A Word from Natalie: Perhaps the most impactful thing I have learned in my years of playing and teaching piano is the importance of understanding and properly using the body to achieve artistic playing with the greatest ease. The three greatest catalysts of this in my own education were: my teacher and mentor, Sylvia Coats, attending a one-week Suzuki teacher training led by Doris Koppelman, and the fabulous workshops of Beth Grace on Beyond Scales and Hanon. I have experienced first-hand the immeasurable value of using proper technique when playing piano, and I have seen students (both my own, transfer students, and students I have taught in masterclass settings) suddenly accomplish musically or technically what they didn’t think was possible when I help them understand the basic principles of Gravity, Strength, and Conduction. So I am excited to host Doug Hanvey as a guest today because he touches on some of these issues that have been “game-changing” for me. I hope his points pique your interest and propel you to either begin or continue your journey to understanding the amazing design of the human body and how it can be maximally employed by you and your students to become excellent pianists!
1. Anatomy Is the Foundation of Technique
Seems like anatomy should be part of piano pedagogy, but did your musical mentors teach you much about it? Maybe you think of your body like a car – as long as it’s running, and a mechanic is only a phone call away, there’s no pressing need to understand how it works. While we “use” the body to play piano like we use a car to drive over to Aunt Edna’s, the body is not the same as a car. You are in command of your body’s movements to an infinitely greater degree than the mostly automated, mechanical motions of a car. And these movements are infinitely more complex than a car’s will ever be. A correct and thorough understanding of how your body works to play piano can only be to your advantage.
2. Your Body Does Not Control How You Play
Every piano player has a “body map,” an internal representation of the body that is used to determine how you move to play. Strictly speaking, it is your body map, not your body, that determines your movements. Unfortunately, a body map may be inaccurate or even outdated. But just as the explorers who followed Columbus made ever more accurate maps of the New World, we can make a more accurate body map based on our understanding of anatomy suffused with an inclusive awareness of the body.
3. Concentration Can Impede Healthy Technique
The concentration demanded of pianists can contribute to unhealthy technique. Concentration is one-pointed attention. When we are concentrated – for example, on the music in front of us – we may be less than fully aware (or not aware at all) of our body, breathing, and movements. This doesn’t mean you should stop concentrating, but consider the value of bringing more awareness of the body and its movements into each moment of playing.
4. You Should “Map” the Whole Body
You should understand, feel, and “map” your whole body, not just the arms and hands. For example, the arms and hands aren’t separate from the spine, which bears so much of the body’s weight and is directly relevant to technique. (Interestingly, it is the front part of the spine, closest to the center of the body, that is the weight-bearing part, not the bony structure running down the back that we usually think of as the spine.) By becoming aware of the support provided by the spine we can enhance the efficient movement of the arms and hands.
5. Balance Is More Important Than Posture
If you feel like it takes a lot of effort to sit up straight, you may not be in balance. When you are balanced your skeleton supports your posture with minimal effort required. If you are out of balance, you are probably using muscular effort to maintain your posture, which can lead to chronic tension and contaminate efficient movement in other parts of the body.
6. Resolving Neck Tension Is Vital
Most people these days carry unnecessary neck tension. (As I type this I’m well aware that I’m one of them.) Neck tension can be particularly detrimental for pianists. It can hinder arm movement and even inhibit healthy nerve impulses to the arms. A relaxed neck helps us play with a freer motion and supports optimal balance (see above). If you carry habitual neck tension, do what you can to resolve it so it doesn’t affect your playing in the long term.
7. Bench Height Is More Important Than You Thought
An optimal bench height keeps your elbows on about the same level as the tops of the white keys, giving you the best mechanical advantage for playing. Many, if not most, benches are too low for most people.
8. Your Fingers are Not Attached to Your Hands
If I asked you where your fingers begin, you would probably point to your knuckles. But the fingers are actually attached to the wrist! Try moving your fingers right now and see if you can feel this for yourself. (This is an example of what is involved in developing an accurate body map.)
To learn more about anatomy and body mapping, check out Thomas Mark’s What Every Pianist Needs To Know About the Body. Mark’s book contains valuable information for piano teachers, pianists who want to develop the best possible technique, pianists who have been injured, and pianists who want to avoid injury – meaning just about everyone that plays the piano.
Doug Hanvey offers piano lessons in Portland, OR. He writes educational articles for piano students and piano teachers on his studio website’s blog, which can be found at the above link.