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Relaxation in piano playing and setting a good example for students (Videos)

By all accounts, the piano instructor should be the model of what she embraces as her teaching philosophy at lessons. For example, as I slip into my weeping willow tension-free state, I keep hammering away at my students to relax. But sometimes they’re just too wired from pressures at work or at home to unwind on command. The pairing of incongruous words like “Hammer” and “Relax” (add in “command’) was meant to be funny, but as it happened, I once watched a Masterclass Foundation video where a distinguished cello teacher screamed “RELAX” at a poor student who became doubly knot tied–even worse so, when the teacher poked the student’s shoulder with his bow while admonishing her. Shame on the instructor for causing a paradoxical reaction, or dishing out a scoop of negative reinforcement.

(An important lesson for teachers: Watch your lingo. You may be working at cross purposes by the tone of your communications and body language.)


This morning one of my adult students who’s been studying “Fur Elise,” the medallion piece for many, was as tight as a board when she sat down at the piano bench. I saw the tension in her whole body, especially down the arms into the wrists, and eventually the fingers. She held onto her thumbs for dear life, self-clamped her wrists, and curled up her third finger in each hand making them orphans among their companions.

She also poked the keys, and didn’t let any sound flow out naturally from her fingers.

My sitting at the second piano, a Steinway upright, provided enough distance to be an observer and helper at the same time. This particular student didn’t relish my staring over her shoulder or moving into her space. After years of teaching, I’d learned to respect boundaries that students marked out.

I next had to devise a way to break through my pupil’s body blocked state–a powerful plus for a tight end football player, but not in this field of endeavor. No sudden death goals at the tie-breaker, please!

But YES to setting long-term GOALS that were wedded to relaxation, but not the kind where fingers turned to jelly fish. The student needed supple wrists that supported securely connected fingers into the keys. And that’s when I broke out a hair band for Irina Gorin’s signature wrist relaxation maneuver, well demonstrated at her You Tube Channel:

What about ways of inducing relaxation:

How about putting mental imagery to work combined with relaxed breathing–a form of auto suggestion—Not just pretending to be a weeping willow tree but letting the hands, arms, wrists and fingers listen to the cue. My student and I practiced together as we fine tuned our Oneness with the piano. My flowing, floating motions were mirrored back and forth.

The desired Hand Position:

By my illumination, the student was shown the unnaturalness of her fixed, rigid hand position. When I asked her to shake out tensely arched hands, she couldn’t perform the task. But then something clicked, and she let her fingers fall into their graceful symmetry.

Once we’d gotten over the first bump, we were able to deal with the wrist and its requirement to be flexible. In “Fur Elise” I demonstrated a forward rotation of my wrist, thereby avoiding a crash on the first beat of every measure. She was able to model this back after a few tries.

Balancing voices

What about that smacked down beat in the bass, smothering the gorgeous treble melody? That had to do with BALANCE between lines, but not separated from the physical means to the end. I told my student to play a little deeper into the right hand as she lightened the left. It took several attempts but over the course of the lesson, things worked.

The Unifying Breath

How about Breathing. Well, that was fundamental to the whole time spent at the piano. The student had to unlock the breath and BREATHE naturally. It seemed like a piece of cake for some, but for others it was like digging teeth into a chunk of raw deer meat.

Just in time:

And right on cue, when most needed, Aiden cat jumped onto the piano bench and saved the day. He was so effortlessly lithe that my adult student disarmed herself and released the tension in her arms, wrists and fingers all at once. (Here’s Aiden in an ice-breaking pose)

It was smooth sailing from then on…


To conclude this sermon on relaxation, I’ve posted tonight’s video of “Fur Elise,” as an example of what I tried to teach today. Not everything came across in the relaxed sense, but the student watched, listened and absorbed the essence of what our lesson had been about.

Just Being at the Piano by Mildred Portney-Chase



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