This is the first post of a short series on tension. Today I will be talking about how to play with full communication without allowing musical and expressive tension to become physical tension.

Gesture

There are viral performances on YouTube of young pianists playing their exam pieces. Judging by the number of hits and likes they receive, they are destined to be superstars. I wonder if the wow factor has anything to do with the antics they have been taught to do, such as swaying around and flailing their bodies across the keyboard? This may look impressive to the layman, but I would invite you to experience such a performance in two ways. Mute the sound and just watch. Now for the acid test, replay the clip but turn the screen off and just listen.

Doing this experiment, I have been struck by the disparity between the way the playing has been packaged to look and the actual quality of it in terms of skill – musical comprehension and technique. There’s something of a gulf here.

In my work I notice constantly how excessive physical mannerisms detract from the quality of the playing. It is often the most musically intense who seem to need to do this. In their desire to be expressive, their bodies contort as a substitute for the real thing, having a sound in their head and calling on the body to produce the sound in the most natural and economical way possible. This is real technique, surely. The reason players move around in this grotesque way is because their fingers, arms and body are not synchronised and they have not found the rhythmic groove necessary for the playing to feel effortless.

And yet we don’t want the opposite of this either, a stiff and wooden performance where the body is held rigid. We need to distinguish between functional movements (movements of the arm and finger we need to make in order to produce a sound) and gestures (motions that convey firstly to the player and then to the audience the meaning of the sound). There is certainly an important place for gesture as not only does it aid communication from player to audience but (more importantly perhaps) it helps the player to feel a specific emotion or to express a particular idea.

Our gestures at the keyboard are translated immediately into sound. If we use smooth and flowing movements, we get a smooth and flowing sound. An actor friend uses the gestures and body language associated with a particular state of mind or emotion to get into character, to evoke a particular emotion and then to communicate this.

Musical Tension

Let’s distinguish between healthy tension (that exhilarating feeling of using our muscles) and harmful tension (which does not feel good and which can lead to pain and injury). We can never be completely relaxed when we play, or we would fall off the piano stool. And the music we are playing is not relaxed either, it is often full of tension.

I can’t think of any piece of music based on tonality that does not contain some tension – harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, emotional. If we are dealing with the drama of a Beethoven Sonata, we might even have to wait until the end of the work before all resolves.

On the surface level, there is tension in every little appoggiatura, and music of all periods is full of them whether they are written as small grace notes (in earlier periods) or as main notes. As the non-harmonic note clashes with the bass it creates a dissonance, and we know it has to resolve – sooner rather than later. Leaning on the dissonance and playing the resolution more softly makes it expressive. Yet even the very word ‘leaning’ implies ‘pressure against’ – and that means against the bottom of the key. As long as we know how to release pressure, and how much to apply, pressure touch is not a no-no in piano playing at all. Key bedding is a negative term to describe when pressure touch (an aspect of technique) is overdone or misunderstood.

For more on pressure touch, following this link to my blog post Controlling Tone (click here)

Leaving a dissonance unresolved would be unthinkable – absurd, even. Listen to the audience reaction when PDQ Bach does just this in his spoof cantata Iphygenia in Brooklyn (listen from approximately 7:20, or before if you can bear it):

Objectivity

Surely it’s good to feel the music with every atom of our being, right? Feeling is one thing, it’s what you do with those feelings that counts. In order for us to play at our best, there needs to be a fair amount of objectivity in performance. We need to be in control of ourself and the instrument – we are an extension of that instrument and we are using our body to play. The tips of our fingers are just the point of contact between us and it. There is no way that we can function fully in performance if we allow musical tension, drama and passion into our body as we play without releasing it or channelling it off.

A great actor has the technique to convince you he is feeling angry, sad, happy or to portray any emotion or psychological state without actually feeling those emotions himself while on the stage. It is extremely important for the pianist to keep an air of detachment here, as musical tension must never translate into muscular tension. This is not always easy because we are intent on communicating our feelings to our listeners, and we like to think of ourselves as sensitive beings. 

File-Hamlet, Prince of Demark Act I Scene IVChallenge

Take a piece from your repertoire that is full of emotion, feeling, passion or drama. The more angst-ridden and histrionic the better. A memorised piece is better for the purposes of this challenge. Record it if you wish.

You’re going to play it through, but with a different mindset. As you play, shift your focus away from your fingers to your body. If you know the piece well enough, you should not need to think too much about your fingers or what note comes next.

  • Aim to sit as still as possible, bringing economy to all your body and arm movements.
  • Bring the louder dynamics down a notch – slightly underplay fortes and fortissimos.
  • Smooth out your rubatos but don’t play mechanically or metronomically – go for something musical yet natural.
  • Under pedal – use just the minimum.
  • Think the emotions rather than living them. Rather than being in the scene yourself and living it, imagine you are watching a movie. Watch with interest and empathy but try not to engage emotionally.
  • It might help to imagine you are an actor blocking out the scene rather than fully portraying the gamut of moods and emotions – mark it gently.
  • Shift the focus of your attention to various parts of your body. Are you tightening your legs? I find it very helpful to focus my attention on keeping my legs and thighs as loose and free as possible. Let the focus shift now on your breathing, and then to your face – ask your jaw to stay free and loose. Is your stomach in knots? Experiment!
  • If you notice yourself tightening up, clench the muscles in your backside. It sounds strange, I know, but it really drains the tension away from the shoulders, arms and upper body.

Practise doing this exercise daily for a several days – if you have done it mindfully you will begin to discover how much you might have been overdoing things. Have you been using a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

I read something in yesterday’s paper about coffee – we need more and more of it to produce the same effect. I am sure this is true of practising with full dynamics and full emotional projection.

Do try my decaffeinated approach to practising a performance – let me know how it works for you!

Pain and Injury

When we play the piano and everything is going as it should, it feels like surfing a wave – effortless, invigorating and thrilling! If we are struggling despite regular, thorough practice of repertoire that is well within our technical grasp, we may need to check in to what is going on in our body.

In its mild form, tension just gets in the way of free, expressive piano playing. If we are tight, we will feel clumsy and accident-prone, and we will produce wooden sound. The tightness might come from anxiety – nervousness when playing for an audience, a harsh inner critic telling you you are not good enough, a teacher giving you only negative feedback, etc. Being occasionally overzealous in the practice room or playing full out for long periods (instead of really practising) can make you feel sore afterwards. You may just need to rest up until you heal naturally (massage really helps); however, if this recurs there is a chance you might be doing something wrong.

Tension that leads to injury is a serious issue, and pain of any sort is a signal that something is wrong. This should never be ignored. If you have an injury that is the result of practising and playing in a faulty or unnatural way, you are going to need to address this. Hoping it will just go away is unrealistic and carrying on playing regardless will only make things worse.

In my experience of rehabilitating injured pianists, these are the main causes of injury:

  • Playing from the fingers – cutting off the natural blend of activity from the arm, wrist and hand
  • Key bedding – not releasing effort having reached the key bed
  • Stretching out the hand, reaching for notes with the fingers
  • Avoiding the use of the length of the key – playing on one spot on the key
  • Wrist too low
  • Twisting the hand to the 5th finger side
  • Cutting off rotary activity
  • General postural problems, including hunching up the shoulders
  • Practising for several hours at a time with full-on sound

If you have been playing in a way that is unnatural, inefficient or unhealthy  for quite some while and this is ingrained, you might need to learn a new and healthy way of using your body at the piano. This new way will eventually supersede the old, allowing you a new lease on your playing – pain and injury free.

This might mean finding a teacher who is skilled at helping those with injuries and/or consulting a specialist in the medical field.

Fortunately, musicians’ health has come a long way since I had to deal with an injury some twenty years ago. Here is a short list of UK resources that I can recommend:

British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) (click here)

The Hand and Upper Limb Clinic BMI Hendon (click here)

Musicians and Performing Arts Clinic Guys’ and St. Thomas’ Hospital (click here)

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Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4

I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).

The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.

If you would like a video introduction and more information on the contents of Part 4, please follow this link.

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