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Saturday, 12 November 2011

There's a hole in my bucket- issues of efficiency, why tension/relaxation thinking typically confuses and distracts from a vastly greater issue and why the arm can never genuinely replace the role of the hand's actions

I had written this post some time ago, but decided to hold it back until I'd been through some very direct applications to playing. Now that I've posted about the thumb, I decided that I might as well publish this- before continuing with the actions of the hand. Please note that, while the description should make the practical exercise pretty clear, I will come back and add some videos in the near future.

Picture this situation: a man with a massive bucket is required to transport a volume of water between two points. However, there is a hole in his bucket. He puts in exactly the volume of water that is required- yet upon arrival he finds that there is scarcely any left. Seeing insufficient water, he comes to the conclusion that he obviously did not put enough in. After many failed attempts he finally decides to fill his huge bucket to the very brim, meaning that he is absolutely exhausted upon arrival- although even now he only just manages to retains the required volume of water. Shortly afterwards, another man arrives with exactly the same amount of water, yet without having even broken a sweat. His tiny bucket did not require any excess water to start out and he knew how exactly much he would be arriving with. Not difficult really- seeing as it just didn't have any leak.

By now, you might be wondering where exactly this is headed? No, don't worry- I am not an Evangelical preacher and neither is this the beginning of a convoluted Sunday sermon. I am not about to claim that this somehow "proves" that, while other things fade away, Jesus' love for each and every one of us is both infinite and eternal. Rather, I'm going to show just how relevant this analogy is to some of the most significant flaws that exist in most techniques. Rather than nitpick at mere surface details, this post features an extremely wide-ranging foundation issue (of which I have never personally encountered any objective categorisation or analysis) that relates to every sound that is produced. I want to illustrate how much energy is typically wasted due to technical "holes"- even in some very accomplished professionals! I will give a couple of exercises to show exactly what most typically compromises efficiency of transmission- and introduce issues that determine the means of improvement. Way too many pianists fall into the same trap ie. when they don't get enough sound, their instinctive default response is to press harder with the strong muscles of the arm. However, this is about as productive as the 'add more water' approach. A far more effective solution (but sadly one that few pianists find by instinct) is to start by patching up the metaphorical hole in the bucket. 

Pressing harder means there's more energy flying around, but how much of it actually goes into sound and how much is wasted? Without efficiency, not only does much of the energy expended miss out on the chance to affect the hammer, but it goes into creating greater scope for impact at the keybed- ie. the "keybedding" that I spoke of in previous posts. Whatever anyone tells you about the supposed "scientific impossibility" of absolute tone quality, there is actually plenty of very credible evidence to suggest that thudding against the keybeds can affect sound (I'll likely devote a post to this issue, in future). If you start with less energy but direct it more efficiently, you can still get plenty of motion into the hammer- but with very little potential for a following impact. The collapse-free thumb extension in my last post is a particularly good example of a high efficiency movement, that sends little energy into the keybed. However, in this post I'd also like to expose some of the least efficient qualities of movements possible- so they can be more easily identified and improved upon. Odd as it may sound, a little first hand experience of a poor movement can give an extremely clear insight into what you DO need to look for. 

Let's go back to the idea of using a pencil as a lever (see here for details). Remember how well you can get into the key when you lever your end of a pencil up, while moving the key. Well, let's deliberately try the reverse for a while. See how much sound you can get by sending the lever in the other direction. Try as you might, you're going to find that hardly anything can go into the key. There's little sense of acting properly against the key's resistance, or of being able to adequately accelerate though it. There's a lot of movement going on but the connection with the key is loose and unproductive. Quite simply, to bring your end of the lever down affects things negatively, whereas to lever it up had a positive effect. Even for a soft sound, you will likely perceive less feeling of control when employing the down motion. Efficiency is not exclusively relevant to making big sounds. Levering upwards will also tend to give a greater margin of error in soft dynamics.

From now on, I'm going to refer to the concept of 'positive movement' and 'negative movement'. The latter is synonymous with the 'collapse' that Alan Fraser frequently refers to. I have to admit that I was rather skeptical about his references to this concept, for a long time. It's easy to think "Okay, so the hand collapsed. What's that got to do with the musical results? Why should that affect the sound?". That is why I want to expand upon his concept and give a cast-iron illustration of exactly why these things not only matter, but to an extraordinarily significant degree. In short, negative movement (or collapse) vastly reduces the proportion of available energy that goes into actual sound- often causing an inaccurate perception of physical weakness and the mistaken belief that it is necessary to possess extreme strength or to press extremely hard with the biggest muscles. The real problem is the sheer WASTE that negative movements cause during transmission of energy. Energy leaks away as surely as water will disappear through a gaping hole in a bucket.

Also, imagine trying to play golf, if a hinge allowed a putter to bend back upon contacting the ball- rather than accelerate through it. Negative movement reduces efficiency of energy transmission, but perhaps even more importantly still, it frequently reduces CONTROL over the hammer and restricts the ability to accurately predict how it will be affected by your actions. It goes without saying that this prevents control over tone-production. I also have a strong suspicion that it can impact on rhythmic steadiness and the ability to play fast. When a finger gives way, there is a bigger gap in time between when the finger begins to to move and the moment when sound occurs. If you eliminate collapse altogether, you are going to be able to predict the instant in which a note will sound, with some reliability. If you have variable levels of collapse, you can never know exactly how great the time-lag is going to be. We may be talking split-seconds here, but if you consider what goes into a rapid Chopin Etude, there's every reason to believe that these could be enough to cause sluggishness and imprecision.

At this point, I want to expose a major fallacy that has been repeated in many explanations- that looseness and relaxation necessarily aid energy transmission. Please bear with me, though- for 'tension' (ie. stiffening joints to withstand force) is NOT what I about to suggest! I am not arguing for the "bracing" approach but rather a whole new avenue of understanding. The reality just isn't simple enough to be adequately summed up by the notion that it's all about whether you are "tense" or "relaxed". Even the realisation that most muscular states actually lie somewhere between the extremes of "tension" or "relaxation" sheds very little specific light on what is required. Tension vs. relaxation simply isn't the best viewpoint to approach it from. When you approach it by distinguishing between "positive movement" and "negative movement", instead, it transpires that the reality is not terribly complex after all.

Particularly with actions that source energy in the upper arm, there are a wealth of joints where relaxation will cause negative movements, that  reduce the amount of energy that can be transferred to sound and which compromise control over the movement in general. It's not at all hard to see why people often seize up. They do not do so for the hell of it, or because they are too "stupid" to understand superficial instructions that they are meant to be aiming for a more generally relaxed state. Their subconscious likely realises that allowing negative movements would drain both energy and control. It then leaps in and tries to deal with that problem as best as it can- by using tensions to fight against these unwanted movements. The problem is that braced joints are not a very effective alternative to sagging ones and neither are they a healthy thing to employ. The brain is left in a constant battle between tension and release- each of which has its own pluses and minuses, but neither of which is remotely effective.

So, if you're neither going to brace a joint nor relax it, what's left?  Quite simply, the alternative approach is to be in the midst of a positive movement in the opposite direction to that which would be causing a negative movement. Yes, it really is that simple! Forget the idea that it's all about some mysterious and fantastically complex compromise between tension vs relaxation or that it's about tensing for the correct number of milliseconds and then relaxing again. These ideas are completely irrational and there is no reason to believe that such staggering acts of coordination are either required, or even beneficial. All you have to do is notice where relaxation causes negative movement- for example if the wrist collapses downwards while playing an extremely loud chord. Instead of bracing to stop that, seek to move it slightly in the opposite direction as the key goes down. That way, there is neither the need for fixation- nor do you get the energy wastage and poor control that would ensue from pure, corpse-like relaxation.  

If that doesn't yet make sense, we'll use the pencil (and later the finger itself) for an irrefutable practical illustration of how genuine (and indeed inescapable) the reality of this concept is. Suppose that I want to use my arm to provide a small "run up". If I simply descend with a light grip on a horizontal pencil, it will be greatly repelled by the reaction force, upon contacting the key. The amount of energy transferred is simply pathetic- even with a big arm drop. It's like what would happen if I moved into the key with a finger made of foam or plasticine. There's so much negative movement, that scarcely any energy is applied at all. The give caused by a relaxed grip is a hindrance, not an aid. But now let's try to render it immovable- ie. the bracing approach. Be careful doing this one- because it's not going to feel pleasant. Also, notice that however hard you might grip, you'll likely find that there's still some negative moment. Trying to fix something rigidly rarely actually achieves a situation of anything close to zero give. Remember that even massive sky-scrapers made of brick and steel sway in the wind! 

Now let's abandon this horrible feeling of hoping to fix the pencil and replace it with simple movement. This time, as the pencil reaches the key, you're going to be doing the levering action described earlier. Instead of being left to collapse down, the end you hold will be pulled up. Negative movement cannot occur- quite simply because movement is actively going on in the positive direction. Once you've mastered this, it's possible to get to the point where the pencil barely moves at all. Now, this is on an absolute knife-edge when it come to coordination- so it's not something to aim for immediately. However, when mastered, you can try using only just enough positive movement to cancel out and prevent negative movement. To an observer there is a very still pencil that acts as a mere extension of the arm. To you, there was a very significant intent at movement that balanced everything. It should FEEL a whole world apart from the effort that occurs with intent to brace it still- regardless of how it looks. When using arm pressure, a hand needs to operate under much the same principles that pencil did- if you are to avoid wasted effort. If you want to merely be still enough in the hand to transmit energy from the arm, you first need to get a feeling of what it's like to safely eradicate negative movement- ie. by moving positively, not by stiffening! Only from this starting point can you be sure that you are neither tensing needlessly, nor wasting energy on impact at the keybed. Note that this is why watching what a pianist seems to be doing can be so misleading. A master pianist can match up positive and negative movements, sometimes with the result of minimal movement in the hand, while the arm moves visibly. However, the sheer stillness can easily trick viewers into thinking that the pianist is generically bracing- when they are actually matching sensitive balancing actions.

Think about the consequences of this experiment- with regard to schools that claim fingers only "support" weight or arm pressure! I'm not going to beat about the bush here. Even with regard to slower individual chords, the idea of using the arm pressures as a replacement for the necessity of hand activity is simply an impossibility. If the hand does not seem to take part  then that is an illusion- not a reality. For those who succeed under this illusion, it matters little whether what they really do is what they describe. However, the problem is that countless others will find themselves unable to find anything workable, by striving for the same subjective experience. You cannot succeed with this unless you also learn to employ suitable positive movement in the hand. The only issue whether the individual is aware of doing so. When people make it all about the arm, there are some whose hands have adequate experience to bring in the balancing role of positive movement, by instinct alone. But there are many who will simply brace their hands against contact- especially when the explanation specifically says that they are meant to do so! The braced hand approach can be truly ruinous for such people and telling them to 'relax' AFTER is futile. Unless their senses overrule the explanation and tell the hand to employ adequate positive movement, they will be needlessly stiff and uncomfortable.

Countless great pianists have described "firm fingers" and others have described "relaxed" fingers, but either description is potentially equally misleading. Those who succeed with the firmness approach create "firmness" by sensitively balancing out negative movements in the hand with positive ones- not by fixating with the crippling muscular tensions that less accomplished pianists often employ. The fact that this balance is so physically comfortable is what allows others to experience the very same process as featuring a "relaxed" hand. Neither adequately conveys the reality of the situation.

Let's summarise here. Even when using the arm for sound we have three options, regarding the hand's major role:

1. We can brace against collapse, in line with the 'and then relax approach'- but how comfortable did bracing the pencil and then relaxing feel? And did it even succeed in eliminating collapse altogether, or providing any notable efficiency? 

2. We can use a relaxed hand, that would waste energy by collapsing on contact- and indeed collapse into a palm cluster, if taken 100% literally. Considering how rarely this happens, most supposedly "relaxed" hands would more accurately be described as fitting into either the first category or the third. The problem is that, if you pretend your hand is relaxed when it isn't, there's no way of knowing which. When you strive to do nothing at all, it's left to your subconscious to fill in the gaps (assuming that you wish to play the right chords, rather than random notes). Sadly, without the right experience, the subconscious typically does a pretty useless job of that. Aiming for a relaxed hand (rather than a moving one) can often make for the stiffest fixations of all!   

3. Observe where negative movements will take place, via experimentation with extreme relaxation (of the kind that would be totally dysfunctional, during regular playing). Then start to employ enough positive movements in the hand, for these negative movements to be cancelled out. There are all kinds of different variations that fall into this category- including those where the hand might appear to be perfectly inert and still. But remember- when a hand seems to be doing nothing it's a pure illusion. A hand that ACTUALLY does nothing moves keys with low efficiency- before collapsing into a cluster of notes.

So, do you still think (as most pianists do) that the secrets to power lies in tension/relaxation issues or that the main secret to power lies in generating enough pressure from the bigger arm muscles? Neither is accurate- which is why you sometimes hear even young prodigies making a big tone with little visible effort from larger muscles. The secret to power is to patch up the "hole in your bucket" by replacing negative movements with positive ones- starting at the connection to the key itself (ie the finger) and working backwards along the chain. Positive movement within the hand alone can produce fair power. If you start bringing in positive movement from there AND a little arm pressure the piano can really start to explode- still with minimal impact or exertion! In a future post, I will expand on this concept, with an illustration of how much the hand itself needs to move for truly big (yet low impact) octaves and chords. Neither flaccid relaxation nor bracing contributed to how a pianist like Artur Rubinstein could lift his hand above his head before dropping the weight of his arm into the keys! 

I should add that I don't wish to be dogmatic and suggest that negative movements should be eliminated entirely, in the end product. However, I believe that the only way to be sure that they might serve a purpose, is to come from a place of being able to eliminate them altogether- without bracing to do so. From there, you can do whatever works best in a given situation- safe in the knowledge that your way of moving is not the product of having a lack of options. In future posts I will give a number of relaxation exercises, through which to both loosen up joints and observe the effects of negative movement- before illustrating how to cancel them with simple positive movements- not with stiffness!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Action and reaction in practice part i- achieving a big resonant thumb sound without impact and how to activate the thumb for effortless scales

Okay, I've given a lot of background now, so with no further ado I want to get straight into a couple of entirely direct practical applications- starting with use of the thumb. This post will reveal some important aspects of what goes into an effortless but resonant tone, as well as a means of improving stability and ease in scales. While I wouldn't want to be so foolish as to give a "100% guarantee" of instantaneous magical improvement, I do honestly believe that virtually anyone will perceive some degree of instant difference from the exercises- including many advanced players. Even if you haven't read a single one of my previous posts (with their illustrations of scientific background to technical issues), I hope this will give an immediate feel for just how beneficial the consequences of these concepts can be, and hopefully draw you into deeper exploration. In particular here, I want to show that while the premises are largely based on seemingly abstract movement issues, they can have a rapid impact upon how effectively existing musical intentions can be brought into fruition. However, I'll also be looking at a means of improving raw speed within scales!

(For legal reasons, I should briefly stress that all exercises are undertaken at your own risk. Please note that while the videos provide a valuable illustration aid, it's the thinking that runs behind the movements that matters the most. It's very important to follow the instructions of each exercise- rather than only the videos. If you do so with due care and pay attention to the feedback from your perception, there should be nothing to fear. However, take special care if you have prior injuries or medical issues. Above all, anyone should stop immediately in the unlikely event of discomfort or pain. None of the movements involved should feel anything less than comfortable and even pleasurable to execute. )

Anyway, let's go straight to the piano. Try to make a massively sonorous melody line, using only the thumb of the right hand (plus pedal for legato) for long, broad notes. While you can use whatever piece you like, something like the opening melody from Chopin's op. 25 no. 12 would be extremely suitable. However, I have no desire to exclude anyone. Do a slow thumb-only version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" if you wish- as this exercise is suitable for all levels!. The performance below gives an excellent idea of the type of sound you're looking to make (with a bell-like quality to the line)- but forget the flurries of notes! Only play a melody line (plus bass, if desired)!

Don't think too much about the movements the first time around- think of the intended sound and just do it! Once you're finished, think a little about how you found yourself moving when striving for that type of sound. Maybe even repeat it and pay more conscious attention this time. Also, how happy were you with the musical sounds you produced? It might be worth recording yourself to see how it sounds upon playback. If you're honest with yourself, did you manage to come anywhere near producing the type of "golden age" sound that (the surprisingly little-known) David Smith produces?  Maybe you succeeded in creating a pleasant enough musical line- but only by sticking within a very "polite" and gentle dynamic range? Or maybe you knocked seven shades of shinola out of the piano, but failed to achieve the seamless quality of tone required for a genuinely vocal melodic line? Without thinking too much about anything but the sound and the musical goals, spend a little time trying to improve upon the results and see how you fare.

We'll come back to that shortly. However, firstly, rest your right hand very lightly on a solid table top, palm down. Start to exert a moderate pressure against the table through your thumb. Now imagine the table is a piano key and do the same once again. Was the action the same or different?

Okay, now let's look at what you actually did there. Firstly, I'd be willing to bet that at least 90% of people will have performed every one of these actions (at both piano and table) by pressing their arm through either a stiffly braced thumb, or a floppy and inactive one that collapses. Before I go any further, if you hold the typical belief that big sounds should come from actions of the upper arm, I'd ask you simply to keep enough of an open mind to stay with me for just a few minutes- rather than exit this page in disgust. I hope I'll be able to illustrate just how much more versatile your thumb is than you probably realise, and show quite how much LESS impact and exertion is likely to result when your arm stops sending needlessly high levels of momentum into collision at the keybed. Yes- involving a notably pronounced movement from the thumb itself should actually be vastly more comfortable than trying to press the arm through a thumb that merely "supports" and I hope I can show you how to perceive this for yourself.

When you pressed into the table, what happened to the rest of your hand? Did it raise up over your thumb? If not, I'm afraid to say that this is a sure sign that you scarcely engaged the most useful activities AT ALL!!! Don't worry though- the details on how to introduce them are coming right up. If you did cause the rest of your hand to lift away, that's a promising sign- but how far did it go? Try going back to your starting point and simply lift up the fingers, as shown in example 1:

Don't press with your arm as you do so and don't even make any willful attempt to create pressure through your thumb! Start with it touching lightly and just think of lifting your fingers up and away. Did you feel your thumb starting to lightly engage- simply by lifting the fingers up? Try flicking the fingers up fairly quickly now (see example 2)- but remember to think up! Think of the downward pressure as being like a side-effect of lifting up- not as any kind of a goal. If the thumb feels "squashed" at all (either during the movement or once the fingers have stopped) make sure you start with a lightened arm and think of the hand's actions as being upward all the more. Sometimes try "waving" (keeping the knuckles high but moving the fingers back and forth) as in example 3. Particularly during this wave, be careful not to brace your arm. If it wants to wobble slightly in response, that's exactly what you need to be letting it get on with. Feel the sense of a loose "chain" that is free to sway slightly- extending from the thumb all the way to the shoulder.

Can you feel the slight adjustments that the thumb makes to remain balanced? While you should clearly perceive that downward pressures occur as an indirect result of your actions, they should never be especially large. With the right quality of movement at a piano, you don't actually need to exert a big pressure to achieve a full tone. I can honestly say that the very slight  pressures that occur here (without so much as intent) are not drastically smaller than those required to make a healthy level of sound at the piano.

Anyway, if you're the impatient type you may already have jumped the gun and started applying this to the piano- and you may already be starting to get a better idea of the thumb's potential to produce tone. However, we've barely even started! All we've done is get the muscles to act in response to a flick of the fingers. The thumb is merely required to stabilise against a reaction in the opposite direction to the finger movement. It's possible that you'll have instinctively begun to involve the thumb's actions a little more directly than that, but we need to be sure. In the air now, try to differentiate between pulling the thumb down and away from the hand (example 4)- compared to the previous action of moving the fingers away from the thumb (example 5).

Alternate between the two relatively similar actions and try to notice what differences you can either see or feel in the results. However, be careful not to stiffen in a bid to immobilise anything. Retain maximum lightness and ease by going slowly and smoothly. If sympathetic movements still occur, that's fine- don't try to fight against them! Once you can clearly distinguish between the two, try flicking each movement out more quickly (examples 6 and 7)- but keep it very light again and don't fight the responses! If in doubt, it's better to keep it comfortable than to feel anything is being forced with needless vigour. Next up, try cocking the thumb back and extending it outwards (example 8). This will likely involve a slight rotation of the forearm (example 8).

Let's come back to the table. First remind yourself of the pure thumb "pull" by doing it in the air. Now let the table get in the way and feel how instead of moving the thumb itself, a reaction to that intention will instead raise the knuckles up (example 9).

The table "reflects" the movement in the opposite direction, like a mirror, in a manner of speaking. Make sure you still feel everything as an upwards action rather than downwards (with no jamming hard against the table) but try to feel how much more directly the thumb's action is now responsible for creating the upward motion compared to before. Try going back to lifting the fingers right up and reaching out (as in example 1), to see if the thumb gets more involved there too. Finally, try adding the act of extension. Think of much the same upward lift, but start with the thumb lightly bent and extend out forwards (example 10). Feel how when you lightly contact the table, everything is gently pushed back and away from that point- allowing everything to straighten itself out as the knuckles rise. Don't jam into the point of contact!

Finally, let's take this to the piano. Remember, you still need to think of lifting up though! It's very hard to retain this style of thinking, but you must not focus on moving the key down! For now, feel as if moving the key is a mere side effect of pushing AWAY, without anything resisting that motion away . Bizarre as it may sound, the slightest level of unconscious downward pressure with the arm is often what destroys the efficiency of energy transmission (this post gives a detailed explanation of why arm energy doesn't necessarily transfer to either the finger or the piano hammer, if you're curious). Depending too much on arm pressure also tends to crush everything together and create discomfort at the keybed. It's not impossible to add some in a useful way, but first you have to be sure that the thumb is playing its necessary role without jamming. The arm's role is to give your thumb an optional top-up- not to steal the show so frequently thumb never learns how to fend for itself.

Anyway, try playing that melody again. Is there much improvement in the quality of sound compared to before or in the physical ease of tone-production? Also, do you find habits wanting to come back? For now, you may have to make it extremely conscious, until your brain has a chance to develop an association between a big resonant sound and the activity that most easily achieves it- especially seeing as it feels like that activity is being aimed in what might logically seem to be the "wrong" direction! A great test here is to simply touch the underside of the thumb with the other hand while playing. Any remaining downward pressures will quickly be exposed by this. The underside of the thumb should only be touching (not pressing!) against your other hand. If you feel your playing arm is pushing even slightly, slow down and try to engage the thumb action from a passive arm that merely responds- not from an arm that presses. It's arm pressure that creates a big danger of impact and strain between the thumb and the keybed- not activity from the thumb itself. If you're still trying to lift the hand comfortably up and away when you reach the keybed, you simply cannot cause significant impact. It is only when the arm presses downwards or if the muscles are stiffly braced (or, worst of all, both!) that your thumb can be driven into a hard landing. (I shall upload another video rather shortly, to illustrate this action at the piano).

Next up, let's apply the same upward action to the differing context of a scale. For most students, the thumb is something to be feared in scales. It is often thought to be too "strong". However, this belief often causes an attempt to compensate that sees it go flaccid and unsupportive. When you see a bobbling arm in scales, it's almost guaranteed that this is because the student's arm sags down into every thumb note. The sheer inactivity of the thumb causes everything to slump down uncontrolled and jam against the piano. This typically results in an inconsistent sound that features as many heavy lumps as it does notes that barely sound at all. It's also harder to find the next position. Pressing down actively hinders the ability to realign. When the thumb works better, realignment becomes an automatic part of merely moving the key in the first place.

Here's a recently added video:

First I show a fairly lifeless thumb and the awkward wrist twist need to navigate deliberately between positions, without the proper thumb contribution. Then I show a slow sense of being opened around the thumb- not by moving straight to the side but in a larger curve. You can also wiggle the fingers, as earlier, or simply open them out. The feeling of realignment is an almost completely passive response to a very deliberate thumb motion, although the arm must be very light to react so freely and easily. It's not about having to work your thumb hard against weight. This is followed by a fast and almost functional version, with a quick throw of the fingers followed by instant alignment. Finally, the fingers no longer lift visibly, but the inner feeling is identical to the previous step- they still feel thrown up and over by the active thumb movement. It's like a gentle puff of wind "blowing" the arm over the top, into the new alignment. Similar as it might appear, it's nothing like the first one- where they are cranked sideways from a twist in the wrist. The arm is much more responsive to the thumb and nothing is being held into a fixed position.

Most people use overwhelmingly excessive downforce (without embracing the upward reactions) and thus struggle to open this freely. For this reason, take great care not to overdo the sharper actions and don't jam down for even a moment. However, once you have lightened up and learned to move the thumb freely, it becomes a real breeze. By the end, we should have the (seeming) paradox of extreme stability, coupled with a tremendous feeling of lightness and ease- that should carry as much into the other fingers as the thumbs themselves. Contrary to what many believe, the greatest ease of thumb movement comes when you give it a positive task to perform- not when you try to hold back. The problem with holding back a "heavy" thumb is that it removes all this assistance to easy realignment. We're left with the awkward feeling of having to consciously adjust from a wrist bend. With the right action, we simply open up naturally around the thumb, almost as if by magic. After work on these more exaggerated movements, normal scale playing should feel like the easiest thing in the world. The thumb should start to feel athletic and become one of the easiest fingers for controlling tone- not one to be used tentatively or with a sense of caution.

Anyway, I hope that at least one (and hopefully both) of the two different contexts of thumb usage will have become clearer and easier from this. If you've been surprised at how much powerful your thumb is than you realised, do be careful to build this into your playing gradually. Hopefully the thumb's action already feels natural (rather than a thing of great effort)- but it's still important to take care not to overwork muscles that are not used to doing so much (even if it already feels physically comfortable). However, if you didn't feel any great improvement (and are not already coming from a place of being able to execute lightning fast scales at the drop of a hat) I would consider reading some of my earlier posts regarding the arms and hanging on for future updates. The most likely hindrance to good thumb activity lies in arm tensions- which repress the natural responses and make the thumb work needlessly hard against resistance.

PS. I should acknowledge that the basic concept of bringing in a greatly active thumb is owed to what I have learned from Alan Fraser. While I think it's reasonable to refer to these as "my" thumb exercises, I should acknowledge that the ideas are very heavily rooted in the same principles as his "thumb-pushups"- which I strongly recommend.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Scale fingering made easy

Just a brief departure from my regular posts here. Having written up a categorisation of the simplest way of conceiving the coordination for every unison major and minor scale for my students, I thought I might as well post this on my blog too. While I cover standard basics in my teaching, one thing I don't want to do here is to put together posts containing information that has been stated elsewhere in exactly the same way 1000x over. However, while this covers something as standard and routine as scale fingering, I've never personally seen scales categorised in this exact way before and feel it warrants posting for that reason. Considering that 22 out of 24 keys actually use one of just two possible physical coordinations (!), I find it rather surprising that these simple time-saving observations have not been widely made. All too often, pianists do not understand just how similar seemingly different coordinations actually are. For this reason, a lot of time can be wasted on trying to get a "feel" for just running the fingers without understanding the basic trends (typically by repeating over and over). However, the process goes a lot more quickly if you realise that the coordination for virtually every scale is identical to that which will already have been learned elsewhere. The key to consistently sound fingering is understanding specific signposts or anchor points, that hold everything together. When properly understood, instead of having two separate coordinations conficting with each other, the two hands should actually help to guide each other. However, I must stress that hands separate practise is extremely useful. This is to show how to combine two hands with understanding- not to replace high quality separate practise altogether. 

When working with students, I use this basic material along with various demonstrations at the piano. I've filled in some additional details to the original summary, to clarify certain areas that might potentially cause confusion when viewed without that demonstration. However, I'll likely come back to this at some point in the future and perhaps illustrate certain points (that I typically accompany with a demonstration) with videos. Also- please note that this is specifically about understanding and organisation of fingering. This is not designed as a comprehensive "how to" for starting scales from scratch (although I may write an additional post sometime, about the quickest way to acquire a comprehensive mental grasp of the notes and key signatures for any possible key). 

Also, one final point- this is written to summarise the most significant features of each fingering- in an ultra-concise form. Some people may find it valuable or even necessary to cross-reference this skeleton with a fully notated and fingered version of each scale. That's not something I'd discourage at all- but remember to start focussing on the significant features straight away! Don't just follow instruction after instruction over and over- like a mindless automaton! The sooner you can reduce your mapping out of a scale fingering to its most significant features, the sooner each scale will be truly learned- and will stay truly learned.

Scale Fingering

Firstly, all unison scales that start on the white keys involve one of two coordinations. Most involve 343 (ie. for two octaves this means that the thumb turns under 3 then 4 then 3 in one direction, whereas 3 then 4 then 3 is turned over the thumb in the other direction). The only exception is anything starting on either a B or an F! For all 343 scales, practise the exercise of playing both thumbs together on the keynote and going back and forth, with a note on either side.

eg. for C major

R.H.  4 1  2  1 4  1  2
           B C D  C B C D etc.
L.H.  2 1  4  1 2  1 4

(apologies if the alignment is not quite right in some browsers) 

This gives you the location of every fourth finger in the whole scale (which will always sound at the same time as the second finger in the other hand). This is by far the most important point to focus on. Practise hands separate C major scales up and down passing exclusively under the third finger (and the third finger over the thumb), in order to develop a feel for this passing as being a "normal" default action to perform. Once this becomes habitual you are free to focus almost exclusively on the addition of fourth fingers (alongside the reference point of where the thumbs meet)- while everything else can be left to take care of itself. In this fingering, the worst possible sin is to fail to get the thumbs to meet- and especially to fail to even notice if it didn't happen! Even at the very fastest of speeds, there should always be conscious awareness of the thumbs meeting on the keynote. This is the anchor point that continues to hold everything together- even when other details start going on autopilot. Don't forget to keep looking out for that one moment of reference in each and every octave- even if the rest of the scenery is allowed to breeze by unnoticed! In the event that your fingers should start having their own ideas about which order they might wish to come in, a failure of the thumbs to meet here should send alarm bells ringing immediately! This sets up the chance to do immediate corrective work- before bad habits have a chance to set in.

Next up, we have B and F. Both the majors and minors use the next most standard fingering- which is that where thumbs ALWAYS land together, rather than only once per octave. This is very simple indeed as long as you plan for your thumbs and calculate the fingering accordingly. You should always be consciously aware of BOTH thumb notes before you even think of starting (which also applies when practicing any scale whatsoever hands separately)! Once the thumb notes are clear in the mind, practise firstly with a large pause on every thumb, both ascending and descending. When ascending, stop on the thumbs and think about the left hand. How far is the next thumb note for that hand? If it's a long way take 4 fingers. If it's nearer, take just 3. When descending, stop on every thumb note and apply the very same process to the right hand. Of course, this needs to lead to a "feel" for the movements, if the scale is to go quickly. However, by developing the "feel" in a way that is informed by a complete mental understanding of where the fingering comes from, it's far easier to train the reflexes to become reliable. 

Additionally you can look at the black keys to help guide this (although you should never use this as a replacement for knowing both of the thumb notes!). When there are two black keys you use the third finger (fitting 2 and 3 to the group of 2 black keys). When there are three black keys, you use the fourth finger (fitting 2, 3 and 4 to the group of 3 black keys). Note that the fact that the left hand starts B major and B minor on finger 4 is a mere passing detail- that true understanding of the thumbs will sort out automatically. If you realise that the first thumb meeting is on E, there's no other finger that could logically end up on the first note, other than the fourth. When a student starts on 5, it is clear that they have not given any thought to forward-planning. If they deal with this merely by memorising "start on 4" that tells them nothing except to start on 4- offering no guarantee of a better plan for the scale as a whole. Understanding nothing more than how to think around two reference thumb notes tells you EVERYTHING you need to know to reliably finger every note in the scale- saving a hell of a lot of time and effort!

Next up, we have the scales that begin on black keys. Firstly, D flat major plus its relative minor B flat minor and F sharp (or G flat) major plus its relative minor E flat (or D sharp) minor. All of these function around an identical principle where thumbs meet twice per octave. In particular though, take care with B major, F sharp major and D flat major. Note that each of these contains every black key- but different white keys. This is why it’s essential to be 100% clear on the thumb notes, as trying to play these by “feel” alone inevitably results in confusion. 

That leaves 6 more keys. Surprising as it may sound, 4 more of these are simply 343. C sharp minor and F sharp minor are most easily executed with an identical fingering to their relative majors (note the standard fingering for F sharp minor is different to what I suggest here, although I regard this approach as being far more practical and effective than having to learn the unique coordination required for the "traditional" fingering). Thumbs land on E for C sharp minor and on A for F sharp minor, with 4s on either side. A flat major and G sharp minor work much the same. Look where the thumbs meet and remember that the fours only occur immediately on either side. Be careful with G sharp minor here, however! Note that this time the fingering is different to the relative major of B (and that it does not correspond to the number of black keys!). Relate the fourth fingers to their location on either side of the B- but be careful not to think of B major (which does not operate on the 343 fingering we need here). All other black key minors involve an identical fingering to their relative majors and there is usually great benefit in directly associating their countless common features. It's very good to practise these relative majors and minors together. However, G sharp minor requires a different fingering- making it important to be careful not to associate too directly with B major. 

That covers everything other than B flat and E flat majors. For B flat, notice that there are no convenient meeting points. Odd as it may sound at first, the conflict between the hands on the black notes is exactly what holds it together most easily. When ascending the right hand has 4 on B flats and 3 on E flats and the thumb always follows the black note. The flats are the reference point- but the left hand never meets up with the right. One hand always has a 3 and the other a 4. On the way back down the left hand always has 3 on B flats and 4 on E flats and the thumbs turns under every black note. This time it is the right hand that must match the seemingly 'wrong' fingers to the left hand. 

E flat major is very similar but we have a natural meeting point to think around. 3s come together for a useful point of reference on E flat- but elsewhere 3 and 4 coincide with each other, as in B flat major. 

In the specific case of scales with flats in the key signature, an additional point to notice is that the right hand thumb always falls on C (or eventually C flat, in the case of G flat major/E flat minor) and F. Also, the third finger always lands on the E flat (or E natural, if we include F major) and the fourth finger always lands on B flats. It is only in the left hand that significant fingering changes occur. 

Fingering chart

343 scales: C, D, E, G, A (major and minor for each) A flat major, G sharp minor, F sharp minor (relative of A major), C sharp minor (relative of E major)
thumbs together scales: B major and minor, F major and minor, D flat, B flat minor (relative of D flat), F sharp/G flat, D sharp/E flat minor (relative of F sharp/G flat).

This leaves B flat and E flat as the two exceptions, with their own unique coordination. 

Addendum regarding melodic minors, issues of turning onto black notes and why I advise A major fingering for the BOTH hands in F sharp minor

Almost everything above applies equally to harmonic and melodic minors. However, F sharp melodic minor and C sharp melodic minor are slightly different. Due to the raised 6th on the way up, it is necessary to adapt the right hand fingering when ascending. Simply conceive the ascent as a thumbs together fingering (thumbs on A and E sharp for F sharp minor, and thumbs on E and B sharp for C sharp minor). To return to the “normal” fingering, care must then be taken to start the right hand descent with 321- rather than to take the 2 that would normally be used on the keynote. From this moment onwards, the scale becomes a simple 343 fingering- involving wholly identical notes and fingering to the relative major. Additionally, note that G sharp minor melodic reverts to the fingering of the relative major (ie. B) for the descent.

Also, one commonly stated principle is that the thumb turns under black notes and that fingers are typically turned onto black notes. Personally, I would say that it is potentially disastrous to use this extremely superficial (and highly inconsistent trend) as a major part of what guides scales. There are simply far too many exceptions. It's considerably easier to use the two basic coordinations detailed here as the foundation. 

Some people use the premise that it is "easier to turn onto black notes" as the explanation for traditional F sharp minor fingering. Personally, I totally dispute that. Not only does the traditionally "correct" fingering make coordination of the hands vastly more complex, but I also believe it is marginally less comfortable. If it's somehow "hard" to turn the fourth finger over the thumb and onto a B, I cannot see why. If that movement is "hard", then A major contains the same difficulty anyway. Does anyone think something as routine as playing A major is "hard"? Personally, I actually feel far more cramped when turning my third finger onto C sharp. When turning onto the B, I feel I have plenty of time to get into position for the following notes. When going straight onto the C sharp, I feel slightly hurried. Having used the standard fingering for many years before switching to A major, I'm perfectly capable of using either. However, seeing as the left hand is marginally easier with a standard 343, I cannot see any justifiable reason to inflict a completely unique and confusing coordination upon anybody, as if it were somehow more "correct". In particular, I can't see why a clearly non-existant rule about turning under black keys (that is contradicted by the fingering for a wealth of other scales) should make it more "correct" to employ a fingering that is arguably less physically comfortable than the more obvious alternative.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Keybedding part ii- achieving a direct line of action without impact (plus an illustration of the REAL psychology behind prevention of muscle tensions)

This will be a fairly short post, but I just wanted to add an explanation of the second way of directing energy well away from potential impact at the keybed. Think of this as a kind of "half-way" post. As well as clarifying the basic theory of how this approach stops impact, these are extremely important concepts with regard to learning how to put this quality of movement into practice. From here, my next post will get right into the specifics of moving the keys with the fingers- with full relation to the arm's role (apologies for stalling, but I've wanted to be sure to get this part just right. A post with fully practical explanation and illustrative videos will follow very shortly now). Along the way, I'm also going to shed some light on the psychology of what really causes the worst tensions. I'm not necessarily denying that there is some relaxation value in positive thinking, lighting a couple of joss-sticks or taking in the sound of whale-song accompanied by pan-pipes. However, I want to show how achieving a suitable conception of movement itself has a vastly greater role to play.

Anyway, I've already covered the circular path that accounts for pure pulls from the knuckle- but there's a second type of finger action that is based on a more direct line of motion. Although this shares the same powerful "pulling" action from the knuckle itself, the finger as a whole is felt to "extend". Arguably you can even look at it as being something of a "push". However, thinking of a push can easily cause the truly harmful type of keybedding that Matthay spoke of! I'd like to use the analogy of a "press-up" against the wall to illustrate some significant issues that are hidden beneath the surface (see this post regarding issues of actions and reactions for some relevant information, and some background about the exercise). I'm going to use it to show what kind of background mindset leads to the equivalent of healthy pushing, compared to the type of mindset that results in an equivalent to Matthay's keybedding. Please note that this is not a vague or poetic metaphor! The basic practical issues are extremely similar- providing a better level of self-perception and awareness that can then be directly transferred to guiding finger actions!

Anyway, compare doing a light press-up against the wall with how you might act if you began from the same starting position, but intended to actually push the wall over (just to be clear, the motion of the arms here represents the action of the finger on a key- not the action of the arms on a key!). Although you can try out the latter- go easy if you do! There's probably little danger of toppling a building, assuming that it was constructed by a qualified team of certified builders (rather than a team of mobile-home dwellers, who some guy in the pub called Dave got you in touch with). However, you don't want to risk straining yourself. If in doubt do a rather light version of only pretending to act as if you want to bring the wall down. Alternatively, just imagine how your body might behave, were you to attempt this. Once you've done that stop and think for moment. What is the actual difference between the two acts, in terms of how the body behaves? Try it again and see if you can perceive what exactly is really going on.

If we looked at every individual detail it would likely be pretty complex. However, if we look at the bigger picture, the key difference is very simple. It's just that in one case you think of pushing your body AWAY from the wall, whereas in the other you think of piling your whole body in TOWARDS the wall. Yes, it's that simple. This basic concept is something that can play an enormous role in playing- if we can understand how to apply it to moving a key. I'll come back to this shortly. However, while keeping it relatively simple, I'd just like to go slightly beneath the surface for a deeper insight.

The weird thing here is that in both cases physics illustrates that you actually act TOWARDS the wall. Try doing the same motion of the arms in open space, with no wall to contact. Your elbows start bent and your hands extend away from your body (which stays in the same place). Most likely you won't even think about what your elbow does. You just feel where you hands begin and aim to move them directly away from you. The fine details of what makes that happen are left to the unconscious. However, when contacting the wall your hands stay in the same place and it's now your body that moves away. Basically, the wall gets in the way of the arm extension and sends the movement back in the opposite direction. To put it in a subjective (rather than scientific) manner, it's almost as if the wall serves as a mirror that reflects the movement back in the opposite direction. 

Anyway, while the press-up and the demolition press are spectacularly different acts, each is a type of "push".  Even when you think of going away from the wall, your hands will necessarily act towards it to make that happen. However, one of these is directly comparable to a healthy finger "push" on a piano whereas the other corresponds to the specific type of "push" that would be deemed keybedding. But if both involve pushing towards the wall, what makes them different?

The simple answer lies within the action/reaction concept. When you do a press-up, if you think of moving away, you will instinctively allow the REACTION from the wall to move you in the opposite direction. The brain figures out which muscles need to be moveable enough for the reaction to be allowed to push you away. When we think too much about aiming towards the wall, we are inclined to fight against the reactions and press through them with extra efforts or try to lock joints into rigid immobility. Here we have the underlying cause of most heavy tensions and of ongoing excesses of pressure into the keybed. Basically, the brain devotes too much attention to piling everything into the direction in which the key moves. There's not enough freedom for the reaction to act in the opposite direction.

Incidentally, when you get to the top of the press-up, there may be room for fine tuning. You should be careful not to lock the elbows or to push so hard that they double back. But there's obviously no question that the arms can release their effort altogether. If they did you would fall back in again! In fact, if you've done the movement optimally, it should be truly seamless. At the top, there should be nothing that you could possibly let go of without losing balance and there should be nothing that you would feel even slightly uncomfortable with. If you're balanced just right, the smallest fraction of release would slowly start you on the way back in again. Negative tensions do not come from keeping yourself away from the wall with sensitivity. They come from excessive efforts that are intended to act towards the wall. This tiny difference in the conscious mind triggers a wealth of different responses- that can gradually become ingrained into habit.

To take it half-way to what happens on a piano, imagine now if that wall could move an inch or two (offering moderate resistance) before stopping dead. If you think towards the wall, the mass of your whole body will likely be thrown towards the stopping point. That means more momentum and energy is heading into impact- and it doesn't necessarily go into aiding movement of the wall (as I'll demonstrate in a future post on efficiency). Imagine now if you think away from the wall. Your mass still acts to support and balance the movement of the arms into the the wall. But as it's mostly going away from the wall, there's less impact on landing.  Only a small amount of momentum from the arms goes into the moment of collision- with any other momentum being sent in the opposite direction. With just the right coordination, it may even be that the body doesn't end up moving in either direction, but simply hovers in balance (note that this balance is totally different to if you willfully fix it it into being immovable)

Interestingly, a "fall" into the wall would cause less impact than a full body press. HOWEVER, it will actually land vastly more momentum than when the muscles activate to press the body away. Falling through the wall certainly does not make for the least impact upon collision. Because the whole body is travelling, there is necessarily more momentum going into the stop. An inert collapse is superior to thrusting the whole body into a collision. However, a suitably controlled activation (that stops the body crashing in) is notably lower in impact still. This makes a lot of sense when related to "relaxation" technique. A flaccid arm that collapses makes for less impact than an arm that is pressed in hard against the keys. But compared to a hand that activates to push away from the piano in a suitable fashion, it's actually the dead arm drop that makes for the most impact. Later on things can start to get rather interesting when you learn how to "catch" an arm drop with hand activation (which does not mean a braced hand!)- like Artur Rubinstein:

Anyway, all of these issues translate into extremely direct equivalents, when moving a piano key. I suspect that this will have already given some major clues in itself, but I will show specifically how these concepts relate to putting finger actions into practice in my next post. In case you want to start experimenting now, I should stress that when you push away, it's very important not to let the arm be in a heavy corpse-like state! If you release too much weight, even an attitude of pushing away can be hard work. It needs to be very low effort when you start out. Don't even think of crashing your arms down like Rubinstein, but start by lightly extending the finger to ease your knuckles up and away, starting from direct contact. There should never be discomfort or a heavy sense of pressure!

Anyway, as you've probably guessed, the big issue here is that thinking away in piano playing requires you to think not down of pressing the key down but of causing yourself to go UP in the hand (and perhaps even in the wrist, in some instances)! This is something that Alan Fraser suggested to me, the first time I played to him. Although this provided plenty of benefit from the start, there are many issues that I've only recently been able to put into that context and fully make sense of in that light. I honestly don't believe it's any exaggeration to suggest that almost any action should be felt as to try to push back away from the key. Surprisingly, dropping onto the keys from a great height involves this too- I'd even say it's especially important in that scenario. Rubinstein doesn't get that big resonant sound from crashing into the keybed with an inert or braced hand. Redirection remains essential- and it's timed movement in the hand that best achieves that. Anyway, this post is effectively a fleshing out of the upward concept and an illustration of just some of the reasons why it is quite so significant. A future post on efficiency will go deeper into the reasons why this can also improve energy transfer and allow big sounds to come when expending relatively little energy.

Briefly, I should just add that the idea of thinking "up instead of down" may appear to be in contradiction to my post about two-sided thinking. To be clear, the difference here is that I am talking about acquiring a starting point in which you have first learned to allow the arm to respond freely to reactions. This is a missing link in the psychology of just about any technique that involves stiffness and fixation. Even some highly evolved techniques are held back slightly in this respect. Some of the exercises in future posts will give a clear illustration of how we'll still be building up towards a balanced understanding of both action and reaction as a single entity.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Keybedding- to follow through or to hold back? How does a pianist really avoid impact, strain and injury? (part i)

(In this post I'm going to introduce various background issues that relate to what makes for healthy movement in general- before going on to give large numbers of related exercises- which I will illustrate with the aid of various videos. Although the specific practical exercises and applications will follow in a second post, I do urge having a good think about the more general issues presented here- in order to grasp the concepts that run behind that which will follow.)

"Keybedding" is a term that was coined by Tobias Matthay. In short, it refers to directing unnecessary pressure into the keybed. Personally, I'd actually go as far as to say that way a pianist deals with the moment where the key reaches the keybed is the single biggest issue, with regard to whether a style of movement is likely to be healthy or injurious (which is why I want to devote plenty of explanation to this). However- the term has caused overwhelming confusion and misunderstanding. In this post, I want to clarify what types of contact with the keybed can be harmful and why. I will also explain how the pianist can contact the keybed extremely confidently (and indeed reap the benefits of maintaining quality contact with it) in a way that does not involve any physical risk.

All too often we hear people claim that the fingers must finish their activity 100% in the very instant the note has sounded- or they are supposedly guilty of "keybedding" (implying that the key is supposed to be kept from rising by some form of arcane sorcery). Some people even go so far as to claim that you can (or even must!) prevent the key from landing against the bed outright, even in loud passages. I'm not going to beat around the bush here. This is simply IMPOSSIBLE- beyond any reasonable doubt!!! Please note that I fully acknowledge that some methods that involve this claim have worked for some people. Rather than be entirely dismissive of such approaches, I'd like to explore how they can sometimes help. However, I want to demonstrate a simple means of perceiving what really happens at the keybed in a healthy action. Once a person has grasped this simple, rationally feasible means of eradicating impact, I believe they have a far greater chance than when working with a premise of pure fiction (portrayed as if it were fact).

On every piano key, there's something called an escapement level. This is where the hammer leaves contact with the key. Press a key very slowly without making a sound and you will feel a point where the resistance changes (nb. this point is not felt on many digital pianos). From that moment on, you can no longer affect what happens to the motion of the hammer. Now, there are two schools of thought here. Some people insist that as nothing else affects the hammer, you should stop acting after escapement rather than direct unnecessary energy towards the keybed. Others insist you should play straight though that point of release. Contradictory as it may seem, at first glance, I want to illustrate how you can reap the fullest benefits from both schools of thought- without any compromise whatsoever!

Firstly, let's imagine a golfer making a drive. Try telling that golfer that he might as well stop the club a few centimetres after striking the ball- after all, the ball has left contact and he's no longer affecting it. That golfer will tell you where you can stick it, and he will be absolutely right to do so. Stopping after might seem to be "doing nothing", whereas continuing with a follow through might seem to be "doing something" unnecessarily. However, the reality is that a follow-though is far closer to "doing nothing", whereas stopping is "doing something" unnecessarily. That is because the club is carrying momentum.

A car that is in motion doesn't instantly stop if you cut the engine off. Even if you apply the brakes it takes time to stop. Stopping a golf club abruptly also takes some time- and a lot of extra muscular effort. Also, for reasons of psychology, even having to think of willfully slowing down the club long after contact could introduce problems. The anticipation of that action could affect the rest of the swing. The golfer stops adding extra efforts after that last burst of acceleration through the ball- but he will NEVER repress what follows when playing a standard drive. The club's momentum dissipates gradually of its own accord. Of course, a golf club doesn't have to contact anything else after the ball though- whereas the piano key reaches the keybed and stops quickly. That's the big problem with use of this (otherwise very sound) analogy, in isolation.  

I'll come to the other element which needs to be used to complement this analogy shortly. But first, back to the idea that the pianist is supposed to "repress" the naturally ongoing motion before contact with the keybed- it's simply not feasible. Those who succeed by thinking this way actually end up doing something else. We're talking mere millimetres between escapement and keybed. Imagine that you're driving about in your classic car and you see your husband/wife standing by a wall at the end of an alley. Plough into him/her at a fast enough speed and you could collect on that life insurance policy. However, with your spouse just a couple of metres away from the wall, would there be any real chance to slam on the brakes in time to save your car from the scrap heap? Also, brake a little too soon and perhaps your speed will be the only thing that you succeed in killing? Maybe instead of collecting a fat cheque, you'd get to spend the rest of your life paying off hospital bills? Okay, that's a slightly bizarre analogy (and certainly not the most scientific one), but you get the idea. While I by no means wish to imply that arriving at the keybed would be akin to a four-wheeled murder weapon hitting a wall at full pelt, what I am saying is that there is generally no chance whatsoever of preventing that contact from occurring. The only real issue is how you can make that contact comfortable and safe.  

Due to lower key speeds, in quiet playing it might sometimes be possible to stop before the keybed (although I believe it's more vastly more likely that the key reaches the keybed but then bounces back). However, even with a slow key descent this motion would be closely equivalent to a golfer who takes putts by prodding at the ball and then deliberately stops the club a centimetre after.  No professional golfer putts this way- because it's inherently too erratic. If professionals did putt that way, they just wouldn't get to earn a living. You see many amateurs try this- typically overshooting a short putt by ten times the distance they intended. At other times the ball often moves just a few inches or sometimes they hold back so badly they don't arrive to contact the ball at all! For even the shortest of putts serious golfers will unfailingly play through the ball. Quiet playing too is vastly easier to control when viewed solely as one positive action- without adding a negative action. Although that could virtually be a sentence from a positive thinking manual, there's also a verifiable scientific reason why a single positive act is easier without an additional subtraction to make. Or to put it another way (that certainly wouldn't be found in positive thinking approaches):

Why attempt to juggle two variables that you could totally screw up when it's already difficult enough to control just one?

That is why I am very wary of anything that preaches the possibility of willfully trying to slow down after escapement. What really happens (for those who succeed with this belief system) is that the momentum is comfortably absorbed or redirected into an alternative path- DURING contact with the keybed. This feels so effortless, it's possible for them believe that they must have actually slowed down already, for so little impact to be perceived.  However, there's no actual ducking out of the keybed. In truth, contact is not avoided but is simply done better. When the wrong person is given a physically impossible task to attempt, taking the instructions literally can sometimes be disastrous. Dwelling on such a description could easily cause many pianists to fall into the trap of actually trying to add muscular repression (likely causing stiffness that will only serve to increase the impact!). This is why I think factually creative explanations should always be designated as a metaphor that is worthy of consideration- but never portrayed as fact.

Imagine if a train in a very thin tunnel hit a brick wall head-on. All the carriages would come crashing into it from behind and the momentum would jam everything together in a concertina effect (note that a whole arm push will give you a very big and heavy "train" that carries some serious momentum!). Conversely, imagine a lorry doing a hand-break turn, in which the trailer skids around until it comes to a stop. In the latter, nothing is forced together into compression. Movement continues to occur in a circle around a point- it does not pile straight into any point.

Consider also the "tension and release" approach. If you bang your fist head on into a wall, will it help to release a split second after? Well, I suppose so, compared to if you continue to pile right through it- but it would be damage limitation, not prevention. How much use is trying to time "release" (to hundredths of a second) when a head-on impact will still occur- considering that momentum continues to travel anyway? "Keybedding" is when momentum comes crashing behind the finger and compresses everything against. It might seem to logical to follow up with the assumption that the only answer is to somehow "turn off" the momentum and pressure within a split second- but there's a far easier solution. Learning a path of movement that automatically results in redirection of any remaining energy can make an instant of compression impossible- without any need to attempt mastery of intricate split-second timing.  Think back to the efficient path of levering with the pencil:

When movement is allowed to go unimpeded around a central point of contact on the key, no amount of continuation along this highly effective path can cause either strain or impact. It's not remotely like a train crash, but more like the trailer that gradually spins around the truck cab until it halts. The worst thing that can happen here is that you simply carry on travelling a little further than you intended- as continuation goes away from impact and compression not into causing it. Also, all the while gravity is providing a natural braking force- so it's extremely easy to for a small continuation to be absorbed. Seeing as overdoing results in nothing that you need be scared of, it's a very easy movement to do positively and confidently.

While I certainly don't want to dismiss tension/release actions outright 100% of the time, this alternative causes far less initial impact and does not require any special timing in order to avoid keybedding. That alone makes for a far better baseline of movement (before I even go into the efficiency with which it sets the hammer in motion).

In my next post I'm going to show how to put these principles directly into practice when using actions of the hand {EDIT: I didn't get to the practical side in my next post, in the end, but see the exercise at the end of this post for a practical illustration of how you can begin to use the redirection concept to safely play an octave- potentially with even a truly vigorous crack of the arm}. While it's important to build up gradually, I do not believe that there's anything inherently dangerous about activation of the hand itself- IF you know how to deal with the keybed. Take a look at the style of movement in this film:

There's not the slightest hint of the on/off approach. The arm is never pressing hard through the fingers against the keybeds but neither is there even the slightest sense that he is trying to avoid or hold back from contacting them. Continuation of movement CANNOT ever cause compression, because the movement is never directed in path that might cause it- hence the look of lightness and effortlessness in each and every movement. Continuation of the action takes him up and away- it doesn't force anything down into keybedding. There's never a large pressure against the keybed- but neither are there coarse on/off jerks or prods from the fingers to prevent it. There's NO NEED to turn the action off at the keybed. Rather, there is a very smooth and continuous transition that ends in a low effort, yet stable and sustainable balance- that the whole arm is involved with.

Compare to this film:

Now, I'm not typically in the habit of being scathing about amateur pianists who are less than professionally accomplished. However, this is from someone who frequents internet forums under the bizarre delusion of being an expert on piano technique- yet who visibly struggles even with this straightforward ABRSM Grade 3 work. As a performance, the most significant deficiency lies in the treatment of the left hand as a mere background accompaninent- rather than as one half of a two voice duet. However, that is a major failing in the musical intentions rather than an issue that relates to his technique. What I'd like to focus on specifically is the style of movement- and how it compromises both his physical comfort and his control over the sounds that he creates. Notably, this is a pianist who advises the instantaneous stop at the keybed- and who suffers the consequences of that mindset, for all to see.

Notice the totally locked up arm and wrist. This would typically be called "finger isolation", but the real problem is the stiff arm- not that he is dependent on finger actions (note that Prats' finger actions are actually vastly more extreme). He is just not dealing well with the keybeds, hence the strain and effort. We see a series of half-hearted on/off pokes, with no flow or continuity to the movement. The stiff arm does nothing to absorb the landings- and cannot be hung freely as a suspended chain, because the fingers provide no notable stabilisation that might permit it. Instead of keeping the arm released to absorb reaction forces (like Prats), he has to clench harder upon every depression, to stay balanced. Also, the tonal control is extremely erratic, with a number of l.h. 2nd finger and thumb notes scarcely even sounding at all. Even in the soft dynamics, he plays like he is scared of the keybeds (and frankly he has good reason to be- when moving with such a stiff wrist). It's a classic example of severe repression robbing a pianist of sensitive control- just like the golfer who aims to stop his putter dead, straight after contacting the ball. This is certainly not an example of somebody who succeeds under the pretence that he can slow down before landing at the keybed. It's a pianist who is crippled by the problems of trying (in vain) to actually do it- resulting in gaping holes in the the line. When the fingers repress too much too soon, the level of tone is completely compromised. As I said- it's easier to control a lone positive action than when you add a negative action to the mix. Here we see what happens when you add unnecessary repression to what should simply have been a direct and uncomplicated motion.

Note how clearly the pianist who plays with confident actions is the one who can land the keys healthily and with control in any dynamic. Not the armchair guru who plays with repressed little prods- as if he's terrified of having to encounter the keybeds at all (even in a middle of the road dynamic). What he would need to do in order to progress would be to release the stiffness of the arm and stop trying to hold the fingers back from the landing.. If you continue freely into a small amount of positive movement upon contact with the keybed (involving proper response from a loose arm), there's no moment of impact or compression to be feared. When there is a small natural continuation (rather than a willful stop) the arm rapidly ceases to clench in anticipation and instead becomes capable of offering effortless shock absorption to the hand's actions.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Hunched shoulders- why do they really occur and how can they be fixed (with an extended digression on issues of stool height)?- Alignment and the role of the arms, part ii

In the last post I illustrated the extent to which a completely released arm can align itself into a playing position, as well as how suprisingly small the force required to balance the weight of the arm is- provided that balance is generated at the finger end. In this post I want to explain the key element of how the arm would more typically behave in practice, at the other end- ie. the shoulder. Note that weight regulation is vital for ALL pianists. Weight never goes away as if by magic. Unless the arm is in the process of falling, its weight has to be supported in some kind of distribution. Some teachers shout from the rooftops about extreme release of the arm (implying that the hand takes the bulk of the support) whereas others are intent on promoting extreme withholding of arm weight (implying that the shoulder works far harder). However, what both need is consistent control at the shoulder end- over how much of the weight is withheld and how much is released. In that sense, arguably it makes very little difference which perspective you favour. Both schools require a means to control the weight distribution in a predictable way- regardless of whether the focus would be placed more on withholding or releasing. Later on in this post, I will illustrate a singular means of regulating use of the arm's weight- that I believe can be used equally well to assist either approach (or preferably for a far more sophisticated approach in which the level of support/release at the shoulder fluctuates greatly, according to what is required at the time).

Although it is vital to be familiar with the fullest state of release, an arm will rarely (if ever) be hung from the shoulder as passively as that of a corpse while playing (conversely, to make it behave as if it were entirely weightless is quite literally impossible). However, when introducing activity at the shoulder, you have to be very careful. In particular, I'd like to bring in the frequently encountered problem of hunched shoulders. Along with stiffening around the wrist, this is one the most common problems in piano technique- that people have tried to explain with a number of bizarre and esoteric theories. Lifting up the shoulders is rarely a conscious part of the intentions in itself. It's often the case that pianists who are aware of this habit still find themselves absolutely incapable of stopping it- no matter how much they focus on the issue. However, if you look a layer beneath the immediate surface, I don't think the source of this habit is actually terribly mysterious at all. I'd like to offer a couple of very simple and (in my opinion) very likely theories for why this would occur:

Firstly (as detailed in previous posts) it's common for pianists to dwell too exclusively on the upward/downward axis of movement in piano playing rather than embrace the necessary horizontal elements. If your image of moving the key is based on having to push it in a directly downward path, it doesn't exactly take the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to see how that might cause the instincts to keep bringing the shoulders up and over the top. Indeed, it's also common to see the pianist leaning in and pushing the elbows forward- as if they want to align their whole arm and shoulder more directly over the top of the keys, ready to push them almost perfectly downwards. Sometimes, the pianist will even start bouncing up from the stool- leaving you wondering if they're even about to get up and carry out the rest of the performance standing up.

Okay, this is a very extreme version of such a habit. However, just a trace of that style of thinking can cause the shoulders to start creeping up. Even a tiny bit of raising can cause problems. It may also accumulate- until it turns out that the shoulder has been raised up entirely, completely unnoticed. If a pianist wants to use arm pressures to produce sound, a far more efficient way would be a forward press from the upper arm- in which the fingers stay in the same spot on the key while the wrist rolls over the top. A forward action is directed into a downward movement through the key, often finishing in an upward movement. This action is possible without the shoulder having to go up at all. That's a somewhat superficially brief explanation for now, but I will come back to this action in much more detail in a later post. Anyway, there's a clear example of this action at the very start of this clip:

(Although this is a great example of this particular movement, I should state that Daniel Barenboim is far from a favourite player and definitely not somebody I would use for a model of chord-playing technique in general. He often resorts to a totally different style of movement- where extremely forceful yet inefficient arm actions produces a hideously clangorous and percussive tone).

However, there's also a second likely explanation for why pianists would lift the shoulders- to support the weight of the arm more. This is extremely common among those who sit on low stools (where the forearm slopes notably downwards from the hand to the elbow). This is because the angle causes the weight of the arm to express itself more, compared to when sat on a relatively high stool (where the forearm slopes notably upwards from the hand to the elbow). For those who sit very high, hunched shoulders are generally much more likely to stem from excessive desire to get straight over the top of the keys ready to push (a mindset that may also explain why they have chosen to sit high in the first place). This can also be an issue when sitting low. However, a low stool also introduces a significant need to reduce the far greater weight that would bear upon the hand, were the arm totally released.

I should acknowledge here that this seems to run contrary to what many respected pianists have claimed about arm weight, regarding stool height. However, I can assure you that the lower you sit, the greater the force required to balance out gravity's action upon the arm. This is absolutely beyond question. Dig out that corpse once again and try experimenting with different heights in the exercise from my previous post, to see if you can perceive the difference in the balancing force.While I'd personally advise something pretty close to the standard horizontally aligned forearm, it's perfectly possible to play well when departing a little from there. In fact, Arcadi Volodos seems pretty much ambivalent about sitting a bit higher or lower. He actually favours whatever chair the hall has provided for the orchestra over a piano stool- seemingly caring relatively little about the exact height.

However, it's important to be aware of the potential problems from adopting great extremes. While Glenn Gould was a marvellous pianist, he sat so spectacularly low that he frequently resorted to hunching his shoulders up very heavily- presumably because it was the only way to lighten the sound, as well as to stop his fingers having to bear so much of the arm's weight. At other times, we also see him to trying to lift his arms into a position from which to push down into the piano for volume, as in the first example. Sure, he played supremely well despite these issues, but it is said that he often suffered severe pain in his upper body and it is widely known that he was addicted to various painkillers. His diaries also document an extended period when his technique fell apart and he struggled to play so much as a Bach Chorale evenly. I believe Peter Feuchtwanger once speculated that his low stool may even have been the cause of his early death. That's certainly a rather extreme theory! However, had he not sat quite so low, he would easily have been able to support a more relaxed arm via the hand- which would drastically  have reduced the stress on his shoulders.

It's interesting that's he is in so much constant movement with his whole body. I suspect that rather than being exclusively about "feeling the music" he would have been so burdened with effort had he wanted to keep still, that it would have been far too strenuous. I don't think he had any choice but to keep shifting the balance- in a way that few other pianists could have done while retaining control of the sound. Compare the stillness of Horowitz:

Horowitz had a much more natural and healthy looking balance- where he was low enough to exploit plenty of the weight of his arms, without that weight becoming a burden to either his hands or his upper body. His hand does not generally support the full dead weight of his whole arm. His shoulders are certainly not slumped like those of a corpse- but neither is the arm being held up by major efforts. There's a much more natural interaction than with Gould- where both hand and shoulder achieve tremendous stability. Between them, they can support the weight of the arm without either side working very hard.

So, how do you succeed in lightening up the arm, without compromising the stable connection between the hand and the keys- and without hunching the shoulders up? Well, it's actually quite simple. Once more, we need to add an additional dimension to the thinking. I've previously mentioned how finger actions need to be conceived in the axis that extends forwards/backwards from your body, as well in terms of the more obvious up/down axis. In order to lighten up at the shoulder without hunching, you simply need to think more in terms of the sideways left/right axis. When you think of lightening the arm as a pure upward action, even a fraction of movement in the shoulder can instantly compromise the sense of the suspended chain. Just a couple of millimetres of movement can leave the whole arm feeling entirely "held"- totally removing any sense that the arm "hangs" between shoulder and finger. When conceived this way it's virtually a sense of the shoulder being simply "on" or "off" (ie. held or released)- rather than the smoothly sliding scale of infinite possibility that it should be. If you redirect the attention to include sideways motions, a wider range of possibility should become available pretty much instantly.


(nb, while not absolutely essential, this post contains exercises and explanations that relate strongly to the general principles behind in the exercise)

Stand up straight (ideally facing a mirror) and start by shaking your arms around- until they feel released and free to hang down from the shoulder. Now feel the elbows drifting out and away from the body. Basically, I'm asking you to do an impression of a chicken clucking- but VERY SLOWLY. This movement comes from the shoulder, but judge it in the elbow for now. Although the elbows will naturally come up a little as part of this, don't pay attention to that for now. Just notice the feeling of going out to the side. If you concentrate on that, the elbow will also go up slightly of its own accord. Neither resist that nor make it part of the active intention. When you go away from the body, try to notice how gravity is trying to pull you back inwards. The slower you go and the more you perceive this, the better. You should feel as if the effort of the muscles is so small that, while it's enough to balance gravity and stop your arm being pulled back into your torso, it's only just enough to cause movement at all. The muscular effort should seem absolutely miniscule. If you get tired, have a rest and come back to it later.

When your elbows are a few inches away from your torso then stop. But don't think of stopping! Let gravity stop you. You don't have to slam any brakes on- because gravity is already providing a braking force! If you keep feeling how gravity is trying to pull you back in, you should get to the point where the feeling of the muscles trying to take you outwards is matched exactly by the inward pull via gravity. Your arm stops but the muscles didn't stop acting. They can't have done- or you'd have fallen back in! They are doing exactly what is required and no more. Try feeling as if the muscles are almost still moving your elbow out at this point, rather than fixing you in place. Literally speaking you "stop" in a position in space, but you should not feel any stop in the activity. Try thinking of deliberately stopping the movement sometimes and compare the difference. See if you can perceive the extra efforts and the greater sense of "holding" that results. Then try to notice where you can release these unnecessary efforts and look to return to the perfect equilibrium between the outward action of the muscles and the force that tries to pull you back in. The more you feel the force that have to balance out in order to remain still, the more likely you are to match it efficiently, with the lowest possible effort- rather than by generically stiffening. 

Now come back in again, reversing the process. This time, you are only just letting go of the muscles enough for gravity to draw you back in a fraction at a time. Concentrate on the outward action of the muscles still, as you drift back in. Remember- the muscular effort should already be exceptionally low to start with- but try to feel that you are letting go of this slight effort ever so slowly. Little by little you allow gravity to bring the elbow back in towards the torso. Your muscles are still having to act against gravity- otherwise you would collapse straight back in. It's a very slow process of releasing the activity a fraction at a time.

If you've done this slowly and sensitively enough, there should already be a tremendously improved feeling of lightness in your shoulders. However, one thing to watch out for is whether the shoulders are still being raised up as you do this. Look at yourself in the mirror and try to notice whether you see any signs of the shoulders being lifted. A few times, slowly raise your shoulders straight up and allow them to descend, using a similar process to before (ie. as they go up, feel the muscles only just do enough to overcome gravity. As they come down, slowly release this very light effort enough for gravity to lower them). Now go back to the slow clucking movement, but continue to notice the shoulder. Take the attention away from the elbow now and this time perceive it as a sense of opening out the space in the armpit. Keep feeling how gravity is pulling the shoulder down for you and be very careful not to accidentally activate the muscles that lift it straight up. Sometimes even imagine that somebody is pressing down on your shoulders, for a time (or get someone to actually do this for you). You can also try this while holding a small weight (say a kilogramme in each hand) to increase the force that pulls the shoulder down towards a neutral position.

As you get used to this, you're going to start refining the movement to a level where it becomes so small that it's basically invisible. Try practising it to the point where the elbow moves just a few millimetres. Can you still feel the vivid sensations in the shoulder? Try resting your hand on a chord and experimenting with these tiny outward sensations. Can you feel just how much control you have over the regulation of pressure through the hand? Try all different levels- from a fully released arm to one where the fingers barely contact the keys enough for them to stay depressed. Note that this has nothing to do with the highly pronounced "elbow out" that some pianists do to the point of absurdity. In the end, the actual movement may literally be so small as to be entirely invisible to an observer. However, the pianist ought to perceive a very smooth transition through a massive range of sensations involving the whole arm- from fingertip to shoulder. You should feel as if you can make your arm as heavy or as light as you wish.

Virtually all playing needs at least some slight feel of this outward lightening action. This learning exercise is especially valuable if you sit low. I find it rather odd that this vital element of the arm's role does not seem to have been addressed in any specific way (at least not by any conventional teaching I am aware of). Logically, it is obvious that you cannot just collapse the elbow of a sagging arm into the torso. The means of balance is clearly vital. This action can take you from a corpse like arm through whole spectrum of functional states- without the risk of turning into a "held" or stiff arm. Not only does this action serve as an extremely sensitive way of regulating how much of the arm's weight is released/withheld at a particular moment, it is also a fundamental action of basic alignment- particularly when reaching towards extremes of the keyboard.