Technical discoveries

Posted by: Arghhh

Technical discoveries - 01/09/13 12:45 AM

I've been focusing a lot in the past years on getting rid of unneeded tension in my playing. In the last couple months I've made a few discoveries that I thought I would share, in case someone here finds it useful.

- Eliminating thumb tension

Most of the time I was concentrating on my thumb because it always stuck out or became stiff while playing, but progress in fixing the problem was slow. A teacher this summer pointed out that different pianists tend to tense up in different places. For me it was my neck/shoulders. I worked on not raising my shoulders while I played, and found that the thumb tension problem was better, but not fixed.

I got tired of trying to fix the thumb tension problem, so I gave myself 2 weeks to solve it once and for all. I could not play one of the pieces in Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassium without playing the thumb louder than the other fingers (#13 here ) . By accident, I discovered that I was holding my arms too tightly bent at the elbow, and that when I let go of the muscles on the top of the forearm near the elbow, rotation of the forearm was easier, and my thumb tension was gone.

- expanding the hand from a closed position to an open position.

This is today's discovery. I kept on having my pinky stick out and get stiff (causing an unintentional accent) when going from playing a broken fifth with 1 and 5 to playing an octave with 1 and 5. My habitual way of making this expansion was to stretch out the hand using the fifth finger, which was wrong, since this isn't possible. Instead the hand stretches out by expanding between the thumb and second finger. Then I only have to easily stretch out the pinky far enough to reach the octave.

And another observation from slow scale practice:
- I need use my arm to move my hand laterally up and down the keyboard instead of pushing my hand sideways with third or fourth fingers when passing the thumb.

Now if I could just remember these every time I play!
Posted by: Sandra M

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/11/13 08:28 PM

Hello,
Brian Brooks of Jax Beach Florida, a Steinway Concert Artist, taught me piano in the early 90's. He taught me to approach the keyboard as though conducting as a conductor. He taught me that the arms and hands etc are that relaxed. He had me practice this before playing the piano. The one we all know is to drop you arms from over your head without any thought just drop and he talked of this also. He wanted me to move my hands from side to side. He told me to think of all of this until it becomes natural when approaching to practice piano. Brian also told me tension will be heard in performance. He was a remarkable teacher. I went back to my regular piano teacher and he told me he was very impressed how much my playing improved with Brian Brooks in only 6 months. You have an awe of discovery type of mind and you will be excellent as a result. Sandra M
Posted by: gooddog

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/11/13 09:26 PM

Congratulations Arghhh. It sounds like you are making fast progress. I've been working on eliminating tension for 3 years and I almost there. My tension was everywhere: hands, wrists, elbows and mostly shoulders. I'm now getting much better tone and control but I still have to constantly remind myself to relaaaaaxxxxx.
Posted by: Horowitzian

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/12/13 04:46 AM

I always have had problems tensing up, and I've discovered that it is mostly related to not breathing. I subconsciously hold my breath, particularly when the going gets tough. It is worse when I practice violin. Learning to simply remember to BREATH there made a noticeable difference on the piano too.
Posted by: Carlos-CR

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/12/13 05:44 AM

Originally Posted By: Arghhh
I've been focusing a lot in the past years on getting rid of unneeded tension in my playing. In the last couple months I've made a few discoveries that I thought I would share, in case someone here finds it useful.

- Eliminating thumb tension

Most of the time I was concentrating on my thumb because it always stuck out or became stiff while playing, but progress in fixing the problem was slow. A teacher this summer pointed out that different pianists tend to tense up in different places. For me it was my neck/shoulders. I worked on not raising my shoulders while I played, and found that the thumb tension problem was better, but not fixed.

I got tired of trying to fix the thumb tension problem, so I gave myself 2 weeks to solve it once and for all. I could not play one of the pieces in Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassium without playing the thumb louder than the other fingers (#13 here ) . By accident, I discovered that I was holding my arms too tightly bent at the elbow, and that when I let go of the muscles on the top of the forearm near the elbow, rotation of the forearm was easier, and my thumb tension was gone.

- expanding the hand from a closed position to an open position.

This is today's discovery. I kept on having my pinky stick out and get stiff (causing an unintentional accent) when going from playing a broken fifth with 1 and 5 to playing an octave with 1 and 5. My habitual way of making this expansion was to stretch out the hand using the fifth finger, which was wrong, since this isn't possible. Instead the hand stretches out by expanding between the thumb and second finger. Then I only have to easily stretch out the pinky far enough to reach the octave.

And another observation from slow scale practice:
- I need use my arm to move my hand laterally up and down the keyboard instead of pushing my hand sideways with third or fourth fingers when passing the thumb.

Now if I could just remember these every time I play!


Oh my, thank you very much for sharing. Specially the second one smile

This can be a very interesting thread. I think we all start almost in the same place (being very bad and inept at playing) and it's the method and those small differences which added over the years make the huge differences. smile

Carlos
Posted by: Tim Adrianson

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/12/13 10:05 AM

Arghhh, one general comment I will make is that tension inevitably builds in a presentation as a reaction to simply not knowing the music well enough. "Well enough" means anticipating BOTH the level of technical challenge AND the musical argument at each and every measure of the piece in question. One typical and natural reaction to any insecurity in either realm is to overcome the problems by attempting to "bull one's way through", and that's inevitably going to result in, at best, increased tension that will linger, or, much more often, a technical breakdown to varying degrees. That, at least, has been my experience -- music has to be "OVERlearned", particularly in difficult technical passages, because the "penalty" is typically increased tension as one proceeds.
Posted by: Arghhh

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/12/13 10:52 AM

Sandra: I actually took conducting lessons last year, and found that I had too much tension there as well - it's possible that your suggestion would work for me if I wasn't trying to succeed at conducting. A misconception I had was that tensing up gives more control, so that if I want something to work I will tighten and "try harder". Then, if a passage was uneven, I would add more energy to it to fix it. In fact, the opposite is true. I have to let go to get more control.


Gooddog: thanks for your reply. I have enjoyed reading your posts on this matter too, as you have made good progress these past couple of years.

Horowitzian: I had forgotten about breathing. Thanks for the reminder! OT: It works on roller coasters too - if you don't want to get too scared, breathe normally.

Tim: I agree with your comments, with the clarification that over-learning a piece must be done while ensuring that it is played in the correct way. My previous way of playing, I could practice a passage endlessly and still not be able to play it because instead of relaxing into the passage I was pulling away from it.
Posted by: outo

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/12/13 03:03 PM

Originally Posted By: Tim Adrianson
Arghhh, one general comment I will make is that tension inevitably builds in a presentation as a reaction to simply not knowing the music well enough. "Well enough" means anticipating BOTH the level of technical challenge AND the musical argument at each and every measure of the piece in question. One typical and natural reaction to any insecurity in either realm is to overcome the problems by attempting to "bull one's way through", and that's inevitably going to result in, at best, increased tension that will linger, or, much more often, a technical breakdown to varying degrees. That, at least, has been my experience -- music has to be "OVERlearned", particularly in difficult technical passages, because the "penalty" is typically increased tension as one proceeds.


This is my experience too. The tension is there until I really learn the piece. Then suddenly it's gone or at least much less. Also it is funny how memory issues immediately seem to lead into tension. Like tensing the other muscles would help the brain work better...
Posted by: Morodiene

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/12/13 07:37 PM

Originally Posted By: Horowitzian
I always have had problems tensing up, and I've discovered that it is mostly related to not breathing. I subconsciously hold my breath, particularly when the going gets tough. It is worse when I practice violin. Learning to simply remember to BREATH there made a noticeable difference on the piano too.


Just a side note about breathing: if you sing the melody, there should be natural places where you can breath, and by doing so you will also be helping your phrasing in playing - and staying conscious/alive by breathing laugh
Posted by: wr

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/13/13 06:21 AM

Originally Posted By: Morodiene

Just a side note about breathing: if you sing the melody, there should be natural places where you can breath, and by doing so you will also be helping your phrasing in playing - and staying conscious/alive by breathing laugh


True, in music where you can do it, but there's tons of instrumental pieces where that really doesn't work, because composers aren't constrained to writing singable melody in instrumental music. Some pieces simply aren't conceived with a single singable melody, and in others, the melody may have such lengthy phrases that you'd pass out if you tried to breath at the natural break-points.

To me, the breathing issue can get pretty strange if you don't learn how to breath in spite of what the music may be doing. I've been working on an etude that is just a steady stream of notes, a perpetuum mobile type of piece, and the first sensible place to take a breath would be on the third page!!
Posted by: Lelax

Re: Technical discoveries - 01/14/13 02:39 AM

The Dynamic Range Trap and Hand-wrist Injury: For those transitioning from acoustic pianos to digital pianos, this is something to be aware of. Believe it or not, if the piano amplifier gain (volume control) is set too low during practice sessions, it can result in hand and wrist injuries.

Here's the problem. If you want to go from f to ff to fff, the natural tendency is to strike the keys with greater velocity. However, if the audio gain is set too low, highest velocity may result in only f or ff. Over the course of a long practice session(s) the digital piano user will naturally tend to play with excessive impact velocity. Over time, this type of practice can cause repetitive impact damage to the fingers, hand, and wrist. Such injuries can be debilitating, and are a serious matter for amateur and pro alike.

In my experience, if I notice the key travel is "bottoming-out" frequently, or making thumping sounds while practicing, then I take it as a symptom that the audio dynamic range is too narrow, and should should be increased. That is, I need to increase the amp gain (volume) to the point where playing f, ff, or fff can be accomplished without smacking the heck out of the keyboard.

Notice that this means that the amplifier chain and speakers must be good enough to reproduce fff passages without distortion or artifacts. If the system can't handle fff passages, the natural remedy is to reduce the gain until non-linear artifacts go away and linear response is recovered. This simple remedy is not as safe as it sounds. Beware of the dynamic range trap. Comments and suggestions welcome as always.