The Various Guises of Skeletality in piano technique

October 9th, 2008

Kemal Gekic’s wizardry at the piano inspires new insights into piano technique

After spending a week with Kemal Gekic in Miami it is time to update my take on skeletality. We played for each other quite a bit, and his sound just blew me away. Fecund, orchestrated, unbelievably rich singing lines combined with whispering accompaniments full of mystery and veiled clarity – it is kind of impossible to put into words the sonic effects coming out of the piano when he plays.

A new understanding of skeletal piano technique

When it was my turn, his response was, “Hey, you don’t do anything you write in your book!” He then proceeded to show me what he meant, but to get me more skeletal he showed me that he was actually doing something a little bit different from what I wrote in my book. If you bunch your thumb and forefinger close together and then slide them forward on the desk surface, taking no care to keep your arch strong but on the contrary, letting it go and mash itself down, you begin to get an idea of how his hand feels on the keyboard when he plays. This seems sacrilege, heresy yes? To let the arch go so much? Well it turns out there’s a good reason…

Parallels between piano technique and Feldenkrais Method

One technique in a Feldenkrais Functional Integration lesson is, with the client lying on his back, to lift one leg gently by the foot, and push through the heel, up through the skeletal frame of the leg, into the pelvis and on up into the spine. A gentle rocking is set up where the pelvis, spine and neck all loosen and the head rocks as freely as the pelvis. To do this well, one must leave the leg absolutely straight. Instead of functioning like a 3-element differentiated skeletal structure (foot, shin, thigh), it now works as a unity, for all intents and purposes like a single bone. If any of the joints of the leg bent, the force of my pushing would not be transmitted cleanly through the leg into the body.

Now imagine that your forefinger is like that leg, but it’s the piano key that is pushing through your finger back into your body. If you slide the flat of your finger forward along the key and let the fingertip actually rise, scoop up like the front of a sled, and keep your wrist low and relaxed, you create this effect. Keep your finger not only completely flat, but hyper-extended! And feel the piano “pushing” you backwards. Compared to how we normally approach the piano, this is completely bizarre.

But this is how he tells me he gets all those amazing sounds out of the piano. How so?

A fallen arch is not necessarily an empty arch

The thing is, although your arch has now fallen, it has not emptied out. Your lumbrical muscle is still eminently potent and is working full strength. However, now its work is not divided between two goals. Instead of having to move the finger and generate the arch structure, now it only has to move the finger.

Another positive result: you discover that this rich connection of your finger to the key allows your arm, shoulder, back and pelvis all to relax without becoming lifeless. Then later when you go back to an arched finger, you begin to feel that it is inherently unstable and leads to more tension in your body. Whaaa? Doesn’t this completely contradict my whole approach??? It would appear so but actually not. Remember, my catchword is skeletality, and we are simply looking for its most effective manifestation.

Seeming contradiction leads to a further advance in piano technique

A beautifully shaped arch is WAY more stable than an unaligned structure, and we have certainly not wasted our years cultivating that. But this single unit finger connects your skeleton even more easily, effectively and completely to the key, allowing you a greater control over your tone. At first it requires a really great muscular effort from parts of the hand and arm that aren’t used to working so hard. When I first tried it, even though I have a strong hand, I just felt I couldn’t. But with persistence it started to come with relative ease, and now, a couple of weeks later, I am flying!

I’ve waited some time before venturing to post this, because it is really radical and controversial, a provocative seeming about-face. But it works! Try it yourself!


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