Book Excerpt: Adjusting Bench Height

Minimum hand tension in playing the piano begins with sitting at the proper height. If your elbow is lower than the top of the white keys, your hand and forearm must reach up to the keyboard, which places the fingers at a disadvantageous angle for pushing down keys and requires the hand to work too hard. Sitting too low also prevents the weight of the arm from dropping directly into the keys to produce sound. The hand and forearm must overwork to compensate.

To prevent such strain, adjust the height of the bench by following these steps:

1. Sit upright on the bench and drop your arms at your sides.

2. Place your hands on the keyboard in position to play, with your forearms perpendicular to the length of the keyboard.

3. Let your elbows drop naturally rather than holding them against your body or sticking them out to the side.

4. Raise each wrist to the level of the arch of your hand.

5. If your elbows are not level with the white keys, adjust the piano bench until they are. Use a yardstick or metal tape measure to check that the distance between the floor and your elbow is the same as the distance between the floor and the top of the white keys.

When the wrist is level with the arch of the hand, the fingers need to bend only slightly to depress the keys. This position also allows the weight of the arm to drop directly into the keys, assisting the fingers in producing sound.

While playing, avoid dropping your wrists below keyboard level.

To train your fingers to move with minimum effort, place one hand on the keyboard, keeping the wrist level with the arch of the hand. Practice playing one note at a time with a loose finger while keeping the other fingers relaxed and resting on the keys. Don’t use arm movement at first; simply bend the finger to push the key down without trying to get a big sound. Bending primarily from the base and middle knuckles, rather than the tip joint, will allow you to maintain a strong, comfortable, arched position. When you move your index finger to play, the other four fingers should rest on the keys without tension instead of hovering over the keys or sticking up in the air.

Keeping fingers raised above the keys while other fingers are playing requires unnecessary effort from the muscles in the forearm. The excess tension spreads throughout the hand, inhibiting speed and expressiveness.

Letting fingers rest on the keys when they are not playing minimizes tension in the hand and forearm, which increases ease and improves tone quality.

Slowly play five white keys in succession, starting with the thumb. When each key is down, check to make sure that your other fingers are relaxed and resting on the keys before you play the next note. If one finger is up even a millimeter, the lifting muscles (extensors), which are on the topside of the forearm (the side in line with the back of the hand), are contracting to hold it up. Since you are simultaneously contracting the bending muscles (flexors), which are on the underside of the forearm (the side in line with the palm of the hand), to press a key down, your entire forearm becomes unnecessarily tight. This phenomenon of “co-contraction” creates a harsh tone and limits speed and expressiveness.

To keep the playing finger as loose as possible, visualize the bones of your finger moving instead of focusing on muscle power. Think of the joints as openings where movement takes place, and visualize the lubricating fluid in the joints flowing. Bend each finger loosely toward the palm of your hand. The thumb works differently than the other fingers. If you move it toward the palm, it goes under the other fingers. We need this movement as well to play the piano; a simple legato scale, for instance, requires passing the thumb under the other fingers every few notes. But to push a key down, the thumb must move vertically instead of bending from the knuckle.

If you learn to use the fingers this way without adding any extra push from the arm, you will have the first foundation of efficient, comfortable movement and a beautiful tone. Even if some fingers are at first too weak to produce sound, keep using them in this relaxed way until they acquire enough strength to make sound. Once this control of your fingers becomes a habit, your mind will be free to focus on adding arm movements to your technique. These will be discussed later.