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 Post subject: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Sat Mar 26, 2011 7:15 pm 
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In several threads I often read references to playing with a relaxed state. I would like to add a physiological view to this subject. The opposite of tension is not relaxation but flaccidity. There can be no physical exertion with relaxation. To cause a physical movement, especially against a resisting force, requires tension. The mistaken notion about playing the piano with a "relaxed" aparatus is simplisitic and needs further description so as to not seem impossible and couter-intuitive.

The business about relaxing in piano performance is about limiting tension in space and time. To be more precise, it is mostly about limiting the tension to the fingers and not involving the wrist or the arms and especailly not the shoulders (space). It is as impossible to transmit force through relaxed fingers as it is to push a meatball with a cooked spaghetti noodle; it's simply a mind-game that people foist upon themselves or their pupils. What should be taught rather, is that just because the 5th finger is transmitting the force does not mean that the thumb or other fingers should be tensed. This in fact is the subject of finger Independence that is absolutely critical to advanced playing and artistry. (For the purpose of expanding on the issue of Mind-Games I will here venture to criticise even my grand-teacher Joseph Lhevinne, who wrote that tone production had everything to do with playing with the softer "pads" of the fingers to produce a desirable tone, failing to acknowledge that the sum of all that a pianist does on the keys is ultimately translated to the "final common pathway" of nothing more than adjusting the velocity of a propelled hammer against a string. The density of that hammer of course is fixed (except for some una corda pedaling)).

Then there is the notion of learning and training to limit tension in time. It takes training to learn to turn-off the muscles. This is not a natural impulse. Yes, once one has been on the chord or octave one will eventually relax, but to be able to relax as immediately as possible after executing the effort, is another matter and takes directed training to accomplish. For example. one can begin with triads or octaves going up a scale diatonically. It takes effort and tension to form the hand and strike the keyboard, and effort from the wrist extensors and flexors to move the hand and deliver the blow. But as instantly as the chord or octave is played, one should "shut-down" all the muscular tension so as to maximize the relaxed (low-tension) state. This interval is progressively shortened only with knowledgable and directed/puposeful training. The end result of this kind of training is to extend one's stamina and results in Efficiency of technique. A very simple demonstration of this subject is this: we all have that crazy uncle in the family who will interlock his fingers, placing them on his head and then "bounce" his biceps muscles to some music or rhythm. This is something that is difficult for anyone to do who has not gone through the process of learning to "turn-off" the muscular tension phase quickly, but can be learned by anyone.

In summary, I find it an impediment to learning to use broad brush strokes about playing in a "relaxed" state because of the physiologic contradiction, and prefer to teach that relaxation is properly about limiting tension in space and time, thus resulting in the pianistic attributes of Independence and Efficiency.

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"A smattering will not do. They must know all the keys, major and minor, and they must literally 'know them backwards.'" - Josef Lhevinne


Last edited by musical-md on Tue Apr 05, 2011 8:36 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Sun Mar 27, 2011 8:57 pm 
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I agree with you entirely, but, is it not funny, that I was taught just what you are saying, not a word missing, but it was called "relaxed arm"? I had always understood that relaxed in this case is what you mention. It seems a case of misunderstanding a word but getting the sense right.

That reminds me, I need to give more thought to this when playing.

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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Sun Mar 27, 2011 10:30 pm 
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Yeah, I doubt the word 'relaxed' is confusing for most people.

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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Tue Apr 05, 2011 8:59 am 
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Thank you for this! The word "relax" is truly confusing.
BTW I haven't seen that feat of the "crazy uncle" yet.

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"The love for music. The respect for the composer. The desire to express something that reaches and moves the listener." (Montserrat Caballé about her main motivation for becoming a singer)


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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Fri Apr 08, 2011 6:03 am 
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For me deep, even breathing with phrasing and dynamics is a great way to stay relaxed while playing.
I find this especially useful in recording and getting good takes. Good breathing also helps with concentration
getting more oxygen to the brain.

Supination and pronation also help a lot in relaxation. György Sándor's book On Piano Playing is a great book
which talks about this subject. He studied with Bartok and Zoltán Kodály.

Craig(LVB1770)
http://www.youtube.com/LVB1770
http://LVB1770pianostudio.com/


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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Fri Apr 08, 2011 12:57 pm 
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LVB1770 wrote:
For me deep, even breathing with phrasing and dynamics is a great way to stay relaxed while playing.

That's nice Craig. Just make sure we do not hear it ...

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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Fri Apr 08, 2011 1:58 pm 
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techneut wrote:
LVB1770 wrote:
For me deep, even breathing with phrasing and dynamics is a great way to stay relaxed while playing.

That's nice Craig. Just make sure we do not hear it ...


Agree! I get a little grossed out when I hear a lot of deep breathing.

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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Wed May 04, 2011 7:53 pm 
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Have you read the book "On Piano Playing" by Gyorgy Sandor? He talks a lot about not 'relaxation' but efficiencies in piano playing and lack of tension. I highly recommend it, that book has helped me a lot! And I'm not even a quarter through it...

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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Wed May 04, 2011 10:26 pm 
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KeenanReimerWatts wrote:
Have you read the book "On Piano Playing" by Gyorgy Sandor? He talks a lot about not 'relaxation' but efficiencies in piano playing and lack of tension. I highly recommend it, that book has helped me a lot! And I'm not even a quarter through it...

Nope, but it sounds exactly like what I wrote above. :D

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"A smattering will not do. They must know all the keys, major and minor, and they must literally 'know them backwards.'" - Josef Lhevinne


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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Tue May 10, 2011 11:22 pm 
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As a sort of side-note, I was very happy to have finally figured out how to play Chopin 25/11 without tension in my hands. And then I injured my neck. I hadn't realized that I'd exchanged the tension in my hands and arms for tension in my neck. Now that I'm aware of it, I can avoid it, but that was rather strange and unanticipated.

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"Z Czernym poznałem się na panie brat—na dwa fortepiana często z nim u niego grywałem. Dobry człowiek, ale nic więcej..." - Fryderyk Chopin


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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Sun Jun 05, 2011 4:38 pm 
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When I work with young beginners, we practice walking around the studio, first normally, then "stiff like a robot," then "floppy like cooked spaghetti," then normally again. Then I give them their beginner hand exercises and ask them to do those with normal movement, stiff movement, and floppy movement. The idea is that our bodies know best how to coordinate themselves with the proper amount of force if we are moving in the same way we move during most normal activities. I still go through the normal, stiff, floppy exercise myself when I'm working on something with large chords that can send me into stiff movement if I'm not careful.

I borrowed this from my ballet training, actually; it's a helpful exercise for being able to move the legs naturally in large stretched-out positions.


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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Sun Nov 13, 2011 3:00 am 
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musical-md wrote:
In several threads I often read references to playing with a relaxed state. I would like to add a physiological view to this subject. The opposite of tension is not relaxation but flaccidity. There can be no physical exertion with relaxation. To cause a physical movement, especially against a resisting force, requires tension. The mistaken notion about playing the piano with a "relaxed" aparatus is simplisitic and needs further description so as to not seem impossible and couter-intuitive.


I've been doing a lot of thinking along these lines recently. I think that how tension is defined is very important here. If tension refers to any muscular activity, it may not be unhealthy at all. Some "tensions" are vital- and need not necessarily even be turned off. However, if tension if defined as being a negative excess that causes discomfort, there's no reason why it should ever have occurred in the first place. I'm increasingly believing that supposed tension/release actions are frequently better seen as actions that have been improved to the point where there is no tension to be released. There is simply healthy activation and movement. The utmost tension- to the utmost relaxation is clearly dysfunctional. If we're looking at a situation where neither ever takes place, why speak of tension/release at all?

I've recently come up with an alternative way of looking at it. Rather than look at the mysteries of tension/relaxation or whatever in between state might be employed, there's a much more specific way of understanding the actual purpose of activities. Understanding it this way provides a clear understanding of exactly how you can eliminate the negative effects of flaccidity, without being forced to prevent it with either fixation or tension. When the mechanical purpose is clear, your brain no longer ends up throwing in the compensations of tension.

http://pianoscience.blogspot.com/2011/1 ... es-of.html

I'd be most interested in any views, on this alternative to tension/relaxation thinking. Personally I think it provides a far clearer focus.

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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Sat Nov 26, 2011 4:31 am 
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Long ago when I was a kid, one of my first teacher's professors at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston had studied with Albion Metcalf, himself a student of Tobias Matthay, an exponent of relaxation in performance and prolific author on the subject. So a necessary amount of relaxation method came my way, as you can imagine, especially relaxed arm weight.

The relaxed arm weight concept cannot be taken literally though. The idea is NOT for the arms to be so totally relaxed that they go into free-fall due to gravity, thereby allowing the hands and fingers to crash into the keyboard. Relaxed arm weight actually needs to be directed by the upper arm (for accuracy), and secondly there has to be just sufficient enough control during the descent that the hands and fingers drop and sink into the keys so as to produce a rich tone. Key velocity which transfers to hammer velocity is the main element in tone production. But it goes deeper than that. Consider a would-be pianist who brutally forces the keys down leading to fast hammer velocity yet results in unpleasant "pounding" or "banging" as we say. That is not a rich tone! If that same person is then shown how to relax the arm and allow it to descend with gravity--but with a modicum of control for accuracy in depressing--not crashing into--the correct notes--the banging will, with practice, be replaced by a rounder and richer tone. So there is a bit of deliberate tension mixed in with the relaxation, which is why "relaxed arm weight" is figurative, not literal. Obviously this is not an objective scientific principle; rather, its more subjective. It's not so much quantitative as it is qualitative. But I believe it to be essential in attaining a beautiful tone.

Back to key/hammer velocity for a moment, Ortmann believed that the same key velocity achieved by a finger, pencil, or umbrella tip would create the same tone quality. He was probably right as far as that statement goes. But the major fallacy is that the pianist plays not a single, isolated tone all the time, but usually many tones including chords. The piano, of course, is essentially a percussive instrument. The job of the pianist then is truly to be an illusionist. We have to create the illusion of a connected melodic line through rich tone production, phrasing, legato touch in cantilena or bel canto passages, pedaling, dynamics, rubato, and nuances, etc. Scientists can poke a key with a pencil, a huge oversimplification, but they cannot account for the numerous variables or complexities in creating the illusion that I have just mentioned. Indeed that's the kind of empirical situation that separates science from art.

Here is another aspect of it. During a grueling practice session, who here has never experienced a buildup in tension affecting the whole playing apparatus? Probably nobody! If ignored, it will soon spread to the neck, which will make the discomfort even more noticeable. While tension builds, concentration, accuracy and artistry are all diminished. Now if the pianist gets up, moves away from the piano, swings the loose arms parallel to the body, then swings the arms in front of the body such that they cross one another forming an X, and then bends over from the waist a bit, dangles the arms while shaking and rotating them like two ropes being blown randomly about by the wind, like magic all tension is released immediately, and back at the piano relaxed arm weight is resumed leading to restored artistry. So this is an empirical effect that we can directly observe and feel thereby informing us that relaxation benefits artistry.

One qualifier: Although the fingers are part of the playing apparatus, they can NEVER be relaxed. Instead they always need to be taut, otherwise articulation will sound more like wet noodles or cotton. :) There is usually an exception to every rule, and the fingers are the exception to relaxed arm weight. Relaxed arm weight is truly a paradox--the collision of two truths. First, the arm must be relaxed enough to respond to gravity; second, there must be enough residual tension to allow accuracy and yet adequate weight to produce rich tones.

I hope this will be helpful. That's the best way I can describe the concept.

David

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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Mon Nov 28, 2011 3:08 pm 
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If that same person is then shown how to relax the arm and allow it to descend with gravity--but with a modicum of control for accuracy in depressing--not crashing into--the correct notes--the banging will, with practice, be replaced by a rounder and richer tone. So there is a bit of deliberate tension mixed in with the relaxation, which is why "relaxed arm weight" is figurative, not literal. Obviously this is not an objective scientific principle; rather, its more subjective. It's not so much quantitative as it is qualitative. But I believe it to be essential in attaining a beautiful tone.


Why "tension" though? Why not movement? I don't particularly like this description (which is what I was brought up on) as it implies it's more about the arm than the hand. This leaves the subconscious to either force the hand to stiffen, or to be excessively flaccid (both of which produce very ugly tone) UNLESS it starts actually moving instead! I'm certain this is how Rubinstein could lift his hands above his head and drop onto the keys. Neither tension nor relaxation in the hand produces anything other than a thud. However, with the right hand motion at contact, I can throw my arm as hard as like (not necessarily just under gravity!) and have FFFF sounds coupled with soft comfortable landings. How can anyone produce the big tone Rubinstein made with either a flaccid or braced hand? The arm is the easy part. It's what the hand does that differentiates between the clangorous and the rounded. I believe that the traditional explanation is basically in reverse (or, at the very least, it's a two way street). When the hand moves well and absorbs the blow, the arm can move with confidence. When the hand is braced or flaccid, the student will naturally be scared of the crash landing- which is why the arm cannot be moved freely and easily. Unless the hand can absorb the landing, you can no more release the arm with confidence than you can swing your hand confidently into a protruding nail. Students can do the arm releases far more easily, when I show them confident hand movements first and the arm drop (which is merely an addition to it) second.

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Back to key/hammer velocity for a moment, Ortmann believed that the same key velocity achieved by a finger, pencil, or umbrella tip would create the same tone quality. He was probably right as far as that statement goes. But the major fallacy is that the pianist plays not a single, isolated tone all the time, but usually many tones including chords.


I wouldn't call that a fallacy. Is there any reason to imply that Ortmann either "forgot" this obvious fact or sought to suggest otherwise? There would simply be no value in the experiment without bringing it down to one note. Everyone knows what multiple tones do and there is no scientific means of isolating their role in a complex combination of sound. The whole point was to explore whether you can affect just one- not to question whether pianists merge sounds together. If a tone can be inherent quality in isolation, there's no reason why it wouldn't also carry that inherent quality in combination with other sounds. There are many who believe he was wrong though. Many experiments have shown the thud against the keybed to be audible. Also, what Ortmann should have done was to do the experiment into an open pedal at extreme dynamics. This exposes these thuds far more obviously. You cannot speak for the whole of possibility for one note, without properly exploring it.

Quote:
Here is another aspect of it. During a grueling practice session, who here has never experienced a buildup in tension affecting the whole playing apparatus? Probably nobody! If ignored, it will soon spread to the neck, which will make the discomfort even more noticeable. While tension builds, concentration, accuracy and artistry are all diminished. Now if the pianist gets up, moves away from the piano, swings the loose arms parallel to the body, then swings the arms in front of the body such that they cross one another forming an X, and then bends over from the waist a bit, dangles the arms while shaking and rotating them like two ropes being blown randomly about by the wind, like magic all tension is released immediately, and back at the piano relaxed arm weight is resumed leading to restored artistry. So this is an empirical effect that we can directly observe and feel thereby informing us that relaxation benefits artistry.


Of course. It goes without saying that accumulated tensions hinder. But what when a pianist cannot just stand up and shake his arms? What happens in a concert? It's what happens DURING playing that we need to focus on! The big question is how to do that- without stopping to shake your arms around?. Personally, I've actually had to withhold more of the weight of my arms, in order to improve my ability to sustain comfort. Just because completely floppy arms are the least effort away from the piano, it doesn't mean that every muscle should aim for maximum release while playing. The only way to make sense of it is to understand that there are specific combinations of activity that produce the greatest overall comfort. This requires understanding of the right positive actions as much as of relaxations. I most typically stiffen when my hand is being too lazy and not moving enough- which is often caused by not supporting my arms enough.

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 Post subject: Re: Relaxation in Pianism
PostPosted: Tue Nov 29, 2011 4:27 am 
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Hi nyiregyhazi

Quote:
Why "tension" though? Why not movement? I don't particularly like this description (which is what I was brought up on) as it implies it's more about the arm than the hand. This leaves the subconscious to either force the hand to stiffen, or to be excessively flaccid (both of which produce very ugly tone) UNLESS it starts actually moving instead! I'm certain this is how Rubinstein could lift his hands above his head and drop onto the keys. Neither tension nor relaxation in the hand produces anything other than a thud. However, with the right hand motion at contact, I can throw my arm as hard as like (not necessarily just under gravity!) and have FFFF sounds coupled with soft comfortable landings.


That's an interesting perspective thinking in terms of movement, not tension. Every pianist is a bit different. There are moments that are not ffff where gravity serves me very well in tone production; however, I certainly have depended more on movement for a loud rinforzando or a climax, as examples. So I can't contradict what you're suggesting there.

Quote:
I wouldn't call that a fallacy. Is there any reason to imply that Ortmann either "forgot" this obvious fact or sought to suggest otherwise? There would simply be no value in the experiment without bringing it down to one note.


Well, perhaps fallacy is too harsh. But I would consider it to be an over-generalization. Inductive nor deductive reasoning can't take one fact involving a single variable in isolation and generalize on it when there is clearly a host of interacting and confounding variables present in the inquiry. That be as it may, that's why I mentioned the pianist as illusionist using all the many resources of the instrument and artistry. In all the many other instruments in a symphony orchestra, I believe that the piano is absolutely unique in this respect, especially for a percussion instrument. For me then, Ortmann's finding that he could produce a decent tone with the eraser end of a pencil is mostly irrelevant when I listen to a beautiful rendition of Ravel's "Ondine". I do accept that hammer velocity is the key to volume, which is definitely useful and actionable information. I believe it might have been Josef Lhevinne who used to encourage his students to think of raising the hammers, not depressing the keys in achieving dynamics.

Quote:
it doesn't mean that every muscle should aim for maximum release while playing. The only way to make sense of it is to understand that there are specific combinations of activity that produce the greatest overall comfort.


My own way of dealing with this truth is to take advantage of every opportunity to rest the hands in the score. These are the lift-offs of the hand at the end of a phrase, observing a rest, fermata, ritardando, etc. I grant you that there are some pieces that are relentless and might not offer such opportunities. Your hand tightening technique is effective as it clearly works for you, but again reminds us that fingers always need to be taut, never droopy. And because the ligaments also are present in the hand, it too needs to be ready at all times. The wrist though must usually be flexible (forearm octaves being an exception), and the arm mostly relaxed when not initiating deliberate movement.

David

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