Playing piano without tension

How to play chords freely

A guide in finding freedom playing chords at the piano

In my 3-part article on my story with tension at the piano and how I got rid of it, I wrote a lot about freedom and how I learnt to play everything freely with the teaching of Nelly Ben-Or, particularly so in the 2nd and 3rd parts. When I learnt Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5, the focus was on playing the repeated chords without tension, so that they could be easy for me. I will go through some steps, pieces of advice and ideas for you to absorb and embody while playing them.

  • Start by playing a full four-note chord with just one hand. Now ask yourself whether that could have been easier. It’s most likely that it could’ve. Are you holding yourself in the arm, hands, neck or jaw area? It’s crucial that there is no tension at all in order to play freely and easily. Remember to sit in a free condition, realising the length of the spine, but not ‘doing’ anything to ‘make your back straight’ or the like. They are not good phrases to use, and disregard the way in which the body is designed to work.
  • Imagine this: the energy comes from the depths of your body, from the deep roots of you, and flows through the arms like a pipeline with water running through, through the hands and let out of the fingers as a release of energy. You shouldn’t be involving parts of your body, whether that be around the jaw/mouth (which is a very common area for pianists) or the muscles in the arms in trying to ‘get it’ by force. No. That’s neither free nor easy.
  • Once you start to be aware of existing habitual tensions, you can begin the process of inhibition, i.e. stopping, thinking about what you want to not do, then performing it in that manner. This is not easy and usually takes a very long time with a lot of focus. The reason why it’s not easy is because you have to actually use your brain and focus, rather than getting some ‘magic treatment’ or stretches to practise from a physiotherapist which will make things better. Unfortunately not so. A teacher specialised in applying Alexander Technique directly to piano playing is the most helpful, but you can do valuable self-directed exploration and discovery alone.
  • Think the same way about playing that chord, but now with the other hand. Keep reminding yourself that the neck and jaw must be free, as otherwise the tension will spread down towards your arms. It’s a vital release from the fingertips, like a quantum energy, sending the sound out of the piano. Think of the power of the chord’s sound coming from the freeness of your presence and the simplicity of letting loose that chord, as though the fingers are trying to escape from the palm and rest of the body to speak out the group of voices that make up the chord. Think of the chord like different voices singing together, that you allow to happen. Allowing is another very key term with all this. Being in an allowing condition to play.
  • Now play both hands together. The body should be the listener, or observer, separate from the ‘doing’ action at the fingers, and the energy should come from the whole presence and within. Remember that it is not played though weight or muscle force; rather it’s a downward release of energy.
  • Then play the different inversions of the chord – so in C minor, as the full 4-note chord in each hand, do the root, 1st and 2nd inversions. You could try thinking each ‘play’ of the chord as a bounce, except that you don’t release the keys back up. Thinking of bouncing is meant to stimulate the memory of doing something freely, like bouncing a ball, and having that same freedom with the chords. Like this:
  • It’s also important that you take time between each chord to think about how you are going to put into practice this advice, rather than treating it like some mechanical exercise.
  • Don’t use the pedal while doing this; see how much sound you can generate without it. Otherwise you become a bit too reliant on using it, as I admittedly was.
  • Move on to playing acciaccaturas of each chord, like this:
  • But do hands separately at first to fully focus on how you are playing it. There should be only little movement, since the action comes from the ends of the fingers – not the head jerking backwards or something similar.
  • This time the bouncing analogy works even better since you are repeating the playing motion like you do when bouncing a ball. Just that the first bounce is quick here, though make sure not to have the reaction that many have when quick playing comes to mind – don’t tense up. Once again, you’ve got to allow the ‘bounce’ to happen, in an easy origination from the open condition of being that you play in.
  • Don’t lock into your hand! Or any other similar habit that is blocking the freeness of playing. In order to play well, you have to be completely free, especially if you are going to have a long piano-playing career and want to fully enjoy the experience – when I was very tense I didn’t play nearly as often as normal because I didn’t want to have to go through the frustrating process of having this tense, annoying and limiting sensation.
  • Back to not locking your hand: ask yourself whether perhaps, even if it isn’t obvious, you are creating tension and contracting, scrunching up inside your hand like a squirrel contracts their claws to eat a nut. Don’t do this! Let your hand be open – give your palm the freedom to let the fingers out. Understandably you might find this tricky to do if you are having tension problems, but habits simply are difficult to get rid of; focus is strongly required on being disciplined with yourself to play it the way you want to. You must do this if you wish to play Rachmaninov until the cows come home.
In this passage of the Rachmaninov G minor Prelude, make it a light, bouncing action. It should be light, yet ready to burst with energy from out of the fingers. Also have the hand on the edge between the A and Bb so that the switch from the first major chord to the second augmented one is simple and quick.

I think I have said enough for one post, so we’ll leave it here. There’s only so much that a blog post can teach you, and while I feel there is a lot of advice in here, it’s up to you to adopt it and play more freely.

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