I often think it must be very confusing for the pianist seeking guidance on piano technique from the internet, only to find conflicting information from various authorities. Nothing is more contentious than the wrist, it seems. As you may have discovered, some pianists and teachers of repute insist on using a full range of motion via the wrist (more about this later) while some others advocate never breaking at the wrist. According to my own pianistic legacy from the wonderful training I was privileged to receive, and based on many years of subsequent experience, I can say there is place in piano playing for both a firm (but never tense) wrist, and for one that is soft, springy and malleable – depending on the situation.
When discussing piano technique, it would be very convenient if we could isolate the various muscles, levers, bones and joints that make up the mechanics of playing and investigate them one by one. The problem with this is it’s just not how piano playing works! Sure, we might deliberately concentrate on what the fingers are doing in a given situation, or switch off certain muscles while engaging others, or stabilise one joint or lever while activating another to sense what’s going on in our body, and so on. But this is not always helpful, because when we play we tend to create a blend of activity in which all the components of our playing mechanism collaborate, and we do this subconsciously based on how we have practised, and the sounds we hear in our imagination as we adapt to the performance space and the particular piano we are playing.
Do you recall the well-known spiritual song by James Johnson, Dem Bones? It reminds us how interconnected the various bones in our body are (“Neck bone connected from the shoulder bone; Shoulder bone connected from the back bone; Back bone connected from the hip bone, etc.”).
As our fingers contact the keyboard they link to the wrist, which connects to the forearm, upper arm and shoulder. It doesn’t stop there – we must include the sit bones (ischium) as they support the upper body on the stool, right down to our feet as they ground us and contribute to balance and coordination of the whole body. In any discussion on the wrist it is therefore neither possible nor desirable to exclude the fingers or the upper arm.
It is plain to see that there are as many piano techniques as there are pianists playing; we all tend to create our own blend of movements that are optimal for us as individuals. Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding – the results – and not whether we play this way or that. There is some interesting research happening at the University of Southampton. By using a unique kinematic measurement technique, known as HAWK (Hand And Wrist Kinematics), researchers are starting to look at individual pianists’ playing technique – giving an insight into the posture of their hands on the keys and the movements they use – hopefully showing how this translates into the unique sound they create. David Owen Norris allows himself to be connected to all sorts of sensors in this experiment.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVASKTF0YQw
I have just written two articles on the wrist for Pianist Magazine, the first is on the drop-roll and I am happy to share with you now the accompanying video demonstration from Issue 95, which has just been published. Look out for the second in the series, on the importance of alignment and how to use wrist circles – out soon.