(This article is one of a multi-part series on how to avoid piano injuries. My goal is to 1) inform students of important basics from which they should never stray and 2) help them become aware of benefits provided by some parts of practice that may otherwise be considered boring!
I have always been interested in mechanical movement of the human body, whether studying in school or as a yoga student. While a student at Arizona State University, I studied Biomechanics as my emphasis area and graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelors of Science in Engineering. I later attended the Prosthetics program at California State University to help patients with amputations and limb deficiencies gain the ability to walk. I am pleased that I can combine my two loves, movement of the human body and music, for the benefit of my students.
It is important to me that my students develop proper technique so they can become the best pianists that their body will allow. Further, my intent is to teach my students to respect their bodies and treat them with care, to avoid injury and enjoy many years of playing.)
After correct posture at the piano is achieved, the next focus for healthy playing is technique. While posture is related to the positioning and engagement of the whole body relative to the piano, technique concerns the proper usage of the muscles controlling the arms, wrists and fingers. Playing the piano involves the whole arm – not just the fingers!
Poor posture and technique can lead to injuries to the shoulder, neck and hands. The neck and shoulders are susceptible to tension from habits related to concentrating too hard (raising the shoulders to the ears, hunching forward, etc.). Hands can become injured from overuse – playing pieces that are too complex, difficult or repetitive when the muscles are not ready to play them. There are numerous tendons in the hands and fingers that can become irritated from repetitive motions if the stabilizing muscles in the fingers are not strong enough to control the movements properly.
Piano Technique in Ten Steps
What does good posture look like at the piano? Ultimately, you want your forearms level with the ground while your fingers rest on the keys. The palm and fingers of each hand should have roughly same shape they do when your arms are relaxed and hanging at your side.
Before playing, some basics of correct set-up must be understood. These become critical as the student advances beyond basic reading skills and begins to play music on the staff. As playing skills are developed, technique must be taught and reinforced, starting with the set-up.
The first step to great technique is to find your neutral, peaceful state – and maintain it throughout your playing! In your neutral, peaceful state you are breathing easily. Your shoulders are loose and free and your face is relaxed. You may have a Mona Lisa smile, a grin or just a straight line for a mouth… Whatever is peaceful for you.
What is not allowed: grimacing, clenching or gritting of teeth, grunting and holding your breath. While they may be some habits you have while concentrating, we want to eliminate them during practice and performance. This is not only for the sake of better performance but also because that tension may cause injury! If you are concentrating so hard that you hold your body in a contorted position, you will cause undue stress on your body. Piano is for pleasure, not to be a torture device!
If at any point you fall short in any of the following ten steps, always come back here to step 1: Calm.
2. Neck and Shoulders
As I described in the Part 1 of this series, regarding posture, you must relax those shoulders! Keep the shoulders away from your ears so 1) you don’t cause undue stress in this complex joint and 2) your arms will be able to move properly. Keep your neck relaxed and let your arm hang loosely from your shoulders.
3. Level Forearm
As your arm hangs gently from your shoulders, bend your elbows and lift your forearms so they are level with the ground. You should have a 90 to 95 degree angle at your elbows.
4. Neutral Wrist
With forearms level to the ground, maintain the wrist position that was present while your arms hung loosely from your shoulders. The wrist should be “unbroken” – not bent up or down, it should be in a somewhat straight line with the forearm. Keep fingers relaxed. Check out this article from the Hong Kong Journal of Occupational Therapy for a great diagram illustrating proper wrist positioning.
Some of the muscles used to move your fingers cross your wrists or are involved in wrist motions. By keeping a neutral wrist, the muscles in your hands will be able to divert their energy most efficiently and effectively from your forearm and into moving your fingers.
5. Curved Fingers
Your fingers should be curved, similar to the natural curve they hold while your arms are hanging loosely from your shoulders. When you raise your hands to the keyboard, imagine a ball resting just under your large knuckles. Size of the ball depends on the size of your hand – somewhere between a ping pong ball (small children) or a tennis ball (larger adults).
Your thumb should be straight, its side resting on the key. You will play with roughly the last third of your thumb.
Now that your shoulders, arms, wrists hands and fingers are in place, the second half of the process is in your actions.
6. Fingers – Relaxed but Firm
There are approximately 19 muscles or muscle groups on each side used to move your fingers. Most of them begin in your arm or wrist – nine from the elbow and seven from the wrist. Only three of them are located solely in the hand!
While you can’t mentally control each muscle individually, it helps to understand that most of the work begins in your forearms. The muscles in your hands (for the anatomy nerds, palmar and dorsal interossei and the lumbricals) are there to stabilize your fingers. When you play, your arms are using your fingers as hammers to strike the keys. If your finger muscles are weak, your fingers will hyper-extend at the knuckles, causing injury to the tendons and ligaments are they are overstretched. Later in this series I will discuss what actions you can take to strengthen these muscles so your fingers can remain relaxed but firm. For now, just be sure to keep a nice curve in your fingers.
7. Forearm Muscles Used
As mentioned above, the majority of muscles used in playing are in your forearm or wrist. Keep this in mind as you play so you prevent stressing out your fingers.
From the time you begin playing and throughout your studies, until you get into more advanced pieces, your piano literature will provide some direction on which fingers to use. This direction is called “fingering” and it is used to help develop proper technique. The fingering instructions should be followed so that your body learns how to move. This is similar to how a dancer would learn to use different parts of the body in different orders to do special moves.
Learning proper fingering is an important part of your training. As you advance, your piano literature will no longer provide these instructions because you will be expected to know which fingering to use due to many years of practice and developing good habits. As your teacher, I will provide exercises that will help you learn the correct way to play.
9. Consistent Practice – Repetition
Since piano is a physical activity, it requires repeated action of the correct motions. It’s the same idea as in sports like golf and baseball. This is why exercises are so important! They are really less about a warm-up and more about developing proper technique through correct repetitive motions. This means keeping those nice curves in your fingers (or preventing the fingers from hyper extension) and using correct fingering.
In later parts of this series, I will provide tips on how to maintain proper technique.
10. Consistent Practice – Devoted Time
As a physical activity, piano also requires that you provide devoted practice time. Your muscles are literally getting a workout every time you practice. As such, you must give them ample time to rest and recover. A bit of devoted time each day goes a long way as your body learns to move and your nerves send the correct signals to your muscles.
This is a multi-part series on how to avoid injuries. The previous section covered correct posture at the piano. Upcoming topics will cover strategies for preventing injuries, such as exercises and drills, reducing over-repetitive playing and how the student can avoid stress by creating stillness in his or her mind. Stay tuned for more!
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