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Friday, 23 December 2016

Effortless balance within piano technique- Poise in chords and octaves- connecting your whole arm to the keyboard, without burdening the hand

This is technically the second part of my core group of posts on the subject of balance. However, if you haven't already worked through the first then please carry on regardless and begin here. I'm certainly not discarding the prior post- which contains extra exercises for healthy balance. If you've been through it, you didn't waste your time. However, you'll notice a notable difference in the tone here. The first post was perhaps rather abstracted from actual playing. In this one, I'm going to show you some tricks that have instant and direct bearing on ability to play passages featuring chords and octaves (especially those that demand a powerful sound) with ease and finesse.

Since the previous post I've developed new approaches, that give a much quicker way of feeling the connection to the keys during musical works- with not only comfort, but also a sense of poise. Following the main exercises, I'll show you how to recognise when typical problems have their underlying roots in a poorly poised hand/arm combination, and I'll give a simple corrective method. Video demonstrations (of myself using the same methods to develop poise in musical examples) should help clarify how crazy quick-fire passages and simpler melodies alike depend on knowing a sustainable quality of connection to each musical step. But, first, there would be little point in reading on if I couldn't prove some reasonable degree of first hand experience.



While I'd hope that most people might agree that signs of poise are on display there, the real question is what IS that? Some people might note than I'm not as "relaxed" as some pianists. While consistent ease was a goal, going floppy in the instant after each sound was certainly not. In fact, I'll prove to you that there are situations where going into a flaccid hand will CAUSE greater tension, compared to a more steady hand posture! While I'd hate to sound like I'm trying to put myself in the same category, watch Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatoslav Richter on Youtube and what you'll get is a sense of sustainable physical focus. Now, this post won't be one of my shortest, but I offer a firm guarantee to any pianist (from beginner to concert pro) that if you're willing to risk half an hour or so of your life, you'll come out with a clearer understanding of what exactly is going on beneath the surface of both players. I'll show you how and why they can engage quite so positively (while staying well within a range of comfort)- and I'll give you a very simple trick to get closer to them. If you try all the exercises and don't feel I've brought something radically new to your understanding of active poise within high-calibre pianism, you have my open invitation to leave an expletive-riddled tirade of abuse in the comments section!

Before getting fully started, I'll just define the term in a very simple way that clarifies why it matters so much. In short, poise is an alert state of readiness for anything. By using exercises that are designed to check for this, we can get feedback on comfort AND function. Here's a preview of the main exercise, to show how simple it is to apply (although please do work through the rest of the post before trying it, in order to avoid any possible misunderstandings). There are a couple of short excerpts from Liszt and Chopin. For each, I play it first with what is frankly a really crappy dysfunctional hand position (deliberately, although this honestly isn't much different from how I used to play). I then do the basic exercise to change the coordination and repeat with a productively engaged approach.


If a hand is clenched tightly to force a conventional position or drooped down due to aimless misuse of relaxation, both will depend on points of stiffness in the overall balance (especially in the wrist)! Obviously a clenched hand is tense, but the wrong type of relaxation too will cause tension elsewhere. Former problems were caused by intent to relax, that needed abrupt stiffness to stop my knuckles falling. Checking freedom of movement in the middle fingers quickly exposes unnoticed points of  tightness and helps to free them. Picture a snake preparing to strike/a gymnast poised to vault. There is stability, but also complete readiness for movement. Balance doesn't veer between something akin to biting down on a plank of wood (in anticipation of having a limb amputated, without anaesthetic) and the equivalent of a drunkard fainting into a flowerbed. It typically remains in a range near the middle, that can be maintained safely and easily, without a hint of discomfort. This kind of active poise also stands up well to nervousness. Both tense and floppy positions can get very unstable during nerves- inviting a battle against trembling that will tend to be fought by clenching harder, in a bid to resist. Real poise connects in a way that will help stabilise even a shaky arm via improved security (providing an even stronger foundation for beating nerves, than mental strategies alone).


What can weight really do?

For the first section, I have to establish two facts about gravity (which are not the ones you typically hear of) ready for the exercises. Now, a great many of my ideas are closely in line with the teachings of Alan Fraser (who is notably opposed to weight traditions), but this won't be an anti-armweight approach, as such. There's a huge amount of common ground with weight ideals here, but I'll have to ask gravity devotees to keep an open mind towards a few game-changing adjustments.  

Anyhow, firstly I must demonstrate exactly why an oversimplified idea of connecting weight into the fingers can be quite so problematic. So, what does weight really do?

Hold your hand over the keys and simply flop your relaxed hand and arm, like that of a corpse (example 1). Your fingertips can either start touching the keys or above. Before we put any actions in, let's get an objective awareness of what happens during a relaxed state, through release of weight. Where does the weight go and exactly what movements does it cause? There will be subtle variations, but it should be relatively universal that weight does NOT pile easily upon the fingertips and into the keys. In fact, in the truest release, the wrist is where the weight of the arm should naturally manifest itself. If you can't feel this, try the same release in two extreme locations- firstly so the fingers are only just upon the very edges of  the keys and then towards the backboard (both in example 1).


(nb. example numbers will show directly on the video if you're on a desktop, although Youtube unfortunately omits them on mobile devices)


In the former, the wrist should go freely down into the empty space. In the latter, the weight of a released arm should primarily be felt to plop the heel of the hand down against the keys. The downward pressure caused by gravity scarcely passes through the fingertips to the keys- unless we make active muscular interventions, to redirect it there. True use of dead weight will go primarily into a wrist "flop". Your wrist is a hinge by nature, after all, and not a rigid link to the hand. To illustrate further, close the piano lid and practise the same (example 2). When relaxed, the fingers should land fairly gently with the real thud of energy going through the heel of the hand. Even when the fingers land first, the main sound should be when the wrist lands. If you sent it to the fingers without the wrist plopping like that, you actually pushed the arm forwards and up on contact- which is hardly a hallmark of free-falling weight! Don't worry about trying this one right now (I'll give a detailed explanation in a future post), but witness example 3 for illustrations of this action on the lid and then octaves. Note the upward quality to the landing. I do a very obvious continuation staccato and then a more subtle version without releasing the keys. The arm does not land like a tonne of bricks in either.

Anyway, let's come back to the genuine effect of releasing dead weight. The action of gravity upon the upper arm also causes a chain reaction that should pull your forearm and hand horizontally back towards you.  A genuinely released arm (that is not held forward by muscular action) will not only droop through the wrist, but it will tug the hand back along the keys until it falls off. As a secondary aspect, if your elbow wasn't held tightly to your side, the upper arm will fall inwards towards the torso. Gravity might be a downward force, but the overall effect on an arm occurs in all three dimensions.


Gravity Facts:

1. Upon literal release of the arm into the keys, the most significant manifestation of gravity DOES NOT naturally weigh notably upon the fingertips. Without a host of muscular interventions, genuinely free falling arm weight will primarily channel speed and momentum into the collapse of the WRIST. The heel of hand is the primary point on which weight will land.

2 The resultant effect of released arm weight tugs the forearm and hand BACKWARDS from the piano (and draws the upper arm INWARDS towards your torso). It doesn't just rest conveniently down into the keys from on top- unless your muscles are holding the arm forwards.  


The problems with getting weight wrong


At this point, if you're more interested in a simple route to what does work, feel free to scroll down to the exercises, starting with the section headed "forwards and under". However, if you want the very deepest understanding of pianistic problems, I'm first going to show why those two facts make armweight ideals so tough to apply. I'll give a quick run down of four basic problems and then show  a film of myself (from some ten years back before I began reworking my technique) where you'll see how they get in the way. Now, before anyone should accuse me of burning a strawman, let me be clear that I'm not suggesting that all armweight methods ask you to literally play merely by letting go of dead weight. This is not the whole story. However, I do think it's fair to say that the adaptations (which are required to successfully direct weight into the fingers) are rarely made clear.

Although it IS possible to find a functional manner, two types of radically disconnected and highly overworked arm can easily arise. In example 4, there's an illustration of a hand that collapses and strains really badly while I try to send weight on top, by holding it forwards. I'm exaggerating it at first (beginning with a relaxed droop into a cluster) but even the far smaller collapse shown after can be a problem. If the knuckle sinks even a little during loud chords, it typically means that you must pull back/stiffen severely. Do you see my fingers working really hard to pull back from disaster? This is an "emergency save" that stops the knuckles from hitting a cluster, but through way too much effort. Excess relaxation merely created the demand for tension.




In example 5, my hand works better- engaging to open the arch with movement, to allow for total confidence without risk of falling down. However, in a bid to get weight over the fingers my wrist ends up very high (to the point where it creates a slight "pinching" during landing, rather than full ease). Although a sense of weight can now pass meaningfully through the fingers, holding the weight forwards radically contradicts the points about how a relaxed arm behaves under gravity. Obviously we can use a high wrist some of the time, but once you're there it's not a sustainable place to stick around. Spending too much time in such a position means working harder against gravity, thanks to a mindset of getting weight into the keys! This is a valid tool in a balanced whole, but it's not good as the most standard option.

At this point, if we go back to the most literal release of weight (rather than try to move it over the fingers) there are new problems. The arm's weight can drag the wrist back and let it down, but allow it to continue and we'll end up with the new discomfort of a drooping wrist (example 6). It is important to be familiar with such a genuinely released arm, but letting the wrist go so far doesn't create an easy connection to the instrument. It's no better poised than when holding weight forwards. Still, one final possibility- we can add various rules about hand position and keeping the wrist straight etc. On the surface, that might seem to avoid all those problems. It may indeed be helpful to some. However, it easily creates an extremely self-conscious state in which everything is tight and restricted (example 7). What we see obeys many common rules and unquestionably prevents the knuckle droop. It probably matches perfectly to what many would regard as a "professional" look. However it is not so much a "balance" as a rigid position that is forced by severe mental and physical effort. Horrifyingly, some methods even directly advise the pianist to "lock" their wrist while playing a chord- hardly something that matches to an idea of using weight to take the effort out of playing! The appearance of this position is only the tip of the iceberg. As I'll show later, it's a process that determines whether it works. Do you sense a difference in example 8? Superficially it looks fairly similar, but this time it's real poise. If you think the actively extended fingers look more "tense" than in example 7, I hope that the coming exercises (plus a film of Argerich using her fingers exactly this way in her notoriously wild octaves) will at least give you cause to think.

Anyway, if you look at this rather old film of myself (in the days prior to taking my taking any serious interest in analysis of technique), you'll see a hotch-potch that veers between all of these problems. Don't be too alarmed by the severed head.



I'm frequently trying to direct weight to the fingers, but my knuckles droop badly under that pressure. I thus have to seize up to avoid going into palm clusters. Sometimes the knuckles stand up to it better, but I still get trapped into working hard to hold weight forwards and over. Sometimes I'm simply clenching unnecessarily tightly to stay in a more conventional position. And sometimes I'm drooping my wrist sharply downwards with gravity to free it from too much time in various high effort positions. These particular moments are often fit to trick a casual eye into assuming I seem "relaxed" throughout the performance. After all, the "tension/release" school says an instant of tension is fine as long as you release it as soon as possible, right? Well, if the floppy parts made you assume I was generally freer than in the first film, I'm afraid your eyes have fooled you. This is relaxation as a mere prelude to the most severe kinds of tensions. I directly recall the sense of burning that had built up in my forearms by the end of the video. The floppy bits are pure misdirection. Overall it didn't even fulfil a basic standard of comfort.

Forwards and UNDER

Anyway, enough moaning about problems. From now on, this is all about the exercises for feeling the simplest adaptations from literal relaxed weight, into an effective quality of balance. The main one quickly brings all these concepts together- with a simple trick to feeling a state which is every bit as comfortable as it is functional. However, you'll first need to run through one slightly more abstract one, to get used to a key ingredient of the balance state.

Firstly, please find a way to set up a mirror beside the piano so you can fully observe yourself. Before anything, we're going to check how free and responsive your hand is when in a neutral state. It's a simple case of taking your hand (in the most literal relaxed state possible) and moving it forwards towards the backboard of the piano. When you run out of movement for the fingers, continue to move your arm regardless (example 9). This is no cause for panic, as you need merely stay loose so the fingers can fold in, thus pushing the knuckles upward.



With a lot of students, this will be very revealing. If you have that tendency to try to send your weight OVER the fingers, the wrist may rise sharply, which would likely squash the knuckles as unpleasantly as in example 10. This kind of thing happens with the majority of students I give this to, upon first attempts. If the wrist gets higher than the knuckles it is simply a whole other action that pushes your knuckles downwards. For what we need here, the knuckles must be free to drift up above the wrist, as a response. If this isn't happening, take special care to think only of slowly moving the wrist directly forwards, with no other expectation. You may be going up as a result of pressing down on your fingertips, without even realising- particularly if you normally aim to get weight there when playing. If the wrist does go above the knuckles, flop it and pause (to notice where the weight naturally wants to rest) and then lighten up enough to try again. Only active pressing can burden the knuckles, not genuine dead weight. Another common problem is if you are used to bracing your hand, to resist movements. If you can't get it loose enough to respond, first wiggle the fingers using your other hand to release any stiffness (see example 11- but apply it to all individual fingers). Then put your hands up, as if to surrender to a masked gunman, only without lengthening out the fingers (example 12). Loose fingers will automatically fold towards the palm- in the same way they should be free to fold in response to the backboard. I did one with a floppy rather than aligned wrist. Although theoretically more relaxed, it's interesting to compare this. Do you feel a slight pinching compared to when the wrist is more actively aligned?
 
Once your hand has learned to be free enough to do this, gently let the heel of the hand down and rest into a cluster. You should now notice that slight tug beginning to pull at your wrist. Don't let it start sliding you backwards for now, but any sense of the arm going in forwards is now completely over with. Let the upper arm begin to ease back (causing a slight tug at the wrist) and roll very slowly from side to side (shown already in example 9). Notice again how this does very little to bear down upon the fingers. Even if tapping the knuckles with your other hand, they should stay puffed up with ease. When weight is allowed to sink passively, it should be observed to rest into the heel of the hand. Gentle rolling helps you to check that you are merely letting go, mind, rather than exerting any active pressure. Don't try to set the weight onto the wrist, but simply notice it while you roll- like you're having a gentle massage against the keys.

Finally, float the wrist up by mere millimetres- releasing the keys back up so you're left with your fingertips nail-down on the surface of the keys. At the same time, feel the elbow coming backwards from the keys by millimetres, to create a sense of length through the wrist, that joins hand and forearm in a long line. You should find that the sense of comfort has only grown. This tiny "correction" to the natural sunk wrist is extremely important. A lot of people claim a low wrist is dangerous during playing- but this is not true unless you weigh down really hard or actively press down on it. From a released wrist, even the first few millimetres of drifting up can relieve virtually all pressure and make it both safe and comfortable to sustain. Ease a little further still and the fingers can gently uncurl into a near effortless playing position- where the knuckles are high but the wrist is still a little lower.

Do you see similar characteristics to what I showed in the first film? Can you feel a sense of the arm being connected to the keys, in spite of how little weight is resting down on the tips (ie too little to even depress the keys)? Hopefully you already will but, if not, repeat a few times and get used to both letting the wrist down and then floating those few mm into a very light, yet connected state of the arm.

Forwards and over with the wrist is an extremely popular part of most teaching methods and it is a useful part of any good pianist's overall arsenal of options for chord playing. But this exercise teaches you an extra option. You learn to make room to get the wrist forwards and UNDER the knuckles- without any association to piling force upon your knuckles! Forwards and over movements of the wrist are limited because they will force your knuckles downwards, unless the hand can resist. Resisting this force as your norm can be very hard work and potentially dangerous (particularly if you cope by stiffening).  You can't be truly at ease until you have an alternative, where the hand can expand with guaranteed comfort. This version doesn't pile on force, but instead encourages the knuckles to raise up and away from compression! The wrist may still ascend slightly (so it's not a case of "forwards and down") but it never gets high enough to shove down upon the knuckles. It doesn't just look easier- it really IS easier!!! A traditional "strong" position is not strenuous to either find or sustain, unless you are creating the work by piling on downforce to resist.  However, the right coordination is completely alien to many pianists, even to some at a rather high level. It wasn't in my repertoire of actions, at the time of the old film. I recently discovered that I have a bone cyst- which limits freedom of movement in my right wrist (thus making it hard to entirely fix habits of a high wrist in that hand). However, using this particular exercise has already gone a long way towards easing the restrictions.


FEELING the balance point from inside


Anyway, let's look at how to achieve a similarly easy quality in real life chords. With your thumb and fifth, depress an interval of a sixth from E to C (nb. I will show how to use similar methods on almost any chord, at the end of this post). However you did this, I want to show the journey into a quality of the utmost poise. Rather than try to analyse that quality directly, what you need is a task that will expose any tension that restricts freedom to move. So, take your three non playing fingers, lengthen them out slowly a few times, feeling how the arm should want to follow. Start to wiggle them gently from the knuckle, within a comfortable range of motion- where the finger never fights to reach higher than the knuckle (I can comfortably go beyond this and you may notice that I accidentally did a couple of times, but the important thing is to stay well within your easy range!). Pat the surface of the three black keys, to feel their resistance (example 13). Try with curved fingers and lengthened fingers, to see which is easier and freer.


If you concentrated really hard on the previous exercise, that may already be virtually all you need to get the idea here. However, let's make sure you don't misunderstand. If you're getting it right, it will feel as effortless as breathing (and I don't mean for a lifelong hundred-a-day smoker). If it feels like anything in your hand or arm is working hard or resisting the movement, you have certainly NOT found poise! To try to be sure that you can discover it, I'll address a few typical problems. Firstly, if you have that habit of holding your weight forwards and over the playing fingers (example 14), you won't have an easy time. You must be able to let the wrist down while the knuckles are encouraged to bulge- just like the prior exercise. If the wrist gets stuck high, flop down and back- either letting the heel of the hand into a cluster, or letting it swing into the open space off the keys. From here, if you have a habit of literally relaxing your hand, you will doubtless be more comfortable at first- but I'm afraid you may still get into a mess as soon as you begin to waggle the fingers again. In the prior exercise, the hand was shown how to open without any internal activity at all. This time, your hand is going to have to get off its backside and be more proactive (albeit relatively gently). A relaxed state is pretty damned easy to get into, when your only other concern is to succeed in keeping two keys down. It's not necessarily so easy now, however. A "relaxed" state that turns out to be a tense one (as soon as you have this extra task, to expose all the hidden tension) is pretty useless in the majority of situations.

After your wrist has been allowed to gently sink, try again from this lower point. Some people will just get it now. If not, the specific problem is that without properly opening out your hand, nothing but serious tensions can stop the knuckles from falling that bit further into a cluster chord (I show this literally happening as part of example 15). That same tension will also stop other fingers waggling freely- making this an excellent test. If relaxing down into an unsupportive thumb and 5th, you're only creating a need for greater tension, to avoid falling the rest of the way. See how my fingertips struggle to lift up but fail to have any effect on the squashed knuckle bridge. This is a common emergency movement, that narrowly avoids falling down to the cluster- via supreme effort. Avoid this like the plague. Rather than struggle to sustain such a disadvantaged position, you need to make extra sure the wrist can sink, while the knuckles stop receiving any of that downforce. Fifth finger and thumb must become twin pillars which support the knuckles and also the wrist, thus buying freedom. With the right movement in the middle fingers, you can help encourage this. Once you have it, those fingers can instead dangle freely, from a stable knuckle. Can you yet find the position that is open enough to simply let them hang- without any risk of dropping into extra notes?

If you can't get open, practise drawing thumb and fifth together (avoid bending- to clarify that the important movements come right from the base of the thumb). Imagine if a very low resistance elastic band were gently pulling these in together at the keys (example 16). The effort is very small, but you need a little of this action to grow the most meaningful structure. Create length and slightly draw them together on the keys. To check for full openness, use your other hand to physically open the space between your thumb and second finger. If there's any sense of physical resistance to the rising of the knuckles, you URGENTLY need to release that. Either your arm is weighing down hard in the worst place (and probably even pushing with far more force than mere gravity) or your hand is locking into a rigid position, rather than trying to grow itself. A good variant for those who experience this would be to practise it from light contact on a table top, so you don't have to worry about keeping keys down.

Either way, the hand must move to open itself out, and the arm must lighten up enough to make this easy. You don't need big forces to keep the keys down. When fingers first extend, you should sense a slight "pull" upon the forearm- which ought to be free to follow along with the movement. If the arm stays put, you are locking it in place or slumping its weight too heavily downward. To be clear, however, the lengthening of the fingers is not expected to physically drag your arm's dead weight! Rather, the gentle lifting should merely encourage the arm to lighten up- so the fingers can connect to a freely moving arm with minimal work. A good comparison is yawning- where the obvious bit takes place at the mouth, yet the whole chest "floats" up during the activity. Imagine if your fingers were gently yawning. The arm should connect with them as naturally as the chest does to an actual yawn.  Let the elbow drift out by a few mm too, so it's not slumped into your torso. If you've got it right, your arm will be subtly wobbling when the fingers start to waggle.

Ultimately a suitably free arm and wrist should feel suspended between shoulder and fingertips, with no sense of "holding" anywhere in between. Think how a plucked guitar string vibrates from end to end. Press part of the string against a fret however, and the vibrations pass no further. Here, you must let vibrations go freely back up the whole arm, like an open string. This isn't some hippy "positive energy" type vibe, but actual literal vibration. It should at least pass through the wrist and reach the elbow, but it ought to go all the way to the shoulder, even. My upper arm will quite visibly wobble in response. Most people only talk of sending energy from the arm down through the hand, but you must be equally capable of letting more subtle energy flow BACK from the hand and up the arm. Arguably, this is the most important of the two. Anyone can shove arm energy upon their hand. However, to transfer it, the hand must connect to the keys effectively. Feeling responses coming back in the opposite direction points to a much more sensitive coordination and links things up on a whole different level. By waggling and looking for the distant "echoes" of the movement, you have radically more feedback on the freedom of your whole arm, than you could get merely by holding the two notes in a static position. Allowing these waves to travel back requires length in the wrist. If the wrist is either caught up high, or pressed down, it's like pressing the string into a fret. In fact, even when straight a tense wrist will block the flow. Only when suspended freely via length (from knuckles to elbow) instead of fixation, can vibrations flow.

Do you also feel the subtle responses in your thumb and fifth finger? To appreciate why this teaches them so much about coordination, try standing on one leg and waving the other about in the air. Find a sensible place though. If you do happen to topple over on to the mantelpiece and smash all of your best Princess Diana commemorative plates, I accept no legal culpability. Anyhow, there's no magic position that you can lock the standing leg into. Rather, it must continually adapt to feedback in highly instinctive ways, to keep you in balance. Wiggling the other leg sends reactions back through your body that challenge your standing leg to keep refining and correcting its organisation. By practising fluidity of balance in response to ongoing movement, you're triggering the unconscious- in a completely different fashion to what happens when you simply hope to find a position and set it in stone. Oh, and while we're on this, try relaxing the standing leg into a notably bent position and then have another go. As I said, the closer you get to collapsing all the way, the harder you work to resist the last bit that would take everything down. How do you usually stand for comfort?

Sunk?

or actively elevated OUT of the point of contact?


Once you've learned to "stand" your hand, concentrate particularly on moving slowly up and down with the wrist while continuing to move the middle fingers (already shown in example 13). There should be a reasonably wide comfortable range. To illustrate it, here are three photos of slightly different qualities, all of which I passed through in my demonstration. Towards the lower end of the range, we have a classic Horowitz style position (seen below in his left hand).


If anything, he often goes lower still with his wrist. As long as you're moving gently back and forth in both directions the fingers should move freely- proving that the wrist is still loose (any tension would restrict movement of tendons that pass through the wrist). In fact, it's far more dangerous to be incapable of letting your wrist gently down- which points to severe tension somewhere. However, notice how the weight associated with letting the wrist sink may require slightly more engagement to keep the hand open. Find your comfortable range of options- by continuing to waggle the spare fingers, while remembering the imaginary elastic band between thumb and fifth. If you have even slight discomfort you don't need to force things lower. Just notice that point and go back the other way. But bring in the other hand to check for collapse and try again. When letting the wrist down, you need to be especially certain that the knuckles cannot droop towards the thumb, to discover your true range of easy motion.

Towards the upper end we have a classic Rubinstein position.




Although his wrist is rather high, the important thing is that he doesn't let his knuckles get crushed. Different as they look on the surface, the positions at both ends function due to near identical qualities of openness. One way to envision the common link is to imagine if you were to trap a ping pong ball into the palm without bending the fingers. A little of that action is present in both. However, it does get tricky if the wrist is higher than the knuckles- and can easily stray into all the potential problems I linked to holding weight forwards and over. Although more "conventional", I honestly think the Rubinstein position is by far the harder of the two to get right. My fingers definitely waggle a little less freely when my wrist is the highest point, so I wouldn't personally advise using this as your most normal part of the range.  Something akin to Richter's typical style of poise lies in a nice middle ground, within the overall range.


In his right hand, the knuckles are just slightly higher than a relatively level wrist. For myself, I find it far easier to move the middle fingers freely when they are in the supposedly more "extreme" Horowitz style position. However, once poise has been earned, the middle fingers can relax and dangle to create this more conventional hand position. It can still feel pleasantly stable- as long as you have achieved the important support in your thumb and fifth!

Anyhow, far greater ease should by now have been earned, compared to if we either held forwards and over, or plopped all the weight down and hoped to stay relaxed for free. However, this is about so much more than comfort! This state is also alive, ready for any of the fingers to perform at a moment's notice! If you simply tried to mimic any of the above positions by sight alone you'd probably be very tense in the wrist. A good position is but a snapshot during an activity, rather than a rigid state to copy and fix into. Take a look at Argerich's middle fingers here, most specifically in the revealing camera angle at 1:20!



A tense or braced hand shape? No, there's no fixation there when her hand lands. The middle fingers are reaching out and show clear evidence of slight movements, just like in the exercise I gave you. It's not a clenched hand, but one loaded with springy action out of the keys. It's a process, not a mere position.  Relaxation? No. Relaxed middle fingers don't behave like that. And a relaxed thumb and fifth could never stand open in such a radically exaggerated arch shape, while being propelled into the keys with such velocity. This is poise at the virtuoso level- caused by neither generic stiffness nor relaxation. It comes through excellent discrimination between useful movements and counterproductive ones. Far from being some eccentric "quirk" of a great pianist (that she manages in spite of) the movement I got you to perform is an integral part of making her octave technique free of impacts! Don't try to launch straight into such extreme bursts of octaves right now, but DO start training yourself to stand easily out of held octaves with elevated knuckles- by checking in on the non-playing fingers, rather than simply hoping to relax into freedom.

Traditionally, a lot of people talk of finger independence, but here it was the relationship between both playing and non-playing fingers that we used to find poise. Ironically, referencing back to the connected quality of all the fingers helps to better activate those which are playing- giving them an even greater sense of individuation from the rest of the hand. Rather than giving all the work to the thumb and fifth, it's actually being shared out. The middle fingers are completely involved. Try playing octaves from a drooping arch (due to lack of clarity in the role of both playing and non playing fingers) and it's impossible to have the same level of confidence. It's too easy for the knuckles to fall down, which makes it impossible to go at it with true confidence.  Argerich doesn't merely fix the arch of her hand against collapsing down, she actively grows it when moving the keys- with an action that moves both playing fingers and non-playing fingers in opposite directions. This automatically ends every octave in a state of easy openness (leaving no generic stiffness to be relaxed!). The continuation of movement springs her knuckles safely up and away from the landing, rather than down into an increasingly stressed position.

Anyway, this is veering more towards analysis of the technique during the actual instant of sound. I'll save the rest of that aspect for the appropriate section. To conclude, I'll show you a few specific examples of how to directly apply this concept in your everyday playing.

Exercises to apply to everyday practise of chords and octaves

No mindless mechanical drills here. This is a method to apply during thoughtful practice of musical repertoire. Firstly, I'd hope it will be self-evident that you can take the exercise and use it for any octave. See a demonstration below



I deliberately play each "badly" at first, before using the process to regain poise. As it goes on, I stop collapsing in the first place and use the focus to sustain the shape more. If you have a smaller hand, note that it's all the more important both to slightly grow (rather than squash) the knuckles and to confirm that no tension gets in the way of moving those other fingers. If you can't lengthen and slightly wiggle them, you have serious tensions getting in the way. I have a large hand, so to prove that this isn't just idle talk I also demonstrated this on a chord of an 11th (from a work by Cesar Franck). I even show the same on a 12th, to create radically greater difficulty than most adult hands would have with an octave. Many pianists get into their very worst collapse when near their physical limit. These are actually the places where it's most important to avoid it, to prevent strain! In some cases, it even turns out that an extra note can be reached, after reorganising the posture. As I show, I can't even strike a clean eleventh if I collapse my hand and raise the wrist in a bid to reach out. Practise collapsing and regrowing the shape of the knuckles (through those middle fingers), to find the most comfortable open position available to you. Most people concentrate so much on stretching outwards, they only enter the weak position and then stiffen. As I show last, away from the keys, from such a position you need to feel the thumb and fifth drawing slightly back INWARDS. Even on the 12th (which is so extreme for me that I frankly shouldn't even really be holding it at all) you can see that there's room for me to gently squeeze inwards enough to raise the knuckles just a little. Even if you can barely reach an octave, there is no excuse for poor form, sorry! Weighing down on the knuckles  (rather than being free to grow them) is the very worst mistake that can be made- both in terms of safety and function.

You can apply variants to improve your poise in fuller chords too- as long as they use both thumb and fifth finger. Basically, first play the chords in whatever fashion you normally would. Whether you are stiff, collapsed or whatever, the means to improve is the same. Release the middle notes and perform the same exercise. Merely ensuring that your knuckles are open enough to support the other fingers will give a massive head start. However, there are also a couple of adaptations which can be made. Firstly, you could release all notes apart from the outer two, but then tap against the inner notes of the chord with only the appropriate fingers. The workings are scarcely different. It still checks for freedom from tension, but in a way that also primes your hand for the whole chord. I already showed this in the video seen earlier:


An interesting example of the approach to octaves can also be applied later in the same Liszt Etude ("Wild Jagd")- where he writes a passage that is quite impossible without alert middle fingers. In this case, it works on two levels. We are not just using those middle fingers to encourage the hand to connect better on the octave. This time, we're also involving them for the specific reason that they literally have to be ready to move their own keys right after! Even if you're nowhere near the level to tackle this kind of repertoire at full speed, if you can reach a comfortable octave then you could still have a go at this type of figuration. Just go slowly, with a pause between the octave and the rest of the triplet- so you can clearly feel the readiness. You must be very free in those fingers to properly distinguish between a healthy melodic sound and far lighter accompaniment.


I show the more open version first and then a drooped version, which compromises the free movement. Try deliberately letting the knuckles droop into relaxation and then notice quite how much more strenuous it is to move the inner notes. Do you also feel how much easier it is to get a big sound on the octave- when the middle fingers are already playing their part by preparing for their coming movement? When I show the practise version I'm initially merely recovering from droop. However, after a few this is no longer happening at all. Finally, I don't even need to lengthen or wiggle the inner fingers to prepare them. They start to go straight into readiness. When you've learned the right feeling, the poise can come instantly with each octave. After your hand has been prompted enough times, you should come to remember the important feelings without requiring the trigger movement.

The final variant demands slight caution, but you could also move only the fingers which are not playing, while keeping the whole chord depressed. Just gently lengthen out, like "yawning", and the knuckles should grow while the arm follows. Then you can keep the open hand, while allowing the fingers which had reached out to dangle. However, particularly if finger 3 plays but finger 4 does not, you may wish to avoid this. The theme behind these is never to work hard, but but to find an EASY way to trigger poise. Now, it's not impossible to move the 4th alone safely. See various demonstrations here.




Firstly I show it on the lid.  Notice how the 4th finger is the least visible movement. All you're really looking for is to cue the rest of  hand to grow and open up as before. Note how my arm and wrist "breathe", while I use only a very small and gentle motion of the 4th. You can reference it against the gentle grasping movement, which expands the knuckles out in a similar way (against no resistance from weight whatsoever). It's actually far more dangerous if the hand collapses badly while playing. I showed a collapsing hand a couple of times- with the 4th having to strain to lift up, to prevent falling down to a cluster.  What we want is not that, but only an incredibly mild lengthening out. Done right, this will actively protect you against any need for those really strenuous lifting movements, that barely avert disaster during a severe collapse.

However, without direct supervision it could still be possible to get this one wrong- especially if you struggle to lighten the load from your arm. If unsure, consider that the other exercises will achieve much the same, so concentrate on those. However, if you're thinking of the stories of Schumann's famous hand injury, please note that I didn't lift upwards at all and I definitely didn't force anything! I simply lengthened my 4th out forwards while still aiming slightly down and I then allowed it to hang freely from the support of the rest of the hand. While my approach couldn't be further from the blind-optimism of extreme relaxation oriented schools, it certainly isn't to be confused with a "no pain, no gain" attitude. If in any doubt at all, use one of the two easier alternatives already described. Even there, always remember that this NEVER has anything in common with the old-fashioned idea of finger lifting to challenge and develop muscles. It is purely about making very low-effort movements, to trigger changes in coordination that should only improve comfort. If they don't, STOP right away!

Postlude

Anyway, that's more than enough for now. I hope this may give readers cause for a rethink about the commonly held notion that constantly willing yourself to relax is the road to getting the most comfort. In a sense, I'm sure that you will go on to be more "relaxed" after mastering these exercises. However, given that this will have been earned by searching for the useful ACTION, I greatly prefer the word "comfort". The popular idea that we can fix tension merely by generic desire to be more relaxed (without checking in on positive actions) is horribly flawed. In the complex activities of pianism, comfort is primarily something that we EARN by ensuring that the important ingredients have been put in place. From there, we have a foundation upon which to free up all else. When we aim to release anything and everything, we may easily release all the useful actions- leaving no choice but to balance things with far greater efforts elsewhere.

Anyway, knowing poise over the outer fingers really is the foundation of pianistic balance in general. With the foundations set, my next post will be extremely direct about showing how to apply the "forward and under" principle to finding poise in virtually all other pianistic situations (from basic single notes to double thirds etc).
















Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Listening vs. visualisation- exploring the link (or lack of) between musical intention and real-life results

 (Nb. I wrote the vast majority of this post some two years back. Although I've not yet completed the associated practical exercises, I thought it was probably about time I did something with it. I'll look to publish a part ii in the future)

This will be in a very different vein to most of my posts. This has zero to do with making objective analysis of how movements translate into control over sound. Rather, it's specifically about how the inner musical conception and listening relates to the sound that a pianist conveys to the audience. Here, I'm simply going to illustrate issues that may play an enormous role in how accurately we are able to listen to ourselves. This first part details a rather remarkable aural phenomenon, whereas an upcoming follow-up post will demonstrate a few related exercises (both in listening to yourself objectively and understanding how to better project qualities of sound, not merely into your own private thoughts, but also into the ears of a listener).

Firstly, I want to set the scene with a little story about an experience I once had. A few years ago, I recall hearing a pianist tell me that, in his opinion, the secrets to technique and sound production lie primarily in the ear and in the depth of musical conception. This is not an uncommon stance by any means and it's a view that is shared by such virtuosi as Arcadi Volodos and many others. He spoke with such confidence and assurance that I naturally imagined that he must be among those lucky "talented" pianists- for whom difficulty doesn't seem to exist and for whom the limits of what they can do really are the same as the limits of their imagination. At least, that's what I imagined until I heard him play a simple lyrical piece! Rarely had I heard a pianist pound out melody and accompaniment notes alike with such incessantly brutal percussive force! With every note of the melody came an individual thrust of the arm- that produced lump after lump, without a trace of binding logic or musical fluidity. Even the accompaniment notes were scarcely less aggressively forced out. How can a serious musician hold such a belief system, yet hammer out a simple melody on a note-by-note basis- as if he is quite deaf to his own sound?

On a less extreme note, a phenomenon I have sometimes noticed in the past is performing artists who give fantastic masterclasses, yet comparatively ordinary and uninspiring concerts. In the masterclass, scarcely a bar goes past where they do not have some kind of interesting insight to offer. It becomes evident how deeply their musical thought processes run- with attention to all kinds of musical details. However, when the very same musician plays in concert, all too often they sound like a totally different pianist- producing relatively ordinary effects, that show few signs of those profound musical thought processes that they had been describing to the students. They have all manner of ideas about how to sculpt the music, when teaching. However, come concert time the very same players sometimes fail to transmit more than the merest outline of the ideas that they had expressed verbally, within their actual realised sounds.

So, why? What is it that causes this disconnect between the understanding and the audible results- to the point where they can be so far from the internal conception? Well, this post is entirely about those issues. However, before progressing onto this directly, I want to start by directing you to a practical demonstration of some very interesting scientific background about the nature of listening- and the sheer difference between what the ear collects and what we actually "hear".

The demonstration in this film shows how deeply what we "hear" will necessarily be distorted, if we have a sense of expectation.


The full demonstration lasts for around 5 minutes from the point I've linked to, but it really is quite astonishing and thus well worth the time. Listen to the song being played backwards without looking at any words, and your brain will hear gibberish. Then listen again whilst looking at the words, and your brain hears them rather clearly. Put them away again and you're straight back to hearing gibberish (provided that you have now forgotten the lines- although in the event that any words were consigned to memory, that too would be enough to trigger the distorted listening).

I first read Mlodinov's excellent book "Subliminal" on these issues a good few years ago, but I only recently came to experience the actual startling effect via this demonstration. Expectation literally transforms how the brain processes the information received by the ears- and it's quite impossible for the conscious mind to override that expectation. If you're reading the words, your brain will "correct" the sounds received to match to expectations- provided that they approximate reasonably closely (ie. presumably it doesn't automatically work for literally anything that the brain is told to expect). I don't know whether Adam Buxton had any conscious awareness of this phenomenon, when he made the following comedy video:



Either way, the humour stems from how easily the brain is fooled- leaving the listener both surprised and amused at quite how genuinely (the majority of) what we hear there seems to match precisely to written words, that are clearly altogether inappropriate to a church hymn. Again, listen without looking at the subtitles and you simply won't be likely to mishear in the same way. You'll just hear very muffled singing, scarcely any of which either suggests the made up words or even gives much hope of deciphering the real ones. Expectation is what specifically determines how severely we mishear in this way. The unconscious part of the brain literally distorts what the ears perceive- producing a sound that has been altered in order to align itself to expectation. But the hearing itself SEEMS objective- we don't in any way perceive the fact that the aural information is effectively being "doctored", in order to create our impression. We experience the dubiously interpreted version as if it were nothing more than the original raw data that comes via the ear.

So, let's bring this back to the musical issues that I started out on. It should be pretty clear by now how significantly this objectively proven phenomenon might be expected to influence how we "hear" music. Consider those performers who hear something wonderful in their head- for example, a beautiful full-bodied singing tone that rings out all the way to the back of a hall. It's not hard to put such an image in your head, particularly if you've spent much time listening to such phenomenal artists as Emil Gilels or Alfred Cortot. All the better still if you're also acquainted with the real deal, through such great singers as Callas or Caruso.  But does that internal image of how you want to sound necessarily translate into execution of that sound? Or does it translate into an example of the same phenomenon? What if the internal intention for the sound is truly wonderful, but a level of expectation distorts the accuracy of listening? The brain could quite feasibly succeed in turning something relatively dull and ordinary into the experience of hearing something rich and colourful. Could it allow even a pianist who thumps the piano like he's trying to tenderise a steak to "hear" a beautifully rich vocal cantabile? I honestly think that the level of delusion created by a strong internal expectation could potentially go so far as that.

At this point, I want to make it absolutely clear what I am definitely NOT arguing, before anyone might severely misinterpret where this is going. Doubtless, some readers will already be absolutely irate that I've dared to utter such blasphemy as the notion that a strong internal conception for how you want the music to sound could prove to be a negative thing. Well, that's not actually my point. A pianist's sound is most certainly limited by the scope of his musical imagination. If no musical conception is present, the pianist could not produce any musical results. We certainly should strive to develop an internal image of how we wish to sound. However, the fact remains that strength of internal conviction does not automatically translate your conception into an actual sound. If you are too lost within your inner intention to be experiencing the ACTUAL sound that comes out of the piano, you will be limited in terms of what you can achieve. To truly listen with accuracy, live and in the moment, what if we must also counter that with time spent simply listening, driven by relatively few expectations?

Now, I did already state that you can't consciously decide to try not to hear those written words out of the gibberish, once they are there inside your head. Here, however, I feel the situation differs. If you step back momentarily from the strength of the inner conception and try to listen to yourself without expectations, I am confident that you really can grow to hear the results a little more objectively and in a manner that is less clouded by whatever you are hoping to hear. In many circles, we are given a simplistic and definitive assertion that we must ALWAYS intend a specific musical result. Is it actually such an unforgivable thing to sometimes play a passage with a slow and exploratory feel, listening in on an interval by interval basis- without cast iron expectations? Wouldn't we become more accurate listeners if we regularly tipped the balance towards OBSERVING what results during such an approach, rather than always be trying to force a completely predefined idea to arise in that precise form?

Stephen Hough once made an excellent analogy about how automated player pianos might never truly convey the "sound" of a pianist, when played back upon a different instrument at a different time. He says it's like recording all the details of a car journey between two cities and then expecting to program a fully identical drive on a different day, in a different car. Even for someone for whom such a journey may have begun to feel habitual, there are all kinds of adjustments which have to be made as live responses. Sometimes something unexpected happens and you simply can't press on according to a rigid plan. You have to observe it by being as present as possible and then make whatever adaptation is necessary. Player pianos are utterly incapable of making ANY adaptations to that recording of a particular "journey", which is why they rarely give more than a hint of a player's personal sound. They are a pure preordained auto-pilot that comes with no corrective intelligence- either to adapt the details in order to stay in line with an originally intended vision, or to adapt in more experimental ways that would create something spontaneous and fresh.

Coming back to real life performances, it was said of Horowitz that not only did he make such adaptations around what he heard coming out of the piano, but that he even took it so far as to adapt his ideas according to what he "sensed" of the audience's mood in a given moment. Elsewhere he described his approach as planning the basic colour scheme in advance, yet picking all of the particular shades in the moment. It's a nice way of putting it- to clarify that while not every single detail has been rigidly planned out, it's not a matter of completely random ideas either. It's a balance between planning and living/listening in the moment- in order to sense what best matches the specific sound that is being heard in the present. Whether a pianist wishes their concert performances to accurately correspond to a strict plan, or involve spontaneity, I believe that practise sessions have to involve some degree of experimentation and flexibility.

Particularly when a rather rigid conception is bound into strictness of metre, I believe it's incredibly hard to actually hear yourself with any accuracy. The inner rhythmic conception can become quite so driven, that there's never an opportunity to linger momentarily- in order to listen for that little bit longer to anything that grabs your interest. One of the problems with the backwards words is that they're gone before you know it. You can't stop and linger on a single syllable, in order to confirm what you really heard. Well, in music you can, as long as you make it possible for yourself. I feel confident that this is how we can correct the delusion of expectation- by spending a little longer to notice what you're truly hearing from a note or chord. For me, the best listening practise frequently incorporates "stolen" split seconds, in which you can be truly engrossed in the actual moment of sound that exists there and then, before going on to both "feel" and hear the characteristic of the particular musical interval that leads to the following tone. In the follow-up post, I'll give a far more detailed description of how you can use such practise techniques as extreme rhythmic flexibility- in a way that will both expand on your repertoire of tonal colours and improve upon your ability to listen in to your true sound. While sticking primarily to the musical theme I'll also tie in a few aspects of physical technique, in order to show how closely the tonal continuity between notes is linked not only to the ear, but also to an appropriate feeling of physical continuity.