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I began learning the piano recently. When I begin playing, my hands form nice 70-80 degree curves with the wrists relaxed. I can maintain this for trivial pieces with no significant hand motion. But as soon as I have to put any effort into playing, my hands take on a more typing-like posture and my wrists barely flex at all. This isn't unique to piano playing - my entire body tends to tense up when I do anything technically challenging, from typing at maximum speed to competitive debate (not me in the video). I'm a tense person and when I feel strained for perfection (or flustered by mistakes) it affects my posture.

How can I stay relaxed when my body seems to associate tenseness with control?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This may be overkill, but I gained a great deal of insight into my own posture from The Thinking Body by Mabel E. Todd. The basic idea is that the body resists gravity in the same manner that a building does: by distributing the weight along lines of compression and suspension. For the most part the front of your body is suspended from the frame of the skeleton which channels the weight through compression down toward the center of the earth. Thus the bones of the skeleton ought to be balanced to provide this support. Any imbalance is compensated by muscular activity which leads to fatigue. So to fix tension in your wrists,

  • Start with the feet. Seated or standing, your feet should be solidly on the floor. Heel, ball, toe.

  • Then, your knees should be slightly forward so the weight from the body is on the arch, balancing between the heel and the toe.

  • Then, your hips should be "turned-out" like a ballet dancer, then helps to curve the lumbar forward.

  • Then the back should be straight (seriously, stop slouching).

  • Then the shoulders should be relaxed and pulled slightly backward (heckles: down).

The test of all the above is whether you can sit for 60 seconds completely still, without needing to move or feeling fatigued (The standing version is actually a Yoga Asana (posture) whose name I forget). Now your weight is evenly balanced down to the ground. When you raise your arms, your upper back should withdraw slightly to remain balanced. Since the arms are suspended from the shoulders, the shoulders pass that additional weight either upon the compression lines through the bones down the spine or upon the muscles of the back, which leads to fatigue.

It might be easier to learn standing. If all the weight of the body is evenly distributed and balanced, there should be no tense muscles at all. You should be able to stand, balanced, with no effort at all. When standing, for the upper body, it should feel as though you are sitting on your hips. And the hips are sitting on the legs. So it is much like the sensation of sitting against a low edge jutting out of a wall.

One additional Yogi trick is to pay attention to the muscles of the abdomen as well. These muscles can be lightly tensed to actually provide some compressive support on the front of the body (so you back doesn't have to move as far).

I know I haven't mentioned the wrists, but if the above is ok, tension in the wrists really should disappear. The only reason for them to tense is if the angle from elbow is too low, which means your back is too far forward, which means you're probably having backpain that you've already grown accustomed to. This too shall pass. :)

The sensation of stability ought to contribute to the feeling of control.

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This is a bad habit. Essentially, you need to reprogram your mind to stop tensing when what you really want is focus. The instinct to tense is extremely common, and, unfortunately, very difficult to override.

luser droog gave a fantastic explanation of how to build proper posture. You should take his advice, and constantly check to see if you're following it. At different times in the day, test yourself to see if you have good posture, or if you're slouched or tense. When you practice, critically evaluate whether or not you're tense. If you're tense, stop immediately and relax. Go back and play the section again, focusing more on staying relaxed. If you can't play the section at speed while relaxed, you've moved too quickly; go slower.

Of course, the trick then becomes remembering to check your posture. I have no magic for this. Some people write notes on the backs of their hand. I had a friend who would tie a string around his wrist to remind him ("why did I tie this stupid thing....oh, right. Posture"). I personally write reminders all over my music, because it's the one thing I know I'm looking at.

Unfortunately, when you're breaking a habit as ingrained as this one, there is no easy way out. You have to go through and do the work. Best of luck!

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You could also try setting a reminder or timer to check posture once every five minutes or other suitable interval. Preferably one that silences itself, so that you can simply correct any issues and keep going. –  Hannele Feb 8 '13 at 21:12

Get a good teacher, it can really make a huge difference.

Practice difficult passages slowly (surprise!) and concentrate on relaxation. Often when I get tense, it's because I play faster than I think (like, my thoughts come after my hands). So, when you practice (slowly), try to think ahead, and when you speed up, try to keep it so that your thoughts are just a bit ahead of your hands. This helps in getting the movements more fluid. Also, think about groups of notes instead of single notes, otherwise you probably cannot do this very fast.

One trick which may help is to watch pianists with excellent, economic techniques (check for example Hamelin or Zimmerman on YouTube) play and try to imitate them; try to imagine how it feels when they play and then do it yourself with the piece you're practicing. You could also get a big mirror beside your piano so you can see what you're really doing when you play (posture, hand position, etc) and fix it immediately.

Anyway, getting a good teacher is the best thing you can do, really:

EDIT: A good teacher is indispensable because that way you'll get immediate and accurate feedback, and advice which best helps with your current problem. You say your wrists and whole body gets tense when you play. But what's the reason? Is it just bad posture? Is it because your hands move faster than your brain? Is it because you use too much force? Is it because you move too much or too little? Is it just because you're used to getting tense when doing difficult things? It's very difficult to figure the reason out yourself and even more difficult to try to fix it. That's why you should get a (good!) teacher, who knows all these possible reasons, can accurately detect what you do, knows what you should do, and is there to remind you until you learn it.

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+1 Good stuff, but your paragraph structure hides some of the ideas (both of the 'also...'s). Maybe bullet-points would help. And to be hypercritical, you don't really present any arguments for why a teacher is essential, so the last paragraph is just a repetition of the first. It's not bad, just rhetorically weak. ...HTH. :) –  luser droog Dec 17 '12 at 0:31
    
@luserdroog: Thanks for your comment! I added some reasons for the teacher thing. However, I'm not sure how to fix the alsos because, even though they're kind of their own points, they still connect to the rest of the paragraph. –  nonpop Dec 17 '12 at 9:54
    
What about bold? "... more fluid. Also, think about ..." –  luser droog Dec 17 '12 at 10:24

As a very basic suggestion (this applies to typing as well as piano), consider getting an adjustable piano bench or chair and raising it or lowering it so that your forearm and hands are at the same height as your elbows when you play the keyboard. This does a great deal to keep your wrists in a more neutral posture with less strain.

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One piece of advice that relaxed my wrist totally was to put the weight of arm on the shoulder. Tension in arm muscles usually leads to wrist being tense. Let gravity take the arm just let it hang on shoulder muscles.

Also do following exercise everyday. Put hand in five fingers position, then press all notes while keeping wrist relax move wrist up and down for 1 minute while keeping the notes pressed. Then play each key one by one as demonstrated here

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Take a deep relaxing breath.

A mate of mine learned to play many melodies on acoustic guitar by placing a blanket over his head while he learned the pieces. His reasoning? He plays music with his hands, but listens with his ears! He utilised his eyes only to learn a piece at a time, and then would grab the blanket so that he would remember it as he played. He still is an amazing guitarist at 64 years old.

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This doesn't answer the question. Please read the original post, and also read the How to Answer page for guidance on how to write an answer that will be useful to readers. –  Dr Mayhem Oct 29 '13 at 8:57
    
Edited to pull out the practical part of your answer. The philosophical bit doesn't help the reader, and makes it difficult for them to see the practical guidance. –  Dr Mayhem Oct 30 '13 at 7:15
    
in your no doubt humble opinion. perhaps you also miss the point of the 'total' question and 'comprehensive' answer. The abridged and gutted version taken out of context by you makes no sense either and is OF NO PRACTICAL VALUE TO THE OP REGARDING HIS QUESTION !!!! –  Mad Merlin Nov 1 '13 at 7:19
    
Alternatively, be aware that the point of this site is to provide valuable answers to future readers. Your downvotes, and my comments are an attempt to help you learn to provide answers within the Stack Exchange structure. As a member of the community you need to be able to abide by the guidelines of the community. While you may think that your philosophical rants are useful, in general they come across as confusing and unrelated to the question or any practical guidance. –  Dr Mayhem Nov 1 '13 at 9:52
    
I take you well structured and coherent comments on board with much gratitude and humility. Thanks for the opportunity. I didn't introduce the philosophical bent to the subject. I actually thought I was merely offering 'practical' 'alternative' solutions to the PO's underlying dilema. HIS MIND AND BODY TENSION !!!! The question "How can I stay relaxed when my body seems to associate tenseness with control?" was what the OP required an answer for - I answered this question; Relaxing his wrists was NOT the question posed. The OP equated 'tenseness' with 'control' as a function of his body. –  Mad Merlin Nov 2 '13 at 1:39

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