Every athletic motion begins with an initial movement in the opposite direction of the desired outcome. Here a few examples from the world of sports:
Notice how the golfer starts his swing by pulling the club away from the target, gathering energy in his body through torque, and then releases this into the ball, and ultimately following through.
Here is a fascinating video from Harvard University on the Mechanics of Throwing, along with the human history of throwing things.
Notice again how the arm is cocked backwards, in opposite direction to the target before moving forward, releasing the ball, and following through.
Finally, a video on the biomechanics of kicking a ball:
Once again, we find a back swing, which loads up the body, the impact or contact, and finally the follow through.
Piano playing happens in much the same way. In fact, every musician should be doing the same thing. A conductor gives the pick-up to the first downbeat, thus preparing the entire orchestra for their entrance, giving them the tempo of the piece, and giving the musicians a chance to get their first notes prepared. Imagine a conductor starting with his/her hands raised and suddenly dropping them for the downbeat. The sound would be harsh, rushed, and not synchronized. Imagine a wind player would start without inhaling...actually that is impossible. Equally impossible would be a percussionist initiating a stroke without raising the mallet.
As pianists we must therefore think about these motions as well. I believe we think about depressing the keys far too much and not nearly enough about our motions AWAY from the keys, moving upwards and not downwards.
Why is this? For one it lies, I believe, in the nature of the instrument. The piano is in essence is a big hunk of furniture. We have little intimate connection with it. We don't caress it like string players do with their instruments and we surely don't put it in or on our mouths. How much more intimate can it get than with wind instruments? And so, piano players, especially young ones, find themselves concerned with "hitting" and depressing the keys. And for better or for worse, we can achieve a rather decent tone without concerning ourselves too much with these various directions of motion.
Another reason could lie in the fact that many pianists are not reliant upon other musicians. Therefore they do not have to rely upon starting together, breathing together, etc. All that matters, or so they think, is what is going on in their head. They know when the downbeat occurs and that is suffice. Unfortunately it is not.
Finally, much of what I am advocating involves motions away from the keys. And while I am not saying that we should lift our hands way off the keyboard, the thought of losing contact with the keys can be scary. However it does not have to be. But this fear keeps us from moving freely across our instruments, it keeps us stuck to the keys and it forces us to "push" from the keys, thus generating a lot of uncontrolled force into the keys. This in turn causes an unpredictable, uncontrolled, and often harsh sound.
In the next article, I will be demonstrating these athletic concepts as they should occur at the keyboard.
I often refer to piano playing as the "Olympics of the small muscles". It is important to consider oneself an athlete when playing and practicing the piano. High level athletes take care of their bodies and minds, and we need to as well. The better we feel, both physically and mentally, the better our productivity is, and the better our efficiency is.
Although this Blog will focus mostly on tone production, I would be remiss not to talk about warm-ups and cool-downs. These are essential elements in our daily practice and performance regiment, which are unfortunately often neglected. No athlete would begin a practice session without warming up. Warm-ups are intend to actually raise the body temperature. This warmer temperature has positive effects on allowing muscles and tendons to become more extensible, allows for more blood flow to the muscles, more oxygen in the muscles, better efficiency in muscle contraction, and by carrying out functional activities, neural pathways are activated, which enhances reaction time in the actual performance/practice.
Pianists typically limit their warm-ups to a few scales and arpeggios. While these are important aspects of a good warm-up, they are actually just the last step before we start the actual practice session. To follow along with what other elite athletes do, I recommend the following step:
These stretches cover everything from the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers. They are also similar in concept to the stretches used by baseball players and golfers.
One final thought about these warm-up exercises: never do anything mindlessly. While you are doing these stretches and exercises be sure to be thinking about your breathing and about your upcoming practice session. Make a plan about what you want to accomplish. You might find that thoughts come into your head, which will disturb your practicing. Use this opportunity to free yourself from these thoughts. It can become a meditative, Zen-like experience. This will allow you to have positive and productive practice session.
These are actually easier to achieve, as cool-downs are a continuation of your practice session, just at a slower and less intensive pace. So you can either play some slow scales and arpeggios at the end of your session, or you can even play through a slow piece or a fast piece at a slow tempo. Avoid any kind of difficult passages during the last 10 minutes of your practice session. If you have a history of piano related injuries (tendinitis, carpal tunnel, etc.) you may also want to consider taking an anti-inflammatory, and/or ice your shoulders, elbows, and/or wrists. The next time you see a major league pitcher giving an interview after a game, notice the ice sleeve he is wearing on his pitching arm.
As pianists we are constantly concerned with how we depress the keys. We think about key speed, finger position in relationship to the keys, playing from the key vs. above the key, etc. All of these things are incredibly important aspects of creating a desired sound. Whether it is supposed to be harsh, soft, percussive, sung or whispered - how the key descends and therefore how the hammer strikes the strings is of utmost importance.
That however is not the whole story. In fact, it barely covers half of the story. The neglected side of research and thought in piano technique is the half of our playing which doesn't involve direct sound production at all. While we are depressing the keys 50% of the time, we are releasing the keys the other 50% of the time. It is my firm belief that we need to spend at least as much time with that half of our playing. Therefore this is the first in a series of blog entries dealing with this subject. I will explore topics such as
So, stay tuned!
There are two types of people - those who put people into two types, and those who don't. A similar, but much more interesting statement along the same lines applies to music. There are two types of pieces - ones which start with a pick-up and one which do not. Of course, this is a true statement, but you might also ask yourself, what's the point?
Recognizing what kind of a piece it is, is essential to interpreting a piece, to knowing where to employ rubato, and to thoroughly understanding the phrase structure.
Before I get into more detail, one bit of clarification: just because a piece is fundamentally a non-pick-up piece does not mean that one will never find a pick-up (and vica versa). Pieces ARE fundamentally one or the other and that can be figured out at the beginning of the piece. But again, the composer can of course explore the opposites in various places/sections in the given piece.
If you are dealing with pick-ups, avoid taking time between the pick-up note(s) and the downbeat. By all means explore taking time AFTER the downbeat.
If you are not dealing with pick-ups, take time before the downbeat and not after.
Very rarely should one take time both before and after a downbeat.
The phrase structure will be informed by being aware of pick-ups or lack thereof. The composer will not always denote the phrasing in their scores. So pay attention to whether the music moves towards a beat or from a beat. This has huge musical ramifications and even has technical importance as well. Muscular relaxation will change depending on where phrases start and end.
Let's look at one of my favorite teaching pieces, Chopin's a minor waltz op. posth. The pick-up to measure 1 should be strictly in tempo, moving towards the downbeat. Time can (if desired/necessary) can be taken to assist the LH getting from beat one to two, and the same can be said for between beats 2 and 3. Beat three of the first measure is again a pick-up, even though not notated here. Therefore the young pianist should avoid taking time between the second a-minor chord and the downbeat of measure two, even though it would be more comfortable.
In measure three the melodic notes A-G-F should be considered pick-ups.
The rest in the LH in measure 8 needs to be adhered to, thus allowing the E in the RH to belong to the following measure 9. A clear pedal change on beat three is absolutely necessary.
In measures 17-24, Chopin has a short excursion into a non pick-up section. This helps support the notion of a more sighing character and technically assists the pianist by allowing some space between the repeated notes across the bar lines. This make the ornaments easier to execute.
I am not saying that time needs to be taken every time these situations occur. Quite the contrary: I believe that pianists of all ages and abilities tend to take too many liberties. Our composers were really good. They don't need a lot of our "help". Rubato is an important tool. Knowing where to use it and knowing how judiciously to use it, is a true art form. Applying the ideas presented here will help with precisely this.