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.
A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound
S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.
The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.
The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.
#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.
The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.
A. Measure one and the first half of measure two
The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.
B. The first two notes in measure two
The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.
C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.
Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.
D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.
When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.
E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.
This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.
#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.
The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord. Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.
The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.
C. The section with double octaves.
S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.
She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all that flexibility.”
I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.
I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.
This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
Sundry thoughts about Trills
People seem to use two opposite strategies for trilling. Either, use excess physical effort to try to maintain the trill going on and on, or use as little physical effort as possible as a way to keep the trill from stalling or changing and maintain its ease and flow. I subscribe to the later method.
The limiting case for a least-effort-possible while trying to play is to pantomime. Execute the trill like a “mime,” barely touching or tapping the keys (but in the correct order and speed). Doing this teaches the body just how effortless a trill can feel when there is no overuse of energy. The effort is so little that any conscious amount of energy we apply is already too much.
Once you have pantomimed the trill, say to yourself: “what is the absolute least amount of any additional effort or energy I can give in order to make the notes of the trill start sounding.” Even if only some of the notes end up sounding, just add a bit more energy and leverage than before when you first went from silence to sound. In making this difference in energy, less is more.
A variation on this technique is to sound and hold down the lower note of a trill while repeatedly tapping and releasing the upper note (either making a sound each time or making no sound – both are effective procedures).
Coming out of a trill
Many of us have difficulty with the last few notes of a trill. It doesn’t matter how long the trill is, how many beats it is, we’re just fine until we are within a split second of needing to stop the trill. This last moment is a confusing moment for the hand. No matter when you think about the trill ending, just by thinking about it – such as the thought “gee, I guess it’s time to end the trill,” you transmit something to your body that gums up the end of the trill. The last few notes of the trill will not flow smoothly. It is better for the body, if possible, to remain “ignorant” of when it is time to stop the trill, and then suddenly, without warning, stopping,
Evenness counts for as much or more than speed
It is more satisfactory to the listener if you play a trill slower but evenly than to try to play it faster but and fail to maintain evenness.
It is the body as a whole that does the trill
A trill would seem to be an action limited to the neighborhood of the fingers. It seems at first sight to be so precise a motion.
Here is a procedure to make the trill a part of a motion of the entire body. I did this many years ago with my student Rachael:
We stood up. We started wiggling the tips of our fingers, then spread the motion so it included our hands, then wrists… At this point, our fingers, hands, and wrists were all moving at the same time in a random fashion. Developing this idea further, we began randomly moving our forearms, then added our elbows, then our upper arms. We looked pretty silly at this point. Finally we added our torsos and eventually our legs. I said: now you’re ready to play the trill. Wiggle (or gyrate) your way to the piano, and don’t stop moving all the parts of your body until after you are seated at the piano bench and have started the trill. The trill came out marvelously. Unfettered, free, even, fast; as if it could go on forever.
The point was not to move the body like this every time we need to play a trill, but that doing so brings alive all the connections in the body so that any motion is possible, including going back and forth between two keys on the piano.
There is no formula for this procedure. Nothing is gained by knowing which muscles you are moving or by how much. The point is simply to bring alive all the parts of the body.
Turning any passage into a continuous trill
Take any melody in a score and create a trill on every note, at least for the duration of that note, if not a good deal longer. The goal of this process is to make the passage sound like a continuous trill. In doing so, you are imbuing the passage with the aesthetic qualities of a trill: great continuity, maximum flexibility and sense of motion, sinuosity, élan, continuous change and aliveness… These are all qualities that you can then preserve into the normal execution of the passage. All the qualities just mentioned retreat inside the heart of each note as the notes succeed each other. If we liken a melody to an artery then the trill is like the blood itself flowing through the artery.
A long trill
A long trill can be concatenated out of numerous smaller trills that are stitched together. Most of us can sustain a trill for a short duration of time but have difficulty if the trill is meant to go on for a long time. Just knowing in advance that it will be long affects how we start the trill.
Here is a solution. Start the trill as always, but after a short while, well before we would normally tire out, send a new wave of energy or pulsation down the arm from the shoulder as if to start a new trill. The important thing lies in the timing of when to initiate the pulse of energy. It must start out before the current group of trill notes has completed – it needs time to travel down to the fingers.*
Repeat this process as many times as necessary to complete the printed duration of the trill. At first there might be pauses between the end of group of continuous trill notes and the beginning of the next. After a while, though, the chunks of the overall trill will be linked seamlessly together.
When I do this, I can go on trilling indefinitely, without any loss of vivacity. Sometimes I do this to show off for a student, saying as I’m doing it: see, I can go on, and on … and on … Just by renewing the trill and starting it over fresh each time.
Changing the character within a long trill
Sometimes a long trill can be made to be more expressive if it changes speed in specific ways at specific moments during its course. It gives the overall trill an architecture, and overcomes any monotony that might otherwise ensue.
A rarer but more extreme version of this would be to apply a ritard and/or accelerando within various portions of the trill. This requires a fine degree of control so that the trill doesn’t stall out or get tied up in knots.
Special anchor spot in the forearm
There is a spot on the forearm, not far from the elbow, nearer the crease of the elbow than the point of the elbow, that is an effective point from which to experience the motions the muscles that are activated when playing a trill.
Take one of the fingers of the hand that is not doing the trill, place it on the spot described above, and push down on the skin, just until the finger feels something moving underneath the skin while playing the trill.
This is an ideal point from which to experience the reciprocal motion involved in the trill. You will ensure greater evenness in the trill if instead of focusing on the fingers you focus on what is going on in this spot on the forearm.
An “inductive” approach to a trill
Begin with a single note. Pose the question to yourself: can I play a single note with great rapidity? Playing a short staccato is the answer.
Next append a second note to the previous note. Pose the question: how fast can I play one note and then another? Answer: I just have to treat the first note as if it is a fast grace note to a longer second note.
We proceed one more note at a time. We trill three notes, as fast as we can, maybe using our voice to lead the fingers by saying something like “go-ing-THERE.”
Continue the process for four notes of a trill. How fast can I execute them? I just need to think of the first three notes as a group of grace notes leading to a the fourth, longer sound. One can steer it by saying: I’m-go-ing-THERE. Or thinking of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth done at an extremely fast tempo.
And so on. A five note trill. A six note trill. At some point we reach a number of notes so that continuing the trill is no problem: the trill has ignited.
I wish you a trilling experience.
* The experience is not that different than repeating the same note legato a series of times. Before, and not at the same time as, the key has come up all the way to the level of the other keys a stronger arm pulse is already making its way down the arm to overwhelm the upwards motion of letting go of the key.
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.
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