Newsflash! Tension and pain is not just ‘part of the deal’ when playing the piano. So why do so many students suffer from this problem? There many reasons for this, too many for this post. However, the best place to start for any student, young or old, beginner or advanced, is to learn how to relax when playing the piano.
Relaxation in playing the piano is like a well-nourished garden bed from which to grow a secure and pain-free piano technique. Without knowing how to relax the body students can only build from a foundation of tension, building and building more tension as they develop their abilities. Ultimately leading them to a place of chronic pain and frustration.
Not good right?
Instead, help your students develop the healthy habit of a relaxed piano technique.
How To Help Your Students Relax At The Piano
#1. Full Body Awareness
Learning how to relax when playing the piano starts with an acute awareness of the body. This means listening to the body, paying attention to how it feels BEFORE playing, DURING playing, and AFTER playing the piano.
So often students play without paying any attention to how their body feels. If we can draw their attention to this they will gradually become more self-aware and be able to correct any tension when they feel it.
This is the first step and it can start from the very first lesson with ANY student.
Ask your students the following questions at any time:
- How do your arms/hands/fingers/shoulders/back/legs/feet feel? Are they tense or are they relaxed?
- What muscles are you using when you play? Arms, shoulders, fingers, legs?
- Do you feel tension? If so where and when does it happen?
Here’s a super simple, easy exercise, to help students recognise how tension feels in their bodies.
- Ask your student to scrunch up their shoulders tightly to their ears and to stiffen their arms, shoulders and neck as much as possible. Get them to hold for 5 secs then release. The immediate feeling is that of relief and freedom from tension.
Try this exercise to help students feel (and see) how a relaxed arm feels.
- Firstly, ask your student to shake their arms around keeping them floppy to help loosen up any tension in the arms.
- Next, ask them to raise their arms up in line with their shoulders, hold for a few seconds, then drop their arms to their sides. The arms should flop down and slap the sides of their body without ANY resistance. If their arms move downwards in a controlled way, or do not fall all the way but stop midway, then they still have tension in their arms.
- This exercise can sometimes be a challenge for students so I like to use the analogy of a puppet. Their arms are puppet arms held up by a string tied to their wrist (if you like you can pretend to be the string and hold their wrist). Then, when the arms are up you CUT the string and the arm should flop down.
#2. Staying Relaxed When Playing
The ability to keep the body in a relaxed state will differ from student to student. Very young students will not necessarily get this right away, and that’s ok. They are the best candidate to start this process and will benefit the most from this long term.
Adults beginners will also most likely struggle with the relaxation of the body when playing the piano. Years and years of tension in their arms and shoulders from doing all manner of day to day tasks is commonplace. It can take some time to get them to keep the body relaxed, years sometimes. But they will benefit enormously, in many ways, from teaching them what is essentially a life skill.
It All Starts With A Posture To Support Relaxation.
This means, making sure your students are sitting correctly at the piano.
There are three areas of the body that support playing with a relaxed posture. The HANDS, the FEET and the TAILBONE.
- HANDS are placed on the keys so that the arms sit parallel to the keyboard or at a slightly raised angle. Hands keep their natural rounded shape when relaxed (ask your student to shake their arms loosely to see the natural handshape).
- FEET firmly support the body and provide balance, so knees should be more or less at a 90-degree angle. Stools may be required for young students, or the bench may need to adjust to suit.
- TAILBONE sits on the front half of the stool, not all the way to the back of the stool (which would mean the thighs are supporting the body, the feet are relieved of their important duty and the back takes on tension to support the hands).
All areas of the body between the support points of the fingers, the feet and the tailbone should be relaxed and able to move freely. Sitting so close to the keyboard that the arms can’t move around easily, meaning their shoulders may be raised, will not help the freedom of movement needed for a relaxed piano posture.
Listening to how your students sound when they play is probably the best indication of tension in the body. Asking your students to listen to the different tone quality produced by a variety of finger and arm actions will give them clues to the presence of tension in their piano playing.
If they’re hearing a harsh, clipped or hard tone, this usually indicates tension, if they hear a warm, rounded, resonant tone, this indicates relaxation.
Of course, this fine listening can only really be achieved when playing acoustic instruments due to the physics of analogue sound, the physical reactions of hammers on strings and such.
Develop A Habit Of Mindfulness In Playing
Learning to stay relaxed when playing the piano is like learning to meditate. Students can develop an awareness of how their bodies feel through mental focus and mindfulness. If they can achieve this they could notice any tension early and return to a relaxed state sooner.
Not an easy task when in the flow of playing. That’s why practising this mindfulness skill is best mastered at first using simple finger exercises.
#4. Simple Technique Exercise
This simple 5 finger exercise will help students practice relaxation of the body when using their fingers to play a simple pattern.
Starting on C place 5 fingers in C major position
- Hands separately, each finger is played independently 4-8 times before moving onto the next finger.
- Keep it slow and remember to focus. Be mindful of how the body feels and keep all areas of the body relaxed and tension free. The muscles directly under the knuckles in the hand are the only place where purposeful movement is felt. These muscles you actually do want to work and strengthen.
- Repeat the exercise on the next chromatic note. Continue the 5 finger major pentascale pattern on each note of the chromatic scale.
TIPS For Success:
Weak is right, strong is wrong.
At first, this action will feel incredibly weak, and soft. It will be hard to move the fingers without tension from other areas of the body helping out the fingers.
But weakness is a good thing!
If the action is strong and is sounding loud then the fingers are probably being supported by tension in other areas of the body. Check-in with the body. You’ll see this is true.
Therefore don’t aim for a strong sound yet. Go for weak but completely independent, like a baby taking his first steps.
Speed is a killer, go slow!
Speed will sabotage all efforts to developing a relaxed technique. Think about it, it’s impossible to focus on what you’re supposed to focus on when racing through the exercise.
Hands together will get you nowhere.
Your students need to have one mission when doing these relaxation exercises, and that is to focus their mind entirely on awareness of the body. Ensuring that the body feels relaxed is a lot harder to do when playing hands together, at least in the beginning.
Be patient, be consistent.
This is probably the hardest part for our students, but their patience and consistency in practising this skill will pay off over time, with the massive benefits that pain and tension free piano playing can have throughout their musical life.