Playing piano without tension

Struggling with tension in playing piano? (3rd Part)

Part 3: Concluding thoughts and my current situation

Overall, my ‘injury’ was for the better. Not only was it pretty inevitable, given how much I was playing unwittingly with a tense approach, but it was the slap in the face that I needed to gain freedom of playing to prevent further excessive tension and vastly improve my playing in many areas as a result of that. From my lessons with an Alexander teacher/pianist, Nelly Ben-Or, amongst a newfound approach to practising and perceiving music, I have learnt that tension, which most often goes undetected, will limit playing potential, and so one should stop being lazy with their brain and use it to ‘enter through the back door’, as it were, in seemingly difficult passages, rather than just repeating something with the fingers alone. Whereas most people would all enter through the main entrance in a massive cluster of people queuing to get in, you should quietly go through the back door without difficulty, because though the main entrance will get you inside, it is more challenging than the back entrance. The mind should always be a step ahead of the fingers.

During the worst months of my tension, using a computer keyboard and mouse for a long period could get uncomfortable, and I also had some difficulties in that respect with playing my viola. I think it must have been that, having exacerbated my piano-playing tension so much, I was physically sensitive to other things that could bring about it, though I realise now that, like with piano, it was the way in which I played viola and used the computer that had any effect. Looking back on videos from a few years ago I could see how self-destructing and damaging my approach to piano was. It looked almost like the tension was rippling through my arms and the mouth/neck area in particular, when the music was fast and loud.

We often tense ourselves when about to play a challenging passage, or indeed the whole piece because we want to be seen playing well to impress listeners or to make them think positively of your playing. Rather just play and listen to the music be created, not with the focus on ‘will I make a mistake?’ or ‘will they like my playing and think I am good?’, because that tends to lead to tension to ‘play it well’. It’s very important to go about this the right way and develop a mindset for performing where you can be as free as in your practice sessions. If you can play the music with the intent of releasing it out into sound to share with the listeners, then that could help reduce or get rid of stiffness.

Tension ultimately arises from how we perceive the piece – in the past I would play fast octaves with the aim on stamina and endurance, which doesn’t allow you to be free, and so if you are playing a virtuosic piece with a lot of octave-work in that manner, trying to ‘get it’ and ‘catch it’ accurately, then not only will you not be free, but your interpretation of the music won’t be so either. An easier approach to it, in general terms, is to let the octaves loose and do what they want, without holding anywhere around in the hands and arms (and mouth!), so that the octaves can come from the fingers only, taking along the arms a little. And on this topic you also want to think them in small mental groupings that are in themselves easy, then simply allow them to come together in time, yet still having a mental (not audible!) separation between the groupings, which prevents you from accumulating ‘luggage’, i.e. tension, as you play. If you can play the simplest ‘unit’ which is in itself easy and free, why not play two units easily? And three? And four and so on? This type of approach to octaves is certainly not easy to develop and train your mind to employ, but given you really use your brain in this manner, it will become more natural, and remember that many other challenges aside from octaves can benefit from this.

Currently I am free most of the time when playing piano, but I still constantly think about keeping so while playing, and I need to concentrate on applying what Nelly has taught me in passages that I am having difficulty with. Over the past year since I first started with her, I would have times when I felt particularly free at the piano, for example after having a lesson, but in the first half a year there were many times when I fell back and slipped into bad habits, because this way of playing wasn’t ingrained in me as my ‘automatic’ response to playing, which meant I had to really focus on her teachings in order to regain the freedom. This was because I would get lazy and comfortable with my brain when playing freely and slowly the tension would creep back in. On a more general note, I am quite sensitive to things like sounds and touch, i.e. sensory stimuli, which I believe has greatly helped my playing in the long run, in relation to what I was saying about slipping out of freedom. As soon as I lost the freedom, I knew it from the feeling in my hands and arms, which was very good for giving me ‘wake-up’ calls to stay disciplined when practising. Though it was immensely frustrating to often get stuck in my ‘phases’ of tension, it was necessary to achieve lasting results, and now my phases of ‘retracement from the uptrend to complete freedom’ (sorry that was quite a mouthful) are much smaller – I am free and without tension most of the time.

To conclude this 3-part series on my story with tension at the piano and how I threw it out the window (the tension, not the piano) to come out vastly improved, I would suggest, if you are having similar troubles as I was, to first of all seek out help from real people and see what works. If physiotherapy and the like works for you, great, but if not, I strongly advise looking into Alexander Technique, from a teacher that specialises in working with musicians so that they understand your situation. Nelly Ben-Or is the leading person today in applying AT to the piano, but there is only one of her. There are likely others who teach similarly, but if they are difficult to find, she does teach courses to groups about piano playing. Otherwise, try and take some value from the ideas I have already written! And stay tuned for more posts going into further detail about freedom and getting rid of tension.


* I do not own these books, but having had a look online the two AT books look very useful.

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