Technique Matters - What Do We Mean By 'Relaxation' at the Piano?
by Dr. William Leland
elaxation is a word that we often use in piano teaching when confronted by a student who seems tense or rigid at the piano. "Loosen up," we say, "relax!" Yet, taken literally, it's a contradiction: how can you relax and do something at the same time?
The common terminology of piano technique often tends to employ words that describe movements somewhat inexactly. "Forearm rotation" is a good example: taken literally, it means that the arm twists around in a complete circle; what we actually mean is 'oscillation'. 'Relaxation' is another, for the word itself is commonly understood to describe a muscle or group of muscles that are completely limp. Obviously, we can't play the piano that way. So what do we mean when we say 'relax'?
To play the piano in a comfortable, efficient, 'relaxed' manner implies three things. First, relaxation is intermittent, not constant; the contraction and release of muscle activity alternate continuously in a cooperative cycle. Picture what happens when you walk: as one leg strikes the ground its muscles contract, supporting the body and propelling it forward, then releasing the tension as the other leg swings up and takes over. If the muscles didn't relax between steps we would be walking stiff-legged, as if on stilts.
This is essentially what the fingers should be doing on the keyboard. Every contraction has to be followed by a release as the natural follow-through of each movement. Continuing to force the key down after it has already hit bottom, for example (Tobias Matthay called it "key-bedding"), instead of following through and letting go, inhibits subsequent movements, and the hand starts fighting itself.
Second, the release of muscle contraction is almost always partial, not complete. There is rarely time to reach a state of total flabbiness, nor would it be desirable. (By the same token, the contraction itself is usually only partial as well, since according to physiologists a muscle functions most efficiently at about half its maximum capacity.) Thus, each phase of the contraction/release cycle may not have very far to go, and so the alternate motions frequently happen quite rapidly, even attaining what are known as "vibratory movements" (shivering is an example of this). These smooth alternations in the tone of the muscle fibers constitute what we like to describe as 'elasticity'.
Third, relaxation implies movements that are selective, which means that only those muscles needed for a specific function are called into play. The tensing of muscles that have nothing to do with the chosen activity, and may well inhibit it, goes by the delightful term "parasitic movements"--they aren't helping but are just along for the ride. (Try opening a stubborn jar lid without tensing your mouth and jaw muscles or threading a needle without sticking your tongue out and you'll know what a parasitic movement is.) It is important here to know the difference between the natural involuntary contractions in various parts of the body which provide a stabilizing framework for the main activity, and those tensions which are the true detrimental 'parasites' and need to be gotten rid of.
Watch for signs of undue tension. They are often seen in places other than the hands and arms: stiff, hunched up shoulders; tight, bulging tendons in the neck; facial grimaces, and the like. The lower back should be straight, with the shoulders hanging loosely, and it is important to distinguish between good, erect posture and a rigid back that permits no natural sway in the shoulders and upper arms. At the keyboard, of course, we look for a claw-like hand with tightly curled fingers and white knuckles, fingers (especially the thumb) that are held up or out in awkward positions when not in use, and a locked, humped up wrist. A thumb that does not want to pass under the palm but relies on hand twisting to reach new positions in a scale is often another sign of tension.
A fine technique is one in which the muscle contractions and releases are intermittent, partial, and selective. When we witness a performance in which these three components are present and synchronized, we describe it as 'effortless' or 'natural'. Yet it can only be attained by the kind of practice in which the mental activity is of prime importance, monitoring, diagnosing, and honing the movements to their maximum efficiency and economy--the polar opposite of tension and brute force.