Stable and Unstable Equilibrium in Piano Technique

Here is something from a very early book of Moshe Feldenkrais, ABC of Judo (Paris, 1938). Feldenkrais was a student of Jigaro Kano, founder of Judo, and Kano said that Feldenkrais’s books on judo were the best in any language other than Japanese. I have translated this from the French.

I hope you will meditate on these few paragraphs and begin to sense why they could constitute the seminal idea from which a whole approach to piano technique could develop…

“In physics we distinguish between two sorts of equilibrium: stable and unstable. In stable equilibrium the body’s center of gravity is at the lowest point possible. A stick or a human lying on her back are typical examples.

‘In unstable equilibrium the center of gravity is elevated but the vertical passes through it and through the point at which the body presses the floor. This equilibrium is easily disturbed; then the body falls to lie on the floor. A vertical stick or a standing human are in unstable equilibrium. All other positions of the human or the stick lack equilibrium. The movement of the human body in walking is a series of losses of equilibrium, the loss re-established by the action of the legs and aided as well by appropriate movements of the torso, arms and head. Advancing the right foot to take a step, the body’s center of gravity is displaced forward and a little to the right: those who are not used to walking (the convalescent who has spent a long time in bed, for instance) have difficulty finding the exact point and the coordination of the muscles necessary to re-establish the equilibrium lost by the step forward.

‘Obviously this phenomenon is just as real for strong people as for others. I would even say that it is ‘more true’ for strong people than others because, in matters of equilibrium, the one who is quick and supple is much more gifted by nature than the colossus; in any case, we can assert without fear of contradiction that in matters of equilibrium, “force” in the current meaning of the word does not enter at all.

‘On this simple scientific fact rests the entire technique of Judo” (“and of piano technique as well,” adds this author). It is the perfect familiarity with equilibirum, how to upset it and regain it that allows the judoka to throw his adversary so easily without the ‘use of force’ in the common meaning of this expression.

‘To illustrate this truth, it suffices to imagine how easily one could topple the strongest man in the world – if he had his ankles tied together with rope. Unstable equilibrium has the tendency to revert to stable equilibrium once it is unbalanced. After a certain point, no force in the world will help he who falls to regain his balance.”

Earlier we used T’ai Chi walking to illustrate how our hand structure offers wonderful stability in legato playing. Here we see that normal human walking is a more complicated and sophisticated affair, as is manipulating our hands on the keyboard as well. Although Neuhaus used to press in on his students’ hands to make them find and use its arch right quick, if you exert pressure on your own arch as you play, you drastically inhibit its free moveability. If we cultivate the sense of unstable equilibrium, as Feldenkrais describes it, in our hand as it stands on each finger that depresses a key, we quickly arrive at something that has just as much structural integrity as T’ai Chi walking but a lot more moveability…

More later…

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