Soft dough, warm oil – and no bones

At my recent piano lesson, I worked on Rachmaninov’s Etude-Tableaux Opus 33 No. 2 in C. In order to practice the tricky arpeggiated left-hand accompaniment, which includes many awkward extensions of more than an octave, my teacher asked me to imagine that my arms had no bones in them, no fulcrum at the elbow, and that they were made of “soft, uncooked pastry dough”. And the following day, while teaching an adult student who is studying George Nevada’s nostalgic Wenn Paris Traumt (When Paris Dreams) for her Grade 2 exam, I gave her the image of thick, warm, scented oil running down her arms and into her fingers to create the smoothest, most beautiful legato playing.

Such visual cues may seem odd, but they can be really helpful, as sometimes it is not possible to find the technical vocabulary to describe the sensation one wishes to create in the hand and arm. A metaphor is often better (see my teacher’s post on Playfulness in Piano Playing for more thoughts on this), and children, in particular, can be quick to pick up and act on such images.

A sense of both relaxation and connection in the arms and hands is essential for both the production of good tone and to avoid physical tension or, worse, an injury. Tightness and stiffness produces a tight, stiff, and sometimes very harsh sound. I ask students to listen to the difference in the sound they are producing once they have been encouraged to relax their arms and hands: my adult was certainly very surprised when she heard herself playing the other day!

A few months ago, I reviewed the French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin in a coruscating concert of very varied and physically demanding repertoire (Haydn, Stockhausen, Villa Lobos and Liszt). During the interval, my friend (who is also one of my adult students) commented on how floppy and loose Hamelin’s arms appeared to be. Even as he walked onto the stage, his arms swung loosely from his shoulders, as if attached by thick, stretchy ‘bungees’. This incredible freedom and relaxation allowed him to bring a huge variety of tonal colour, touch and balance to his performance, and even the most jagged passages of the Stockhausen and percussive sections of the Villa Lobos had an extraordinarily fine quality of sound.

My teacher advocates a series of arm and shoulder loosening exercises as a warm up before any practice session or performance (at her courses, we usually do these in the garden if the weather is fair, allowing us plenty of freedom to swing our arms around). You need only do them for about five minutes to begin to notice a difference in the arms, hands and shoulders. The arms feel looser, longer even! The fingers are light and warm, and the shoulders, back and chest are opened. Try to retain these sensations when you sit at the piano.

To soften the arms and hands further, let your arms rest loosely in your lap and start to roll your arms gently around on your thighs. Imagine there are no bones between your hands and your shoulders, and that everything is very soft and pliable (like uncooked pastry!). When you place your hands on the keyboard, check underneath the wrist and forearm to ensure that lightness remains. And keep checking during your practice session, particularly if you are working on a small technical passage: it is all to easy to allow tension to creep back into the arms, resulting in uncomfortable playing and an ugly sound.

Last week, I heard Leon McCawley in a lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall. He played Debussy’s suite Pour le Piano (the ‘Sarabande’ from which was one of my Diploma pieces) and I was fascinated by the playfulness and lightness in his hands and fingers as he played the outer movements of the piece (both the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Toccata’ demand digital dexterity and fleetness). I observed a softness in his arms too, but it was very subtle, and, as my teacher pointed out when I was discussing it with her, a few years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed it, because it was not something I was aware of at the time.

I find it quite hard to encourage students to let their arms move more freely: this is partly because far too many early piano students (and even more advanced ones!) sit too close to the piano, with elbows resolutely glued to the body. The image of a skipping rope is helpful here, to encourage more freedom and “swing” in the arm. One end of the skipping rope is the finger on the key, the other the shoulder, and whatever is between should swing freely.

Meanwhile, I am pleased to report that the “soft dough” exercise, combined with a sweeping, eliptical movement in the hand (aided by using a middle digit – either the second or third finger – as a pivot), is enabling me to make progress with the Rachmaninov: it’s slow because I can only work on it for about 10 minutes before my arm gets tired, but, as with any technical exercise, it is worth the effort. The results come slowly at first, as the body adjusts to the new sensations, but eventually it becomes intuitive. Never push a technical exercise or overwork it: if your hands and arms feel tired, it is time to take a break.