by Madeline Bruser
(This article was originally published in November 2012. It contains a video.)
I once zoomed in on Peter Serkin’s hands with binoculars from the balcony of Carnegie Hall. He was playing an extremely virtuosic contemporary piece that had his hands running all over the keyboard. I wanted to see one specific thing about how he used his hands, and if it was in agreement with how I play myself and how I teach.
I was looking to see if his fingers were up or down—that is, if the non-playing fingers were raised above the keys while other fingers were busy playing, or if they were simply resting on the keys until they needed to play.
As I expected, those fingers were down. How else could they be ready to play a split second later? And how else could his muscles be minimally engaged, to keep tension to a minimum, so that he could play so fast and so easily? It was beautiful to watch the effortless fluidity in his playing.
When we zoom in on a performer who has mastered their instrument, we gain inspiration for our own practicing. It shows us what is humanly possible, and how beautiful our technical equipment could be.
How to Zoom In on Your Own Hands
When you’re sitting at your instrument, you don’t need binoculars to zoom in on what your hands are doing. But it can be easy to miss crucial details and to not get where you want to go with your technique.
Zooming in effectively requires three things: inspiration, mental clarity, and facts.
Just as I was inspired watching Peter Serkin’s hands, I hope you find some inspiration in this close-up of my hands, playing the same section of Chopin that opened the October 2012 article:
You can see that in all the passage work, my fingers rest on the keys when they’re not playing (except in two places, which I will explain later).
In addition to the inspiration you may gain from watching a video, or from zooming in with binoculars at a concert, let’s talk about the other two ingredients you can use to effectively zoom in on your own hands.
Give Your Mind a Chance
The first challenge in working with physical details while practicing is that there are so many other things going on. We get overwhelmed with the complexities of the music, with our emotional responses to it, and with our anxiety about meeting the deadline of a performance, lesson, or audition. In the middle of all that, it can be hard to even notice how your hands feel. In fact, many musicians get so caught up in practicing, and in pushing for results, that they don’t even realize how much tension is in their hands and arms until it builds to the point of injury.
So in order to begin working with your instrumental technique, you first need to clear your mind of other issues that are screaming for your attention. If you can manage to slow down the racing thoughts in your head, and ease up on your tendency to drive yourself too hard, you can gain enough presence of mind to clearly observe the delicate, precise movements of your hands, and you can find solutions to technical problems more quickly and easily. You can even notice how your sound quality improves as you train your hands to move in a freer, more refined way.
Such presence of mind is also known as mindfulness. In the September 2012 issue, I described a simple technique for increasing your mindfulness, which I called “Grandma’s Recipe for Space.” Part of this recipe is called mindfulness of breathing, and doing it for even two minutes can make the difference between productive practicing and total frustration.
So the next time you’re feeling frustrated during practicing, I encourage you to stop practicing for a minute or two and to try Grandma’s Recipe: Just sit comfortably upright and take two minutes to do two simple things: 1) breathe, and 2), notice your breathing. Try it even if you’re skeptical. If you’re like everyone else I know who’s tried it, you’ll come back feeling more clear-headed and ready to practice with more focus and enjoyment.
Know the Facts
In addition to inspiration and mental clarity, it helps to have some solid, scientific facts to encourage you in your pursuit of this technical mastery and beauty. For now, we’ll look at one basic fact of how your hands work.
Your hands are obviously of major importance in your instrumental technique. Even if you are not a pianist, looking at these two photos of my hand can help you understand something crucial about how to use your hands.
In the first photo, you see my third finger putting down a key while the other four fingers are relaxed and resting on the keys.
This is the way Peter Serkin’s hands looked through my binoculars. And it’s also how my hands look in the video.
In the second photo, you also see the third finger playing a key, but this time, other fingers are raised above the keys.
The problem here is that when your fingers are raised above the keys, you’re using muscles to hold them up. Those muscles are in the topside of your forearm. And the muscles that bend your fingers, to play, are in the underside of your forearm. So if you bend and lift at the same time, as in the second picture above, you are contracting both sets of muscles in your forearm simultaneously and creating unnecessary tension. Doctors call this co-contraction.
That extra tension is enough to create a constriction in your forearm, which inhibits both speed and expressiveness. And it happens to be the single most common cause of injuries among pianists.
Putting the Ingredients Together
Nearly every new student who walks into my studio for the first time has this habit of keeping their fingers raised above the keys, to at least some extent. Many of them know it’s not a good habit—and have even had teachers who advised against it—but they don’t know how to change their habit. Others were instructed to raise their fingers as a kind of calisthenics for the hand—an approach that doctors agree is destructive and potentially injurious.
A habit is like a code in the spinal cord. In order to change that code, you need to put your brain in charge and deliberately do something differently, repeatedly. Even ten minutes of slowly and carefully making sure that your fingers are down will make it more automatic—you will already begin to feel that the old habit is starting to weaken, and the newer one is starting to take hold.
Most people who have never taken the time to focus like that are surprised by how much mental energy it takes. Often I ask them how their hand feels after a few minutes of playing in the new position, and they answer that they are so busy focusing on doing it the new way that they don’t even notice how different the physical sensation is. But usually they quickly realize that it feels better, and they describe it as “more relaxed,” “less strained.” “Easier.”
So acquiring physical ease takes mental work.
The Mental Key
The key is to follow the idea of the mindfulness of breathing technique: For every single thing you do, you actually do two things: First, you put down a key. Second, you check the other four fingers to make sure they are resting on the keys instead of being raised above them.
This is mindfulness in action. You are exercising the specific natural capacity of your brain called mindfulness. And each time you exercise it—each time you complete these two steps of moving a finger and checking the rest of your fingers—you are strengthening that part of your brain. Scientists have even located this part of the brain, in the prefrontal cortex—behind your forehead. And they have observed that as people practice mindfulness, the cells in this part of the brain multiply, strengthening this natural mental capacity.
As you practice using your hand this way, remember that the fingers are not designed for power. The arm is designed for power, and the fingers are designed for sensitivity, precision, and refined control. So don’t try to get a big sound. In fact, even if a finger isn’t yet strong enough to produce any sound, just put the key down with minimum effort. Don’t force anything—you will gain strength within a short time.
I’m not a grandma yet, but I am a mom. So we could call my method for training your fingers to rest on the keys “Mom’s Recipe for a Tension-Free Hand.” Here is what you do:
1. Play one note with minimum effort.
2. Say “check,” to yourself, as you remember to check each of the other four fingers to make sure that they are relaxed and resting on the keys.
3. Relax your mind along with your hand. Don’t think about the next note.
4. Repeat these steps for each note you play.
It helps enormously if a teacher guides you through these steps during one or more lessons and catches where little things are obstructing your progress: If your wrist height changes too much, your knuckles collapse, your shoulders hunch or roll forward, or your hand remains in a stretched position longer than necessary, it can hamper the process. And most people need someone else there to catch the times when their focus slips and they fail to notice that a finger is working too hard, is unnaturally curled or straight, or is sticking up in the air.
But if you follow this recipe for ten minutes at a time over the course of a week, playing with one hand at a time, and without playing anything else during that week, you can succeed in changing your habit of raising your fingers above the keys—at least 95% of that habit will be gone, and your hand will work with wonderful new ease and efficiency. Even one or two ten-minute sessions a day can be enough to accomplish this goal in a week’s time.
Of course, there are other factors that come into play—like adjusting the bench to the right height so that you have optimum leverage with your fingers and arm. And aligning your torso and arms for maximum efficiency. But that would take too many paragraphs right now. If you’re interested, you can read all about it in the chapter called “Basic Mechanics” in my book, The Art of Practicing.
What About That Left Thumb?
Aha! You caught it! Yes, my left thumb is momentarily above the keys in this video when my fifth finger is playing the bass notes. That’s because I’m using a particular arm movement to bring out the bass line and to create momentum in negotiating the arpeggios, and the angle of my arm in this movement results in my thumb leaving the surface of the keys. But the thumb is still relaxed, just hanging from my hand instead of sticking out or up.
And That Place Where Your Right Hand Hits Keys from the Air?
That’s something called forearm rotation. Too much to go into here, but basically, in this case, it allows you to momentarily throw your hand to the side, which gives you enough arm power to bring out certain notes in certain kinds of patterns.
It may all sound very complex, and it is. But once you know how the different hand and arm movements work together, and you get used to doing them, it feels simple and natural.
Mindfulness Brings Heartfulness
The word mindfulness may sound very cerebral, and you may think that practicing with this kind of attention to detail will take you away from your heart connection to the music and to your instrument. But the opposite is true.
When we clear our mind and take time to focus on one detail at a time, something magical happens. Our heart opens. We start to develop a new appreciation of each small thing we’re doing and experiencing. Practicing is indeed extremely complicated. But when we slow down and deal with one thing at a time, it becomes a series of simple moments. These moments gradually come together into complete phrases, and finally into a whole piece that has integrity and beauty, and that flows freely and naturally.
I invite you to come home to the natural clarity of your mind and perceptions, and to the natural warmth of your heart, by practicing with mindfulness. Practicing doesn’t have to be a struggle or a chore. If you understand the facts about how your hands work best, you can master the details of using them by slowing down enough to notice their amazing ability to move gracefully and to touch your instrument with ease, sensitivity, and love.
It’s worth the time it takes.
I wish you much joy and success.
P.S. If you want to be sure that you’re using your hands just right at the piano, I invite you to arrange a lesson, in person or on Skype, or to contact me for a free consultation.
Q & A of the Month
I tried sitting more still at the piano as you suggested in your last article, and I don’t see how you can avoid leaning forward. It feels like the music is making me lean forward, and that it’s necessary. How do you manage to not lean? Isn’t it maybe good for some people and not for others?
This is a really intelligent question, and I appreciate that you’re skeptical. I was skeptical myself for many years, and resisted someone’s advice to change how I use my body at the piano. But then my playing changed, and I found that I could express myself more when I move less.
Using your body this way is something you have to be open to and ready for. There are a number of physical things you have to focus on to make the change work. You need to be aware of the physical feedback from the instrument when you’re upright. There’s an equal and opposite reaction from the piano when you spring forward from your fingertips with your arm. You can feel three contact points—your fingertips, your seat, and your feet—and in between, the energy is flowing back and forth and ricocheting from those points. It takes some guidance to experience this, but there is a diagram in my book, with arrows showing how the different physical forces work.
With everyone I’ve taught who feels they “need” to lean forward, it’s almost always because of a deeply ingrained habit, rather than a real need. The exception is when your hands have to play at an extreme end of the keyboard and you can’t reach the keys without leaning slightly toward them.
How I “manage” to not lean forward is a question that goes quite deep. It’s clear to me that the change in my posture was a direct result of seven years of mindfulness meditation practice. In that practice, you sit upright and still, no matter what is going on inside you emotionally. Storms and waves of passion and panic may all be flooding your system, but you just sit there. You learn to accommodate a lot of energy without reacting so much to it. You actually feel your emotions even more strongly than before, but you get used to handling it all.
This is an amazing discipline for a musician, because our job is to allow powerful musical energy to flow through us to our listeners. The more our habitual reactions are in charge, the less power we have to transmit the music to an audience. If we are bound up in habitual tension, we squeeze some of the life out of the music instead of opening fully to it and giving it to others.
All that said, it doesn’t mean that you have to practice meditation to find this kind of stillness. Doing the kind of mindful listening work I describe in Chapter 10 of my book helps tremendously in gradually changing the habit of overexerting physically. You become more receptive, so you automatically become less active. It’s all about that balance between being active and receptive. Usually we’re overly active and not sufficiently receptive.
Changing your approach definitely requires guidance from a teacher. A movement teacher, such as a teacher of the Alexander Technique or a Feldenkrais teacher, can be extremely helpful. A qualified piano teacher could help you further.
It’s a profound thing to experience, and a big thing to accomplish. I encourage you to keep working in that direction and see what happens. You’re of course welcome to try a lesson on Skype or in person with me, or with another teacher of the Art of Practicing.