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The Aha Moment: Muscles Working in Harmony

August 8, 2018

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.”

 

 

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