A Practical Guide to Forearm Rotation


If you have ever struggled to play scales, arpeggios and passagework freely, in a coordinated way with a feeling of ease and comfort, you may well be among the many pianists trying to find the solution by drilling those fingers with lots of Hanon and Czerny. Despite this, the playing feels tight and unreliable.

Forearm rotation is a way of coordinating the arm with the fingers in very specific and controlled ways. Tiny, almost imperceptible and invisible movements in the forearm share with the fingers the job of putting down the keys. When I was shown this, as a postgraduate piano student, it revolutionised my playing.

Discovering this new way of moving is not an easy-come, overnight process. It requires us to ditch some ideas that belong firmly in the past - isolating and lifting fingers, for example. We will need time and patience as we experience how the rotary movements work, how to use the length of the key as we negotiate the black-white terrain of the keyboard, making the necessary up-down and in-out adjustments.

All of this may be foreign to you if you have come from more traditional pianistic backgrounds. This module is designed to equip you with the basic principles as you experience and install the movements, the videos showing you how it’s done at each stage. Stick with it and you can expect to feel freer, stronger and more coordinated in your playing.

Introduction to Rotation Theory

Piano playing has evolved significantly since the first pianos were built. Modern approaches to piano playing show a move away from the pure finger-based technique that, while workable on the harpsichord and the early pianos, turned out not to be so suitable for the modern instrument and its literature.

The early Finger School stressed lifting fingers in isolation from other fingers, and a passive arm that stayed close to the side of the body. Pianists practised endless mechanical exercises and dry, boring studies to “strengthen” the fingers (especially the so-called “weak” fingers), and many crippling injuries were reported.

The Arm School believed in doing away with the fingers, instead using weight and other movements led by the arm. That wasn’t the whole story either. Modern pianism is based on coordinated movements of the whole body, of blending arm with finger.

Thomas Mark sums it up thus:

"Saying that we play the piano with our fingers is like saying that we run with our feet. The fingers move when we play the piano and they are the only parts of our upper body that touch the piano. Similarly, our feet move when we run and are the only parts that touch the ground. But a runner who tried to improve his running by keeping his legs motionless and doing foot exercises would be ridiculous. He is similar to a pianist who keeps his arms motionless and exercises his fingers, although what the pianist does has the sanction of tradition. We play the piano just as we run: by complex coordinated movements of our whole bodies."
- Thomas Mark: What Every Pianist Needs to Know about the Body

There are many ways to move well at the keyboard, but in this module I am going to explore forearm rotation based on the principles discovered and formulated by Dorothy Taubman as this was passed on to me by one of her students (currently on the piano faculty at Juilliard). I will demonstrate how I have come to use it through a through a series of videos, exercises and examples from the repertoire.

DISCLAIMER:It is important to stress here that I am not a pure Taubman teacher, nor is it my wish to tread on any toes with regard to those who specialise in it. Much as I admire and respect my colleagues who follow this path, my approach is eclectic. In my playing and teaching I include movements and choreography that come from my training in the rich Russian tradition that also work beautifully.

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