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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Solid foundation reading skills- lifting the lid on the simple secrets to reliable and fluent score reading skills

Although this blog is primarily about piano technique, I've mentioned before that I also intend to deal with other areas in which I have a notably different perspective to offer, compared to the norm. In my opinion (in spite of what so many people believe) reading music is not inherently difficult at all. Anyone can learn to do it well and without major mental effort- that is, IF you approach it with the right mindset. One problem is that standard methods don't tend to do much other than offer raw information- without typically doing much to aid the internal processes which need to fall into place, in order for reading to become second nature. In essence, it's a little like teaching Spanish by handing someone an English to Spanish dictionary and telling them to learn it. Having access to a dispassionate list of information is not enough for everybody to succeed. This means that while "talented" students may flourish, others are stuck in a continual struggle to get off the ground. My belief is that fluent reading is possible for any sighted person of moderate intelligence. It's simply that some people need a little prodding towards the simplest foundations for optimal development. If you get the right start then everything else tends to evolve of its own accord, whereas if you miss certain things it can seem like a constant uphill struggle. In this post, I hope to lift the lid on some of the things that must objectively be going on under the surface, when success ensues. I'll also show how to give these basics a solid kick-start, if you're not among the lucky ones who "get it" very easily.

If you're literally completely new to notation, these two pages give you a pretty comprehensive rundown of the basics about how pitch works (nb. I won't go into rhythm in this particular post).

It's not that there's anything "wrong" with those pages but, as I say, it's primarily just a collection of raw information. I'm going to talk about the tricks for rapidly getting to the point where you can see any single note and identify it at once- which is the first step of building up to the ability to instantly process every note in even a dense chord.

Firstly, I want to look at a common approach to learning all the lines and spaces. Many people use "mnemonics" such as:

Good Boys Deserve Football Always- which gives GBDFA as the lines for the bass clef (in ascending order)


All Cows Eat Grass- which gives ACEG as the spaces for the bass clef (in ascending order)

I'm going to have to go against the grain here and strongly advise that you stay away from these, if you want to make life easy! I'm not saying that they can never be helpful to anyone (after all, every mind works slightly differently) but I do believe that many of those who struggle do so precisely because they are lost in an elaborate and very indirect system of slowly decoding each note- rather than just KNOWING a small number of reference notes with certainty, and then logically deriving the others from those reference notes.

Before I explain the reasoning any further, if you want to read music easily this is all you should learn for now:

Yes, that's all! Well, actually, I'd be sure to know middle C in each clef too- but the main point is not to confuse yourself by also trying to memorise the five lines within each clef! Stick to the spaces, but learn all of those spaces properly- right now! You must get to the point where you know the letter for any space with 100 percent certainty without a moment's thought. Also, play them on the piano and look back and forth between the shape on the page and the shape on the keyboard. In the long-run, the association to the relevant piano keys becomes even more important than the letter. However, the letters are actually very important in the early stages- so don't lose sight of this aspect. Anyway- "what about the lines?", you're probably thinking? Well, if you truly know your spaces, every line is merely one above or one below something you know. How hard is it going to be to calculate a line, if it only requires going up or down one from something you know well? Really, it's not hard at all.

Compare to using a mnemonic, now though. First you have to be sure that you're using the right one- with four to choose from. It's not actually that simple. Time after time, students tend to confuse which one is for which clef. By sticking to just two groups of four letters to remember (rather than two of four, as well as two more groups of five) there are less things that you can get wrong- because there's less to memorise in the first place. Also, FACE applies to the upper clef, just as the face is at the top of the body- making it very easy to recall which spaces apply to which clef. Secondly, with a mnemonic you may have to count as many as five lines up to read just one note! I believe that it's this kind of long-winded process that makes reading music seem such an effort to some. Those who struggle need to learn to break out of this slow and tedious process and replace it with a totally different method. Good readers do not have to count their way up lines or spaces to decode anything! They memorise notes, so they can identify them at first sight. Mnemonics are useful for storing information- for recovery in situations where you have time to stop and think for a moment. When reading difficult sheet music, no such time is available. Quite honestly, I think a mnemonic is just about the worst thing you could possibly be reliant on. It's too much time and effort to get from the mnemonic, to the note that you are looking for. Ultimately, it's more of a barrier between you and the notes you're trying to find, than an aid.

Now, knowing the notes by a direct means is not easy straight off- but if you start by getting certainty on a few notes, it's way better than getting lost in four confusing mnemonics to count your way along. Far better to know a small number of notes well, than to have a hazy memory (or worse still, an inaccurate memory) of many notes. At the very worst, if you have only learned your spaces, remember that you still never have to count more than one note away to get any line. This is quicker and, very importantly, begins the internal process of putting notes into association with each other. Notes are always being viewed in comparison to their neighbours. Everything gets placed in the context of a bigger picture- it's not a case of deriving one isolated letter by reciting meaningless strings of irrelevant words. Next thing you know, you'll discover that you also know every line at first sight- without even having to work from a space any more.

Let's also compare the idea of counting your way along a mnemonic to mathematics. Today, there seems to be an obsession with counting up objects- to make maths relate to the "real world". A kid might take 5 sweets and add 4 sweets and then count them up to get 9. However, what anyone who is good at maths has acquired is the MEMORY that 4+5=9. If using objects should help that memory to develop, that's great. However, if the kid is lost in the process of counting those sweets out one by one (rather than paying attention to the results, for future use) he is just getting stuck in the slow, cumbersome work that maths was meant to replace! Often the child is getting little more than relentless counting practice (arguably due to having been directly encouraged to focus too much on the "real world" element) rather than getting on with learning the results. Ironically, the whole benefit of maths is that it eliminates the need to waste time putting objects side by side and counting them. You just remember your basic sums in a completely abstract context (without the slightest need to associate calculations to the real world) and then relate the answer back to reality- only AFTER you've skipped what would have been the slow counting part. Rapid arithmetic does not hinge at all on whether associations have been made to the real world, but merely upon the speed and accuracy of memory recall.

That might seem distant from musical notation- but there are actually extremely close parallels to reading music. Suppose that you see the top space in the bass clef. At first, you may say "All Cows Eat Grass" while pointing at each space in turn. Now you know that note is a G, from the word "Grass". Here's where the big issue really begins though. Are you going to be able to recall what letter and piano key that space represents (WITHOUT counting your way up) when you next see it? Or are you going to perform the same slow process of counting spaces, time after time- without necessarily learning anything from the experience? Okay, I'm not saying that you should only ever need to count your way up once and only once. However, you have to ask yourself whether you're actually building up memories for the future (that might soon eliminate the need to perform that process entirely) or whether you are simply counting up mindlessly- without necessarily developing any more direct associations from the process. Some people can just memorise which note is which organically- without really trying. If you're not one of those lucky ones, you must consider whether you're doing anything that might allow you to start recognising notes straight off- or if you're just repeating a slow decoding process over and over without learning from it. To be fully clear, I'm not saying that counting up is a bad thing in itself. You just have to be sure that you're only using it to progress towards a point where you no longer need to do so (just as a kid must progress to the point where he just knows that 4+5=9, without being dependent on real world counting) 

Of course, this is only the very beginning of reading musical notation fluently- but it's a very important beginning to get out of the way. All good readers can recognise any single note on the stave in an instant. Without getting this under your belt, you can never hope to become an advanced reader. One thing I also have to stress is that you should NEVER guess, until you read notes with total consistency. Educated guesswork under pressure is a useful thing in an advanced sight reader- but you need to keep guesswork well away when you're developing the fundamental skill set. If you feel any less than 100% sure, go back to counting your way up FACE or ACEG. What you must not allow is the chance for inaccurate associations to form, due to casual guesswork. When you look at a note, you should either know that you do know it or know that you don't yet know it for sure (and if you don't know whether you know it, you probably don't!). Even if you have a fairly strong feeling, come back to the basic idea of counting up the spaces (whether the note is on a space or an adjacent line to one). It's better to know only one note per clef with true certainty than to pretend that you "know" more- while allowing errors. By stopping to be extra sure about the results, you'll get to the point where you genuinely know every note at the first glance with minimal thought. However, if you're inclined to have a wild stab in the dark when in doubt, the associations cannot form with any certainty- because the brain will be receiving conflicting information. Consistency is everything.
So, in summary, these are the key steps to this approach:

1. Work at learning the spaces inside out! Stare at them for a minute, a few times per day.

2. Get to the point where you recognise any space by letter at the first glance- but never guess, if in doubt! You cannot hope to force this step, if you're not yet there. If even 1% doubt lingers, count up ACEG or FACE to be certain, but keep practising until you do know with total certainty right away.

3. Find notes on lines by thinking one up or one down from a space that you are certain of (eg. the top line in the treble clef is one note above the top space E, so it is F). Again, if there is doubt, always double-check.

4. Start discovering that you will often know lines straight off- without consciously having to count up or down from spaces any more (but as usual- if in doubt, double check!).

5. Evolve to the point where you are totally certain about any line or space at the very first glance.  Again, remember that you cannot force this! You must allow it a chance to evolve by following the previous procedures with care.

I'll probably write more posts on reading issues in future, both developing on this core foundation and going into notably more advanced issues. Consider though- if you learn the basics this way, you have already sewn the seeds for more advanced skills. This approach teaches a solid absolute reference point- but uses comparative logic. It's not mere rote learning, but a combination of rote learning and relativity to fill in the gaps. Any good reader should recognise any isolated note at first glance- but it's perhaps relative comparisons between notes that become most important in advanced reading. A four note chord is not just four separate notes to recognise- but also a series of distances between notes (that directly relate to physical distances between the fingers). All good readers master absolute reading AND comparative reading. The more you learn to work both ways, the better. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The fingers- the core of piano technique, part i

In this post, I'm going to illustrate a very simple way of understanding the basic core of piano technique- getting the fingers to perform effective activities without wasting energy or straining. Afterwards, I'm also going to illustrate the fact that the fingers still have an essential job to keep performing after a key has been depressed. Finally, I'm also going to give exercises that will illustrate how ineffective it is to try to achieve things by bracing the fingers, and then demonstrate how much less effort suitably directed intent at movement is- even in arm weight approaches (actually, especially in arm weight approaches!). 

Anyway, first up let's just do a quick preliminary exercise to loosen up any initial tension that might exist in the fingers. There are many ways to do this, but the one I'm going to outline here is based on using one hand to move the other. Firstly flick the fingers quite sharply (but not forcefully!) in both directions. Try to do nothing other than keep the fingers loose and responsive. Note how they automatically jump right back to pretty much where they started, almost immediately after being displaced. The natural muscle tonus draws the fingers back into a slightly curved position. Now try slowly pushing and pulling at individual fingers (within a comfortable range of motion)- trying to notice if any efforts are restricting the ability of the other hand to move the finger smoothly. Try to be 100% passive in the finger and look for signs of resistance- especially at the knuckle. Obviously resistance will be found nearer the edges of the range of motion, but can you feel habitual efforts causing resistance in the middle? Try to release whatever causes it. Sometimes wiggle a finger more quickly, to check for completely unimpeded movability- but always be gentle! By the time you're finished, the fingers should be felt to hang very loosely and effortlessly. This video only gives a very short demonstration for general illustration purposes- but spend a while really exploring the sensations of each finger in depth (for at least thirty seconds or so per finger, say) before moving on. Don't just wiggle the fingers without paying attention but really try to notice what is going on!

Now I'm going to work through the two basic styles of foundation finger movements. With my post on the thumb, I gave exercises that fit into three categories. Firstly, there are those where you feel how to perform the movement in thin air. Secondly, there are those where you interact with another surface. Finally, there are those where you use it to sound a piano key. This particular post will involve preparatory exercises from the first two categories- to fully clarify these two styles of movement (in preparation for a post about applying them to playing).

To be clear, I'm not suggesting anything as simplistic as the idea that there are only two possible movements from each finger. However, the vast majority of useful actions basically fit into one of these two groups. Even then, there's a rather significant overlap between the two categories. Both depend on the most powerful actions of all- those that originate at the knuckle. The first exercise is to perceive a pure knuckle pull..

Point the thumb down and extend it lightly away from the palm. Use the fingers of your other hand to push the knuckles lightly up from beneath (especially on the 5th finger side, which is especially inclined to want to droop down. I won't go into the explanation right now, but keep it raised up!). Then extend your fingers out and slowly move them from the knuckles. Try to notice how far you can move them while maintaining a slight sense of reaching out at the fingertips- but aim for maximum freedom. Try to let go of anything that does not directly contribute to simplicity and ease of movement from the knuckle. Also, try to notice exactly where the movement occurs from (note that if you look at the palm side of your hand, the knuckle joint is roughly a centimetre or two down into your palm, from where the finger appears to begin! Misunderstanding where your finger is joined can make the movement a lot stiffer!). Although this movement can later offer tremendous power, try not to act against any imaginary resistance or to think about "strength"- either in this exercise or any other of those done in thin air. The more freedom and ease of movement you acquire here, the more potential you'll have to employ serious power when there is something of substance for it to actually act upon. Note that this movement is similar to the type of leverage shown with a pencil in earlier posts. The finger acts like a single lever.

Once you're used to what the knuckle can do, you can also try going on to curl up the fingers- meaning all of the three joints in every finger will act inwards (seen in the second half of the prior video). This action needs to be done with even more lightness still. Don't clench- just feel the path of movement, back and forth! When overused in piano playing, the action of curling up the end of the finger is especially inclined to cause injury. It also makes for an extremely indirect line- naturally scraping across the surface of the key rather than aiming the energy directly into it. Although fingertip pulls were used as a basis for old fashioned harpsichord technique, it is not a good default movement with which to control the heavier action and more sensitive dynamic response of a modern piano (I'll go into more details regarding the problems with curling up from those joints in future posts). While awareness of this motion is useful, it's the action from the knuckle that we want to cultivate as the primary source of key movement. Once you've observed what it's like for every joint to be closing inwards, go back to the knuckle action and compare. This purer knuckle pull is the first of the two basic finger actions.

The next quality of movement is based on adding a movement of extension in the weaker joints. That is, you do not start having already extended the finger (as in the first exercise)- but perform a simultaneous act of extension DURING the same knuckle pull. There's only one direction of movement from the knuckles that can possibly get a piano key moving- that which closes the fingers in towards the hand. Reverse the direction of the previous exercise and you'll see that there's no way that opening at the knuckle could ever contribute to moving a key (unless you want to play with upward-facing palms). However when it come to the two joints in the middle of the finger, it's possible for EITHER opening actions or closing actions to contribute to moving the key. This is an important thing to realise, if you hope to capitalise on a wide range of options.

Try keeping the knuckles reasonably still (but not forced into rigidity- note that mine still move a little) and go slowly back and forth with the next two joints (again be careful not to overwork with these more sensitive movements). Notice what happens when you are UNCURLING, this time.

Can you imagine moving a key with that movement? Almost certainly not. This opening movement is not remotely meaningful on its own- until it is used to complement the pulling action from the knuckle. Only do that one once or twice, purely for observation purposes. However, once the two are combined, there are countless benefits that will rapidly become clear. If it sounds like it might be rather complex, to try to involve these two contrasting actions at once, it really isn't. Perhaps have a go though now and see how it feels to attempt both? I presume that it will have felt very difficult indeed- but fortunately there's a simple mental strategy, that gets both elements involved very easily. If you start with a relaxed finger (in a slight natural curve), all you need to do is imagine a straight line- that passes right through both the knuckle and the fingertip. Simply imagine the finger unravelling, until it extends directly along that imaginary line. Here are before and after diagrams (to illustrate the line) kindly contributed by graphical artist Azim Akberali.

And here's a video:

Picturing the movement as an act of moving the finger out into this line should automatically combine the different activities into what the brain perceives as if it were merely one rather easy act. As if by magic, you'll soon find that the knuckle performs the same closing action as before, but that the finger as a whole lengthens out into that line- with the other two joints opening out. Please note that this is simply a guide line (if you'll excuse the pun), however. The idea of settling into this imaginary line is only a means to acquire the general feel. Although I do find this extremely effective as a rather literal premise, don't feel strictly bound to this! If it's between slightly missing that path with a smooth and comfortable movement or hitting it precisely due to stiffness, the former is vastly better. Feel free to explore around the general concept. In particular, don't try to force the finger beyond your comfort level. If it's not fully extended, that's fine. Over time, you will likely increase the range of comfortable movement, but don't try to push it into happening immediately by straining. All of these exercises are about comfortable, low effort exploration- not forcing things!

For the above exercises, start by moving all of the fingers together as one single unit. Once you have become used to the basic feel (and got it almost entirely effortless), go on to try them for individual fingers. This requires even more care not to force anything, due to the impossibility of comprehensively isolating movement of a single finger from the rest of the hand. There are physical connections (notably between the 3rd and 4th fingers) which dictate that totally independent movement can never occur. The danger of trying to 'isolate' a finger exists only when you try to FORCE other fingers to remain still by clenching other muscles (in other words, it's not so much "isolation" of muscles but the clenching up far too many additional ones that is the true problem).

Note how the other fingers follow plenty, in this demonstration of the two actions in each individual finger.

There's nothing wrong with trying to improve upon independence of movement- as long as it is not achieved by active muscular repression of other movements. The ability to cause movement in a specific finger is obviously a basic requirement of playing. Just don't fight against the lesser movements that fall outside of your intention. Focus your direct intentions on the specific action you wish to perform, but also be aware of the other fingers. If instead of fighting them, you merely go a little slower and with less effort, the additional movements will gradually become smaller. Also, consider that the resistance of a piano key enables it to withstand the equivalent pressure to approximately 50 grammes of mass, before it can even start to move. Slight sympathetic finger movements that occur in the air will be often be absorbed altogether by contact with the surface of the keys, unless severely forceful. For this reason, you do not need to actively repress other movements! It is only by noticing and accepting them that you can acquire the greater 'independence' of each finger

Anyway, now I've introduced the two movements, I want to give a practical demonstration of a few significant issues. Firstly, keeping the fingers relaxed, LIGHTLY push at them in the two ways shown here (note that they move the fingers in directly opposite paths to the two basic finger actions):

If they are truly relaxed, they will be moved. Consider now that a depressed key will necessarily be pushing back at the finger just the same as your other hand was there- due to the springs that are trying to return it. A truly "relaxed" finger on a depressed key is simply impossible. Arm weight cannot help either. A genuinely relaxed finger also buckles under pressure from above. The only issue is how efficiently the efforts to keep it depressed are being deployed in the finger. I'll explore this further (in direct relation to depressed keys) in my next post- although the following exercises also relate directly to this issue.

Next up, I want to demonstrate a few objective facts about the idea of supposedly taking the workload off the fingers by using arm pressure. Many people claim it is desirable for a "firm" hand to channel energy from the arm and then relax. Supposedly, this is less strenuous than having to move the fingers. Although there are some who succeed with this subjective illusion, I want to show how objectively flawed the idea of "fixing" the hand is if you fall into the trap of taking it literally. Try stiffening your hand quite firmly and then trying to "surprise" yourself with a slight push from the other hand (be very careful not to strain! If in doubt under-do the push and stop if you feel anything getting tired. If you have any history of injury, just watch my video and skip this altogether). The push from your other hand is equivalent to the reaction force that any arm pressure will cause the keys to send back through the fingers.

Could you stay still? Not a chance! I deliberately kept the force of the push rather low (as I wouldn't want to encourage anyone to hurt themself) but even in the second you can see the fingers giving way a little.You could stiffen as much as physically possible, but you will always give way at least slightly- UNLESS you respond with an attempt to move in the opposite direction to the force that acted on your fingers. General stiffening only reduces the amount which you give way (compared to the extreme give that occurs during relaxation). It never cancels it out altogether- no matter how severe the tensions that you might end up subjecting yourself to. Give in the finger is an example of a negative movement, that reduces efficiency of energy transfer (as surely as a battering ram made of collapsing foam). We cannot ever succeed in eliminating it with general stiffness, but only with an intent at positive movement in the opposite direction (see here for more background to these issues). Now start stiff again, but intend to move when the hand pushes- with our two basic finger movements. Start the fingers moving slightly before the other hand pushes- so you're not having to fight to change the direction of movement after a finger has already begun giving way. Can you feel how intending to move produces vastly more stability against the oncoming force? Can you feel how little effort it takes, to eliminate any possibility of giving way?

Now start completely relaxed and go on to do everything else in the same way. Were the results in any way inferior to when you started with a state of stiffness? If you timed the movement right (to start slightly before the other hand pushed) it should be every bit as effective as when you started out stiff. If anything the added sensitivity that comes with having started at ease should make it even more effective than starting stiff. Intent at useful movement is inherently superior to generic attempts to stiffen something up. Being stiff adds absolutely nothing to the quality of the results at any stage. You don't need to start stiff, you don't need to stiffen during contact and you don't need to be stiff after. You just need to intend to move the finger in an effective path. If you don't try to send the fingertip right back through the force that is sent at your finger, you can never succeed in balancing it out- no matter how tightly you clench! This is why arm weight approaches can be truly damaging to students who do not have an instinct for finger movement. If the fingers do not create movement as a matter of routine, the hand's only choice (other than collapsing into a cluster) is to stiffen up- achieving significantly less, despite far more physical effort. It's not about a moment of "tension" followed by "release", but about employing enough simple movement to balance out the force that would cause everything to give way.

In short- if you don't want a finger to give way, forget stiffening it against anything and instead think about moving it directly in the opposite direction to that in which it would give way. This is the foundation not only of single finger technique but of chords and octaves etc. In styles of playing like that of Rubinstein (where the arm drops the hand down into the keys from a great height) these movements only become more important, not less so. A generically braced hand just isn't anywhere near as effective as one that moves through the force that will try to collapse it.

Please note, that I am NOT wishing to encourage anyone to think that the key to technique is based around arm pressure. If anything, quite the contrary. The latter half of this post is intended to illustrate that IF you choose to use arm pressures, they can never "replace" the role of hand movement within an effective technique. They can only add to the sheer necessity of properly involving it. If you truly throw out hand movements, you are going to be forced into stiff hand fixations (no matter how much you hope to "relax") that achieve greatly less. I want to stress that the finger actions outlined here are best developed without the arm pressing down through the hand- which only forces the fingers to be worked harder. Hopefully the follow up posts about putting these activities into practise will come soon but, in the meantime, please be clear that I am not advocating the heavy workload that comes by adding pressures from the arm (at least, not in the majority of playing).

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

An introduction to three core posts on the fundamentals of piano technique- plus a digression on why technique lies primarily in the right positive additions of activity (illustrated by a demonstration of two essential factors for achieving a loose wrist in octaves)

I'd like to start by describing a phenomenon in piano playing that is widely assumed to be mere illusion. However, anyone who has ever had lessons with an extremely accomplished concert artist will be likely to relate to this. Basically, the most advanced pianists can often produce a very deep and resonant tone with minimal movement or effort involved. The individual motions for sounding each key don't even look very fast, yet there seems to be an abundance of time available between notes. Typically, a student's hand will get drastically less in return (despite visibly working far harder) - where a true master just drifts over the keys and produces a big tone, as if it were nothing. You can get some sense of this via videos of great pianists, but it's when witnessing this at close quarters that the effect is so startling- especially when you yourself have been getting so much less out of the very same instrument. Even in something as simple as a slowly executed scale, the piano just seems to respond totally differently to them.

At this point, I want to assure you that this is NOT merely a subjective illusion!!!

At the heart of this is a truly basic issue of mechanical efficiency, during an act of energy transfer. Sorry if such pragmatic language seems to kill the romantically arcane mystique of piano playing, but if you're not already startling others with the effect described above, this is your ticket to start discovering what makes it possible to do so. Aided by an understanding of what lies under the surface, the ability to produce sound so effortlessly (and with such overwhelming control) is something that can very much be acquired- or at least substantially improved upon.  If I compare my current playing (since I started working with these considerations in mind) to older films of myself, my movements now look slower and easier- yet I can produce a more resonant and defined sound. I'm nowhere near mastery of these issues, but the ongoing improvement has been unmistakable. These next few posts are going to get to the heart of how to understand (but above all how to FEEL) the most fundamental issue behind piano technique- ie. how to channel energy into the hammer with efficiency (rather than waste the best part of it on banging against the keybed, once it's already too late to contribute to the musical sound).

Having delayed getting right into these key issues for some time (partially due to wanting to develop the clearest possible sense of focus first, but partially due to mere laziness), I am now going to start explaining how to produce reliably controlled sound via efficient finger actions (that cause neither strain nor impact) while also retaining a suitably balanced yet comfortably relaxed arm. After a lot of thought, I've decided to attempt to make these next few posts primarily practical- but also to tie in to some of the scientific background that I have covered in earlier posts. To achieve the fullest possible understanding, it will certainly help to cross-reference these posts with the more detailed background in preceding posts (that I shall link where relevant). However, my aim is that these posts can be understood in their own right- which will be aided by far briefer summaries of previous points.

The current plan is to split these core posts into three sections. This first one will detail a simple approach to conceiving the specifics of effective hand movements (starting with very slow actions in thin air). The second will put these fully into the context of the arm (illustrating a manner of thinking that I believe synthesises the positives behind both the 'floating' arm approach and the seemingly contradictory 'arm-weight' approach). Although it might seem to be putting the cart before the horse, this post will deal largely with finding the lowest effort with which balance can be effectively sustained AFTER key depression. In the third part, I'll be dealing with actually moving the keys (in a manner that seamlessly evolves back into that state of balance from the second post).

Anyway, you'll notice in these posts that I will talk primarily about ADDING activities- with less attention to things to be avoided. This runs in stark contrast to many of the prevailing methods around today, so I'm just going to give a brief demonstration to show that technique is most easily developed when the primary focus is on acquiring the activities that you do want- and why it's virtually useless to approach it exclusively in terms of trying to strip unwanted efforts away. To illustrate that, I'll show the two most important components that contribute to the possibility of achieving a truly loose wrist in octaves- both of which are about intent to add seemingly unrelated activities, rather than about the wrist itself.

Anyway, if the above sounded rather harsh, let me stress that I'm not dismissing relaxation exercises- but rather arguing for the necessity of also looking at the productive activities that must occur for particular releases to have any realistic chance of being maintained. I recently received a pre-publication copy of Alan Fraser's latest book on piano technique: "All thumbs". He, too, looks primarily at positive activities. However, it also contains some of the finest exercises I've encountered for neutralising unwanted efforts in the hand- to effectively wipe the slate clean prior to getting started on the positive actions.

Such things are great and I am certainly not arguing against them. The problem with so many other approaches is that they are too heavily focused on subtraction of efforts- WITHOUT covering the corresponding positive actions  that you do need to be sure to put in. Alan Fraser goes on to cover such additions in great depth, but in other methods you're frequently left to either figure out some of the most important things of all for yourself, or to go nowhere fast. There's no better example than the classic case of pianists who resort to a stiff wrist, in loud chords and octaves. I want to illustrate here how directly focusing upon the wrist itself is possibly the single most futile means of dealing with the issue.

The thing is, it's simply not hard to loosen the wrist. Yes, a pianist with years of bad technique behind them may have stiffness and poor range of motion, even away from the piano. However, this is still easy to sort out. Just get them to take a few days off playing and engage in daily cardiovascular exercise, such as jogging or swimming. Get them to do some yoga and flexibility exercises, get them to relax in a sauna and spa etc and (unless they had acquired really serious physical problems) their wrists will at least be loose enough to work with in no time. However, no matter how hard they try to remember to keep the wrist relaxed, as soon as they return to the instrument to play octaves or chords, some activities are going to need to be employed again. Unless they chance upon two POSITIVE intentions for activity (that must be in place elsewhere in the mechanism, even if you're straight out of the jacuzzi) the wrist will almost certainly start being forced to stiffen again, to compensate for their absence- no matter how strong their intent to remember to retain the looseness. When a wrist stiffens in spite of willful intentions to the contrary, it usually does so for a reason.

Let's just think what happens when a wrist is loose. Well, considering that it's essentially a hinge, if you simply press the arm downwards it shouldn't take any profound genius to realise that, upon contacting the piano, it would begin to give way and keep travelling down- unless you immobilise it. When people try to thrust down, there is not much choice but to lock the wrist, or to be willing to let it keep going. Carrying on going is exactly what Grindea's "flop" encourages you to do, in order to loosen up. The problem is that, although flopping reminds you to release the wrist and helps provide the feel for loosening it, you cannot possibly allow it to happen while playing loud chords or octaves at a notable speed! It also tends to give a very flabby connection to the key that provides little scope for controlled musical voicing, or depth of tone.

(EDIT- I've since discovered a way to achieve effective results when the wrist drops during sound-production. This requires a very particular quality of movement from the individual fingers, if you are to achieve fine control over voicing, but I should stress that a literal "flop" is not always a bad thing- at least for an individual chord. However, if you have to play fast chords in succession, it remains an objective fact that you cannot possibly afford to waste time on allowing the wrist to keep collapsing and falling down during key depression- and that immobilising it with tightness  is a counterproductive and dangerous way to avoid that. Even if the flop can sometimes be used in a practical context, a pianist MUST also have the option of avoiding it in a healthy way, in order to excel). 

See the first and third examples here, for an illustration of a "flop" due to a loose wrist (coupled with an inactive hand and upper arm), first from contact and then from a height.

These are actually great exercises for reminding yourself what it's like to experience a truly relaxed wrist- but they play no direct role in setting up a functional situation in which the wrist can afford to relax- without causing the ultimately unwanted consequence of actually collapsing. Instead of allowing such a flop, in regular playing you must be capable of adding an activity that will roll the wrist very slightly over the top- ie. an activity that specifically prevents this very flop from occurring! You will see this in the second and fourth examples of that previous film. The key is that you do not prevent the flop by tightening muscles to immobilise the wrist, but instead via a tiny sense of forward motion from the upper arm. If you've read my previous post, this is a classic example of countering a "negative movement", not by stiffening, but by including enough of a "positive movement"- directly in the opposite path. When you add this fundamentally essential component, gravity provides a smooth deceleration (rather than either a dead stop, or something so dysfunctional as a drooping wrist). Over time, you can refine it to a miniscule follow-through, while keeping just enough movement to ensure that the wrist is able to remain loose, yet without any chance to be flopping down. I overdid the roll over the top somewhat in the second strike of example 4, but the first shows something rather more functional. However, I would stress that it is possible to refine it to something notably smaller still (as can often be seen in the playing of Rubinstein, after he drops from a great height).

Anyway, develop movability of the upper arm with the following exercise- for rolling the wrist over the top, via upper arm movement:

Note that there should be no active pressure- other than a slight sense of allowing the hand to rest. Move slowly back and forth- without either causing any sense of strain in the wrist or forcing anything. Move from the upper arm and simply let the wrist follow passively and comfortably. If you feel the slightest twinge of discomfort, try resting more lightly against the tabletop or reduce the range of movement to whatever is manageable without any perception of effort or "pinching" anywhere. Don't go into this with the mentality of stretching or forcing!!!!

That covers the upper arm's requirements. However if the hand itself is merely braced to transfer arm pressure, it can still be hard not to stiffen the wrist when moving the keys. Instead, practise bringing in movement within the hand to push yourself AWAY from the keys, as the wrist rolls over. I actually involved this already in examples 2 and 4, if you look closely. I didn't just fuse my hand into a fixed position (as many explanations claim is desirable), but actively opened it out while moving through the keys. Such movement is especially important if you want to be able to drop from a height without experiencing a heavy landing. However, here's a clearer view of the action of opening out the hand upwards and away, done on a table:

Note how easily the hand expands. That is due to a complete absence of downward pressure from the arm. The only pressure that occurs is the result of the thumb and fifth finger extending and pushing the hand open. The less resistance to this the better. That can still be relatively advanced for an octave, so less experienced pianists might want to practise and play with the thumb alone to get the feel for how it contributes to looseness of the wrist- or perhaps try a smaller interval such as a fifth. The hand, too, now starts to contribute towards moving any remaining momentum forward and over the top (for gravity to naturally absorb), meaning that the wrist no longer has any need to stiffen against the possibility of slumping down into a collapsed state. The more the hand can contribute to this, the less the upper arm needs to press forwards (which becomes especially important at high speeds).

This barely scratches the surface of such a huge issue as chord and octave technique, to put it mildly. I'll certainly come back to this in more depth, after I've gone down into the absolute basics of movement. However, I hope this not only provides some initial insights into the objective background behind the specific issue of how a tight wrist can be cured, but particularly into the wider fact that ability to release an unwanted stiffness can be massively dependent on whether POSITIVE activities are being adequately deployed somewhere else in the mechanism. A list of things not to do is generally of little use unless you have a grasp of the things that you do need to do. Would you go about passing on a recipe for a meal, by handing someone a list detailing only those ingredients that are not to be included (without bothering to mention that they're specifically going to need a few strands of saffron, some grated truffles, half a pomegranate and a couple of kilogrammes of tripe)? Sadly, many schools that focus heavily on relaxation are so stuck in a one-sided picture, that they can ironically end up perpetuating tensions (by either failing to outline the useful activities or, worse still, directly advising against them). In many cases, looking at the location of a dysfunctional tension does not necessarily contribute anything much to the possibility of stripping it away- until a necessary ACTIVITY starts to be put into place.


If you're in any doubt about what I outline above, this scientific study is most revealing.

It's not an easy read, so I'll summarise it by saying that they took a number of accomplished pianists and amateurs and asked them to play a single octave from a height. All of the accomplished pianists rolled slightly forwards and over the top- whereas all the novices moved down and back. Rather than take my second hand version, see page 6 for a very clear diagram of this (illustrating the differing paths of arms viewed from the side). This is very much in line with not only the details in this post, but also the concept of negative/positive movement in my last post (as well as my prior explanations of how to healthily redirect momentum away from impact, in the two posts on "keybedding"). It was no particular surprise to read that the accomplished pianists all used this specific quality of movement, or that the novices veered towards the same classic error (likely caused by thinking that because the key moves downwards, the trick is to thrust everything else downwards too). I cannot think of any better illustration of the fact that, while accomplished pianists will differ in many ways, there are also some very specific mechanical issues that consistently determine whether the most effective results can be achieved. The defining difference that distinguished between the movement of pros and novices was not an act of relaxation during key movement. The novices were slumping everything down anyway. What they missed was a positive ACTION- that was present in all of the experienced players. Without bringing in those key activities (to contribute towards efficiency), there's just no possibility to recreate the motion of the pros- or to reduce the overall effort to comparable levels. In many cases, before you can start stripping efforts away in any productive fashion, you must first introduce that which has been missing.