Tag: Imagination

The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony

The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony

Rachmaninoff G Minor Prelude (op. 23 no. 5)

I think of physical habits at the piano as falling into three categories.

Category One: Movements that neither help nor hinder playing.

Category Two: Movements that facilitate and help playing.

Category Three: Movements that hinder playing.

I don’t worry too much about students regarding category A, unless their motions mask or keep them from discovering more useful motions.

I encourage or teach students any movements that fall into category B, those that facilitate playing.

At Irving’s lesson today he used a gesture that unfortunately is in the third category, motions that directly hinder the playing. It seemed to be an intentional gesture on his part, done because he thinks it helps his playing.   When we would reach the point when one would normally gently release the keys after sounding a note or chord, Irving pressed further into the keys with his hands and fingers and simultaneously raised his shoulders. I think he does the latter in order to cushion the added pressure created by the former.  He creates, in effect, an ‘aftershock’ to his sounding of notes. The result blocked the flow of energy down his arms.  He make this gesture most often when playing a difficult passage.

We managed to instill a new motion that replaced the harmful motion and moreover achieved the purpose he was trying to achieve by using the harmful motion.

I asked him to drop his arms at his sides, and to begin rocking then swinging them forwards and backwards towards and away from the keyboard.  Then I suggested that he start playing the piece again.  As he did so, I started to repeat, over and over, the mantra  “swing your arms … swing your arms…”.  Each I time I said these three syllables, I timed them to coincide with the often repeated rhythmic pattern in the piece: two sixteenths then an eighth.

He played for a while and then stopped.  In a frustrated tone of voice he said: “I don’t understand; how I can swing my arms and play at same time.  Be more specific, Joe.  Tell me how much I should move the arms, in what plane of action, using muscles in particular.”

I said: “Aha!  This is the crux of the issue.  The fact is that indeed there are too many muscles in the arms to keep track of what each one is doing.”

It is like walking.  Almost the entire body is in motion.  Many complex interactions of muscles are occurring.  Yet, somehow they are harmonized and brought into balance with each other, and work towards the common end of moving the body forwards.  If you were to try to be aware of which muscles you were using when walking you would simply cause the motion to become awkward, stilted, and un-flowing through time.  But the point is that they do work together, unbidden.  They act in harmony.

In this regard, piano playing is similar to walking.  Enumerating what to move and when will not produce a fluid motion of the arms.

Irving: “So what can we do – what do I do?”

Joe: “Since there can be no detailed answer to your question about what, and by how much, I can only reply, just trust that any attempt you make to put the arms into any sort of motion, will lead you to more fluidity and better sounding quality while you are playing.”

After a while, Irving got it.  He said: “I don’t understand how this is working, or exactly what I am doing other than thinking about motion in my arms, but I hear a difference, and I like the difference.”



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{6} The Effectiveness of The Imagination In Executing Motions

{6} The Effectiveness of The Imagination In Executing Motions

AN EXAMPLE: EXECUTING DOUBLE OCTAVES IN SPEED (It takes time to move in space)

The most powerful way to do this would be to raise both the arms several feet or more between each octave and the next.   There is a however limit as to how fast we can do this.  If we try to make these motions occur faster, there is simply not enough time to raise the arms all the way up, there is only time to lift them a short distance above the keyboard.  It takes time to move in space.


There is a difference perceiving motion externally with the eyes and perceiving it internally

in our body – kinesthetically.  Usually the outward perception masks the inward, but by closing the eyes, we can become in tune with the just the inward sensations.


The possibility exists for a motion to feel like it is happening although to an external observer no motion is perceived.   And sight no longer contradicts our inward sensations.

Start by counting slowly from one to five as you raise and then lower your arms.   Then repeat the action in full.  Each time you do,, double the number to which you count.  No matter how high you count, at no moment should you loose the internal sensation that motion is still happening.

In the next phase, practice feeling as if you are raising and lowering your arms through a wide ambit in space, though no motion is occurring within the space outside your body.  The neurons in our brain can remember what the feeling was like from before, and recreate the same bodily sensations.   You can see where this is leading.   ///26///


Begin in the first measure to play slowly, athletically raising and lowering your arms, and then segue into a faster and faster tempo.  The motions of the arm will become compressed but will actually gain power thereby and not loose power.

In the imagination there is no lower time limit for the muscles to reproduce the entire scope of the sensation the sensation of raising the arms up high and lowering them again.  This stems entirely from the difference between what a motion feels like and what a motion looks like.   Even if only an instant on the clock transpires, our muscles can still feel like we are going through the full extent of the motion.


In this distinction between inner and outward perceptions lies the key to harnessing the energy necessary to execute the most difficult passages, including but not limited to the one we are considering.


-How the distinction between inner and outer sensations explains why a fine pianist can skip from one part of the keyboard to another, without there being the perception of intervening motion through visual space on the part of an observer. The hand seems magically to have reappeared in another place

-How, through our inner kinesthetic sensations we can develop control of fractions of seconds in the flow of the music.

-How an analogous consideration of our more general feelings (not our kinesthetic ones) leads to exquisite-sounding playing. That time itself can be dilated or compressed: one can do a lot with a phrase if a second on the clock feels many seconds in our consciousness.

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{7} Points of Articulation in the Body Can Be Real or Imaginary

{7} Points of Articulation in the Body Can Be Real or Imaginary

In entry #6 we defined imaginary motions as what you are left with, as internal body sensations, if the eyes are closed but you are still moving in space.  From this it follows that any point on the body can act as a point of articulation, and flex in the imagination.   This will include.

To meet an intransigent technical problem we can conjecture where, ideally, if there only was a point of articulation, it would simplify the motions we want to make relative to the keyboard.

An example.  With our eyes closed we can imagine that there is an extra point of articulation in the forearm, say half way between the wrist and elbow, and that we can literally feel it moving and flexing.  Doing this will have a subtle impact on how we use our forearms back in the “real” world while playing a piece.  Enough that something changes from being awkward to being doable.

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