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Lately, I have been learning some songs on piano, very simple ones. I have been doing it by ear so I haven't had the need to use sheet music and read it for those songs.

Since I don't have to read it I can focus on the music more, but this leads to the problem. When I play by ear my body starts to get into the music and I slightly sway. It just suddenly happens and I don't notice. It isn't too much too just a bit but a noticeable bit.

I asked my friend, who has been playing flute for two years, if she has done this before just to see if it happens to people who play other things. She said that she has never heard of anyone doing the sort.

I know that other pianists do it but I have been constantly told that not everything that I see should be mimicked since it isn't always right. So am I hindering my practice by doing this? Will it harm me if I keep on doing it?

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  • 3
    Watch Stevie Wonder.
    – Tim
    Nov 3 '20 at 6:56
  • “Don’t move the pillar because the cathedral will collapse” youtu.be/56FtTNo_9wg
    – cmp
    Nov 4 '20 at 0:32
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A bit of motion is no problem at all. Trying to repress it will probably tense you up and that is much, much worse than a bit of swaying. Music and rhythm originates from walking and dancing.

Just don’t zone out. Stay in the moment and always listen, listen, listen.

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In an of itself, swaying is fine, but it really depends on the specifics of how you're moving. Here are a couple of tips:

  • If you are moving in time with the music, you're probably okay.
  • If you are moving "randomly" -- that is, your movements don't share the basic pulse with the music you're playing -- then it could be a sign that you're more connected to the music "in your head" than "in your body". Being "in your head" can be a problem in that your playing can sound mechanical rather than musical.

As a suggestion, make a video of yourself and watch to see whether your movement is in sync with the music or not.

Allowing your movements are with the music, then also consider this:

  • Forward/back movement (toward or away from the piano) is best if it corresponds to the natural accents of the music. Moving forward puts energy into the piano; moving back pulls energy away from the piano. So moving forward on beat 1, for example, would be preferable to moving away on beat 1, since best 1 tends to be strongest.
  • Side-to-side movements have less impact unless they are extreme. Since you're just swaying "a bit", then again it's just a matter of whether you're swaying in time and toward or away from the notes/hand that's playing. A left-moving sway will tend to move energy to your left hand and away from your right, and vice-versa.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you should intentionally sway in one way or another. Just be aware of the ebb and flow of your music. If you're getting unexpected accents, for example, check in with how your body is moving.

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Depending on your size, what you are playing and your seat, swaying can help get your hands where they need to be. The most important fulcrum in piano playing is the elbow as it can greatly aid in getting the correct height and rotation for your fingers to play effortlessly.

Consider walking up stairs. Each foot ascends higher than the next step then comes straight down. If you didn't extend high enough you would trip up stairs. Your hands are the same. If you stretch a finger to reach up to a black key you will develop tension and uneven playing because multiple muscles will be pulling in opposite directions you intend to go but if the elbow helps with up, down, in, out, forward and backward, your finger doesn't have to do much of anything other than play down.

It is interesting that some classical players sway, many jazz players do not, rock players do. Does the intellectual jazz player knows something the others don't or vice versa?

There is no right or wrong, just how you adapt to get the same result. Dave McKenna, Bill Evans, Glen Gould . . . they are often criticized as having poor posture, sitting too high or too low, hunched over and yet they are virtuosos. They may or may not be doing something wrong but they are definitely compensating by doing a lot of things right.

There are wonderful videos of Glen in the recording studio, legs crossed, sitting really low, slouched and yet perfection abounds. Adam Makowicz is often criticized for sitting too low and bouncing but his elbows make up for it. Don't watch their hands, watch their elbows. The elbows place the fingers, the fingers don't drag the arm behind them.

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The principal problem with the body expressing the music is that the energy flowing into your body is not flowing into your music, so what you are feeling and experiencing is not shared by your audience. If you have a musical give and take with a silent partner like your body, there is the danger that this will unbalance your rendition, like an invisible moon unbalances the solar orbit of a planet. It can muddy long lines of thematic, dynamic and articulatory development.

Is it unusual? No. But it's a good idea to be aware of just how much one's play may be affected.

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