Sunday, August 14, 2011

Principles of physical piano technique

Countless texts have been written on piano technique. Words are our primary means of describing the physical sensations of playing. They are, however, inadequate when it comes to conveying what we experience with our senses. Try for example describing the essence of a pear -- its taste, smell, texture -- to someone who has never had a pear before. Yann Martel does beautifully in Beatrice and Virgil, and yet...

This does not mean that putting words on sensations is totally pointless. On the contrary, describing personal experience solidifies understanding. I believe in fact (and there may be a lot of people who disagree with me) that a thing is fully understood only if it can be expressed in words. This is probably why teaching is such an effective way of learning -- the necessity of explaining your ideas to others forces you to clarify them.

One of the reasons I write is to untangle my thoughts, to figure out what the hell it is I really mean. Exploring is the word that comes to mind. When I write, I explore. I once read a particularly apt quote that went  -- somewhat less clumsily -- I don't write because I have something to say; I write because I don't know what I want to say. (I don't remember precisely where I saw the quote I have in mind, but there are a number of authors who have said things along similar lines.) Naturally then, the written word has played a part in my coming to terms with Piano Technique. How can I describe the kinesthetic sensations in the arms, hands, fingers and joints when playing? How much of technique is a physical  phenomenon, and how much mental? Can healthful piano technique be reduced to a handful of absolute, immutable laws?

Honestly, I don't think so. But there are some basic principles of physical technique that I've come by both through experience and various texts. One of the latter is called "Keeping It Simple" by Barbara Lister-Sink (from the collection A Symposium for Pianists and Teachers: Strategies to Develop the Mind and Body for Optimal Performance) in which she proposes a definition of technique that "allows a maximum of artistic expression with a minimum of effort:

"Healthful piano technique occurs when there is good coordination of the whole body with the piano."

It's a very pretty definition. But what does it mean? Coordination is of course not only between the various parts of the playing mechanism (arms, hands, fingers, joints), but between the various skills (or principles) healthful technique implies.

Here are some of these principles, briefly described.

1. Point Zéro. The term is Monique Déchaussées' to describe a state of total body relaxation, the starting point (point zéro) from which the body is completely "available" to execute a given movement. "Relaxation does not allow one to play the piano," she says. "It constitutes the fundamental state on which technique is built." She explains how to achieve point zéro:

"Standing with arms hanging to your sides, free up the weight of the body. Little by little it will fall into the legs, your feet will begin to feel like they're sinking in sand. Wait silently and in total receptivity for the sensation of the vertebrae of the spine stacking naturally one on top of the other, the head resting on the neck, the trunk fitting into the pelvis. Then, perpendicular to the spine, feel the line of the shoulders which together form a T. The pianist is entirely built on this letter T. At the extremities imagine a hook on each, on which the arms hang, independent of the body. The arms become so heavy and alive that you begin to feel a tingling in the fingertips. In this position feel that the elbows and wrists are empty, free of all tension.Once you acquire this point of absolute relaxation, this point zéro, try to put it into practice in your every day life: can you open or close a door, take a shower, answer the phone, carry something heavy without ever losing this sense of relaxation, the feeling of emptiness in the elbows [and wrists]. Living in this state is indispensable for playing the piano without effort. One must live as a pianist and not incessantly ignore in everyday life the physical state of relaxation necessary for building great technique."

2. Center-out approach. As Abby Whiteside once said, The center controls the periphery. In other words, coordinated movement flows from the center (the trunk) outwards to the fingers. The arms lead and support the fingers. To quote Seymour Fink (Google him) from his article "Biomechanics of Healthy Pianistic Movement":

"It is an all-too-common mistake to isolate and exaggerate finger movement, to lift them unnecessarily high, or to stretch them laterally. When overactive fingers lead, they often confront reluctant arms encased in frozen shoulders. The result is strain, inferior alignments, and weakened playing. In a well-coordinated technique, fingers take their place as the last link in the chain, moving only after the upper arms are pre-positioned and primed to support them."

3. Dissociation of parts. One must have sufficient control of the playing mechanism to move only the part that is needed to perform the action required, while the others remain relaxed. The key word is Independence. This is particularly the case with the fingers. For a long time my problem was a "sympathetic thumb" that tensed and moved out and up when the other fingers played.

4. Free flow of weight through the wrists, hands and fingers into the keys according to the degree needed. This sensation implies a proper level of awareness of and mastery (or at least control) over levels of tension in the playing apparatus.

5. Natural practice. which, according to Déchaussée, "does not alter the mobility or liberty of the joints and must avoid forcing the muscles into performing an action.

6. Proper skeletal alignment. This not only refers to posture (i.e. balanced shoulders and spine, the weight of which falls down into the seat) but of the finger bones in relation to the keys. According to Fink (from the same article as above), "One should take maximal mechanical advantage of the skeletal structures so that the tensile strength of bones, rather than energy-consuming muscle power, carries the brunt of the load."

As a post script, I would like to specify that I'm writing this not as an authority, but as a (perpetual) learner which I address to fellow learners. The list I've given contains what I see to be the underlying principles of a healthy and efficient technique without going into specific difficulties. There are pobably others that I've left out. Please feel free to leave comments with your own additions and ideas.

Look out for the next post, Principles of mental piano technique.


  1. Well, not that this is necessarily what you are looking for, and though you prefaced it by projecting probable disagreement, I am quick to disagree with

    "I believe in fact (and there may be a lot of people who disagree with me) that a thing is fully understood only if it can be expressed in words."

    I understand how to ride a bike, but I'm sure that no one will be able to explain "fully" how the process works such that the explanation can be practially instructive, the literal stress on the adverb practically.

    Next you ask, "How much of technique is a physical phenomenon, and how much mental?" and in the following paragraph answer that no, you do not believe so. Here, I think I take issue with the criteria. What do you mean when you say physical? To my understanding, composing a song on the piano, while of course requiring of one's hands and one's body to be present, etc, isn't really "physical." To my mind, composing a piece of music on a piano is purely mental.

    What I mean, the intention. When you bang your hand on someone's door for them to open up, no one would open the door and say, "quit playing music on my door!" And, no one would think of the action of knocking on a door as auditory though it does produce such vibrations. Instead, I think the action would generally be looked at mechanically, or functionally, or physically, with the auditory or "mental aspect required" being but secondary or, maybe better, miniscule portions of the action.

    Like this, playing the piano is basically 100% mental, and the physical aspect of it that which we have no choice but to include. Again, just like the vibrations produced by knocking on a door. Those vibrations are produced no matter what.

    While it is of course correct then to look at such a composition physically, I still don't see what is meant by it.

    I mean, take the first point, which is termed point zero. When reading this explanation on how to achieve point zero, and how the body should meet the form of a T; one might better look at the posturing of the body and mode in which the body is" as a state of mind.

    Of course, the body can relax from what could be a tensed up state, though only so much. Of course, no one will play the piano upside down, so yes, again, there does seem to be a physical element involved. To me though, I interpret it in an almost wholly mental format, with the body being as essential as it is in a process like knocking on a door. Sticks could be used, but, of course that would just be a waste of time.

    In thinking about the playing of a piano, and in reading the second point, I can of course understand that the movement of fingers and the overall mode of the body play a part in the executing of a piece of music. My reason for talking about the distinction is in reference to your question "How much of technique is a physical phenomenon, and how much mental?"

    In case my previous elaboration fails to contextualize the reason I quote your question, to answer the question, the phenomenon is almost spiritual it is so mental and almost bodiless if to talk about it physically. 'Course, that is not really an answer.

    I guess I could sum up by saying that in each of the points which were meant to emphasize the relation the body has on the playing of the piano I noticed key words that are ostensibly mental. Like focus, ignore, sensation, control, etc.

    Anyways, nice post, keep 'em coming!

  2. Dwayne: You asked "Can healthful piano technique be reduced to a handful of absolute, immutable laws?" I have spent many years seeking a holistic, simple approach to piano technique. I think I am very close now, after more than 50 years. Two simple items (laws?) seem to answer everything. They would not have helped BEFORE I made my discoveries and transitions, but they describe everything pretty well to me at this point. The two are: Balance and Alignment.

  3. Ah, but how to attain balance and alignment. And carrying relaxation through all activities is a laudable goal, but how many people attain it? Yogis and master pianists? I am neither, and muscle tension is still a major problem.

  4. Paralysis is one way to achieve muscle relaxation. But most of us understand that we need muscles that work, and that we need neurological control over muscles, and that muscles operate the elements of the skeletal system--otherwise it does not perform any actions. The tensile strength of the bones carries the brunt? Horsefeathers.

    An interesting, fanciful set of ideas, all this point zero and sinking into the seat stuff, and maybe useful for selling books. The secret of great musicianship at the piano? Hmmm. I doubt it. Not so holistic after all, it seems to me, and more simplistic than simple. And it does not reflect full recognition of the anatomical realities we humes need to face in every activity that requires highly developed sets of skills.

  5. Anomynous,

    Thanks for the comment. Of course I respect the point of view, but I whole-heartedly disagree. Let me point out that there's no question of playing the piano 100% relaxed. As Deschaussée herself says, point zero does not allow one to play the piano, but serves as the fundamental state on which technique is built.

    Secondly total body relaxation is more an impression the pianist has than a literal physiological state. One of the great challenges the pianist faces is learning to maintain this feeling while moving the fingers, hands and arms.

    Finally, "point zero and sinking into the seat stuff" is indeed NOT the secret to great musicianship; it's an imperative to great technique. Heinrich Neuhaus relates in "The Art of Piano Playing" how, while observing his own teacher Godowsky, he came to the realisation that physical and mental tension should be inversely proportionate: mental tension (or concentration) must be high, while muscular tension remains minimal.

    Of course I cannot comment on the pianistic abilities of someone I don't know, whom I haven't seen or heard play. However (and at the risk of sounding harsh) I have a lot of difficulty believing that any accomplished pianist would share your perspective.