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Playing piano without tension

Struggling with tension in playing piano? (1st Part)

I did.

And this is how I changed my approach to piano for the better.

Part 1: Feeling the tension and trying to get help

Two years ago, around when doing my Grade 8 exam, I began feeling slight stiffness and uncomfortableness in my arms. Luckily I finished the exam before it got worse, but soon it inevitably progressed and I was frequently stopping in practice because of the annoying feeling in my arms, that limited my playing enjoyment.

At the time I had no idea what had caused it, and at one point decided to try stopping playing for a week or two, in case resting helped. But it didn’t. Perhaps at the very start of playing again after the rest it did feel better, but even in the same playing session it spiralled back down to how it was before. Of course I was looking on the internet to try and find solutions, and my mother also was trying to find as much help online as possible. Then she found BAPAM, the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, which we booked a consultation session from to go for help. I had a session with a physiotherapist that specialised in working with musicians, and it felt good having someone to talk to and get help from about my problem – I left feeling positive that it would get better. In the session she thought that it was the position of my hand turning too much to the right from my wrist, and recommended a couple of books to learn more generally. She also suggested a plan to slowly get back into playing, by incrementally increasing the length of four blocks of playing a day, with lots of rest between them. This started with four 1-minute sessions, and I stuck to the plan pretty religiously as I desperately wanted to change the situation. The other main thing that she advised me to do was stretching around the arms and hands before and after playing, so again I did these each time.

Throughout the summer holidays I did this everyday, and it actually seemed to be getting a little better when I had reached the longer playing sessions. As it felt better I enjoyed playing some more difficult pieces and improvising in a faster manner, which was what people advised not to do; rather they thought it was best to play ‘slowly’, ‘softly’ and ‘flowingly’, which was understandable as whenever I tried to play fast and loudly, I soon felt bad in the arms again. To note, the feeling was probably a sort of dull, slightly aching stiffness in the arms, and it was caused by excessive tension. Though nobody really clearly defined that tension was the cause of the arm pain. To me it seems like many people thought this sort of problem ‘just happens’ – like there isn’t a clear cause for it.

This period of playing that felt better didn’t last, and soon I was in a pitiful position again. As you might imagine, all this had a mental effect and got me down a bit – I hated the feeling of being able to play the piano, yet not with freedom to do as I wanted, and this freedom seemed so close yet so far. The arm tension was a constant limit to how I could play. I remember also all the devices that were supposed to help – at one point somebody suggested some band to go around the forearm near the elbow, and said how their friend got rid of pain from using a computer mouse in 6 weeks, and when the pain came back they just used the band again to make it stop. Looking I realise how that sort of thing (which I didn’t use for long anyway) is similar to putting a plaster on a water leak – it may reduce the leak coming out for a time, but soon the water will overpower the plaster. For me as well, my playing did seem less tense with the band on, but it was quickly of no use, and I realised how that wouldn’t give any lasting change.

At various points I visited different specialists, including doctors, physiotherapists and a massage therapist. Personally I feel like therapy gives out cures to problems, but by then, after going through the whole gamut of different specialists that simply didn’t ultimately help, I knew that for my piano playing, this sort of approach wouldn’t work out. I was tired of not being able to ‘do my thing’ (piano) freely, and play for my family, so clearly a different approach to my issue was needed.

Continued in Part 2

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