I’m often asked after recitals about my seemingly relaxed state at the piano - how do I do it? Usually my answer is that I spend a lot of time while practicing concentrating on being relaxed. Since that answer only really scratches the surface I thought I would post here a short article I wrote a couple of years ago about an area of technique I think about pretty regularly. Granted, a short article or blog is not the ideal place for a technical explaination - indeed, I think I could probably write a rather substantial book on this topic alone - but I thought it might be interesting to readers and if so, more posts on this and other areas of technique can certainly follow. Enjoy!
Tension is a problem that can plague any pianist. One of the worst kinds of tension, and one that, in my opinion, goes the most unchecked in students and professionals alike is not tension created when playing a fast octave or scale passage, but the tension that is held in the arm and wrist after playing an octave or a chord that is depressed for any length of time. Take a walk through the halls of any music school or conservatory, and you will see pianists massaging their bandaged, tendonitis-ridden arms. It’s time we all take a serious look at this issue.
First, let’s tackle the problem by thinking logically. The keys of a piano, even on the heaviest of actions, only take several ounces of pressure to depress. Even less pressure is then required to keep them down. Why is it then that so many pianists, when playing a loud chord or octave that is then held, will continue to press down on the keyboard with an unnecessary amount of force? Is it because we feel that will help the chosen chord or octave to continue at a certain level of volume? Does it help us to feel like more powerful pianists? Who knows, but it is a problem that needs to be solved. Here’s how:
First of all, I would like to point out that solving this problem is a lifelong goal. All pianists should be actively thinking about releasing tension when they practice and perform. I was lucky enough to have this brought to my attention at a very young age, and even after some twenty-two years of practicing the piano, I still from time to time have to actively make myself relax to feel like I am tension free. So, unfortunately I can’t say that this will all become second nature at some point, but I can tell you that if you have never thought about this when practicing, it’s definitely time to start. And, like anything, it will become easier.
Now: with your index finger only and with a relaxed and supple approach, depress any white key on the piano. Hold it down, but experiment with the amount of pressure you need to keep the key down. While doing this, make sure that your wrist, arm, shoulders and back are all relaxed…almost to the point of relaxation one experiences right before falling asleep. Now repeat this using different intervals, chords, and single notes, all in the search for that super-relaxed, sleep like feel in your body while holding down the key or octave. This is a concept called “letting go”. It’s based on the idea that after playing a chord or an octave, one must “let go” of the force and tension required to make the sound, even if that sound must continue by keeping the key or keys depressed. Now, of course you can’t replicate this entire procedure after every loud chord you play, but this will give you a sensation to strive for when practicing and playing. Remember that playing the piano is really something that should feel very natural, and if you are experiencing any sort of pain or discomfort, chances are you are doing something wrong.
So, practice hard and long, but practice in a relaxed and logical manner. Being able to let go and be tension free will keep that nasty tendonitis out of your life forever! -C.R.B. 6/24/07