1. I unhesitatingly answer the question in the title: not only can one play with a tense hand, but it is even a must!
1.1. But only if you tense it in an intelligent and efficient manner - first of all, not permanently, but selectively (i.e. contracting only certain muscles) and by impulses. In other words, while playing, the hand should be both a little contracted and a little relaxed.
1.2. The hand and arm totally relaxed, inert can only be called a few kilos of muscles around a few bones and as such cannot accomplish any task, even the simplest. Consequently, it is impossible to play the piano in this manner. The rule, taught to students for over two hundred years, according to which one must play with a relaxed hand, is not precise enough. It may lead to confusion, and that is what unfortunately happens very frequently!
In order to understand this chapter, you must be familiar with the following terms:
- Proximal and distal phalange > Abbreviations and terminology
- Neuhaus’ bridge and crane
- The front line and the rear guard
- Locking and attaching
- How to easily obtain “the bridge”
- Elongated fingers, bridge and crane: pedagogical inexactitudes
2. I explain to my students on the above example of a domino chain reaction:
2.1. It’s the same in piano technique - all parts of the Motor Apparatus (MA) 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.
2.2. 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.
2.3. 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 and that in ever varying configurations. We know that the joints of a totally inert hand are devoid of any tension, and that those of a totally tense hand are stretched to the maximum.
Example 2These two extremes induce an immobility of the hand and remind you a bit of an incorrect fixation (extreme) of a regulating screw in different appliances’ mechanisms. Let us take the example of ordinary scissors. If the screw linking the two blades is too tight, the mechanism will be blocked (it will be impossible to open or close the scissors). Contrariwise, if the screw is not tight enough, the scissors will lose in precision as blades which are too distant cut badly. A similar situation arises with the majority of the upper limb’s 29 joints**. Too strong a fixation as well as too important a relaxation have a negative influence on the technique of the play. However, between these two extremes, there exists a whole range of intermediary states, useful to the joints’ fixation.
* Obviously, no articulation can perform on its own movements, be they of locking or of relaxation. This work is performed by the muscles who allow the parts to which they are attached to move. However, in everyday language, and especially in the pedagogy of piano, the articulation is frequently perceived as a source of movements or an easy to identify reference mark (for ex., in expressions such as “playing from the elbow or “raising the wrist”). That is why I shall use here this convenient shortcut.
** Czesław Sielużycki - “The pianist’s hand” p. 67, PWM, Cracow 1982
2.4. 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 ie. with a totally unfit tool for a task demanding such a great precision... Dated 19th century, the very widespread theory stating that the hand must drop on the keyboard with its full weight (theory which even appealed to Neuhaus, due to the strength of tradition) must once and for all be discarded as:
That’s why I’m repeating the same thing as in one of the previous chapters:
2.5. 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. This situation probably ensues from the observation of those who have at their disposal a good technique (innate or achieved). When they play, these persons seem to have a great freedom of movement, which gives the impression of relaxation. However, it is a misleading impression as the more difficult the musical text is, technically speaking, the more complex the gestures to perform are. The more complex the movement, the more muscles it involves and the more its execution is hampered by the weight of the hand*. A movement, whatever be it, requires a muscular contraction, and a hand which is too relaxed is an inert hand, unable to support its own weight.
* Czesław Sielużycki - “The pianist’s hand” p. 122, PWM, Cracow 1982
3. The beginner’s dilemmas: inertia and searching for beautiful sound
3.1. 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). A pianist who doesn’t know how to manage this problem either plays rapidly but “superficially”, or with a pleasant sound but slowly and heavily. I repeat: this contradiction is illusory as obviously the hand’s lightness as well as the use of all its weight do not occur at the same time, but alternately. That is the secret of a good playing technique.
3.2. In theory, the pianist’s 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 MA 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.
It is evident that the more the 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.
3.3. Why the weight of the hand can become bothersome - the inertia of the mass.
The unfavorable effect of inertia can easily be observed, e.g. by running while filling your jacket pockets with fairly heavy objects such as a smartphone, a wallet or a big keyring. If we hold the pockets with our hands, we will notice that these objects hamper us less, even though their weight has not changed.
It is the same with that of the different units of the MA: the joints which link them must be “stretched” upto a certain level, by the muscles, and thus fixed so as to avoid too great an inertia, source of technical weight.
N.B. However, it is worth mentioning that a controlled inertia of the hand is beneficial for the pianist in certain situations. Cleverly used and correctly dosed, it can be very useful, notably in the case of projective and rotary movements.
3.4. Can “searching for a beautiful sound” have a positive influence on practicing technique?
Yes, certainly, but not at all levels of mastery neither in each situation. What interest can there be in playing a nocturne’s cantilena with a beautiful sound when you stumble endlessly on trills or features incorporated in that same cantilena? The search of sonorities may enrich the pianist’s practical agility, but only if he already benefits from a certain technical background and a sufficiently sensitized hearing. In all other cases, however, the attempts to cover up the technical problems with the search of artistic expression will only lead to disappointments and failures as it cannot provide answers to the questions of “how does it work?” or “how to do?”. Besides, even James Ching wrote:
3.5. 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: I play for my student the part of the piece which causes him/her problems, but at a moderate tempo and by deliberately exaggerating the movements which normally are invisible during a fast play (cf. the “the slow motion film” of Neuhaus* and the very evocative title of the book of T. Matthay - “The visible and the invisible in pianistic technique” **), without however neglecting the quality of the sound. Thus, the student does not feel frustrated by his/her incapacity to play this fragment at its right speed and can immediately try to imitate me in terms both of movement and sound. Obviously, in practice, this doesn’t happen as simply - cf. description of this work in the central part of the Chopin’s Etude “Octaves” (at the end of the article)...
* Heinrich Neuhaus - “The Art of Piano Playing” p. 59, 104 and 106, Praeger Publishers, Inc., New York 1973
** Tobias Matthay - “The Visible and Invisible in Piano Technique” p. 6, Oxford University Press, New York 1947 (►Bibliography)
3.6. “Slow-motion film”
This notion deserves more serious consideration. According to this method, desirable movements, i.e. not only slowed down, but also perfectly smooth, should replace all angular, jerky movements.
The photo below shows the basic position of a completely relaxed hand: the wrist is relaxed and the hand and fingers fall naturally due to their own weight.
Computer: move the cursor over the image.
Phone: open the animation.
When you move the cursor over this photo, you will see an animation showing hand movements in slow motion.
- the forearm and fingers oscillate in opposite directions i.e. in a lever movement and...
[● LEVERAGE MOTION RULE: the lever movement is one of the factors cushioning the vertical movement by attenuating the fall of weight (“braking” according to Sielużycki - cf. box under p. 2.4 above), i.e. enabling the finger “land” softly on the key.
- But you mustn’t forget that vertical movements are among the most risky ones in the piano technique. So, when playing, the hand must be active across all the three dimensions. Excessive use of vertical movements without smoothing them on the other plans has a very negative impact on the sound quality and playing technique.]
- ...and this movement is uniform in both directions.
[● THE UNIFORM MOVEMENT RULE: it applies not only to the work of the arm and forearm, but also to the work of the hand and each finger. The speed of releasing the key after a sound is obtained has a direct influence on the striking of the next key, i.e. on the quality of the next sound. That means that not only the downward movements of the finger have to be controlled, but also the upward movements that release the keys.]
The video analyses the above animation breaking it down into 7 component images.
4. How to concretely manage the weight of the hand?
4.1. 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 (video without sound - source). 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 en in C# minor (op. 10 n° 4).
The hands (the members) of the pianist must be suspended above the keyboard in the same manner, but success in 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 work on this issue to avoid later incessant technical problems.
The MA weight should be perfectly balanced by the muscles’ strength in such a way that the pianist feels his hand as light as a feather, as if it were weightless (cf. “Hovering and sticking”).
According to Jan Kleczyński, Chopin recommended to “hold the hand suspended in the air” ( weightless) (J.J. Eigeldinger*).
altered with the maximum of ease and speed.”
4.2. Using weight on the keyboard is not limited to the MA alone. Read this chapter again, but this time not from the angle of creating a “bridge”, but of using, to play, the weight of either the whole body or at least the upper part of it. I give there as an example Maurizio Pollini (point 4) - the using of the weight of the whole body while playing is very spectacular here.
Personally, I prefer a system using less energy (p. 2) and controlling the pressure of the weight of the torso on the keyboard
- by slightly but vigorously lowering the head and flexing the spine
- and by leaning the head back and straightening the spine.
This is already visible in Josef Hofmann’s playing and certainly many pianists before him played this way.
Below you will find supplemental materials for this article and some excerpts from it.
Such a way of practicing, with the hand tensed, is certainly very effective. However, during its initial period of use, it can lead to significant mechanical overload, especially when changing work styles. This risk will, little by little, disappear with the assimilation of this method and the elimination of unnecessary tensions. But before getting there, you must remain prudent, be careful and avoid forcing. Special attention should be paid to tendons. Excessive stretching of the tendon manifests itself as a sensation of a burning thread just under the skin. Should this happen, you must immediately stop playing, relax the hand as if shaking off droplets of water (see the last seconds of this video) and then put the aching spot under a stream of cold water or make an ice compress. If the symptoms persist on the following day, you must absolutely consult a doctor or, at least, a physiotherapist (cf. Powerful fingers, gymnastics and risk of injury).
5. Horizontal weight transfer of the Motor Apparatus
Variety of pianistic movements
5.1. The purpose of striking a key is to provide the hammer with the amount of energy needed to make a suitable sound. We do this using essentially the weight of the MA and (as little as possible) of the muscle power. It is important to distinguish between two types of muscle work here: you can and should use them to operate the weight of the MA, but as little as possible to act directly down on the keys.
5.2. I’ve long pointed out that different, often opposing, movements can be used to strike a key. But it would seem that since the MA units are connected to one another, they should all move in the same direction, as, for example, I show in the video “Directions of finger’s action” (links under the pictures). The two frames below, derived from that video, show the movement of attacking the key in the direction towards the piano (example 5a) instead of the standard and obvious direction to the pianist (example 5b).
Example 5a (direct link)
Example 5b (direct link)
In these theoretical examples, the colored arrows in the two pictures indicate not only the direction of the fingertip alone on the key, but also the opening and closing of the hand and the movement of the entire arm.
5.3 But such convergence is rare in practice. Most often we use compound movements, where the participating units move in different directions. We can observe this, for example, in whipping or wing movements. In the “Scales 1” video, in the Theoretical wrist movements section, I also demonstrate that the same series of 5 notes can be played by using AR rotations in two opposite directions.
5.4 Below, I will demonstrate that leaps, i.e. quick horizontal hand movements over a long distance, can also be played in two ways - traditional (method A) or opposite (method B), the latter seeming completely non-obvious. I will explain it using the example of the leap between bars 8 and 9 of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor:
5.5. When we play this leap traditionally, using method A, all the MA units make a clockwise rotation. In method B, the movement of the hand and fingers remains unchanged, of course, while all the higher units, from the wrist up, make the opposite movement. At first sight, this seems illogical and even unfeasible, but in fact, this combination of movements has a positive effect on the sound quality by cushioning the MA’s weight fall, and increases the assurance of the striking by bringing the hand and fingers closer to the keyboard.
5.6. But that's not all. Never forget that you must (always very close to the keyboard):
- before making the leap (i.e. before playing the lower octave) “arm” the hand to facilitate the leap i.e.:
- when playing the lower octave - inversely, you should vigorously:
- move the wrist ↓;
- pass quickly from abduction to adduction of the hand;
- move the elbow with a semicircular motion to the right;
- vigorously open the hand ▲ and flex the fingers, but very little and upward, so as not to lose the octave distance.
- when playing the upper octave, make a “soft landing” on the keyboard:
- move the wrist ↑;
- complete the adduction of the hand;
- complete the elbow ↑ movement;
- vigorously but minimally close the hand again ▼;
- and minimally flex the fingertips once more.
You will find a few more details on how to make this leap on this page.
5.7. Both these playing methods are widely used by professional pianists not only for playing leaps, but also in scales, arpeggios and runs, as will be described on other pages. However, using method A requires more energy from the player, so sometimes pianists who used it in their youth later switch to the B method.
5.8. So the alternative method B is applicable anywhere, as long as you find it convenient and practical. We will return to it in new videos on selected Chopin’s Etudes.
5.9. To finish, a few words of explanation:
When I opened my first website in 2012, I considered this method too complicated and too risky for students to be published online. Today, after 12 years of teaching the piano via video, I publish it without hesitation seeing the excellent results achieved this way.