Playing piano without tension Practising piano

Wrong assumptions about playing piano (and what you should think instead)

Three common ways of thinking about playing piano that prevent sustainable practice and performance

1st: That you need stamina and endurance.

I get the image that many people, mostly less developed at playing the piano, think of pieces such as the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies No. 2 and 6 as requiring great stamina and endurance to play. Particularly in Youtube comments of pieces like these I read people saying how incredible it is that the pianist can play through the whole, very ‘tiring’ piece, and how they could never do that, or it would take ages to build up that stamina and muscular endurance (because you obviously need that for playing difficult piano pieces (sarcasm alert)).

A much better way of thinking:

You need complete freedom and openness.

The playing of ‘tiring’ things for a long stretch of time should come from ways of thinking to make it appear simpler for yourself, so that you aren’t having to tighten your way through a load of fast notes. Your body, especially the neck and arms, should also be very allowing and open for playing about with these dots on the page and turning them into music.

2nd: That you need strength in the fingers (anywhere else like the arms and hands).

Similar in vein to the 1st wrong assumption about stamina and endurance, I’ve also seen many comments about how the pianist in a Youtube video has very strong hands, fingers or arms, which makes them play piano better. And so I get the impression that this is a majority acceptance. A while ago, when playing piano to some older students in my previous school, they also commented how strong my fingers were to play the very fast repeated notes that I was playing. Even in past years of my own piano tuition, I was taught about ‘strong fingers’ – for example while practising Hanon exercises (which I think have the potential to cause problems from embedding bad habits) I apparently had to have strong, curved fingers.

A better mode of thought:

You need to let out the energy flowing through the body.

The fingers don’t contain any significant muscles (except for hair-controlling muscles), and so they can’t really be ‘strong’. You should not think about strength when playing, because this is most likely to cause tension and contraction in your muscles, as a typical image we have for strength is gritting our teeth and lifting heavy weights or similar. It is very easy for the healthy balance in the arms to be disrupted by thoughts of strength in the arms, and so it is much better and more effective to think of a freeing ability to enjoy letting out energy out of the fingers, with the hands, arms and body simply being vessels for the energy to run through.

On the other hand, we do need to be strong, healthy and balanced individuals to support ourselves well in all that we do, but for playing piano it can cause harm if you are not careful with this frame of mind. Perhaps contradictorily to what I have been discussing, I would advise to also not think about relaxing along the arms and hands while playing, as this tends to make them too floppy, fragile and pathetic (a little harsh, I know).

3rd: That you need to practise, practise, practise to get it right.

There is a good and a bad result behind this way of thinking; the good is that it is simply necessary to practise a lot (though not more than needed) and consistently, and so the person that does this will likely do very well. The bad is that this notion will likely be misinterpreted into the method of one’s practising, to form an approach of ‘repeat hundreds of times (*mindlessly and with gritted teeth and tense muscles*) to secure the passage and stop the mistakes from happening again’. While this will most likely ‘improve’ the passage in terms of technicality and accuracy, it will even more likely ingrain a tense, tight approach to playing, where mistakes have to be ‘overcome’ with lots of hard work.

(*I’m just being a little satirical, and only slightly exaggerating the mindset*)

As an example of this ‘bad’ (or rather just more difficult, long and tense) way of practising, walk into a practice building in any music school, and my guess would be that most would be practising reminiscent to this, even if only slightly. Bluffed-up passages being repeated on loop millions of times, hesitant fumbling around while trying to play something, endless slow practice, over-reliance on certain practice methods like dotted rhythms, non-stop practising without breaks and playing through pieces like mini recitals rather than breaking them down chunk-by-chunk for practice.

(I must also make clear that my practice is certainly not perfect, and some of the above-described patterns of practising creep into my own now and again – if you happen to hear me practising, don’t expect me to be hypocrite-proof)

To explain how this prevents sustainable practise and performing, I would say that, unless you can really live your whole life mechanically practising like this, it removes the enjoyment of practising. Even if you think you are fine doing this, it seems likely to me that your interests or capability of mind in practising so much may begin to decrease as time wears on.

Think like this instead:

You need to practise in a mindful and concentrated form, repeating the way in which you wish to play something.

A musician’s job in practising is to find simple solutions for playing ‘difficult’ and ‘complicated’ things, before then making it musical. The extent and ease of which it is musical also happens to be influenced strongly by finding simple paths around the piece, hence the importance of concentrating on being imaginative in your practice time to find these simpler and easier ways around the music. Repetition is very important for allowing your ‘perfect’ way of playing something to become ingrained in your response to playing the piece, and should not be used just because you think repetition is practice. Practice should allow you to find the ways to always be free while playing, and so if you are absent-mindedly repeating something like a broken record with tension aplenty, that doesn’t really seem like practice to me. It seems more like repeating weight lifting lots with the vague idea of getting better, and not focused and imaginative action around the problems.

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