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Playing piano without tension

Struggling with tension in playing piano? (2nd Part)

Part 2: Finding lasting help

After a Christmas of continually tense piano playing, I remembered the Alexander Technique. My German grandmother is an Alexander teacher, and when I stayed with her in the summer we did work together to help with my playing. However I wanted more focus directly on the approach to playing piano from an Alexander teacher specialised in that field.

If you don’t know about it, Wikipedia states that “The Alexander Technique, named after its creator Frederick Matthias Alexander, is a popular type of alternative therapy based on the idea that poor posture gives rise to a range of health problems“. However I think this is a better description of what it’s about, from alexandertechnique.co.uk: “The Alexander Technique is a skill for self-development teaching you to change long-standing habits that cause unnecessary tension in everything you do“. Another equally good overview comes from the book ‘The Alexander Technique Workbook*’ by Richard Brennan; “The Alexander Technique is a method of releasing the physical and mental tensions that many of us have accumulated throughout our lives. Often we are unaware of these tensions until we become ill and are unable to go on … If these unconscious muscular tensions are allowed to continue, as they often are, they can affect our quality of life by accelerating the ageing process and decreasing our vitality“. This sentence “Often we are unaware of these tensions until we become ill and are unable to go on” very accurately reflected my situation.

I found an 87-year old pianist and Alexander teacher named Nelly Ben-Or, and my mother booked a first lesson to see how she taught. Recently I had been reading and studying a book called ‘What Every Pianist Needs To Know About the Body’, which was basically looking at the anatomy of the body and how it links to playing the piano, with emphasis on how to improve if you’re ‘injured’ (i.e way too much tension that seriously limits your playing). And whilst this was all very good information and advice, it didn’t really help my playing, apart from giving me more understanding of general posture-related principles of the body. At the beginning of our lesson I showed Nelly this book and what I had been learning, but I think she dismissed it as unnecessary for my purposes, which I found surprising given she is an Alexander teacher.

I sat down at the piano and tried playing a little bit to show her my situation. At the time it was in a sorry state – my playing was like a dying animal pathetically limping around. I was still of the belief that I had to play slowly and softly, and it was very weak and timid playing as a result of my existing tension.

Soon she got me to try something – with just the right hand, playing the first note of the C major scale. Then adding the second note, playing the two as a quick couplet of grace notes on their own. Then building from there by adding the 3rd, 4th and so on until it had reached 2 octaves by adding a note each time to this quick flurry of grace notes, as I like to think of them as being. But the important thing was how she got me to do it. She was focusing on the freedom of playing, and at the beginning helped me get this free sensation by touching my hand and saying such ideas as ‘the energy comes from your whole presence and within’, and how it should be a focused, direct response of touch from the fingertips, a feeling of letting out and releasing energy, without holding yourself. By holding, this means engaging and contracting muscles within you by holding them in a state of tension – with some of the most important areas being the arm and hands, neck and mouth. She described how the body is like a pipeline for the energy within the deep roots of you to flow through, along the arms and out of the fingers to make the piano speak.

An important thing to note here is that I am most certainly not as experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to the Alexander Technique (AT) as she is, but I am rather sharing what I have learnt so far due to the immense change it has brought about in my playing. Nelly has spent many years training in AT and many more taking what she has learnt and taking this to the piano by constantly asking ‘how can I make this easier for myself?’.

In that first lesson, as we worked on that scale idea, I felt a freedom of playing that I hadn’t felt in nearly a year. And even before that I don’t think I had had that feeling, as I now know that it was my tense approach to playing which caused the ‘injury’, and you can’t be free with tension. I left the lesson knowing I had found the path to lead me out of the dark and into the sunshine. Though it wouldn’t be an easy, straight-line path. It would require a lot of discipline and determination.

For those who might find some of the ideas I wrote, in relation to playing freely, a bit strange, I can understand because for starters, this approach is not very well-known at all, and secondly I imagine many want to stick with the ‘traditional’ school of thought about proper piano playing which tends to squash pianists with serious playing-tension underground to be forgotten about. OK, this is probably an exaggeration, but I do think there’s some truth in what I said, though I won’t dive into that now, especially as I’m not experienced enough to be dishing out potentially ‘radical’ preachings. I also won’t go into too much detail about what she taught, as that’s for future posts.

Continuing with the scale idea, we extended it to both hands separately and together, and all the different keys which I practised everyday. I quickly noticed a real change in this, and to progress further Nelly taught me to play chords freely. This I found quite difficult at first, because each time I played a chord I had to focus on removing my past habits of tightening in the arms, neck and mouth while playing it. She gave advice on doing this, including the idea of the chords not coming from the weight of the arm or muscle force, but rather from direct response of touch and a downwards release of energy. I did separate hands at first playing a full chord in the different inversions, then moved to both hands. Improving at this took at least a few weeks of practice everyday before there was significant change.

On a slightly separate thought, staying disciplined enough to practice this everyday could be challenging for some, but for myself I basically had to do it in order to attain freedom of playing without inhibition from tension. If I didn’t work towards this then I would still be ‘stuck in the mud’, and once I had tasted a small amount of freedom in playing in that first lesson, I was desperate for more.

Throughout her teaching we worked on pieces that needed certain types of technique to play them, and for this I had to learn a way to play them freely. For playing chords, we started with Schubert’s Moment Musical No. 5 in F minor, at a slow speed. Though it seemed very simple if I wasn’t having tension difficulties, it required a lot of focus on Nelly’s teaching ideas to play it confidently. Around this time she also made me memorise a few Bach Inventions completely away from the piano, which I would say improved my understanding of voicing and part playing and improved my memorisation of piano pieces. Quite soon after, we started Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 23 No. 5 in G minor which I was definitely not ready for at the time. This took many months to get to a good level, as it requires you to be very free. As an example of what Nelly taught, she described how the fast repeated chords in the outer sections should be ‘bouncing’, light and easy – like you’re shaking them out from your sleeves, with great openness from the whole presence allowing them to be so. Another particular focus was on playing from an alive, alert fingertip release, and having a sense that the fingers are apart from the body so that you are not involving the rest of your body, whether that be your arms, back or jaw, in trying to produce the sound.

In later months we moved on to different repertoire, including Mendelssohn’s 3rd Etude in A minor, Chopin’s Etudes Nos. 9 and 10 from Op. 25, which mainly demanded a freedom of octave playing. I won’t go over exactly how we approached them (that can be a topic for another time), but No. 10 was one of my biggest challenges, and I worked on it for many months. Prior to my ‘era of tension’ I think I really strained to play them, and I remember one time I actually playing repeated octaves on the same note for a long time to try and ‘build up stamina’ and ‘strength’, which I now know was a recipe for disaster.

I would say that one of the main messages of her teaching was that, when faced with technical challenges, you should turn to your mind to represent it simpler to yourself in order to turn something which at first appears to be difficult, into something which appears simple. And this consequently prevents tension, since you are no longer tensing up in order ‘to get it’ with clenched muscles, working your way through a scramble of difficult notes.

To conclude in Part 3

* I own this book and think it is a great guide to Alexander Technique.

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