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I am unable to play, for example Chopin etudes (most of them) and Fantaisie-Impromptu because less than 30 seconds in, my forearms fatigue. I slow down a lot and it is physically painful to proceed even at slower speeds.

I can play any short passage at full speed, as long as I start from full physical rest. I don't have a problem with accuracy in general - but I do lose accuracy once I become sore.

Many say that it takes getting used to over time, or I'll just get physically stronger, as in working out everyday. I have pushed hard on these kinds of pieces, for weeks at a time, and I never improved physically - just as sore as always. So I finally ditched them, and resorted to slower pieces or those with fast passages but give the performer "breathing room".

What do you suggest? Is there anything I can do in the gym for this, if anything?

(As an aside, I also suffer from forearm fatigue (left arm) when playing guitar when there are enough bar chords.)


Thank you very much for all of your responses. I will try the suggestions you provided. I hope that I do not have a medical condition that needs dire attention.

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    Not an anwser per se, but technique has very little to do with actual strength, so please don't approach this as if it were a "sport". Weight training will not help you acquire the requisite technique. The ability to play fast for extended periods of time comes from using less force/muscular strength, not more. – Johannes May 24 '16 at 15:01
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    I didn't mean for it to come across that way, so now, I'm interested in how to use less force/muscle to be able to play fast for extended periods. – Mickael Caruso May 24 '16 at 17:42
  • I knew an organist once who swore by the Alexander Technique, but mileage varies. – AakashM May 25 '16 at 8:34
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    Yes, I wouldn't think of strength when describing Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu - that's all about delicacy. Now, some of the Etudes (I'm looking at you, Op.25#10) are much more physically demanding. I was warned by one of my early teachers not to even attempt playing that one at full tempo - one of her promising former students tore a ligament in his wrist doing that and basically ended his career. I don't doubt it - even playing slowly that piece is painful on the arms. – Darrel Hoffman May 25 '16 at 13:40
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You don't want to "push hard", that's more likely to result in injury than in more endurance. As soon as your muscles start to feel tired, you should take a break.

Here are some tips on managing your endurance:

  • Take care of your general health. Eat right, stay hydrated, get some cardiovascular excercise, and get plenty of sleep.
  • Use proper technique. Make sure your ergonomics are correct, make sure you have correct posture, make sure you have the correct finger, hand, and arm positioning, use the minimum pressure necessary, don't over-exert yourself. If you are not sure what the correct technique is, you should discuss with your teacher, find a teacher, or at least research extensively.
  • Stay relaxed. Make sure your shoulders are low and relaxed, make sure your face isn't tight. Breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Build up slowly. None of your muscles can change instantly. You have to give your body plenty of time. Physically, the intensity and/or length of your playing should not increase more than 10% per week if you want to avoid injury. You can push that a bit if you are young and in shape, but it sounds like in your case you need to back off first and then ramp back up more slowly than you would like. This will probably require mental fortitude and self-discipline.
  • Warm up and cool down. Find some simple excercises and learn to play them solidly so you can ignore what your fingers are doing and focus on the rest of your body while you play them. You want to pay attention to your ergonomics, technique, breathing, and relaxation while you play your warmup exercises. This way you can program your body to be relaxed while you are playing.
  • Listen to your body and be aware. Fine motor skills and endurance are not about muscle strength. It's about muscle efficiency, which involves minimum effort and ideal motion. Muscle tone and strength are involved, but building raw strength is actually counter-productive for speed. Speed comes from relaxation, not from effort.
  • Adjust your playing to suit your body and your needs. For example, consider not playing barre chords at all. I keep my wrist high and my thumb over the top on guitar to facilitate bending, and that means I either change my wrist position dramatically for barre chords, or I don't play them. I don't play them. I fret with my thumb and emphasize the middle four strings. Another thing I do is I play at a speed that is comfortable for me and don't worry about speeding up. It's my personal "interpretation" of what I'm playing. Brainstorm on what you can change to make things work for you.
  • Look at other things you do with your hands. If you are typing on a computer keyboard most of the day, try to reduce how much you have to type and pay attention to your typing ergonomics. The same goes for using a smart phone or tablet. Consider any other areas where you are using your fine motor muscles.

Keep in mind that an injury can put you out of commision for months, years, or who knows how long. My brother was a brilliant keyboard player, but between being in a band, playing extensively on his own, and typing all day as a software analyst, he injured himself. He worked with doctors for a while but they all said he had to stop. He sold me all his instruments, quit his job, and became a chef (no typing). He's a brilliant chef, but I sure miss his keyboard playing. If you don't want to quit music for good and change careers, take note.

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This part sounds very familiar to me:

(As an aside, I also suffer from forearm fatigue (left arm) when playing guitar when there are enough bar chords.)

Fatigue (assuming we're no longer beginners) doesn't always occur because the muscles are weak; it can be caused by different sets of muscles opposing each other. (If so, strength exercises won't help.)

If your hand is already tense then moving one of the fingers becomes harder, because the muscle responsible is being opposed by the other muscle that acts on the opposite side of the joint.

This hand tension isn't deliberate; it can be something you're not aware of. It might not happen at all on easy passages but crops up when you launch into a fast passage or when you're tense because you're trying too hard in general.

The only thing I can recommend (because it seemed to work for me) is think about movement, practice something slowly, all the while thinking about the "strings and pulleys" which move the fingers. Think about which muscle is doing what, and whether any part of the hand is more tense than it needs to be. Gradually speed up a troublesome passage or exercise and see what speed you're playing at where the trouble starts, see if there's any awkwardness at this stage causing the trouble.

By the way your mention of forearms is a dead giveaway. This is where the flexor and extensor muscles for the fingers are - tendons run right through the wrist and palm to the fingers. (The ones that spread and narrow the fingers are different, they're in the hand itself. They can suffer from similar troubles of course.)

(The above is based on my guitar playing. My piano playing is to a much lower technical level but I believe the same arguments of economy apply.)

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You've given a clear hint in your question that it's more likely technique than raw strength. You say it happens very quickly (30 seconds). I bet that if you are playing at a comfortable, slow place, you can play for much, much longer, and play many more keystrokes overall.

Instead focusing on building up strength, focus on relaxing your muscles when you play fast.

Before you start playing, take a couple of deep breathes and make sure your hands, arms, and shoulders are relaxed. Then start playing at a pace you know you can play at (ideally with a metronome or drum track). Then take a few more deep breathes, and play it slightly faster. Repeat until you can't keep the tension away, then stop before you get fatigued.

Doing exercises like that (and there are many other options) will help you build up your speed. If you don't enjoy this method, look up other ways to build speed up slowly. But the key will be learning to play as relaxed in a fast passage as you are in a slow passage. Good luck!

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I'll take a guess: did you learn your "technique" by using Hanon every day, then Czerny? Or did you start by assuming it was "obvious" that you play the piano by pressing the keys with your fingers? That will only get you so far, and pieces like the Chopin etudes will stay out of reach till you back-track and learn a better way. If your shoulders were aching, then you are "doing it right", but you need more practice. If your forearms are aching, that strongly suggests you are "doing it wrong," and practicing harder in the same way will either achieve little, or in the worst case lead to long-term injury.

See the videos in this thread: Please explain hand rotation in playing the piano playing-the-piano

And the "how to play brilliantly fast" video in Fingering for some arpeggios on piano (Final Fantasy prelude)

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Barring any physical/medical issues, you should simply relax. It's the hardest thing to do, but will yield the most benefits. Agility, speed, power, and longevity all require relaxation more than any amount of physical strength or finger dexterity. Your spine should be your tree trunk, and try to feel the weight of your forearm at the tips of your fingers as you play. Imagine a fishing hook – the hook is firm, but the fishing line is virtually weightless. The hook is your finger tip, and the line is everything between your finger tip and shoulder. Pretend that you have no muscles between those two points. Keep your shoulders relaxed, and your wrists supple. A good exercise is to play something chordal (like Bach chorales or basic cadences) so that you have multiple "fish hooks" to allow you to relax more. And practice everything slowly, very slowly. Velocity is a by-product of slow practicing.

Try this: In as relaxed a manner as you can, play a forte chord with both hands, any chord, and hold it. Take note of the tension and stiffness at any points between your fingertips and shoulders. Now lift your hands off of the keyboard. Is there much difference in the tension and stiffness? If you don't feel a noticeable reduction in tension while you were holding down the keys, then it means you're too tense, and you're not transferring the weight to your fingertips. It means you're playing "on the surface" of the keys, and using your forearm/hand/finger muscles to hold up your arm even while the keys are depressed. Obviously, you can't maintain this kind of tension for long, and it will dramatically limit your flexibility and endurance, among other things. Play that chord again, and methodically eliminate the tension at each point until the fish hooks are the only things that are firm, and everything else as limp as possible. Do you feel the weight of your arms on your fingertips? If it weren't for your fingertips, your whole arm should fall off the keyboard. Now lift your arms up again. Notice the difference now? This principle applies to even fast playing, and is absolutely crucial for advancement.

Having said all that, I wonder if there is a medical explanation for why you're feeling the level of physical pain and fatigue that you're experiencing. You mentioned that this also happened with your left hand on guitar. Although stiffness, discomfort, and fatigue are not uncommon at certain stages, the kind of pain you're describing leads me to believe something may be wrong. If the above musical prescription doesn't help, then I would suggest seeing a doctor. Best of luck.

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Are you sure you don't have any physical conditions, such as tendonitis? If you're describing pain, even once you slow down, and the inability to progress, that might be a sign that you should at least visit your primary doctor, if not a hand surgeon.

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