Some Thoughts on Mental Tension

When we think of tension in piano playing, we correctly label this as negative – it is a thing that hampers us and our objective should be to locate its source and then eliminate it. This tension might be physical or mental, or perhaps a bit of both! Inadequate or inefficient technique, or incorrect use of the body manifests in physical tension. Mental tension (such as stage fright, exam nerves, etc.) may have its origins in the mind but it soon becomes very apparent in our breathing and the tightening of our arm muscles, the wrist and our shoulders. If we are particularly apprehensive, our legs may also tighten up and this affects our whole system. Adrenaline gets pumped into the body and this alters the way our muscles feel and the way we respond physically to what we perceive as stress and danger. When muscles tense up our ability to move freely across the keyboard is compromised, often severely. This leads to all kinds of clumsy and uncoordinated errors until eventually we can no longer play.

Poisonous Pedagogy

Unfortunately, many teachers (including some with excellent reputations at the top of the profession) teach by shaming the student, making them feel inadequate and inferior. Once worn down and confidence eroded, the idea is to rebuild them in the image of the teacher. This sets up unhealthy dependency and a host of psychological problems. I am not suggesting this is deliberate cruelty on the part of the teacher, because this behaviour is usually unconscious. The teacher is simply passing on like a hot potato the way they themselves were taught. Despite the quality of the information we might get from such a teacher, nobody needs to be subjected to this treatment.

If you had teachers who made you feel incompetent and useless because they focussed only on the negatives in lessons, and delivered instruction in an abusive way, then how can you hope to feel empowered, confident or good about your playing? You will likely carry that teacher around inside your head and everything you do will feel stiff and tight, like walking on egg shells. Nervousness, insecurity, anxiety and mental stress will translate directly into physical tension. It is a foregone conclusion that you’ll mess up, and sooner rather than later!

Do you remember the recurrent theme from the BBC series Keeping Up Appearances, where Hyacinth Bucket’s domineering and intimidating presence causes such panic in her neighbour Elizabeth that she cannot be trusted even to hold a teacup without spillage or breakage? (Watch the first minute of this…)

For many young pianists at the start of their playing career, a barrier to security in performing is not physical limitations but psychological issues. There is often a lack of self confidence and they believe their playing is somehow off the mark, missing something or even totally wrong. They need a teacher they can respect who will mentor them, validate and inspire them and act as a mirror for how they sound by giving honest and supportive feedback. With this seal of approval, they can get up and play and magic can happen. Without it, performance can feel frightening, risky and full of self doubt. We can sit on the stage and feel that everyone out there is judging us, and harshly! “No, that’s much too slow!” and “You would have thought after all that practice you could get that run more even” are the sort of thoughts that go through our mind.

I once had a teacher who, when she visited me in the green room before a concert, held my hand and urged me to “go out there and make sounds that nobody has ever made before!”. What a lovely way to make your student feel empowered, and special.

It is vital to keep a positive mental attitude around our practising and performing, and not to tolerate the destructive antics of egocentric teachers. There are plenty of others who will support and encourage you in the process of building you up as a pianist and as a musician. I suggest you seek them out.

I am busy writing the next part of my ebook series, on technique. Meanwhile, you might be interested in the three volumes of practice tools. 

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