Practicing with excess tension very often leads to repetitive strain injuries among pianists, forcing them to cancel concerts and tours and to restrict their choice of repertoire. Sometimes it even puts an end to a performer’s entire career.
Yet pianist injuries are preventable and are most often curable. And contrary to the idea of “no pain, no gain,” practicing the piano shouldn’t hurt. If you do feel pain while practicing, it’s important to stop playing and to rest your hands and arms. Pain or discomfort is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong and needs to change. Maybe you’re practicing too much, or maybe you’re using part of your body inefficiently.
The Single Most Common Cause of Pianist Injuries
Whatever instrument you play, your hands are obviously of major importance in your technique. Even if you’re 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.
In the second photo, you also see my third finger playing a key, but this time, my other fingers are raised above the keys.
The problem here is that in raising my fingers above the keys, I’m using muscles to hold them up.
There are no muscles in the fingers; tendons extend through them from muscles in the forearm. The muscles used to hold your fingers up are on the top side of your forearm. The muscles that bend your fingers to play are on the underside of your forearm. If you lift and bend simultaneously, as in the second picture above, you contract both sets of muscles in your forearm, 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 is the single most common cause of pianist injuries.
Take It from a Trumpet Virtuoso
Other musicians also benefit from learning how to relax the fingers they’re not using at any moment. Trumpeter Stephen Burns describes it this way:
“Keeping the fingertips connected to the top of the valves brings more color and depth to the sound of the trumpet. Similar to piano technique, when fingers are held above the keys, the tension in the forearm inhibits communication between the brain and the body, which can compromise the resonance you get from the instrument.”
Stephen’s mention of the powerful connection between the brain and the body leads us to the next essential thing you need to transform your technique.
Free Your Mind, and the Rest Will Follow
Addressing physical details in practicing is a challenge because many things are happening all at once when we’re at the piano.
We can get overwhelmed by the complexities of the music, by our emotional responses to it, and by our anxiety about meeting the deadline of a performance, lesson, or audition. And in the middle of all that, it’s hard to notice how our hands feel. In fact, many musicians get so caught up in practicing and 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 achieve optimally healthy piano technique, you first need to free your mind of other issues that are screaming for your attention. If you can 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 observe the delicate, precise movements of your hands. Then you can find solutions to technical problems more quickly and easily. And as Stephen Burns mentioned, your sound quality also improves as you train your hands to move in a freer, more refined way.
A Mental Process Toward Achieving Physical Ease
Nearly every new student who works with me for the first time has this habit of keeping their fingers raised above the keys. Many know it’s not a good habit and have had teachers advise 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 medical professionals agree is destructive and could cause physical injury.
A habit is a repeated behavior that has become unconscious. To change the habit, you must put your brain back in charge. Even ten minutes of slowly and carefully ensuring your fingers are down will make it more automatic—you will feel the old habit weakening and the new one taking hold. This is what neuroscientists call creating new neuropathways.
Most piano students 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. They answer they are so busy focusing on maintaining a relaxed hand position that they don’t even notice how different the physical sensation is. But usually, they quickly realize that it feels better, describing it as “more relaxed,” “less strained,” or “easier.”
So a major missing link in the healing process for pianists with playing-related injuries is mental work.
Repeat 3 Tiny, Transformative Steps
The key is to follow this brief sequence: For every single thing you do with each finger, you actually need to do three things:
- Sitting comfortably upright, put down a key with one finger using no arm movement.
- Check the other four fingers to make sure they’re resting on the keys instead of being raised above them.
- Let your mind relax for a moment before you think about playing the next note. (This releases mental tension while you are also accomplishing physical relaxation.)
You need to practice this with one hand at a time until you set the habit.
Each time you complete these three tiny steps—moving a finger, checking the rest of your fingers, and letting your mind relax before you play the next note—you’re strengthening the of your brain where your natural mindfulness operates. Neuroscientists have actually located this part of the brain in the prefrontal cortex—behind your forehead. And they’ve observed that as people practice mindfulness, the cells in the prefrontal cortex multiply, strengthening this natural mental capacity.
Caveat: Don’t Try to Get a Big Sound
As you practice using your hand this way, remember: your fingers are not designed for power. Your arm is designed for power, while your 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 period of time.
Then, once you relax your fingers on the keys, you’ll have the necessary foundation of sensitivity and precision in your piano playing technique. From that foundation, it’s easy to add arm movements to the mix, bringing physical power and a sense of flow to your playing.
Get Guidance From an Experienced Piano Teacher
It helps a lot if an experienced piano teacher guides you through these steps during one or more lessons and catches little things that may be obstructing your progress:
- Your wrist height changes too much.
- Your knuckles collapse.
- Your shoulders hunch or roll forward, causing inefficient posture.
- Your hand remains in a stretched position longer than necessary.
- You have an unnatural hand position causing a finger to work too hard.
Follow these steps for ten minutes at a time over the course of a week. After each 10- minute session you can take a ten- or 15-minute break to relax your mind and then continue for another 10 minutes, if you like. Or you could come back later in the day and do another 10 minutes. If you play with just one hand at a time and play nothing else during that week, you can change 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 daily sessions can be enough to accomplish this goal in a week’s time.
Of course, other factors come into play—like adjusting the bench to the right height to have optimum leverage with your fingers and arm. And aligning your torso and arms for maximum efficiency. If you’re interested, you can read more in the chapter called “Basic Mechanics” in my book, The Art of Practicing.
A Clear Example
A lot of learning happens through imitation and osmosis, and piano students rely on watching their teachers’ hands. This video clip can give you a quick closeup of my hands on the keyboard. You can see that in all the passage work, my fingers rest on the keys when they’re not playing—except in two particular situations, which I will explain.
What About That Left Thumb?
You caught it! My left thumb is momentarily above the keys in the video when my fifth finger plays 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. The angle of my arm in this movement results in my thumb leaving the surface of the keys. But the thumb is still relaxed, hanging from my hand instead of sticking up.
And That Place Where Your Right Hand Hits Keys from the Air?
That’s forearm rotation. It allows you momentarily to 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.
Case Histories of Pianist Injuries
These three tiny steps are also part of how you can recover if you already have an injury. Here are three case histories that reveal a few different parts of the recovery process.
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 minds and take time to focus on one detail at a time, something magical happens: Our hearts open. 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 complete piece with integrity and beauty. Your attention to detail results in a performance that flows freely, naturally, and from the heart.
It really is possible to avoid the repetitive strain that can lead to wrist pain, elbow pain, shoulder pain, muscle fatigue, and chronic tendon conditions. And I invite you to schedule a complimentary consultation to learn how to practice with more ease and joy. Once you understand how your hands work best, you can master their use 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.
P.S. Please feel free to ask questions or share comments below.