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Piano Technique - Theory

7. The weight of the hand - should the hand be “relaxed”?


[…] a superior member weights an average
of 3.6 kilos (with the shoulder)”
Czesław Sielużycki - “The pianist’s hand” p. 120, Polish Music Edition, Cracow, 1982


I explain to my students:
It's the same in piano technique - all parts of the motor apparatus are of different size, too. And it is also the smallest unit (distal phalanx) which has the decisive role in starting the process of the sound creation.
The weight of the Neuhaus’ “rear guard” must be so well balanced that the slightest impulse coming from the fingertip can liberate in a “cascade” the weight of all the units. This “cascade” or, in other words, “wave” (invisible to the viewer) gives the fingers the motive power permitting to play very quickly with minimum effort.
7.1. Should the hand be relaxed or tense?
7.1.1. Both a bit relaxed and a bit tense - is the shortest answer. As for the question asked in the subtitle of this chapter (Can one play with a tense hand?), I respond with no hesitation: not only can we play with a tense hand, but it is imperative, provided that the tension is created in an intelligent and efficient manner. You will know more after reading this chapter. A completely relaxed arm, inert, can only be called a few kilos of meat around a few bones. [...] 
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IMPORTANT! In order to understand what follows, you must be familiar with the following terms:
7.1.2. In our daily lives we generally use the joints* of our hands in a rather basic manner - the greater the force required, the more their locking is important (all at the same time and most frequently with an identical intensity). Nonetheless, playing the piano is a complex process, which requires subtle and above all selective locking of the joints. [...] 
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*Of course, a joint cannot itself carry out the movements of locking or relaxing. This work is carried out by [...] 
7.1.3. 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. [...] 
“It is important to underline, and I must insist, that letting [the hand] fall [onto the keyboard] by inertia does not correspond to the physical phenomena of free fall, because from the onset this movement is controlled, and above all   s l o w e d   d o w n.”
Czesław Sielużycki - “The pianist’s hand” p. 121, Polish Music Edition, Cracow, 1982
7.1.4. However, numerous pedagogues still consider this relaxing as the panacea to every technical problem and they instill in their students, more or less consciously, the fear of a tense hand. [...] 

7.2. The beginner’s dilemmas: inertia and searching for beautiful sound
7.2.1. For an inexperienced pianist, one of the greatest difficulties is this contradiction (illusory): the hand must be at the same time light (in order to permit a rapid and brilliant technique) and heavy (in order to obtain a deep, singing tone).
7.2.2. In theory, the pianist hand (the member) can:
● either: rest on the keyboard - this is the position of the “bridge”, when the finger reaches the bottom of the key and the weight (complete or partial) of the correctly locked motor apparatus rests on it;
● or: is suspended above the keyboard - this is the position of the “crane”, when the weight hovers above the keyboard and is ready to be released at any instant (“bridge and crane” - cf. links before the point 7.1.2 above).
● There is no third possibility.
It is evident that the more tempo increases, the more the position of the crane will dominate. In this case, the alternating bridge/crane mentioned above becomes more and more frequent and increases the technical difficulties.
7.2.3. Why the weight of the hand can become bothersome - the inertia of the mass. [...] 
7.2.4. Can “searching for a beautiful sound” have a positive influence on practicing technique? [...] 
7.2.5. For my part, I prefer to put into practice another procedure, made up of finding technical solutions through motivity and considering the quality of sound as an auditory verification. This is how it is done in practice, during the lesson: [...] 

7.3. How to concretely manage the weight of the hand?
7.3.1. The “crane” - suspended weight
An organist friend, André Siekierski, told me he regulates the height of the bench so that his feet remain suspended above the pedals. We can very easily see this on the video here (without sound - source: Youtube). The organist can easily move his legs above the pedals, while the weight of his body remains naturally on the bench.
N.B. You can also see this on the videos by Cameron Carpenter, as he interprets on the organ two Chopin Etudes: the “Revolutionary” (op. 10 n° 12) and in c-sharp minor (op. 10 n° 4).
The hands (the members) of the pianist must be suspended above the keyboard in the same manner, but success finding this position is not easy. Pianists graced with what is called a natural technique know how to do this instinctively, without even realizing precisely how they do so. As for the others, they must.... [...] 
7.3.2.
“The best position of the hand on the keyboard is one which
can be altered with the maximum of ease and speed.”
Heinrich Neuhaus - “The Art of Piano Playing.”, p. 101, Praeger Publishers, Inc., New York 1973
The weight of the motor apparatus must be balanced by the force of the muscles in such a manner that the pianist feels his hand is like a feather, as if it is in a weightless state (cf. Hovering and sticking). Chopin advised “holding the hand as if suspended in the air (without gravity)” - Kleczyński*.
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*Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger - “Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1986
7.3.3. The “bridge” - pressed weight
The hands of Horowitz (1978) - video without sound.
7.3.3.1. Impulsiveness
The problem with legato: The impulsive character of piano technique makes itself evident in the playing of inexperienced pianists through a legato that is irregular, even “choppy”. To avoid this [...] 
7.3.3.2. Tense muscles

7.4. Errors and remedies
7.4.1. Among the most frequent errors in the way we manage the hand’s weight on the keyboard, I will cite:
● using too much mass, which makes the fingers sink on the keys because of too much weight. Liszt [...] 
● using not enough mass when playing “piano”, when to do so correctly mean using just as much weight as for any other dynamic; [...] 
● the lack of “shock absorbers” - cf. point 7.5.
How to avoid these errors?
7.4.2. As I have already said, one of the most frequent errors while practicing is playing with a hand that is too relaxed and [...] 
7.4.3. Neuhaus advised playing heavy octaves [...] 
An initial tensing of the hand that is too important cannot be maintained for long, because during the exercises the hand has a tendency to relax in order to attain the correct level and thus the unused muscles are no longer mobilized. In this manner the hand retains the lightness and suppleness necessary for the technique for rapid playing. This kind of exercise gives spectacular results, even for amateurs. I propose that you test it for yourselves - to confirm the truth of my comments - see the example of a very difficult part in Debussy’s “Toccata” (video and 20 audio excerpts).
IMPORTANT! Do not force! This manner of playing, with a tense hand, can certainly give astonishing results, but during the beginning phase of learning to do so provokes a mechanical overload, most importantly when changing styles of playing. This risk [...] 

7.5. The contact between the finger and the key
7.5.1. We arrive at the essential moment - the production of sound [...] 
7.5.2. I remind you that the hand contains 29 joints* and more than 50 muscles**. Many of them are responsible for helping the hand remain supple. [...] 
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* Czesław Sielużycki - “The pianist’s hand” p. 67, Polish Music Edition, Cracow, 1982
** Op. cit. p. 77
7.5.3. Neuhaus himself refers to Rachmaninoff:
“We speak of the fingers fusing with the keyboards, of “growing into the keyboard” (Rachmaninoff’s expression) as if the keyboard were resilient and one could “sink” into it at will, etc.”
Heinrich Neuhaus - “The Art of Piano Playing.”, p. 62, Praeger Publishers, Inc., New York 1973
Cf. “Touch” in Chopin’s method - chapter 8 p. 8.2.
Professor Godziszewski approaches the problem like this: “If you want to push a chair so it slides several meters on a slick floor, you cannot strike it from far away, because you will only hurt your hand and, in any case, the chair will not move very far [a great part of the energy will be dissipated when the hand comes in contact with the chair - AW]. On the other hand, the result will be completely different if at first you place your hand on the chair.” .
Jerzy Godziszeweski - the end of Chopin’s g-minor Prelude (measures 34-41).
Under the cursor - close-up of the key strike of the third chord before the end, at measure 40.

Clicking opens a short video.
The F5 key (refresh display) = return to the initial photos after viewing the video.
Excerpt from the Polish Television film “About Chopin”, directed by Katarzyna Marcysiak.
7.5.4. Of course, several pianists (like Arthur Rubinstein) were (or still are) accustomed to ignoring this rule and to do so [...] 
7.5.5. Nonetheless, the most frequent and most serious error is not to attack the keys too high but to articulate uselessly, but [...] 

 

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