Sunday, February 24, 2013

Piano Technique - My Two Cents

Rather than repeatedly type the same things over and over in forums, it's probably best just to consolidate my main ideas into this blog. So expect more of this in the future.

Part of my intent with creating this blog is to encourage and motivate others interested in Piano in general and Jazz Piano in particular (pick your poison, I deal with both). So this time I'm going to talk about my experience in Piano in general, and specifically about technique.

I can't say I have a lot of technique compared to classical pianists playing for 20+ years. It's passable now but being older, I thought it would be an impossible struggle. I spent an inordinate amount of time intellectualizing the study of technique from reading. I went to a Classical piano teacher who had incredible technique who learned directly from a 2nd generation student of Liszt. I debated technique on the Pianist Corner.

Now at 8 years into this journey, and post-tendonitis and various other injuries on my hand from overuse. I can say I've tried a lot of different things and what is fresh in my mind is what I'm learning. In fact this is what makes me unique as a story teller. I'm gone through these issues recently. Not like some old-time teacher who had to overcome technique issues at 8-10 years of age. And luckily, I can verbalize the experience specifically for adults.

I can play OK now. I can play fast 16ths on a jazz tune. I'm starting to solo in jazz at professional level tempos (above 250bpm). My tone is better and my finger legato is good. In other words, my technique has developed.

What Playing Feels Now

I need to capture this experience for newbies so they can sense if they're headed in the right direction or not. When I was playing piano in the early years, the feeling on the instrument is very different from how it feels now. It will be interesting to see if I read this blog-post 10 years from and have a change of opinion. But for now, I will give my current opinion.

Back then, I had to consciously apply movements I've learned intellectually like rotation, moving hands in and out (in relation to the fallboard), be conscious of the arm weight, shape of the hand, relaxation, height of the bench, tension in my body from shoulders to fingers, ...on and on.

Looking back, I think I overdid the intellectualization. I realize now that there is a natural tendency for the body to do it right. If you will let it. I realize now that allowing the body to be unrestricted is in fact the training required for good technique.

Unfortunately, I haven't found any short cuts. Everything still requires time. Maybe this is one of the first limitations I've discovered about starting piano after 8 years of age. Our body RESISTS naturally now, at least as an adult.  Or is it the brain that resists? Probably the brain. As an adult, the brain intellectualizes and applies logic instead of just letting go and letting the natural movements guide us.

Reminds me of the action of "falling". As a child, if you fall of a skateboard, you will likely land relaxed on the pavement and suffer little injury. As an adult, you will land stiff as a board, and you will suffer painfully from broken bones. This is not an idle statement. I broke an ankle to prove this point!

Piano playing, just like learning to skateboard as an adult, is not a natural thing to do. The body has to "memorize" distances perfectly and orchestrate a precise coordination of movements. But I've since discovered that the problem is, the adult brain, interferes and makes everything stiff.

Problem of Opposing Muscles

The issue with playing piano is that our natural tendency is to "hold back" and this results in that stiffness I describe. Everything is done at first with brute force (often with finger power). This is true of any adult beginner. Specifically, what happens is that instead of a particular muscle just contracting and performing the desired task directly, some other accessory muscle is always countering this movement. This is what is meant when someone says you have too much "tension". It is impossible to play the piano completely relaxed. Muscles have to contract. Muscles have to support. Muscles have to retain shape and structure such as the hand or position of the arm.

But every action is a balance. For example, holding one's arm in a fixed position is a balance between two sets of muscles pulling on the same sets of joints on opposite sides.  I don't need to get technical and describe these movements of tendons, ligaments and muscles.

To depress a key on the piano swiftly and without hesitation requires a complete release of the opposing muscle. It's pretty hard to do. I don't know why, but the body seems to always act naturally to reserve the right to reverse the action so it doesn't let go and the muscles work against each other.

This is the unnecessary muscle contraction. This is under the control of our conscious mind. If our conscious mind doesn't interfere, you will use only the necessary muscles and not more.

In other words, the brain has to be taught to eliminate the stiffness and promote looseness. And the brain can be taught to do this, by playing SLOW.

Logic of Playing Slow

I don't always play slow. In fact, it's not something I do that often. However, when teachers say "play it slow" we need to dig deeper into what's being said and how to apply this to practice.

Let's say we're playing a technically difficult phrase (like a series of A arpeggios in Chopin's 10/1 Etude -- one of the toughest challenges I found in that piece). If you try to solve it by brute force, and you practice it day after day, the end result is just tendonitis. It's tough on the fingers and the shoulders get tense and strained.

Now technically speaking, teachers will talk about solutions like arm weight, wrist rotation, in/out motion. But instead of thinking about any of that, just play it VERY SLOWLY. Extremely, and excruciatingly slow. I mentioned this to someone and the reaction was that this sounds ludicrous.

But let's get to the point of it. By slowly, I mean that at every note keypress, make the most natural movement that your body follows in slow motion. LET YOUR BODY TEACH YOU. And then use the following questions to so if you're interfering or if you're letting go.
  1. Feel any tension in your body. Are you shoulders scrunched? Are you putting all your weight in the finger?
  2. Watch the angle of your wrist. Was there any rotation?
  3. Is there a need to move the hand in or out to cut down on motions and twisting? What does finger naturally do if you let it?
  4. Wiggle the finger on the note. Feel the support from your shoulder-arm-wrist-finger-joint. Does the finger need to be adjusted? Is it in the center of the key?
  5. How's the arm weight? Is there too much weight, too little weight?
  6. How about the other fingers that are unused? Wiggle them. Are they tense?
  7. What about the prior note (finger legato)? Is it being pulled up from the key too fast?
  8. Are you holding some fingers in an extended position from a note previously played?
  9. Is the wrist twisted (left-right position in relation to the arm) and not straight? Is your body promoting this twist by not moving the upper body (and your bottom) in relation to the wrist?
  10. Did I say WIGGLE? Let me repeat that. That's the test to make sure everything is loose. Did you wiggle once? Wiggle one more time with the only support being the tip of the finger on the key.
I'm sure there's more but the issue here is that when someone says "play slow", you need to dig deeper into what that means. Your body has to memorize the feeling of a non-tense keypress into every single note. EACH NOTE COULD BE DIFFERENT. It's just the nature of the beast. The movements are not necessarily symmetrical. Each movement has to be learned. This is why learning the piano is so hard. There's a million movements to remember automatically.

Just to make sure we're all on the same boat here, understand what slow means. The above is NOT metronome slow. IT IS SLOWER THAN THAT. I could be 5-10 seconds per note initially. And sped up as you eliminate the bad movements.

Result of this Conscious Analysis

Now if you really become conscious of every movement in slow motion, you will have time to address every tension and remove it. Then your body will memorize this and file this into your subconscious. And you will begin to use proper techniques as described in various technique schools like "relaxation", "rotation", and so on. You will then use a minimal amount of muscle contraction to play.

Mind you, there are stages to this. I certainly have a lot of work to do in this arena. Just because I'm writing this doesn't mean I've solved all my issues. But it takes time to practice all this slowly. Just a Scale alone is a monumental thing to practice in this manner.

But like everything else, we need to build a database of skills. Piano requires a lot of it. And from a technique point of view, these skills have to be accumulated since everything is different. Even playing a C scale has different effects on muscles depending on the register/octave.

Example Issue

On a regular basis, I play scales and then slowly listen for unevenness. Now usually my goal is to play scales pretty fast. Typically around 150bpm quarter notes (playing 16ths). When I do this, I listen for various problems like a common one is losing finger legato on the thumb, or unevenness in finger 4. Often, playing fast adds tension and then I recognize a weakness in technique.

So once I hear the problem (there's another blog post about "hearing your faults"), this is now the time to apply the slow practice methodology above, again analyzing every movement in my entire body. Once you've isolated the correct movements (as taught to you by your body), you can start  speeding it up again until you've achieved perfection.


I don't have a regular teacher now. And I haven't been to a Technique teacher in a long time. But I've learned that all I need to do is to let my own body teach me how to do it. And it will do it if you press each note painstakingly slow when you have a technical problem.

Filing Skills into Your Subconscious Storage

Thank you to the many people who've been reading my blogs. The large readership has encouraged me to write more about things that help in developing one's piano skills.

I received a message from a friend who was surprised at how quickly I've developed in eight years from beginner to a becoming a paid (though mediocre) jazz pianist.  And frankly, after asking my friend about his daily practice plan, I don't see how anyone can be surprised. Those who develop quickly (like me) have no special skills other than methodical planning and discipline. When followed development is huge and is noticeable in large chunks of time (like every 6 months),

Dear friend, in asking your question, and in my asking about your practice plan, you can see how different our activities are. You start the session playing scales. Then you go play a series of tunes from the Real Book. Then you worked on playing tunes with two handed voicings. Then you played what your teacher asked you to do with shell voicings which was "Don't Blame Me".

Now what's wrong with this picture? What is missing is that none of your practice has any goals. Especially specific ones. Let's start with scales. I practice scales daily too. But it isn't important that I practice all scales. I do it with a specific objective. In my case, I speed it up a tad, then I listen for unevenness. At this stage of my playing, some of this is really subtle and frankly it requires a lot of focus now to hear the unevenness. But a beginner's ears are even worse. After a daily habit of plunking down a pattern of keystrokes, you may not realize unless someone else (like a teacher) points out that some notes may be played faster than others. So this is my constant task. Look for problems.

Next let's move on to the playing from the Real Book. This is even more vague. What is the objective? Picking out the chords and voicing it perfectly? Are you pausing? Do you have to watch your fingers lay out the voicings? If so, then it's TOO FAST. If you are pausing, you have just practiced PAUSING. You have just semi-permanently embedded a very bad pattern in your playing which you know have to undo for many many months.

The next thing you did was play "Don't Blame Me". Your teacher said play this with a metronome. Now I ought to emphasize that it's not so simple as saying "Play with a Metronome". This really should be translated to: Play it PERFECTLY with a metronome. And if you can't, SLOW IT DOWN UNTIL YOU DO.

Let's simplify all these in simple goals. First, it is not essential to practice the same issue for hours. Your objective should be to play it perfectly FIVE TIMES. Why 5 times? Well, that's what I learned from my teacher (world class jazz pianist). In the absence of any scientific alternative, I'll take that. It's not that easy to play something perfectly 5 times. If you make a mistake, the count goes back to zero. If you keep making a mistake, then slow it down. And then maybe the next day you do the same thing and increase the tempo up a tad.

I recently was doubtful myself of this technique because I was learning a very difficult "head" from the tune Inner Urge. It has this sequence of sixteenths that is played as fast as Chopin Etude 10/1 and involves several arpeggios including an A arpeggio. It seemed hopeless and impossible. But with patience, I was able to play it after a month (with some errors) and getting easier now. I just played it today and I'm now up to tempos exceeding 10/1. I don't have to work on it much. I just have to do it everyday. I don't even play the whole head. I just focus on the problem arpeggios and again the goal is to play it perfectly 5 times. Slowly at first and gradually speeding it up.

Again it has to be done PERFECTLY. It doesn't matter what the tempo is. 

What is the objective? As I know now, learning an instrument is about filing the knowledge or skill into subconscious storage. Doing something perfectly allows your mind to file the knowledge away for retrieval in automated mode. Those who have no practice strategy have not built any automated routines in their subconscious knowledge bank. Thus, every attempt to play requires too much conscious thought, and with a little stage fright and distraction, the performance will fail.

A professional musician is able to play with little effort. Why? Because his conscious mind is not focused on "voicings", "fingerings", "evenness", etc. He can just pay attention to the music and can alter the performance more for expression. In jazz, this allows more time to be "musical" when creating melodic lines. Now, I'm too early of a jazz pianist to be too successful at the musical side but I can tell from recordings that suddenly my solos are not so random anymore. It's still hit or miss but certainly it has changed. That's because, I have more brain power available when playing. I don't have to think about what my fingers are doing for the most part. Those have all been filed away.

So, my friend, what skills are  you filing in your Subconscious Storage?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Valentine's Gig

Our band is really doing well. Sometimes I can't believe that what was just a little challenge 8.25 years ago has turned into a real role as a professional musician. It's amazing. Lots of audience members talked to me after the show and during the break and I got so many nice compliments that I'm just overjoyed.

The place was packed. This was the first time this venue has ever done anything on Valentine's day. Usually it's a dead night for them as everyone goes to the fancy restaurants for a dinner date. But the owner took a risk and it paid off. I've never seen this place so filled up. No seating was available until the second set.

Tonight was a quintet with a guitar player, and vocals/percussion. Here's a sampling of some of the tunes. Lots of risk taking here. Playing something faster than we've ever done or something dangerously difficult like Con Alma.

Solar - uptempo

Con Alma -- my first try. My goal was just to survive. Too many notes, not enough content.

Footprints -- quite uptempo. 220-230? Tough!

Song For My Father

All the Things You Are