Playing the Piano with Ease
How hard can it be?
I’ve been studying the piano for most of my life. I was first taught by my mother, a classically trained professional musician who also ran her own teaching studio. But I stopped learning in my 20s and restarted a few years ago, twenty or so years later.
I’ve learned a huge amount from pianists like Josh Wright, Paul Barton, John Mortensen, and many others.
The fundamentals of piano technique seem pretty straight forward: just keep completely relaxed, calm, serene, maintain good posture if you want your back to survive, and keep doing all that when playing at ridiculous speeds.
Playing with complete ease is very difficult to master. How does Horowitz do this, he seems to be petting the piano and the piano plays itself?
In trying to achieve this elusive quality of complete ease my big mistake has been to assume that ease will emerge from lots and lots of hard, technical practice.
But I was wrong — at least for me. I got this completely backwards. My recent experience of flipping things around are proving how badly I got this wrong. Simply put, start with being at ease and relaxed and then build everything else on top of that foundation. Ease cannot be added afterwards.
At this point many teachers will be screaming, “Of course!!!”. But, somehow I didn’t really get it, and I’ve been told it in lots of ways, but it has always been indirect: “slow down”, “relax”, “curl your fingers”, “don’t tense up”.
I needed to start from being at ease as a foundational principle. What does that mean?
- First, are you sitting comfortably? Is you back straight? Can you sit like that for some time, after all thats what you are going to be doing. If you can’t sit on the chair comfortably then things aren’t going to go well. Make sure the bench position is good.
- Now rest your hands on the keyboard. Are you still comfortable? Are your shoulders and body relaxed? Are you still sitting comfortably? Is your chair still at the right height.
- Are your hands touching the keyboard with a good shape? (See this or this)
- Are you still comfortable? Remove all tension by adjusting your position.
- Play a note, a five finger scale (C-G), a chord. Are you still comfortable and relaxed. Are you using the lightest touch you can? Is what you’re playing sounding even, or beautiful?
- Do not go beyond this point until you can play something very simple, slowly and completely at ease.
You need to learn what it feels like to play with complete ease by playing something so simple (a five note scale) that you can think about your body and not what you’re playing. That feeling is what you need to strive for in all your playing, but first you need to know what that feeling is. Once you’ve felt it you’ll never forget it, its almost euphoric.
In all your practice, that is the state you need to achieve first. If you deviate from it then reset, slow down, and find it again.
Fundamentally, I don’t think its possible to develop playing at ease as an afterthought, it doesn’t emerge from playing lots of technical exercises or when you get good enough. Its an upfront decision that everything else rests upon.
The work of a lifetime is to learn how to keep yourself in that state whilst playing more and more difficult music.
ps. My brother, Lance, tells me that this is what the Leschetizky Method espouses. I am very happy that I’m in good company.