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Music Improvising HOWTO

On the Technical Side...

by Renee Leech

Do You Visualize Piano Technique Before You Play a Keyboard?

Your fingers, hands, arms, back, and whole body are all involved when you play a piano keyboard. To play with strength and relaxation, you want to use them in a connected way, with the fluidity of a dance. Please take time to review the following techniques. Whenever you sit at the keyboard, try to visualize them before you play.

1. Will your fingers be curled or straight?

Place your hand palm up in your lap, and notice the curl of your fingers. This is the relaxed position of your hand, and the strong position of your fingers. Turn your hand over and place your five fingertips on five white keys in a row, keeping the hand curled.

As you begin your study of the keyboard, it can be convenient to keep fingers on the keys you will use. If your hand is small, placing a finger on each key may be an extended position of your hand. When you play keys that are far apart for your hand, your hand may tire. You can refresh it by returning to the small curled hand position.

Alternatively, to encourage agility, try letting your hand remain small. Learn the feeling of letting your upper arm move your curled finger and hand to the next key, as an alternative to stretching to reach that key.

2. Will your thumb travel independently, or will it cause the hand to twist?

Place your hand palm up in your lap again, and observe the movement of the thumb. Does the thumb cause the hand to twist? Place your right hand thumb (1) and first two fingers (2 and 3) on white keys, and move the thumb under the first two fingers to a new hand position, playing the series 1-2-3-1 (the second 1 being a new thumb position). Can you move the thumb to the new key 1 without twisting the hand? Does it help to move the weight of your arm into each finger as you travel towards the new thumb position?

Try moving your hand to the center of the keys and playing the finger pattern 1-2-3-1, where your thumb is on a black key. Then, move back to the edge and try to play a black key with your thumb. Where does your hand need to be if your thumb is to play a black key, to avoid the twist? When not playing primarily on the black keys, do you see why pianists routinely alter fingering patterns to avoid using the thumb on a black key?

3. Will you transfer weight evenly from upper arm to hand, or will your fingers do all the work by themselves?

To be sure, the fingers can work independently. To avoid pounding the fingers down, it's helpful to think of the finger motion as more of a pull. If we pull, we have more control on how loudly or softly the key is struck. With your hand on the keyboard, point a finger up, and then let it curl down to a key. Note the pulling motion. Try depressing the key just a little before you actually strike it to make a softer sound. Try a brushing motion for a light hopping (staccato) sound.

To avoid pounding of individual fingers, and to control the finger's pulling motion, let the relaxed hand receive force from the arm and back. Weight transfer from the back through the arm and relaxed hand to the finger gives a single point of control. While the hand remains agile and relaxed, the arm, and straight back leaning into and away from the arm, are regulating the force, controlling keyboard attack, tone color, and the dynamics of loud and soft.

4. Will your wrist be stiff or move fluidly in a circular path?

Some of my piano teaching colleagues used a five-inch embroidery hoop to demonstrate how the wrist moves to evenly transfer weight. This might be done inside a plastic coffee can lid with the center cut out and the cut edge made blunt. With your hand through the hoop, and your wrist touching the inside edge at all times, rotate the wrist down and out towards the small finger, and then up and in towards the thumb. This movement is not unlike the follow-through motion of throwing a ball. Note that your elbows and upper arms rotate during this exercise. Try this in the air. Do you see your hands making a wave-like motion as the wrist rotates? Try this with your fingertips on the keyboard. Does your weight transfer effortlessly from finger to finger?

5. Will your feet be on the floor, or will you play sitting in a less balanced position?

Try to play while sitting at the keyboard with your feet swinging, or your legs crossed or in an odd position. Compare that to playing when your feet are on the floor and your posture is good. If you want to improve the playing of a younger student, might it help to put a stool or stack of phone books under the student's feet?

5. As you play louder or softer, will the size of your movements change?

Try bouncing a tennis ball to music. When the music is very fast, do you make motions that are small or large? How about when the music is slow? How about when the music is soft, or loud, at the same tempo? And, do all of your best bouncing techniques include a "follow through" movement?

Playing the keyboard well involves your whole body, as does bouncing a tennis ball. Piano students sometimes study Dalcroze Eurythmics, doing this ball-bouncing activity, to remind themselves that the whole body should be involved in playing the piano. Good control at the keyboard is very similar to keeping control of the tennis ball while bouncing at many different tempos and intensities of force.


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