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What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body

By Thomas Mark

Quality of Movement

We depress piano keys with our fingers. But the fingers cannot work in isolation. As they depress the keys, numerous other movements occur throughout the body, in the arms, spine, hips and legs. Depending on the demands of the passage these other movements may be large and obvious, or they may be small--mere "adjustments." But they are still movements. Their effect is to make piano playing a series of well-coordinated movements of the body to which many body parts contribute. The playing is free and easy as each part performs its appropriate share of the work. The body is always poised and balanced. Movement of this kind is movement of high quality.

Piano playing that is accomplished by high-quality movement, in which each part contributes its proper share with no tension, will be free, expressive and secure. Playing that is accomplished by poor quality of movement, with tension, fatigue and stiffness, will be insecure and unreliable.

It is best to think of quality of movement as a continuum, with high quality of movement at one extreme and poor quality at the other. Most actual movement falls somewhere in the middle, neither absolutely free nor absolutely wretched. As the quality of movement improves, the playing becomes freer, more expressive, more secure, less likely to cause injury. As the quality of movement deteriorates, the playing becomes less secure, less expressive, more dangerous.

If one part of the body becomes fixed or stiff and ceases to contribute its share of the movement, we will probably still be able to play the piano. Other body parts will compensate. By working a little harder they can get the task accomplished. We can still play, but with a poor quality of movement.

Saying that someone plays with a poor quality of movement is not the same as saying that the playing is poor. Quality of movement and quality of playing are connected, and improving the quality of movement will improve the playing as well as overcoming injury. But the two are not the same. Some people succeed in playing well despite poor quality of movement.

That is, some people have a technique that includes inefficient, stressful movements. Nevertheless, with a powerful musical conception, by practicing diligently, forcing and generally working very hard they compensate for the inefficiencies and play well. Perhaps they even become virtuosos. But the outstanding playing may be obtained at a cost that the body cannot sustain indefinitely. There are people who play fabulously well--until they're injured and can't play at all. Some pianists with poor quality of movement do escape injury, but they are still at risk. Moreover, although they play well they do not play as well as they would if their movements were of higher quality.

This is a vital point, because people assume that anyone who plays beautifully must have an exemplary technique which can serve as a model for others. "Such and such a famous pianist did it this way" is taken to imply, "It's ok to do it this way." But what if the famous pianist was injured? Not every one knows that Glenn Gould, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Wanda Landowska, Artur Schnabel and a host of other famous pianists were injured. Their injuries suggest that their techniques included stressful movements. Obviously, we should acknowledge and emulate their artistic achievements. But we should be very careful about modelling our technique on theirs.

In repetitive tasks, some ways of moving are safe, others dangerous. Mere outward appearance does not always enable us to say which is which. Two movements of the hand or fingers may look outwardly similar, yet one may be free and easy, the other stiff and tense. The quality of one movement may be better than the quality of the other, despite their similar outward appearance. The point is important because it is the quality of the movement, not its outward appearance- -how we do it, not what we do--that makes the difference between free, expressive playing and limited, potentially injurious playing.

To train a better quality of movement it is not enough just to train body parts. We need an approach that takes into account the structure of the body, the way the parts move most freely, and the coordinated interaction of the parts in the complex activity of playing the piano.

Copyright © 2003 by GIA Publications,Inc.

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