Moving from pain management and prevention of injury, to confidence, technical and musical proficiency at the piano.
Why playing piano may become painful
Of all the instruments, piano may appear to have a most straightforward ergonomic. The pianist doesn’t have to hold the instrument, control breathing, deal with major symmetry challenges or contort for fingering.
In spite of this, the rate of pain reported by pianists is high. Wrist pain, hand or forearm tension, tendinitis, carpal tunnel, frozen shoulder and back pain are commonly experienced by pianists.
The reality of the piano’s ergonomic challenge
There several reasons the pianist may be considered at a disadvantage relative to other musicians. The instrument is quite separated from the performer; only the fingertips and balls of feet touch. This might make it a harder for the pianist to feel connected with the instrument.
At the piano, there is no critical musical demand for breath coordination, leaving many pianists unaware of how well or poorly they may be breathing. Breathing well is a prerequisite for comfort and ease. The relationship between performance and the musician’s whole-body coordination is possibly more obscure to pianists than it is to musicians who hold or breathe through their instrument.
Whilst other players can move with their instruments, the pianist has a limited amount of space in which he or she can move relative to the instrument. This results in many pianists who more or less immobilise themselves to play. When stillness becomes rigidity it leads to tension and stiffness, stifling otherwise graceful performance.
The piano keys themselves are mechanically arranged in parallel lines in contrast with the body’s spirals and curves. The piano stool presents another flat and uninspiring surface with which to work. The demands of music often seem to ask for very complex independence of finger, hand and foot movements. Sometimes it is difficult to see that the instrument itself was designed around the human.
Meeting the challenge
These coordination and ergonomic complexities add up to a significant challenge before we even consider the musical content. Directly or indirectly, they must all be dealt with to engage effectively in making music.
Identifying the challenges of the instrument gives us valuable information for forming strategies to overcome them. Alexander Technique often proposes indirect solutions: by working on very fundamental principles of human thought and movement, students improve not only pianistic performance, but also everyday functioning, ease and comfort. It is quite incongruent to expect good poise at the instrument if the rest of the time the pianist is slumped or tight.
The performer needs a positive coordination to be able to navigate the various instrumental challenges. Any specific movements of fingers, wrist, or arm, demand support from the torso. A constructive engagement with both the instrument’s ergonomics and the performer’s anatomy is fundamental to the process of expressing musical content. This requires a technique which embraces music, interface with the instrument, and the whole psycho-physicality of the performer.
Attention in piano education is typically biased toward music instruction without concern for the larger picture of the performer. Technique is normally presented as a consideration of hands and arms and ignores the requirement for poise through the whole. With educated guidance only addressing hands and arms, the aspiring pianist is left doing whatever feels right through the rest of the body in order to get the desired hand and arm motion.
‘Practising in’ compromising habits
This attitude to playing leaves too much scope for music to be created at cost to the performer. It may start out as an insignificant compromise to the student’s poise. Unnoticed, ignored or unchallenged, it becomes practised, leading to habituation. Once habituated, the pianist becomes insensitive to the deviation from functional poise. If the pianist starts performing, the stakes get raised, and trying harder and practising longer may start to exaggerate small inefficiencies until they become major interferences with performance; symptomatically painful and emotionally distressing.
Going with the flow
A pianist’s skill in coordinating him or herself is the single most influential factor in forming a functional positive relationship with the piano. All the challenges of performance can be more effectively mastered from a point of poise. The player’s poise may create a physical dynamic suitable for engaging with an immobile instrument.
When intelligently animated, the body’s central coordination gives positive support for limb action - all the way down to fingertips, stimulating an optimal contact with the instrument. The conscious framework Alexander Technique train in, is precisely the tool to enable any specific piano technique to function and any musical inspiration to manifest.
As the student develops skill in Alexander Technique, habits submit to conscious intervention. The pianist is able to release excessive tension and direct energy constructively into performance. The performer is no longer helpless against the pull of habit. Following the Alexander process brings confidence to a musician’s control of him or herself as a fundamental to his or her control of the instrument. The confounding symptoms of performance anxiety pale in comparison with the clarity of skilled coordination and cease to enslave the performer.
An organisational principle
Because they deal with fundamentals, the principles of Alexander Technique apply to any endeavour of human thought or action. Alexandrian thinking is an organisational influence on the whole performance - musician, presentation and music. It becomes the baton the pianist wields as the conductor to his or her own body, mind and instrumental orchestra. It becomes the unifying force that can bring into co-ordination the independent movements of fingers. It creates an easeful, secure grounding for polyrhythms, rapid dynamic changes, register leaps and all the myriad challenges of piano music.
Relieving symptoms and learning preventative strategy
Pianists booking an Alexander Technique session are often seeking remedial intervention to resolve back pain or wrist pain associated with playing. Sometimes it is a last hope to avoid surgery.
An Alexander Technique Teacher will take ‘treatment’ of any presenting symptoms in the broadest sense. The teacher will educate the pianist through a process which creates the conditions both for healing and for prevention of further injury.
Paving a pathway to virtuosity
Because the Alexander Technique process is creating an efficient and highly functional coordination, the pathway out of pain also brings about the optimal conditions for musical virtuosity. At the core of Alexander Technique is the development of a capacity for choice in thought and action. Thus, the practice of Alexander Technique gives rise to greater musical freedom and expressive capability.
Students who independently practice the Alexander Technique skills they have learnt past the point of symptomatic relief find their piano technique is liberated and the scope for expression is vastly broadened.
The details of just how Alexander Technique achieves such effects will vary depending on the student and teacher. By its nature, it is an independent discipline which eludes description. Alexander Teachers develop skilful use of verbal and physical guidance to assist individuals in finding their own journey to comfortable, inspired performance.
In these blog articles, I aim to increase awareness of the possibilities of conscious practice. I hope that readers’ eyes will open to their own potential for change and see Alexander Technique as a facilitator.
This article and several others on this blog are specifically written to speak to common issues pianists face and the context of Alexander Technique at the piano. Alexander Technique is there for all instrumentalists, and for non-musicians too! I hope that readers who are not pianists may extrapolate from the specific examples and find the underlying principles can be applied to their own vocations.
If anyone has questions, suggestions or requests relating to blog articles, please use the contact page to get in touch, or add a comment below.