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Piano technique: why? when? what? where?

Updated: Dec 22, 2020


It is generally understood that when learning to play the piano, at some point in the journey addressing technique becomes imperative before progress can continue.


If you search online for piano technique topics, it is easy to become overwhelmed very quickly. This is a topic that brings out strong feelings and it seems as if EVERYONE has a 'best approach', even though you would think that the fundamentals are just that: the basics, the necessary, the foundations for playing piano.


On top of all this there are also trends, approaches and strategies that vary from country to country so it is understandable why teachers and students often just give up and hope for the best.




Playing the piano is a life-long journey, struggle and thrill whether the pianist is a student, teacher or performer. There are two important principles for all: play what you enjoy, and challenge yourself to improve. The key is the balance between these two.


For those times of progression, by asking yourself a few simple questions you can narrow down this vast field and pinpoint what you need right now, while also working out what might be needed next.


Why? Even a short amount of time spent on improving technique will advance your piano playing.

There are many different options depending on the pianist's age, level and goals but often even one small adjustment can reap huge rewards. The real issue is how much time to spend on technique, and when.


When? Whenever it is needed!

Some piano students and teachers will include exercises to be done daily. This approach means an overall progression, but not necessarily a solution to a particular problem or new concept.

Others search for and implement specific strategies to address a compositional device used in a particular piece. This approach means that the current piece will progress, and the understanding of the theory underpinning this device is clarified however overall progression is more haphazard.


Age-appropriate activities and exercises are crucial along with an understanding of children's growth and development. Understanding the cognitive, social, emotional, language and motor skills of each age group will also determine which techniques and expectations are achieveable now, or best left until later.


A combination of the three is what a teacher will design for each student based their current and future abilities and goals.


What?

Check your posture

Most problems start with poor posture, particularly with children as they grow quickly. Poor posture not only causes problems when playing but can also be the cause of serious pain and injury.


'Curve your fingers!' is heard around the world without much thought being given to how. A stable and comfortable seating position is much more important as everything starts from the feet!


If feet are dangling, or legs crossed, then the rest of the body will not be stable. This in turn affects centre of gravity, and how the arms are able to support the hands, which in turn support the fingers. Many technical challenges magically disappear when posture is kept in mind.


There are many approaches that utilise this in their own way and for their own reasons and it is a fascinating subject to explore, far beyond the scope of this blog. In your copious spare time one day, go hunting. Back to posture.



Here are my top go-tos:


Feet should be flat and a shoulder width apart (use a foot stool if necessary). There are also adjustable pedal extenders available for two and three-pedal pianos.


The bench (piano seat with no back) should not be under the fingerboard. Most students sit too closely to the fingerboard, and too far back on the bench. Usually this is because the feet are not flat on the floor! Sit about halfway on the bench, feet flat, then lean forward just a little from your hips. This will naturally straighten your back without strain.


Your elbows should be a little out from your body, and even or a little higher to the fingerboard. This will support your hands and fingers, allow you to reach all the high and low notes without the 'seat-shuffle' but most importantly allows free movement withouth strain and tension.


Release tension whenever you notice it. Tense muscles cause strain,strain causes injury, something to be avoided.



Notice how fingers haven't even been mentioned? If posture is addressed, fingers take care of themselves over time. Good posture will allow even those of us with small hands (an octave reach or less) to avoid injury while at the same time be able to conquer most technical challenges.


Think before you play

'Hear' the sound you want to achieve so that your fingers know what to do. Imagine the tempo (speed), the dynamics (volume throughout), the articulation (staccato, legato, accents) and the phrasing (where to take a breath). 'Listen' to the piece in your head. Play along silently. Listen to others performing and listen for their choices in tempo, dynamics, articulation and phrasing.


Do slow and highly focused practice of small sections.

Every time you play you are making a choice to either practice your mistakes, or to overcome them. 'Hear' the section slowly. Concentrate fully on each note, each piano key and each hand movement, with each one being the result of a conscious decision. Think about how the fingers and hands need to move: step, skip, stretch, under/over, up, down from one note to the next, and between the hands.



How?

One step at a time. There is no rush, no need to race through or skip activities, you have your entire life to continue playing if you choose, as do your students. Sometimes teachers need to remember that their students will learn everything they need to, just not all at the same time.


Learning to play the piano never stops, and the progress from beginner to competent or independent learner or performer or whatever-your-goal-is depends on many factors. However there is one single tip I can give you: this is not a race, there are no winners or losers, and there is no right or wrong way to learn, grow and explore. At different times and stages in your piano journey, there will be different goals, challenges, time available, finances available, and opportunities.


Where?

The easy answer is: find a teacher. If finances don't allow or you are a teacher searching for help, here are some of my go-to channels with links to narrow down your search:


Or you could join us at Pianozone and for our weekly video calls, ask questions on our closed facebook group, or choose one of our many short courses.


Whatever you decide, enjoy your journey, your music, and have fun!



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