Relaxation - Teaching freedom of movement

Technique, methods and advice for learners

Postby Mins Music » Wed Aug 16, 2006 9:11 pm

then how much will thinking about trying to relax really help?


Nothing can be helped if it's not first acknowledged, a person cannot change a behaviour if they're not aware of it in the first place and ALL of our movments begin first in the brain - either consciously or subconsciously. Meditation actually means to 'engage in thought or contemplation' and is actually a relaxation technique - but it's HOW the thinkining is done that will determine whether or not the end result is relaxing or tensing. Just telling a person ' play the piano better' is not going to help them achieve that. It's the same with telling a person 'relax.' We have to offer some practical,specific, easily applied suggestions on HOW to do it, and then the student does have to take the time to 'think', meditate, ponder, revolve around the brain how they're going to apply the suggestion. And just because they can't do it immediately, doesn't mean we should give up on the idea and just hope that it will all sort itself out. I'm constantly pointing out people's habits (more so with singing students) that they weren't even aware of, but was hindering their progress. By me addressing the isssue , and by them 'thinking' about it, they've overcome it, and they've progressed.

The word 'thinking' and the action that goes along with it is such a HUGE subject, but so intrinsic to this topic of relaxation. It's the WAY we think that will actually help us relax or tense us up more.

When the beetle asked the centipede which leg he used first when he walked, the centipede suddenly couldn't walk.)


The centipede can't walk because he's thinking about it -analysing it. (Perhaps the centipede is male :D -studies have shown females change from their right to their left sides of the brain much quicker, and hence have a better ability at multitasking - but I AM only joking...). It's his thinking that now becomes the FOCUS of his attention, and because it's a NEW thought, has to take time to process the concept. It doesn't mean he's lost the ability ALtogether to walk. And given enough time to 'think' about it, he'll even be able to give the beetle an answer. Also, with enough practise, he may also learn to think and walk at the same time! :p

I certainly agree that making students self-conscious about relaxing can make them more tense than ever;


This also is a very interesting topic - HUGE in itself, but pertaining to relaxation. Being 'conscious of self' is a good thing. Dr Bill, you mentioned professional athletes. One of their most used training methods these days is watching THEMSELVES in slow motion. They go to mighty lengths and instensive bodily training, but it's interesting that at the basis of it is 'thinking'/analysing.
Being 'self-conscious' is a bad thing. It means you are excessively aware of what OTHERS are 'thinking' about you. So instead of focusing on WHAT the piano teacher is saying, they're engaging in thoughts such as "Oh no, the piano teacher thinks I'm really bad at this... she does not approve of me, she thinks I can't do anything right, and this is just another thing that she thinks I can't do." Being selfconscious usually means being selfcondemning which is all tied up with self-esteem.
we have to sneak up on the subject and solve the problem obliquely somehow.

I agree Dr Bill. We do have to address the issue and I think it's HOW we address the issue that will make the student 'self conscious' or 'conscious of self', thus resulting in either MORE tension which is unproductive, or more malleable, which can lead to progress.
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Thu Aug 17, 2006 8:35 am

Love the male/female centipede comparison. And although a joke, studies do show that the female brain is different than the males. Maybe that is something we should consider when teaching males anfd females!

I like the "thinking" approach...giving the person something to think about, gradually. I do think the way we approach it sill has to be individualized. Words have different meanings to people. As a singer, I remember breathing exercises that helped, but I had a habit of raising my chin and thereby tensing up. The teacher's repeated saying,"Lower your chin", did not help much! When performing, looking out at the audience took care of the problem, it was at the lesson where it was a problem. Now, if she had said, make believe there is an audience, maybe that would have taken care of the problem!

I feel, with piano, if you can have the student listen and produce the right sound, that action will take care of the tension. Not always..but it seems to
help to approach it this way.

Again, one has to be creative and know the student in order to teach her and that includes 'relaxing'
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Thu Aug 17, 2006 3:07 pm

This benighted soul of the slower gender, who can't tell his right brain from his left, nevertheless can relate a true success story of one who, at the late age of 25, found a great teacher for the first time and worked his way out of rigid wrists, arms, shoulders, neck and jaw into a more comfortable, economical, relaxed way of playing. It took a couple of years, and a lot of concentrated mental patience and tedium, but at that point--with bad ingrained habits--there was no way out but to become acutely aware of exactly what was wrong, and go about realigning the coordination patterns.

It is surely much easier with young kids who are not nearly so locked in to tensions, or, indeed, into any fixed habits of technique. Their tensions are often the result of trying to overcome the natural weakness of their small hands and muscles, whereas an adult who has been struggling with difficult repertoire in public performance might be a totally different story. There was no choice, in my case, but to investigate every facet of the problem and its solutions consciously, and I was extremely fortunate to have a teacher who could lead me through that.

Bill L.




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Postby Stretto » Thu Aug 17, 2006 3:14 pm

To be absolutely honest, I really disagree with the centipede analogy. :D

The reason is because I think that there are things a person can be doing in the way of tension that they aren't even aware of. Being tensed up in some way, for example, tension in one's upper back or shoulders can easily turn into a habit and then a person isn't even aware that they are constantly walking around with tense shoulders or back. So I think it's really important to question HOW one is moving. Not to the point of being overly paranoid like saying, oh my goodness!! This is awful!! and worrying about it. But in order to re-think, re-train, re-place poor habits with good ones to correct unneccessary tension.

I really think it is a mistake to "just not think about it" and everything will be fine unless perhaps one is just a naturally relaxed person all the time anyway. Then maybe they wouldn't have to think about it. I would question whether there is a single person in the world that doesn't have at least some problem with a habit related to undue tension carried around. A person who says they don't have a problem in this area, I would venture to say is a person who does but is just not aware of it.

How do you know that before anyone questioned the centipede's movements, the centipede wasn't starting off on the wrong leg and wasn't aware of it? :p
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Thu Aug 17, 2006 3:18 pm

I don't know, Stretto; I'll have to ask the centipede next time I see him.
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Postby Stretto » Thu Aug 17, 2006 3:53 pm

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:This benighted soul of the slower gender, who can't tell his right brain from his left, nevertheless can relate a true success story of one who, at the late age of 25, found a great teacher for the first time and worked his way out of rigid wrists, arms, shoulders, neck and jaw into a more comfortable, economical, relaxed way of playing. It took a couple of years, and a lot of concentrated mental patience and tedium, but at that point--with bad ingrained habits--there was no way out but to become acutely aware of exactly what was wrong, and go about realigning the coordination patterns.

It is surely much easier with young kids who are not nearly so locked in to tensions, or, indeed, into any fixed habits of technique. Their tensions are often the result of trying to overcome the natural weakness of their small hands and muscles, whereas an adult who has been struggling with difficult repertoire in public performance might be a totally different story. There was no choice, in my case, but to investigate every facet of the problem and its solutions consciously, and I was extremely fortunate to have a teacher who could lead me through that.

Bill L.


Dr. Leland,
Our posts came across at the same time, so just didn't want it to appear I skipped over your comments on your personal story. I'm glad you figured it out and are still around in the music realm playing the piano, performing, etc., and helping us all out here!

I've had a lot of problems with tension in playing. I never worried about it or gave it much thought until I started having pain from playing. Perhaps that's what brings a lot of people to correcting habits of undue tension is when it starts causing physical problems. In some of the re-search I've done so far, I've been alarmed at how numerous injuries are related to playing an instrument. I have been trying to find the article back so I could provide the reference on the this thread but can't find it. However, the article mentioned a staggering amount of high school students who play instruments already at that age reporting problems of pain associated with practicing their instrument. With all the information on ergonomics out there now and the research done on how we go about what we do can affect us in the way of repetitive motion, why is it that educating musicians on the subject of correct ways of moving in playing isn't more readily widespread and easily available to all or is it and am I just missing it somewhere? While I am suprised by the number of musicians who have pain associated with perhaps constant undue tension when playing, I am even more suprised that there is not more education on the subject of correct, healthy ways of movement in playing an instrument like the piano. Why is it that more piano teachers don't know how to address these issues to teach correct movements and prevent more of such problems?

I do think that a lot of students don't see the point of certain ways of going about movements related to playing the piano. Even if they are playing with a lot of tension, as long as they can play ok, then perhaps they think it doesn't matter. That's kind of what I always thought - kind of who cares if I'm happy with my playing how I go about it as far as making the movements. From my teenage years on down, if a teacher had tried to work with me more technically in these areas, I might not have taken it seriously and thought, "as long as I can play the music, why does it matter?" I wonder if this is what a lot of other young students think as well. I kind of get this from my students, if I try to show them an alternate way of moving when playing a passage, I can see the look on their face of "why?" I guess that's where we come back to the point that one has to sneak up on them somehow in teaching relaxed ways of moving in piano playing.

Well, I would be interested in some more specific ways that a teacher can help to teach students to play with more relaxed movements.




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Thu Aug 17, 2006 8:24 pm

It's a complex problem, much more widespread than most people think. I have a good doctor friend here in town who is a hand specialist. He told me a long time ago that there is a whole branch of medicine devoted to the medical problems of musicians. Some years back he attended a national conference of this group and brought me a transcript of the whole series of meetings. They deal with pianists, organists, violinists, violists, cellists, clarinettists, brass players, conductors--you name it. Some players--notably the world-class pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman--ruined their careers from improper movements they assumed while trying to work around what's called "overuse syndrome".

I know that this problem touches most teachers and non-professional players in only a peripheral way, because they are often content, as Stretto points out, with just enough skill to get by. Yet there are also literally thousands of young students aspiring to be pros or at least win MTNA and Piano Guild competitions, and some of them are getting hurt.

For those interested enough to get deeper into it, there is a wonderful book called "Famous Pianists and Their Technique", by Reginald Gerig, which lays out in detail the various methods of teaching technique from Bach to Horowitz (Amazon has it). Writings, quotes and letters from Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Leschetitsky, and many otherrs, all the centuries-old controversy about weight vs. finger action, many of the off-beat methods and mythology, the screwball mechanical inventions designed to strengthen the hands or force them into proper positions, etc., etc.--it's a fascinating history. A truly scientific study of exactly what goes on in both the physical apparatus of the player and the mechanics of the piano was done in the 1930s by Otto Ortmann, but few teachers have studied it; it really takes a lot of time and effort. But the information is there, and has been available for a long time.

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Postby Stretto » Mon Aug 21, 2006 2:08 pm

Thanks for mentioning some resources. I'll have to look into those.

I'll just switch gears a little to jump start the thread again of one thing I think that can contribute to "unrelaxed" playing:

I wonder does anyone have any trouble playing the piano when they are in a bad mood? Do you avoid the piano and not feel like playing when you are upset or do you take your frustrations of the day out at the piano? Or do you use the piano to relax from the daily stressors?

My mom told me a while back, she could tell when I was in a bad mood as a teenager by the way I played the piano. She said I always took my frustrations out on the piano. :laugh: Well, that's definitely not a good way to ensure relaxed playing, ha! ha! It's pretty hard when one gets bent out of shape about daily events to walk over to a piano and start playing. I like to play the piano as a diversion sometimes when I'm getting upset to get my mind onto something else. But maybe that's not such a good idea if one doesn't relax first or at least within the beginning of playing. Maybe a relaxing song? What do others of you do if you feel stressed, uptight from the day before sitting down to play so you don't add that into your playing. Once in some conversation when I told my teacher my "teenage" story, she said, she never plays when she's angry or she can't play. She has to relax first. So should a person calm down or relax before practicing or start playing something relaxing? What do others of you do?

Another thing is when a person tries to express oneself, one's emotions :D through the piano, it's easy to incorporate a lot of tension into one's playing. So how should a person put one's emotions or own expression into a piece and still stay relaxed doing so or should one leave out their own expressiveness?

I was just thinking, I started taking piano lessons at 12 and so predominantly learned most things about playing the piano in my teenage years. So I was probably most definitely either taking frustrations out on the piano when practicing or trying to express myself emotionally through the piano depending on whether I was in a happy, excited mood, sad gloomy mood, etc. - and we all know how moody teenagers can be! No wonder one gets into a habit of tense playing!




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Postby Mins Music » Mon Aug 21, 2006 8:08 pm

I like to play the piano as a diversion sometimes when I'm getting upset to get my mind onto something else.


Me too. But I choose to sight read something ridiculously hard. If I play something I already know, my mind can begin to wander again. After I've sightread for a while, I can then play something and just really enjoy it, walk away from the piano an hour or two later rejuvenated ... and relaxed.
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Tue Aug 22, 2006 12:26 pm

Music can help with any moods. I may not be relaxed when I sit down to play but I relax as I play.

One of my 11 year olds told me that she practiced after her homework and it helped her relax. Doing something enjoyable, even though it may be challenging, can do wonders. Music can do wonders!

I know I used to bang out a funeral march and a few other pieces when I was frustrated, even as an adult, but when I finished I felt better. Granted the piece was probably played forte all the way through so was not the best rendition, but from there, I could go on and play something more musically.
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Sat Sep 02, 2006 6:09 pm

Realize I got off the subject. Relaxing while you play is important - not just using playing to relax. Re read Dr. Bill's reply..good information, as always!

:D :D
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Postby Glissando88keys » Fri Sep 15, 2006 12:33 pm

All of the posts above, are the reasons why music is considered so therapeutic.

Personally, I've always had a problem of tensing up my body when I'm stressed, not only at the piano. I have a variety of techniques to help me relax. From practical experience, I found that to tell myself to "relax" does not work. I also found that when I am in a bad mood, it comes through in my playing.

One thing that I notice is that I never tense up when I am playing for my own enjoyment. My expectations for myself are that I will enjoy playing, and I look forward to the creative fun I will have. That translates into a more relaxed approach. When I practice something new I expect to make mistakes, and when they inevitably happen, I'm not surprised. This expectation leads to a more relaxed attitude when I practice.

I also notice a tendency to tense up when I'm expecting more of myself than I am prepared to give. When this occurs I am sometimes not even aware of it until I start feeling my sore neck and shoulders. Sometimes I feel the need to remind myself to breathe. After a deep breath or two I feel better. Sometimes I feel the need to shake out my hands (up and down, never side-to- side) arms and shoulders. I also gently move my head forward and back(never in a circular motion.) Occasionally I'll stand up to include my legs, ankles and feet . This works for me.

I've learned that to consciously relax and to prepare mentally before a performance is essential. When I play for my own enjoyment I don't feel the need to relax because the therapeutic effect of the music does that for me.

I wonder if a good massage therapist would help with relaxation?
???




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Postby Glissando88keys » Fri Sep 15, 2006 12:48 pm

Stretto wrote:I feel that relaxation in playing should take top priority in one's mind even over hitting the right notes... What about having students practice just "flopping around" on the keys with no worry about notes to see how it feels to be relaxed when playing?

That depends on what you mean by "flopping." If it is uncontrolled banging, hitting and striking keys, I feel this may do more harm than good.

Maybe this belongs in a previous thread where technique was discussed, but I feel it is wrong to think of "hitting" or "striking" the keys. To let your fingers "fall" or "land" on the keys leads to a more relaxed technique. You can definitely hear the difference in the tone produced. I would venture to say that this technique causes less wrist injuries and strains.

So, if you are considering having students practice by letting their fingers "fall" on random keys, to see how it feels to play in a relaxed manner, I'm all for it! If their fingers happen to "land" on all the wrong notes, that's okay, too. :laugh:

As long as they are not "hitting" or "striking", or (heaven forbid!) banging! :angry:




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Postby Glissando88keys » Fri Sep 15, 2006 2:53 pm

Chilly wrote: He does alot of wrighting, so i sugessted that he holds his pen more lightly. Hoipefully it will help with relaxing his fingers. Any other ideas?

A violinist friend of mine holds his pen in a very peculiar way but he swears it prevents fatigue. The pen rests between his second and third fingers.

At one point I was writing almost constantly, so I decided to try it out for myself. At first it felt a little weird, but it works. Now, whenever my hands start to get tired or hurt I switch to this position, and fatigue is gone!

You might suggest this idea to your husband. Please let me know the outcome.




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Postby Stretto » Sat Sep 16, 2006 12:04 pm

Glissando88keys wrote:
Stretto wrote:I feel that relaxation in playing should take top priority in one's mind even over hitting the right notes... What about having students practice just "flopping around" on the keys with no worry about notes to see how it feels to be relaxed when playing?

That depends on what you mean by "flopping." If it is uncontrolled banging, hitting and striking keys, I feel this may do more harm than good . . .

So, if you are considering having students practice by letting their fingers "fall" on random keys, to see how it feels to play in a relaxed manner, I'm all for it! If their fingers happen to "land" on all the wrong notes, that's okay, too. :laugh:

That's what I meant to feel a relaxed feeling without worrying about notes when a student is first trying to learn how being relaxed should feel.


While I'm posting, here's a novel idea on teaching relaxation: How about at least just telling a student to be sure to stay relaxed whatever you are asking them to do, for example, telling them to be sure and keep their shoulders and wrists relaxed.

My teachers when I was a kid emphasized various movements such as curved fingers, getting from one place on the keys to the next, "preparing" for the next note, movements for staccato, etc., etc., however never once mentioned be sure to stay relaxed while doing these things. I think in telling me to curve my fingers, if my teacher would have just mentioned be sure not to let my wrists lock up while doing so and play as relaxed as possible, I would have avoided a lot of tension in trying so hard to do as instructed. I don't think I was taught incorrectly per se, just one secret ingredient left completely out of the instruction: "relaxation".

I don't think kids even think about such things. When I was a kid I don't think I would have given any thought to how relaxed or not I was when playing the piano. Even if I was aware of it, I would have said to myself, "so long as I can play to my satisfaction, what does it matter?"

My current teacher writes and says almost every week since day one, "loose wrists", "loose wrists", "loose wrists". It's written on every assigment every week - I guess that's some kind of hint :D !




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