Scared Stiff – Practising the Piano


In piano playing, there is something comforting about hard facts – given that so much of what we do is subjective and not always so easy to pin down. Players in one camp object to the way players in another camp do things, and we only have to look at the world in general to see that hostility will ensue when fundamentalist thinking is involved. One hard fact should be apparent, that there is no one correct way to play the piano! 

One of the great piano teachers, Theodor Leschetizky, claimed he had no technical method as such. His approach was a deep knowledge of the score, right down to the minutest detail, from which he helped the student find a technical solution. Because of his place in history, Leschetizky insisted on a thorough technical training via scales, chords, double notes and studies (mainly by his teacher, Carl Czerny) and he produced many notable and successful pianists. To suggest his students succeeded despite this regime of studies and exercises strikes me as arrogant in the extreme.

theodor leschetizky-2
Theodor Leschetizky

I think we can all agree that one of the greatest impediments to fine and natural piano playing is tension. Much has been written about tension, especially on how to deal with the physical manifestations of it at the keyboard. I am very interested in helping pianists move more freely at the piano and do so all the time, but no amount of technical work will completely solve the problem if the tension originates in the mind.

One place where tension might manifest is during leaps and jumps, and may very well start with a thought:

This leap is dangerous and difficult, and I might land on the wrong notes and mess it all up!

If we are scared, we become frozen – literally scared stiff and unable to move freely. Mental tension translates into physical or muscular tension, and muscular tension results in immobility.

In a jump, we need to be aware of how we release the note(s) we are jumping from, rather than focussing only on the note(s) we need to land on. If we release the key(s) freely and with enough thrust, we are mobile and can land anywhere we want on the keyboard. Once we begin to trust the basic truth of this concept, we notice our results improve and we become less scared.

Leaps or jumps require a certain discipline in practice, so we don’t have to think about them as we play. A few months ago I recorded a series of three videos for Pianist Magazine on dealing with the subject of tension and the second of these, on managing leaps and position changes, has just been released on YouTube. I hope my video will give you a few ideas you can apply to your own practice.

 

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