I often think of piano technique as in the same league as sports. Why not? I practically grew up in the bleachers at Ebbets Field watching the Brooklyn Bums battle their adversaries. And not to forget that I was a tomboy who copied everything my big brother did. I even tried to break the Little League sex barrier but valiantly failed. The American Legion registrar said, “No” to any girl turning up for tryouts regardless of ability.
Baseball was for me a choreography, especially on the field as players fluidly danced through nearly impossible plays, sending base runners unwillingly back to the dugout. A line drive was gloved by a super coordinated shortstop who hurled a ball nearly off balance to the first baseman. He gracefully arched his whole body to retrieve an out of range bullet.
Tennis was no less impressive. Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, Aussie masters of classic strokes, brought ballet into full bloom on the court. At an exhibition match in Madison Square Garden, they breezed effortlessly through baseline clinchers, overhead smashes, and impossible backhands. Reaching impossible heights, the two champions darted after balls sailing over their heads with the lithe motions of jaguars.
My sports fixation, which played out on baseball fields and tennis courts, never left me, even as I grew up and shifted my interest to music. In fact, my students realized very quickly that not a lesson would go by without my introducing a sports analogy.
Mark, an adult student, who towered above me at six feet five inches, was on the pro tennis circuit before he had settled down to a law career at the US Attorney’s Office. Normally, we’d spend the first twenty minutes of our session working on scales and arpeggios, covering the span of the entire keyboard, likening it to tennis turf—grass, of course.
We focused on deep breathing, relaxation techniques including mental imagery, surrendering to the moment, letting muscles loose, dropping shoulders, and letting the hands shape themselves into naturally contoured curves. Our goal was to be in the zone, sealed off from the stress and strain of busy, bustling work environments. We were immersed in the here and now accepting ourselves without the burden of judgment.
Inevitably, some of my tennis and baseball metaphors would crop up when least expected.
Wolfgang, a 12 year old student, who was an ace pitcher for his middle school baseball team, fully understood the follow through motion a pitcher needed. It was also part and parcel of the technique that applied directly to the piano. When I demonstrated a wind up to the pitch, he raised his eyebrows. What was the piano teacher attempting to do? Invade the baseball diamond?
Wolfgang knew that without a flexible wrist, the pitcher would be dead on the mound. For a pianist, a stiff wrist spelled a harsh key attack, and a good chance of injury.
The best application of these sports inspired physical principles, was in the arena of scales and arpeggios. Rather than consider them pedantic exercises, I viewed these preliminaries as a way to get “connected” to the instrument. The concept brought a constellation of ideas like dead weight gravity, feeling centered, having hanging arms like a marionette.
“Puppet strings” had always been the best auto suggestion for my students. It caused them to relax, sending tension and worries to the recycle bin.
In the video attached to this writing, I’d demonstrated my personal approach to practicing scales and arpeggios, hoping that the image of a piano teacher’s fingers dancing across the keys would inspire some form of modeling .
If nothing else, the videotaped replay of the arpeggios in slow motion without audio would offer music teachers an additional instructional tool. They might also consider revisiting the piece, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” as the springboard for a trip to the park. Since we had the SF Giants Triple A farm team here in Fresno, (The “Grizzlies”) it was a no brainer to reserve a seat and grab a hot dog once the new season began.
Piano Technique related videos: My Tutorials