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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

An introduction to three core posts on the fundamentals of piano technique- plus a digression on why technique lies primarily in the right positive additions of activity (illustrated by a demonstration of two essential factors for achieving a loose wrist in octaves)

I'd like to start by describing a phenomenon in piano playing that is widely assumed to be mere illusion. However, anyone who has ever had lessons with an extremely accomplished concert artist will be likely to relate to this. Basically, the most advanced pianists can often produce a very deep and resonant tone with minimal movement or effort involved. The individual motions for sounding each key don't even look very fast, yet there seems to be an abundance of time available between notes. Typically, a student's hand will get drastically less in return (despite visibly working far harder) - where a true master just drifts over the keys and produces a big tone, as if it were nothing. You can get some sense of this via videos of great pianists, but it's when witnessing this at close quarters that the effect is so startling- especially when you yourself have been getting so much less out of the very same instrument. Even in something as simple as a slowly executed scale, the piano just seems to respond totally differently to them.

At this point, I want to assure you that this is NOT merely a subjective illusion!!!

At the heart of this is a truly basic issue of mechanical efficiency, during an act of energy transfer. Sorry if such pragmatic language seems to kill the romantically arcane mystique of piano playing, but if you're not already startling others with the effect described above, this is your ticket to start discovering what makes it possible to do so. Aided by an understanding of what lies under the surface, the ability to produce sound so effortlessly (and with such overwhelming control) is something that can very much be acquired- or at least substantially improved upon.  If I compare my current playing (since I started working with these considerations in mind) to older films of myself, my movements now look slower and easier- yet I can produce a more resonant and defined sound. I'm nowhere near mastery of these issues, but the ongoing improvement has been unmistakable. These next few posts are going to get to the heart of how to understand (but above all how to FEEL) the most fundamental issue behind piano technique- ie. how to channel energy into the hammer with efficiency (rather than waste the best part of it on banging against the keybed, once it's already too late to contribute to the musical sound).

Having delayed getting right into these key issues for some time (partially due to wanting to develop the clearest possible sense of focus first, but partially due to mere laziness), I am now going to start explaining how to produce reliably controlled sound via efficient finger actions (that cause neither strain nor impact) while also retaining a suitably balanced yet comfortably relaxed arm. After a lot of thought, I've decided to attempt to make these next few posts primarily practical- but also to tie in to some of the scientific background that I have covered in earlier posts. To achieve the fullest possible understanding, it will certainly help to cross-reference these posts with the more detailed background in preceding posts (that I shall link where relevant). However, my aim is that these posts can be understood in their own right- which will be aided by far briefer summaries of previous points.

The current plan is to split these core posts into three sections. This first one will detail a simple approach to conceiving the specifics of effective hand movements (starting with very slow actions in thin air). The second will put these fully into the context of the arm (illustrating a manner of thinking that I believe synthesises the positives behind both the 'floating' arm approach and the seemingly contradictory 'arm-weight' approach). Although it might seem to be putting the cart before the horse, this post will deal largely with finding the lowest effort with which balance can be effectively sustained AFTER key depression. In the third part, I'll be dealing with actually moving the keys (in a manner that seamlessly evolves back into that state of balance from the second post).

Anyway, you'll notice in these posts that I will talk primarily about ADDING activities- with less attention to things to be avoided. This runs in stark contrast to many of the prevailing methods around today, so I'm just going to give a brief demonstration to show that technique is most easily developed when the primary focus is on acquiring the activities that you do want- and why it's virtually useless to approach it exclusively in terms of trying to strip unwanted efforts away. To illustrate that, I'll show the two most important components that contribute to the possibility of achieving a truly loose wrist in octaves- both of which are about intent to add seemingly unrelated activities, rather than about the wrist itself.

Anyway, if the above sounded rather harsh, let me stress that I'm not dismissing relaxation exercises- but rather arguing for the necessity of also looking at the productive activities that must occur for particular releases to have any realistic chance of being maintained. I recently received a pre-publication copy of Alan Fraser's latest book on piano technique: "All thumbs". He, too, looks primarily at positive activities. However, it also contains some of the finest exercises I've encountered for neutralising unwanted efforts in the hand- to effectively wipe the slate clean prior to getting started on the positive actions.

Such things are great and I am certainly not arguing against them. The problem with so many other approaches is that they are too heavily focused on subtraction of efforts- WITHOUT covering the corresponding positive actions  that you do need to be sure to put in. Alan Fraser goes on to cover such additions in great depth, but in other methods you're frequently left to either figure out some of the most important things of all for yourself, or to go nowhere fast. There's no better example than the classic case of pianists who resort to a stiff wrist, in loud chords and octaves. I want to illustrate here how directly focusing upon the wrist itself is possibly the single most futile means of dealing with the issue.

The thing is, it's simply not hard to loosen the wrist. Yes, a pianist with years of bad technique behind them may have stiffness and poor range of motion, even away from the piano. However, this is still easy to sort out. Just get them to take a few days off playing and engage in daily cardiovascular exercise, such as jogging or swimming. Get them to do some yoga and flexibility exercises, get them to relax in a sauna and spa etc and (unless they had acquired really serious physical problems) their wrists will at least be loose enough to work with in no time. However, no matter how hard they try to remember to keep the wrist relaxed, as soon as they return to the instrument to play octaves or chords, some activities are going to need to be employed again. Unless they chance upon two POSITIVE intentions for activity (that must be in place elsewhere in the mechanism, even if you're straight out of the jacuzzi) the wrist will almost certainly start being forced to stiffen again, to compensate for their absence- no matter how strong their intent to remember to retain the looseness. When a wrist stiffens in spite of willful intentions to the contrary, it usually does so for a reason.

Let's just think what happens when a wrist is loose. Well, considering that it's essentially a hinge, if you simply press the arm downwards it shouldn't take any profound genius to realise that, upon contacting the piano, it would begin to give way and keep travelling down- unless you immobilise it. When people try to thrust down, there is not much choice but to lock the wrist, or to be willing to let it keep going. Carrying on going is exactly what Grindea's "flop" encourages you to do, in order to loosen up. The problem is that, although flopping reminds you to release the wrist and helps provide the feel for loosening it, you cannot possibly allow it to happen while playing loud chords or octaves at a notable speed! It also tends to give a very flabby connection to the key that provides little scope for controlled musical voicing, or depth of tone.

(EDIT- I've since discovered a way to achieve effective results when the wrist drops during sound-production. This requires a very particular quality of movement from the individual fingers, if you are to achieve fine control over voicing, but I should stress that a literal "flop" is not always a bad thing- at least for an individual chord. However, if you have to play fast chords in succession, it remains an objective fact that you cannot possibly afford to waste time on allowing the wrist to keep collapsing and falling down during key depression- and that immobilising it with tightness  is a counterproductive and dangerous way to avoid that. Even if the flop can sometimes be used in a practical context, a pianist MUST also have the option of avoiding it in a healthy way, in order to excel). 

See the first and third examples here, for an illustration of a "flop" due to a loose wrist (coupled with an inactive hand and upper arm), first from contact and then from a height.

These are actually great exercises for reminding yourself what it's like to experience a truly relaxed wrist- but they play no direct role in setting up a functional situation in which the wrist can afford to relax- without causing the ultimately unwanted consequence of actually collapsing. Instead of allowing such a flop, in regular playing you must be capable of adding an activity that will roll the wrist very slightly over the top- ie. an activity that specifically prevents this very flop from occurring! You will see this in the second and fourth examples of that previous film. The key is that you do not prevent the flop by tightening muscles to immobilise the wrist, but instead via a tiny sense of forward motion from the upper arm. If you've read my previous post, this is a classic example of countering a "negative movement", not by stiffening, but by including enough of a "positive movement"- directly in the opposite path. When you add this fundamentally essential component, gravity provides a smooth deceleration (rather than either a dead stop, or something so dysfunctional as a drooping wrist). Over time, you can refine it to a miniscule follow-through, while keeping just enough movement to ensure that the wrist is able to remain loose, yet without any chance to be flopping down. I overdid the roll over the top somewhat in the second strike of example 4, but the first shows something rather more functional. However, I would stress that it is possible to refine it to something notably smaller still (as can often be seen in the playing of Rubinstein, after he drops from a great height).

Anyway, develop movability of the upper arm with the following exercise- for rolling the wrist over the top, via upper arm movement:

Note that there should be no active pressure- other than a slight sense of allowing the hand to rest. Move slowly back and forth- without either causing any sense of strain in the wrist or forcing anything. Move from the upper arm and simply let the wrist follow passively and comfortably. If you feel the slightest twinge of discomfort, try resting more lightly against the tabletop or reduce the range of movement to whatever is manageable without any perception of effort or "pinching" anywhere. Don't go into this with the mentality of stretching or forcing!!!!

That covers the upper arm's requirements. However if the hand itself is merely braced to transfer arm pressure, it can still be hard not to stiffen the wrist when moving the keys. Instead, practise bringing in movement within the hand to push yourself AWAY from the keys, as the wrist rolls over. I actually involved this already in examples 2 and 4, if you look closely. I didn't just fuse my hand into a fixed position (as many explanations claim is desirable), but actively opened it out while moving through the keys. Such movement is especially important if you want to be able to drop from a height without experiencing a heavy landing. However, here's a clearer view of the action of opening out the hand upwards and away, done on a table:

Note how easily the hand expands. That is due to a complete absence of downward pressure from the arm. The only pressure that occurs is the result of the thumb and fifth finger extending and pushing the hand open. The less resistance to this the better. That can still be relatively advanced for an octave, so less experienced pianists might want to practise and play with the thumb alone to get the feel for how it contributes to looseness of the wrist- or perhaps try a smaller interval such as a fifth. The hand, too, now starts to contribute towards moving any remaining momentum forward and over the top (for gravity to naturally absorb), meaning that the wrist no longer has any need to stiffen against the possibility of slumping down into a collapsed state. The more the hand can contribute to this, the less the upper arm needs to press forwards (which becomes especially important at high speeds).

This barely scratches the surface of such a huge issue as chord and octave technique, to put it mildly. I'll certainly come back to this in more depth, after I've gone down into the absolute basics of movement. However, I hope this not only provides some initial insights into the objective background behind the specific issue of how a tight wrist can be cured, but particularly into the wider fact that ability to release an unwanted stiffness can be massively dependent on whether POSITIVE activities are being adequately deployed somewhere else in the mechanism. A list of things not to do is generally of little use unless you have a grasp of the things that you do need to do. Would you go about passing on a recipe for a meal, by handing someone a list detailing only those ingredients that are not to be included (without bothering to mention that they're specifically going to need a few strands of saffron, some grated truffles, half a pomegranate and a couple of kilogrammes of tripe)? Sadly, many schools that focus heavily on relaxation are so stuck in a one-sided picture, that they can ironically end up perpetuating tensions (by either failing to outline the useful activities or, worse still, directly advising against them). In many cases, looking at the location of a dysfunctional tension does not necessarily contribute anything much to the possibility of stripping it away- until a necessary ACTIVITY starts to be put into place.


If you're in any doubt about what I outline above, this scientific study is most revealing.

It's not an easy read, so I'll summarise it by saying that they took a number of accomplished pianists and amateurs and asked them to play a single octave from a height. All of the accomplished pianists rolled slightly forwards and over the top- whereas all the novices moved down and back. Rather than take my second hand version, see page 6 for a very clear diagram of this (illustrating the differing paths of arms viewed from the side). This is very much in line with not only the details in this post, but also the concept of negative/positive movement in my last post (as well as my prior explanations of how to healthily redirect momentum away from impact, in the two posts on "keybedding"). It was no particular surprise to read that the accomplished pianists all used this specific quality of movement, or that the novices veered towards the same classic error (likely caused by thinking that because the key moves downwards, the trick is to thrust everything else downwards too). I cannot think of any better illustration of the fact that, while accomplished pianists will differ in many ways, there are also some very specific mechanical issues that consistently determine whether the most effective results can be achieved. The defining difference that distinguished between the movement of pros and novices was not an act of relaxation during key movement. The novices were slumping everything down anyway. What they missed was a positive ACTION- that was present in all of the experienced players. Without bringing in those key activities (to contribute towards efficiency), there's just no possibility to recreate the motion of the pros- or to reduce the overall effort to comparable levels. In many cases, before you can start stripping efforts away in any productive fashion, you must first introduce that which has been missing.


  1. This goes in the exact direction I was looking into!

    I myself am a Guitar player and I have had a strange case of tendonitis that came from bending my wrist down to avoid the "flop".

    I found so much diverse information that it was hard to put together. Some say that it is important to use the intrinsic muscles of the hand and keep the wrists loose/use the arm weight. I always thought this could get me in the right direction but I always stumbled over the wrist question! I always noticed that even if all finger strength came within the hand it must be connected to the arm somehow in order to make use of it.

    I am now excited to conduct further research into this and gained new hopes!

    Thank you so very much for this article.

  2. Interesting to hear from you. I wouldn't like to speculate in any detailed way on the guitar issue, but I do suspect that the general principles might indeed be relevant. Basically, if you want to keep something from getting displaced slightly in one unwanted direction, first notice where it wants to go when being passive and then counter that with the experience of moving it faintly in the other direction (rather than be willfully trying to keep it fixed into literal stillness from the very beginning). This concept could probably be applied to countless different things.

    The finger issue is always a difficult one. From an objective perspective, fingers often need to provide all the movement and literal energy (I suspect this is also so on the guitar). But if the wrist stiffens and locks then this is actually the very antithesis of truly independent movement. This is a great exercise for creating movement independently in the hand itself, yet feeling an abstract kind of "connection" to the arm, rather than a clamped wrist.