I have a problem with relaxing my shoulders when playing the piano. My shoulders become stiff and come up when I play. After practicing my shoulders ache. What could be wrong with my posture or technique and how can I prevent this from happening?
I used have sore shoulders after playing for an evening at an Italian restaurant in college. I finally figured out that it was because I was lifting my shoulder up to high while playing. In the moment, it seems expressive and natural, but turns out that it's much more natural to let your shoulders relax all the way, sit up straight, and make sure the keyboard is in the right place (I'd say an inch or so above the belly button), making nice 90 degree angles in your elbows and no angles in your wrists.
In order to train myself not to raise my shoulders, before starting to play I would intentionally raise them all the way up to my ears, then relax. I also used to have tension in my arms, and I would do the same thing: purposely flex them and then let them relax. This helps you get a baseline of what is relaxed and what is tense. Then keep reminding yourself throughout playing to relax everything.
Before long, I was playing with much better posture and not having to think consciously about it. It wasn't an issue to play 3-4 hours (as long as I took a couple of breaks of course!).
Murray McLaughlin is the chairman of the European Piano Teachers Association. His book on piano technique begins with posture, finger independence, finger strength, flexible wrists and the minimisation of tension in the upper arms, shoulders, neck. Step 1 is to start with the correct posture - seat height, distance from piano, wrist alignment and back not bent forward and not too upright. Step 2 is to work on finger independence which is hard to achieve if you have tension. None of this came easy to me. The development of good piano technique takes daily practice both on and off the piano. He advises working with your piano teacher on this.
Other techniques I have examined (such as those of Dorothy Taubman) also focus on reducing or eliminating unwanted tension. She advises using rotation to help with problem aspects and some sources of tension. She started from an observation that child prodigies did not have the finger strength yet were able to play advanced piano pieces. She then asked why adults should not use the same movements. Her techniques are often used to rehabilitate piano players that have suffered injury even to the point of not playing. A qualified Taubman teacher will look at how you play and suggest techniques that eliminate the causes of the pains the student experiences.
Both techniques lead to good practice and I think they can coexist in one person.
I have to agree with the other posters, we need more information as they've suggested.
I can tell you this, I'm a keyboard / piano player and I've been playing for 43 years. My shoulders never come up when I play. There are only two reasons I can think of for your shoulders to come up or get sore, and both are related to posture.
When I play, I situate myself so that I'm reaching DOWN to the keys, as I'm not very tall, this can sometimes take a bit of doing, but I always play that way, it keeps my shoulders in a relaxed position and keeps my wrists relaxed as well. As a result I can play for hours that way !
If that helps , great, but if not, please look for a teacher who can correct what the issue is for you.
I'd have to see you play but my first guess would be that your seat is too low and in order to instinctively get your elbows or wrist higher you are raising your shoulders? Although, the opposite could be true if you sit too high and you slouch. Either way, that could be the source of your tension.
Sit at a height where your flexor muscles are slightly higher than the white keys and you can comfortably rest up. Sit on the very edge of your bench, pushing it backward if you have to. Sitting on the edge will align everything else. Make sure that you occasionally exaggerate playing from the elbows, or lean in, to keep back muscles from static loading. Some people would call that emoting.
My shoulders become stiff and come up when I play.
If they're loose and low before you play, then there's hope.
Try this: play something simple, but with the intention that keeping them loose is more important than playing. Aim most of your attention at your shoulders, very little at the piano. When they try to stiffen, immediately loosen them again or -- if that doesn't work -- immediately stop playing.
That eventually retrains your attention. (I had to do the same with tension in my lower back.)