Improving Piano Technique

Question: I have been playing piano since childhood. I am a mediocre jazz player, strong harmonically, but weak technically. I don’t play classical music. Though the years I have practiced scales and exercises such as Hanon, without any positive results. A few years ago I took some lessons from a classical instructor because I thought that the lack of dexterity might have been caused by improper hand position or too much tension, etc. The instructor assured me that this was not the case and suggested more Hanon exercises. Unfortunately there wasn’t one iota of improvement. In addition to this lack of technique I have always found that the more I practiced (whether it be scales, exercises, playing different tunes) the more tired my fingers became. You would think that less fatigue would be the eventual result.

This has been very frustrating and I am considering packing it in. I am retired, have plenty of time to practice and I do play with some wonderful players but I think we all must experience some improvements in order to keep at it.

Is any of this familiar to anyone who might read this? I would certainly welcome comments.

Thanks,

– Ernie Mazza (Hamden, Connecticut, USA)

Albert’s reply: Ernie, many thanks for sharing your story. Without seeing and hearing you play, I can offer a few general suggestions. First and most importantly, it’s essential to play everything musically. Like speech, music has natural inflections, and these are both rhythmic and harmonic. Don’t view “technique” as an object in itself. It is nothing more than a means. Focus instead on everything you wish to express. Don’t be frustrated if you can’t express the most complex artistic ideas just yet; instead concentrate on simpler ideas, and play them with ever more refinement. Even if you are “just” practicing scales, practice for evenness, like a bead of pearls as Mozart would say, and try many different dynamic shadings and articulations. I’m not a fan of Hanon because it encourages mechanical playing, separating “technique” from music and just moving your fingers without actually expressing anything. It is possible to acquire significant dexterity in this manner, but it will be divorced from expressing music and will subconsciously interfere with actual music making.

Second, it’s impossible to force technique, since the muscles will resist and become fatigued. Piano technique starts with the shoulders and goes down to the elbows, then the wrists and finally the fingers. Each part needs to be as free from unnecessary tension as possible, and any fault in the chain will interfere with the rest of the playing mechanism. Try letting your arm hang to the side, as though you were an actor and you were playing dead. Then pick it up with the other hand, and place it on the keyboard. Now let go of your arm and let the newly freed hand rest on the keys. This “floating” sensation of perfect freedom is more or less what it should feel like to play the piano. Strive to integrate this feeling into your playing by practicing this simple exercise, letting the arms drop completely to the side, and finding the absolute minimum amount of muscle tension necessary to hold your arms up to the keyboard. The arms should feel “suspended” in the air, as though a puppeteer were holding them up by a string, and all tension is controlled tension.

A further suggestion: Do keep practicing scales! This is one of the few areas in which I recommend using a metronome, though not all the time. It’s best to practice scales hands separately first in order to spot any unevenness.

Also, velocity is as much about how fast you can release the keys as it is how fast you can depress them. There are two schools of thought on this: the first involves actively raising the fingers (the “high fingers” school), the second (the “relaxation” school) involves “turning off” the muscles, like a light switch, and allowing the key to bring up the finger. (These are gross oversimplifications, I should add.) I’ve been trained to do either one, depending on the music. There are places in which more actively raising the fingers can more immediately bring greater clarity and brilliance.

If you’re reading this, feel free to join in and post a comment; Ernie and I would both appreciate your thoughts.

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