It goes without saying we all, as pianists, consider the ideal state to aim for is one of complete relaxation, totally devoid of any tension. But … let’s just pause a moment to think about this. Because just like cholesterol, not all tension is bad.
Obviously if we literally sit at the piano in a state of absolute relaxation we couldn’t play a note. Our arms would simply flop to the sides and we very probably would fall off the stool as well. Clearly we have to have enough tension in the first place to support ourselves and hold arms to the keyboard. Now you can do this while claiming to be totally relaxed but you are not, in fact you cannot be, in a literal sense.
Consider – how many kilos does your arm weigh? – the whole thing, from shoulder to fingertips. Quite a few. Certainly more than a party balloon filled with helium. So clearly as you hold it above the keyboard it does not hover there because it is weightless, but because you are holding it there with muscle tension.
Now, without wishing to get too embroiled in anatomy, you should know that muscles cannot push. So if muscles cannot push, it means every limb in your body – fingers, toes, arms, legs, whatever – needs two sets of muscles; one to pull the limb one way, and the other to pull it the other. To move a limb you have to instruct one set of muscles to override the other.
In other words when you are sitting at the piano supposedly perfectly relaxed you are doing no such thing. More accurately, you are sitting in a state of perfect balance with all the various muscles in your body acting one way exactly balanced by their opposite number acting the other. Your arm hovering above the keyboard is being held there by the muscles pulling up, but (and this is important) also at the same time by the muscles pulling it down. If that were not the case your arm would gently float up and point at the ceiling!
Now, it is possible to hover above the keyboard in a state of perfect balance yet still expend a great deal of energy. Try it while gripping something good and heavy – a one litre bottle of water will do – and feel just how much tension you need IN BOTH SETS OF MUSCLES to maintain this state of balance.
Then put the bottle away and hover (empty-handed) but still recreating the same feeling of tension. In other words pull with your “up” muscles as though you wanted to lift your arm while at the same time counter that with an equivalent force from your “down” muscles. Take great pains to be aware how this feels. Because this is bad tension, and before you can banish it you need to be able to recognise the sensation whenever it arises, however small the dose.
Now, finally, you have my permission to release all that surplus tension so that your arm does indeed feel as if it were weightless, so weightless that you can believe even a postage stamp placed on the back of your hand would be enough to upset its fine balance and send it sinking downwards.
THAT is the state you must aim to create at will if you wish to play the piano with any degree of fluidity, evenness and control. Not one of total relaxation, but one of perfect balance. To be able to create it at will you need to be aware just what it feels like, so take your time and enjoy the sensation. Beware, it is all too easy too think you have achieved this balance based on the fact that you can see your arms in the right position. But it is not WHERE they are that counts – it’s HOW they feel.
And any time you are frustrated with something that won’t come right in your playing, you might be very surprised how simply making a conscious effort to re-impose this balanced state makes the problem evaporate.