Piano Technique: Other Approaches in the Light of Feldenkrais

Many “schools”  exist in the world of piano pedagogy. Alan Fraser has made a concerted effort to dovetail with other approaches to piano technique instead of taking a confrontational stance. This page catalogues just how Craft of Piano relates to certain aspects of other mainstream piano technique approaches.

Dorothy Taubmann & Rotation

Dorothy Taubmann and Co-Contraction

Barbara Lister-Sink: Freeing the Caged Bird (Joint Stabilization)

Tobias Matthay (Arm Weight)

Arnold Schultz: The Riddle of the Pianist’s Finger (Joint Stabilization)

Arm Rounding Movements of the Russian School

Dorothy Taubmann & Rotation

One of the tenets of Dorothy Taubmann’s approach is the idea that there is a slight rotation of the hand on every note we play. I worked once with an adult beginner who had been taught this way for two years, and I have rarely seen someone that inexperienced so well-organized physically. He could really stand well on the keyboard, and his sensitivity to tone was a beautiful thing. He had other problems, such as a highly imperfect legato (as do most of the people I work with), but these positive aspects impressed me very much. You could really see the power of the approach he had been schooled in.

As I mentioned in my film (chapter 8, Differentiate Fingers & Arm), one reason this works so well is because when you are doing “A”, you can’t be doing “B,” that is, if your forearm is rotating it can’t be clenching. Thus the rotation maintains a certain desirable state of moveability in the forearm. And this type of rotation is present in much of piano playing; look for instance at the previous sub-chapter of my film, Eliminate Swiveling in Scales. There we see how the hand rotates through each whole group of notes in a scale, helping to get the thumb to its next note while avoiding cumbersome swivelling movements.

However, when the idea that there must be a rotation on every single note we play is adhered to dogmatically, then I can’t agree. When you play a scale such as the runs at the end of Chopin’s G minor Ballade, or the E major Scherzo or Winter Wind Etude, it is ludicrous to suppose that there is a rotation on every note. Obviously a rotation on every note would completely screw things up and slow you down dramatically.

No, the value of practicing a rotation on every note is informative – it educates your senses. It brings your musculature into a state of readiness, where you are neither overly flaccid nor overly tense. It cultivates a certain useful flexibility and structurality, and as such is an extremely effective tool.

Overall then, rotation serves a two-fold purpose: functionally it’s the most ergonomically effective means of moving certain parts of the hand to certain parts of the keyboard. Educationally it awakens the senses to the possibility of optimal organizationa and the elimination of co-contraction.

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Joint Stabilization & Arm Weight

Tobias Matthay, Arnold Schultz and Barbara Lister-Sink are three of the biggest names in the development of new insights into our internal function in piano technique. However, I have a question concerning their idea of joint stabilization. Lister-Sink’s film, Freeing the Caged Bird says many extremely valuable things about the use of Self in piano playing. The optimal whole body organization she presents so clearly provides a wonderful support to the finger-hand-arm organization I focus on in my film. But there is one very misleading phrase in there: “Joint stabilization serves to transmit the weight of the arm to the key.” Now this indeed may be somebody’s subjective perception of the situation, but it leads to the worst misdemeanours of the Arm Weight school.

The real goal of sensing the weight of your arm is to free its muscles from useless co-contraction. Our bones are designed to transmit kinetic energy rather than weight. They can do that best when their joints are fluid and moving. The human body is not designed to stand fixed in the gravitational field but continuously ajdusting its balance, as a gyroscope. Thus ideal human stability is fluid not fixed. When a  joint is structurally aligned but still moveable, then it has optimal stability.

You may well feel your arm’s weight, and perhaps even feel that it is pushing your finger into the key, but that is not really what is going on. Feeling your arm’s weight frees it to move well. Feeling the dead weight of your arm frees your muscles to be alive, allowing them to make incredibly fine adjustments to their activity. In other words f your arm’s dead weight stays dead, so will your music makin. The dead weight of your arm being transmitted to the key through “stabilized” (read ‘stiff’) joints is sure to give a clunky, unphrased sound and break up the melodic line.

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Co-Contraction

I wish people who talk about the evils of co-contraction would also talk about reciprocal inhibition. This is the neurological process that frees us from co-contraction: the brain actively inhibits the antagonist group of muscles from contracting while the agonist group works. It is interesting that the antagonist groups won’t stay limp on their own; the brain has to tell them to stay out of it.

Ideally a muscle will only contract as much as it needs and not need its antagonist to act as a brake. However this does not mean that antagonists are always entirely limp. When a muscle is at rest, it will often maintain a certain tonus to prevent the joint it controls from becoming too loose. An overly loose joint is not ready for movement: a certain effort must first bring the joint into optimal alignment. From a movement point of view, it’s better to maintain that tonus: this allows the movement itself to happen instantaneously, with no preparation. Thus muscular neutrality is an alive readiness, a certain tonus, not flaccidity.

Another important detail: each fibre of a muscle is a simple on/off switch, it can be fully contracted or limp, nothing in between. We can gradually increase or decrease a muscle’s activity because it has thousands of fibres; the brain only activates as many as it needs for a certain effort.

Over-simplifying the whole question of co-contraction – relaxing into flaccidity for instance – can lead to more problems than it solves. It is much more effective to develop a finer sense of kinesthetic control of your whole neuromotor system. Developing a sense of skeletality will educate your senses, and fine tune to a precise degree the amount of inhibition needed to have your whole system operate at maximum efficiency. The cure for co-contraction is functionality.

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Relaxation Movements

Feldenkrais said that a truly efficient movement will be perceived as effortless. In this case, any relaxation movement added to the primary movement would be superfluous!

Why then do we see so many of them in piano technique? To my mind they indicate inefficient movement: you’re suffering from a co-contraction and struggling to free yourself from it. When you’re well-organized, your structure is potent, the muscles work precisely as much as they should, no more, no less, and you are already in a state of readiness – no relaxation needed! And no relaxation movements either…

more later…