Tag: Motions

The Elbow

In terms of its use in the playing mechanism, the elbow can easily be the forgotten part of the arm.  It is remote from the hand and remote from the connection of the arm to the back.  It seems “remote from the action.” However, it is of critical importance as a mediator – a negotiator between shoulder and the fingers.  It is that which insures that energy coming down the arm is not blocked or detoured before reaching the fingers.

When tension occurs and mobility is reduced, the hidden cause often lies in the elbow.  It will often make adaptations in its alignment, not because they are useful to the transmission of power to the hands, but because we are concentrating on our hands and wish to have the hand be in a certain position.  The tension simply gets “referred” up the arm to the elbow, where we are often unaware of it.  But whether recognized or not, when there is tension in the elbow, when its freedom of movement is inhibited, we sever the free connection between shoulder and fingers.

Often the elbow is doing what it “wants” to do, but is at the service of something else.  How do we find out what the elbow naturally wants to do?  It is actually a simple procedure.  If we want to know what the right elbow is doing, use the left hand to embrace, or better, to “cradle” the elbow of the right arm.  If we now play a passage with the right hand, the cradling hand will actively sense what the right elbow wants to do, or more importantly, what it is forced to do in order to accommodate an awkward hand or wrist position.  It will notice when the elbow is coerced into making a sudden or jerky motion, usually to compensate for something occurring at the extremities.

If there is a sudden, unexpected or awkward motion in the elbow, we will want to smooth it out, or slow it down to make it flow.  By keeping in mind that the hand and the shoulder should be two stable points between which is extended the length of the arm, then the elbow modifies its alignment and attitude to find a way of sustaining this equilibrium between the two end points of the arm.  If there is a breach in the continuity of the arm, it is most likely found in the elbow because the elbow controls the motion of both the forearm and the upper arm.

Most illuminating in this regard is to play a scale or an arpeggio.

When you play a scale in the right hand, you may be surprised at what the elbow is doing as you play the scale.  It compensates for, it balances out, it supports what is happening in the lower arm and hand.  If a sudden lurch occurs in the elbow while playing the scale, it is easy to smooth out, especially if the left hand is there cradling the elbow (see above).  The supportive hand of the left arm is, figuratively speaking, saying to the elbow: don’t worry, you don’t have to make a sudden defensive or reactive gesture, because I’m here to support, balance, and give you a grounding against which to move.

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We always hold between our hands an unchanging sense of a lowest and a highest note 

If we take a ‘vertical slice’ through any music score, chosen at any moment in the score, we will find various pitches being held by the hands.  Some will have just started sounding, others are in the process of being held after having started earlier.  Among this collection of notes, one will have the lowest pitch of the group and another the highest.

If we now advance, just a bit in the score, just one note further on, we can take a new vertical slice, and find that one note is the lowest in the new group and another the highest note.  There is a chance the group will be the same as before, but more likely there will be one or more changes in the pitches forming  the group.

The hands are by way of a physical constant.  The right side of the right hand always remains the right side of the right hand. The left side of the left hand always remains just that.   However, when placed on the keyboard, the hands encompass different parts of the keyboard at different moments.   One is absolute (the hands), the other is relative (different parts and spans of the keyboard).

This leads to a question we can only answer subjectively.

If the next ‘lowest note’ is different than the one from a moment before, do we feel somehow that the previous lowest note we were playing has somehow been ‘dislodged’ from its position?  Has the lowest note moved a certain distance from the previous lowest note? (We can ask a similar question regarding the highest note from one moment to the next).

Or

Seen from the point of view of the hands, the lowest note is always the lowest note (though we project it onto different spots on the keyboard). And the highest note in the hands is always the highest note.

For me, there is something comforting in the feeling, that regardless of where the notes lie on the keyboard, the pinkies* always hold between them an arch of notes.  It is disruptive to me if I feel that the solid pillars that form the bases of this arch have to be disassembled and moved to a different place on the keyboard.  So, regardless of where my hands are on the keyboard, I know that I always hold not “a” lowest (or highest) note, but “the” lowest (or highest note).

Through time, these two notes never loose their existential identity as “highest” or “lowest.”   This identity never changes, although at one moment the lowest note may be a G and at the next an F.  One doesn’t change the “lowest” to “even lower.”

Once again… in the flux of hand positions that pass by as we play, there is a reassuring constancy that between the right end of the right hand and the left end of the left hand, we are always holding the arch of notes.

*It may not always be the pinkies that are playing the lowest and highest notes, it may be some other fingers.

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The largest possible ambit of motion

The muscular movements used in piano playing, in particular of the fingers which are at the extremities of the body, tend to be limited in scope and range.  However there is an advantage to exploring the full range of motion that is possible with every joint – be it a knuckle, a wrist, an elbow, a shoulder, or the body as a whole.

For purposes of illustration, consider the example of the third knuckle of the second finger.  We can ask what sort of mobility is available to this finger when the motion of the finger stems just from the flexibility in the third knuckle, unaided in any special way by the other two knuckles.

We find that flexing at the third knuckle allows the finger:

1) to move vertically up and down, and

2) to move horizontally, (touching the third finger on one side and reaching in the direction of the thumb on the other side).

What are the limits to these two motions?  Can these limit be exceeded through hyper extending?

What if we combine the linear movements of the finger up and down and side to side, and try to move the tip of the finger around in a circle?

We have no difficulty describing a true circle.  A little exploration though shows us that at some points along the circumference of the circle, the body allows the radius of the circle to increase, though at other points in the circle the body will only tolerate a smaller radius to the circle.  If, at each point around the circle, we move the finger to the maximum possible distension from the implied center of the circle, the result is a rather erratic looking circle, one whose perimeter bulges and contracts.

Another way to envision this same motion is in three dimensions.  The length of the finger sweeps out a three dimensional volume.  Instead of a wobbly circle, we get a wobbly cone.

Is it worth exploring the full mobility of a joint when we rarely use it in practice at the piano?

Before using it to play a note, the finger will be at rest relative to the rest of the hand.   However, there is a difference in feeling between a finger at rest which is “ignorant” of all its possible motions, and a finger, even while at rest, that feels within it, immanently, all the motions and directions in which it can move.

There is an advantage for the finger to know its full potentiality of motion.   If the finger at rest holds its position stiffly, there is little potential of action.  If the finger at rest is ready to move in any and all possible directions and degrees, it will respond with the greatest alacrity and control when playing.

We want to cultivate a state of the a finger that, though not at the moment moving, feels that the most vagrant breeze could set it into motion.  Just a breeze; just a thought, just a whim, is sufficient to set the finger into motion when, because there is no inertia to overcome before it starts moving.  We want as little resistance to motion in any direction.

Though the limit of the range of the finger’s ambit, when it comes time to play, may not be fulfilled, it will retain the feeling of the momentum of the entire potential of movement.  This will be a more confident, well directed and energetic finger.

Generalizing to all parts of the body:

What we have said here about the second finger, and its third knuckle, can be applied to every articulation point in the playing mechanism, (including rotational motions*).

Regardless of the part of the body, if it can move, we should actively explore every plane of motion of which is capable, every plane in all three dimensions and to every permittable degree. This is a healthy body part, ready to move, who knows how far, at the bidding of least, vagrant stirring of a breeze of intent.

A genus is more robust than a species:

Every time we flex the finger the same way, we are digging a deeper ditch into which the finger is constrained to move (like a slave only allowed to move only in one direction and to an extent).  However, the finger which is no longer being coerced into a single type of motion and can move in all ways, when the moment comes to play a note, will have the freedom to make one choice among many.  One choice is a compulsion, two choices is a dilemma.**  Three or more is robust and free.

It is like the difference between knowing just one species in a genus, and knowing the full ramifications of the genus to which it belongs.  If you know just the species then you have a limited idea of the underlying whole, the whole that is here expressing itself in some individual way.  Connecting the species to the genus gives a richer, informed, and liberated identity to the species in question.

At the piano, all motions should be possible at the next instant in time.

* yes, even a finger by itself can rotate slightly around its longitudinal axis.

**thanks to my friend Roy for this interpretation

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Comments

  1. Joe,
    I love this post because it reminds us of the nuances that can make big differences. In thinking about freedom in the finger joints, one could also tune in to the freedom in the corresponding elbow, shoulder joints, and even the jaw. Maximum freedom in the finger is related to maximum freedom in the rest of the body. It’s difficult to move your finger freely if your breath is held or your jaw is clenched.

{13} The Full Ambit Of A Motion

{13} The Full Ambit Of A Motion

For a part of the body to be able to move freely in one particular direction, it is important that it be ready to move, in an unrestrained way, in all other directions as well.   There is greater efficiency in the chosen direction of motion when there are no restrictions along the periphery of that motion.

A finger can flex at the knuckles.   It should, however, also be able to un-flex (perhaps brushing along the surface of the keys towards the fall board), or move sideways from a pivot point at the third knuckle, or rotate in the socket of the third knuckle.

The first thing is to explore how far in all directions the finger can move.

Circles by the fingers, for instance, are possible by combining in varying proportions left-right motion with up-and-down motion.  The result is not a perfect circle, because the finger may not be able to move as far out along a radius in one direction as an other.  For example, as the second finger moves laterally in the direction of the pinky, it is blocked prematurely by the third finger, but by sliding over the third finger, it can continue to move further towards the fourth finger, to continue making a circle.  At each point along the circle the finger tip should be at it fullest possible extension from the central point of the circle.

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Pratice Technique 29: Motions Within Motions. 

Motions within motions.

Can a single motion be directed left and right, or up and down, at the same time?  The answer is yes, by combining the two motions into one overall motion.

An analogy from mathematics would be a ‘sine wave’.  It travels vertically up and down at the same time it travels horizontally left to right.

An analogy from astronomy would be Ptolemy’s  system of “epicycles” to explain why Mars, for instance, seemed to travel slowly eastward in the night sky except at certain times when it slowed up, reversed direction and traveled westward, only to eventually resume its eastward drift.

For us as pianists smaller circles within larger circles can imitate the motion of Mars but measured in seconds and not months as in the astronomical case.  Our own system of epicycles.

Because of the wealth of joints, or points of articulation in our skeleton, almost any two parts of the body can travel in opposite directions under certain circumstances.

Why is this complexity of motion important to us?  It is because when we seek out body motions to facilitate a certain sequence of pitches with a certain sequence of fingers, a single motion, at a single rate, in a single direction, often can only poorly approximate the details in the score.

Take a simple example.  The right hand plays:

c e  b d  a c  g b  f a  e g

using fingers 1 and 3 in alternation.

A rightwards directed, clockwise rotation in the forearms facilitates the motion between two notes that are separated by the rising thirds.   Then there is also the downwards directed motion, c – b – a – g – f.

The question arises whether we should allow the forearm rotation facilitate the descending fourths ( e b  d a  c g, … ) as well as the ascending motions in thirds, simply by changing direction of the rotation back and forth.  If we do so, then the entire burden of the zizzag pitch outline is on the forearm rotation.  A better solution is to blend together two different types of motions.  We consciously focus the rotational motion on the ascending thirds.   Then we can allow a gradual, steady drift leftwards of the entire arm, articulating at the shoulder, to handle the more spaced out descending seconds.  All that is left to do is harmonize the two motions, specifically with regard to what percentage of the motion is forearm directed and which part is arm directed.

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