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.
INDEPENDENCE OF THE FINGERS
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.