“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Saturday, June 15, 2013

On Retraining While Actively Performing

     A professional jazz pianist came to me complaining of discomfort in his right arm. The problem apparently stems from an injury unrelated to the piano, though playing exacerbates the discomfort. Imagine how disheartening it would be to have to suffer while doing the thing that you love. He even considered giving up playing, but finally concluded that wouldn't be an option. This pianist is highly sought after and performs regularly for many hours at a time. It is his livelihood. What to do? How do we treat that part of his underlying technique that is not functioning while he continues to perform in public? 

     Normally when there is pain or discomfort I suggest a piano vacation until the pain subsides. This is because in order to monitor new physical movements, it is easier to work with a fresh playing apparatus. Much of what we consider while training is how the new movement feels; we evaluate the sensations. If the new movement is somehow encumbered with the leftovers from old movements, physical confusion can ensue. Muscle memory is very powerful. After all, we rely on it in speed.

     Since a pianistic vacation was out of the question, we decided to proceed by examining the obvious: What was his relationship of fingers to the key. We found that much of the time—but not always—he hovered above the keys. By this I mean that he wasn't completing each note before moving onto the next. He wasn't allowing his fingers to walk from key to key, transferring weight as he went. Instead, much of the time he held his arm rather rigidly above the keys and depressed the key by isolating individual fingers. This is something like trying to walk down the road without really making a footprint. In order to feel really at home while playing, the sensation should be one of balance, of being at rest at the bottom of each key before moving on to the next. Try this: Stand at ease on both feet. Now, take a step forward, but instead of putting all of your weight on that step, favor it as if it had a sprain. This is a hobble, and at the keyboard the sensation is very similar. I call this a bump in the action. Trust me, these bumps can add up to considerable discomfort over a period of hours.
     In the process of getting him established in the key, by getting his forearm behind the finger playing and developing the sensation of walking note to note through a forearm rotation, we discovered, quite by accident, that some of the riffs he uses regularly in his jazz interpolations contained built-in bumps. These bumps occurred regularly in semi-arpeggiated figures at points where the thumb needed to throw the hand into a new position. By retraining the thumb in these passages, we were able to make considerable progress in a rather short time. He reports that already he is beginning to feel a more agreeable relationship with the keyboard, although there is considerably more work to do.
     So it is possible to retrain while maintaining a performing schedule, though it is not my preferred way to work. When I was much younger and accidentally stumbled upon this way of playing, I, too, was in the midst of a performing career but decided to retrain anyway. Fortunately, though, I wasn't coming from injury but instead was interested in learning how to be in charge of my technique. I write more about these issues in my new book, Piano Technique Demystified: Insights into Problem Solving.

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