Tag: Relaxation

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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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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  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.

A “crescendo” of relaxation

Illusion of a Crescendo VideoRelated 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.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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?

    1. 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.

Pain in the Thumb Solution One: No Motion in the Thumb Independently of the Hand as a Whole.

Example: Right Hand Playing A Scale Upwards.

Pause in the scale on the note played just before passing under the thumb. While paused, don’t let the thumb make any anticipatory gesture of moving under another finger. Just relax and pause.

Raise the entire hand, vertically, until it is several inches above the keyboard. While doing this the thumb makes no movements independent of the hand as a whole.

Have the arm transport the entire hand rightwards, until the thumb, still just an undifferentiated part of the hand, is poised over the note that it is about to play.

Simply lower the hand back down onto the keyboard.  Still without any particular motion in the thumb that is not simply the result of moving the entire hand at once.

Sound the next note by moving the mass of the combined arm and hand.

Get used to there being a silence in the scale between the end of the note before the thumb is used, and the note on which the thumb is used.

Gradually the silence between the notes will shrink towards zero, while the absence of independent motion of the thumb still remains.

Solution Two, Solution Three, Solution Four, Solution Five

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Pain in the Thumb. Solution Two: Tug of War.

Example: Right Hand playing a C Major Scale Upwards.

My third finger is on an E and I am about to play the adjacent F with the thumb.  Imagine a tug of war with the two sides, initially, pulling with the same strength.

On the right side of this tug of war is the entire arm, wrist and hand, which pulls to the right.  On the other side it is just the third finger alone, on the E, resisting, with equal force, this tug to the right.

At first no one ‘wins’.  Each ‘team’ escalates how hard they are pulling, but the increments are done at the same time in each ‘team’ and in equal degrees, so that no movement occurs.  This process continues until the finger can exert no more force to resist the more powerful rightward pull of the arm.  As the third finger suddenly lets go of the E key, and the arm and hand, including the thumb, lurches to the right, with great stored up power, and the thumb travels to the F so quickly that it is almost with conscious duration.

Solution One, Solution Three, Solution Four, Solution Five

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