Chopin’s Bb minor Nocturne (Night Piece) requires a player to use a full arm rotation to fluidly play the arpeggios in the left hand that span over an octave. These broken chords which fill a large space by their expansion, create a Romantic underpinning for the molto cantabile heart-rending melody in the treble.
If the wrist, hand, and arm don’t work in unity to execute the bass figure which permeates the whole composition, then the player will quickly tire and the tone will become inhibited.
When I rotate my arms in the course of playing this work, I feel like I’m swinging them toward and away from my body. My elbows with their curvaceous movements, in particular, have wide a wide range of motion. Intertwined with the arm and hand movement is the undulating or flexible wrist. It’s suppleness advances phrase-sculpting and shaping, and its follow through motion allows a player to “breathe” through a composition. (both treble and bass lines)
A pervasive feeling of TWO impulses per measure further lifts the music, so it’s not bogged down in six. (6/4) This rhythmic adjustment helps the player float more naturally in half measures until the final cadence. It’s with a unity of hands, wrists and arms nursing phrases along.
Seymour Bernstein talks about an “upper arm roll” that allows a pianist to have more control over phrasing, dynamics and nuance. He encourages the use of large levers–not just fingers down playing.
Mildred Portney Chase, in her book Just Being at the Piano explains how she focuses on a “release” motion when practicing.
“I may play a short phrase and in the release, allow my hands and arms to move away from the instrument and then back again as a dancer would, with a feeling of grace and fully in contact with the last sound played. Or, I may simply move, using the gesture in choreographed movement to a musical phrase. This may undo any tension that might bind the fingers in playing out the phrase.”
I like to think of the arms as playing the fingers, perhaps like by-passing the keyboard, drawing music from the strings inside the piano.
The only way perhaps to begin to illustrate what often seems a bit beyond words to describe is to embed an example.
In this reading, I make it a point to study phrases that had particular flow and nuance, and store these in my muscle memory bank.
The touch/feel part of music-making is often under-played (pun intended) Notes only have meaning as musical ideas drawn from inspiration allied to fluid movement.
Learning individual notes in the early learning process, should be wedded to the singing tone– to beautiful phrasing and nuance. From the very first exposure to a new piece, ( as Mildred Portney and Seymour Bernstein wisely say) the savoring of each musical moment is a treasured one.
This tableau posted by Seymour Bernstein nicely frames the process of reaching deep down into oneself for musical inspiration:
The backdrop: Aria from J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations
You and the Piano, A Lesson With Seymour Bernstein, Part 4