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.