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Learning & Teaching: Improving coordination

Piano technique: Improving coordination 

When we consider what makes a pianist good or even great, we usually think of her mastery of the basic aspects of piano playing: correct attention to the music itself, its dynamics and phrasing, individual expression that hears and can evoke the music and the silence between the notes, and command

 during public performance. Together, these aspects contribute to what is called "good technique," where the pianist's movements are measured and controlled. This article will address how a pianist can reach this level of equilibrium through movement, and by so doing, enhance her musicality. This is largely addressed to those who have reached a certain level of proficiency, though beginners, too, can no doubt learn from this approach. Most pianists are taught to have fluidity in their hands but to keep their bodies rigid. I argue that this approach often leads to physical and mental tension and playing which, though it may be note-perfect, does not evoke a response in either the player or audience. I will further argue that rapid improvement in technique can be made by making one major shift, namely, a pianist's centering her every action on the axis of gravity.

By this I mean a constant adaptation of our bodies, i.e., moving our torso sideways, backwards and forwards, in conjunction with the movements of our arms and hands on the keyboard. The aim of this body synchronicity is a deeper, truer sound, a much freer and more expressive performance. The resulting freedom allows for a very intimate contact with the music itself, and the expression of one's own emotions. 

Maria Saboya as a young pianist.

I am advocating a concept of freedom in which the "right position" is never totally fixed. The great pianist Heinrich Neuhaus used to say that the best position is the one that can be changed as fast and as easily as possible.1 Among the first things any budding pianist learns is that he must sit at the center of the keyboard. His arms should fall parallel to the torso in a very relaxed manner, while the forearm is parallel to the keyboard. The wrist should be slightly lower than the knuckles, while the fingers must be fixed in a relatively curved position. This last statement is essential, because the finger joints must learn to be stabilized in order to become firm and resistant. These qualities are fundamental to good technique. If the fingers have weak joints that collapse easily, a pianist will never be able to control his sound, nor build up a rich palette. Apart from the idea that the fingers should always be firm and strong, these aspects undergo changes at every moment of playing. By attending to the axis of gravity, both our hands and bodies connect with the music we are playing, and the interpretation becomes fluent and clear.

Mechanically speaking, a pianist presses down the keys on a horizontal surface measuring about one meter and thirty centimeters long, and each arm covers a distance of about fifty centimeters, with another fifteen centimeters to reach the middle of the keyboard. But music is never limited to such measures, and a pianist is often called on to play far beyond these limits. She can go to the right or to the left with one hand, or with both, as for example, in Chopin's Etude Op. 25, No. 12. The concurrent long stretches of the hand this piece calls for require a changing movement of the trunk as well as the opening and closing of the arms. This affects the wrist and the elbow, making them move up and down or around. Indeed, the whole hand has to adapt its basic position constantly. 

Once we understand this, we see that a pianist needs to constantly adapt and center her position. I hope that it is becoming clear from this that my concept of equilibrium is in opposition to the more restrained technique that is taught to many piano students. Equilibrium, answering the call to the axis of gravity, is not a fixed bodily state, but a centered mental state that leads to a resulting centered action. This is essential for coordination and for a free and excellent technique.

A second major element that enables us to attain better coordination is closely related to the muscular work required during performance. The pianist Thomas Mark, who dedicated a long period of his teaching career to a research on the psychophysiological aspects of piano playing, points out the following causes of injury: 

1. Co-contraction, the simultaneous and non-coordinated contraction of the opposing muscles during one action. 

2. Awkward positions that stress the tendons. 

3. Static muscular activity, when the muscles do not relax or do not correctly pull in order to perform the necessary action.

Every action that we perform in our daily lives requires the contraction of certain muscles. At the same time, the "opposing" (antagonistic) muscles must control the rate of the necessary tension required to perform any movement, by setting up a certain resistance. If there were no antagonistic muscles, we could not control our movements. For example, when we lift an arm, if the antagonistic muscle does not offer a certain resistance to that movement, the arm will be lifted without any control, and could potentially go anywhere. The human capacity to master the body and its actions is closely related to the perfect coordination between the active muscle (agonistic) and the antagonistic. As a dance instructor teaches his students to attend to their bodies, so should piano teachers. This means that a piano student should learn a large repertory of "touch-forms" and positions so that she can carry out the muscular work required to play the piano. Once she acquires this repertory of gestures and memorizes all the possible hand positions on the keyboard, with the respective postures of arms and trunk, she is ready to perform in a very coordinated way. Otto Ortmann was a pianist who also trained as a physiologist. His research on the physiological aspects of piano playing is the most complete to this day. He insists on the importance of equilibrium between the agonistic and the antagonistic muscles. He explains that when the agonistic muscle is called to produce a force of intensity 70, the antagonistic has to produce a force of 30 in order to maintain the equilibrium. Therefore, an antagonistic force of 40 or 50 would be excessive, in the present case, and would prevent the coordination of the gesture.3 This is what Thomas Mark means when he speaks of "co-ontraction." When he speaks of bad positioning he means the torso, since the arms and hands do not correctly connect to the directions of the movement on the keyboard. This failure forces the tendons to exert excessive twists that are useless and even dangerous. At the same time, the muscles are forced to perform non-coordinated efforts. The results of these errors can be a real disaster for a pianist, especially if repeated over a long period of time.

One of France's leading hand specialists, the late Dr. Raoul Tubiana, treated a great number of musicians whose serious ailments forced them to stop playing. He said, "Wrong positioning is the source, the main cause of ailments faced by musicians. When the wrong positioning is not quickly addressed, treatment becomes extremely difficult."4 He continues:

Prevention is the only way to protect students and avoid these conditions. We must alert music teachers in the conservatories who usually do not receive any education on the anatomy and physiology of the human body. These teachers must understand the importance of observing their pupils, in order to correct and change their dangerous positioning from the very beginning. 

This illustrates the importance of guiding students to learn correct positioning so that they can, as much as is possible, play on the gravity axis, where effort is reduced to a minimum. The worst possible positioning is that in which the trunk is rigid, tense, fixed. This also concerns the elbow, the wrist, and the hands. These issues must be fixed each instant they arise, but always keeping a certain degree of flexibility, of mobility, so as not to lose the muscular work and the speed which is required to play well. When articulation is rigid, it leads to excessive tension of the muscles, and to a lack of coordination. However, we must also avoid excessive relaxation of certain joints, which produces a surplus of contraction in the other joints. In most cases, it is the finger joints which are not sufficiently fixed, and this requires the wrist or elbow to be fixed in order to compensate. The excessive immobility of these compensating joints will spread to the muscles of the forearm, causing pain and forcing the pianist to stop playing, or in some extreme cases, quit altogether. Some novice pianists believe that one should resist pain; they therefore force themselves to go on playing. This only increases the tension of the sore or injured muscles. With the passing of time, this practice will lead to serious ailments. In conclusion, the joints of a pianist must be able to be fixed or relaxed at any given moment, but never excessively. The finger joints must be stabilized, but the hand knuckle and the wrist joint of the hand must also be flexible so as to be fixed or relatively relaxed according to the requirements of the score. To improve coordination then, pianists should work on the following:

• Finger techniques that help strengthen the finger joints, including non-articulated finger pressure technique, and finger stroke technique that increases finger resistance and power. 

• Balanced hand and wrist technique to help maintain flexibility. 

• Rebounding techniques that allow weight transfer from one finger to the other, or during jumps. These develop and liberate the dynamic impulse that moves the arms and fingers during performance. 

• Staccato technique that helps stabilize the finger joints and improves the flexibility of certain joints, such as the wrist. This aids in assisting subsequent muscle relaxation. 

• The technique of rotation that liberates articulation and teaches us the varied possible positions the hand, wrist and elbow can take.

These techniques, together with those designed to center the pianist's movements on the gravity axis, will offer us all the possible means to develop our technical capacities, while protecting and assuring our physical integrity. The pianist will feel at ease, and this freedom will allow her to express her musicality as far as her craft and talent will take her.

1 Neuhaus, H. (1971). L'Art du Piano. Éditions Van de Velde, 104. 

2 Mark, T. (1999, Spring). "Pianist's Injuries: Movement Retraining Is the Key to Recovery," The Oregon Musician, 11-13. 

3 Ortmann, O. (1962). The Physiological Mechanics of Piano Technique. NY: E.P.Dutton, 59-63. 

4 Tubiana, R. (1994, Nov. 26). Jean-Marie Gavalda, "La Musique n'Adoucit pas les Muscles," Midi Libre Montpellier, lors des Journées "Main et Musique." 

5 Ibid. 

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