How to Physically Relax: Chopin Edition
S.B.’s lesson on 8/3/19
-Nocturne, Op 48 / 1, in C Minor
Eliminating tension from the playing mechanism.
Any tension, in any muscle, versus a buoyant physical state, impedes
the alacrity with which one can play any passage.
How can we most effectively deal with tension once it exists in the
It tends to be easiest to be relaxed when first starting a piece.
With each succeeding note of the piece there is the possibility of a
subtle but continuous rise in tension.
Because the rate in increase of tension can be very gradual we may not
be conscious of it. By the time we are usually aware of it there may
no longer be a “way out”.
A relevant question is: how many notes can you play through before
tension sets in? Is it just a couple of notes, or a measure, a couple
of measures, through an entire long phrase, through a major section of
the piece, etc.?
If we can come up with a procedure whereby to rid the body of tension,
is there a way we can activate that procedure periodically, regardless
if we do or do not perceive that there is tension at that moment in
We want to find a procedure that restores relaxation, regardless of
what degree of tension my at that time be present. The procedure
should insure sudden relaxation versus gradual relaxation.
A preliminary exercise:
I ask S.B. to play a comfortable chord (she chose the chord
d4-fs4-a4-d5). I asked her to let the chord continue to sound. While
holding it, before changing any of the notes, I asked her to practice
ADDING tension until there was great tension throughout her body. We
started with the fingers, then added the hands, arms, etc.. She was
now gripping the chord in a panicked way – holding on for her life.
We exaggerated the tension, beyond what might exist in the middle of a
piece after tension had grown over a prolonged period of time without
our having been aware that it was happening. In our preliminary
exercise we have simply shrunk the period of increasing tension, until
it is obvious that it was happening.
That is part one of the preliminary exercise – suddenly and
overwhelmingly increasing the tension.
The next phase is, while still holding the chord, to eliminate the
tension in noticeable stages until the tension is gone. Through
repetition the time it takes to undo the tension gradually shrinks,
until it happens in as short a time as would elapse in performance
between one note and the very next note.
These are the two complementary parts to the preliminary exercise.*
The passage beginning at measure 49 (“doppio movimento”)
S.B. knew what she wanted but felt hopelessly blocked from attaining
it. I said that when something is this complicated to figure out, it
is often helpful as a first step to “orchestrate” the passage, so that
in our mind we are no longer dealing just with a piano. And at least
in our imagination we are no longer limited by the ideosyncrasies of
the piano as an instrument.
The cellos and basses play a series of half notes starting
with c3-c4 on the first beat of measure 49, followed by another half
note, f2-f3 on the third beat. And so on through the next measures.
Start by playing just these two instruments. Everything else, whether
in the left hand or the right hand. is left out and all we hear is the
long bass tones sustaining for two beats each. Let there be a certain
buoyancy in the way the left hand starts these sounds. And let the
left hand float upwards between the onset of one tone and that of the
next. This floating motion is not separate from the attack on the
notes but somehow already contained in the gesture of the attack.
During each half note, in the growing vertical space between the hand
and the keyboard, you can imagine playing the missing notes.
There are other instrumental assignments to the other notes and layers
of sound. However, even without going further, often the player can
already switch to playing all the notes in the score – but, constantly
tell themselves that all these other notes, every one of them, is
inconsequential. Everything is still there, every detail, including
crescendos and decrescendos. gradations in loudness. The same
regarding bringing out the main melody on beats 2 and 4 in the right
hand. Nonetheless they are all the result physically inconsequential
gestures. Almost at the verge pantomiming but still audible in every one their details of line, expression, emotion, intensity, etc..
Complex measures with a wide variety of variables.
S.B. jokingly complains that her brain’s ‘bandwidth’ doesn’t permit
her to focus simultaneously on as many different things, technical
and musical, as she needs to be aware of in a complex measure. I said that
no one’s brain has that capacity. Before there were parallel
processors, when computers used to run several apps at once, they were
not really multitasking. They simply spent a certain number of
millionths of a second updating one app and then switched to another
app and spent a similar amount of time updating it.
Before the early 2000s, films were delivered to movie theatre in the
form of physical reels of film. When run through a projector, it was
usual for 24 frames of film to run through the projector each second and be displayed on the screen. At 24 frames per second, motion will seem continuous even though it has been broken down into discreet chunks with noticeable changes from one frame to another if the two are displayed side by side. The multi-tasking we are describing for computers operated by up to a million times per second, so there was no problem convincing the user that more than one thing was happening at the same time, both continuously.
In a very complicated measure of music we can multi-task by thinking
of one thing at a time. As soon as the first thing has borne fruit in
the ear, we may let our attention go to another and reasonably assume
the first will continue as it was. Some of these things may be
physical in nature and have to do with body use or body sensations,
others with music feelings, ideas, and aspirations. Each time one
thing has caught fire from the spark of our imagination, go on to the
next thing. There may be four or more different things to think about
in one measure. This is possible, but only if we go from one to
If we propel an elastic ball down against the group, but once it has
started bouncing back up, then down… it will continue bouncing that
way until the bouncing has to be re-initiated by us again (or in our
case ‘thought’ about again).**
The key ingredient in this process is mental flexibility, the ability
to think of one thing and then another, without clinging to one in
particular. As a general rule, in piano playing, it is not as much
the what you think about, but the when you think about it.
Beware of playing at your maximum loudness.
If you are maxed out loudness-wise, and you see a crescendo coming up
that is indicated in the score, there is no way to play that crescendo.
Even within the span in time of the loudest phrase, some sub-groups of
notes in the phrase need to undergo some process of growth and decline
or the phrase will have no shape.
There always has to be a reserve tank of greater loudness available.
Don’t dig a loudness well out of which you cannot get back out.
#4 An unexpected cause for difficulty.
A. Measure 49, left hand
I said to S.B., one of the left hand notes during the first two beats
of the measure is not sounding anywhere as near as loud as the other
notes, and I don’t think this was on purpose by you. Can you spot the
note? She played and listened and gradually went through a list of
possible note culprits, starting with the note that she felt was most
likely and then less and less likely ones.
She only failed to suggest one note as a possible culprit. Of course
that was the note that didn’t sound equal with the others, in fact far
softer if at all. It was the g3 in the third triplet eighth of the first group of triplet eighths.
She thought she was listening but was actually feeling what was going
on in her muscles. She wasn’t listening for every note.
#2. Measure 46
This is a measure in double octaves that unlike similar double octave
measures that came before, skips around more, pitch-wise.
The further into the measure she went, the more difficulty she
encountered playing what was let of it. The tension occurred when she had to move between octaves. It was a blip on a radar that lasted too short a time to be noticed by the radar screen observer. It is especially important at those very brief moments that the arm and hand, like a very flexible blade of grass, be set into motion from the least hint of a vagrant breeze. The blade may have rested still for quite some time (in our case the duration the octave is held down) but it is in a state of willingness to be moved.
-Nocturne Op 15 / 2 in F# Major
Cadenza-like runs as in measures 11, 18, 20. 50.
The unsuspected cause of impediments to the constancy of flow in these
runs was a greater physical tension in her thumb than in her other
fingers. She had been unaware of this. It only was observable in
comparison to the somewhat less tension in the other fingers. It did
not stand in a self-evident way. Once she evened out the muscular
tension in all the fingers (keeping that common degree at a minimal
value) the interruptions we first noticed in those runs was replaced
by an even flow of tones.
Unexpected causes of problems: “turn around” points
Again an unevenness in the way the sixths rose and again fell.
I offered a solution before the explanation for why the solution
Notice that the score asks you play the bottom note of the sixth
twice, one before rising the sixth the other after the sixth
re-descends. Why not try playing the upper note of the sixth twice, as
Instead of starting the measure with: b4 gs5 b4 as4 fx5 as4 …
play it this way: b4 gs5 gs5 b4 as4 fx5 fx5 as4 …
This seemed odd but she tried it. Joe: now try it as written. The
surprise was the eliminating of the tiny resistances to the evenness
in the whole cadenza.
Then, the explanation. The gs5 at the beginning of the measure is the
result of a rightwards motion from the b4. What about the second b4?
It is the result of a leftwards motion from the same gs5. This creates
a problem for the single gs5, in that it has to be two things at once:
the result of an upward motion, and the cause of a downward motion.
Repeating the gs5 twice gave that note an opportunity to distinguish
between those two roles rather than try to combine them as part of one
Measure 50 again. This time when the motion in sixths cedes to
Where exactly is the turning point between the two? The pivotal note
is the d5 which is the result of an upward skip from es4 but also the
cause of the succeeding chromatic scale (d cs c b as … ).
Hitherto, once she started the measure she would go right though this
pivot point without fully being conscious that she had already passed
it. It took only the awareness of which note was the pivotal point
and that she was aware of the moment when she was about to play that
note, in order to homogenize the entire cadenza.
Again a pivot moment. To solder the two main pieces of this cadential
phrase into a homogeneously flowing ribbon of sound, we simply
identified the point when chromatic motion downwards in the right hand
turned into motion in broken thirds. That point was at the ds5, which
happened to fall exactly on beat two of the measure.
Measure 25 …
To bring out the principal melody in the right hand, she had to play
its notes louder than she wanted to.
From my privileged position as the unmoved observer I noticed that
when the right hand played an octave (for instance as the first and
sixth note of the measure). What she didn’t notice, because she
happened at that moment to be more physically involved in her playing
than listening to that playing, was the that the thumb note of the
octave tended to play a moment after the pinkie its note in the
octave. When I brought this to her attention, at first she didn’t
believe that this discrepancy in onset time was happening. So I asked
her to play some of the passage again, but this time I physically
intervened with the right hand with my two hands to force the two
notes to happen at the same moment. Then, of course, because it felt
physically different than how she played it before, she became
conscious of the delay.
An unexpected dividend of this newly forged simultaneity between the
notes of the octave, the octaves not only sounded cleaner and clear,
but perhaps more importantly, the note at the top of the octave (the
melody note) sounded slightly louder than before. The result was that
she now had an additional way of causing sounds to be louder, one that
was not simply a matter of dynamics.
* If one were making a graph of an increases then decreases in
tension, the resulting curve would gradually climb higher off the
x-axis until reaching a peak value, then return in short course back
to the x-axis. This is similar to shape of what is called a “saw
tooth wave”. The difference is only in that instead of plotting the
details of increase and decrease in the amplitude (y-axis) of a sound
wave through time (x-axis), it was plotting the increase and decrease
of bodily tension.
** you can set many balls into a bouncing motion but not if you have
to start all of them at the same moment in time. But once they are
all in motion they will all continue to be in motion for a while. The
same with the fruits of thought.
One way of avoiding repetitive stress on the fingers
I believe that the ability of the fingers to move in one plane of action (up and down) is abetted by its being free and able to move in other planes as. Once in a while I’m practicing, when I momentarily run out of ideas what to do, I will, turn my hand upside down and I will extend rather than curl my fingers while trying to make the finger tips cause sounds on the piano. It is but a moment’s diversion.
Another time, I might spend a few moments focusing on the lateral motion of my fingers. Here is the series of steps: 1) lay a flat, closed hand on piano. 2) separate two adjacent fingers, say fingers two and three. 3) have the third finger move laterally in the third knuckle until it can play a note that is located where the 2nd finger is. and vice versa.
Here’s something to try that is half way between a right side up hand and a hand turned upside down. I turn the hand sideways, either pinkie down or thumb down. We’ll take thumb down first. The thumb, which is now the ‘lowest’ part of the hand, is extended downwards toward the keyboard and away from the other fingers, and tries to make a sound on the keyboard. Then I attempt to do something similar with the other fingers. These seconds’ long exercises can be done with either hand as well as with the hand turned pinkie down, so that it is the pinkie that first tries to extend down and away from the other fingers to try to make a sound.
Another way of going about freeing up the muscles in the fingers is to use one hand to hold onto a finger in the other hand, so that the latter finger can move only from the first knuckle; later the second knuckle; or the third knuckle. Usually all three knuckles take part in the flexion of the finger when making a sound (although the first knuckle a lot less than the others); so it is interesting to separate apart these “partial” motions and then putting them back together.
A subliminal way of providing music theory information to the student
Today’s incarnation of “Irving”* is playing the C Major Prelude from book one of the W.T.C. I’m bringing up the subject of chords probably for the first time.
The harmonic-rhythm of the piece (the rate at which the chords change) is slow and even paced; the chords change only when measure changes. It leaves me ample time to say to him casually, as he playing: “this is now a C major chord”; “this is a now D Minor-7 chord”; this is a G Major Chord, etc..
I do not assume he will understand the bigger part of what I am saying, but it is more at creating a subliminal background to what he is playing. Much like those once fashionable “learn while you are sleeping” tapes. So, even if all he gets are the things listed below, that is more than enough: 1) There is something called a chord and apparently I’m playing first one then another; 2) that these chords apparently come in a wide variety of types; 3) but one can identify these types based solely on the notes I am playing. He is getting used to hearing the terms I am using, terms like “major”, “minor”, “7-chord”.
It can be an advantage that he does not have to stop the flow of his playing in order to try to understand what these terms mean. He may know no more than that the terms change in a way that, at this point, almost seem to vary in a patterned way with the sounds he is making. Each time I use them in the future there will be a growing sense on his part what they mean and how to use them.
* I promise to give Irving a new name one of these days.
Micro-managing the motions of the fingers by micro-managing time
When playing we are lulled into a sense that we make one physical motion for every note we play. That, however, leaves out many subtle motions we make before we play a note and while we hold a note (even if the note is brief).
I wanted to call Irving’s attention to motions that take place so rapidly that we are unaware of them, but at the same time are motions that are critical to the successful execution of the connection from the current note to the next note.
As an example we used the “Revolutionary” Etude (Chopin’s op 10 / 12).
The first four notes in the left hand at the beginning of the piece (A-flat, G, F, D in the octave of middle C). We used the fingering 2 1 2 4.
I raised these questions for Irving. They were rhetorical in the sense that I did not want a verbal answer, but wanted him to be aware of what he was doing physically from instant to instant in time.
-At what exact instant does the thumb start moving under the second finger on its way towards the F.
-At what exact moment does the second finger, in turn, start its motion leftwards to pass over the thumb (the latter now being on F).
When our awareness re-sets itself only one to three times per second, we sometimes we ‘lump’ together certain physical motions. We assume that they either will occur together, or one right after the other. This is often too vague a description of what goes on in our hands. Smoothness is something that exists to the finest perceivable granularity in time. The smoothness of the execution of a group of notes depends on the exact moment during that execution when one particular component of the motion begins relative when another component begins.
Note, too, that the exact proportion of when these timings occur will probably need to change if you change the tempo. Sometimes one of the components does not make this adaptation, and the group is spoiled.
We can call the above an example of “finger ergonomics”.
“The Three Faces of Irving”?
Three pronouns that refer to the same pianist: I, you and s’he”
The reference is to the movie “The Three Faces of Eve” in which a woman with multiple personalities gradually learns how to integrate the first personalities with a newly arisen third personality.
Irving is playing a short Schubert waltz. He is having difficulties at certain particular spots. In my ‘position,’ mentally as well as spatially apart from him, I could tell not only with my ears when there was a problem (a hesitation, a wrong note, etc.), but I also could tell what procedure would offer a solution to the problem.
I wanted him to develop the ability to be, as I was, an observer of himself, and be in fact be a teacher to himself. He need not be the person who just in a passive sense suffers from the “slings and arrows of outrageous” notes, but to step out the “first person singular” (I / me), and into a more lucid observer of himself.
We thus tried to create a second person singular, a “you”, who was still nonetheless Irving, but who was , especially in an emotional sense, apart or separate from the first person, who was able to observe dispassionately what was going on and not react emotionally to any difficulties that the first person was experiencing. This second person could take a calmer notice as to when and where the first person is having difficulties, and dispassionately making mental notes to himself where they occurred.
We let this second person singular become the ‘teacher’, of the first person singular. This second person can feel as if they figuratively sit beside the first person, and thus can have a different perspective on what is happening. This second person has the ability to use his or her reason and reflection to find a solution to each problem.
The first person becomes the “student in you” and is the part of ones self that is actively involved in making the music. The second person can become “the teacher (or older person) in you”. Everything that goes on during the lesson between Irving and me are sample dialogues between the first and second person that the student can then internalize.
There can be a third person singular too (he / she / him / her ), who observes the first two people. This self is even more removed from the active player than the second person. She may be the one who is in the audience listening to the concert or perhaps writing a review of the concert.
She not only notes, but can reconcile, the interactions between the first and second person. She can tell when, during a performance, the first two are communicating well with each other, or when they should have been communicating with each other.
So, thank you to Irving, Irving and Irving. Reminds me of an old Jewish joke about a law firm (write me if you want to know the joke).