The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music workshop: Expert says playing advanced or unsuitable repertoire too soon can hurt you

April 11, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

On Friday afternoon, I attended a free workshop at the University of Wisconsin School of Music. It was given by Dr. Kathleen Riley (below, in my photo, shown explaining electrode placement on the forearm) of New York University, whose career is spent in measuring the muscular stress  used in playing music and generating relaxation.

It is encouraging to see that injury prevention seems such a mainstream part of the curriculum these days. It wasn’t always so, and there are many injured musicians out there to prove it. (However, it should have been publicized more. And it’s too bad only about two dozen people showed up and that all the electronic equipment was not fully functioning.)

Riley touched on many things during her talk and demonstration.

She emphasized the importance of keeping muscles relaxed and being economical – that is, keeping the most results with the least effort or expenditure.

She talked about the importance of good hand position. Hands and fingers that are too flat or curve upwards rather than downwards are inefficient and even damaging, whereas using a better, more rounded bridge with the support of knuckles helps promote efficiency.

Sitting too close to the piano, so that you cannot comfortably move your elbows is another source of stress, fatigue and even injury. It amounts to playing in a straitjacket.

Riley said she takes a personal approach. What works for individuals in her primary goal, She has worked with many students but also with processional concert artists including Garrick Ohlsson and Frederic Chiu as well as the head of the piano department at Juilliard.

One of her most interesting and practical pieces of advice concerned choosing repertoire.

She said too many students rush into big and difficult pieces before they are physically able to play them. That can cause damage – and of course can also discourage students.

She said too few sonatinas, except the famous Clementi one, are studied, but should be. She urged playing more of Bach’s two-part inventions. And she especially said that students should focus on more late intermediate and early advanced pieces.

“It only makes sense to play some of the easier Chopin preludes before you go on to do some of the nocturnes or mazurkas.”

Bigger pieces require bigger muscles, she said, comparing playing music to an athletic act.

That speaks to me now as I try to choose pieces to study and play.

I tend to overreach and want to play the big beautiful things I love listening to. So I am scaling back. Rather than starting on a Chopin ballade, I will do so more of the Schubert’s “Moments Musicaux” and easier Impromptus, which are wonderful pieces and more do-able than his sonatas, and one of Bach’s French Suites, which are easier than the partitas or English suites or even than much of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Not that any music is easy to play well.

But repertoire, Riley said, has to be suited not to just to your likes or dislikes – but also to your physique.

A UW student (below), for example, performed the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat Major, Op. 26, the “Funeral March,” with exemplary tone and phrasing.

But the big chords caused stress on her hands – stress that could be seen on a video screen tracing in real time — the results of electrodes on her hands and forearms. Then, through biofeedback, one could see how the student played with less effort but got just as good a tone and volume. Keeping the thumb down on a large chord is especially damaging as it causes an unnatural stretching of the hands and fingers.

She also used a UW percussion student (below) to demonstrate how back muscles get involves and how posture affects performance, how big muscles must help small muscles.

She said works out, exercise and nutrition also play a part, and  offered a later workshop on specific techniques that I unfortunately couldn’t attend.

But I liked her straight talk about making music.

Here is a link to her informative and useful website:

I hope she – or someone else like her – has a book with some of the same practical advice.

In the meanwhile, what do you think of what she said?

What late intermediate and early advanced pieces do you play or recommend to me and to others?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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