Piano 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.
- 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”. ↩
- 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) ↩
- Alan Walker, Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times (Oxford, 2010), p.396 ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩