A “crescendo” of relaxation
Related Video: Illusion of a Crescendo
M. and I are working on the second (the fast) movement of the Beethoven Sonata Op 109.
She has small hands and struggles to execute the more difficult passages. Even the span of an octave requires special effort by her. However, when she relaxes her hand, the span she is capable of between the thumb and pinkie grows by at least several millimeters. That may be a small difference, but often is enough to determine the difference between ease and discomfort, relaxation and strain, accuracy playing the two keys and inaccuracy.
The more tension there is in the hand, the less it can freely breathe open and closed. The hand should not remain in a fixed position any longer than it does during the day when we are not at the piano. It is always fluid, mobile and protean, a mass ever changing in form.
The best playing results when the hand is capable of both taking and loosing any shape or span. It should remain in its momentary shape without any tension or clinging to that shape, then be able to change to a different shape a moment later without having to overcome any inertia. There should be no resistance to change when it occurs due to any sort of clinging to the previous shape.
Let us say we are playing a series of diatonic triads going up the C Major scale. It is incorrect to assume that the hand can exactly maintain the same shape for throughout. Watch closely and you will see that the lateral angle in the wrist, and even in the fingers, is constantly changing. That the angles in the shoulder and elbow are also changing. If we freeze the hand as we play the triads, while the first triad may feel comfortable, each subsequent triad will feel more and more awkward. Sometimes, though, it takes close attention to the changing muscular sensations of our body to notice this change as it occurs.
A crescendo of relaxation:
If, as is often the case, we are unaware of growing tension as we are playing, the only antidote is relaxing over and over as we proceed. Though we may feel as relaxed now as we were a few measures ago, the chances are good that we are not. It may seem to us that each time we relax during the piece we are getting more relaxed than we have been any time prior in the piece, but in reality it takes this ‘crescendo’ of renewed acts of relaxing to offset a less conscious drift in the other direction.
Often, when a student is playing a piece, and sees that a more difficult part of the piece is coming over the time-horizon, she will tend to do two things: get louder and get tenser. It is as much an emotional reaction to worry and fear than a simple physical reaction to cope with the anticipated physical difficulty. The paradox, of course, is that the less tense the playing mechanism remains, the easier it will be to play the upcoming passage, regardless of its difficulty.
Odd as it may sound, the best physical state while playing is the one that most resembles a quiet state of not doing anything at all. Often we exaggerate the difference between the former and the latter, and do “too much” in order to play.
It reminds me of a dancer who stays in a “momentary shape” and also “ever changing in form”. What a lovely image to compare a pianist to a dancer, the expression emerging from the physical into the ethereal in a similar way but heightened with addition of sound.
What is the best way to practice this state of ‘not doing anything at all’ while practicing? Are there any specific techniques you have for that?
Part of the answer is doing the least physical effort that is nonetheless adequate to producing desirable results. It is separating the degree of effort from the degree of the desired result. There was a medieval philosopher, William of Ockham, who in essence said: if there are various ways of solving a problem or achieving a certain result, and some of the ways are complicated and some are much simpler, choose a simpler one – choose the simplest one possible. Ockham himself said: do not multiply entities unnecessarily. Of course, for most people, his way of describing his idea about keeping things simple is not expressed at all simply.
Another way I think about this is like this:
When people are singing or playing “in the groove” they often describe the experience as:
I wasn’t conscious of trying to do anything. Or, it was as if I was listening to singing rather than singing. Or, the sounds flow of their own accord; the notes seem to flow out without prompting; the music is speaking through me; I am only the transmitting mechanism; I feel like everything is under the control of the music; my ego and
physical intents have little to do with it. All notes, all sounds, come from silence. Silence precedes them, silence surrounds them, silence follows them. They materialize out of the ether and vanish in press of time. Time itself is an artifact that allows us to tell the story one piece at a time, though in the essence it is not yet words, yet all the words are there somehow in a womb; a single pregnant mass.