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A well-organized spine will help loosen your hand and improve your piano technique

 

CRAFT OF PIANO LESSONS:

 

THE PIANISTIC TREE OF LIFE

 

 


This lesson appears in chapter 49 of Alan Fraser's
Honing the Pianistic Self-Image: Skeletal-Based Piano Technique


A posture to optimize your piano technique

Sit comfortably at the piano, and rock your pelvis slightly forward in such a way that you feel it pushing your spine upward – but don’t pull your head back. Your spine lengthens; your sternum expands forward and upwards. Don’t push out your chest on purpose; but feel how the gentle rocking forward of your pelvis can make this movement of the sternum happen naturally. When you’ve really got the feel of that, look down at the keyboard; let your head angle forward somewhat, without losing that wonderful openness in your spine. Don’t slump your back at all. But don’t overdo the opening of your spine either: these are all suggested directions, not intended to create a gross caricature. This posture is a combination of opposites: your torso is oriented in one direction, open and up, while your head goes the other way – forward and down. It is specific to piano playing. Your open torso cultivates the physical organization that makes it easier to activate your fingers as needed, while your ‘hanging’ head facilitates a clearer listening, more focused attention, and a further reduction in counterproductive muscular stresses in your neck area. In the end this unusual posture should feel pretty close to neutral, but it’s an empowered neutral.

Optimal posture at the piano helps you perceive hidden tensions and dispense with them

To operate the pedals, let your legs angle outwards – your hip joints open and your foot rests on its outer edge to play the pedal rather than pumping it straight on. Alan Fraser evokes the pianistic tree of life at the pianoThus your knee does not need to rise at all as you lift the pedal but rather move slightly to the outside. Notice that when your pelvis is rocked slightly forward and you play the pedals this way, your hip joints must remain loose. Thus you can now feel any effort that you may have been investing in your thighs, your hips, your back, your ribs, effort that is totally useless. This effort can be related to a lack of activity and proper work of the fingers, or in some cases to some so-called emotional state, a feeling of “expressiveness”. In any case, if you maintain this posture functionally not stiffly, it will become much more evident to you where your fingers and hands are not doing their job, and how your so-called emotional sensitivity may actually be something quite different – a type of tension that blocks true emotional expression.

Feel a quality of emotion that doesn't disturb your piano technique

Do you think that the type of “venting” that you see so often in TV dramas is emotion? No way: true emotion grows out of deep calm. This empowered posture allows you to find and maintain that calm even while in the complicated act of playing compositions from the virtuoso repertoire. It also makes it easier for you to improve the action of your fingers to suit your musical and expressive purposes. Don’t sacrifice the functionality of your torso, your hand-arm’s support structure in the effort to play and emote. Let it continue to support you, and take steps to improve the activity it is supporting.

A slumped back only appears to be more relaxed

If you rock back slightly  (they say that Liszt loved to lean back when he played, keeping a very “open” posture and letting his lion’s mane of hair flow freely), notice that you may seem to perceive a relaxation in your lower back. But notice what is happening to the rest of your back. The weight of your torso is no longer directly over the lumbar vertebrae but might be forward from them, because as you rocked backward you also rounded your back. Or, if you didn’t round your back, your torso is now behind your lumbar spine. Thus this rocking the pelvis backward will most likely create tension in your back, because your vertebrae are no longer piled up one on top of the other. Now some of your muscles must be engaged to hold yourself erect, and these are no longer available for internal movement. It is very important that you do not use effort in your back muscles to straighten you, but find the way in which the rocking pelvis straightens you without those habitual contractions. Try combining the forward pelvic motion with an in-breath. Can you sense the tendency for your spine to lengthen, for you to grow taller without any contractions in your lower back?

Cultivate whole-body skeletal principles to empower your piano techique

Notice that when you are rocked forward (if you don’t go too far), you can now feel the force of your weight naturally exerted down through your sitz-bones, the iscia, because the muscular contraction that would stop you from feeling it has now been minimized. Your thighs have relaxed so that you can now also feel them pressing lightly into the edge of the bench. Note that this posture also encourages your stomach to relax, to bulge out slightly like the Buddha’s. When Horowitz said he played from his stomach, this is what he was referring too – not to any sort of contraction in the abdomen, but rather an empowered relaxation of the abdomen derived from a continued sense of the sitz-bones bearing the weight of the torso and connecting it to the bench. This posture maintains an alive, neutral relaxedness through your whole lower area. In this is its power, power that has a positive effect on your fingers’ moveability. You can get the most powerful sound, the most glorious tone, if you do not disturb this arrangement even in technically difficult passages. In other words, the “support” that your body offers your fingers in playing is not the support of muscular contraction. No, muscular freedom will be a far more effective mode of support. This freedom is made possible when the skeleton takes over the work of supporting your body in gravity.

"Leaning forward" but staying balanced empowers your piano techniqueA moveable skeleton is a potent skeleton

Thus it is a mistake to fix your body to withstand the counterforce exerted when you play a big, loud chord. No, your bone structure should be so well aligned that even the most powerful chords can be struck without disturbing that alignment. Thus Schultz’s concept of “fixation” can lead to serious misunderstanding. If your bones are well organized, there doesn’t need to be any fixation against the recoil from the shock of the fingers striking the keys. If you feel fixation, you are using your muscles to do it, and this is inefficient. Your bone structure can fix things quite nicely all by itself, so nicely in fact that you don’t even feel rigid – you feel fluid and powerful.

Fluid skeletal structure helps cultivate precise levels of indirect key attacks

This fluidity of structure is what gives that little dollop of ‘indirectness’ needed to take the harshness out of even your most brilliant attacks. Your finger itself may very well strike the key in a precise, direct way, but it is the fluidity of structure further up the system that attenuates the attack to the exact amount of “indirectness” needed. The bones stay in exact alignment – you don’t get wobbly or weak or imprecise – but in this state of alignment the muscles can feel the micro millimeters of movement needed to attenuate while maintaining exactitude and power. Yes, cultivate an indirect attack, but in order not to sacrifice power, shimmering brilliance and speed, be capable of controlling very minute degrees of indirectness.

A well-organized spine = a well-organized piano technique

Some Yoga disciplines refer to the spine as the tree of life. All the vital energy of the body flows through its central electric power line, the spinal cord. Many movement disciplines cultivate the lengthening and aligning of the spinal column as a way to access the body’s natural vitality and moveability. For our purposes, a supple, empowered alignment of your vertebrae can become the foundation for pianistic movements free from counterproductive contractions: a structure to bring new life to your piano playing.

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