Category Archives: Technic

Rotation and the D Song

PinkyLast week, we learned about the basic motion of rotation. Are you ready to use rotation on a real work of music? Great! But first we need to take a brief detour.

The most important activity my beginning piano students perform in their first piano lessons is singing, and then playing, pentatonic folk songs. This is because I want them to experience piano playing primarily as an aural and kinesthetic art, rather than one that is reading-based. I introduce steps (two next door notes), skips (two notes separated by one note in the middle) and leaps (anything bigger than a skip) in this context—as something one hears and feels, rather than lines on a printed page. We sing, before taking it to the keyboard.

It’s not long before I progress to half steps and whole steps. A half step is two keys as close as possible together; a whole step is two keys, separated by one key in the middle. Confusing? It could be, since the definition of a whole step is dangerously close to that of a skip.

Here’s where a listening-based approach really pays off. The definition may be similar, but the sound is not close at all. Students hear and understand this readily, after some repetition. We are laying the groundwork for a conceptual understanding of scales. They are built on patterns of half steps (semitones) and whole steps (tones).

Our old friend The D Song is whole-step based, the first two notes of many scale patterns. After the student can sing The D Song more or less 1, both parts, it’s ready to be learned at the piano.

The D Song

The D Song

Tobias Matthay felt that fundamental movement problems in scale work were always functions of rotation. That is correct, in my view, so it’s important to introduce the rudiments of rotation early in piano study to avoid later problems. Let’s do it with The D Song, after the notes have been learned. We’ll start with just one note.

If you want to perform any kind of movement, you have to prepare in the opposite direction. If you want to put your foot down to step, for instance, you have to lift it first. If you want to throw a ball forward, you have to wind up backward.

The first finger to be played in The D Song is the thumb. Because of its length (or lack of it), the thumb is always played with a medial rotation, toward the middle of the body. That means that the preparation has to be lateral, away from the body.

Here are the steps, starting with the left hand:

  • Preparation
    • gently rest your thumb over middle D
    • rotate (turn the doorknob) laterally, to the left. Your thumb should lift and be facing up at about a 45 degree angle
    • flex your fingers so that they are strong—not stiff, but not totally relaxed, either
      • I show students the correct flexion by asking them to hold a Beanie Baby, before we start the rotation process. The fingers should be firm enough that the Beanie baby doesn’t drop, but not so strong that the Beanie Baby is clenched
  • Play
    • release the energy of the arm and let the forearm fall and the thumb push into the key, in good thumb position. If you do it right, you will get a full, resonant, bell-like sound
  • Follow-through
    • the arm continues the rotary movement medially, to the right. This is not a separate motion, it’s a continuation of the forearm motion that caused the thumb to play. The thumb rolls a bit to its side, so it is resting briefly on the nail
  • an important component of this process is that the thumb has to relax once it has struck the key, so the rotational movement can continue, while the thumb lightly holds the “D” key down. It should not be pressing as it rests on the keybed.

Is this too much information for a beginner? for one note? Way too much, if you try to present it all at one time in words. I don’t do that. I demonstrate, I make up stories, I correct as I go, and I don’t expect too much perfection at the beginning.

More notes—and gestures–to come!

Notes:

  1. D is a good note on which to start singing, since it is well within the range of most students. For our purposes right now, it doesn’t matter too much whether you use a traditional solfège approach or simply sing note names. A simple two-note song may take some students several weeks with which to match pitch. Don’t worry, it will come as long as they keep singing.

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Beginning Rotation

Cat ToyPiano technic can be a tricky proposition. Getting just the right degree of muscle tonus 1 in some tissues while maintaining a different state of flexion in others is tough. Especially when one is trying to move at the same time. Too much tonus and movement is difficult or even painful; too little, and movement becomes impossible because too relaxed.

We’ve taken an important first step in working on thumb motion. Now let’s begin work on what I consider to be the foundational movement of piano technic: rotation. As I said in my first blog entry in this series, we try to base our piano-playing motions on the “natural” motions of our arm and body. Rotation is one of those.

In the history of piano teaching, rotation is often associated with Tobias Matthay 2 (1858-1945), the distinguished teacher of such legendary British pianists as Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany and Dame Myra Hess, and a prolific writer on piano teaching and technic. Matthay stated that he based his ideas on observations of three great pianists who played in London in the 1880s: Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, and Hans von Bülow. 3

Matthay wrote in the spirit of 19-century scientific experimentation, in a technical language that, to me anyway, is difficult to make sense of. 4 The basic principles, though, are clear.

I begin by asking students to let their arms hang with their hands at their sides, as if walking. Notice that, in this position, both the thumbnail and radius bone are facing forward. In order to place our hand on the piano keys to play, we have to lift our arms (from the forearm) and rotate the forearm 5 so that the thumbnail and radius are facing medially, to the center of the body. This is called “pronation”. Pronation is not an uncomfortable position, but the arm naturally wants to rotate back to its initial position, with the thumb and radius facing upward. We want to take advantage of this natural inclination and use it in piano technic.

I use a cat toy to begin to explain the motion to students. Here are the directions:

  • Gently outstretch your arm
  • Hold the cat toy in your hand with enough muscle flexion to keep it in an upright position, but not so much that you squeeze the poor little cat too much and make your hand stiff.
  • Pretend the cat toy is doorknob, and you are going to turn it.
  • Turn it to the left, then to the right.

Congratulations! You just rotated.

Is it really this easy? Yes, in a way, as you get started (the nuances will take more time). Here are some things to check as you start to master the gesture.

  • Make sure the motion is initiated from your forearm.
    • The upper arm and shoulder support the motion, but do not initiate movement
  • Medial rotation (pronation) necessitates a slight repositioning of your elbow, out and up. But don’t let it waggle too much!

Practice with your own stuffed animal, or even a doorknob until you get comfortable with the basic movement. We’ll apply it to music in my next blog.

Notes:

  1. Friendly reminder: “tonus” is a word physicians use to describe a state of low-level muscle activity. I sometimes refer to this state as muscle “flexion”.
  2. There is a fascinating recent biography about Matthay by American Matthay expert Stephen Siek, England’s Piano Sage: The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay (Scarecrow Press, 2012)
  3. Alan Walker, Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times (Oxford, 2010), p.396
  4. In fairness to Matthay, as an Associate Editor for the magazine Clavier Companion, I well understand the difficulties of trying to explain piano technic in prose. I have learned a lot about Matthay’s ideas as a member of The American Matthay Association.
  5. Matthay was, perhaps inevitably, attacked by competitors, some of whom stated that the very act of rotation is impossible. Matthay responded (correctly, I think) that it’s impossible to even place one’s hands on the piano without rotation.

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The D Song & The Thumb Drill

This blog post is a slightly revised excerpt from a two-part article I wrote on scale-playing, published the September-October and November-December, 2013 issues of Clavier Companion.

I feel strongly about the importance of starting technical work in contrary motion; in my opinion, it is an easier and more natural way to move one’s fingers.

Try drumming the fingers of both hands on a table, and see if you agree with me. Most students will drum their fingers in contrary motion, medially, that is, starting with the fifth finger and moving in toward the center of the body.

However, I use lateral (from the thumb out) contrary motion in The D Song, the first exercise I teach beginners, for a reason: to focus on the thumb.

The D Song

The D Song

The thumb is the “problem child” of technic because it is so different from the other digits. It has only two phalanges (finger bones) instead of three; it works in opposition to and indeed has a different position from them as well. The thumb metacarpus (which attaches the fingers to the hand) is capable of a wider range of movement compared to the other fingers; the tip of the thumb also has a more extensive motion range than the other fingertips.

What all of this means for beginning piano students is: trouble.

In the beginning stage, the most important task is to establish the proper position and movement pattern for the thumb. I start with a simple away-from-the-piano drill I call, with a startling lack of creativity in titling, The Thumb Drill.

The Thumb Drill

  • Rest your forearm on a flat surface
    • The arm should be relaxed, really “resting”. I sometimes tell children that their arm should feel like it is asleep
  • Fold the four fingers (not the thumb) under the hand, making a loose, relaxed fist
  • Move the thumb gently up and down five times per hand, with the tip turned in slightly. At the bottom of the stroke, it should gently tap on the flat surface, not pressing or holding

Why fold the fingers under the hand? This position makes it virtually impossible (though some students try) to move the thumb incorrectly. The thumb moves easily from the metacarpal joint, rather than the knuckle, and acts independently.

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Can We Really Play “Relaxed”?

Hand with Stuffed Animal
Holding my favorite stuffed octopus

The piano-playing hand doesn’t maintain its natural structure without some muscular energy. I’ve heard fine teachers call this “flexion” but the word that physicians use is “tonus”, the alternating low-level contraction and relaxation of neighboring muscle fibers that holds parts the body in a neutral functioning position without getting tired.

I’m not sure that this is what most piano teachers mean by “relaxation”. Many of my pedagogy students seem to be under the impression that a good technic requires total relaxation at all times and that arm weight alone is enough to play the keyboard.

I disagree. To paraphrase Edna Golandsky, former Artistic Director of the Taubman Institute and now director of her own eponymous festival, movement is impossible from a state of total relaxation. If you don’t believe us, try getting up from a prone position without flexing any muscles. Impossible.

Different dynamic levels and sound qualities require different types and amounts of muscle tonus. To give my students a basic idea of how this works, I use stuffed animals. Yes, even my university students.

Take a smallish stuffed animal and grasp it in your hand. Flex your fingers enough that you can comfortably hold it in your hand, not squishing it, but not relaxing so much that it drops, either.

Look how great your hand position looks. That is, more or less, the degree of muscle tonus we need to play the piano.

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Hand Position

In my first blog on piano technic, we talked about using the “natural” structural and motions of the body. Let’s get started with hand position.

  • Let your arms hang by your sides, relaxed and easy. Notice your hand position.
    • Your thumb is pointing up
    • Your radius bone is situated on top of your arm
    • Your hand position is rounded at the metacarpal-phalangeal joint 1 (piano teachers sometimes call this the bridge)
  • Gently lift your arms and rotate them into playing position.
    • Your thumbs are now facing each other
    • Your radius bone is positioned medially (toward the middle)
  • Check your hands’ “three arches” 2
    • Arch no.1: the metacarpal-phalangeal joint (also called the “transverse arch” or the “bridge”) should be slightly flexed—not tense, but not collapsed, either
    • Arch no.2: the “Russian Arch”, running from the tip of the index finger back to the wrist, should also be flexed and maintain its arch shape.
    • Arch no.3: I call this the “Sideways Arch: it goes from the tip of the second finger to the base of thumb, and back out to the tip of the thumb

Maintaining your hand’s natural structure–the “three arches”–while playing will take some mindful attention while you practice. But you will be rewarded with greater freedom, a richer sound and—best of all—no pain.

Notes:

  1. For readers unfamiliar with bone terminology, here is a link to a useful diagram http://www.gzaic.org/anatomy-of-the-hand-bones-2/.
  2. I did a very interesting interview with the Canadian pianist Alan Fraser that gives more information on the arches, along with many other points of technical interest. It was published in the September/October, 2015 issue of Clavier Companion.

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“Natural Pedagogy”

I remember when “natural” foods first became popular. It was the 1970s, when we went “back to nature” with macrobiotic diets and tie-dying. Those were my own “salad” days and actually, I had a lot of fun. Luckily for me, few photos survive…

But I don’t remember the term “natural” being applied to piano technic, at least by my teachers back then. It was lots of “lift the fingers” “hammer the keys” or, perhaps worse, no technical instruction at all. “Who cares about technic?” I recall one instructor saying. “If you get the sound I want, I don’t care how you do it.”

Lots of pianists in my generation have a similar story. And we paid the price for it. In some cases, a dire one: discomfort, pain and career-ending injuries.

Is there such a thing as a “natural” piano technic? I would argue yes. It’s based on the physiological properties of the human body. If you learn even a little bit about healthy functioning, your piano playing technic will be better.

Here’s my definition of technic: the knowledge and ability to produce the sounds you want in a “natural”, pain-free way. If you’re tired of the word “natural”, substitute “innate” or “structural”, or any word you want that will help you find a way for your and your students to use your bodies in the most effective way to play beautifully and without discomfort.

Over the next few months I will be writing a series of blogs talking about the principles of healthy technique, giving some resources, and acknowledging the pioneers in the field. It will be unavoidable to use some physiological jargon and refer to some fairly creepy looking diagrams. I know some of this information is far away from the core knowledge of many piano teachers. In my view, that’s part of the problem: we all need to know more basics about how the body works.

If reading it hurts, remind yourself that this is an investment in adding beauty to the world.

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