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Sunday, 28 September 2014

The mechanics of chaos vs the mechanics of predictability- what quality of movement offers the best tonal control over ppppp, FFFFF and every possible shade in between?

Nb. This post is all about the consistent factors behind control over sound. After outlining some very basic issues about what defines control/the lack of, I'm also going to talk a little of the great artist Shura Cherkassky's methods- and illustrate quite how neatly his approach to the keyboard corresponds with what mechanics suggests to be necessary for close control of sound. Whether we're talking about getting the softest sounds possible or the fullest ones, the essential basis for control is scarcely different. Likewise, staccato and legato have a lot more in common than most people realise. Much the same basic issue dictates whether the precise sound produced is primarily defined by artistic choices, or by mere chance factors that pollute the result. This was originally the end of my previous post on the concept of "positive movement" vs "negative movement". However, as that post was rather long (and as the issue of tonal control is quite so important) I decided to expand that segment into a separate standalone post. Please start by reading the definitions in that post- so you can appreciate what I am actually referring to via these original terms. However, in order to understand why these issues are at the very core of what defines the possibility of controlling your sound, it's not necessary to read the full post right now, but only the definitions. Also, please note that additional illustrative videos will shortly be added to each of these posts.

Why is "negative movement" (a squashing of the distance between knuckle and fingertip during the key depression, as per the diagrams) the single biggest enemy to a pianists control over sound?

Well it's very simple to prove. Basically if two bodies are in contact and one is accelerating the other from behind, as soon as the one at the back starts to slow down a little, the other will start to escape on existing steam. At this point it is coasting and you have given up your means to manipulate it any further. Even if you should catch up again, merely by bobbling in and out of contact, you have already lost the simplicity and directness associated with staying in touch continuously. When a hand collapses as shown, during key depression, it can be said with objective certainty that the knuckle is travelling faster than the fingertip- (which is why the distance between them is becoming progressively smaller). This suggests (with near certainty) that the fingertip is losing available speed while moving the key, rather than accelerating continuously through- which renders it impossible for that fingertip to be passing on speed both smoothly and continuously, in the most predictable fashion. The transfer of energy is necessarily "chaotic"- which means that a very small change in one variable can result in a very significant change to the final result in sound.

If that's not making sense yet, there's a more specific situation that's very easy to imagine, that should readily demonstrate both the truth and significance of this broader principle. Imagine standing still behind a line and pushing a supermarket trolley into motion (without being allowed to take any steps forward, beyond the line). Let's say there's a target a certain number of metres away and you hope to roll it into stopping there, or at least come as close as possible. It's not a miniscule distance but it's not especially far either- say 5m. Is it easier to give a short sharp jab or is it easier to connect clearly with the trolley and then gradually push through until you can stay with it no further? Well, the greater the distance of travel during which you can stay in steady contact, the more margin of error you have (I won't bore you by detailing the proof through physics or associated graphs, but any physicist worth their salt will affirm to you that this is an absolute objective truth, with reference to "impulse"). So, for control, you should push continuously over a longer duration, rather than apply an identical level energy through a brief prod. Incidentally, for direct equivalence to the concept of negative movement within a finger, imagine if the distance between your hands and shoulders were to become squashed, rather than grow out through the push. Think quite how hopeless this would make your control of the trolley!!!

Another example I used before is golf- where all good golfers aim slowly but surely through the ball for short putts- and never hold back or start to slow the club as it reaches the ball! The simple reason is that slowing down during the movement, rather than accelerating, means there is collossal margin for error. A tiny difference in timing means a huge difference in the result, as per chaos theory. There is more inherent predictability when a small but increasing level of force is applied steadily over a longer distance of contact. To put that more simply in layman's terms- you need to putt by aiming steadily THROUGH the ball, rather than move sharply but with intent to stop the club upon contact. Nobody could succeed with a technique that is objectively unfit for the purpose of achieving a high level of accuracy. This isn't a matter of subjective preference- as evidenced by the fact that a golfer who jerks at his putts by slowing down the club is literally unheard of at professional levels. If you care to do well, you need to use a technique that gives you decent odds of getting as close as possible to intensity of kinetic energy that you had actually aimed for.

Going back to the trolley, if we only wanted to move it by a mere 2cm then a shorter prod might be more accurate- but only for the reason that a longer contact would necessarily apply too much energy and would thus mean overshooting the target. However, remember that even the softest pianissimo playing must swing the hammer all the way to the strings. No note that sounds involves the barest minimum. Silent key depressions are the bare minimum- and those are really not something we want when we're supposed to be producing tone! By analogy we're not in a situation where prolonging contact will automatically mean overdoing it. Moving the key too fast is the only way to overshoot your intended volume, so there is no associated benefit to trying to keep the contact short (at least, not when striving for a very soft tone- I wouldn't rule out sharper attacks for specific tonal effects at higher intensities). Making a lasting contact adds scope for control of tone, but does not in any way mean sacrificing the possibility of softness. The classic mistake is to become less positive when trying to play soft. However, moving steadily but with a positive quality is the very thing that makes it possible to play truly quietly- without either risking missed notes, or compromising the level of softness for the sake of avoiding them. 

At the piano, try either pecking at a note and then pulling the finger right back (rather than aiming through a longer contact) or allowing a finger to buckle into negative movement.  This will tend to allow the hammer to escape from your influence sooner, just the same as if you prod abruptly at a trolley. When you stay in contact over a longer distance (by starting gradually and accelerating right through to release) you have more scope to judge exactly how much energy and therefore tone you will pass on. It's important to note that the piano has a point called "escapement", after which the hammer always gets released from your direct manipulation. However, while you can't change anything after that point, what you could very well do is lose consistent contact with the hammer before that point is reached- should your fingertip start slowing down rather than accelerating. It's very easy to overlook this, but it is quite possible to lose influence prematurely.

This is why you should NEVER think of making the fingers more passive or floppy for soft playing! Fingers with give mean you cannot accurately predict either how long you are manipulating the hammer for or precisely how much speed it will receive during that time- before it escapes you. But don't stiffen the fingers either! You can achieve all the "firmness" you need by preventing negative movement in the same way that you always should.  Reliable control of soft tones comes when you bond with a hammer by starting very slowly against the key's resistance but then use "positive movement"- so you are always accelerating the fingertip through subtle resistance until the hammer is set free. The acceleration will be more slight of course, when speaking of soft playing, but you have to stick with it until the hammer is already gone, if you want fine control. This is equally true of any dynamic- which is why the most polished performers move so effortlessly between levels. They're not switching between radically different concepts but doing much the same basic actions, with simply more or less intensity to correspond with the dynamic. In soft sounds, the trick is not to be pulling back with any repression but using a positive and deliberate movement throughout. It's always easier to judge the result if you slowly increase a gentle force, over a longer time, than it is to judge a larger force for an ultra-short duration.  The great pianist Josef Llhevine spoke of the need to ground every key even in soft playing. Although this advice doesn't quite convey all the deeper nuances that I'm looking to reveal here, I have no doubt that it was his way of encouraging this same positive quality of prolonged contact. If you don't ground the keys, it's a very likely indicator that you are repressing and thus failing to maximise contact with the hammer. Once you appreciate the basic concept, looking to finish grounding every key is a very simple way of checking that you're staying suitably positive, without having to retain any more complex thoughts during performance.

This is why so many great pianists are known to have liked practising soft passages loudly, even. What they were achieving is a consistently positive quality of motion, that was not infected by any trace of repression or give in the fingers. Listen to what the great Shura Cherkassky (an artist renowned for the most astonishingly soft yet defined pianissimos) had to say about how he practised, and watch the few seconds of him doing so, that follow.

A pianist who already thinks like a musician simply cannot lose that, by spending some of his time searching for a simple positive quality of movement from each and every finger. He may not have directly analysed the concept that I have labelled "positive movement" but his manner of practise was quite visibly certainly geared towards achieving a simple positivity of motion. When done with sensitivity, this kind of preparation may be rather musically dry, but it trains the reflexes to work consistently in the most effective manner. Such practise isn't where Cherkassky developed his profound musicianship, but it is where he kept up his ability to control the precise sound of every single key. When he put musical intentions in, this is what he could do:

Note just how vigorously and deliberately he GRABS the keys with his fingers, even in the softest accompaniment notes! The secret here is to remember this:

The finest control over soft playing comes when the finger moves every bit as positively as in louder playing, but simply at a far slower speed.

What we see in Cherkassky is a deliberate movement done very slowly- not a short fast movement that is tempered by repression!!! His dry practise may have sounded like a "piano tuner", as he put it, but it trained the deliberate quality that allowed him to reach such extremes without losing control of his sound. At this point, the less specific concept of "positive thinking" is actually closely intertwined with the more specific notion of positive movement. Mental confidence is much more inclined to generate  positive movement than mental uncertainty. With a sense of being even a little mentally tentative or restrained, negative movement is almost certain to be huge a problem. I always like to think of fingers moving gradually but with extreme power (as if they could slowly but effortlessly cut through a brick wall, if need be) for soft playing- so nothing in the mindset implies anything less than a long movement with intent. I may not be on the level of Cherkassky's astonishing pianism, but in recent months I've made a huge amount of progress in terms of how softly I can play without giving up control, by being aware of these defining issues. In the long run, feeling generically mentally positive can start to look after the physical side- provided that you've already ingrained the more specific quality of the physical habits, of course. But if even Cherkassky saw fit to do his practise that way, there's every reason why lesser mortals should give serious consideration to devoting some of their practise time to achieving a similar straightfoward positive quality- rather than kid themselves that they're too artistic to dirty their hands with such mundane practicalities.

Incidentally, the issue of staying in touch with the key's resistance is another reason why I greatly dislike the idea of moving wishing to move a key "fast" for even loud playing. Any golfer, cricketer, tennis player (or other sportsman who uses their body to transmit movement to another object) will not achieve the biggest distance by merely trying to swing as "fast" as they can. To transfer energy effectively, you still have to pace things so the acceleration increases through contact with the resistance- just the same as for quiet playing. If you don't achieve acceleration right there, a reaction force starts to slow you down, so you lose contact too soon to apply serious impulse to your target. Any good sportsman knows this (in instinct, at least, if not necessarily always in analysis) but, sadly, a lot of pianists really don't have either knowledge or "feel" for this. Some misguided methods even encourage things which are likely to obstruct the process of acquiring that feel, if taken at face value. Rather than be slowed down upon connecting with your target, you need to be able to accelerate the fingertip right through the full distance- so the hammer doesn't escape from your manipulation prematurely.

Even in staccato I've recently discovered this to be important. In fact, perhaps especially in staccato- where it's overwhelmingly common for pianists to lose exact control over the intensity, by backing out prematurely. An excellent comparison is the screw shot in snooker or pool. Although your average pub pool player stabs at the ball to achieve backspin, top snooker players will aim low but cue straight through the ball- in line with the same principle of prolonging contact rather than shortening it. Just because you want to allow the damper back to the string, it doesn't mean you should be thinking about trying to back out before you've even finished manipulating the hammer. Finish the job properly with one simple and unpolluted positive intention (the reaction to which should automatically bounce the finger straight back up anyway) and you'll have vastly more control over the tone than when you "peck" at the keys with needless anticipation of pulling back out.

Anyway, back to the very loudest playing. If we return to the trolley example and picture trying to get the biggest distance- would you rather swing a baseball bat at the trolley as fast as possible (and see it bounce straight off a short and unpleasant contact) or use the same technique of connecting to the resistance, before smoothly accelerating your hands through the trolley in a prolonged contact? I know what I'd do. Although I used reference to relative speeds as a basis to prove that negative movements waste energy on impact, I simply don't think of high absolute speeds as being the way to play loud. I think of feeling the key's resistance clearly and then staying in touch with it as far as possible- by continuously accelerating into the escapement (the level at which the hammer necessarily leaves your control, even when accelerating smoothly). I then smoothly continue the same action, so my hand evolves further into a place of openess and comfort. When I'm playing at my best, I know that the process will feeling surprisingly long, slow and effortless during the biggest sounds- not like a short but violent stab. With suitable use of positive movement, there's nothing to relax from- because your movements are taking your hand towards increased freedom from the very outset, rather than headed for the type of compressed impact from which retreat might be desirable. When you have learned the type of action which actively builds upon comfort, through ongoing continuation, even the very loudest FFFFF can be done without fear of impact or stress. In fact, the more positively the hand performs, the safer it actually starts to become.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Tonal control, efficiency and health (lifting the lid on the most fundamental and indispensable ingredient of simple, controlled pianism- minus strain, tensions or impact)

n.b. Although the diagrams illustrate virtually everything necessary, I will add some videos of the exercises within a couple of days.

I've already written a post on this subject, but I wanted to come back to the same issues afresh. Although it's not intended as an outright replacement for the previous article (which features some additional thoughts that are worthy of consideration) it is more a case of wiping the slate clean and going back to the beginning, than of continuing onwards from the last post. At the time I was still getting to grips with major issues that (to the best of my knowledge) no existing piano methods have attempted to directly define. I was certain that I'd observed something important (namely, issues that seemed to suggest that what lies at the core of fine technique has very little to do with the tension/release model that almost all modern methods are founded on) and was taking the first steps at trying to categorise a clearer alternative way of seeing things. Having since spent additional time on these matters, however (both in theory and in terms of practical experiments) I can now give a more complete and definitive explanation of that premise, but in a much more concise and direct form. I've also found a perspective that enables a rigorous proof (all via simple logic, which does not demand notable understanding of physics). For anyone who was baffled by my previous post on the issue, I hope that this version will be extremely easy to digest and that the new diagrams (kindly contributed by Azim Akberali) will assist.

Before getting started, I want to briefly clarify why these issues are quite so important. Perhaps most importantly of all, your level of control over the sound of every key that you depress is governed by details in the foundation of how you pass movement on to the key. When looking at the surface there are many different ways to get excellent control and there are many ways to get lumped with erratic and unpredictable results. This post is not about scratching at the mere exterior and it doesn't matter whether you prefer to sit high/low, say, or if you subscribe to armweight/finger schools or whatever else. It's about the underlying similarities between the qualities of movements that objectively CANNOT offer reliable results but, above all, about the consistent factor at the root of all styles that CAN give scope for the most precise level of musical control- so your fingers have the best chance to pass on the exact tonal intensity that you intend to each note. Anyway, before giving any more background, I'll stop to detail how spectacularly simple this concept actually is, right now, via an ultra-concise "idiot's version" of the entire premise, plus illustrative diagrams.

i) If a finger operates as a single lever from a lengthened position, the effectiveness with which movement passes to the key is determined by whether the knuckle is getting higher or lower, relative to the point of contact between fingertip and key. Letting the knuckle drop down is a "negative movement", whereas drawing  the knuckle upwards is a "positive movement".

 before and after negative movement

 before and after positive movement

ii) If a finger starts with any curvature, any compression of the distance between fingertip and knuckle during key depression counts as a "negative movement". Any expansion of the distance is a "positive movement". 

 before and after negative movement

before and after positive movement

Note that the diagrams are intended to illustrate whether the distance between knuckle and tip is shrinking or growing . This is the primary issue while moving the key- and not whether the hand directly emulates these exact positions.

Negative movement reduces the control over the energy transfer and the amount of speed that reaches the key. This typically sends excess energy into increased levels of impact at the keybed and unconsciously prompts straining in anticipation of such impacts. Positive movement allows for extreme efficiency and precision of energy transfer. This means a wider range of musical options and more control over tone. Positive movement doesn't always need to be significantly exaggerated. But slipping into a mere trace of negative movement can be enough to have a significantly detrimental effect- which is why it's easier to develop a healthy technique by exaggeration of the positive, rather than by aiming to scrape together a bare minimum. The tension/release model is a very poor model for technique- as the premise does nothing to encourage positive movement. Should positive movement be absent, muscles have to work significantly harder. However, even the most severe fixation can only reduce the intensity of negative movement. Positive movement eradicates the problems of negative movement outright with vastly less physical effort.

Following up from those basic ideas, the most concise summary of the basic methodology for curing physical problems in pianists is thus:

As most tensions are the result of straining to reduce negative movements in the hand (nb. I appreciate that this is as yet unproven, although the rest of the post will offer evidence), the first step is to learn not to fight. For a time you should embrace negative movements, by gently letting them occur to a very notable degree. This needs to be done sensitively and without intent to control, but rather to put physical release first, so as to observe the results. This breaks the habit of using tension (that can run back through the whole arm and further) as a standard means of trying to restrict the possibility of movement. After this has been achieved, you merely have a cleaner slate- but no alternative means by which to prevent negative movement from taking the control out of your sound! At this point, you need to wipe out the harmful effects of negative movements altogether, by using a directly opposite positive movement. Achieving a state of empty relaxation achieves nothing, if positive movement is not ultimately added to this mere starter point. Although radically inferior as a solution, tensions are the only possible alternative by which to combat the ill effects. Without instating positive movement,  it is a certainty that numerous muscles will once again tense and overwork in a bid to retain some semblance of control over the sounds being produced.

At its core, it really is that straightforward. In fact, come to think of it, you could simplify the practical consequences even further by saying:

Once you've figured out in which direction it is counterproductive to allow movement, don't ever try to use generic fixation to fight that. Learn, instead, to generate movement in the opposite direction.

The rest of this is primarily clarification of those statements plus proofs. Also, in this companion post, I have gone very directly into the concrete proof of why what I call "positive movement" offers more control over tone than what I call "negative movement". Note that this post is largely aimed at setting a background foundation, so future (and more heavily practically oriented posts) can follow up from directly from that short and simple premise. However, I will introduce exercises that illustrate how to start both seeing and feeling the sheer significance (of an issue that is relevant to every note you will ever play) at the keyboard. Even a tiny amount of negative movement can wreak havoc in your playing. Think of it as being a little like a dog turd in your bowl of ice-cream. It's significantly better if you have very little, than if it's piling up all over. But you're not exactly winning unless you've made sure that you know how to serve ice-cream that contains none.

If the reduction to just two categories of finger movement sounds too simple to explain such wide issues as musical control and physical ease, then please just keep an open mind. I don't expect many people to read something quite so simple and just accept it at the drop of a hat, without seeing some half-decent evidence. Quite frankly, if you really are willing to accept the truth of that analysis without demanding concrete reasoning, then you shouldn't be willing to trust on such a casual basis (especially given how much misinformation is out there about technique). Anyway, have you ever had that feeling where you thought you moved quite intensely (and perhaps felt a fair old whack into the keybed) but for some strange reason hardly any sound came out? I suspect that virtually all pianists have experienced this baffling sensation to at least some degree, at some point. Or have you tried to play a note extremely softly- only to find that the key didn't sound at all? Both of those are classic symptoms of the destructive effects of negative movement. 

In order to definitively prove why this deceptively simple premise plays such a key role, we need merely look at speeds. A great many pianists have spoken of how volume is defined by the key speed. Personally, I have always hated the simplistic idea of trying to play louder by striving to move "quicker". If it were actually that straightforward, the people who strive to move quickest should logically make the loudest sound with the most ease. This is simply not so and merely reminds us that superficial applications of "obvious" logic can be overwhelmingly prone to failure (even when seemingly air-tight) unless properly scrutinised. To use the analogy of my previous post on this matter, the problem with merely aiming for more speed is that it's like telling a person with a large hole in their bucket that they should "obviously" put more water in next time- rather than show them how to stop wasting so much through the leak. Tell someone who struggles to make a big sound to try to move keys quicker and you'll likely see them spasming and straining like crazy but achieving an aggressive yet often shallow tone. Yet a great artist may move seemingly slowly (and may very well advise against trying to move "fast" into the keys for loud playing) while getting a huge resonant sound with an effortless quality.

As I said in a previous post, this is not necessarily an illusion. There's a very simple rational explanation. The person who tries to move quickly may visibly jerk parts of their body into very fast speeds- but there is no guarantee that they will transmit that same level of speed into the key itself! Remember that the only speed that affects tonal volume is that which is passed to the key. This speed is defined by the speed of the fingertip. This is a matter of indisputable objective fact, regardless of whether that is generated solely in the finger itself (or if the finger merely passes on movement that originated from an arm-weight based drop). It's still the fingertip that administers the key speed. The pianist who moves their arm quite slowly may actually be generating a notably faster motion in the key, despite the lack of outwardly visible speed or effort. When other parts of the body move visibly fast, the speed of motion that catches the eye does not necessarily make it into the key. As I'll prove later, what it may well do, however, is contribute to increasing impact and strain when the key lands.

Although I used to dislike the viewpoint of "speed" for those reasons, I've since realised that looking just slightly below the surface can turn it into something of huge practical benefit. If we look not merely at a single speed but instead at relationships of speeds between different areas, it actually becomes very easy to understand how to generate more tone with less effort. The ultimate result is that you no longer need to attempt something that feels especially fast. Instead, you will learn to pass on your existing speeds with so little wastage, that it neither looks nor feels "quick".

Anyway, that's enough of the more general background. From here on, I'll be extremely specific and straight to the point about the two categories of positive and negative motion and get on with proving the role they play in what is possible. The principle is not restricted to pianism alone, but also relates to any situation where movement passes from one body to another. Firstly, imagine hammering in a nail. Now, clearly, I don't want anyone imagining piano playing is similar to brutal or insensitive motions. Just consider how speed is passed on in the situation, for now, and you'll soon discover the relevance to how effectively a finger can pass speed on to a key (in a far more sensitive and precise fashion).

Try hammering a nail as seen in this diagram, with a loose grip.

and you'll get a very poor result- something like this.

That's because speed is focussed into the wrong end. The hammer is only moving quickly at the point where you hold it. Upon arrival, the head is moving the nail very slowly (if at all) at the point of contact marked x. How about if we just hold the hammer more tightly, to stop the end falling down like in the second diagram? Okay, now we're passing on some speed, if we can be both stiff and forceful enough. The hammer head is repelled less severely by the nail, thanks to the stiff grip. But we're working absurdly hard and that nail certainly isn't going to pop in without amazing strength of effort. This is a spectacularly inappropriate way to hope to solve what was a "negative movement", of the first category. Pianistically, the sad truth is that a huge number of pianists are trapped in a dichotomy between allowing a similarly destructive movement or overworking to fight it, in precisely this fashion. They too, try to stop the movement that interferes with their task by stiffening unhealthily against it. Would attempting to work that way be alright if you were tomake a point of remembering to relax straight after? Of course not!!! It would be absurd to assume that might do the first thing to prevent injury. To get a better result, we must forget searching for any magic compromise between clenching and relaxation and instead think how to generate MORE movement- but not in the problematic direction. We must generate more movement in the opposite direction to the problematic type of movement.

This time we will swing in a circle around the elbow:

However, on contact we will then let the end of the hammer begin to RISE instead of fall- ie, a "positive movement" of the first category.

With a loose grip, a reaction force will now cause this to happen just as contact occurs. The speed can now be passed on effectively all the way through to the business end- without any need to grip tightly or brace the arm. Furthermore, allowing the point that is being held to rise a little (in response to the natural reaction) also takes the impact out of the landing- by allowing a run-off for remaining energy, rather than an abrupt stop upon collision. If you pause to consider what impact actually is, it can best be defined as an excessively sudden stop (nb. strictly speaking, it's actually a sudden "change of momentum", which is why you can be killed when standing still and getting hit by a speeding car, but in pianism we will only suffer from abrupt deceleration). Jump off a skyscraper on to a concrete pavement and you will die for the simple reason that your momentum is stopped so violently when you hit the ground. Land into a thick foam mat that has plenty of give, however, and the deceleration is gradual enough to keep you safe. Swinging the hammer in a circular path without allowing that little bit of upward movement would work, from the nail's point of view. But from your body's point of view, it would make for totally senseless impact (which is made especially damaging by the stiffness of the muscles, during the sudden stop). It's simply unnecessary to fight the roll forward and up, as energy can still flow where it is required with efficiency. It's not a movement that requires retreat or restraint during landing, but a movement that it is perfectly safe to continue through, assuming you do so in this fashion. Note how the central pivot is marked in the diagrams by "x". The initial approach involves a circular motion around the elbow. But in the instant of contact, we allow further circular movement to occur around the point where the hammer contacts the nail. Allowing this sudden "change of ends" for the pivot is vital to the possibility of a soft landing!

Apply this to the piano and we have almost comprehensive equivalence. This is a very direct analogy regarding the nature of energy transmission, not some flowery metaphor. If we start with a run up, we have the equivalent arc around the elbow.

When moving the key, positive movement must again occur around the new pivot, ie. around the point where finger connects with key. Regardless of whether we descended from a height or started from contact, positive movement occurs in this path:

Just like with the hammer, the change of the centre of movement is vital. The vast majority will try to fight the new arc of movement with needless tension, rather than embrace it. It's senseless to restrict this motion, as it's exactly what allows the comfortable landing. The arm should be free enough to allow positive movement to start to occur around x- with no stiffening or shoving straight down! Although the word "hammering" is typically used to refer to the most stiff and insensitive pounding of a piano, consideration of how to take the impact out of hammer blows into a nail actually tells us a good deal about how to play the piano more safely. Ironically, I suspect that many who habitually charge into horrific impacts by "hammering" at the piano might be rather better at softening landings if they first practised with an actual hammer- given quite how much it hurts if you don't allow it to rebound freely. That level of pain can be quite a fine deterrent to fighting against positive movement with stiff muscles. Bringing in this safe rebound from good hammer technique would actually teach them to stop digging in so coarsely and instead land more comfortably at the piano, too.

Anyway, at the piano start with an extended and flattened finger, that acts as a single lever by staying at constant length (nb remember that positions involving curvature or movements in the mid joints work quite differently and will be separately covered by the second category). If the knuckle is falling, it is moving substantially faster than the fingertip and the key will thus be moved weakly. Try this, without actively intending to even move the key. Just swing the knuckle down and observe the pathetic, flaccid connection to the key and the weak tone it achieves. A key is a lot more willing to move than a nail, but it's almost as inept as the result was when letting your end of the hammer down. Try at different speeds and see just how little scope there is to control the sound. Now start aiming for a range of specific tonal intensities, while always keeping the finger at length and simply letting the knuckle down passively. Even if you try to start pulling from the knuckle at the same time, you'll realise that it's simply not in a position to have much more meaningful control over the result than when you merely flop. If the knuckle is rising a little as the finger pulls, however, it can be generating significant key speed from a substantially slower movement. As long as the finger stays at length and the knuckle is going in the right direction, speed can be passed on just fine. Whether we look at hammer and nail or finger and key, if the end of the lever through which energy is flowing through should be falling even slightly (within this type of circular movement around a point of contact) then you simply will not be able to pass on speed effectively. As I said, I call this "negative movement". If this point is allowed to rise slightly through the duration of contact, however, speed can flows into the place where it counts. We have illustrated here, in practise, exactly what I stated earlier:

Achieving some movement in the positive direction eliminates any need to try to fight against the ill effects of negative direction of movement, via tension. The hard work associated with fixation no longer serves a (superficially) useful purpose and only serves to limit the freedom for useful movement.

Of course, there are still many ways to get it wrong when seeking positive movement and there are all kinds of issues regarding the rest of the body which should also be brought into a big picture. However, this particular issue is not so much the "tip of the iceberg", but rather the most fundamental core issue. When you understand what is needed at the business end of events, you can link the rest of the arm and body, as part of a coherently unified mechanism. With many methods that speak little of the role of finger and hand, you risk looking at all manner of minutia, without even glancing at the gaping hole in the bottom of the bucket. Tensions that are carried by a person about their daily life can be a slightly different issue that can require alternative approaches. But the kinds of tensions that arise specifically during the act of piano playing usually exist due to the need to combat negative movement at this end. Shoulder and arm fixations may have little to no possibility of being solved in a lasting way, until a foundation in positive movement connects the hand and arm meaningfully. I'm a firm believer in thinking from shoulder down to fingertip some of the time (so the finger may even feel like a mere "extension of the arm at times")- but the opposite perspective is also vital. Positive movement starts at the fingertip and runs backwards. Nothing else in the body can make up for missing out, at the end which actually determines what the key receives.

Anyway, the principle of positive movement applies the same whether you started with a "run up" or not. If you start from the key, the knuckle should be given room to rise a little as you pull on the key. If you start by dropping the arm from a height, by the time you are moving the key you must have SWITCHED from a falling knuckle to one that is allowed to be rising, in order to pass on speed effectively. Carry on dropping it like a stone and you get a poor speed transfer. Try this on the piano and see. It's just like the hammer example. No matter how you got there, at the time when the key is moving the knuckle should almost definitely not be going down (or stiffening to fight that)- but moving slightly in the opposite direction. Again, the tension/release model offers no basis for a worthy solution. However, if we look at good quality hammer technique (in which, rather than drop the arm like a stone, we lighten slightly to make room to run into positive movement), we have an ideal model for taking the impact out of piano technique. Note also that, in both cases, if you approach from a circular path, rather than drop straight down, you're less likely to progress into negative movement. As long as you allow the centre of the circle (as marked by the X in the diagrams) to switch from the elbow across to the fingertip or hammer head, positive movement is almost guaranteed. (n.b. only "almost" though- I won't go into notable detail right now, but letting the thumb reach up as you land could still allow the knuckles to droop down into negative movement. In a future post I'll address this more directly).

Negative movement is almost always detrimental, but I'll just show one exceptional type of situation where I use the first category of negative movement deliberately, for a musical effect. When playing chords, swinging the knuckle down gives a very uniformly neutral and empty sound. Extremes of voicing are out of the question. If that's typical of your technique in general, don't expect many people to be interested in hearing such monotonous and limited sound production. However, in this example from Schubert, I actually like to make an unusually "dead" sound for the surprise harmony. It's possible to make the unexpected chord sound special via more conventional means of voicing (example 1). However, executing this particular harmony by swinging both the wrist and knuckles down (example 2) brings out an unnervingly chilling quality. When moving positively in the fingers, it can actually become hard NOT to play with some kind of differentiation and musical warmth. In this case, negative movement actually becomes an effective tool for an effect.   
(videos to be added, shortly)

For the second scenario, we don't need to limit the finger to acting as a singular lever, so this covers a much broader range of possibilities. It can start in any curve desired and it can move as you please. There is a very simple dynamic which governs how speed is passed on. As I already stated, if the distance between knuckle and fingertip is getting squashed we have a problem of negative movement. If that distance is shortening due to a descending knuckle, then the knuckle is travelling faster than the fingertip. Thus it is again certain that the fastest speed is not passing into the key. (Strictly speaking, the distance could also shorten due to closing up the joint at the very tip of the finger. This would not fall under the same classification, although I don't personally recommend it as a standard action for separate reasons, that are both mechanical and anatomical)  

To feel negative movement in practise, start with relaxed curved fingers and keep them as loose as can be. Then gently prod them against the other hand and watch the speeds. The tips are quickly slowed by the collision but the knuckle continues travelling towards them at a faster speed. Now stiffen a little and do the same- purely to see how ineffective this is. Note that you could strain like a mad man (not that I advise doing so) but they ALWAYS collapse at least a little, regardless, when contacting resistance (even that of a piano key, which gives way) . Even skycrapers sway very notably in a strong breeze. Not only is it unhealthy to clench but all it does is reduce the wastage of speed- as the knuckle still gains a little on the fingertip. Either relaxed or stiff, negative movement of this kind will fail to pass on speed with maximum efficiency and will send the wasted energy into impact.

Again, getting trapped into a quest to find the right balance between tension and the even grosser unsuitability of literal relaxation is a dead end strategy that misses the necessary premise for solution outright. The end of this post on the fingers gives similar demonstrations of the futility of trying to immobilise the fingers in lieu of some positive movement. The only meaningful answer is to at least try to move a little. Many have tried to claim that pianism requires a fixed fulcrum at the knuckle (notably including Otto Ortmann- who blackened the reputation of approaching technique scientifically by making such outrageous errors as to render many of his conclusions grossly misleading). They are plain wrong, I'm afraid and there's not a single positive about operating under such a terrible misapprehension. Letting the knuckle down is a big problem, but encouraging a strategy of muscular fixation to fight that is a horribly misguided attempt at a solution, that hasn't properly referenced theory against the practical nature of reality. Just as with the hammer example, the only effective answer is to be willing to go up, if that's where the reaction is taking you- not to stiffen the muscles in a futile bid to stop all movement from being possible in any direction.

Think how swimmers are told go with a rip tide in the sea- rather than try in vain to swim right against it. Some things are too powerful to be worth an unnecessary fight. Note that in many instances, the knuckle may stay in the same place (satisfying the definition of positive movement due to the tip moving away from it, rather than by the knuckle moving up in space)- but that's not to say it's "fixed". If you were in a squatting position and someone were about to press down on your shoulders, would you want to just stiffen up for stability? It wouldn't be the best answer. In order not to be crumpled up further, you couldn't either fixate or relax. You'd need to try to move upwards slightly before they start pushing down on you. In such a situation, you may actually end up balanced in one spot- but you best achieve that by trying to move in the positive direction- and not by trying to find a way become as rigid as a block of steel! Ortmann tried to be scientific, but he made a truly shocking practical blunder- by failing to be aware of the significant objective difference fixing something into a position in space, compared to sensitively tuned BALANCE. It's almost like suggesting that we'd have to "fix" joints in our legs whilst walking in order not to fall over. We don't. The reason our knees don't buckle is because we're lengthening the legs out while walking over them- not because we're "fixing" the joint. Balance is fluid in a way that constantly changes and adjusts in subtle ways. Even when the outward appearance is of relative stillness it doesn't logically follow that anything has been "fixed", or that such an intention will yield good results. This is why positive movement should always be aimed for, in at least some quantity, and why simply striving to "preserve" a static hand position is generally a pretty hopeless premise for technique.

As the phrase goes: "Attack is the best form of defence".

So, now be increasing the distance between knuckles and fingertip (ie lengthening out the finger) very gently, just a split second before contacting the other hand. Also roll just a little forwards and in as you do so. Colliding directly could still give a tiny bit of impact (compared to the cushioned keybed of a piano) but you can reduce that by having a tiny run off to the motion. Collapse is now off the radar entirely even with a very low effort movement- but you must start slightly in advance with the fingers and not wait until they are already facing resistance that would compress them. Allowing negative movement to come first would wipe out the chance to enter positive movement- just as surely as starting in the act of positive movement tends to wipe out the possibility of slipping into negative movement. Again, the productive manner of movement entirely eradicates the problematic type of movement in a way that clenching or relaxation cannot offer- and with far less effort than when we stiffen hard, yet still make a loss. Not only can we now pass on the full speed of a moving knuckle to the key, but the expansion means that the fingertip is travelling faster than the knuckle. Rather than losing anything in transmission, this style of movement passes the full speed of the knuckle on to the key, plus a little more still!

If you're still not clear why this is such a vital issue to health, take a truly relaxed finger and put it vertically over a key and allow the knuckle to droop until the finger crumples entirely. Again, don't intend to move the key or to produce a specific sound, but just try to notice what the key receives when this occurs. Do you feel the bump AFTER the sound occurs? It's hard to turn off your instinct about piano playing but don't do anything but flop down. If you are passive enough, your whole arm will plop into impact after the finger made a flimsy sound. It's the same way a train would concertina together in a head on crash. The energy doesn't hit all at once, even with a hard train. With a collapsing finger, a rather pathetic amount of energy passes within the period in which you are determining the sound and then the best part of the energy merely provides a useless aftershock into the keybed.  This is a very extreme example, but this concept perhaps explains why some pianists have a very ugly tone quality. Movements with ANY collapse have some level of wastage and an aftershock that compresses down after sound (and remember that tightened muscles provide terrible shock absorbers, compared to loose muscles). Positive movements do not only keep muscles supple while sending speed through the key, but they also push any extra energy safely up and away rather than down into a compressed impact. At the highest volumes in the thickest chords, you get a much purer tone from positive movement, with far less additional noise effect. I assure you that when you play loud into an open pedal, the big thuds associated with negative movement can be notably audible (nb. I'll write a post in future about the idea that science ever "proved" tone to be impossible- which is a complete myth that has been evidenced as such by credible experiments). When you are trapped in trying to find a balance between fixation and collapse, you must hit the piano a lot more forcefully and stiffly to get a big sound. Positive movement enables a much purer loud sound, not only thanks to the mechanism for  absorbing excess energy, but also thanks to the fact that less energy needs to be employed, in the first place, to achieve volume.


Now, I did earlier state that it doesn't matter whether you come from an armweight school or a finger school. I stand by that statement- as these are universal truths and not something that can be side-stepped by any "other" issues. So be aware that if you do come from a school that is weighted chiefly towards the arm, these proofs of the importance of the hand's constant role have major significance. There are ways to use the arm that can encourage the fingers to open into positive movement, which I'll detail more in future posts. However, these are VERY specific (as a preliminary clue, picture casting a fishing rod or cracking a whip- you actually have to slow down your arm, just before the whip/line can be passively thrown out into serious motion). For the vast majority of situations, using notable arm weight creates a situation that actively contributes to squashing the hand and makes the need for positive movement all the greater. Arm weight was exactly what caused all the negative movement in the prior exercise. Arm weight does not pass speed effectively through a passive hand.. If you are negligent about generating some positive movement in the hand, looking to the arm for all the energy can easily inspire impact and all the other associated problems- ironically placing more stress on the underperforming hand, rather than relieving it of work. Arm weight methods are only truly effective where they involve some positive movement in the hand- not where they try to replace it. The same is true with rotation practise- as per Taubman method. If there is no positive movement in the finger, you can only either land stiffly or collapse significantly. Frankly, on their demonstrations it indeed looks rather stiff and often loaded with impact. The sound also tends to be punched out unmusically. I didn't find any lasting benefit from the method until I learned how to use rotation to complement slow but positive movements in the finger- which finally turned it into a source of freedom, ease and musical control (nb. I would usually expect tonal control when doing this type of rotation practise, in order to gain from the experience). In other words, the adaptations I like to incorporate could scarcely make it much more different, compared to the forceful hard-toned crash landings seen in this at around 7:00 in:

In fairness, if your arms are typically locked solid, the method can greatly reduce the problems of an extremely faulty technique and completely liberate the forearm. In line with what I said near the start, for a little while you could rotate and observe negative movements in a very limp and passive hand- purely for the sake of taking out any tensions that have become a habit. But what I see there looks tight, stiff and jerky! I'd either intentionally let the fingers sag floppily and do it purely to inspire a foundation of relaxation, or I'd already be involving slow but deliberate finger movement to remove the need for tensions. What I see there is moments of stiffening in the hand, followed by stopping into a position that is still slightly stressed into compression. It's just like the hammer action that ends in a dead stop, without that all important continuation into freedom. I don't see fluid and supple movements that are fit for sophisticated pianism. Due to the neglect of the finger's key role of movement, it's really not a model for real world technique unless we complement the basic idea with awareness of the significance of positive movement. How curious that after digging into the rotational movements with inactive fingers, she then lightens up and uses a simple positive quality of genuine finger movement to breeze across the scales in the last minute of the film. She really didn't learn the final quality from the coarse way that she punched at keys in the slower tempo (without moving the fingers either positively or sensitively). The only thing from the rotation work that remains is the freedom and good alignment of the arm. The rest only works via an evolved quality of finger movement- which is not guaranteed to reach any such standard, unless you find a way to actually involve this element during the slower rotational work.

Anyway, I'll talk more directly about the secrets to doing rotation and arm-based strategies effectively (ie with comfortable fluidity in both sound and movement) in future. However, it's often said that a chain is only as strong as its strongest link. In pianism, if the transfer of movement between finger and key is anything less than your finest link, no other strong links can truly compensate. It's true that moving the fingers without linking to the whole arm makes for a lot of problems, but no amount of attention to the arm can replace the hand's consistent duty to generate at least a trace of positive movement, while that is going on. With any arm method which preaches that the arm passes energy through fingers that merely "support", the only way to truly succeed is to "support" it by introducing positive movement- not by an instant of tension followed by an instant of release (don't forget how hopeless it is to merely relax afterwards, if hammering a nail with a stiff arm!). Likewise, the idea of using "relaxed" fingers to pass on arm weight is simply not grounded in physical reality, in any respect. That's what we did for real the exercise where you let your finger collapse into a cluster, not a means of actually playing.

In the real world, relaxation in a finger (that is trying to play) is just tension by proxy, as the relaxed finger can't perform the job. Any premise of either passivity or fixation in the hand can only ever mean impact and stress (no matter how vociferously the advocate might claim that the weight of the arm might supposedly work on the hand's behalf), That is, UNLESS the pianist in question is lucky enough to unconsciously discover the superiority of some subtle levels of positive movement- with which to phase-out losing battles against negative movement. If they don't luck on this aspect, they'll have to depend on tension. My big problem with the Taubman school and many other modern arm centered methods is that they scarcely address the important link in the chain. They neither define nor give any real clues as to the issues that I had to discover for myself, before finding success. If anything, they arguably throw a lot of red herrings- by portraying extremely subjective ideas as if they were universal "rules". Many of these purported rules actively discourage the development of positive movement. Rotation can be extremely valuable, but I don't believe in leaving the association to the finger down to chance. I didn't profit from it at all until positive movement in the finger became the primary goal, with rotation being a secondary enabler- that helps maintain freedoms and a whole body connection, when moving the finger. For some baffling reason, Taubman puts rotation first (even though it is reduced to the point where it cannot account for moving keys) and does very little at all to explain the finger's role.