Relaxation - Teaching freedom of movement

Technique, methods and advice for learners

Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Thu Aug 10, 2006 4:09 pm

I would like to solicit experiences and opinions from teachers on the subject of relaxation in piano technique.

What does relaxarion in playing mean to you? Is it important?
How do you teach it?
How do you deal with tension in a student's playing?

Dr. Bill Leland
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sat Aug 12, 2006 12:58 pm

(I get the feeling I may be talking to myself.)
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Postby Stretto » Sat Aug 12, 2006 2:26 pm

:laugh:

OK, I was trying to wait for others to reply first. I could probably answer a little of what I think which I might write another day, but I just got to thinking just to start things out:

Has anyone had a student have trouble with not playing in a relaxed way?

Most of my students appear to be relaxed when playing from the outside at least except maybe a few who press the keys down too hard or tighten up their hands and arms while making an effort to play the right keys with the right fingering. The rest again appear to be relaxed while playing.

As long as students appear to be playing in a relaxed way, I'm reluctant to say anything in the way of general, "do's and don'ts". I've always thought, "if it isn't broken, don't fix it". I'm afraid if I start chiming in with too many general do's and don'ts, a student who was doing fine on their own will start getting all "worried and tense" in an effort to "do as I say". This happened to me when a young student around 12 or 13. In an effort to hold my fingers EXACTLY ("nice curved fingers") as I was instructed, I believe I started adding unneccessary tension into the picture and over time, it became an unconscious habit. I always wondered if I was even having a problem before that. Of course I don't blame every problem I have in playing on that but it's one thing that probably contributed.

I did recently start trying to give my students a "tip of the week" (so as not to pile a bunch on them at once) as far as technique as it relates to relaxation in playing. I explained to one student, "I haven't noticed you doing this at all but it's just a general tip" and explained my plan to give students a "tip of the week" . I demonstrate the tip to them and have them try it. I just started this so I will probably incorporate more into their playing as I go. For, the students I have given a few tips to, the general response is they don't see themselves as having a problem with not being relaxed while playing. This may very well be the case as some people just are relaxed people in general. I give a few really basic general tips at the very begining so maybe those tips avoid future problems or else the student is just a relaxed person and it's not a problem for them.




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sun Aug 13, 2006 4:12 pm

Stretto, I don't think anyone could have started this topic any better. You're applying the ancient doctors' oath of Hippocrates: "First, do no harm." Often we can cause unnecessary complications by making a student self-conscious about something that wasn't a problem to begin with.

By the way, have you checked out the review of Tip Books? I think you'd be very interested in it.

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Postby 108-1121887355 » Sun Aug 13, 2006 7:38 pm

I agree, Stretto. If I were to say 'relax', the student would probably tense up. Most students enjoy playing and so are naturally relaxed.

I also had teachers tell me how to sit and how to curve my fingers and I think that brings tension. Luckily, I had many teachers, so not that was not a constant.

When I see students working hard on a passage or a piece, I will sometimes suggest that they stop a minute and just shake their hands and take a deep breath.

Joan
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Postby Chilly » Mon Aug 14, 2006 2:51 am

:D This is an interesting topic!

My husband has been wanting to learn for ages, and i finally agreed to teach him. Problem though is that his fingers are sooooo stiff when he plays that he can't push one note down without lifting all his other fingers..

An interesting observation though is that when he writes, he clutches his pen very tightly, as though it's going to jump out of his hand if he doesn't hang on to it for dear life. 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?
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Postby Mins Music » Mon Aug 14, 2006 6:44 am

My adult students are the ones that mostly need reminding to relax! It starts in the mind. I literally see them thinking and panicking "Hurry up mind, tell me what this note is right now or I'm gonna have a fit, and if you don't tell me right now I'm gonna be SOOOO mad ...." It's usually because they are too impatient with themselves and want to be able to play the piece FAST. Their mind panics, their shoulders tighten, hands can even become clawlike, and then it's THUMP take that innocent piano key! I have one older student (late fifties) that used to jut her neck out every time she finally got the note right! When tension is this bad I stop them completely from playing, take their hands off the keys and have a breather - distract their mind by getting them to talk, mimic what they're doing theatrically to get them to laugh (depending on personality) and remind them again to let their brain have plenty of time to get into gear. Usually a simple pointing out of which part of their body is tensing and a few stretches helps them. Clawlike hands I get to do a few arpeggios and wide stretching intervals. I try and teach all students about stretch and recovery - and not to keep their hands in one position eg, if they've been doing octaves in a passage be sure to allow the hand to come together again - like an accordian.

now singing - relaxation is a constant problem....but we're not on a singing forum! :laugh:
"I forget what I was taught, I only remember what I've learnt." - Patrick White, Australian novelist.
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Postby minorkey » Tue Aug 15, 2006 6:08 am

Mins Music wrote:I try and teach all students about stretch and recovery - and not to keep their hands in one position eg, if they've been doing octaves in a passage be sure to allow the hand to come together again - like an accordian.

Interesting- I realized that on my own! (Think of Chopin's Nocturn in Bb minor, the middle section). If I don't "relax" between striking the octaves, my right hand literally locks up.
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Tue Aug 15, 2006 9:51 am

Adults certainly are more likely to be tense! (Wonder why?) :laugh:

A friend of mine practiced a piece for me while she was taking care of my cat when I was away. She eagerly wanted to play it for me when I got home. She sat down and was having trouble finding the first notes .(She was reversing the notes in the clefs) . She said, "Wait, don't look, I have to practice". She got more tense, and I said, "Wait a minute". I told her to take her hands off the piano and I gently massaged her shoulders, and told her to breath deeply.

She had worked hard and thought she would surprise me by playing the piece. In a few minutes, she found her error and played the easy version of the first part of "Musette" by Bach, with just a little hesitation. She always talks about taking lessons again, but we never seem to set a time.

Last year I taught the Mother of two boys who were taking lesso melody to the first song she played, but the notes and the rhythm did not come easily.She got more tense. I switched to some five finger rote pieces. She relaxed some. She was really not famliar with the keyboard, so just learning that was not overwhelming. Chatting and joking and asking her to relax did not have lasting effects. She did enjoy some rote duets with her boys.

Another Mother, some years aog, picked up her old music well, and thoroughly enjoyed playing again. With the joy of playing, came relaxation.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Aug 15, 2006 9:53 am

I remember saying once before that adults are often more nervous and tense in lessons than children. Maybe the trials and tribulations of everyday life carry over into their playing.

The last two posts have touched on a very important point: relaxing between the notes, especially after a stretch. Tobias Matthay cautioned against what he called 'keybedding'--continuing to apply force after the key has been struck and has hit bottom. Arnold Schulz, in his landmark book "The Riddle of the Pianist's Finger" has "keep the hand small" as one of his precepts. My own teacher, Mme. Conus, had an exercise in her technique books in which the hand plays repeated short 5-note chords spread over an octave, but relaxes to normal position after each one.

Every impulse should be followed by a relaxation. In rapid movements, of course, there's not time to return to anything like a limp condition, anymore than there is time to apply full force to the impulse; but every movement we make should be followed by a slight recoil. That's what it means when we speak of an 'elastic' condition of the muscles: neither rigid nor flabby but in a kind of slow vibration.

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Postby 108-1121887355 » Tue Aug 15, 2006 10:08 am

"Maybe" - yes, for sure.

But for me, playing is a form of enjoyment and relaxing. I may get frustrated at times, when I don't play something the way I want it to sound, but basically it is pleasurable. I am no longer 'working' toward a recital!

:D
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Postby Stretto » Tue Aug 15, 2006 2:31 pm

I feel that relaxation in playing should take top priority in one's mind even over hitting the right notes. Playing in a "relaxed" manner should be in the foreground of one's mind with correct notes, correct rhythm, correct tempo, etc. following. It's so easy to "worry" so much about hitting correct notes, playing the correct rhythm, etc., it's no wonder how one can play in a relaxed manner with all that to think about. 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?

From personal experience, along the same lines of what's been discussed, how many of us have been trained to "prepare for the next note" or what's ahead in the music. I've noticed for myself, my hands ready, reaching toward what the next note will be, stretching that direction in order to "be there on time". Talk about adding extra tension! I've combatted this for myself by thinking in my mind where the next place will be rather than physically "stretching" that direction. It's funny how it's easy to focus on getting to the next note when "relaxing" between notes is just as important. How many people, I wonder really give much thought to what should be happening with one's hands between notes. What do other's of you think "preparing for the next note" means?

Also, as mentioned, people can lead such stressful lives in other realms. Constantly walking around tensed up from the stress of the day or the next thing that needs to be done becomes a habit and how can one not carry those habits into playing? This is the most concerning to me for pianists because it's probably that tension that becomes habit that a person is unaware of doing. Try this experiment: When you're sitting waiting somewhere or listening to a boring speaker, or watching t.v., or doing some mundane task like loading a diswasher, do a checklist of tension in your body from head to toe. If your just sitting in a chair for example doing nothing, is your face tense, neck tense, your shoulders, your upper back and so on? Now if your just sitting in a chair, is it necessary to have these areas tensed up? One can do this same checklist when playing the piano, ask if one is adding any undue extra tension that doesn't need to be there. Awareness of unneccessary tension is a major step because then one can take measures to relax when there's no purpose to be tensed up. I learned once to think about muscles in terms of being elongated and outward feeling rather than crunched and shrunken, or flopping oneself into a blob with sunken shoulders and posture.




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Aug 15, 2006 9:09 pm

Melba always said, "You play like who you are." If you're a nervous, tensed up person whose body is fighting itself whenever you're doing something physical, you're playing is going to come out that way. If you're basically an unambitious couch potato, your playing will have little drive and focus to it. And so on.

All those things that Stretto points out so well apply to any complex athletic ability. Watch a slow motion replay of a great basketball, football or tennis player executing some difficult action--it almost looks like ballet, with everything smooth and economical. And we're athletes, too, in a sense--maybe not super-athletes like Horowitz, but executing complex coordinations even in a simple piece.

I've often used the illustration of walking. One leg goes down, the foot takes the weight, the leg muscles contract in orderly fashion, and then automatically relax when the process is all shifted to the other leg. Constant alternation of tension and relaxation back and forth between the legs, and we never even think about it. That's how natural piano playing should be.

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Postby 108-1121887355 » Wed Aug 16, 2006 8:54 am

If "you play like who you are" which I certainly believe is true, then how much will thinking about trying to relax really help?

I still feel that thinking too much about it only tenses you. Chances are, if you are enjoying your playing, you will be as relaxed as you can.

As for thinking ahead - this is important but your fingers, although they need to know what is coming, need not react until they are ready to play.
My fingers automatically 'come together' after a stretch. I don't know if I was taught to do that, or it's just something I do.

That basketball player may look relaxed, but he cannot be completely or he would not be able to execute his play. With piano, the same - sometimes there is 'tension' in playing that is needed for the piece or certain sections, other times one can be more relaxed and that mood
comes through. I guess I feel one needs a balance. (as in life)
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Wed Aug 16, 2006 5:40 pm

I'm glad this topic is producing some discussion, because 'relaxation' as it applies to piano technique is very much misunderstood--in fact, it's really a misnomer (like 'rotation') which doesn't describe what should be happening.

Yes, of course if you are engaged in some physical activity, whether it's playing the piano or putting the cat out, you're not 'relaxed', if by that you mean that your muscles are flacid and inactive. But I've tried to explain that it's not an on-or-off thing, but rather a state that is usually both intermittent and partial, and that perhaps a better term for the release of tension after a movement might be 'recoil'. This can even happen quite rapidly, as in a tremolo, where the muscles are contracting and recoiling alternately and quickly in what's called a "vibratory movement" (that term came right out of the Journal of the American Medical Association). This is one of those technical activities in which a lot of players "lock up".

I certainly agree that making students self-conscious about relaxing can make them more tense than ever; we have to sneak up on the subject and solve the problem obliquely somehow. (When the beetle asked the centipede which leg he used first when he walked, the centipede suddenly couldn't walk.)

But I emphatically disagree that the teacher doesn't need to understand these things in order to work out the best strategy for correcting tension. What Chilly described about her husband shows up with distressing frequency.

Dr. Bill.
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