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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!


  1. Very interesting, but I had a hard time following. I can't really picture what you're talking about. Consider posting some pictures or videos? I don't know what you mean by negative and positive movement.

  2. To be honest, it's a little tricky to pinpoint a definitive rule for exactly what constitutes a negative movement and what constitutes a positive. For now, the most basic premise is that anything that HELPS controlled acceleration would be considered positive. Anything that HINDERS it can be considered negative. For this reason, the holes are most easily exposed by very loud playing (which requires the utmost efficiency of energy transfer) or very quiet playing (which requires the utmost precision of energy transfer). For any joint, the two will be directly opposite paths of movement, I believe.

    I do intend to provide videos for the pencil illustration rather soon- which gives as clear an illustration of the basic principle in action, as I can think of.

    For now, consider that the idea of pressing (or pulling) the knuckles up and away from the piano is an example of a very positive movement. Conversely, anything that allows the knuckles to collapse downwards is a severely negative type of relaxation movement, that would send a very low percentage of the energy into sound. This is what typically happens when people think of using arm pressure INSTEAD of the hand- rather than to aid an activating hand.

    Anyway, I hope that the basic concept will become very clear when I follow up with the two types of finger actions (as alluded to in the keybedding posts). When I introduce them, I'm also going to talk about their negative opposite. I'll be referencing back to the basic concept of positive and negative movements a great deal, in future posts.

  3. I would like to say that in order to get your point across you will have to greatly simplify your language.
    Further i would like to say that great deal of "pressing hard" comes from improper sitting. By that I mean center line of balance and position of the head.
    Another aspect is that human arm and hand is designed in such way that certain angles will allow infinite flexibility. Every single student of mine over the years proved successful after few years of constant correcting but mostly through their ears. When they realize how they are in command of the sound then they start to explore themselves. It has to be explained through that channel otherwise you never really develop it on the reflex level.
    One truth is that if you press hard you are simply too slow. I usually describe that with: Can you try to run fast while carrying something really heavy?
    Remember, ultimately your whole body is making the sound. Stability of and calmness of the torso is something you shouldn't disregard at any point.

  4. Thanks for the feedback. I appreciate that not every detail will immediately come across. The basic concept is totally different to traditional thinking. It is not something that is likely to be easily absorbed in one sitting. Consider that this post is primarily setting up a background premise- that I will regularly be putting into the context of specific practical movements, in future posts.

    However my primary point here is simply to prove that even the most efficient use of fixation is necessarily more effort and exertion than efficient use of simpler balancing movements. The important thing here is to feel what I am talking about via the exercise with the pencil. For anybody who performs that, as described here, the implications should come across loud and clear. I will be uploading videos to fully illustrate that exercise shortly- as it's very important that a person can EXPERIENCE the difference for themself. Reading the words without doing so will inevitably be meaningless. In future posts, I will also be showing how the same principles apply to actually moving the keys with the fingers.

    What do you mean by "too slow"? If a person's idea of loud playing is based on arm pressures through a stiff and unmoving hand (which virtually all instincts lead towards), I cannot see how telling them to move "faster" or to sit straighter is going to be very likely to help them perceive how to either expose this problem or provide a solution to it. Of course posture is important. However, from personal experience I can say that sitting up straight has never done a jot to improve either the efficiency of my formerly stiff forearms (coupled with a woefully collapsing hand) or to prevent the radically excessive arm pressures that I used to depend on for volume. Such ways of thinking have value in the big picture. But they simply had no effect whatsoever on the specific "holes" in efficiency, that this post addresses.

    Also, regarding command of the sound- the point I am raising here is that without the right foundations of movement, pianists are NOT truly in command of their sounds! You can't build a house on a foundation that does not yet exist! In the past, it was precisely because I was attempting extreme exploration and experimentation (without a suitable foundation in movement) that I could not develop adequate ease or control.

    Here's an example of that:

    Sheer willpower and physical exertion produced a performance that I am by no means ashamed of. However, I ought to have been able to achieve that with vastly less physical effort (my forearms were stiffer than I could possible describe, the end!!!) and I ought to have been able to access vastly greater musical extremes, while maintaining full control.

  5. Also, I should add that I've been thinking about coming back to previous posts at a later point and making concise summaries of key points. One of the reasons I wish to go into depth is that if I simply say to do x, there's no more reason for anyone to trust me than anyone else- especially if what I suggest seems counterintuitive. Not only do I wish to establish some reasons, but I also believe that they will make the practical issues easier to grasp.

    Arguably, I could summarise the present post by saying that instead of bracing, just figure out which direction it's bad for a relaxed joint to move in and then move it in the opposite direction. However, I don't think anyone would be terribly likely to trust such a simplistic statement, without some background.

    Anyway, it's when I apply these principles to the specific actions involved in playing the piano, that the importance of what I have described in this post will come to light. I'm not expecting anyone to transform their playing based on this single post alone. It's setting the scene for a specifics about movement, that will follow.

  6. Fantastic articles, this changes the way I look at piano technique entirely, as well as cello, guitar and bodybuilding.

    This also reminds me of vocal technique, though the forces in play come come more from the diaphragm than gravity. For example, when resting between notes one must not grasp with the throat and seal off the air passage, the air passage must remain open. Instead, the lungs stop providing air; otherwise the next attack (note) would have to force tissues out of the way - creating tension.
    It is a delicate balance, and one example of many.

    Thank you for work, I appreciate these insights fully and will propagate the information with my students / colleagues so it may be appreciated further.

    1. Cheers for the thoughts. I did a Feldenkrais exercise recently which involves feeling that sealing off and then trying to keep it open in balance. It's an interesting sensation.

      By the way, although this post has some additional aspects, I've since written another post about the concepts here, which I hope gives a vastly more direct and precise breakdown of these issues (also with extra proofs of the ideas).