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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Keybedding part ii- achieving a direct line of action without impact (plus an illustration of the REAL psychology behind prevention of muscle tensions)

This will be a fairly short post, but I just wanted to add an explanation of the second way of directing energy well away from potential impact at the keybed. Think of this as a kind of "half-way" post. As well as clarifying the basic theory of how this approach stops impact, these are extremely important concepts with regard to learning how to put this quality of movement into practice. From here, my next post will get right into the specifics of moving the keys with the fingers- with full relation to the arm's role (apologies for stalling, but I've wanted to be sure to get this part just right. A post with fully practical explanation and illustrative videos will follow very shortly now). Along the way, I'm also going to shed some light on the psychology of what really causes the worst tensions. I'm not necessarily denying that there is some relaxation value in positive thinking, lighting a couple of joss-sticks or taking in the sound of whale-song accompanied by pan-pipes. However, I want to show how achieving a suitable conception of movement itself has a vastly greater role to play.

Anyway, I've already covered the circular path that accounts for pure pulls from the knuckle- but there's a second type of finger action that is based on a more direct line of motion. Although this shares the same powerful "pulling" action from the knuckle itself, the finger as a whole is felt to "extend". Arguably you can even look at it as being something of a "push". However, thinking of a push can easily cause the truly harmful type of keybedding that Matthay spoke of! I'd like to use the analogy of a "press-up" against the wall to illustrate some significant issues that are hidden beneath the surface (see this post regarding issues of actions and reactions for some relevant information, and some background about the exercise). I'm going to use it to show what kind of background mindset leads to the equivalent of healthy pushing, compared to the type of mindset that results in an equivalent to Matthay's keybedding. Please note that this is not a vague or poetic metaphor! The basic practical issues are extremely similar- providing a better level of self-perception and awareness that can then be directly transferred to guiding finger actions!

Anyway, compare doing a light press-up against the wall with how you might act if you began from the same starting position, but intended to actually push the wall over (just to be clear, the motion of the arms here represents the action of the finger on a key- not the action of the arms on a key!). Although you can try out the latter- go easy if you do! There's probably little danger of toppling a building, assuming that it was constructed by a qualified team of certified builders (rather than a team of mobile-home dwellers, who some guy in the pub called Dave got you in touch with). However, you don't want to risk straining yourself. If in doubt do a rather light version of only pretending to act as if you want to bring the wall down. Alternatively, just imagine how your body might behave, were you to attempt this. Once you've done that stop and think for moment. What is the actual difference between the two acts, in terms of how the body behaves? Try it again and see if you can perceive what exactly is really going on.

If we looked at every individual detail it would likely be pretty complex. However, if we look at the bigger picture, the key difference is very simple. It's just that in one case you think of pushing your body AWAY from the wall, whereas in the other you think of piling your whole body in TOWARDS the wall. Yes, it's that simple. This basic concept is something that can play an enormous role in playing- if we can understand how to apply it to moving a key. I'll come back to this shortly. However, while keeping it relatively simple, I'd just like to go slightly beneath the surface for a deeper insight.

The weird thing here is that in both cases physics illustrates that you actually act TOWARDS the wall. Try doing the same motion of the arms in open space, with no wall to contact. Your elbows start bent and your hands extend away from your body (which stays in the same place). Most likely you won't even think about what your elbow does. You just feel where you hands begin and aim to move them directly away from you. The fine details of what makes that happen are left to the unconscious. However, when contacting the wall your hands stay in the same place and it's now your body that moves away. Basically, the wall gets in the way of the arm extension and sends the movement back in the opposite direction. To put it in a subjective (rather than scientific) manner, it's almost as if the wall serves as a mirror that reflects the movement back in the opposite direction. 

Anyway, while the press-up and the demolition press are spectacularly different acts, each is a type of "push".  Even when you think of going away from the wall, your hands will necessarily act towards it to make that happen. However, one of these is directly comparable to a healthy finger "push" on a piano whereas the other corresponds to the specific type of "push" that would be deemed keybedding. But if both involve pushing towards the wall, what makes them different?

The simple answer lies within the action/reaction concept. When you do a press-up, if you think of moving away, you will instinctively allow the REACTION from the wall to move you in the opposite direction. The brain figures out which muscles need to be moveable enough for the reaction to be allowed to push you away. When we think too much about aiming towards the wall, we are inclined to fight against the reactions and press through them with extra efforts or try to lock joints into rigid immobility. Here we have the underlying cause of most heavy tensions and of ongoing excesses of pressure into the keybed. Basically, the brain devotes too much attention to piling everything into the direction in which the key moves. There's not enough freedom for the reaction to act in the opposite direction.

Incidentally, when you get to the top of the press-up, there may be room for fine tuning. You should be careful not to lock the elbows or to push so hard that they double back. But there's obviously no question that the arms can release their effort altogether. If they did you would fall back in again! In fact, if you've done the movement optimally, it should be truly seamless. At the top, there should be nothing that you could possibly let go of without losing balance and there should be nothing that you would feel even slightly uncomfortable with. If you're balanced just right, the smallest fraction of release would slowly start you on the way back in again. Negative tensions do not come from keeping yourself away from the wall with sensitivity. They come from excessive efforts that are intended to act towards the wall. This tiny difference in the conscious mind triggers a wealth of different responses- that can gradually become ingrained into habit.

To take it half-way to what happens on a piano, imagine now if that wall could move an inch or two (offering moderate resistance) before stopping dead. If you think towards the wall, the mass of your whole body will likely be thrown towards the stopping point. That means more momentum and energy is heading into impact- and it doesn't necessarily go into aiding movement of the wall (as I'll demonstrate in a future post on efficiency). Imagine now if you think away from the wall. Your mass still acts to support and balance the movement of the arms into the the wall. But as it's mostly going away from the wall, there's less impact on landing.  Only a small amount of momentum from the arms goes into the moment of collision- with any other momentum being sent in the opposite direction. With just the right coordination, it may even be that the body doesn't end up moving in either direction, but simply hovers in balance (note that this balance is totally different to if you willfully fix it it into being immovable)

Interestingly, a "fall" into the wall would cause less impact than a full body press. HOWEVER, it will actually land vastly more momentum than when the muscles activate to press the body away. Falling through the wall certainly does not make for the least impact upon collision. Because the whole body is travelling, there is necessarily more momentum going into the stop. An inert collapse is superior to thrusting the whole body into a collision. However, a suitably controlled activation (that stops the body crashing in) is notably lower in impact still. This makes a lot of sense when related to "relaxation" technique. A flaccid arm that collapses makes for less impact than an arm that is pressed in hard against the keys. But compared to a hand that activates to push away from the piano in a suitable fashion, it's actually the dead arm drop that makes for the most impact. Later on things can start to get rather interesting when you learn how to "catch" an arm drop with hand activation (which does not mean a braced hand!)- like Artur Rubinstein:

Anyway, all of these issues translate into extremely direct equivalents, when moving a piano key. I suspect that this will have already given some major clues in itself, but I will show specifically how these concepts relate to putting finger actions into practice in my next post. In case you want to start experimenting now, I should stress that when you push away, it's very important not to let the arm be in a heavy corpse-like state! If you release too much weight, even an attitude of pushing away can be hard work. It needs to be very low effort when you start out. Don't even think of crashing your arms down like Rubinstein, but start by lightly extending the finger to ease your knuckles up and away, starting from direct contact. There should never be discomfort or a heavy sense of pressure!

Anyway, as you've probably guessed, the big issue here is that thinking away in piano playing requires you to think not down of pressing the key down but of causing yourself to go UP in the hand (and perhaps even in the wrist, in some instances)! This is something that Alan Fraser suggested to me, the first time I played to him. Although this provided plenty of benefit from the start, there are many issues that I've only recently been able to put into that context and fully make sense of in that light. I honestly don't believe it's any exaggeration to suggest that almost any action should be felt as to try to push back away from the key. Surprisingly, dropping onto the keys from a great height involves this too- I'd even say it's especially important in that scenario. Rubinstein doesn't get that big resonant sound from crashing into the keybed with an inert or braced hand. Redirection remains essential- and it's timed movement in the hand that best achieves that. Anyway, this post is effectively a fleshing out of the upward concept and an illustration of just some of the reasons why it is quite so significant. A future post on efficiency will go deeper into the reasons why this can also improve energy transfer and allow big sounds to come when expending relatively little energy.

Briefly, I should just add that the idea of thinking "up instead of down" may appear to be in contradiction to my post about two-sided thinking. To be clear, the difference here is that I am talking about acquiring a starting point in which you have first learned to allow the arm to respond freely to reactions. This is a missing link in the psychology of just about any technique that involves stiffness and fixation. Even some highly evolved techniques are held back slightly in this respect. Some of the exercises in future posts will give a clear illustration of how we'll still be building up towards a balanced understanding of both action and reaction as a single entity.


  1. I got a little lost, but it's like when I tell my students "Up! not down!" ha ha, I get it!

  2. Yeah- exactly! I'll associate the analogy with the direct specifics of the movement in my next post. Hopefully that will fill any holes in pretty quickly.