What is healthy piano technique?

I wrote an article called How I healed from a musician’s injury where I briefly described the process of learning safe, injury-resistant technique. This is a challenging part of the recovery plan for injured pianists, so it deserves a more detailed discussion. 

Words alone are not enough to properly teach piano technique, but I hope that this overview will clarify the concept and point people in the right direction.  

To recap, repetitive strain injuries are a big problem in the piano world. They usually happen not because of overuse, as medical diagnoses may suggest, but because of wrong use. Piano playing is not inherently stressful to the body but some people do it in a stressful way, and that leads to injury. 

To recover, pianists need to learn to play in a way that respects the design of the body and avoids unnecessary strain on the muscles, joints and tendons. 

My understanding of healthy technique evolved out of two main sources. 

1) The Alexander Technique, a system of whole-body movement education applicable to all activities and especially popular among musicians. The book What every pianist needs to know about the body by Thomas Mark is a detailed application of the same concepts to piano playing. 

2) My former piano teacher Marc Durand, who I worked with for 9 years in Toronto and Montreal. Durand is well known for teaching virtuosic technique in a way that addresses the participation of the entire body. He has been called upon more than once to help famous Canadian pianists struggling with injuries. 

By now you are beginning to understand that… 

Healthy piano playing involves the whole body  

Energy is most efficiently transferred into the piano through coordinated effort from all parts of the body. 

The fingers work best when felt as extensions of the forearm. The arms work best along with the participation of back muscles. The back can’t move well without support from the pelvis and legs, and all of it is best organized when the head is balanced correctly on top of the spine (the main principle of Alexander Technique). 

Awareness of the entire body while playing is crucial. As Thomas Mark writes, “parts of the body that are not included in our awareness are likely to become fixed.” Simply staying conscious of the body will do much to improve the quality of movement. You might think this would distract from one’s involvement in the music, but I have found exactly the opposite. The more aware I am of my body while playing, the better I can perceive and control elements of the musical communication. 

Relaxation comes from alignment

Injured pianists are often told they play with too much tension (undoubtedly true) and as a result become convinced that relaxed technique is the answer (an unhelpful strategy). 

Yes, there are parts of the body we can and should relax while playing, like the shoulders, face, neck and diaphragm. It is also important to have a routine of deep relaxation away from the instrument such as Alexander-style lying down work or shavasana pose from yoga, so that we get used to a lower baseline tension throughout the body. However a relaxed hand won’t be able to do much at the piano other than flop around on the keys.   

Walking makes for a good comparison. It is impossible to walk without muscle tension. We can walk with the right amount of tension at the right times or we can walk with a sustained, unnecessarily high level of tension. 

In cases of excess tension, letting go of it may not be that simple. The tense muscles are probably compensating for a lack of skeletal support, working hard to keep the person upright despite suboptimal alignment of the body. If that person were taught to stand and walk so that their weight is delivered efficiently through their bone structure to the ground, then the overly tense muscles could let go. 

The same principle applies to piano playing. When the skeleton is well aligned and movements organized to maintain that alignment, the muscles will learn to do their job efficiently and release when they can.  

Shoulder tension is a common problem for pianists, but letting go of it requires proper support from the lower body. The shoulders tighten up when we crouch or reach forward over the piano keys. Solving the problem requires rolling the hips and lower back forward so that the shoulders can sit back. The feet also need to be spaced slightly wider than most people think so that the hips and lower back have enough range of motion.

The finger-to-forearm connection is another important piece of the alignment puzzle. 

“But Patrick” you might ask, “doesn’t the finger connect to the hand and not the forearm?” 

Not really. It may look like that, but in skeletal terms the hand is an illusion. Looking at a forearm X-ray, you will see the bones of the fingers – which are longer than we tend to think – extending all the way to the collection of joints that is the wrist. There should be a feeling of direct connection from the fingertips to the back of the elbow, the bones forming something like a bridge shape from one end to the other. 

The line of energy transfer or weight transfer through the bones is different for each finger, especially for the thumb and pinky. The fingers pass from one to another on the keyboard in conjunction with movements or subtle shifts of the forearm.  

Play at the point of sound 

Technically speaking, the loudness of a note is determined by the speed at which a piano key is moving at the exact moment when it flings its hammer at the string. This is called the point of sound or “the bump” – if you push a key down very slowly you can feel where it lets go of the hammer. A key travels 10 millimetres from neutral position to the bottom of its range, and the point of sound happens around 7 mm down.

Mapping the point of sound tells us that to exert any pressure after the key has passed the 7 mm mark is a waste of energy. In addition to being pointless, the impact of hitting the key bed at the bottom can be harmful. 

Instead of pushing down into the keys, there should be an upward release built into how the notes are played. The fingers need to grip downward of course, but only for a split second. They can always release at the point of sound, even in legato playing when they actually stay on the keys. Upward trajectory is provided by the arms in different ways depending on how the notes are arranged. 

Healthy movement is legato

Movements at the piano should flow into one another like the notes of a legato phrase. Jerky, abrupt, start-and-stop movements are more stressful than smooth, connected ones.   

Even when notes are to be played staccato (short and articulated), it is helpful to practice them legato in order to find a smooth line of movement between them. This “legato movement” should be in the background throughout all our playing.  

Less is more

When I show new movements to my students they have a tendency to overdo them, as I did early on in the learning process. Movement should eventually be pared down to the minimum necessary. 

In many cases, reducing muscular effort actually creates more and better sound. A powerful, resonant sound cannot be produced by brute force – it has everything to do with alignment, coordination and precision. After all, that first 7 mm of key travel is where it all happens. Picture Bruce Lee punching a guy half way across the room from one inch away… 

Applying these principles in the context of real music involves a lot more detail than I can get across here, but hopefully that helps.  

The human body may not be designed for the piano but it is adaptable to a bewildering variety of movement demands. Once healthy patterns have been learned and assimilated, playing piano can be part of a diverse, nutritious, heath-sustaining movement diet. 

(Anyone interested in exploring these ideas at the piano can contact me for 1-on-1 lessons online or in Montreal.)