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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.

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