Resolving extreme inner hand tension in piano technique

Stiff hands a barrier to effective implementation of piano technique knowledge

I gave a lesson today to a woman who exemplifies the preparation I talk about in my book: stiffening the hand prior to playing even a single note. Even if it simply approaches the keyboard, the hand prepares itself for the onslaught and stress of playing by rigidly forming itself into what it thinks the right shape is, ahead of time. She knows a lot about my teaching, we’ve had many lessons, she’s seen the film and done the exercises – but somehow this inner pattern is so longstanding and integrated that she was still not fully aware of it, let alone being capable of letting it go.

Earlier on I had given her lessons on standing the hand up into its arch structure, learning to walk on her fingers, etc. I figured that when she learned how to use that structure well, the inner tension would begin to dissipate as the bones took over the work of her muscles. But this was not happening. It was an extreme case, so I tried something else.

Loosen your fingers by experiencing them as ropes

Step 1: I had her imagine that her finger was a loose rope – about as different from the standing, cathedral arch finger as you can get! I had her lay her hand gently on key, the heel of her hand mashing the white keys while her 2nd 3rd & 4th fingers rested on the three black keys. I pressed her 2nd finger into its key as gently, slowly and softly as possible. Still I could feel her finger almost convulse as its chronic inner tension was triggered by the knowledge that now it would play a note. But because she was so relaxed, my student could now feel that mini-convulsion. I told her, “this is what you are doing all the time, and we have to teach your muscles some other way.” (By the way, she has had serious forearm pain for some time now.)

I continued to repeat this gentle pressing until she could feel her finger stay soft as it depressed its key. Then I did the same for her 3rd & 4th fingers on their respective keys. Finally I went back and forth between her fingers, playing one then another, acclimatizing her reflexes to the new sensation of depressing the keys with no effort involved. It was kind of a hyper-gentle fingertapping.

Step 2: Next with her hand remaining in this position I asked her to depress a key herself with the same “non-effort.” At first she returned to a sort of convulsion but because a new picture had been “painted” in her nervous system while she remained passive, she now had an internal reference point, an idea of what the sensation would be, and she finally discovered how to bring the key down with a movement that was totally “clean,” that is, completely lacking that quality of inner struggle and physical conflict.

Buoying the forearm to support the new looseness

Step 3: I began to gently lift her forearm so the heel of her hand rose slightly off the white keys, asking her to continue playing one note gently. I gave her the image of ropes again. “Your finger is a rope. A rope has no bones, no structure, no solidity. But this is a big, thick rope like the ones that tie a boat to the dock, so if you flop it into a key, it will be heavy enough to press the key down.” As she tried to get these weird rope-fingers down into their keys I continually buoyed her forearm, preventing it from depressing or squeezing itself downward effortfully. She began to love this feeling of a soft finger that depressed the key by simply flopping into it – she felt way more relaxed than she ever had in her life while at the piano. Occasionally she would tense her finger up to  play, but now this was such a different and unpleasant sensation that she quickly recognized it and returned to the new way.

Step 4: Now it was time to join two notes together, to begin to create melodic fragments. Again, it was important to do something different from the walking I describe in the book & film, which were based on a secure, clear, skeletal structure. She was so used to using muscular effort to create that structure that we had to find a way that was “clean” of all her chronic parasitic contractions.  I had her simply leave one rope finger lying heavily in its key while her arm moved in such a way that another rope finger became positioned over its note and by accident fell into it. I asked her to leave her finger totally neutral and to try to sense how the movement of her arm in space just dragged the finger to its key and made it fall in.

Join listening to finger action to transform your piano technique

This was more difficult! I asked her to verify that she was doing it by listening for the melodic interval: could she hear the interval of a 3rd sounding indicating that she had succeeded in holding the 2 keys down together? Or a 2nd? Again she tended to spasm her finger, but I kept guiding with my hand firmly holding her forearm, preventing it from “digging in” as she was used to. The biggest tendency was for her to press her forearm down. This she had been doing constantly for years, and such an ingrained, longstanding pattern was not going to give up so easily. But we kept at it, using gentleness as our weapon, until that pattern literally melted away and she succeeded in making an absolutely exquisite melodic join with none of the contractions that had been her constant companion up until now. It was a great, extreme example of how force will get you nowhere, sensitivity everywhere.

Sense of alienation at learning a totally foreign piano technique

At the end of the lesson she felt terrible. Her question was, “Will I ever be able to learn this? Will I ever be able to use this in my playing?” Obviously she had her doubts. I could have gotten angry and said, “What? I give you the lesson that finally frees you from the pattern that gave you grief for years and you’re depressed???” But I didn’t. Not just because I’m a nice guy but because I knew exactly what she was going through, having been there many times myself. The patterns that we use in daily life define our sense of self. When we inhibit an old pattern and learn a new one, it can be really alienating – I don’t feel like myself any more. And we had to go very slowly in the lesson – at the end of the hour we had succeeded only in playing a melodic fragment from her Chopin Nocturne that consisted of 7 or 8 notes, nothing more, and this was with one hand only, way under tempo. Of course she felt she was never going to get it!

Bravely becoming a beginner again

It takes great courage to become a beginner again. She was literally learning to walk on the keyboard again, in a totally unfamiliar way. She had to leave everything she knew behind. All I could do was congratulate her on her bravery in daring to tread the unknown, to tell her it was normal that she was feeling discouraged, but that if she exercised patience and, as Moshe Feldenkrais said, continued to “go slow in order to go fast,” she would acquire this new skill in a surprisingly short space of time. It only looks impossible when you can’t do it.

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