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3. How to play the piano rapidly without harmfully tensing up your hand?

The above-mentioned question occurs in several letters I received from young pianists and is certainly one that I will be asked frequently in the future.

For example, not so long ago a cybernaut wrote to me concerning a Chopin Étude:
I can play it easily at a relatively slow tempo, but would need advice in order to play it quicker because I must be making mistakes - the muscles of my forearms get tight during certain passages.

My response:
Unfortunately, this is a fairly widespread problem. All the solutions can already be found on my website, one must learn them scrupulously. More likely than not you need some fine tuning with regards to your motor apparatus by “digging a tunnel at both ends”: one must above all maximize the energy supply and - at the same time - minimize the losses of this same energy.

I. Supplying energy.
Above all, you must not use these relatively weak muscles of your fingers as the principal source of energy at the keyboard. These muscles tire quickly - when you feel tension in the forearms it actually originates in the finger muscles that are found in that zone. This error can even cause serious medical complications if your regularly force the use of these muscles.

Here is an excerpt from my Chapter 2 - “Elongated fingers, the bridge and the crane.”:
1.3 - The motor for playing and the model of “the bridge”.
1.3.1 - What is the motor for playing, i.e. the source of the pianist’s energy?
To a large extent, it is a question of a member’s weight on the key. The weight of the entire limb. If necessary, it may be increased by the weight of the torso leaning into the keyboard. This weight must not be either passive or inert, as some pianists suggest, but on the contrary, carefully controlled.

This energy of the “motor” should be then transferred to your fingers by the help of the movement I call “pushing the piano” (cf. chapters 1 and 2) and subtly dosed by these wrist movements that resemble rolling a piece of paper. (cf. “How to play staccato” - 8.3).


II. Loss of energy
This can occur at the least at one of these four levels, and most frequently at all four simultaneously:

1. Your arms are too heavy, i.e. not suspended well enough at the shoulder level (excessive force of the “motor”). The fingers are thus overloaded. Remember this excellent advice from Liszt: “The hands should hover over the keyboard rather than stick to it” (in the original German: “Die Hände müssen mehr schweben, als an den Tasten kleben”).

I broach this subject in several chapters, notably in “The weight of the hand” (an excessive relaxing of the hand is just as unfavorable as too much tension) and “Shaking the arm - muscular vibration”.

2. Your fingers strike the keys from a position too high. Each note, thus, “costs” you a lot of energy. At the rate of several notes per second these losses accumulate and are quickly felt. Cf. the expression “skimming over the keys” in the chapter “How to study the Chopin Études?” - Étude op. 25 n° 11.

3. Very probably, you press down into the keys too deeply (Cf. “Characteristics of the Keyboard” - 5.3). This has the same effect as the preceding point. Therefore with so much loss, it is not surprising that it is hard for you to play quickly.

4. One must also pay attention that the joints of our fingers are sufficiently firm (but obviously not too firm!) in order to avoid the loss of energy at this level and in order to ensure the supply of energy through the “bridge” (cf. chapters 1 and 2). In chapter 7 “The weight of the hand (of the arm) - can one play with a tense hand?” I describe the situation of a pianist who plays with hands that are too relaxed: “Each time I see a student playing with a hand that resembles a poorly inflated tire, I think of a surgeon who operates with a plastic scalpel, i.e. with a tool completely inadequate for work demanding great precision.”

It is also good to remember the advice of Georg Roth who I quote in the chapter 8 “Muscular vibration put into practice - Debussy «Pour le piano» - «Toccata»”: “One must continually imagine that the piano emits a sound when we make an upward movement - almost as if «the keyboard was filled with electricity» (Roth/Sielużycki) and the finger received a shock the moment when the sound is produced.” Which is why I recommend practicing staccato all difficult passages. I must say that I am neither the first nor the only one who recommends this - H.Neuhaus wrote: “I recommend that each exercise be played every conceivable way: from pp to ff, from largo to presto, from legatissimo to staccato etc.”*
*Heinrich Neuhaus - “The Art of Piano Playing.”, p. 118, Praeger Publishers, Inc., New York 1973

5. In rapid playing the projective technique proves indispensable.

The application of all the above principles can be observed on my videos (excerpts as examples):
EXERCISES: Chopin - Étude in A minor op. 25 n° 11
EXERCISES: Debussy - “Pour le piano”, “Toccata”



A few words in the margin
● I possess, naturally, my own methods for gradually accelerating the tempo, but I transmit them only to my students because their use beyond my control can be dangerous for the hand.

● On the other hand, playing the piano - in spite of numerous examples of well-known pianists - is not a sport where the winner plays the fastest. To know how to play quickly is necessary and indispensable, above all for playing the virtuosic repertoire, but even then one must not go overboard.

● Playing quickly can be compared to the spire of the church - looking at it from afar, above the trees and the rooftops; we can have the impression that this tower is suspended in mid air. But we know that in reality this tower leans on the strong walls of the structure and that the building itself is constructed on solid foundations, without which the spire and all of the building would collapse.

● Likewise, a very fast tempo makes up one facet of piano playing that is the most easily heard and the most spectacular for the listener. But no one will be able to play quickly, without having first mastered the foundations of pianistic technique and thus having at his disposal a complete arsenal of methods and techniques.


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