The downside of relaxation in piano technique

We are all victims of the relaxation school.

I taught in Germany last weekend and had a very interesting group. One student played the Liszt sonata with real élan and passion, but I could see he was struggling physically. His musical emotion was being stifled by his physical organization, and to help him I had to review a whole group of key problems that are generally prevalent in piano technique today.

A. has thought a great deal about piano technique and has posted many really perceptive intelligent essays on my forum. He speaks a lot about the “pulling” motion of the finger so I thought I would see it in his playing, but for the most part it was conspicuously absent. He thought he was doing it but his perceptions were seriously hampered by his previous experience. And when he would try to do the right things technically it was from an ineffective point of departure, thus no positive results.

As I said to the group, we are all victims of the relaxation school.

Lack of functionality

A. would put his hand on key with his arm and wrist fairly low, and his hand in a fairly nice arched shape – slightly flat but overall not too bad as far as it went. But I could see his hand holding itself in that position stiffly. It was really hard to figure out: why does his hand display such a need to protect itself from some sort of onslaught of pressures? When he tried to use his ‘pulling’ motion, which would normally be so effective, from this position it had no result. The function was wrong.

He was already ‘behind the eight ball’ in terms of his fingers effectively manipulating the key. From this position the purpose of the pulling motion was primarily to rescue the hand from its insidiously collapsed position and attempt (in vain) to restore the arch to potent functionality. So much of the finger’s effort was taken up with this aim, virtually no energy remained to manipulate the key.

But to get him to shift his ‘starting point’ was extremely difficult. He kept lapsing back into this emptied out state, not because he lacks intelligence but because the habit is so strong and is generally such an integral part of our training. To most pianists, this is what ‘relaxation’ means, and it’s killing us pianistically and musically.


Relaxation is lifeless. Relaxation = no movement. From a functional point of view, it’s just as bad as tension! Life without movement is unthinkable, and just as any other movement, pianistic movement comes from activity . The relaxation school’s whole screwed-up premise is to say, “The way to move well is to relax in order to free ourselves from movement-inhibiting tension.” A valid intention, but it cannot succeed when the relaxation becomes the primary “activity” – actually non-activity. It undermines our readiness for movement by taking us out of optimal alignment and lowering muscle tone to a point where we actually can’t move without a preliminary adjustment back. And this is happening most of the time.

Pulling with the deep flexors instead of the lumbricals

The other thing that was seriously hurting A. was localizing the pulling to the deep flexors – his lumbricals again remained virtually lifeless or made some paltry effort that didn’t improve things but just kept them from getting worse. In other words, he didn’t do a whole-finger pulling but only curled his fingertip – which makes the hand’s arch fall into even more dysfunctionality!

Three inversions

Then there was his thumb – constantly held up to the side, as if it wanted only to pull the rest of the hand up rather than play down into a key. His hand was rife with inversions.

-          Fingertip inverted to the proximal phalange

-          Whole finger inverted to the metacarpal

-          Thumb inverted to the hand

Hmm that’s only three. When I visualized his hand it seemed like a lot more… Anyway those three are enough to screw everything up royally.

I worked very hard to resolve these anomalies in A’s technique. The rest of the class was kind of astonished that I was so extremely severe with this very gifted and advance pianist. But I explained, the more talented a student, the more I demand of him. I sensed a really great talent here and dedicated myself to unlocking its potential by restoring hand functionality.

Overly focused on the physical

One main reason for the problem was the focus of A’s attention on physical functional. It was obvious he was thinking too much about physical mechanics and not enough about music.

I dare to say that because although I seem to be totally obsessed with the physical, my concerns are always at the service of music. He had thought about arm weight in a very intelligent way, and had even worked out a system of perception that included the arm’s natural counterweight pull (if your arm hangs, its own weight naturally makes the elbow pull backwards). But he was so obsessed with cultivating this sensation that he completely ignored the fact that his melodies were distressingly ‘bumped.’ He was doing absolutely nothing to cultivate a physical legato, no attempt to muster enough physical intensity and focus in the hand itself to carry the melodic line in a clear horizontal direction.

His physical intention had no musical context.

Starting point for the repair job: the bird beak

My starting point for giving A. a completely new hand was the bird beak. Compressing your hand into a firm bird beak achieves a number of crucial improvements very quickly. The thumb is no longer inverted to the hand but pressing in underneath it against the underpad of one of the fingers. The fingers are flattened, resolving the inversion between distal and proximal phalanges. And the lumbricals are galvanized into potent effort that brings the top knuckles up into beautiful prominence. And if you take that bird beak, press a key down with it, then slide into the fallboard and back out to the key edge repeatedly, your arm instantly feels its ‘phrase generator’ movement with graphic clarity. This arm movement is light years removed from the “classic arm out” and the generic relaxation movements of the arm weight school.

In the end, A’s concern with arm weight was totally counterproductive. Whether or not the weight of the arm is involved in playing, it took thinking about a completely different set of parameters and totally ignoring that fact to put him on his feet pianistically.

The ‘thumb corkscrew’

To address his thumb inversion, I spent almost a whole lesson having him do a ‘thumb corkscrew’ motion which I have been cultivating for some time, in various places in the Liszt sonata where his thumb had been handcuffing him by pulling upwards. I even dreamed up a new exercise to clarify that thumb corkscrew motion.

Step 1: Place your right hand in front of you, facing more or less across your body. Grab your right thumb with your left thumb and forefinger and pull it further to the left. This pulls your entire right arm across your body, and clarifies a straight line running from thumb up along the edge of the hand and all the way up the forearm. Do this several times.

Step 2: Now while doing the same thing, use your left fingers to twist your thumb till the nail is almost pointing to the floor. The twist should finish just when you can’t pull any more, and your thumb should finish its ‘untwisting’ just when it returns to its neutral position. You twist your thumb but actually end up twisting your entire hand, wrist and forearm as well.

Step 3: Now placing your right thumb on key, have it do the same twisting motion on its own as it slides forward towards the fallboard.

You must be very rigorous about the alignments of this movement. I am amazed when I teach this how wonky everybody does it at first. Things shouldn’t shear off to the side at all – it’s a very efficient, virtually two-dimensional movement.

Step 4: Another variation: press your thumb to the underside of your 2nd finger. Continuing to press fairly firmly, slide your thumb down the underside of your 2nd finger to its tip and back again. Do you see how your thumb on its own automatically does the same twisting motion we just learned? And it pulls your whole hand into a twist as well. Now go back to sliding your thumb toward the fallboard on key – this is the same twisting motion.

In piano technique you need to put ‘A’ before ‘B’

To bring A’s arch structure from empty to potent and functional, I impressed on him the importance of putting ‘A’ before ‘B’ functionally. The action of flexing the lumbrical has to start before the note sounds. When the lumbrical flexion happens after the fact, then some other movement actually made the note sound. Generally the arm moves an inert hand into the key, then the lumbrical flexes to save the whole structure from further collapse. This is all backwards. Not only should the lumbrical flex before the note sounds, it’s best if there is a fairly high muscle tone in the lumbrical all the time. The internal image of that potent lumbrical flexion should be a constant, a taken for granted. We shouldn’t have to constantly be trying to retrieve it.

But ‘play backwards’

The other crucial error we fall into: we let the melodic note go the instant we play the next one. But this creates a hole, a bump in the line, a moment of emptiness – the melodic legato is no more, and that background internal image of a potent lumbrical is also conspicuously absent. To get it back, when playing a melody it’s crucial that the melody-generating, tone-generating, health-generating lumbrical flexion not only be present as a background ‘fact,’ not only activate before the note sounds so it is clearly causing that tone, and not only continue to generate musical and pianistic health through the entire duration of the note: it must also continue through the playing of the following note.

I call this ‘playing backwards:’ you continue to focus on physically holding the previous note, and throwing your ear back onto it as well, as you play the next note. Only after the new note has been sounding for quite some time do you allow yourself the luxury of letting your attention shift to it. And now keep your attention both physically and aurally on this one while you get your finger into the following note’s key. And so on and so on, creating a chain of backwards-oriented melodic tones that are wonderfully, sinuously, seamlessly joined together in a true legato because you never abandon them prematurely.

One Comment

  1. Posted 20 September 2017 at 19:11 | Permalink

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