“All technique originates in the art of touch and returns to it.” -Franz Liszt
Your instrument is an extension of your touch, of your body moving through space. Your body responds to the impulses of your heart and your mind, and so your touch will always be unique. It’s a reflection of who you are, an art form all its own. Everyone has a different touch.
What is your touch? Would you rather be stiff or relaxed, weak or strong? The most beautiful music has the power to soothe a savage beast. You can learn to play beautiful music by moving with power and grace every time you sit down at the piano. These basic movements can be combined with finger, wrist, and forearm action to generate all the movements needed to play with effortless technique at any dynamic or speed.
Power comes from silence and stillness. Your center is the source of physical power in dance, martial arts, and music. It is located just below your belly-button in the middle of your body. It usually points to the center of the piano, or to the midpoint between your hands.
Keep both feet on the ground, with your elbows just at the level of the white keys. If your elbows are too high, you’ll be tempted to press down too hard, causing tension. If they are too low, you’ll waste energy holding your arms up, causing fatigue. Focus on your center, and find a balance.
Have your teacher sit down and hold their arm out above their knee. With your hand, hold their wrist up and say the word “relax.” They will relax their arm completely. Wait a few seconds, then let go of their arm and watch as it falls onto their knee like a wet noodle.
Change roles, and sit in the chair as they hold your wrist and say “relax.” When they let go, does your arm tense up? Do you catch yourself? Try it until it becomes easy to fully relax your arm and wrist.
Tension and grace are two different ways to deal with change. Tension is a stressful reaction that leads to bad tone and injury. Grace is a smooth response that leads to beautiful movement and rich tone. Grace is guided by three things: Your heart, your breath, and managing gravity. Your heart is the source of your grace, and you can get in touch with it by becoming still and focusing on your breath. This will allow your muscles to relax and let gravity move your body, under your control.
1: Removing Excess Tension
Suspend your hand a couple of inches above the keyboard, and let it go completely limp, allowing gravity to pull it right back down.. It will fall onto the keys and maybe even into your lap, if you don’t tense up to resist it. Do this until you can successfully fall down on the keys with no resistance, eliminating reactive tension.
2: Controlling the Fall
Now try it again, but just barely resist gravity enough to land on a few notes. It should be softer, but still a random cluster of notes. This is poise. If tension is a stressful reaction to change, poise is a confident posture of strength and flexibility.
Put one of your fingers on a note, and stay on that note as you hover, barely resisting gravity. Allow your arm weight to drop just enough to press the note down with a nice curve to your finger. Do not press the note down; let gravity pull the note down. Control the fall.
Sit so that your fingers rest comfortably on the keys, with a relaxed, poised body. Imagine that your center is a stone foundation for all of your movements. Play with the power of your center and the grace of gravity, and you will have the foundation for perfect technique. The secret to this is managing gravity, which means you work with it to control the direction and speed of the fall. After you can do this, add extra power to increase the volume of the notes as the situation requires. Eventually it becomes unconscious, and the notes will flow from your fingers like water.
When you play piano by working with gravity, your muscles are using very little energy. The Earth is moving you down with gravity, and you are catching yourself on the keys. So, who is really doing the playing here? Are you playing the piano, or is the Earth playing you?