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#3207105 04/06/22 03:31 PM
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Lately I'm playing an étude by Moscheles (op. 70 no. 13) that has a lot of legato thirds passages but today I had a really great moment when I played those passages with so much ease and so much freedom. It was like my hands were floating above the keys and the thirds were flowing up and down the keyboard with so little effort as if it was the most natural hand gesture ever. It was an incredible feeling. In the past few months I noticed that my technique is much more relaxed than before but with this étude I feel like I'm reaching a new stage of pianistic development.

For those of you who are a bit more advanced what do you do to reduce tension and improve relaxation? I've been searching for this feeling for a while, observing pianists like Andras Schiff who seems to play in a Zen-like state and barely touches the keys. It seems to me like there are two factors: 1) economy of motion and 2) 100% comfort while performing the gesture (including being well aligned, balanced, etc).

Anyway, just wanted to share my epiphany here. smile

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Bart K #3207115 04/06/22 03:58 PM
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I think they just call that 'in the zone' ----- that's one way of putting it. Somebody that has practised enough, and experienced enough and/or talented enough can just do the 'in the zone' fluent thing all or most of the time. For them, there just comes a day or a time when they just do it all the time, as their skill and experience level and talent all comes together. The culmination of everything they have.

And - because you have now experienced or tasted that sensation ------ it's just a matter of keeping up with the practice and remembering of everything learned about hand, finger, body movement, and state of mind ---- preparation etc. State of mind and way of doing things can be different from person to person. Somebody doesn't necessarily need to be relaxed in order to get something done. They just have their way of doing it. Although, in general, the more confident that somebody gets (and more experienced) ------ the results generally are noticeably good.

Bart K #3207214 04/07/22 01:35 AM
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I know what you mean by being 'in the zone' but here I was talking about physical relaxation only not the mental state.

Bart K #3207215 04/07/22 01:40 AM
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I know what you mean too. I was meaning both ---- mental and physical state. In the zone - mentally and physically. Everything coming together. Gelling.

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In the 'zone,' the human body experiences peak performance related ... effortless physical response to mental commands and great precision ......

When we get to a stage where we feel so comfortable with playing music, or a piece of music ----- then magic can happen -- as in flowing nicely, nuances -- everything. Good control.

Bart K #3207228 04/07/22 04:16 AM
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Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
... today I had a really great moment when I played those passages with so much ease and so much freedom. It was like my hands were floating above the keys and the thirds were flowing up and down the keyboard with so little effort as if it was the most natural hand gesture ever. ...

Congratulations on reaching this level! I have been dreaming about attaining this ability since working on Grieg's "Puck" (which I know you have also been working with). Thanks for posting this; it helps me believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. smile


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Bart K #3207230 04/07/22 04:39 AM
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I'd say the physical and mental states are related. At least for me I sometimes get frustrated playing some of the harder pieces (that I feel like I should be able to play) and that frustration ends up making me more tense which then makes me make mistakes and it goes downhill from there. When relaxed and just listening for the music (mentally) my hands naturally relax more and it helps me play things more accurately too. Of course that requires a base level of technique but supposing you get there, being able to get in that mental zone is the biggest helper for me personally.

Bart K #3207236 04/07/22 05:25 AM
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Congrats. It sure feels good when it all goes well!


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Originally Posted by QuasiUnaFantasia
Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
... today I had a really great moment when I played those passages with so much ease and so much freedom. It was like my hands were floating above the keys and the thirds were flowing up and down the keyboard with so little effort as if it was the most natural hand gesture ever. ...

Congratulations on reaching this level! I have been dreaming about attaining this ability since working on Grieg's "Puck" (which I know you have also been working with). Thanks for posting this; it helps me believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. smile
Oh yes, Puck was also a good workout. I think it's very important to pick things that you find difficult (within reason of course) and then slowly work out the difficulties until it feels completely 100% comfortable. Maybe it sounds crazy but I played about 70 pieces since then, many of them were études with specific technical problems. I approach each of these like a puzzle and try to find a "solution" that works for me.

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I've been watching Piano Lab videos recently to learn the mechanics of hand movements to reduce tension. Keeping your hands loose is a start. Understanding efficient fingerlings, wrist movements is important.


Around Christmas I worked on a relatively fast piece. After practicing for a week I was able to learn the notes. Getting up to the ideal tempo was frustrating. After watching Piano Lab videos on hands relaxation & posture, my speed improved.

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I think I understand what you are getting at. It's something I've been working as well this past year. The above post from #416 talks about "keeping hands loose", which is the same idea I work with. In fact, it was the video below that really changed my mindset, for whatever reason at the time. Once you take tension out, it's much easier to play! So it's something I pay attention to closely during practice. If something is too difficult or feels difficult, it's probably because I have too much tension. I also found that my speed significantly improved once I eliminated tension (or significantly reduce it), not from doing drills or speed exercises.




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I just searched and watched the piece you are playing on Youtube. It sounds very advanced to me already....


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Bart K #3207289 04/07/22 11:37 AM
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Wonderful! It is indeed lovely when something you've been working on finally gels. It sounds like you've been seeing a gradual improvement in playing without tension. Where you conscious of doing something different? Are you able to repeat the level of relaxation with the thirds today? You mention economy of motion and comfort in the gesture. I think of those two first and foremost as aspects of one's ability to physically control motor function at the keyboard. It is somewhat counter-intuitive, imo, that physical control is necessary for ease and freedom. smile

I really struggle with relaxation while playing. I can start out relaxed, but I can't sustain it. Quite frustrating.


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Bart K #3207294 04/07/22 11:52 AM
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Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
Lately I'm playing an étude by Moscheles (op. 70 no. 13) that has a lot of legato thirds passages but today I had a really great moment when I played those passages with so much ease and so much freedom. It was like my hands were floating above the keys and the thirds were flowing up and down the keyboard with so little effort as if it was the most natural hand gesture ever. It was an incredible feeling. In the past few months I noticed that my technique is much more relaxed than before but with this étude I feel like I'm reaching a new stage of pianistic development.

For those of you who are a bit more advanced what do you do to reduce tension and improve relaxation? I've been searching for this feeling for a while, observing pianists like Andras Schiff who seems to play in a Zen-like state and barely touches the keys. It seems to me like there are two factors: 1) economy of motion and 2) 100% comfort while performing the gesture (including being well aligned, balanced, etc).

Anyway, just wanted to share my epiphany here. smile
Yes it is quite the epiphany to find out to play certain passages fast you have to be relaxed. But of course from experience we all know that is easier said than done. I struggle with it as well.

The physiology behind it is quite simple actually. In your body the muscles are often grouped within two categories depending upon what motion you are asking of them. In the fingers if you are trying to flex the joints the muscles that do this would be considered the agonist. The muscles that oppose this motion would be considered the antagonist. So in this case the finger flexors are the agonists and the finger extensors (which straighten the fingers or lift the fingers away from the keys) are considered the antagonists. If we are in a state of tension we get co-contraction of both the agonists and antagonists. So both of them are firing at the same time which is what tension is. When you try to activate the agonists under tension the antagonists serve to block that motion resulting in lesser performance. When both agonist and antagonist are in a relaxed state the agonist can fire with little resistance ( it's not fighting the antagonist) and you get more fluid and faster motion.

I used to study Wu Style Tai Chi as a fighting form at a martial arts academy in Boston and my sifu who was considered one of 5 top Kung Fu and Tai Chi Grandmasters in the world (He was president of the Kung Fu Federation for the entire eastern US) was a little 5'5" chinese man who didn't speak a word of English but two. When we practiced the Tai Chi Form most of us had studied the form which is a series of movements that take years to master. Most of the students had been with him for 15 years or more and if you watched them perform the Tai Chi movements in sync you would think they were all martial arts experts and they won medals all over the country in Kung Fu. But when it came to Tai Chi my sifu would watch us as a group and he would be nodding his head in disapprovement and making grunting noises in disgust. It was always that way. The Tai Chi we were learning was not the new age Tai Chi you see people performing in a park but it was the true martial form which if applied correctly could be deadly, if applied wrongly you were just a sitting duck. I don't think any of us ever mastered the art. The problem with us is that partly we did not fully comprehend the technique but the other part was that we were not understanding how to fully relax while performing the movements. The only English words he knew were "NO POWER". So when I started learning the form I spent 4 weeks learning to lift my arms in front of me with "NO POWER". And of course I thought I was lifting my arms up with NO POWER and he would touch my arms and say "no, no, no ,no! NO POWER". And so I would relax my arms and think ok NO POWER but then I lose proper form and again he would say "no, no, no, no, no".

Week after week, year after year even though most of us thought we understood the form and it looked good for those watching you would hear that "NO POWER" and some grunting and shaking his head. One day he had me lead the class in the form and I was completely nervous. When you lead the form all the people in the class follow your lead so you set the tempo so to speak. I never led the class before because I was newest student. And I remember thinking to myself, he's doing this because he knows I didn't practice this week, but I reminded myself, "NO POWER, NO POWER". And for some reason I thought to myself. "OK this is a fighting form, I need to relax but I have to have all my motions in perfect alignment but they have to flow from one another and I told myself I could see there are blocks and punches in the form so I'm just going to relax and pretend that I'm blocking a punch or throwing a punch for a split second and then completely relax but in good form. I led the class and I was moving pretty fast but I did the form with no tension but when I felt a need to apply a technique. When I finished the form I expected my sifu to grunt and start looking at me with disgust but to surprise for the first time I saw sifu SMILE. He smiled and so did his wife!

I think the principle that he had tried to teach us for years is the same principle we need to learn to play the piano well and the accomplished pianists do so well which is to relax while maintaining optimal form. When we release tension in the hands, shoulders, body we don't want to be flaccid either. We have to have control. But we have to have good form in our hands, posture without any tension. But the idea that I think my sifu was trying to teach me was to relax throughout the form applying the minimal amount of power needed to achieve what I was trying to do and immediately return into a relaxed state. In this way the agonists were always at the ready to produce quick, accurate, fluid motions needed during combat or in other activities such as playing difficult passages on the piano.

I'm finding it a challenge to perform the fast, improvisational like passage in the D flat major Chopin Nocturne. My teacher thinks I need to practice the piece slowly to get the "form" or notes right but I also think what's missing is that I'm simply not relaxed. For sure my grasp of the notes is slightly lacking so that will require slow practice, but slow practice in a relaxed state like Tai Chi I think. The passage is at 3:35 in the video below. If I could just get this down I would have completed the Nocturne but it's pretty difficult for me to get it anything close to Rubenstein's speed.




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I think several posters in this thread may have things backwards. IMO tension can be symptom of poor technique. So I think the correct approach is not so much to think about or try to reduce tension, but instead to correct the technical problem and then the tension will disappear. I don't think one will reduce tension unless one figures out how to solve the technical issue.

Jethro #3207347 04/07/22 02:55 PM
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@thepianoplayer416: Thanks for that video. I wasn't aware of this Piano Lab channel. He seems to have lots of interesting videos. I'll have a look later.

Originally Posted by Jethro
The physiology behind it is quite simple actually. In your body the muscles are often grouped within two categories depending upon what motion you are asking of them. In the fingers if you are trying to flex the joints the muscles that do this would be considered the agonist. The muscles that oppose this motion would be considered the antagonist. So in this case the finger flexors are the agonists and the finger extensors (which straighten the fingers or lift the fingers away from the keys) are considered the antagonists. If we are in a state of tension we get co-contraction of both the agonists and antagonists. So both of them are firing at the same time which is what tension is. When you try to activate the agonists under tension the antagonists serve to block that motion resulting in lesser performance. When both agonist and antagonist are in a relaxed state the agonist can fire with little resistance ( it's not fighting the antagonist) and you get more fluid and faster motion.
That explains some situations but I don't think it fully explains all of tension. Let me take the example of the étude I'm playing. Say your RH is in a B-flat major position, with 1 on B-flat and 5 on F and I you have to alternate between D+F played with fingers 3 and 5 and C+E-flat played with 2 and 4, legato and with both notes of every third sounding simultaneously. It requires some movement from the wrist but you need to shape your hand a certain way too. I found that having too little tension while playing that top 3-5 makes the following 2-4 sloppy and the notes don't sound simulatenously or the legato is not very good. But if I straigten finger 5 and give my hand a very focused shape then it's crisp. You could say the internal muslces of the hand are tense while playing this. The thing is that these muscles are very rarely direct agonists-antagonists. There are many different muscles interacting to give the hand its shape especially when playing multiple notes simultaneously. When going from a position of playing 3-5 to a position of playing 2-4 some of the same muscles are still contracting while others are relaxing. Of course, you want to minimize unnecessary tension but I think it's overly simplistic to just say use only the necessary muscles and relax immediately after. In many places you have to figure out how to move the hand, how to align the fingers on the keys, and how to coordinate all those movements to give the proper articulation at the exact right moment.

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@bSharp(C)yclist: That's a good channel too. I think I saw some of her videos before.

Originally Posted by Stubbie
Wonderful! It is indeed lovely when something you've been working on finally gels. It sounds like you've been seeing a gradual improvement in playing without tension. Where you conscious of doing something different? Are you able to repeat the level of relaxation with the thirds today?
Today I was working on a different section which isn't so great yet (remember to work on your weaknesses not continue repeating something which is already good) so I didn't experience the same feeling but I think I can get there for the whole piece. The key, I think, is to go slowly over every movement and analyze and dissect it until you are confident that you can do it reliably and comfortably. Playing something reliably and with confidence is already half of the success because you don't stress about notes coming out wrong, which leads to tensing up.

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Originally Posted by Qazsedcft
@bSharp(C)yclist: That's a good channel too. I think I saw some of her videos before.

Originally Posted by Stubbie
Wonderful! It is indeed lovely when something you've been working on finally gels. It sounds like you've been seeing a gradual improvement in playing without tension. Where you conscious of doing something different? Are you able to repeat the level of relaxation with the thirds today?
Today I was working on a different section which isn't so great yet (remember to work on your weaknesses not continue repeating something which is already good) so I didn't experience the same feeling but I think I can get there for the whole piece. The key, I think, is to go slowly over every movement and analyze and dissect it until you are confident that you can do it reliably and comfortably. Playing something reliably and with confidence is already half of the success because you don't stress about notes coming out wrong, which leads to tensing up.
Sometimes I will play a piece for my teacher and she will say, oh, that's so much better, but I know that if I tried to play it again (or several times) for her it likely wouldn't be better; getting it good once is a fluke, more or less. So I was wondering if you were able to repeat your success and confirm that it really was locked in, as it were.


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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
I think several posters in this thread may have things backwards. IMO tension can be symptom of poor technique. So I think the correct approach is not so much to think about or try to reduce tension, but instead to correct the technical problem and then the tension will disappear. I don't think one will reduce tension unless one figures out how to solve the technical issue.

Having some ideas based on the teachings from those various teachers at least allows students to gain some sort of understanding behind the various techniques taught there (as in the biomechanical side of things about the body) ----- which otherwise they wouldn't know about. So they can apply anything that they might find useful.

I guess that some sort of word (ie. 'tension') needed to be defined and used. It does seem to get over-used, such that it appears to become some sort of well ------ over-used word in certain youtube piano videos heheh.

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Originally Posted by SouthPark
I guess that some sort of word (ie. 'tension') needed to be defined and used. It does seem to get over-used, such that it appears to become some sort of well ------ over-used word in piano circles heheh. Some sort of buzzword thing.
I think PW posters use "tension" to mean many different things. I also agree it's over used. If one uses correct technique I think one automatically will not have tension. The real objective should be to use the correct technique or correct improper technique and not to avoid tension(which will automatically happen with correct technique).

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Many of us are not good readers so repeating a piece many times is inevitable. The most efficient fingerings don't always come naturally so a lot of trial & error in the learning process. Finally, need to get a piece up to the ideal tempo unless you're playing a Largo or Adagio movement.

Even with slow practice, the repetitions are going to cause stress.

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