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Saturday, 13 November 2010


Although countless books have been written on piano technique, what deeply puzzles me is the seeming absence of any books that specifically derive practical advice from the wide implications of the most fundamental laws of mechanics. Before I put anyone off from reading any further, I should stress a few things at once: Firstly, none of the following articles will be about learning a "mechanical" piano technique- rather the stress is always going to be on PRACTICAL piano technique (by which I mean one that results in physical ease but which also opens the door to greater extremes of sound and orchestration). The reason I am writing this is because I have found the implications of basic mechanics to be spectacularly effective at both translating into better movement and into better sound. This is not an academic exercise but an attempt to improve the understanding of what needs to actually be perceived, in order to find the easiest path towards formulating quality of movement. Frankly, the pure scientific issues themselves don't greatly interest me- UNLESS they specifically lead to a means of making improvements. Of course, sometimes thinking about something that might have seemed totally abstract can suddenly reveal an unexpectedly useful implication. However, on here I do not intend to even mention anything that I have not already drawn a very notable practical consequence from. You'll find applications supported by theory, not theory for its own sake.

Also, I will go out of my way to keep the actual physics as simple as possible. You won't find me detailing pointless calculations that involve estimated coefficients of friction, or using trigonometry to calculate the specific force in Newtons that a particular muscle might have to apply. I'm looking at broad issues with significant implications, not number-crunching. In fact, I claim no background in especially advanced mechanics myself (although I have previously studied mechanics as part of both maths and physics A levels). What I have found notable when thinking these issues through is just how overwhelmingly simple it is to put BASIC mechanical laws into the context of piano playing.

Above all, what has astonished me is just how practically beneficial the implications are, with regard to attaining ease and efficiency of movement. I've discovered that much of what I had been doing (over many prior years had been wasted on playing the piano really rather poorly indeed) is comparable to having tried to find an 'instinctive' feel for playing poker- without having actually learned all of the rules first. When it comes to movement, the laws of mechanics are (literally) the rules. Of course, you need to develop a 'feel' to play either poker or the piano to a remotely high standard. But surely we ought to START by learning the rules and their most standard consequences? After all, no mechanical rules can be broken.You can only seem to break them. Looking at certain inescapable facts has allowed me to do things which, for many years, I thought really were impossible. But clearly that's because I simply didn't properly understand the rules. It's theoretically possible for a person to push the limits of a set of rules further than anyone else and it's possible to make them work for you. But if this doesn't evolve by instinct, the best thing you can do is stop hoping to 'transcend' anything with wishful thinking and start understanding the sheer possibility that exists within the limits of the rules.

These days there are countless books on technique that are tremendously informed by research into the make-up of the human body. While this is certainly be to applauded, why have authors not put the same level of research into the most basic laws of the universe? What's the point in skipping so far ahead as to start learning the names of individual muscles and bones- if you do not yet understand the overwhelming implications of Newton's 2nd law?

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

How can it be that this never even seems to get a mention? It cannot be overstated how much of problem this is, if not dealt with (especially at the moment when the key lands against the key bed in FFF playing). Why do so many people seem to fight against the piano with so much effort? The simple answer is because of irrefutable Newtonian physics. Above all, it is because they do not know how to deal with the forces that the piano sends back at them. Flowery metaphors are often used and relaxation is always stressed (often with little more than short term benefits), but HOW do you move in a way that will absorb this force, mechanically speaking? Many authors have floundered around the issue in overwhelmingly vague terms, but what makes it rationally POSSIBLE to do it, specifically speaking? To be able to relax away from the piano is very different to knowing how to relax in the face of the return force. Here's a film of myself playing a few years ago, before I started making any changes to my technique.

You'll see that, when it rises from the keys, my wrist often relaxes to the extent that my hand sags down like that of a limp-wristed drama queen. So why couldn't I relax my wrist properly in the big chords, if it was so busy relaxing (to a dysfunctional excess) elsewhere? Not because I didn't know how to relax but because the mechanical basis to my movements made it IMPOSSIBLE to both apply a large force and keep it more relaxed. I didn't want to be stuck unable to play louder than mf for life, so rather than reduce the returned force by playing lighter, I put up with uncomfortable tensions and impact. There was simply no alternative (that I knew at the time), unless I wanted to reduce the range of my intentions- which would hardly have been much better.

Technique does not come merely from good use of the body. Neither does it come from understanding mechanical laws. It comes from good use of the body in the context of mechanical laws. They cannot be separated or you can be certain that there will be gaps in the understanding and probably even areas where beliefs contain outright factual accuracies. To cure seizures (or preferably find a better way from the first time you ever play), you have to understand the force that makes you resort to them. Okay, a small number of great pianists learned this by 'feel' alone and have no idea how they do it- but they are in a real minority compared to those who succeeded in never getting anywhere by 'feel'. If it doesn't take you there, you need to stop doing and start understanding how to deal with the returned forces. It's time to forget the negative of the idea that you have to attempt to stop seizing up and start working on the positive of what leads you to a position of being ABLE to absorb forces, rather than fight them.

Later on, I hope to show how a number of changes in the understanding can rather easily stop people battling against the forces that the piano returns to you- and how you can even build up to applying huge forces (if desired) in a manner that permits even the largest rreaction forces to be absorbed with really very little effort whatsoever. You won't hear me coming out with any vague nonsense along the lines of "treat the piano like you're trying to sooth a newborn puppy" or "imagine you're making tender love to a blow-up doll" or whatever such poetic nothingness is usually resorted to. I'll show you how to stop fighting against a force and how to let it simply dissipate into your whole arm. Once you know HOW to absorb the reaction force in the first place, who knows? Maybe such images will even become surprisingly useful?  

Although I will try to make the scientific aspects easy enough to understand, anyone reading can feel free to skip to the practical implications and the various exercises for movements and perceptions that will be included, if they prefer. It's technically quite possible for the how to be useful, even if you don't have the patience to follow the explanation as to why. However, I include the 'workings' for a couple of reasons. Firstly, some of the implications might sound rather counter-intuitive. I'm not going to ask anyone to put their blind faith in some random bloke on the internet- so I want to give a clear proof, say, that movement A might be a definably inefficient means of producing tone and that it leaves certain muscles with no choice but to lock up. Equally, I'm not asking for blind faith in why movement B, say, might both be more efficient at transferring energy and more conducive to comfortable shock absorption. Also- while I've put a lot of thought into all of this and feel very confident of both the purer explanations and the practical implications, I want everything to be accountable. If anyone with a background in physics should disagree with any of what I write, I'd very much like to know. I'm interested above all in trying to advance understanding, so I'd actually be deeply grateful if anyone wants to pick me up, on anything that they might dispute, or let me know if they feel I've overlooked an important factor.

Coming back to the practical side though, a lot of movements can look identical on the outside, but be drastically different in the inner workings. By understanding the underlying mechanical principles that LEAD to the possibility of efficiency, you are much more likely to succeed than if you try to copy what you see on the outside.

As an example, later on I'll illustrate the difference between two types of finger action that look almost identical to the eye. Both have uses (Horowitz certainly used extreme forms of both), but one risks landing the keys with more impact. The other uses very strong actions and easily absorbs the reaction force. While most great pianists know how to use the latter to the full, I'll explain how a simple flaw in the mindset leaves few pianists able to exploit it. Again, the ability to differentiate between these two different qualities of movement (unless already acquired by lucky instincts) comes from knowing both the rules of mechanics and the implications of them. Rational understanding is only destructive to the instincts when it is based upon inaccurate understanding or incomplete understanding. In such cases, unguided instincts may even be better than the results that stem from a misconstrued rationale. However, the problem is that all humans make observations. There are many generalised observations and commonly held beliefs that are totally inaccurate. As I'll illustrate in my first detailed post, the path in which a finger frequently needs to activate can seem very odd, compared to what you would immediately imagine. When superficial assumptions are corrected by greater understanding of context in mechanical laws, it's far easier to reprogramme your understanding of movement.

At some point I'll explain why many people still grossly misunderstand the interaction between gravity and the body- dwelling too much on the fact that, in isolation, gravity is a perfectly downward force (but forgetting how many levers it interacts with and ignoring how this totally redirects the force). Frequently pianists end up working their muscles too hard- while erroneously believing that gravity is the source of the downward force.

Look at this film from 20 seconds in onwards:

Gravity!!! That's as clear a thrust as you could imagine! Certainly not 'free fall'- which is TOTAL relaxation, by definition! What exactly is going on with all of these inaccurate explanations and paradoxes? While the Taubmann approach has many positives, it tries to be scientific but then comes out with a wealth of jumbled self-contradictory premises. If it's simply a metaphor to aid the sensation, then better to declare that! If it's supposed to be scientific, then lets remove this contradiction about doing a "free fall" without relaxing- whatever that's supposed to mean. Maybe not relaxing refers to the way she visibly presses so hard into the keybed after the supposed "fall" or maybe it refers to the thrust that so clearly occurs instead of an actual fall? Who knows? Either way, the way she digs in for the example looks very unhealthy to me and the explanation is utterly ambiguous. If I'd paid the few hundred pounds they charge for those tapes, I'd have been pretty unimpressed. Despite some of the positives about the approach, there's really a lot of room for improvement, in the attempt to explain things(not to mention the demonstration of how to bang your arm so stiffly into an octave).

Anyway, later on I'll give a few exercises that make it easy to perceive for yourself the direction of the force that gravity REALLY transmits to your arm (as a clue, it's rarely anywhere near being exactly downward in its effects). Ironically, when misunderstood, aspects of gravity can be one of the biggest hindrances to transmitting a downward force through the key. I'll show how properly understanding the resultant effect of gravity on a body can improve its use, as well as how it's also possible to improve action in the hand, by exploiting gravity as a balancing counter-force (often with no visible dropping at all) rather than as a power source.

There is not merely a single correct way to move. But there is an absolute truth in the laws that determine what is possible. Some ways of moving provide seemingly limitless possibility. Others provide very few possibilities, due to inescapable physics. While there are many alternatives that function just fine with regard to mechanical law (even if sometimes unusual to look at), some things are simply at odds with it. You have to be careful to differentiate between valid individual solutions (of which there can be many) and things which are inherently flawed. Sometimes saying "this is just my own way of playing" basically amounts to putting yourself in a strait-jacket. It's important to be willing to rethink things- unless you're happy to stick with the level you are already at, of course.

PS. In many ways the approach of this is likely to be rather similar to that of Alan Fraser, author of the "Craft of piano playing". I am extremely grateful to him for forcing me to rethink so many things about piano technique and for revealing a number of specific physical issues. Many aspects of what I shall be writing will have been inspired rather directly as an off-shoot from his principles about function. I will do my best to avoid inadvertently plagiarising anything, although I should certainly acknowledge how much of the foundations are owed to his work. Some of this is likely to involve slightly different descriptions of rather closely related movements. Even when the ideas have nothing directly in common whatsoever (and even in the few areas where I actually disagree rather violently with his explanation!), I should give him all due credit for inspiring the ongoing thought processes and experiments which will have led to them. Although many of the original premises here will stem more greatly from the starting point of mechanics, the process of integrating the implications into actual body movements is greatly inspired by his approach. Although I will be aiming to be even more rigorously scientific about certain issues (and also tend to place a little less trust in the subconscious- vital as it is for many things) this is very much intended to complement and work in tandem with the Craft of Piano playing approach.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Andrew! Really like your approach, It's most definitely practical and I can't wait to see the how, but also why behind piano playing.

    Whilst I don't study physics, I find it appealing given the fact that it universally governs everything we do and witness, and I think a mechanical approach would be very useful to look into, if not only at rudimentary level, when it comes to piano playing/practice.

    Can't wait to see what you've got in store, thanks for putting in the effort to create this blog.