Please note that posts appear from the most recent first, rather than in consecutive order.

Please click here for a full chronological index of posts

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Clearing up a number of issues- including gravity as a power source, finger "isolation", the passive role of the arm, fixation compared to balanced stillness and why fingers should seek to maintain the support mechanism at the keybed without undue effort- not simply "relax"!

 I had intended to get straight onto some exercises for the arms within this post, although I'd like to just take the time to clarify a number of issues first, based on aspects of feedback. After this post, I intend to concentrate almost exclusively on the "how", rather than spend much more time on the the "why", until I have fully covered the basic role of both arms and fingers.

At this point, I'd particularly to be clear that the style of movement and balance that I will be explaining first is a kind of base level- a foundation upon which all kinds of seemingly diverse techniques (which may well look rather different on the surface) can be built. I believe that the ability to create stability by making the arm into a taut chain that is supported against collapse via only two points (rather than create a structure that can only resist collapse with internal muscular efforts around every joint) is a necessary requirement for anyone hoping to reach the highest level. See the end of my previous post for diagrams that illustrate how much less effort it is to support a chain from both ends, than to attempt to hold it steady in a one ended support system. I also believes that this approach makes things far less complex, even for those who might not necessarily have the loftiest of ambitions. Of course there will be variants and this approach may not necessarily even be used in its extreme form most of the time. But without having full access to this state, a pianist simply does not know what true relaxation is- no matter how much they like to think they are "relaxed". If you have the ability to go into this state at will, it's absolutely fine to diverge from it whenever you wish, safe in the knowledge that you are able to return at any time- not just between notes but even while spinning out 16 constant notes per second. If you do not understand how to create this state (and cannot even perceive the verifiable fact that you are playing with constant unnecessary muscular tensions as a result) then you are limited in what you can do. In extreme cases, some pianists develop severely locked wrists and elbows- because they never create a state in which it is mechanically possible to relax them for more than a brief instant. In less extreme cases, the limits may not be so obvious. However, the inability to create a state where you can feasibly eliminate the need for those last traces of tension can make all the difference at the highest level.

I believe that having acquired the ability to employ this quality of balance whenever desired largely distinguishes between the 'talented' and those who merely scrape by. However, I don't want to give any impression that all other movements are specifically  "banned" or that there are no alternative possible routes to acquire this state other than the particular one I'll be illustrating (although I do believe that this is the most direct route to both understanding specifically what is needed for efficient movement and actually achieving it). This approach is designed to convey how to achieve low effort balance (when using even the greatest extremes of dynamics). It is not a restrictive method that preaches "x is correct and all other movements are banned", so please do not misunderstand it as such. This is a more case a of "make sure you have a proper foundation in  x" and use the benefits from that in whatever way you want.
Anyway, for any technique to be satisfactory, it must satisfy a number of requirements.The foundation level of technique must be versatile and applicable to all kinds of different instruments- be they unusually heavy or light in action. It must both permit accuracy at high speeds and consistent tonal control. A good technique must make it possible to execute passages where there is no time to go up and down with the arm on every note and when there is no time to always be willfully rotating the arm from note to note etc. I want to start with the ACTUAL quality of movement that can be utilised in such situations without resort to strain or pushing- not a roundabout system that may or may not gradually translate into stillness later on (with no explanation as to how). Obviously the starting point needs to be relatively low intensity and low speed- but I do not believe what goes into the movement should be notably different from what occurs within the final product. 

It's interesting to look at the pianists Art Tatum and Arcadi Volodos- both of whom possess unbelievable ability and achieve results with stupendous lack of visible effort. Here are a couple of examples (within the longer Volodos film, look at what is happening from around 4:30 onwards, in particular):

Proponents of the traditional 'arm weight' school would likely refer to the frequent relaxation movements with slow chords- including large drops and a tendency to let the hand collapse very loosely after landing. HOWEVER- what happens when they play faster? Both pianists are notable for just how little movement they use and for just how stable the fingers and wrist are able to remain. Look at Tatum at 30 seconds in! They only use large arm movements or collapse their hands at times when they CAN without ill effects and because they CHOOSE to- not because they are INCAPABLE of staying supported without discomfort! If they were told that they had to do a fast passage slower but with the same balance, do we really think that these geniuses would be left with buckling fingers? Or would they find their tendons becoming sore from the effort of having to balance each finger in a position of stability, without 'relaxing' it? Of course not! Sadly, amateurs often go so far as to deliberately relax the finger at the keybeds in ALL off their practise- without being capable of finding stability for even a few notes in a row. Typically they have never even attempted the means of low effort  stability, never mind mastered it. Unlike Volodos and Tatum, this leaves them with virtually no hope in hell of getting beyond a snail's pace without arms that bob around all over the place or collossal tensions to stop that.

To go beyond the speed wall all you need to do is to teach each finger to play a maintainable role in keeping the chain taut from one end, while gravity keeps it taut from the other end. The principle is really that simple (although mastering it to quite the degree of Tatum and Volodos is of course another matter altogether!).. The finger pulls itself into stable balance (moving the key as it does so) and the tautness of the chain keeps joints stable without other muscles having to do very much at all. The reaction forces are absorbed in this state by mass, whereas a "held" arm will tend to be pushed away- causing either bobbling or stiffening to resist that. When you maintain the chain there are very few variables and hence there's very little complexity. Volodos and Tatum don't just make it look easy when they run their fingers. What they do really IS inherently easier to do than what most find themselves attempting. It is less complex, it is easier to do with consistency, it is more efficient and it offers a much greater margin of error. In fact, it even makes it far easier to deal with nerves. A taut chain that has a point of real security between finger and key and is far more inclined to absorb a slight trembling- just the same as the reaction forces. Trying to "hold" the elbow and wrist still against shaking (rather than secure the chain at the finger end) can lead to absolute disaster. When a pianist has problems with nervousness, it makes as much sense to look at the inherent stability and potential for dampening within their mechanism as it does to explore psychology.

Tension/release methods do not work at high speeds because there is no time for controlled release into a stable position from which the next note can be controlled. Even at slow tempos, the approach ought to be looked at in a more objective light. The tendency to look at the release side is little more than spin doctoring. Piano technique is determined by possibility and demands objectivity. There is no place for stressing only good points of an approach but pushing inherent  negatives under the carpet. It's all very well to be selective when smearing/promoting a political party, but failure to look at the rounded whole contributes nothing to the understanding of piano technique. But "Why wouldn't you relax your fingers after the note has sounded?" some people say. Because the effort is actually very low (that is, once you know how to do it efficiently) and because relaxing it requires EVERY joint in the arm to be held in place with vastly more notable efforts! There is no "free" relaxation but merely an act of sending substantial requirements for efforts elsewhere- and all for the sake of relieving yourself of a tiny one (in a finger that can still relax freely at all times other than when it staying on the note). Remember the finger does not have to bear anything remotely like the whole arm's weight to maintain the chain! We are not talking about huge efforts.

"Then relax your finger" could equally be described as "and then introduce a need for muscular efforts to stabilise both your elbow and wrist against collapsing under gravity- rather than allow them to balance effortlessly as part of a fully supported chain that is suspended from two ends". This is not an opinion, remember, but a scientific fact based on irrefutable mechanical laws. Anyone who sincerely feels that they can relax both finger and arm at this point (without sliding off the keyboard) is simply not living in the real world. Okay, perhaps they are talking about comfort, when they talk of being relaxed. But will it still be comfortable if they attempt a Chopin study at lightning speed? Any fool can play a single piano key and then slip into a state of feeling comfortable. It takes a lot more sophistication than that, if you want to start rattling off a Chopin Etude, however. It's not enough to think, "okay I'm pretty comfortable now" after each note and assume that means you are using good technique. If you don't understand the state that permits speed and work on that accordingly in your slow work, you can be as comfortable as you like. But that doesn't mean you'll stay comfortable when you try to go faster. I'm not arguing that you should be uncomfortable, of course! But there is a specific state of maintained comfort which is productive, whereas others may not be. 

If the finger relaxes to the point where it cannot continue to maintain a chain in which the wrist and elbow are supported automatically, the only way to stop your whole arm sliding off the piano is to resist gravity with efforts around these points- efforts that will hinder the ability to absorb the reaction force with your next note, unless you let go of them again. At speed, the idea of this constant "on/off" necessity with the arm's muscles (supposedly to "protect" the fingers from the miniscule effort of maintaining the chain) is simply absurd. Some pianists may instinctively slip into the state of KEEPING the arm released in balance with the fingers when they go faster. But they are far more likely to do so if they have actually practised this sustained release in their slow work- compared to if they are relying on something as altogether different as the tension and release approach. More likely is that those of the tension/release school will end keeping the state of effort in the arm and not the release- after all they never practice maintaining a fully free arm. It's hard for them to learn a thing about how the arm and finger are associated within the balance that permits a free arm- because they are constantly seeking to depart from this state, rather than teaching themselves to make it sustainable. They spend all their slow practice training themselves how to be forced to hold the elbow and wrist in place- not how to use ongoing (but low effort) finger activities to enable true release. Okay, in some cases exaggerated arm movements may be used when the finger relaxes, to avoid the necessity of holding stiffly in the arm. But this provides equally little experience of keeping the arm still yet free- so it's still extremely likely that the arm will have to lock up when attempting high speeds. If you are intent on running away from the very interaction that permits release in the elbow and wrist, hoping to keep them loose at speeds where there is no time for exaggerated movements is little more than wishful thinking.

Also, it has often been stated that it's far better to source all energy from the arm's gravity. Typically, it's claimed that the fingers only "transmit" energy from further up. This is possible, if the arm descends, yes. However, I'd like to illustrate that it is verifiably impossible for gravity to be the energy source for rapid finger work. Alan Fraser has stated that the arm cannot provide energy without going up and down, but I'd like to go a little further to illustrate the scientific reasons why this is indeed accurate (but also why you must not forget the force that gravity DOES provide) .

Gravity is not a source of free energy. You cannot get anything out of it if you have not put something in. It's like an elastic band. You can stretch it back to put energy into it and let go to release the energy into movement. But you can't just hope to magically fire it a second time without putting more energy in. First you have to do the work of stretching it again. When something goes up, it acquires gravitational potential energy- via the work you do against gravity. When it goes down that energy is transferred. If it doesn't go down, however, it has provided no energy- (unless energy has somehow been created, as in the impossibility of a perpetual motion machine) . The idea of gravity providing the main energy for rapid passagework is pure metaphor- unless the arm goes down on EVERY note (which, of course, it doesn't). I'll clarify later what a vital role it does play in a balance of forces (and why I personally feel that Alan Fraser goes too far in seeking to underplay this very real and important role), but it simply cannot input the main energy that moves the keys. This is why I'll be starting from the finger's actions- just NOT taking it out of the context of the rest of the arm, as in 'finger isolation'!

Finger isolation is a generally used term for a manner of playing that is widely associated with injury. When Tatum glides over the keyboard at 30 seconds into that clip, nothing but his fingers seem to be moving at all. So is that 'finger isolation'? Is that bad? I think the term really needs to be explored further, as it is tremendously open to confusion. This confusion has sadly led some people to believe that the some of most indispensible actions of a healthy technique are supposedly too "dangerous"- sadly causing very real dangers in doing so.

If Tatum's manner of moving his fingers from such a relaxed but still arm is somehow too "dangerous" then playing the piano would have to be deemed too dangerous in itself. The real danger is when people try to copy such finger based approaches without understanding what generates the stillness. As mentioned before, the problem for most players is the reaction force that the keyboard returns to every finger motion. Tatum knew how to keep his arms still by ABSORBING the force. He was a true of master of maintaining the relation between fingers and arm in a balanced chain- leaving his fingers free to do such amazing things without his balanced arm being repelled. He uses his weight perfectly- not to "fall" into the keys or generate the energy that moves them but simply to absorb the reaction forces and hence maintain easy stillness.

When you try to only the move the finger into the key, separately from the arm, you cannot do so. The reaction force pulls at the whole arm as much as the key. So if you are intent on keeping the arm still you are likely to stiffen it (as if it were held in space by a vice) and force it still. That is most certainly NOT something that ought to be described as "finger isolation"! That is a case of dealing with the consequences of the finger's action in a stiff, unhealthy way by adding efforts all over the place.  It's the stiff arm that makes it unhealthy- not "finger isolation". However, the sheer vagueness in virtually all talk of the finger and arm acting together has caused as many problems. People start pushing or dropping onto every note with the whole arm instead of using the finger. This requires a complex chain of forces with countless variables that are very hard to control. Free joints become a hindrance to energy transmission- so (without exceedingly sensitive control) they tend to have to be stiffened into place. And as already mentioned, this quality of up/down movement of the arm creates a speed wall- unless the fingers start actually getting involved properly.  

What Tatum and Volodos really do for their finger work neither requires a stiff arm nor does it require complex application of arm pressure. They simply pull the keys with their fingers in a setup where a free arm can absorb the consequences, thanks to the existence of its weight. In a way this indeed is a sort of "finger isolation"- just not as usually understood. The arm's role is extremely passive and there is very little complexity in what it does to absorb reaction forces. That is why they make it look so easy. The arm's role (for rapid passage work, at least) is little more than to exist without fixation- not to do anything remotely elaborate via the muscles. It has nothing to do with the "finger isolation" that is typically spoken of- where fingers bang heavily against keybeds in a way that impacts back into a stiff arm. But neither is it a case of the arm having to find an elaborate means of trying to succeed in transmitting energy from high up (via a complex chain of joints). 

Despite all the warnings we tend to hear today of how injurious finger isolation is and how much more important the arm is, the fact remains that there is no credible way of doing what Volodos and Tatum can do, without the fingers being the primary energy source. This is why I'm going to start by looking directly at the REAL relationship between finger and arm- not the scientifically implausible metaphor of either gravity or the upper arm as the power source for all. Later, I'll also talk about more complex variants, including active arm pressures- which are of course valuable in the right situation. But firstly, you need to understand how to both move and support comfortably from the fingers- without any tension in either the wrist or the elbow. The whole arm plays a role in this style of movement, but its role is that of keeping the large chain taut with minimum effort- not that of trying to force energy through either a limp, inactive hand or a stiffened one!


  1. I've just read all of your articles on technique and I must say I can't wait to read the next one! The next one will finally start talking about the application of all this theory of maintaining the chain via stable points?

    I my self am trying to find a better technique for myself since I have injured my tendons and realized I was too tense in my playing. I've also watched Fraser's DVD and I like the idea of the stable arch since I found that to be a better way of playing then the way I used to. I still have problems with my wrist being too stiff. I seem to be holding my wrist up to allow my fingers to play in a comfortable way, which then puts pressure on my wrist... So I am really interested in your approach since it makes a lot of sense from the physical point of view (I am a soon to become an electric engineer myself and I like to understand how the mechanics of things work :D).

    Also thanks for putting in the time to share what you have learned from your piano studies!

    Lp, Rozina (found this blog from ABF on PW)