Playing Piano Doesn’t Have To Hurt

Understanding your body can lead to better, easier, pain-free playing. 

Photo by Tadas Mikuckis on Unsplash

Playing-related injuries are a big problem in classical music. The majority of professional pianists will be sidelined by pain, muscle fatigue or tendonitis at some point in their careers.

However, the problem is not unique to professionals. As a teacher I have also seen intermediate and advanced amateurs struggling with piano-related injuries.

Mainstream medicine has little to offer a pianist with tendonitis, beyond a prescription for rest and anti-inflammatory drugs. If your goal is to eventually resume playing with the same intensity as before, those are not real solutions. Return to playing the same way and the pain comes back.

The term overuse injury is often applied but is not entirely accurate. The cause is seldom as simple as “too much playing”. The main issue is not how much you play, but how you play. There is widespread acknowledgement of this in music schools and professional circles, but unfortunately it is not always clear what the problems are or how to correct them.

Things are getting better as systems of movement education like The Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis and Body Mapping are becoming better known in the music world. In each of these systems you learn better overall movement habits applicable to any activity. Many musicians, myself included, have found this kind of work beneficial in the injury recovery process.

When I developed tendonitis as a university piano student, Alexander Technique got me started on the right path. It made me aware of the flaws in my approach to the piano and helped me to begin breaking the bad habits. However, it was still a mystery how I could learn to play Liszt, Beethoven or Rachmaninoff without getting tense and adding to the inflammation already present in my arms. To figure that out I needed a pianist with stellar technique AND an understanding of functional anatomy.

Luckily I did find the right teacher. Under his guidance, it was not long before playing made my arms feel better instead of worse. I went on to complete my doctorate with him at one of Canada’s top music schools. These days I help other pianists who find themselves in the same predicament.

The healing process can look different from one person to another and may involve issues unrelated to piano playing. I’ve written about that in a previous article. However, playing technique is something all injured pianists need to reckon with in order to recover permanently.

Here are the main principles of healthy piano technique as I’ve come to understand it.

Don’t relax; align

The obvious conclusion when a pianist gets injured is that there is too much tension in the body while playing. Sounds like a simple enough problem to solve, right? Unfortunately not. Simply telling yourself to relax while playing a Beethoven sonata won’t get you very far.

We need some muscle tension to meet the demands of the music. The goal should be to replace sustained, chronic tension with organized, efficient, well-timed muscle activity. Paradoxically, the best way to do this is not to think about muscles — it’s to focus on your bones.

I use the example of walking to illustrate this. If a person walks in a state of high muscle tension, it is probably to compensate for suboptimal alignment of their body. If they were taught to stand and walk so that their weight is delivered efficiently through their skeleton to the ground, then the overly tense muscles could let go.

The same concept applies to piano playing. We have to sit in the support of a well-aligned skeletal structure while also using that structure to deliver energy efficiently into the piano.

All parts of the skeleton need to be well aligned, but our point of contact with the instrument is especially important.

I work with pianists online in 1-on-1 lessons. For more information about my teaching, click here.

The finger is connected to the… elbow?

Pianists often experience excess tension in their forearms due to the overemphasis of finger action. Many teachers and method books still recommend articulating the fingers in isolation from a fixed forearm position, an outdated approach that has resulted in countless injuries.

Instead, the arms should be in constant motion — shifting, circling and rotating to support whatever the fingers are doing. The wrist should remain in its neutral midrange so that the fingers, hand and forearm are felt as a unit and the multitude of tendons running through the wrist can move as freely as possible.

When the fingertips are in contact with the keys, they serve as one end of an arch-shaped line of bones extending to the back of the elbow. Since every finger has its own place in the hand, the line of bones through which energy is transferred will be a little different for each finger. A subtle shift of the forearm is needed to pass from one finger to another while maintaining the integrity of the hand-forearm unit. When the note patterns are fast and complicated, we use specialized arm movements to link them together while maintaining alignment and thus avoiding excess tension.

Put your back into it

The alignment required for healthy piano playing doesn’t stop at the arms. Energy is most efficiently transferred into the piano through coordinated effort from all parts of the body.

As the fingers articulate downward to play the notes, there is a chain of supporting muscle activity behind them, primarily in the triceps and back muscles. (This only works when the elbow-to-fingertip connection is in place.)

The upper shoulder area and chest muscles should be relaxed, allowing the shoulder blades to stay anchored in the back and the arms to be felt as extensions of the back, rather than the front of the body. To get around the keyboard without disturbing this neutral shoulder placement, we need to move from the pelvis and lower back.

The torso has to maintain balance while moving left and right across the keyboard as well as in and out, the weight of the body shifting between different parts of the sitting bones. The legs engage to provide support as we move around the bench, and foot placement on the floor may change according to where we are on the keyboard. All of this is best coordinated when the head is balanced correctly on top of the spine (one of the main principles of Alexander Technique).

The concept of “playing posture” is not the right way to think. Nothing should ever be stationary. We don’t need better posture; we need to maintain balance while in constant motion.

Play up instead of down

It is important to understand the mechanics of a piano in order to play it efficiently. Each key is connected to a complex apparatus that flings a hammer at a group of strings, which then vibrate within the resonant structure of the instrument.

A piano key travels 10 millimetres from its neutral position to the bottom of its range. In the upper 7 mm we have direct control of the hammer, then at the 7 mm mark the hammer is released by the key apparatus. After that point, we no longer have control of the hammer and there is nothing we can do to influence the sound it makes. The point where the key releases the hammer is called the point of sound or “the bump” — if you push a key down very slowly you can feel it.

In addition to being pointless, pressing the keys down into the key bed is potentially harmful. Instead of pushing down, 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 after the moment of attack, even in legato playing when they actually stay on the keys. Upward trajectory to support this release is provided by the arms in different ways depending on how the notes are arranged. The resulting sensation is of directing our effort forward and up from the keyboard, as opposed to down into the bottoms of the keys.

Think 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 and injurious than smooth, connected ones. Even when notes are to be played detached or staccato, it can be helpful to practice them legato (when possible) in order to find a smooth line of movement between them. This kind of “legato movement” should be present 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 is accomplished through alignment, whole-body coordination and precision.

Practice (with a capital P)

Human beings are creatures of habit. This is both a blessing and a curse, as anyone who has ever tried to change a longstanding habit knows. When behaviours become ingrained in our central nervous system, they feel right to us even if they’re wrong, so we tend to keep doing them. A new and better way of doing something will feel strange and unfamiliar until the body gets used to it. Bridging that gap takes persistent conscious awareness, a strong intention to change, and usually some outside help.

In my first Alexander Technique lesson, my teacher introduced me to the concept of inhibition. The term inhibition is applied in multiple ways within Alexander practice, but in this case it refers to pausing between your impulse to do something and actually doing it. For example, when you’re about to sit down in a chair, take a second to notice how your body wants to proceed based on its ingrained habits, and in that space between the impulse and the action you can decide to do it differently.

Anyone trying to reform their piano technique needs to bring this process into their daily practice and keep it there for a long time. A healthy amount of self-doubt is necessary. New technical challenges will continue to arise, and it’s important to remember that your first impulse for how to solve them may not be the best.

By the time a pianist gets injured, there are probably years of unhealthy habits to unlearn. It will take time to break them down and replace them with better ones. Be patient and cultivate awareness of the whole body while playing. When something feels tense, notice it and explore your options in that moment. I hope the principles above will provide some useful guidance.

I work with pianists online in 1-on-1 lessons. For more information about my teaching, click here.