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.