Movement at the piano is essential for expressing music well. Movement is important because of the way our bodies and the piano work. Movement allows us to engage our imagination, to relax and to soak in the music we produce.
Some confusion has developed over the years because of different ideas about movement. There was once a ‘school of thought’ that said only fingers should be used and that the pianist must sit straight and still. This idea came from the age before pianos. At this time most keyboard players used an instrument called a harpsichord. It was quite a delicate sounding instrument that demanded absolute precision to sound well. It didn’t have volume response, so the only way of controlling the sound was finger action and timing.
The piano is not much like the harpsichord. It has the potential to respond differently to the tiniest change in the way it is touched. Changes in touch determine the volume and sound qualities of individual notes. The way groups of notes are joined together, or not, effects the singing qualities of the music. This is called phrasing. Phrases are made to sound beautiful, lively or given other character by the relative volume and time of each note in a phrase, and of each phrase in a section of music. Character comes from playing each note a little differently from the ones around it.
We can control slight changes in the movement of our fingers, resulting in differences in the way we touch the piano. This gives us some control over the sound. For example, a faster, more bent finger gives a strong sound while a slow finger can play more softly.
However, our fingers actually relate to and rely on other parts of our body when they move. Our fingers extend from the tips we can see into the very middle of our palms – if you turn your hands palm upwards and grasp with your fingers you will see this. To grasp strongly with our whole fingers, we use our upper arms from behind (what we need to do when playing the piano). To curl in the tips of the fingers, we use our forearms (what we usually need to avoid when playing the piano). It is a case of every part of our bodies relying on the support and function of other parts – the whole body works together to play the piano.
Since our fingers depend on the rest of our body to make particular sounds at the piano, we need to accept and become aware of the whole body when we play. We need stability and balance, but not rigidity. We need to be able to move easily and smoothly. We can do this by finding a balance of tension in every part.
Our skeletons are built to stand tall and straight and every bone is properly aligned with others so that when we are at ease no muscle is pulling against another. This extends through our hips to our necks and shoulders, down our arms and to the fingers – finally leading to the individually perfect pianist hand position. Any movement in the fingers at the piano creates a movement in every other part of the body. Playing well requires that we allow these changes to happen, to send power through the fingers. If we fight the changes, perhaps by trying to stay still and straight, parts of our bodies become tense. This can be heard in the music – it becomes hesitant and harsh. Often the movement is fohught by the lower arm, which can be dangerous, causing conditions such as RSI.
Ultimately, we need to advance beyond our fingers doing the work to realising our entire body plays the piano. More than passively ‘letting it happen’, we must put intention into our playing. This is not a forced action. It is rather like dancing. We engage our imaginations and all our senses into hearing what the music wants to say. When we dance, and especially when a song just grabs us, we become absorbed in the music. When moving freely, we don’t think about how to sway or bob – it happens, we can’t help it.
Playing a piano is a privilege because we have part in bringing this music to life, not just reacting to it. If we hear with our imagination, then with our ears, if we feel the music from the pit of our stomachs, the movement will want to happen. Our stomachs, backs, upper arms and wrists dance and guide our fingers to play what we feel and hear.
Playing with intention and bringing wonderful qualities into our music we must bring together, in harmony, our deepest senses, our bodies and the piano. Restraint or exaggerated movement prevent the natural actions of our bodies. Listening, singing, dancing and pretend conducting can train our freedom and realisation of expression. Appropriate use of tension, relaxation and intention is vital for our music and our health.