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How to improve your inner response in playing piano for less tension

Learn to develop your inner attitude and your entire approach towards playing piano for freedom and ease of playing

If you are tense while playing piano, or any other instrument, it’s your internal attitude that is partly to blame. And so it’s your job to change it for the better. To begin with, let’s start with some information and context.

In order to play freely, without any tension, you must be completely free. As a brief summary of what that means, you must be in free, unlocked, uncompressed and unheld condition of your being (called your ‘self’), which is where Alexander Technique training can provide you with a deeper understanding of how to go about this. Of great importance is the free connection of the head with the spine – the neck – which should spread an inner freeing, lengthening and widening along your whole self, including your arms and through to your hands and fingers, where the keys of the piano are played from. As another important point, remember that every one of us lives with the influence of gravity, yet virtually all of us get bogged down with it in their selves, under sinking and compressing tendencies. Most of those who try not to be like that instead hold themselves up in their belief of what sitting ‘up’ is (as a clue, most get it destructively wrong and end up doing about as much damage as those who sink down in themselves), rather than the more subtle freeing upward flow which supports against gravity and without any tension in doing so.

Think of your arms being allowed out of your trunk (the back) with great length and openness, while the hands are almost like slightly molten or soft butter, certainly not ‘taking in’ the notes played, by which I mean not contracting into your hand each time you play a note or chord, as it shouldn’t be your hand which is receiving the notes; it should be the keys. Rather let out the fingers from the ‘butter’ with very much unlocked knuckles that aren’t tied together in. Of course they are physically connected, but you should think the fingers as being independent voices to avoid tensing resulting from the way the music is perceived. And then the fingers should be long and soft, really letting and sending the energy out, down into the free depth of the keys.

So there’s some briefly summarised principles and ideas about playing freely, but what about this ‘inner response’ I talk of?

Well, first of all I should make clear that all this is ‘as one’. By this I’m saying that there isn’t one idea at a time, like “long, soft fingers, and a lengthening and widening condition, and a ‘forward and up’ head, and an open trunk”. No – it’s a subtle distinction I am making here, that it should rather be thought of as a free whole self, with all the different elements making it up freeing together as one, all being interrelated. As one requests to their self to free the head and neck relationship with the head forward and up, then in the same moment there is a gentle freeing along the whole spine, ‘taking in’ the rest of your body. This is possibly going a little too complex if you are new to Alexander Technique, but it might as well just be mentioned. Actually I don’t think it is complex; it is simple, but that never means easy.

With it now being hopefully a little clearer about ‘as one’, we can realise that our inner attitude to playing our instrument, while seeming to be a very mental aspect, actually strongly affects the physical aspect, since it is all interrelating, like a family in which a disruptive member is bound to affect the others. In his book The Use Of The Self,* Alexander describes how he realised that the ‘mental’ and the ‘physical’ could not be separated, and that the body was rather one sort of psychophysical self.

Moving on to more specifically piano-related wording about this, let’s understand what a tense inner response is versus a free inner response. When you see a scramble of tricky-looking groups of notes on your sheet music, you are approaching it as being difficult in your preconception of how it will be, which disallows a completely open and simple approach. Or when you play music where each hand has multiple notes at the same time, and your ingrained reaction is to tighten up, tense your jaw, grit your teeth and get frustrated, you are clearly not going to have an easy time, as a result of your ingrained habitual attitude clawing yourself through. Even the very slightest, most subtle tensing up, usually in the neck-and-above area, and usually unnoticeable by yourself until it is pointed out, is a limiting response that needs addressing.

Believe it or not, I would also add that the unconscious, i.e. not conscious functioning, and automatic movements (‘happenings’) of the body which so many have in their playing are, while possibly not tense, a limiting response in playing. (By movements I mean, for example, head swaying and bobbing, arm circles, swaying of the trunk or torso and expressionistic facial movements). People say that it is ‘feeling’ or ‘musicality’. Not sure about that. It’s really just habitual and automatic reactive movement in relation to your playing, most of the time left unaware of by the pianists that live in their own body. This movement slightly takes away from the quality and potential of the playing because a sizeable chunk of energy is going into the ‘happenings’. I’m sure many would be familiar with the habit of moving the head and body side to side along with the hands as the notes go up and down the keyboard, either by seeing pianists do it or doing it themselves. In the ‘Ocean’ Etude by Chopin, many people seem to be like a boat rocking back and forth in a storm. Why not just allow the body and head to just be present where they are and listen as the great long arms let the notes be heard. The arms really have a lot of length, so if one thinks of them as coming from the depth of your back then it’s only your arms that need to move, not your trunk and head. It’s much simpler this way.

Rather learning to simply divert that ‘feeling’ and ‘musicianship’ straight into your touch is advised to improve your quality and musicality of playing. Upon achieving this, and frequently checking up on yourself for these unnecessary movements, you can have a much greater scope and perspective of the keyboard and conscious awareness of what you are playing. Very importantly though, this is absolutely not to say that ‘you mustn’t move’. Of course you do not want to sit like a scared child all hunched up, thinking that to move is damnation. Instead it is a very available, open and conscious self, where any movements are ones within perception so that they are not unnecessarily detracting from your playing. The musicality is in the touch. So it should be made sure that you can play to your best quality with your touch, so that you have the freedom to do as you wish with your self in a genuinely musical way, not superficially. Don’t forget that I wrote this because it is all part of your entire approach to playing the piano, and everything has an influence upon each other.

Then what would a completely easy and free internal response look like? It would be in a condition where there are no defects in the building structure; i.e. your self, where you don’t have major points of tension and you aren’t pulling into yourself via your muscles, as this will greatly disadvantage the capability of freedom in playing, just like major defects in a building structure. In your ‘self’, tension always spreads, especially from the neck/jaw area and your trunk, down to your arms where it is the most unwanted. If you can instead get an impression of the length and openness within, without forcing anything to be ‘fixed’ and without holding yourself in your faulty notion of what it means to sit freely, then the open self can allow out the energy from the depths of you, like the singer’s voice is spilling out, completely down and out from the long fingers, again without any sort of pulling in or ‘gritting’ of the hand or arm.

It is wonderful if you can progress to the point where there is absolutely no sort of inhibiting reaction, however small, from yourself, where you can instead simply watch and listen as the notes very freely and easily fly by, but not in a sort of absent-minded or unconscious way (“go do what you want while I sit back here with my lazy mind and think about pizza”). Most definitely not. You must be very consciously intent of what you are playing, however this intention must be in the touching part, the ‘nose’ of the finger, while the rest of your self is very available to allowing your touch to do its work, in an awakened way.

I bet that the vast majority of those reading this who play piano will be doing as I have said not to, and are reacting constantly in themselves (whether that be more visibly or more internally), especially with more ‘difficult’ parts of large, loud chords, octaves, fast single notes, you name it. For all of that, it seems this naughty little demon of tension inside is like “Hold on, we’d better tense all around the neck and jaw and hands and arms, hadn’t we? After all, in order to play this stuff securely we need to constrict our muscles. And we had better practise it like that every single time so that it becomes one immense habit!”

Of course it is quite the opposite. I don’t know exactly why we tense in ‘difficult’ passages (I imagine it’s partly watching pianists and teachers who also do it, the fact that people say it is difficult, and also a general subconscious reaction amalgamated from all these stems in life), but I do know that it is one completely stupid response to have as it will never, ever help your playing. All it does is limit the potential of what you can do. As one piece of direct evidence (not as though it needs evidence), very recently as I was playing through the last 4 pages of the 3rd movement from Alkan’s Concerto for Solo Piano. For up to a year, very much on-and-off, I was learning it and playing through it for fun, and I would always try to play the octaves on the last page as fast as possible. Particularly the very last, descending, double-octave, black key descent of the whole keyboard.

I could always play it very fast, and I was thinking of ideas for being free that I had been recently gathering and absorbing (from a teacher I have had for over a year to help with this issue of relearning the whole way I play – Nelly Ben-Or), but after having an intensive course with her teaching some pianists and I about Alexander Technique and applying it to the piano, I was feeling a noticeable notch up in my level of playing. When I tried those pages they went by extremely quickly (which was my aim just for that bit) and, crucially, very easily and freely. I played the double octaves of the whole last page the quickest I have ever done, and in the easiest manner. For certain there wasn’t any withdrawing into my hands and it was as though I was just gliding down the keyboard with little tapping along the way from my fingers, like chicken pecking. The difference was less tense responding and ‘controlling’ from my inner self, including the neck/jaw area where for the first time, really, there was basically no tension as I played it. This essentially unlocked a new level of playing hitherto unreachable with the tension. However, as I found out in the following days, any slight relapse into the undesirable self of tension directly reduced how fast and freely I could play it.

Remember that your internal response, be it one of limitation or freedom to give to the piano, is basically a habit, so if you have been having those reactions of crunching up within yourself in more challenging passages (which makes no sense whatsoever) for a long time, it will take a long time to remove that habit and replace it with a habit of freedom. This represents the inverse ratio, where the longer and more intensely a habit is ingrained, the longer and more difficult it will be to change it. That’s why frequent work on paying attention to yourself is essential for this to work.

With all this information now hopefully understood, I suggest a plan of action below, should you be interested:

  • Dedicate yourself to Alexander Technique (AT) training from a very good, experienced teacher.
    • – Now, I have been having training with Nelly, as I said above, who is a pianist and Alexander Teacher with many, many years experience of learning and discovering how to apply the AT experience directly to piano playing, and she is recognised as basically being the leading person in this very specific field, due to the fact that she practically discovered how to apply it (and teach it) more directly than ever before to playing. However there aren’t a great deal who can teach what she does, so probably go with a traditional AT teacher.
    • – The reason I advise doing this, provided you are actually serious enough in your interests and studies at the piano to do it with dedication and discipline, is because it simply has such a beneficial effect upon your playing. And if you are seriously intent enough upon developing with this, you could do an AT teacher training course for three years, not necessarily to become a teacher, but more to gain deeper experience (I plan to possibly do this at some point).
    • – If you are in the UK, you could try using this website to search for a teacher near you. I guess you could also just search ‘Alexander Teacher’ on Google Maps.
    • – Generally, the problem with trying to rely on your piano teacher to reduce tension is that they will also likely have elements of tension in their approach and inner response/attitude to playing, and it’s unlikely they will have the experience of learning true freedom that is necessary for teaching it to others. I’m not talking about just saying ‘relax your wrist’. These sorts of pieces of advice along with the whole gamut of other conventional wisdoms in the piano teaching community are very common, and as tension is extremely common they thus clearly don’t help enough. More is needed, and that’s why AT is so helpful, as long as you find a very good teacher.
  • With the knowledge and experience that you gradually gain, and a newfound body awareness, you should be applying it to your playing at all times. For example, you can constantly ask ‘how could this be easier?’ to yourself.
  • You can also think about the information I have given in this article. The key is to think well, and frequently, about how you can make your playing easier, freer and so better. It takes a long time to see lasting results as you have to be always doing this self-discovering and explorative work.
  • Be merciless in your practice. If you know it’s just a little bit tense, or you are not playing quite how you want to, stop and clearly represent and show yourself how you want to play it, then repeat and repeat it, always with that intention. Especially for performances, it takes a lot of showing to yourself over and over again the way in which you want to play your piece, with no allowance at all for playing it not in that way.
  • Learn to improve upon the betitled theme of this article – your inner response in playing piano. Having this AT experience will help to stop yourself from tensing, but it takes a lot of your own work to implement it. If something is proving difficult, stop, think how you can simplify it in your mind and then apply your own ideas for how to make it freer as well as mine from the beginning of this article.
  • Leading on from the last point, really learn to approach a new score with a more intelligent mind. For example, you can group notes in a way of thinking that makes it easier to play, and you can look for subtle ways to get into the music through the back door, as it were. When you meet a new piece, look at it with a mind focused on making it simple for yourself.
  • If I were to give a couple of very brief summary points, then first of all never fix and tense your neck no matter how crazily challenging the music is, and second of all learn a more conscious and intelligent approach to the piano. For the first, basically I would just learn AT and work on applying it yourself to the piano for more freedom, and for the second you can take the quality of AT into how you think your pieces and your playing.
  • A great Alexander teacher is well worth the investment, and will also help you to generally feel freer in your everyday movements as well, such as walking, bending and simply living. Providing you use your brain intelligently it can really change your life, as it has for mine.
  • For the way of approaching music, here’s a few of my previous articles with examples of it: an article about analysing the groups of notes, an article with an example of thinking octaves, and an article with examples of thinking certain passages in ways for freedom.

Work well and you’ll do well.

To note, I certainly do not have a great amount experience yet in AT, so I am simply trying to consolidate in writing what I have learnt so far. However, it’s not possible really to gain an experience of it through just words (especially mine…) so that’s why real lessons are advised if you are interested.

I would be happy to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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