“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.”
Plato

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Forearm Tension

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A new student came to me complaining of pain and tension in his right forearm. This young man is an active performer in a rock band, though his initial training was in standard classical repertoire. I asked him to show me what he had been playing most recently when he noticed the discomfort, though of course this sort of complaint can be the result of cumulative actions. His basic position at the keyboard appeared remarkably healthy, his hands well positioned in a relatively closed position. But when he played the sort of passages he associated with discomfort, all of that changed. He locked his hand in an open position, to an extreme, and played a series of filled-in chords in an octave position, at which point I stopped him immediately.  
     Missing from his understanding is a basic concept of how to play rapid octaves. I doubt he gave the technique any particular thought. So, what resulted was an up and down arm movement, which is not a quick movement. Combined with this was his open hand, tensed to an extreme, especially when called upon to play a minor third between thumb and index finger. Gentle reader, if you have been following these pages you know by now that a rotation of the forearm is our quickest movement and underlies virtually all of our movements at the keyboard. 
     Our next step was to examine how to play successive octaves—without the filled-in chords, although it would later turn out that something had been missing from the description of his performance. Octaves are played by means of a plucking action from the key, hinged at the fifth finger, which throws the hand to the next octave, a passive action facilitated by a slight rotation of the forearm back toward the thumb. I know, words usually fail without a visual aid. But this is indeed how extremely fast octaves can be managed without tension or fatigue. Because the wrist appears to be active, some pianists assume that the movement is initiated from the wrist, but it is not.   
Then, quite by chance in a passing remark, came the big reveal. It seems that the rest of the band left the stage drenched in perspiration due, no doubt, from jubilant gyrations at the microphones. Apparently, guitars and other instruments can be played successfully while being thrust about in high-spirited dance moves. The poor keyboard player, though, doesn't get to dance. So our pianist under discussion felt moved to get into the spirit of the music by playing with wild abandon, attacking the keyboard from high above and pressing into it in order to show—emphasis on show—how involved he was in the music. This, I pointed out, comes under the heading of acting, not piano technique. 
     
The great English actor Laurence Olivier once explained to a reporter that it would be impossible for him to actually be Hamlet eight times a week by experiencing all of the emotions that role expresses. But by means of acting technique he could make the audience believe he was Hamlet. I suggested to this pianist that we focus on piano technique and then he could figure out, as needed, what he could do to add to his external display. Instead of throwing his arms at the keyboard locked and stretched, pressing and clinging to the keys, he should focus on how to achieve the sound he wanted. Pressing into the key after reaching the point of sound is useless. Remember, once the key has been depressed, only God can change it.
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