Yes, I know I was going to talk about forearm rotation this week, but inspiration took me elsewhere. I’ll get to that soon, I promise!

This post deals with how to achieve braced conditions of the hand and wrist without the firmness and solidity we need in the periphery travelling back up the arm, translating into tension.  I think it is uncontroversial to say that the upper arm (the part from the elbow to the shoulder) needs to remain loose at all times, no matter what is going on beneath it, and that the shoulder has to remain free and NEVER hunched up in a shrug. If you were to carry a bowl of fruit from one place to another, you would naturally achieve this state of affairs, with no thought required. The trick is to reproduce this at the piano.

The finger is the point of contact between us and the instrument, and varies in its role from active agent (with the arm there behind, supporting it) to passive conduit for arm energy. Sometimes the finger needs to be very firm indeed in order to support the energy or weight of the arm, and there are occasions when any give in the wrist would be fatal. So how do we achieve firmness in one part of our playing mechanism while retaining looseness and flexibility in another?

For looseness in the arm, let’s begin with an exercise away from the piano:

  • Hold the arm at shoulder height while standing comfortably. It’s best to do this one arm at a time.
  • Let go of all the muscles that have been holding the arm up, so that it falls like dead weight back to your side. Don’t force it down or push, simply allow gravity to take over. You can get someone else to support the arm while you totally relax it, before they then let go of it for you. You need to remain totally passive (not easy).

For looseness in the arm combined with firmness in the hand and fingers:

When you can do the above exercise comfortably and without forcing, hold something heavy in the palm of your hand, the fingers clasped around it. This could be a grapefruit or a ball of some sort – any object you can comfortably grasp is good.

  • While maintaining the necessary grip in your hand to hold on to this object, start gently swinging your arms. Like yoga exercises, aim to keep your mind focussed on the sensations in the hand, and the sensations in your arm.
  • Next, aim to throw the object from your hand but the fingers and the grip in the hand need to prevent this from happening. Combine this throwing movement with a loose wrist, allowing the forearm to twist in the process. Experiment with a variety of different motions, some slow and some fast.

For firmness in the hand and fingers combined with a loose and free wrist:

  • If you have some basic DIY skills, you can make sticks from dowel or other soft wood that you measure to match either an interval of a 5th or 6th (for small hands) or an octave (for larger hands). These will be slightly thicker than the average pencil, minus the point, and accurately measured.
  • Grasp the dowel firmly between the thumb and 5th finger and make loose up and down (throwing) movements in the wrist. You can carry this in your pocket and practise doing this exercise while walking around.
To apply this to the keyboard, practise scales in 6ths (or octaves) hand separately. Scales made up of triads in first or second inversions are also useful.

For looseness in the arm combined with grip in the finger tips:

  • Sit cross-legged, or kneel in front of the piano keyboard.
  • Raise one arm up to the keyboard and, omitting the thumb, place the fingers on whichever keys they land on. You’ll be flat-fingered and the thumb will be dangling down freely below the keyboard (do this one arm at a time).
  • Using the cushions of the fingers to grip, allow the arm to dangle passively. Get someone to knock into the arm to make sure it is limp and relaxed.
You can of course do this at a table, or you can find a high shelf somewhere around the house, and remain standing. I like to use the analogy of a rope bridge. Both ends of the bridge are firmly secured while the bridge itself is passive, free and loose. The shoulder part of this equation is taken care of by our skeleton (we don’t have to think about it), but the grip and the cling in the fingers needed in certain situations at the piano must not affect the looseness in the arm.
To apply this to the keyboard, I like diminished 7th chords. Play the chord with a flattish-fingered attitude and, while holding with a secure grip in the fingers, completely loosen the arm. You can do this in inversions, and then progress to dominant 7ths and indeed any other chord.

For developing the muscles in the hand:

  • Take a large sheet of paper (a double sheet of newspaper works well) and lay it flat on a table.
  • With one hand, pick the paper from the table and screw it up into a tight ball making sure not to assist by using any other part of the body or the table.
This is also great as a warm-up exercise before you start to practise.