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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.

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