by Howard B. Richman
Simple changes in keyboard technique will prevent injury for keyboard players. These helpful free tips are offered from Sound Feelings. If your piano playing is not pain-free, constant, automatic and effortless, you are doing something wrong. This free information explains how-to improve biomechanical efficiency, relaxation, avoid tension by making a few small changes to your approach to the instrument. These suggestions provide necessary injury-retraining support to performing arts medicine treatments to insure that the pain will not return.
Pain-Free Playing Should Be Effortless.
Pain-free playing should be constant, automatic and effortless. Unfortunately, the way piano is often taught, pain-free playing becomes rare, deliberate and difficult. There are many reasons why this is so.
Combining Two Methods Offers Greatest Advantage.
I feel grateful that my own training included top teachers of both the “Russian School” and the “German School” of piano technique. Generally, the Russian School teaches how to play with gravity and relaxation. The German School teaches how to play with hand placement and fingering efficiency. There are other piano “schools” but these are usually just a combination of the two main ones described above. Each approach has good and bad aspects. In my own playing and teaching, I have incorporated the good aspects of each and have discarded the bad. The result is a blueprint for biomechanical efficiency.
Strive for Preparation and Relaxation.
Essentially, pain-free keyboard playing depends on two primary elements: 1) preparation and 2) relaxation. People who strictly follow the German approach are great at preparation of the hand position, playing close to the keys, but neglect to relax the hand at regular intervals. The problem is that tension builds up and leads to injuries. People who strictly follow the Russian approach are initially great at relaxation, but often make many mistakes because their hands simply are not prepared, being further from the keys. This indirectly leads to anxiety and tension in the long run, which also leads to pain and injury.
Learn the B Scale First!
From the beginning of piano training a mistake is often made. Most teachers teach the C major scale on the very first lesson. It is true that this scale is the easiest on an intellectual level because of the absence of accidentals. However, it is actually the hardest to play from a physical standpoint because the distance the thumb must cross from ‘E’ to ‘F’ is much greater than its counterpart in the B scale (which I like to teach first.) This is setting the student up for a lifetime of bad habits because it encourages the very worst qualities from both schools. Right from the beginning, the student learns how to angle the hand to position the thumb, instead of crossing the thumb under a non-moving hand. Also, with the obligatory “curved fingers,” there is absolutely no room for acquiring a natural sense of relaxation. It would be better to first teach thumb-stretching and hand-relaxation drills.
Sit Far Enough Away.
Distance to the piano is crucial to pain-free playing. Most people sit too close to the piano and wrongly establish this as the correct distance. Notice if you keep raising your shoulders or your wrists when you play. This is usually because you are sitting too close and your own body simply blocks the mobility of the arms. The best guideline here is to see if your elbows can touch one another when your hands are placed on the white notes directly in front of you. If not, move back.
Sit So Your Elbows are Just Below Key Level.
Height is also extremely important. Most people sit too high or too low. We really have to be more respectful of our natural body-type. Are you long-legged or long-torsoed? Usually women have long legs and a short torso, and men have the reverse. The problem is that standard piano bench height is for the short-torso person. This means that the person with a long waist will tend to tower over the piano. Why is this bad? It means that the elbows are positioned above the key level when they actually should be positioned slightly below the key level. The reason for this is that the hand, wrist and forearm should all be in a straight line, to allow the least friction on the tendons of the forearms which actually control the fingers. (See Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Prevention Tips.) People who sit too high, too low, or with a “low wrist” or with a “high wrist” usually acquire pain and ultimately tendinitis, or carpal-tunnel syndrome. This is really so unnecessary! The solution is to get an adjustable bench, or sit on a chair, so that the correct height is achieved. Also, if you perform standing, adjust the angle of the keyboards to maintain the optimal angle, so that the hand, wrist and arm are all in a straight line, regardless of the height of the keyboard itself. In otherwords, tilt the lower keyboard with the keys facing at an upward angle. Tilt the higher keyboard with the keys facing at a downward angle.
Practice Fast First!
Another traditional myth is to practice slowly and then to gradually speed up the passage. The problem here is that at the slow tempo, certain bad habits go unnoticed (extra tension, bad fingering) because they do not interfere with the execution at this slower tempo. But once the tempo becomes faster, all this inefficient choreography has already been built in, and it is too late. It would be better to practice very fast, in small little groups, right from the beginning, to better get a sense of what fingering and hand position will be needed. Then go back and practice it slowly, with this in mind.
Relax Between the Notes.
Tension build-up or “cumulative tension” in the muscle system can be another cause of injury. The common practive of “practicing slowly and gradually increasing the tempo” can actually cause injuries. This is because when you practice slowly, you inadvertantly hold your hand with more tension than necessary. When you speed up, this tension is learned in! An alternative approach is to practice short groups of notes. This could be 2, 3, 4, 6, etc. notes in sequence. Play the notes as fast as comfortable and then pause. During the pause, EXAGGERATE the relaxation feeling by letting the weight of the arm hang the finger on the last note of the sequence. Wait about 5 seconds and then repeat the sequence or go onto the next sequence. Eventually, all this relaxation because learned-in and will remain when you attach all the pieces together, in an effortless manner.
Softer Equals Faster.
Many injuries lately are specific to people who play electronic keyboards. One would think that these lighter-action keyboards would be easier to play, but in fact, they are harder. This is because most people have a tendency to press harder than they would on a naturally-weighted keyboard to overcompensate for the lack of resistance. Also, we get fooled by the artificial sound levels. Because of the electronic aspect of the instrument, we become reliant on the actual volume versus the perceived volume. If we are recording, for example, the ultimate dynamic level may be very loud, but to us as performers, in our monitor, it may seem very soft. So we instinctively try to play harder to create a louder sound, when it really doesn’t help. Meanwhile, the louder we play, the stiffer our fingers become. The stiffer our fingers become, the slower we play and the more we push. The more we push, the more pain and damage we inflict on ourselves. The solution here is to keep mentally reminding ourselves as we play that “softer equals faster.” This keeps the muscle system very relaxed. Let them set the levels in the mix.
Once you establish the correct habits, you will be able to play for hours at a time and never get tired.
These tips were prepared by Howard B. Richman and are offered for free as a courtesy.
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