Healthy Piano Playing
General tips and guidelines for healthy piano playing
Piano playing is a deeply satisfying artistic activity, but it can also be very demanding physically on our arms and hands. Just as elite athletes understand and care for their bodies, so should pianists think carefully about their approach to playing and practising. A healthy piano technique not only avoids injury – it also helps to achieve greater freedom of expression, a more beautiful sound and quicker progress. Pianists who are already experiencing tension, pain or injury may need to complement any medical advice with a re-assessment of their technical approach to avoid the problem recurring when full practice is resumed.
General health and posture
As piano playing is sedentary, it is important to maintain a certain level of fitness with regular aerobic activity such as swimming, walking or running (sports involving weights and tight hand grip are not generally recommended for pianists). Also it is strongly recommended to study a method which helps to improve general posture and suppleness, such as Alexander Technique, yoga, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais or Pilates. [Add link to the DVD].
Adapting to the instrument
Unlike other instrumentalists who are able to offer smaller sizes for children, pianists and other keyboard players usually do not have that option. As pianists cannot adapt the instrument to themselves, they do need, to a certain extent, to adapt their own body to the instrument. But this needs to be done in a way that does not compromise or cause long-term damage to the hand, arm and torso. The current keyboard is best suited to quite large hands, so pianists with smaller hands need to be particularly careful not to overstrain, and need to choose repertoire that suits not only their temperament, but also their hand size. Some smaller-sized keyboards are available (click here to find out more). If choosing a new piano, it is worth considering whether a lighter or heavier action is more appropriate for regular practice.
The piano mechanism
It is helpful to have some understanding of the piano mechanism, and to be aware of the fact that only around 50gms of weight is needed to depress a piano key: we need to aim to use the minimum amount of effort to depress the note for the desired sound, and no more. The sound is initiated (and the hammer is set off to reach the string) as the key reaches the set-off point, which is about half- to two-thirds of the way down. The key needs to be moving at its maximum velocity at that point, not when the finger reaches the key bed. After depressing the note, no continuing pressure on the key (beyond that which is needed to sustain the note) can influence the sound.
Warming up and cooling down
It is important to warm up the muscles and to bring a full supply of blood to the hands before practising any technical exercises, scales or pieces. The Roskell Warm-up Sequence can help prevent injury if used regularly before, after and even between practice sessions.
Doctors experienced in pianist's health recommend practice sessions of twenty minutes each interspersed with ten minute breaks, to allow the hands time to recover between sessions. The break could be a time for a walk-around and a drink, or could involve some stretching or releasing exercises, such as Windmills or other exercises from the Roskell Warm-up Sequence. Valuable work can also be done away from the keyboard in these breaks (studying the score, including note learning, rhythm work, imagining the piece in our inner ear, or memorising).
Vary your practice as much as possible, changing frequently from right to left hand practice, fast to slow passages, forte to piano. In particular, avoid practising any technique involving repetition at full stretch (such as octaves and large chords) for more than a few minutes at a time and do not launch into the most difficult passage at the beginning of your session.
Quality is much more important than quantity of practice. Mindless repetition should be avoided - every practice session should have a clear aim. Much can be gained from practising passages quietly and slowly with minimum effort initially, gradually building up to full tempo and dynamic without increasing tension. Listen attentively to the quality of sound produced throughout your practice – a harsh sound is normally a clear indicator of unnecessary tension.
Try to pace your practice, both on a daily basis and over longer periods. Avoid the need for a sudden increase in practice time by learning new pieces sufficiently well in advance to allow a 'settling' period before a performance or exam. Whilst it is good to challenge ourselves musically and technically, any immediate pressures should be balanced against a longer term view of a healthy, sustainable playing career.
It is the dynamic range which produces drama and musical expression more than the overall volume of sound. Even when playing in a large concert hall, a good quality of sound will project better than a harsh, loud sound. When working on fingering, note-learning or other preparatory work, avoid practising forte unnecessarily. Also avoid playing fortissimo when you are fatigued. Young players should not be encouraged to play fortissimo until they have the required technique to do so without straining the hands.
If in pain, stop!
Always consult a medical professional or a piano teacher experienced in injury prevention immediately if you have any pain, especially if it persists beyond a few days. You may need to stop playing until the pain has ceased, and then only resume playing gradually. Try to work out what the trigger for the pain might have been and reassess your technique. Take injuries seriously!
Posture and a whole-body approach
General posture and stool height
Each generation of pianists has produced some notable examples of very fine musicians who have sat very high or low, with some extremes of posture. A small percentage of pianists, because of innate abnormalities or imbalances may have to adapt themselves to the piano in ways which may not otherwise be considered ideal. However, the majority of pianists, especially those who are practising several hours a day, should aim to achieve a balanced posture at the keyboard, so that no muscles are regularly over-used or over-stretched.
The position of the spine
The spine needs to be erect and 'lengthening' - neither overly tense, nor slumped (click here for more information on sitting posture). The whole shoulder girdle hangs freely over the ribcage and the arms hang loosely from the shoulder sockets. The body weight should be evenly distributed between the sitting bones, with the bones pointing down and very slightly backwards into the chair. As a general rule, the stool should be at a height that allows the arms to hang loosely from the shoulder, with no clenching of elbows, shoulder or wrist. Distance from keys should be such that the chest remains open, and we have enough space to be able to move the arms freely towards the extremes of the keyboard and across the body when required.
Even at the beginning stages of learning, feet should be firmly placed on the floor (or on a firm support). When pedalling, the right foot pivots lightly from the ankle, while the left remains flat on the floor, or poised ready to depress the una corda pedal.
Many pianists raise and narrow the shoulders when feeling nervous or playing difficult passages. Find some shoulder releasing exercises that work for you, such as Roskell Warm-up Sequence, and do them regularly.
The arm hangs loosely from the shoulder socket. None of the joints should be clenched tightly - allow some feeling of length in the arm and of space in all the joints. Bring the arm to the keyboard with a free swinging motion, so that the hand hovers lightly over the keyboard before playing. Avoid pressing into the keys: practise the Parachute Touch, which uses gravity and controlled use of arm weight to play individual notes and chords.
It also reduces the impact of the hand landing on the keyboard by allowing a soft cushioning in all the joints – this will also greatly improve the quality of sound.
Using the whole arm to support the fingers
Be cautious of excessive 'finger strengthening' exercises or of raising the fingers high in order to play more forte. The fingers are designed for agility, subtlety and independent detailing, not for power. Even at the beginning stages, pianists can learn to use the stronger muscles of the torso and upper arm to support the action of the fingers.
Discover the balanced, neutral position of your wrist by allowing the arm to hang loosely by the side.
Start each practice session from this neutral position, which should ideally be the mid-point of all movement – avoid holding the wrist habitually high or low. Keep checking the wrist, which can often appear relaxed even when it in fact holds a great deal of tension, particularly when playing octaves.
Fluid wrist movements learnt in the early stages– up and down, lateral, elliptical – will prove invaluable later.
Again, let the arm hang and observe the individual curvature of your particular hand, and use this as your starting point for finger action. Avoid excessive lifting or curving of the fingers, especially when combined with a low wrist. For collapsing joints, it may be helpful to work at some gentle strengthening exercises under the guidance of an experienced teacher – but without tightening the wrist. Keep fingers evenly curved for optimum independence and even tone and rhythm. Compare the unevenly curved fingers and the curved fingers in the video:
There are many different kinds of finger touch, each of which will produce a different nuance of sound. In general, aim for the fingers to move as freely as possible from a relaxed wrist and arm. A feeling of lengthening rather than gripping will give increased suppleness. Awareness of the contact between finger pad and key, and the control of key-depression, are crucial to develop sensitivity of touch. It is not necessary to lift the finger actively to release the note - the finger and the piano key spring back by themselves. The more focussed our listening, the more beautiful the sound.
Work towards muscle tone and muscular co-ordination rather than strength and stamina. Tension builds up when antagonistic muscles contract simultaneously, and pull against each other. Allow some give in the muscles to permit a full range of movement.
The traditional approach to early learning based around both thumbs playing middle C can establish a habit of inhibited playing, with the elbows tight, shoulders raised and the forearm in a straight line with the thumb ('ulnar deviation'). Wherever possible, let the elbows hang loosely from the shoulder, and keep the forearm in line with the third, fourth and fifth finger.
Using all the registers of the keyboard when you are practising helps to keep all the joints fully mobile.
Each movement needs to be timed, so that the maximum energy is released at the moment when the hammer sets off to reach the string. After playing the note, there is nothing to be gained musically or technically from continuing pressure on the key bed. One simple way to learn immediate release from tension, is to play chords with arm-release ('arm weight'), and check after each chord that the wrist has softly returned to its neutral position.
Gradually the process of softening the wrist and releasing pressure after each chord will become spontaneous. To a musical player wanting to achieve an intense, continuous musical line it may seem counter-intuitive not to use continuous pressure on the keys. But eventually musical ways will be found to sustain and shape the phrase whilst minimising physical tension.
Avoid excessive stretches
Think of opening out the hand naturally from a soft wrist, rather than forcing the fingers to stretch apart.
Use coordinated sideways wrist-arm movements to bring each finger towards the next note.
Change fingerings and consider leaving out notes if your hand requires it. Release notes early when necessary and musically appropriate, perhaps using pedal to achieve the necessary legato. If you have particularly small hands, avoid lengthy passages of repetitive octaves or large chords unless you can play these with ease. Spread or divide chords where necessary.
Look for moments of release
Look out for resting points, especially in a demanding moto perpetuo piece. Let the hand hang between phrases and when moving between chords. Practise minimising tension between repetitive octaves or large chords.
Economy of movement
Initially new movements and techniques may need to be exaggerated in order to fully appreciate the co-ordination of the movement, but gradually these can be refined to the point where any movement is not only tension-free but also imperceptible and quasi-effortless. Very little effort is in fact required to raise the hammer to the string - use the required amount of effort and no more.
Exhale deeply before playing, or before a difficult passage. If you suffer from more general anxiety, some regular practice of yoga-based or other meditative breathing exercises can be beneficial.
Warning signs to look out for
If you do start to experience tension or fatigue, consider these as warning signs that you may need to reassess your technique, your practice methods, or to change your programme. Also think carefully about other activities (typing, texting, carrying heavy music bags, or recreations such as sport or gardening) which may be putting additional strain on the hands.
Notes for Teachers
Teachers have a duty to protect their students from injury to the best of their ability. Particularly vulnerable are pianists with small hands, teenagers going through a growth spurt and full-time students and professionals who may be practising for many hours a day. Prevention is better than cure. When teaching, I often sit a little further away or move around to observe the student from different angles in order to keep a watchful eye on any imbalances or unnecessary tension.
It is never too early to teach good technique - for instance, good posture and hand position, a cantabile finger touch, staccato, arm release, free lateral movements and expressive gesture can all be taught in the first year of study. If a sound technical foundation is established from the early stages, very little correction will be needed in the future.
It is important for teachers to have some basic knowledge of how the body works, and I would strongly recommend reading the sections on the whole-body approach and all the basic techniques, plus the anatomical Appendices in The Complete Pianist (See 'Further Reading' for more information).
If concerned about any aspect of a student’s welfare, do not hesitate to ask for advice or a second opinion from a medical practitioner, or a piano teacher experienced in injury prevention.
- Penelope Roskell's book The Complete Pianist: From Healthy Technique to Natural Artistry gives more detailed advice on all these topics.
Click here to view Penelope's Yoga for Musicians video demonstration series.
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