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My understanding of this advice is something like: don't move the fingers up and down like little pistons with the rest of the hand are arm frozen and motionless, instead use the motion of the full arm from shoulder to finger tips, let your arm and hand drop into the keys using gravity to provide the energy.

That is easy to understand. It's easy to execute if the rhythm is slow.

When the tempo and rhythm of a passage speed up to something like scales in sixteenth notes at a quick tempo it is simply impossible to play each note with a gravity drop. If you could do that, your arms would be moving like some kind of shaking fit.

Whenever I hear this advice about 'don't play with the fingers' it isn't put into context regarding speed of the kinds of passages to play.

I found the video below which I think gives a very clear demonstration of gravity drops. I marked out a few key moments. (No criticism of the video, I think it's excellent and helpful.)

It's the very last segment that concerns me. Clearly she is playing by moving each individual finger. Her arm is not dropping with each note. The important thing seems to be that she is not lifting her fingers. She simply strikes the finger downward and then lets it return back to a neutral position. The effort is to strike the key, the finger returns to its starting position by a relaxation, a sort of release of the effort to strike.

If I am wrong, can someone give a detailed explanation of what I fail to understand?

Otherwise, why is the common advice 'don't play with the fingers' instead something obvious and direct like 'don't lift the fingers high' or 'move fingers just for the strike then relax back to a neutral hand' or something to that effect?


An exaggerated demonstration of playing from the fingers with lots of excess motion lifting the finger up from the keyboard...

Playing with the whole arm using gravity for the energy to strike the keys...

Medium tempo scales where there is enough time to lift the whole arm and gravity drop each note...

But, finally, when playing scales at a fast tempo there is no gravity drop, the fingers are used to strike down the keys, but only in a downward direction without wasted error lifting the fingers high

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    If this pithy advice said "don't play only with the fingers" it would cause less confusion. – user48353 Feb 28 at 21:37
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    Exactly. And teach what to do rather than don't do seems preferred. 'Don't keep tension in your hand' inevitably leads to the question 'how, by doing what?' – Michael Curtis Feb 28 at 21:53
  • It's not only while playing scales - it's applicable (or not) while playing the piano. – Tim Mar 1 at 10:28
  • "Don't tense my hand" causes tension. Yes, @Michael, much better to say to yourself what to do. One guidebook to flying aerobatics spends an entire chapter on that point, because there if you "do the opposite" even just once, you don't get a second chance. – Camille Goudeseune Sep 11 at 22:27
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'Just because it's on the net...'

Playing slowly is all very well, there's time to let your friend gravity help with the weight of your arm. The faster the playing gets, the less it helps, to the point where the arm itself can't produce what you want. At that point, the smaller fingers, which are faster moving because they're smaller, and have less weight have to take over. That's the point where the whole concept stops being useful, and, in fact, practical or even true.

You're right - her forearms and wrists hardly move, opposite to the point she's making in the video...

Forgive me, but I'm quite sceptical about a lot of stuff that arrives via computer. Partially as just because something works for one doesn't mean it's universal. Also, a lot of teachers don't really think things through thoroughly - I know there's some truth in this - I worked with (against?!) hundreds of teachers for many decades.

Take a lot with a pinch of salt. Look, listen, try it out, use some bits, discard others, but don't believe everything you see will work for you

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A more general principle: in any physical task, prefer bigger muscles to smaller ones.

Chopin's etudes Op. 10 and 25 demonstrate this as, shall we say, videogame boss fights that seem impossible until you study the boss's habits and patterns. If you brute force them, your forearms are on fire after half a page. No way can you last through all five pages. Once you grok the pattern, it's simple, and you can devote all your attention to musical expression.

Scales, arpeggios, roulades, broken chords, arpeggiated chords as wide as two octaves: you shape your hand to fit the next few notes, roll the hand as a single gesture to play them, then move the hand to the next cluster. Watch somebody play his etudes fluidly, effortlessly. That's a trustworthy teacher; at least, to stretch the metaphor, what they call a walkthrough.

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Sometimes it's appropriate to use JUST arm weight - a heavy final chord in a Beethoven sonata perhaps. But sometimes it's appropriate to use JUST fingers - maybe a delicate ornament in a Baroque piece. Mostly somewhere in between. There's also hand weight, rotation...

You're starting from a false premise. Fingers are fine. Either you're misinterpreting advice to not always use ONLY finger action, or you're run up against a lot of incorrect statements!

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This is something you need to work on with a qualified teacher for, proper technique doens't end where you left off on the topic of arm weight and gravity. For instance, there is shaping of the forearm to facilitate reaching the black keys and up/down or in/out motions for much the same. There are adjustments to be made by the elbow to facilitate (and eliminate) crossing the thumb under the palm (which you should never do). There are also several movements you should never do although, if everything is working properly, the improper movements won't be there. They can include pressing into the key bed, using two muscles to move one bone such as abducting and flexing simultaneously. Ulnar and radial deviation of the wrist is another common error pianists make.

But really, you need to work on these movements one at a time with a knowledgeable teacher. If you try to implement them all at once you might injure yourself or allow bad habit movements to creep into your playing. If that occurs, they are extremely difficult to eradicate.

If you can not play as fast as you want, if you continue to miss certain leaps, if you have any pain, fatigue, cramp or incoordinate movement, you are doing something wrong. Some teachers will then tell you you need more strength, exercises, more practice or some other such nonsense. Like riding a bike, once you hard wire proper movement into your brain (muscle memory) you never need to practice it again. It will always be there.

IMO, pianists who disagree, are doing something wrong and beleive that browbeating technique into their hands is correct. Teachers and performers only know what they know and not what they don't. What they don't know is what holds them back from progress and teaching their students. This information is not new. It was the foundation of many of the great masters such as Bach who lectured his students for several months before he even allowed them to touch a piano. Bad habits can be hard wired the first time you touch a keyboard. Teachers don't seem to know this.

  • "proper technique doens't end where you left off on the topic of arm weight and gravity" it should be clear from my question that I don't think that. My point was to delve into that and why such vague teachings can be misleading. – Michael Curtis Mar 1 at 20:41
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    This answer - and some of your other answers - all seem to sum up to: a person cannot teach himself how to play piano. Is this what you really mean to say in your answer? Because, that is really what I get from reading it. – Michael Curtis Mar 1 at 20:41
  • Please prefix four long paragraphs with a tl;dr summary of what the actual answer to the question is. – Camille Goudeseune Sep 9 at 6:11
  • What you say about Bach is interesting. Can you provide a citation? – JimM Sep 9 at 9:41
  • Maybe look in the chapter about Bach's teaching methods in Forkel's 1802 biography, as suggested here. – Camille Goudeseune Sep 9 at 16:03

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