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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The single plane theory part two- plus levers

(note that this had originally been the "two planes" theory- had you read part i, before I added slight corrections. Thanks to those who pointed out the careless error in distinguishing between the two dimensional nature of a "plane" and the one dimensional nature of an "axis". This has now been fully corrected, although I can assure you that this careless error in terminology does not affect any of the practical issues)

In this post, I will be looking at the results of the pencil experiment and exploring the nature of levers- all the way from the finger to the shoulder. In particular, at the end I'll be introducing an idea about how to balance the whole arm and finger as one unified mechanism- with low effort and very little inherent complexity. The specific aspect that I'll be describing this is not something that I have ever encountered in a book on piano technique or heard spoken of by any other teacher. However, I am absolutely convinced that I am looking at one of the single most important things that just about all great pianists have had in common- no matter how diverse their techniques might appear to be on the surface. In short, it's a way of relating the finger to the arm- within a sustainable quality of balance. In this balance it is possible to absorb the forces that the keys respond with despite scarcely any change in state- yet the finger does not have to support excessive levels of weight at the keybed.

Anyway, first it's back to the pencil experiment, for the results and analysis. Hopefully you will have found that the most efficient means of moving was to get the pencil to exert a kind of "pull" upon the key, in which the direction of the force was constantly changing- rather than a push that involved driving the pencil in a single straight path. If you didn't, that's nothing to worry about, however. I'll try to illustrate how this action can be acquired, right now. Note that, although we're sticking with the pencil for now, this gives a prior illustration of many of the concepts which we'll be applying directly to the finger, within future posts.

One thing that we can write off at once is the worth of adding a third axis of forces and movement. Mechanically, anything sideways contributes nothing of any benefit to the context of playing an individual note. This illustrates the value in generally striving to line up properly behind each finger, in order to keep the activity almost solely within a single plane (that consists of both the backwards/forwards axis and the up/down axis). Basically, it serves no purpose to direct any movement or forces sideways, and neither is there any reason to align the pencil anything other than parallel to the length of the key surface.

More about how the arm must be involved in the considerations later in this post, but the finger itself can make direct transfer of energy, when aligned to act within this plane. In fact, the closer it is to this alignment, the easier it is to integrate its action with the arm. This provides a very strong argument for judging the hand's alignment as a whole from the weaker fifth finger. It's a common fault to find pianists who put their strongest and most agile fingers in a perfect line to play- yet leave their weaker fourth and fifth fingers in a far less suitable position. Why would you want disadvantage your weakest fingers of all, by putting them in a position where their natural path of action is not even close to the plane of the key? Nowhere is it more important to fit the finger's path to the key's path than when it comes to the fifth finger. Slanting can easily lead to a vicious circle of inactivity that perpetuates the belief that perfectly capable muscles are weak- by preventing them from carrying out their natural purpose. Without adequate alignment in this plane, comfortable finger staccato from the fifth can become little short of an impossibility. Of course, you may not have the option of aligning right behind the fifth, at all times, however- especially if you have smaller hands. Keep the single plane action in mind as an ideal to strive towards whenever possible. However, in future I will talk in detail about the best way to set about activating the fingers effectively along less direct paths- which sometimes becomes nothing short of a necessity.

Here are two views of a rather lazy fifth, at an angle where it is collapsing flaccidly onto its side:

and here are two of a supportive fifth finger, the activity of which acts almost perfectly within a single plane:

I think it's pretty clear which one looks like a real pianist's hand and which one looks like that of an amateur! However, if you tend towards a lazier fifth finger- please don't suddenly go pulling the hell out of the key just yet! It's important to be gradual and patient about making such adjustments- especially if the muscles have scarcely done anything before. Bear this principle in mind, certainly, but I'd advise you to wait until I've covered the nature of what makes for healthy finger action, before you go for any drastic adjustments.

Anyway, within the plane of activity, the pencil basically rotates around the point of contact against the key. Although I don't want to get too carried away with analogies, notice the very obvious relation to a see-saw. The more you feel the end that you are holding onto is going upwards and forwards, the more the other end is felt to pull down and backwards at the point where it meets the key. This introduces a danger of slipping, of course- so you have to be careful to feel that the point at which the pencil meets the key remains stable. Initially, it's not a bad idea to rest the pencil lightly against one spot and simply rotate it around that single point, without moving the key at all. Feel the circular path around the point of contact:

If you do find it hard to avoid skids, this is a very good way of sensing how to keep the contact stable, as you begin to apply bigger forces. When the end stays in one spot, you should find that the pull on the key is extremely productive and that there is very little thud, no matter how strongly you pull. If you feel a thud, are you sure you didn't start aiming the force right down and only switch to levering AFTER the key landed? Note how there is no feel of changing the movement either during the moment at which the key lands or immediately after. The follow through is not felt differently to the act of pulling the key down to the bed. You just want to keep smoothly drifting through and beyond the time when the key has landed, before you even think of stopping. If the circular motion around the end of pencil has to progress as smoothly as possible, you cannot 'dig in' with any impact. Sometime, just concentrate on the smooth path of the pencil above all and see if you can deliberately take all focus away from the idea of the moving the key down. Strange as it may sound, this may improve the action. Forget the idea of "down" altogether and just let that part happen. Notice the circle that is initiated as a forward and up movement. As described in the last post, however, practise changing your perspective back and forth. Sometimes return to thinking about the down and back action at the other end of the pencil. See if you can gradually combine both perspectives into a single, consistent motion.

Notice how this is NOT perceived as a "tension and then release" style of movement! Basically, if you feel you have endured enough of an effort that you need to willfully release something afterwards, the movement really wasn't anywhere near good enough. It should have felt effortless all the way. So, relax by all means. BUT THEN GO BACK AND IMPROVE IT!!!! You have to be patient but, in the long run, no other intent will do- assuming that you hope to progress. Virtually all healthy base movements are felt to be continuous and all good pianists are certainly capable of doing them whenever required- even if they don't use them for every single thing. If you can't get something continuous, go more slowly until you feel that it is slow enough to be executed entirely without any bumps. This literally applies to even a single note, whether it be sounded with a finger or a pencil. Comfort must be maintained at all times- not habitually lost and then reinstated! If you think that's fine as your fundamental basis for moving a key, you might as well say its fine to routinely walk headfirst into a wall when you meant to pass through a door- as long as you wipe up all the blood from your nose and take an aspirin straight after. It's not fine at all to repeat errors. If you want to learn anything from mistakes, you have to understand that you have indeed made them. "And then relax" is far too forgiving of excess effort- even if it seems to promote relaxation on the surface. It can lead to a perpetual cycle of error- correction -error etc. rather than error- correction- correct movement.

So, did you find a comfortable movement that produces a sizable sound without impact yet? If not, I wouldn't be too put off, but hopefully that should have led to at least an improved understanding and feel for the gradual nature of high quality movements? We don't want any stops, starts or prods in the foundation level of movement. Incidentally, the exact angle may not be the same for everybody- although it should most certainly involve levering the pencil in the general manner described. If not, keep working at it! The point was not to find a single absolute angle- so you might tell all your friends that the "correct" angle at which to aim the finger into a piano key is precisely 10.2453 degrees off the vertical, or whatever else. Far from it. In fact, the exact angle of force should slowly and smoothly be changing, as you move around the circle and depress the key. Even with the pencil, it may well be dependent on such issues as the mass of your arm, the height of your stool and many other variables. This is why advanced mechanics is futile- it's just too precise to translate. Looking at things from more basic principles can actually be a lot more revealing.

If you were expecting geeky calculations or simplistic, hard and fast answers, you've misunderstood the purpose of what I'm doing here. The idea was firstly to challenge the tendency towards downward assumptions about the movement- but above all to help you to FEEL your way to a more productive path. As, I've said, this is not about cold exploration of theory but rather the practical applications that derive from it. Theory does not provide absolute answers, but a basis upon which to have a clearer idea of what you are trying to SENSE within your own feedback loop! I really do advise being thorough with these exercises and taking care to follow the detail in my descriptions. There is really very little to learned from the theoretical description if you do not use it as basis from which to improve your perceptions, so please don't waste your time reading this without doing the exercises! 

One reader told me that he felt the exercise was "worthless" because I didn't state the conclusions straight after and because I didn't explain why you should avoid what is "obviously (...) the easiest way". Well- if you don't even follow the description of the exercise thoroughly enough to realise the fact that aiming the pencil straight down is NOT the easiest way of moving the key, it certainly is "worthless"!!! Try it for yourself now. Just how stiffly do you have to hold the end of the pencil when aiming it straight down, without the end that contacts the key being greatly repelled? It is far more valuable to discover things through experience, than be told them. I cannot provide anything useful to anyone who doesn't put a great deal of effort into bringing their own perceptions to the practical elements.

Anyway, let's look more at the nature of levers, with reference to the arm as a whole. Imagine a series of hinges that connect  a series of levers. Let's say that one free hinge is fixed to an immovable point on a wall but that the others are all entirely free. Of course, everything collapses downwards:

Let's say we need them all outstretched. what if we fix the first hinge in place? The rest still collapses:

Very little benefit came. We can now add an extra internal force to stop the next hinge next from collapsing:

But the rest still collapses etc. Eventually if EVERY joint is fixed into place it all balances- as a single fixed structure, with very limited movability:

Now let's say that we start from the far end now. You pick the end up and walks away from the wall. It can momentarily 'hang' between the fixed point and the supported point. Walk far enough and you get to a point where it is fully supported in every joint without any internal forces having to be generated to stabilise the hinges. The hinges are tightened solely by the pull from the far end, coupled with the stable point of attachment at the wall. Alternately, you could leave just a slight trace of slack and EVERY joint would still be freely moveable, rather than tightened stiff. In this state, everything is "hanging" freely between two points- not being stiffly held together with internal restrictions.

(From another perspective, you could also imagine taking a long heavy sword and holding it horizontally, without any support beyond your grip. It is far easier if you rest the end even very lightly on something- giving support via two points.)

Let's now translate this idea of spreading support into a two-sided balance into the rather similar situation of an arm at a piano.

It really is quite similar. If we only supported at one end here, the elbow could only be stabilised in space via muscular effort, to prevent the gravity pulling it through the marked circular path. But then if the elbow joint were to release the forearm, the wrist would still plummet. It's a similar case, where if we start only from the shoulder end, EVERY successive joint must become be supported by an additional internally created effort, one after the other. Joint after joint is held up by effort, unless the finger is able to create a point of support. However, the moment the finger starts supporting something, the elbow and wrist can become truly free hinges- with zero internal effort! It's like a chain that hangs between two points of contact. The moment the finger plays- the arm can theoretically become wholly supported without internal efforts to fix the joints. ( although, we're likely going to want to reduce the workload upon the finger by taking some extra support at the shoulder) If the finger sets up a point of stable contact between itself and the key, it can pull in a way that would draw a loose arm forwards. This means that the upper arm can release a little more. If we take the component of force that pulls the elbow backwards and match it to the one from the finger that pulls forwards- the whole mechanism is supported. It's also VERY simple as we only have two inherent variables to balance- how much the finger is acting and how much the shoulder is supporting/releasing to balance that via the elbow.

To put that in the simplest way, basically the finger tries to pull them arm lightly forwards and upwards (via the same kind of path we see from the pencil experiment) and the elbow is released enough to pull lightly backwards in response, via gravity's action. Rather than cause the arm to actually move,  this 'tightens' up all the other joints, so they can remain still despite hanging freely (rather than be held immovably via muscular efforts). If this sounds like hard work, let me stress a few things- firstly, it really isn't! The shoulder can still support plenty of the arm's weight. We don't have to rely solely on the fact that the arm will not detach at the shoulder and let it hang completely. It can take on as much or  as little support as you like. Also, this is totally different from the manner in which traditional arm weight technique is based on downward thinking. The down forces supported by the finger are actually rather slight. The finger really doesn't have to bear that much weight for this to balance. It just has to match to the feeling for how gravity is pulling lightly backwards upon the elbow. With regard to this backwards and forwards element of the matching forces- it's really not equivalent to the whole cast of "The Expendables" getting together and having a tug-of-war using a  steel rope. The amount of pull required from the finger (in order to keep the wrist absolutely free of internal tensions) is very slight. It's not so much tightening the free joints, but ALMOST tightening them- so there's a feeling of "hanging" with a touch of remaining slack. Despite no muscular holding, the wrist cannot sag into a collapse. It is held up by forces elsewhere which are just enough for it to be supported. I'll be giving a practical exercise to show exactly to perceive this free state in my next post.  

The notion that the fingers should not contribute to support (but might be better off 'relaxing') after having struck a key is often expressed. But lose that support and you lose the two-sided balance! Even if relax means 'and then be comfortable' why were you ever uncomfortable??? Too much weight to support? Too much willful arm pressure? Whatever it was, none of these things should ever get in the way, if the goals are clear. Once more, what use is a poor quality of motion followed by a vaguely focused attempt at general release supposed to be? The real question is- why did the intention of both starting and finishing with a low effort balance go wrong? To explore that is the simplest and most likely solution. To look at it in terms of generally hoping to relax without even paying attention to the means of low-effort balance seems truly ridiculous, when viewed in this light. Why not focus on creating a comfortable two-sided balance between the a smooth low-effort finger action and a feeling for how gravity pulls the elbow backwards to balance? It's vastly simpler than just thinking "relax" without any specific positive intention. Relax carelessly enough to remove the most useful forces and you simply direct a need for effort into something altogether less constructive. That can actually cause MORE tension than if you start from a natural low effort movement with a clear goal in mind.

Also, note that I have yet to introduce the reaction forces that are generated by movement of the keys.When these are introduced, I'll go on to illustrate why the one-ended model requires rapid and complex changes in state, if it is to avoid heavy impacts. Conversely the two-ended support system is able to absorb reaction forces with minimal changes of state. 

Anyway, that is the basis for this model. In my next post, I'll be giving a series of extremely specific practical exercises to prepare key elements of the arm's role- so as to permit the a very low effort means of perceiving and controlling the release/witholding of  weight.