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.”
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 hand can act like a bouncing ball
Release a rubber ball so it falls to the ground. It does not remain on the ground but bounces back up and then repeats the same cycle over again a number of times until it is finally still. If we treat our hand as if it were imitating a bouncing ball, then the impetus we need to repeat a note a second (third, fourth…) time originates from what we did to play the first note: no additional energy is required.
The use of this effect isn’t limited to repeating the same note, it can apply to any series of notes or chords of equal duration. Our physical intent can be limited to playing the first of the series, and simply allow the others to happen.
If the arm is in motion horizontally at the same time that the hand is bouncing, then the effect is like skipping stones at a lake. The stone makes contact with the water (keyboard) then leaves the keyboard to make contact again, further in the same direction. The only intentional motion required is the one initiating the process, the rest happens as if on its own.
The most useful way to apply this at the piano is to do it simultaneously in both arms, in a motion that begins near the extremes of the keyboard and works its way inwards towards the center of the keyboard.* This puts the two sides of the body into symmetric harmony with each other, one side aiding and advancing the progress of the other.
* in some cases there is enough momentum left for the hands actually to cross each other.
A “crescendo” of relaxation
Related 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.
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.