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Saturday, 12 November 2011

There's a hole in my bucket- issues of efficiency, why tension/relaxation thinking typically confuses and distracts from a vastly greater issue and why the arm can never genuinely replace the role of the hand's actions

I had written this post some time ago, but decided to hold it back until I'd been through some very direct applications to playing. Now that I've posted about the thumb, I decided that I might as well publish this- before continuing with the actions of the hand. Please note that, while the description should make the practical exercise pretty clear, I will come back and add some videos in the near future.

Picture this situation: a man with a massive bucket is required to transport a volume of water between two points. However, there is a hole in his bucket. He puts in exactly the volume of water that is required- yet upon arrival he finds that there is scarcely any left. Seeing insufficient water, he comes to the conclusion that he obviously did not put enough in. After many failed attempts he finally decides to fill his huge bucket to the very brim, meaning that he is absolutely exhausted upon arrival- although even now he only just manages to retains the required volume of water. Shortly afterwards, another man arrives with exactly the same amount of water, yet without having even broken a sweat. His tiny bucket did not require any excess water to start out and he knew how exactly much he would be arriving with. Not difficult really- seeing as it just didn't have any leak.

By now, you might be wondering where exactly this is headed? No, don't worry- I am not an Evangelical preacher and neither is this the beginning of a convoluted Sunday sermon. I am not about to claim that this somehow "proves" that, while other things fade away, Jesus' love for each and every one of us is both infinite and eternal. Rather, I'm going to show just how relevant this analogy is to some of the most significant flaws that exist in most techniques. Rather than nitpick at mere surface details, this post features an extremely wide-ranging foundation issue (of which I have never personally encountered any objective categorisation or analysis) that relates to every sound that is produced. I want to illustrate how much energy is typically wasted due to technical "holes"- even in some very accomplished professionals! I will give a couple of exercises to show exactly what most typically compromises efficiency of transmission- and introduce issues that determine the means of improvement. Way too many pianists fall into the same trap ie. when they don't get enough sound, their instinctive default response is to press harder with the strong muscles of the arm. However, this is about as productive as the 'add more water' approach. A far more effective solution (but sadly one that few pianists find by instinct) is to start by patching up the metaphorical hole in the bucket. 

Pressing harder means there's more energy flying around, but how much of it actually goes into sound and how much is wasted? Without efficiency, not only does much of the energy expended miss out on the chance to affect the hammer, but it goes into creating greater scope for impact at the keybed- ie. the "keybedding" that I spoke of in previous posts. Whatever anyone tells you about the supposed "scientific impossibility" of absolute tone quality, there is actually plenty of very credible evidence to suggest that thudding against the keybeds can affect sound (I'll likely devote a post to this issue, in future). If you start with less energy but direct it more efficiently, you can still get plenty of motion into the hammer- but with very little potential for a following impact. The collapse-free thumb extension in my last post is a particularly good example of a high efficiency movement, that sends little energy into the keybed. However, in this post I'd also like to expose some of the least efficient qualities of movements possible- so they can be more easily identified and improved upon. Odd as it may sound, a little first hand experience of a poor movement can give an extremely clear insight into what you DO need to look for. 

Let's go back to the idea of using a pencil as a lever (see here for details). Remember how well you can get into the key when you lever your end of a pencil up, while moving the key. Well, let's deliberately try the reverse for a while. See how much sound you can get by sending the lever in the other direction. Try as you might, you're going to find that hardly anything can go into the key. There's little sense of acting properly against the key's resistance, or of being able to adequately accelerate though it. There's a lot of movement going on but the connection with the key is loose and unproductive. Quite simply, to bring your end of the lever down affects things negatively, whereas to lever it up had a positive effect. Even for a soft sound, you will likely perceive less feeling of control when employing the down motion. Efficiency is not exclusively relevant to making big sounds. Levering upwards will also tend to give a greater margin of error in soft dynamics.

From now on, I'm going to refer to the concept of 'positive movement' and 'negative movement'. The latter is synonymous with the 'collapse' that Alan Fraser frequently refers to. I have to admit that I was rather skeptical about his references to this concept, for a long time. It's easy to think "Okay, so the hand collapsed. What's that got to do with the musical results? Why should that affect the sound?". That is why I want to expand upon his concept and give a cast-iron illustration of exactly why these things not only matter, but to an extraordinarily significant degree. In short, negative movement (or collapse) vastly reduces the proportion of available energy that goes into actual sound- often causing an inaccurate perception of physical weakness and the mistaken belief that it is necessary to possess extreme strength or to press extremely hard with the biggest muscles. The real problem is the sheer WASTE that negative movements cause during transmission of energy. Energy leaks away as surely as water will disappear through a gaping hole in a bucket.

Also, imagine trying to play golf, if a hinge allowed a putter to bend back upon contacting the ball- rather than accelerate through it. Negative movement reduces efficiency of energy transmission, but perhaps even more importantly still, it frequently reduces CONTROL over the hammer and restricts the ability to accurately predict how it will be affected by your actions. It goes without saying that this prevents control over tone-production. I also have a strong suspicion that it can impact on rhythmic steadiness and the ability to play fast. When a finger gives way, there is a bigger gap in time between when the finger begins to to move and the moment when sound occurs. If you eliminate collapse altogether, you are going to be able to predict the instant in which a note will sound, with some reliability. If you have variable levels of collapse, you can never know exactly how great the time-lag is going to be. We may be talking split-seconds here, but if you consider what goes into a rapid Chopin Etude, there's every reason to believe that these could be enough to cause sluggishness and imprecision.

At this point, I want to expose a major fallacy that has been repeated in many explanations- that looseness and relaxation necessarily aid energy transmission. Please bear with me, though- for 'tension' (ie. stiffening joints to withstand force) is NOT what I about to suggest! I am not arguing for the "bracing" approach but rather a whole new avenue of understanding. The reality just isn't simple enough to be adequately summed up by the notion that it's all about whether you are "tense" or "relaxed". Even the realisation that most muscular states actually lie somewhere between the extremes of "tension" or "relaxation" sheds very little specific light on what is required. Tension vs. relaxation simply isn't the best viewpoint to approach it from. When you approach it by distinguishing between "positive movement" and "negative movement", instead, it transpires that the reality is not terribly complex after all.

Particularly with actions that source energy in the upper arm, there are a wealth of joints where relaxation will cause negative movements, that  reduce the amount of energy that can be transferred to sound and which compromise control over the movement in general. It's not at all hard to see why people often seize up. They do not do so for the hell of it, or because they are too "stupid" to understand superficial instructions that they are meant to be aiming for a more generally relaxed state. Their subconscious likely realises that allowing negative movements would drain both energy and control. It then leaps in and tries to deal with that problem as best as it can- by using tensions to fight against these unwanted movements. The problem is that braced joints are not a very effective alternative to sagging ones and neither are they a healthy thing to employ. The brain is left in a constant battle between tension and release- each of which has its own pluses and minuses, but neither of which is remotely effective.

So, if you're neither going to brace a joint nor relax it, what's left?  Quite simply, the alternative approach is to be in the midst of a positive movement in the opposite direction to that which would be causing a negative movement. Yes, it really is that simple! Forget the idea that it's all about some mysterious and fantastically complex compromise between tension vs relaxation or that it's about tensing for the correct number of milliseconds and then relaxing again. These ideas are completely irrational and there is no reason to believe that such staggering acts of coordination are either required, or even beneficial. All you have to do is notice where relaxation causes negative movement- for example if the wrist collapses downwards while playing an extremely loud chord. Instead of bracing to stop that, seek to move it slightly in the opposite direction as the key goes down. That way, there is neither the need for fixation- nor do you get the energy wastage and poor control that would ensue from pure, corpse-like relaxation.  

If that doesn't yet make sense, we'll use the pencil (and later the finger itself) for an irrefutable practical illustration of how genuine (and indeed inescapable) the reality of this concept is. Suppose that I want to use my arm to provide a small "run up". If I simply descend with a light grip on a horizontal pencil, it will be greatly repelled by the reaction force, upon contacting the key. The amount of energy transferred is simply pathetic- even with a big arm drop. It's like what would happen if I moved into the key with a finger made of foam or plasticine. There's so much negative movement, that scarcely any energy is applied at all. The give caused by a relaxed grip is a hindrance, not an aid. But now let's try to render it immovable- ie. the bracing approach. Be careful doing this one- because it's not going to feel pleasant. Also, notice that however hard you might grip, you'll likely find that there's still some negative moment. Trying to fix something rigidly rarely actually achieves a situation of anything close to zero give. Remember that even massive sky-scrapers made of brick and steel sway in the wind! 

Now let's abandon this horrible feeling of hoping to fix the pencil and replace it with simple movement. This time, as the pencil reaches the key, you're going to be doing the levering action described earlier. Instead of being left to collapse down, the end you hold will be pulled up. Negative movement cannot occur- quite simply because movement is actively going on in the positive direction. Once you've mastered this, it's possible to get to the point where the pencil barely moves at all. Now, this is on an absolute knife-edge when it come to coordination- so it's not something to aim for immediately. However, when mastered, you can try using only just enough positive movement to cancel out and prevent negative movement. To an observer there is a very still pencil that acts as a mere extension of the arm. To you, there was a very significant intent at movement that balanced everything. It should FEEL a whole world apart from the effort that occurs with intent to brace it still- regardless of how it looks. When using arm pressure, a hand needs to operate under much the same principles that pencil did- if you are to avoid wasted effort. If you want to merely be still enough in the hand to transmit energy from the arm, you first need to get a feeling of what it's like to safely eradicate negative movement- ie. by moving positively, not by stiffening! Only from this starting point can you be sure that you are neither tensing needlessly, nor wasting energy on impact at the keybed. Note that this is why watching what a pianist seems to be doing can be so misleading. A master pianist can match up positive and negative movements, sometimes with the result of minimal movement in the hand, while the arm moves visibly. However, the sheer stillness can easily trick viewers into thinking that the pianist is generically bracing- when they are actually matching sensitive balancing actions.

Think about the consequences of this experiment- with regard to schools that claim fingers only "support" weight or arm pressure! I'm not going to beat about the bush here. Even with regard to slower individual chords, the idea of using the arm pressures as a replacement for the necessity of hand activity is simply an impossibility. If the hand does not seem to take part  then that is an illusion- not a reality. For those who succeed under this illusion, it matters little whether what they really do is what they describe. However, the problem is that countless others will find themselves unable to find anything workable, by striving for the same subjective experience. You cannot succeed with this unless you also learn to employ suitable positive movement in the hand. The only issue whether the individual is aware of doing so. When people make it all about the arm, there are some whose hands have adequate experience to bring in the balancing role of positive movement, by instinct alone. But there are many who will simply brace their hands against contact- especially when the explanation specifically says that they are meant to do so! The braced hand approach can be truly ruinous for such people and telling them to 'relax' AFTER is futile. Unless their senses overrule the explanation and tell the hand to employ adequate positive movement, they will be needlessly stiff and uncomfortable.

Countless great pianists have described "firm fingers" and others have described "relaxed" fingers, but either description is potentially equally misleading. Those who succeed with the firmness approach create "firmness" by sensitively balancing out negative movements in the hand with positive ones- not by fixating with the crippling muscular tensions that less accomplished pianists often employ. The fact that this balance is so physically comfortable is what allows others to experience the very same process as featuring a "relaxed" hand. Neither adequately conveys the reality of the situation.

Let's summarise here. Even when using the arm for sound we have three options, regarding the hand's major role:

1. We can brace against collapse, in line with the 'and then relax approach'- but how comfortable did bracing the pencil and then relaxing feel? And did it even succeed in eliminating collapse altogether, or providing any notable efficiency? 

2. We can use a relaxed hand, that would waste energy by collapsing on contact- and indeed collapse into a palm cluster, if taken 100% literally. Considering how rarely this happens, most supposedly "relaxed" hands would more accurately be described as fitting into either the first category or the third. The problem is that, if you pretend your hand is relaxed when it isn't, there's no way of knowing which. When you strive to do nothing at all, it's left to your subconscious to fill in the gaps (assuming that you wish to play the right chords, rather than random notes). Sadly, without the right experience, the subconscious typically does a pretty useless job of that. Aiming for a relaxed hand (rather than a moving one) can often make for the stiffest fixations of all!   

3. Observe where negative movements will take place, via experimentation with extreme relaxation (of the kind that would be totally dysfunctional, during regular playing). Then start to employ enough positive movements in the hand, for these negative movements to be cancelled out. There are all kinds of different variations that fall into this category- including those where the hand might appear to be perfectly inert and still. But remember- when a hand seems to be doing nothing it's a pure illusion. A hand that ACTUALLY does nothing moves keys with low efficiency- before collapsing into a cluster of notes.

So, do you still think (as most pianists do) that the secrets to power lies in tension/relaxation issues or that the main secret to power lies in generating enough pressure from the bigger arm muscles? Neither is accurate- which is why you sometimes hear even young prodigies making a big tone with little visible effort from larger muscles. The secret to power is to patch up the "hole in your bucket" by replacing negative movements with positive ones- starting at the connection to the key itself (ie the finger) and working backwards along the chain. Positive movement within the hand alone can produce fair power. If you start bringing in positive movement from there AND a little arm pressure the piano can really start to explode- still with minimal impact or exertion! In a future post, I will expand on this concept, with an illustration of how much the hand itself needs to move for truly big (yet low impact) octaves and chords. Neither flaccid relaxation nor bracing contributed to how a pianist like Artur Rubinstein could lift his hand above his head before dropping the weight of his arm into the keys! 

I should add that I don't wish to be dogmatic and suggest that negative movements should be eliminated entirely, in the end product. However, I believe that the only way to be sure that they might serve a purpose, is to come from a place of being able to eliminate them altogether- without bracing to do so. From there, you can do whatever works best in a given situation- safe in the knowledge that your way of moving is not the product of having a lack of options. In future posts I will give a number of relaxation exercises, through which to both loosen up joints and observe the effects of negative movement- before illustrating how to cancel them with simple positive movements- not with stiffness!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Action and reaction in practice part i- achieving a big resonant thumb sound without impact and how to activate the thumb for effortless scales

Okay, I've given a lot of background now, so with no further ado I want to get straight into a couple of entirely direct practical applications- starting with use of the thumb. This post will reveal some important aspects of what goes into an effortless but resonant tone, as well as a means of improving stability and ease in scales. While I wouldn't want to be so foolish as to give a "100% guarantee" of instantaneous magical improvement, I do honestly believe that virtually anyone will perceive some degree of instant difference from the exercises- including many advanced players. Even if you haven't read a single one of my previous posts (with their illustrations of scientific background to technical issues), I hope this will give an immediate feel for just how beneficial the consequences of these concepts can be, and hopefully draw you into deeper exploration. In particular here, I want to show that while the premises are largely based on seemingly abstract movement issues, they can have a rapid impact upon how effectively existing musical intentions can be brought into fruition. However, I'll also be looking at a means of improving raw speed within scales!

(For legal reasons, I should briefly stress that all exercises are undertaken at your own risk. Please note that while the videos provide a valuable illustration aid, it's the thinking that runs behind the movements that matters the most. It's very important to follow the instructions of each exercise- rather than only the videos. If you do so with due care and pay attention to the feedback from your perception, there should be nothing to fear. However, take special care if you have prior injuries or medical issues. Above all, anyone should stop immediately in the unlikely event of discomfort or pain. None of the movements involved should feel anything less than comfortable and even pleasurable to execute. )

Anyway, let's go straight to the piano. Try to make a massively sonorous melody line, using only the thumb of the right hand (plus pedal for legato) for long, broad notes. While you can use whatever piece you like, something like the opening melody from Chopin's op. 25 no. 12 would be extremely suitable. However, I have no desire to exclude anyone. Do a slow thumb-only version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" if you wish- as this exercise is suitable for all levels!. The performance below gives an excellent idea of the type of sound you're looking to make (with a bell-like quality to the line)- but forget the flurries of notes! Only play a melody line (plus bass, if desired)!

Don't think too much about the movements the first time around- think of the intended sound and just do it! Once you're finished, think a little about how you found yourself moving when striving for that type of sound. Maybe even repeat it and pay more conscious attention this time. Also, how happy were you with the musical sounds you produced? It might be worth recording yourself to see how it sounds upon playback. If you're honest with yourself, did you manage to come anywhere near producing the type of "golden age" sound that (the surprisingly little-known) David Smith produces?  Maybe you succeeded in creating a pleasant enough musical line- but only by sticking within a very "polite" and gentle dynamic range? Or maybe you knocked seven shades of shinola out of the piano, but failed to achieve the seamless quality of tone required for a genuinely vocal melodic line? Without thinking too much about anything but the sound and the musical goals, spend a little time trying to improve upon the results and see how you fare.

We'll come back to that shortly. However, firstly, rest your right hand very lightly on a solid table top, palm down. Start to exert a moderate pressure against the table through your thumb. Now imagine the table is a piano key and do the same once again. Was the action the same or different?

Okay, now let's look at what you actually did there. Firstly, I'd be willing to bet that at least 90% of people will have performed every one of these actions (at both piano and table) by pressing their arm through either a stiffly braced thumb, or a floppy and inactive one that collapses. Before I go any further, if you hold the typical belief that big sounds should come from actions of the upper arm, I'd ask you simply to keep enough of an open mind to stay with me for just a few minutes- rather than exit this page in disgust. I hope I'll be able to illustrate just how much more versatile your thumb is than you probably realise, and show quite how much LESS impact and exertion is likely to result when your arm stops sending needlessly high levels of momentum into collision at the keybed. Yes- involving a notably pronounced movement from the thumb itself should actually be vastly more comfortable than trying to press the arm through a thumb that merely "supports" and I hope I can show you how to perceive this for yourself.

When you pressed into the table, what happened to the rest of your hand? Did it raise up over your thumb? If not, I'm afraid to say that this is a sure sign that you scarcely engaged the most useful activities AT ALL!!! Don't worry though- the details on how to introduce them are coming right up. If you did cause the rest of your hand to lift away, that's a promising sign- but how far did it go? Try going back to your starting point and simply lift up the fingers, as shown in example 1:

Don't press with your arm as you do so and don't even make any willful attempt to create pressure through your thumb! Start with it touching lightly and just think of lifting your fingers up and away. Did you feel your thumb starting to lightly engage- simply by lifting the fingers up? Try flicking the fingers up fairly quickly now (see example 2)- but remember to think up! Think of the downward pressure as being like a side-effect of lifting up- not as any kind of a goal. If the thumb feels "squashed" at all (either during the movement or once the fingers have stopped) make sure you start with a lightened arm and think of the hand's actions as being upward all the more. Sometimes try "waving" (keeping the knuckles high but moving the fingers back and forth) as in example 3. Particularly during this wave, be careful not to brace your arm. If it wants to wobble slightly in response, that's exactly what you need to be letting it get on with. Feel the sense of a loose "chain" that is free to sway slightly- extending from the thumb all the way to the shoulder.

Can you feel the slight adjustments that the thumb makes to remain balanced? While you should clearly perceive that downward pressures occur as an indirect result of your actions, they should never be especially large. With the right quality of movement at a piano, you don't actually need to exert a big pressure to achieve a full tone. I can honestly say that the very slight  pressures that occur here (without so much as intent) are not drastically smaller than those required to make a healthy level of sound at the piano.

Anyway, if you're the impatient type you may already have jumped the gun and started applying this to the piano- and you may already be starting to get a better idea of the thumb's potential to produce tone. However, we've barely even started! All we've done is get the muscles to act in response to a flick of the fingers. The thumb is merely required to stabilise against a reaction in the opposite direction to the finger movement. It's possible that you'll have instinctively begun to involve the thumb's actions a little more directly than that, but we need to be sure. In the air now, try to differentiate between pulling the thumb down and away from the hand (example 4)- compared to the previous action of moving the fingers away from the thumb (example 5).

Alternate between the two relatively similar actions and try to notice what differences you can either see or feel in the results. However, be careful not to stiffen in a bid to immobilise anything. Retain maximum lightness and ease by going slowly and smoothly. If sympathetic movements still occur, that's fine- don't try to fight against them! Once you can clearly distinguish between the two, try flicking each movement out more quickly (examples 6 and 7)- but keep it very light again and don't fight the responses! If in doubt, it's better to keep it comfortable than to feel anything is being forced with needless vigour. Next up, try cocking the thumb back and extending it outwards (example 8). This will likely involve a slight rotation of the forearm (example 8).

Let's come back to the table. First remind yourself of the pure thumb "pull" by doing it in the air. Now let the table get in the way and feel how instead of moving the thumb itself, a reaction to that intention will instead raise the knuckles up (example 9).

The table "reflects" the movement in the opposite direction, like a mirror, in a manner of speaking. Make sure you still feel everything as an upwards action rather than downwards (with no jamming hard against the table) but try to feel how much more directly the thumb's action is now responsible for creating the upward motion compared to before. Try going back to lifting the fingers right up and reaching out (as in example 1), to see if the thumb gets more involved there too. Finally, try adding the act of extension. Think of much the same upward lift, but start with the thumb lightly bent and extend out forwards (example 10). Feel how when you lightly contact the table, everything is gently pushed back and away from that point- allowing everything to straighten itself out as the knuckles rise. Don't jam into the point of contact!

Finally, let's take this to the piano. Remember, you still need to think of lifting up though! It's very hard to retain this style of thinking, but you must not focus on moving the key down! For now, feel as if moving the key is a mere side effect of pushing AWAY, without anything resisting that motion away . Bizarre as it may sound, the slightest level of unconscious downward pressure with the arm is often what destroys the efficiency of energy transmission (this post gives a detailed explanation of why arm energy doesn't necessarily transfer to either the finger or the piano hammer, if you're curious). Depending too much on arm pressure also tends to crush everything together and create discomfort at the keybed. It's not impossible to add some in a useful way, but first you have to be sure that the thumb is playing its necessary role without jamming. The arm's role is to give your thumb an optional top-up- not to steal the show so frequently thumb never learns how to fend for itself.

Anyway, try playing that melody again. Is there much improvement in the quality of sound compared to before or in the physical ease of tone-production? Also, do you find habits wanting to come back? For now, you may have to make it extremely conscious, until your brain has a chance to develop an association between a big resonant sound and the activity that most easily achieves it- especially seeing as it feels like that activity is being aimed in what might logically seem to be the "wrong" direction! A great test here is to simply touch the underside of the thumb with the other hand while playing. Any remaining downward pressures will quickly be exposed by this. The underside of the thumb should only be touching (not pressing!) against your other hand. If you feel your playing arm is pushing even slightly, slow down and try to engage the thumb action from a passive arm that merely responds- not from an arm that presses. It's arm pressure that creates a big danger of impact and strain between the thumb and the keybed- not activity from the thumb itself. If you're still trying to lift the hand comfortably up and away when you reach the keybed, you simply cannot cause significant impact. It is only when the arm presses downwards or if the muscles are stiffly braced (or, worst of all, both!) that your thumb can be driven into a hard landing. (I shall upload another video rather shortly, to illustrate this action at the piano).

Next up, let's apply the same upward action to the differing context of a scale. For most students, the thumb is something to be feared in scales. It is often thought to be too "strong". However, this belief often causes an attempt to compensate that sees it go flaccid and unsupportive. When you see a bobbling arm in scales, it's almost guaranteed that this is because the student's arm sags down into every thumb note. The sheer inactivity of the thumb causes everything to slump down uncontrolled and jam against the piano. This typically results in an inconsistent sound that features as many heavy lumps as it does notes that barely sound at all. It's also harder to find the next position. Pressing down actively hinders the ability to realign. When the thumb works better, realignment becomes an automatic part of merely moving the key in the first place.

Here's a recently added video:

First I show a fairly lifeless thumb and the awkward wrist twist need to navigate deliberately between positions, without the proper thumb contribution. Then I show a slow sense of being opened around the thumb- not by moving straight to the side but in a larger curve. You can also wiggle the fingers, as earlier, or simply open them out. The feeling of realignment is an almost completely passive response to a very deliberate thumb motion, although the arm must be very light to react so freely and easily. It's not about having to work your thumb hard against weight. This is followed by a fast and almost functional version, with a quick throw of the fingers followed by instant alignment. Finally, the fingers no longer lift visibly, but the inner feeling is identical to the previous step- they still feel thrown up and over by the active thumb movement. It's like a gentle puff of wind "blowing" the arm over the top, into the new alignment. Similar as it might appear, it's nothing like the first one- where they are cranked sideways from a twist in the wrist. The arm is much more responsive to the thumb and nothing is being held into a fixed position.

Most people use overwhelmingly excessive downforce (without embracing the upward reactions) and thus struggle to open this freely. For this reason, take great care not to overdo the sharper actions and don't jam down for even a moment. However, once you have lightened up and learned to move the thumb freely, it becomes a real breeze. By the end, we should have the (seeming) paradox of extreme stability, coupled with a tremendous feeling of lightness and ease- that should carry as much into the other fingers as the thumbs themselves. Contrary to what many believe, the greatest ease of thumb movement comes when you give it a positive task to perform- not when you try to hold back. The problem with holding back a "heavy" thumb is that it removes all this assistance to easy realignment. We're left with the awkward feeling of having to consciously adjust from a wrist bend. With the right action, we simply open up naturally around the thumb, almost as if by magic. After work on these more exaggerated movements, normal scale playing should feel like the easiest thing in the world. The thumb should start to feel athletic and become one of the easiest fingers for controlling tone- not one to be used tentatively or with a sense of caution.

Anyway, I hope that at least one (and hopefully both) of the two different contexts of thumb usage will have become clearer and easier from this. If you've been surprised at how much powerful your thumb is than you realised, do be careful to build this into your playing gradually. Hopefully the thumb's action already feels natural (rather than a thing of great effort)- but it's still important to take care not to overwork muscles that are not used to doing so much (even if it already feels physically comfortable). However, if you didn't feel any great improvement (and are not already coming from a place of being able to execute lightning fast scales at the drop of a hat) I would consider reading some of my earlier posts regarding the arms and hanging on for future updates. The most likely hindrance to good thumb activity lies in arm tensions- which repress the natural responses and make the thumb work needlessly hard against resistance.

PS. I should acknowledge that the basic concept of bringing in a greatly active thumb is owed to what I have learned from Alan Fraser. While I think it's reasonable to refer to these as "my" thumb exercises, I should acknowledge that the ideas are very heavily rooted in the same principles as his "thumb-pushups"- which I strongly recommend.