Rubinstein, Cathedral Arches & the Skeleton: Organically Physical Piano Playing

Article by Alan Fraser published in PianoNews, Germany, October 2008 (in the German language).

An expanded version can be found in the Free 5-day Email Course offered by Maple Grove Music Productions.

By Alan Fraser with Anna Zenzius-Spengler

Artur Rubinstein was my first hero. I remember hearing him play the Tchaikowsky Concerto in Montreal when I was just a young boy. I knew absolutely nothing about music except that I loved it, but at that concert something inside me went, “That’s it! That’s me.” Later as I developed my ideas about skeletal piano technique, Rubinstein remained the supreme example of the use of one’s physical self to create an ideal relationship to the instrument. He had a physical connection at once so free and so complete that it allowed the fullest possible expression of his innermost soul.

In 2006 I completed my DVD, The Craft of Piano Playing: A New Approach to Piano Technique, which attempts to codify and de-mystify some of the qualities of physical organization so wonderfully exemplified by Rubinstein. Each chapter begins with a famous pianist demonstrating the aspect of technique to be discussed, and Artur Rubinstein takes pride of place, heading off chapter 1 with a beautiful example of the potent arches of the hand. Not only Rubinstein’s hands but his whole body demonstrate a clarity and strength of intention, an accuracy of execution that denote a physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual unity. Both the structure and function of Rubinstein’s body are at the complete service of his musical intention – there is no inner battle or contradiction. This article introduces some of the physical qualities so magnificently manifest in the playing of Artur Rubinstein.

Skeletality and relaxation

A key word in my approach is skeletality. The skeleton is the core of our body; it is the means by which we can be vertical in the field of gravity, and when a fundamental differentiation occurs in our brain between the perception of bone and muscle, the mechanics of the skeleton can begin to operate at peak efficiency. And here is the link to piano technique: how we understand another key word in relation to skeletality: relaxation.

You can’t relax a bone. You can only relax the muscles that surround the bones. Tight muscles, hard as bone, attempt to take over the bones’ work. When those muscles loosen, they can activate and manipulate the skeleton more easily and effectively. But if they loosen and fail to activate, their power remains dormant. And if they relax so much that the bones fall out of alignment, then they must tighten again to prevent further collapse and can no longer move the bones well. Thus the looseness we seek is supple, not flaccid.

The power of the hand on the keyboard lies in its arch structure. Rubinstein appears ‘completely relaxed,’ but the arches of his hand stand tall, like the soaring peaks of a cathedral. His relaxation empowers that arch structure. How many young pianists have you seen playing with a relaxed hand but a small, undifferentiated sound – and if you observe closely, you see the hand’s relaxation infecting rather than empowering its natural arch structure? The top knuckle (the metacarpal-phalangeal joint) collapses, even slightly, and the power of the arch is emptied out. The fingers must now work to hold the hand in place, to prevent the already weakened arch from sinking further. Their capacity to activate is drastically reduced.

And if that top knuckle sinks lower than the wrist, a fundamental reversal of function takes place. The wrist, which needs to be loose, now becomes the powerful keystone of the arch, limiting its freedom and effectiveness. The top knuckle which should be the keystone, the structural lynchpin, adopts the wrist’s looseness, effectively emasculating its own structural potency.

Discover the natural arch shape of your hand

There’s a very easy way to discover which of these two categories you fall into. Notice that when your hands hang by your side, all the joints of your fingers, including the metacarpal-phalangeal joint, curve naturally. Observe, do they remain this way when your hand approaches the keys, or does the metacarpal-phalangeal joint flatten, inadvertently increasing your hand’s internal tension? How about when you actually play?

Artur Rubinstein was trained in the arm weight school, and the videos clearly show how his whole arm is free and loose, coming in behind the fingers to enrich the tone tremendously. But the absolute integrity of his hand’s arch structure can bear the weight of his arm and use it to advantage. Can your hand’s arch do the same?

1 – A preliminary experience of the hand arch’s potency

Bunch your five fingers firmly together, making your hand into a ‘bird beak’ structure. Stand this structure up on some surface such as a table top. Rock the bird beak forward: keep it rooted in the surface while your wrist moves forward and back. If you bunch your fingers really well, no matter how heavy you let your arm feel, your hand’s structure maintains its integrity. Learn to sense a fundamental differentiation between the strong effort in your hand and relaxation everywhere else. If this relaxation permeates your entire body, the rocking bird beak will find an echo in your torso: your pelvis rocks slightly as well on its sitz bones. Don’t try to rock your pelvis, just feel it passively responding to the pulling of your bunched fingers.

Of course we can’t play with bunched fingers, but this exercise offers our neuromotor system a graphic sensory image of the empowered arch. If our body can relate this image to a playing situation, our arch will have more chance of remaining functional.

2- Activate the lumbricals and interosseous to generate the arch

The hand is a living, moving entity, not static like a cathedral arch. Thus it needs an internal action to generate its structure and potency. The specific action needed is the part of the puzzle so often missing from pedagogical approaches: the work of the lumbrical and interosseous muscles. Tendonitis happens when the deep and superficial flexors are overworked. These muscles in the forearm curl the most distant parts of our fingers, the distal and medial phalanges. By contrast the lumbrical and interosseous flex the proximal phalange and are attached immediately to it – the long tendons so prone to injury are not involved at all. And it is lumbricals and interosseous that generate the fundamental action of the hand, grasping.

Rest your forearm and hand flat on a table and draw your fingertips toward the heel of your hand, without curling the fingers at all. This isolates the work of the lumbricals and interosseous, giving the superficial and deep flexors a much-needed rest. Wrist and fingertips stay on the table while the top ridge of knuckles rises up to make that wonderful Rubinstein arched hand. You may feel a slight amount of effort in your forearm, but most of the effort should be felt where your finger joins your hand. The effort should not be huge but subtle, easy: your body shouldn’t tense but stay loose, adapting to the movement easily. Repeat this many times; get to know it.

By the way, did you ever think about where your finger ends? Look at your top second knuckle as it rises gloriously up in space, acting as the keystone, and then check underneath. You’ll find something astonishing: your finger doesn’t end at the crease between palm and finger where we normally think, but up at the second crease in the middle of the palm. That’s the underside of the keystone! If you simply maintain an awareness of this while playing, your technique will already be transformed.

Lay your arm flat again and try to draw your fingertips toward the heel of your hand, but this time don’t let your fingers slide: what happens? The heel of your hand leaves the table. Your wrist rises, but not higher than your metacarpal-phalangeal joints. The main effort is in your lumbricals and interossei, but you can also feel an ‘echo’ of that pulling where your shoulder blade meets your back. When you intensify the fingers’ pulling action, you begin to feel it through your whole arm, creating a wonderful integration between hand and body. Again notice how this action evokes a subtle rocking of your torso on your sitz bones.

When arm weight technique is added to this fundamental grasping action, it relaxes the arm so that this right effort in the root of the finger becomes more easy and effective. When arm weight is done badly, it emasculates this activity, robbing the hand and arm of much-needed tonus and leading to a collapse of the hand’s structure: the playing mechanism is disempowered.

3 – Separate the thumb out from the hand

Did you notice that this pulling action feels better when your thumb refrains from joining in? When you leave your thumb out of it, the pulling action is clearer because the natural difference in function between thumb and fingers is felt. The thumb is a very different digit from the others, joining the arm directly at the wrist, and it functions better when we take advantage of this difference. Don’t try to make your thumb similar to the fingers; relax it, and as they pull, let it point away from your hand towards the inside.

Do the finger-pulling, arch-generating action once again, leaving your thumb as far to the inside of your hand as is comfortable. The further your thumb slides along the table to the inside, the more it acts like a stabilizing outrigger, neutralizing the tendency for the outside of your hand (your fifth finger’s knuckle) to droop lower than the inside (your second finger’s knuckle). Your four finger knuckles form a symmetrical transverse arch. Your forearm forms a line with the outside of your hand rather than your thumb. This is Thomas Mark’s ‘fifth finger orientation’[1] which not only helps the hand avoid ulnar deviation but more importantly, empowers its innate arch structure. Be careful that you don’t push your arm forward – this would disempower the very muscles your are trying to awaken. The arm moves forward because the lumbricals and interossei pulled it.

Practice these three aspects of your hand’s function until your senses really learn them. When your neuromotor system ‘knows’ it, this action of the hand can begin to manifest on its own at the keyboard, leading to a remarkably different physical sensation of playing and a richer sound as well. Finally, return to some videos of the master, and see if you can perceive how strongly these physical elements suffuse everything he does: not only the shape and function of his hand but of his whole body as well. His posture is marvellously upright but not held so. It is like a tree, alive and innerly moving, organically supporting the right work of the hand. To acquire these elements of the master’s technique, don’t try to imitate the external look. You’ll get much further if, using sensation as your teacher, you activate the internal movement processes that lead to this look.

Canadian pianist Alan Fraser teaches at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, where he moved from Montreal in 1990 to develop his new approach to piano technique. He published The Craft of Piano Playing in book form in 2003 (Scarecrow Press), and his DVD was released in 2006. The DVD is available at www.alanfraser.net.

Anna Zenzius-Spengler teaches piano and Feldenkrais Method at the Städtische Musik und Singschule Heidelberg, Germany.


[1] Thomas Mark, What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body, GIA Publications, Chicago, 2003.

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