Relaxation at the piano

Clara RodriguezA young pianist asked recently: Are there special techniques to relax the body while playing the piano and not tense up ? As I have spent my life thinking and working on that issue I quickly wrote a response hoping that it will be useful to him and to anyone interested in the subject. There are many ways to solve this big problem that we all classical pianists suffer from, here there are some of my thoughts:

* The flexible use of the wrist in a few types of movements: circular, up and down and laterally; depending on the musical passage you’re playing, whether arpeggios, scales, chords or the phrasing of the melodies. A rocking movement from side to side is essencial to help with fast passages of Alberti bass.

I think that the great secret of the production of different “colours”, sound wise, is in the use of these movements from the wrist. Below I also talk about the use of the arm which is very important too.

On piano playing, in my opinion, everything has to do with producing very subtle nuances. That is where the real ART lies.

*One must learn the notes and dynamics of the piece very well so there is no conflict between a lack of deep knowledge of the music and the orders your brain must give the fingers to hit the correct notes in the desired way.The brain is the conductor and your fingers are the orchestral musicians, the instructions must be precise so everybody understands and follows them.

* Beware not to raise your shoulders up to your ears as this produces a lot of tension.

* Use a movement of the elbow outward to help the weaker fingers (4th and 5th) -laterally.

* It is essencial not to produce a harsh sound, unfortunately many pianists seem to have forgotten this characteristic of the great masters of the instrument. One must work on the beauty of sound and not to hit, for that we must learn to use the whole arm, if you only use the forearm to play with force this is going to put pressure on the wrist as well and pains will occur onthis part of the body.

* Practice slowly always concentrating in relaxing the hands, arms, shoulders and neck. * Learn to produce the sound with the fingers close to the keys. The keys must be striken slowly to rise, without distortion, the hammers in their trajectory to hitting the strings.

* Feel the weight in your fingertips -this can be variable, heavy, medium or light – the heavier weight comes from the shoulders and it should be transferred from finger to finger. As a ‘suspension bridge “.

I think that if the sound quality is good it is because there is muscle relaxation. You can not play completely relaxed but you have to find the moments in each passage in which to relax. I speak from many years of experience as a performer and as a teacher at the Junior Royal College of Music in London and privately at home, with many students that have become professional pianists, it is an inexhaustible subject.

I recommend you to listen carefully to Claudio Arrau, I have always learned from him.

Since you asked for a video, there is one in which I appear with my English teacher, Phyllis Sellick, when I was a student ! Phyllis Sellick studied in Paris under the tutelage of Isidor Philipp and Maurice Ravel. Isidor Philipp was himself a student of Camille Saint-Saëns and mainly a pupil of Georges Mathias who in turn studied with Frédéric Chopin. My other great mentor was Paul Badura-Skoda who was a student of Edwin Fischer. The English-South African Niel Immelmann has also been a fundamental teacher of mine from whom I have learnt many ways of solving problems.

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