The Perfect Scaffold for your Piano Technique

Imagine that you could find a perfect way for your arm to feel, for every key on the piano. You are so comfortable balancing that arm on the playing finger that you could be there all day. Your arm feels ethereally light and rested at the shoulder. It doesn’t matter which digit is playing, because you have understood the unique qualities of each well enough to make all necessary adjustments.

You also know exactly where to hold your wrist so that your arm can completely lean into whatever finger is playing, anywhere on the piano.  If a friendly prankster were to sneak up from behind and deftly lift your forearm, your hand would flop. That’s how loose your wrist would be—In spite of the beautiful structure you’ve achieved.  On the other hand, in this act of resting your bones would snuggle one against the other: your ulna and radius against the wrist bones, right on down to the tips of the fingers. You have an “exactly right” feeling, like the feeling of a key fitting into its lock.

(This is not a pipe dream and you can definitely learn to do this.)

Understanding these sensations very well, you learn to drop your arm into each of the keys of the piano using gravity. You listen to every sound and learn to predict exactly how loud a tone will be, given the force you’ve used. Anywhere on the piano, it doesn’t matter. You begin to be able to use exactly the amount of force that produces the sound you have in mind, using gravity alone.

Let’s say I’ve just described a scaffold for your technique. Good technique is about distribution and continuity of forces for musical purposes. Excellent technique will feel effortless. If it doesn’t feel effortless, the strain gets in the way of the musical expression you have in mind. Strain disallows you from instantaneously connecting a heartfelt sound impression with a way you’ve learned of creating that sound, on the fly.

Let’s say that the sound you get using gravity alone, and the feeling of your arm in that beautiful place, is a frame of reference for you. Against that frame of reference, you build an internal system of all kinds of combinations of gravity and force. Tones created purely with gravity (assuming a theoretical possibility) sound wonderful (assuming that you are dropping from near the key) and of course take the least effort, but ultimately you’re going to add soupcons of effort to what you accomplish with gravity. You can choose to subtract from the gravity with a little restraining force, and you can choose to add whatever punches of force you want. The sky is the limit. Understanding gravity sound and how to get it anywhere on the piano is a great place to start building your personal, rich expressive continuum.

All the technical skills you learn as a pianist need some kind of frame of reference. The one I just described would help you learn to translate patterns of force into patterns of sound extremely well.  On the other hand, if you don’t understand where your arm belongs, note after note after note, it will fight you.  Your arm is like a thousandths column when you might be trying to concern yourself with decimals. Or, if you prefer, think of it as a runaway train. It has a great potential to tug you toward some place you don’t want to be, sabotaging your efforts much more than you might think. It is hugely worth the effort to consciously assign an ideal role to this “thousandths column,“ quite possibly different from the one your body already subconsciously holds.

Let’s say all those perfect places for your arms and how they feel are dots for you to connect. Everything else you do  connects these “dots.” Curvilinear shapes of all kinds, guided by musical artistry, can then become available for you to connect these dots for effortless and magical playing.  The shapes will have to be curvilinear because that’s simply how your body likes to work: The end of any of your body segments moves in an arc. None of them will move in a straight line unless you force them to. Good technique is going to coordinate arcs for a musical result.

If your arms don’t know their jobs, the rest of technical training is unlikely to help you create the musical result you desire.

Pianists and Puppet Masters

At the Northwestern University Department of Neuroscience, the Robotic Marionette Project has been in the works for some ten years. I believe pianists can gain some insight from it. Here’s how the cross-disciplinary assortment of involved scientists summarize their chosen problem:

The control of classic, stringed marionettes is an extremely difficult control problem. . . . When a human puppeteer controls a marionette they inherently comprehend this complexity, and they compensate for it in real-time. The language of choreography only coarsely describes the play, and it is up to the puppeteer to figure out what mechanical inputs will produce the realistic puppet trajectories.

I know, I verge on making an insulting and naive comparison!–but please  bear with me.  Realistic movement in a marionette involves a lot more than how many joints it has, or how many strings have been appointed to control them. Sometimes puppeteers choose to play with fewer strings than there are joints, spontaneously making use of the “play” that results from gravity and momentum among other sources. Called “underactuation,” this often creates more realistic movement. To give you an idea of underactuation translating into artistry, have a look at this “career montage” for the brilliant puppet artist Phillip Huber, creator of the marionette scene in Being John Malkovich. (Some of this shows his puppetry and some doesn’t. Be sure to note the brief first clip featuring a keyboardist marionette!)


Let me give you an idea of some of the other less-understood movement parameters that the most well-practiced puppet artists know to take in stride–but that pose major headaches for AI scientists wishing to create logical movement instructions. (A few of them may recall for you something about your own art.) Puppeteers must deal with surprising outcomes that result from changes to string tension. They must be on the lookout for random movement oscillations and other kinds of errors to desired movements, and create adjustments on the fly. They must be prepared for strings getting tangled and create a workaround without skipping a beat. All the while, they must create flawless continuity among various movement types to create the illusion that a wooden toy has been brought to life.

It would appear to be precisely such movements generated from outside the robotic control system that most challenge the RMP.  (You can have a look at the project’s Vimeo page for a sense of how painstaking this research is if you would like.) Some of those movements, furthermore, would quite possibly be the very ones harnessed by the artful puppeteer for a lifelike effect. The very intangibles that a puppet master knows how to use to create the sense that the puppets are living beings, most stymie the logic-minded.

It is truly daunting to remove the human energy that animates a wooden marionette, and replace it with a logic, even if that logic receives and reacts to feedback from the thing being controlled.

Though I am happy to confirm that artists still have a formidable edge on robots in terms of creating beautiful movement using stringed puppets, that would make for a really boring post.  Perhaps you’ll thank me, also, that the  metaphor to be examined here is not precisely one of marionettes for people playing the piano. (Phew!) Indeed, when scientists try to create a set of instructions to render marionettes lifelike using robots, we get a sense of exactly how lame that particular metaphor might be. No–the metaphor really worth pursuing in all of this revolves around that “extremely difficult control problem” that we pianists share with the scientists:

  • How does the pianist get a stored logic of movement  to flirt with the random and accidental for a poignant musical communication?
  • How can a pianist rally her internal resources to that end? Both during the learning process, and during performance?
  • Does the “instructor” have a role to play on this slippery side of skill?
  • How does  instruction change if you assume a goal of having these internal resources factored in, even if the pianist seems “wooden?”
  • What might the parameters be for forming the human energy for a successful musical experience?

Though as pianists we work with “realistic” (what we tend to call “musical”) and lively organized sound rather than realistic movement, I think these questions suggested by the RMP are of utmost importance for us, too.  But the scientists have probably done a better job of formulating a problem for themselves than most of us have. If we don’t have a clear understanding of what problem we are solving, we might not even know to pursue a solution.

I sometimes think that “talent” is our response to “we don’t understand the problem, let alone the solution.” This blog is very interested in exploring the various facets of that murky term because we believe it is part of the feedback that gums up the machinery, and a part of why we aren’t that joyful a musical people.  (For me, that’s a problem!) In the meantime, we could take a cue from these scientists who, if they don’t exactly understand how to solve their problem, have a pretty good idea of what it is.   We could take a cue from them and work toward better formulating the piano problems we are trying to solve.  This applies to teachers and it applies to students.