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The “Holy Grail” for pianists is to find an “effortless” technique which allows them to be at one with the instrument. This is something that has interested me for the past 20 years and which I believe I’m beginning to gain some understanding of. I’ve been meaning to blog about this for ages but it’s such a huge subject!

Most of what’s written below is taken from an email I sent to a colleague regarding piano students and how this may be of benefit to some of the more advanced pianists.

The whole subject of technique is extremely complicated and is not simply understanding the mechanism by which we play the instrument, but relies hugely on how we hear and think about music too.

For me, there is a distinct difference between “technique” and something which I shall call “mechanism”. By “mechanism” I mean an efficient use of the muscles of the hand and arm which allows for “effortless” playing by means of gaining maximum effect with minimum input of energy.

Of course this is “technique”, but that word has other implications such as ability to play thirds, octave passages and other specific technical difficulties which are a different concern. Jazz musicians don’t need to build a formidable “technique” in the same way that a classical musician does but the ability to play accurately with precise rhythm and good tone, without conscious awareness of technique is vital. Although applicable to any good musician, this is a specific area of concern for improvisers because we cannot fall back on knowing the notes .

Any physical discomfort is a barrier to improvisation as we need almost all of our conscious mind devoted to creating the notes in the first place. We also need to learn how to combat unwanted tension.

I once asked a very well respected teacher what one should do if experiencing tension and the reply was “play through it!” which is a familiar response and one I find at best unhelpful and can in extreme cases lead to focal dystonia. Another problem which arises more often with students of Jazz/ improvisation is that they usually come to the piano at a later age and haven’t built up a technique at a time when their hands and wrists are more supple and still growing. As a result, many students play the piano with tension or at the very least a highly inefficient technique which wastes energy and produces a bad tone, usually with muscle stiffness. My own approach is based upon:

  • Firstly “timing” the key correctly – nothing to do with rhythm, but rather, feeling the point at which the hammer strikes the string so that one can input the minimum required energy to gain the maximum affect.

  • Maximising the use of the small muscles of the hand (which are very weak but allow great independence) while minimising the work done by the long flexors and extensors which are joined to the forearm. This system of muscles and tendons is very strong and yet impedes finger independence, results in a stiffened wrist, finger  insensitivity and can result in pain if overworked. Most students I see (and many professionals) overuse these long flexors and extensors.

For me, the basic piano playing mechanism relies on:

  • allowing the hand to drop completely -thus allowing a loose wrist and removing unnecessary work from the Flexor Digitorium System in the arm.

  • For the finger to strike the key (“timing” the key/ hammer precisely)

  • The finger then supports the weight of the hand (rather like a house resting on stilts).

  • The fingers do not press at all- they support (they are never passive).

  • The next key is struck by a finger and the weight of the hand is transferred from the first finger to the next with no break – producing an “effortless” legato.

  • Additional energy required for most playing can be added by pushing from the arm or adding additional weight from the arm.

The “feeling” of playing a legato phrase is to drop onto the first note, then feel a  continuous connection with the keyboard throughout the phrase and finally pick the hand up at the end. Playing is effortless, with a good tone and extremely rapid.Although this sounds simple, most pianists are unable to achieve the correct results due to an overuse of the long flexors. These give the pianist a feeling of strength and security but they also “take over” work that needs to be done by the small, far weaker muscles within the hand. This means that the pianist may look as though he or she is performing the correct action but the work is done by the wrong muscle groups and the correct feeling will not be achieved.  Work must e built up from a very small sound,  learning to time the hammer precisely and to allow the arm to completely let go of the hand at the wrist. Only then can additional power be added. Obviously this is only part of a comprehensive technique but the “mechanism” is essential. This is a huge subject and one which produces much disagreement among pianists! This is a really an introduction and I’ll be adding to this subject with images and video. I’d love to hear the thoughts of other pianists.


How to get Beyond Music TheoryHow to get Beyond Music Theory?The subject of balancing a knowledge of theory with “instinctive” playing came up in a music forum the other day. It’s obvious that musicians have strong views on this but I really don’t see the two aspects as being in conflict with each other. In fact, I have very strong views on the matter! :-))Learning How to be a Natural: My whole teaching approach is based upon how to play “naturally” or “instinctively” but it’s also based in a very sound knowledge of theory.  When you learn an instrument you have to perform a great deal of conscious work because you need to tell your hands what to do. We learn this by moving through small conscious steps until each element is allowed to be controlled by the subconscious. We can then move to the next level. If you put in enough hard work you may eventually reach the stage where you can forget everything and just play – but  there’s really nothing instinctive about it.When playing Jazz, I’m only content  if I’m able to play utterly within the moment and play (only) what I’m hearing in my head. As a result I may improvise within the chords, or outside of them. I’ll play whatever I feel at that moment and even though it appears and feels “instinctive”, it’s really no such thing, as this ability has been very hard earned and I’m still able to explain what I’m doing in terms of theory afterwards.Learning to Hear:A knowledge of scales and harmony not only helps you understand the logic within different styles and helps you discuss musical ideas, most importantly, it allows you to HEAR the music better! Very few people  have the ability to hear music and immediately and replicate it. For the rest of us the ability to hear music accurately can be made far easier by breaking it down into smaller elements. If you familiarise yourself with the sound of a basic chord (for example C minor-C,Eb,G) and then add the 7th (C,Eb,G,Bb), add the 9th (C,Eb,G,Bb,D). It doesn’t take long before you can recognise this chord precisely, anywhere at the keyboard by recognising a combination of the chord quality and it’s texture (or voicing). For example a Cm9 played in “closed position” in the middle of the keyboard (Middle C,Eb,G,Bb) will sound rather ordinary, but open up that chord so that you have C in the bass with G above, then Eb, Bb and D – you have a large resonant chord. You could invert it so that you have C in the bass the add Bb (below middle C), D,Eb,G. It’s the same quality chord (minor) with a different texture. Learn all your keys and you can now recognise a minor chord with any extension in any position on the keyboard. (See Jazz harmony posts). There’s no real difference between this method and recognising a particular model of car in different colours. Some cars may have slight modifications but it’s still the same car and you’ll recognise it every time. Instead of hearing a bewildering array of notes, you’ve brought it down to thinking about the smallest possible elements. When you come to play, you don’t think at all-you hear and you’re subconsious does the work that you’ve taught it.Knowledge of scales and harmony enables students to make sense of the bewildering amount of patterns that we use in music. These patterns are entirely man made and many of them are learned in our childhood without knowing it. To western ears, Arabic music or Chinese music can sound very out of tune but it’s because the westerner’s brain hasn’t learned the same patterns. The same applies to Jazz. Many people don’t like Jazz because their brain can’t work out the patterns and it may sound discordant or agitated to them. This type of learning is below the conscious level and might be described as “instinct” in exactly the same way that we learn a language (and accent) when young. When we talk, we don’t think about how the words and sentences are made up (because we learned that when young) , although in order to teach somebody else we need to have a very good understanding of spelling and grammar.Thinking Orchestrally: It should be said that the piano lends itself to thinking theoretically because of it’s visual, logical layout. We can think orchestrally the whole time-and by “orchestrally” it matters not if it’s Ravel or Bob Marley. You can hear the notes and mentally overlay them onto the keyboard. The mistake that most pianists make is to play the piano! The best pianists are trying to emulate orchestras or Big bands or other instruments. It adds colour and another dimension to piano playing. Vladimir Horowitz is the most wonderful “orchestral” pianist. An example of pianistic playing is the wine bar “Jazz” that you hear, with loads of pointless runs and arpeggios. Guitarists approach their instrument differently and find the guitar more of a “feel” instrument because they can’t really look at what they’re doing. Also, guitarists don’t have to learn a completely different shape for each key, anything like the extend that a pianist does. This does mean that they can learn faster without the need for much theory- but beware. I can’t tell you the amount of amazing guitarists that earn a fraction of what they could,  because they can’t read music properly.Don’t Limit Yourself:My point is that a thorough knowledge of theory helps you HEAR music better and learn how to forget the rules and play from your heart. Without this, even with a lot of talent you’ll probably be stuck within one style and be musically restricted. I’ve seen it time and time again.

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