Eliminating Tension (1) – Practising the Piano

There are many reasons for tension at the keyboard. Faulty training is an obvious one, inefficient use of the body another. Yet tension does not always have its origins in the body – 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 or shaming 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. This is why it is vital to keep a positive mental attitude around our practising and performing, and not to tolerate such antics from 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.


In my experience, very few pianists even at the advanced level have a trained hand. Recently I had a conservatory student in his third year come from overseas for a short series of lessons. At our first meeting I asked him what he hoped to achieve from our work together. While rubbing along the outside of his arm, which was sore, he said he hoped to deal with the tension that was affecting his playing and asked if I could help him to relax more. From the rubbing movements, I diagnosed there could be an issue with the 5th finger and sure enough when I observed the playing, the pinky was in a retracted, or cocked position when it was not being used. This attitude of hand is extremely debilitating, causing a huge amount of tension, yet unfortunately all too common. Think of a tug of war, where two opposing forces expend energy and yet cancel each other out. The curling pinky is an issue that needs to be addressed as priority.

I asked him first to land on the keyboard with his 3rd finger using whichever hand he wanted, the other fingers resting on the top of the adjacent keys. Then, while holding the 3rd finger, I asked him to play the other notes surrounding this held note (1,2,4,5,4,2,1, etc.). This he was unable to do – the 3rd finger lifted as soon as one of the active fingers connected to its neighbour. We then tried holding the 4th fingers while playing 1,2,3,5,3,2,1, etc., and this was even more of a challenge. If you want to follow this up, try holding 2 and 4 while playing 1,3,5,3,1. Then try holding 1, 3 and 5 while playing 2 and 4. Try this with any and all combinations of 2 then 3 holding fingers, making sure you are simply resting at the bottoms of those keys, and not pressing.

I use a series of exercises along these lines, and can pretty much guarantee to help any pianist eliminate this tug of war within the hand. Like any training, it takes time, concentration and considerable mental effort. I hesitate to describe these procedures further, partly for fear that I may put myself out of business by giving away information too freely, but mostly because the printed word carries within it the possibility of misinterpretation. This needs very careful one-to-one supervision by an experienced teacher.

Now, you may be wondering where in real music do we face situations like this, and the answer is extremely rarely. However, these exercises are for the sole purpose of training independence of the fingers so that fingers not being used can remain passive and out of the picture, whether they are resting on key surfaces or not. Not only will practising these eliminate tension, but you will be more adept at voicing chords and bringing out individual lines in part playing or melody and accompaniment, where these occur within the one hand. This is but one of many ways of playing without tension – next week, I will talk about forearm rotation.




Eliminating Tension(2): Braced Conditions Of The Hand And Wrist

Yes, I know I was going to talk about forearm rotation this week, but inspiration took me elsewhere. I’ll get to that soon, I promise!

This post deals with how to achieve braced conditions of the hand and wrist without the firmness and solidity we need in the periphery travelling back up the arm, translating into tension.  I think it is uncontroversial to say that the upper arm (the part from the elbow to the shoulder) needs to remain loose at all times, no matter what is going on beneath it, and that the shoulder has to remain free and NEVER hunched up in a shrug. If you were to carry a bowl of fruit from one place to another, you would naturally achieve this state of affairs, with no thought required. The trick is to reproduce this at the piano.

The finger is the point of contact between us and the instrument, and varies in its role from active agent (with the arm there behind, supporting it) to passive conduit for arm energy. Sometimes the finger needs to be very firm indeed in order to support the energy or weight of the arm, and there are occasions when any give in the wrist would be fatal. So how do we achieve firmness in one part of our playing mechanism while retaining looseness and flexibility in another?

For looseness in the arm, let’s begin with an exercise away from the piano:

  • Hold the arm at shoulder height while standing comfortably. It’s best to do this one arm at a time.
  • Let go of all the muscles that have been holding the arm up, so that it falls like dead weight back to your side. Don’t force it down or push, simply allow gravity to take over. You can get someone else to support the arm while you totally relax it, before they then let go of it for you. You need to remain totally passive (not easy).

For looseness in the arm combined with firmness in the hand and fingers:

When you can do the above exercise comfortably and without forcing, hold something heavy in the palm of your hand, the fingers clasped around it. This could be a grapefruit or a ball of some sort – any object you can comfortably grasp is good.

  • While maintaining the necessary grip in your hand to hold on to this object, start gently swinging your arms. Like yoga exercises, aim to keep your mind focussed on the sensations in the hand, and the sensations in your arm.
  • Next, aim to throw the object from your hand but the fingers and the grip in the hand need to prevent this from happening. Combine this throwing movement with a loose wrist, allowing the forearm to twist in the process. Experiment with a variety of different motions, some slow and some fast.

For firmness in the hand and fingers combined with a loose and free wrist:

  • If you have some basic DIY skills, you can make sticks from dowel or other soft wood that you measure to match either an interval of a 5th or 6th (for small hands) or an octave (for larger hands). These will be slightly thicker than the average pencil, minus the point, and accurately measured.
  • Grasp the dowel firmly between the thumb and 5th finger and make loose up and down (throwing) movements in the wrist. You can carry this in your pocket and practise doing this exercise while walking around.

To apply this to the keyboard, practise scales in 6ths (or octaves) hand separately. Scales made up of triads in first or second inversions are also useful.

For looseness in the arm combined with grip in the finger tips:

  • Sit cross-legged, or kneel in front of the piano keyboard.
  • Raise one arm up to the keyboard and, omitting the thumb, place the fingers on whichever keys they land on. You’ll be flat-fingered and the thumb will be dangling down freely below the keyboard (do this one arm at a time).
  • Using the cushions of the fingers to grip, allow the arm to dangle passively. Get someone to knock into the arm to make sure it is limp and relaxed.

You can of course do this at a table, or you can find a high shelf somewhere around the house, and remain standing. I like to use the analogy of a rope bridge. Both ends of the bridge are firmly secured while the bridge itself is passive, free and loose. The shoulder part of this equation is taken care of by our skeleton (we don’t have to think about it), but the grip and the cling in the fingers needed in certain situations at the piano must not affect the looseness in the arm.

To apply this to the keyboard, I like diminished 7th chords. Play the chord with a flattish-fingered attitude and, while holding with a secure grip in the fingers, completely loosen the arm. You can do this in inversions, and then progress to dominant 7ths and indeed any other chord.

For developing the muscles in the hand:

  • Take a large sheet of paper (a double sheet of newspaper works well) and lay it flat on a table.
  • With one hand, pick the paper from the table and screw it up into a tight ball making sure not to assist by using any other part of the body or the table.

This is also great as a warm-up exercise before you start to practise.