The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: Piano expert says healthier playing is more musical playing

November 10, 2009
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By Jacob Stockinger

As many of you know, I am an avid amateur pianist.

So I spent much of Saturday, a warm, bright and unusually spring-like day here in Madison, Wisconsin, at two free public events held by the University of Wisconsin School of Music: a morning workshop on injury prevention; and afternoon master class on piano performance.

The two sessions were given by piano pedagogue Barbara Lister-Sink (below). She teaches at Salem College in North Carolina and has also taught at Duke and the Eastman School. Lister-Sink

Overall they proved very valuable, and I thought I would share abbreviated insights here, especially since, according to Lister-Sink, there are some 4.8 million amateur pianists in the U.S.

So here are some quick facts to ponder:

In surveys, she finds an injury rate for 50 to 75 percent among the pianists she talks to.

Her insights grow out of her own experiences with injuries so severe that she had to stop playing for months at a time.

She advocates an eclectic approach that incorporates elements of the Alexander Technique, the Taubman Method and the Russian School. (One wonders: How did people ever play the piano well before such codified methods?)

Lister-Sink stresses a few simple tips about physicality and playing:

Texting and using the computer can damage your fingers and playing, with texting being an especially unnatural repetitive motion.

Be sure your spine is aligned naturally to its curves and do not use a stiff,  forced, military-like erect posture.

Balance your head in way that is not too up or too down and makes it feel light. Check your neck muscles for tell-tale tension.

Balance or pivot your behind comfortably on the bench and makes sure the bench is the right height. That way you can move around the keyboard.

Make sure your wrists and hands have a natural light arch or bend. Don’t bend them too much or straighten them too much, or you stress the muscles that extend and contract them.

Do not lift the finger high, which stresses especially the forearm and crowded the nerves in the wrist’s carpal tunnel.

Try to keep all fingers in touch with the keys at all times.

Don’t twist the fingers and wrists, even in octaves. Try to return to a normal hand position at all times and preserve an economy of motion. (Check out Vlado Perlemuter playing Ravel’s fiercely difficult “Gaspard de la Nuit” on YouTube, she advises. Also on YouTube, she says, checkout Horowitz and Rubinstein and other greats and watch their playing carefully to see what they do.)

Here’a link to Permutter on YouTube. Notice, along with his chewing,  the almost motionless hand and finger position:

Don’t hunch up or tense your shoulders.

Let your upper arm (the humerus bone) fall straight down at your sides and try to be relaxed. You get a bigger sound and a better tone.

Use gravity to your advantage. Let the fingers drop onto, not press, the keys.

Take frequent rests or breaks when practicing.

When you stop or curtail breathing, you tighten up and do damage to yourself and the music.

Get rid of  “useless garbage — that is, both tension and unnecessary motion.

If you start feeling sore, DO NOT play through the pain. Stop and correct what you are doing wrong.

Retraining yourself out of old habits can feel weird at first and can take between six months and a year.

Some great pianists, she admits, do not follow this advice or approach and still play beautifully without injuring themselves. But she compares the chances to that of smoking. Not everyone who smokes get cancer – but do you want to take that chance?

Aim for liquidity, for economy of motion, for efficiency. It’s the common denominator of all the great pianists.

Pick and choose and be eclectic: Use what works for you.

As for interpretation: She recalls a teacher who once told her “Don’t let the fire of the piece burn you.” In other words, stay in control, even when you give the appearance of losing control.

The right way to play enhances not only physicality but also musicality.

I hope this taste of what she said is accurate and that it helps you and whets your appetite for more.

My thanks go to the UW School of Music and Barbara Lister Sink.

Finally, here’s a link to Lister-Sink’s website with more information about Lister-Sink and her method:

Posted in Classical music

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