Piano Playing Part 1

My publications:

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.


Comfortable Piano Playing

So you want to play the piano photo 5

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 (have a look here and here), but feeling ‘comfortable’ is a step further than merely sitting correctly at the instrument (although this is crucial).

There are many who have an aversion to pianists moving around abundantly, perhaps rolling their head (and sometimes their eyes too!) 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 – good luck.

Image: So You Want To Play The Piano? published by Alfred Music.

My publications:

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.

Celebrating the Left Hand

Many students have ongoing problems regarding their left hand. These difficulties may include inability to read the bass clef properly, weaker fingers or just lack of co-ordination and movement. A languid left hand can be caused by so many culprits, so today I thought it may be a good idea to examine the reasons why the bass clef is crucial, along with a few suggestions about how to alleviate various left hand issues.

Left hand concerns usually start (as with so many difficulties) with insufficient guidance from teachers at the beginning (or perhaps a student who has tried teaching themselves). Many piano tutor books can also be of little help; there are books on the market which focus solely on learning the right hand (or treble clef), rather ignoring the left until perhaps much later when, of course, it’s too late. Fluent reading must start with both hands and both staves (where all the notes live on the score) being negotiated at the same time. The bass clef is arguably harder to read and assimilate than the treble clef, so it’s imperative the left hand is given equal attention from the outset.

 Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Left hand notation, (how the notes are laid out on the stave) is different to that of the right, and the differences must be noted and learnt properly. This may take some time but will be completely worth the extra effort.
  2. Without thorough bass clef knowledge, proper hand co-ordination is challenging and sight-reading is impossible.
  3. The bass line is imperative in piano music; it often provides the accompaniment (especially in Classical and Romantic music), supporting the right hand’s melodic line. The accompaniment can be much more complicated and widespread than the melodic material too, so the left hand requires an easy facility in order to move all around the keyboard.
  4. In the Baroque style particularly (such as that by J S Bach and contemporaries), the left hand must equal the right in terms of phrasing, articulation and agility because the contrapuntal writing pervading this music, demands exacting rhythmic perfection.
  5. Whether the piece you are playing consists of a simple chordal accompaniment or is a much more florid and elaborate affair, harmonic structure and stylistic understanding frequently originates in the bass part due to Western harmonic structure.
  6. Good pedalling requires proper listening, but so often pedalling must coincide with the bass line because it is the basis of harmonic foundation.
  7. If you plan to play or learn your piece from memory, the importance of the left hand comes to the fore; left hand memorisation can be really helpful and sometimes vital.
  8. Mastering a work’s bass part can aid stability and confidence in performance.

So how can we overcome these difficulties and encourage your left hand to work properly? Once the notes and left hand layout have been properly understood and grasped, then there is the necessity (in my opinion) of working regularly at the bass line.

The best advice is to play exactly the same material in each hand (in unison); whatever you learn in the right hand should also be practised in the left. This works well with studies, scales, arpeggios and short exercises. Most pupils are probably introduced to this idea via scales and arpeggios, but to really progress, studies such as Czerny and Hanon (particularly the latter) can be very helpful. I do often mention these studies (sorry!) and they can be dull, but if played correctly will really aid flexibility.

Repetitive patterns, such as the following example, taken from 101 Exercises  Op.261 by Czerny, encourage hands to work equally, regularly work each finger. This type of repetition (if practised fluently with a free, rotating wrist and relaxed arm) strengthens fingers allowing them to work independently, which is what is needed for secure left hand playing. Try the following left hand exercise with the suggested fingering (Czerny’s own) making sure your arm, hand and wrist is always relaxed. Start by playing the left hand alone (memorising it so you can completely focus on your hand and finger movements).

Czerny 5

Build up your strength gradually and you might be surprised at how strong your left hand will become; eventually functioning as well as the right. Once you have practised the above left hand exercise, don’t forget to do the equivalent for the right hand too. The wrist should feel ‘free’ at all times and it can help to divide up with exercise into crotchet beats i.e. working on just four semi-quavers at a time.

When you feel both hands are working equally well without any strain or tension, introduce Hanon studies. These require the same finger movement in each hand; the left hand must learn to work fluently  so not to ‘lag’ behind the right. As with all studies, start slowly building up strength and speed. It is easier to notice rhythmic or note irregularities or unevenness when hands play exactly the same material.

The following example is the from the first exercise from Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist.

piano sheet music of The Virtuoso Pianist Part 1 (1-20)

Another strategy is to reverse practice or play the right hand line (treble clef) in the left hand and vice versa. This can be helpful too if done occasionally. It can be confusing to start with and you don’t have to play complete works in this fashion, but you can benefit from small sections. This can be a particularly useful method for learning to memorise a work.

Also useful is to practice the left hand material alone but two octaves higher than it is written on the page. This aids clarity, allowing you to really hear what is being played because notes can sometimes sound ‘muddy’ and unclear in the bass register. Try playing your piece hands together but then play the left hand part above the right; ostensibly the left hand will play exactly the same notes as written, rather like the suggestion above (playing two octaves higher) but with the right hand playing its material underneath. This is quite a tricky option but can be helpful nevertheless.

Thorough separate hand practice can be very beneficial. Students should be encouraged to learn each hand on its own when looking at new pieces, and if pupils focus on the left hand as much if not more than the right, this is also a successful strategy for swift learning. Try practising the left hand from memory and see how much you can remember. Probably not much to start with, but as you hone your memorisation skills, you will find that memorising the left hand comes into its own. This method is particularly useful when studying counterpoint. However you chose to practice do not neglect your left hand, because until both hands work securely you will find mastering most piano pieces a gargantuan task. Good luck and enjoy.

My publications:

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.