Reflections on Technique Part 1 – Introduction

What is muscular freedom?

Passive or active, the sensation of freedom from muscular strain in the arm, especially in the elbow, should be cultivated at all times (and especially early on). This process should be more straightforward with children (often naturally relaxed) but not with adults or adolescents who have already acquired bad muscular habits. Our civilized life in the western hemisphere tends to disregard the training of the human body to perform everyday muscular functions without losing its original elasticity. 

The Hand or the Mind?

The essential requirements of an excellent pianistic hand proved a constant source of contention among past generations of piano teachers. A pedagogical topic that created interesting debates was the relative value of long or short fingers, along with issues such as the broad, fleshy hand versus a slender bony one. On the contrary, piano teachers realized that directing attention to the mind, which controls our actions, instead of the shape of the hand, etc., was central to the discussion.

The most improbable hands can occasionally perform feats of virtuosity denied to some more likely-looking ones, simply through force of mind, that rare combination of imagination and concentration (the former for the design, the latter for the execution) that characterizes a young artist. A seemingly pianistic unsuitable hand can be transformed, by intense exercising, into a suitable one, and stretches of an octave and more, impossible at first, can become easy, sometimes in months.

Elasticity – a better word than Relaxation

There are plenty of functional exercises which aim at restoring still young muscles to their original state of elasticity. “Elasticity” is perhaps a better word than ‘relaxation,’ which is an inaccurate oversimplification applied to piano playing. 

Two Simple Exercises

  1. One exercise meant to remove rigidity entails throwing the resting arm from one’s lap onto the keyboard.
  2. Hold and support the student’s arm with your hand, then suddenly let go to test if the student’s arm drops downwards, which it will do if relaxed.

It would help if one practiced such exercises regularly (or, at least, the first since the teacher might not always be available) before playing, perhaps using them to start a daily routine for a while. These exercises can contribute to one’s mindfulness and help capture and refresh the feeling of elasticity.

We must remember that soft muscles that might feel relaxed during exercises would contract and stiffen when the attention is brought to other musical aspects.

How static are five-finger positions at the keyboard?

Regarding immobile positions at the keyboard, I would say that there can be no static, stationary, or wholly motionless position throughout the performance. The wrist (which should be free to undulate up and down and rotate to either side) or the hand should not be kept immobile. Of course, the hand, wrist, forearm, upper arm, fingers, and even the body are all in constant motion.

On unnecessary bodily gestures

At most, if a tendency towards the excessive body and head movement is strikingly noticeable in your demeanor, that’s when the teacher should intervene with a recommendation of greater discipline (as I have often done in the past, I suppose). The same applies to other bad habits, such as singing, snorting, making hideous faces, stertorous breathing, etc.

Weight and elasticity

What about weight and relaxation (elasticity)? Even in scales and runs, through the agency of the thumb in changing position, the hand and forearm enter into play, either by active movement or by passively supplying the necessary volume of sound which the fingers-too light and too weak- cannot produce by themselves. It is evident that any part of the body does not play the piano in isolation but through a compound of all elements functioning in coordination.

Defining technique

So, what is technique? The piano technique is the ability, gained by experience and practice, to bring the anatomy of the human body to bear on the instrument and, in so doing, to achieve the best possible results with the least likely exertion.

You must create in your body a state of muscular harmony (sometimes misnamed ‘relaxation’) in which alternative possibilities of tensing and relaxing groups of muscles are appropriately coordinated and controlled by will. As the most robust energy center, the shoulder should receive special attention. It is not very mobile, but it can produce both the most prominent and smallest sound volume. The impetus for various arm movements (rotation and vibrato being the most frequently used) comes from the shoulder.

Volume, scientifically speaking, depends on speed. Yet, I cannot explain why it is not the only force contributing to sound and my science background, being poor, is of no help to my queries. Volume, or rather, sound quality (what should be called “tone”), also might depend on the weight or sometimes (not often) pressure. The weight originating in the shoulder should and transmitted via the arm to the wrist, hand, and fingertips must aim at the string (sound point), not the keybed. The transmission itself is an act of leverage –not of brute force– and therefore, you should feel most muscular exertion as an upward action against the shoulder. Keys should not be hit or squeezed.

Compound movements

All acts are compound ones, involving everything from the shoulder downwards, and it is useless to isolate any part of your body — for example, the fingers — and make it work alone. However, we learn compound movements better when we also know how to isolate them. That is the principle so misunderstood in all history–one against which some recent studies in pedagogy attack. Isolation of movement was not an end in itself. The earlier instruments did not need the same power required on a modern piano — the power compound movements generate.

It is safe to assume that once the muscular harmony (or relaxation) is present in your mind, your body will automatically find the right – that is, the most practical and economical – movements to achieve it. As a teacher, I am most preoccupied with creating the conditions necessary to produce sound-related actions rather than being solely interested in movements.

When technique ceases to exist consciously

Ultimately it would be best if you lost all consciousness of technique. Hard work and practice help you reach this ideal, and then the technique (or the method to achieve what’s on your mind and inner ear) ceases to exist. Then, the artistic, musical thought (concerned with the higher things of the mind and the soul, which range freely) begins to take shape.

Piano Technique: Reflections, Videos, Exercises, and Scores. 

Reflections on Technique