Dec 032014
piano keyboard

The piano and the pianist have a relationship. It’s different from the violinist who cradles the instrument under his chin or the cellist whose body enfolds the instrument. It’s different from the woodwind or brass player who constantly breathes the life of music through the instrument. It’s certainly different from the singer who is their instrument.

The piano is big and bulky. I can’t hold it so it never travels with me. It’s true, pianos are all over the place, but not MY piano. My piano stays in one spot occupying a lot of space in my small home. If I want to play my piano I can’t take it upstairs to the privacy of my room. I have to come to it.

I asked one of my young adult students who played throughout college and plays well to characterize her feelings about the piano. They were complicated.

“Oh, it’s big and imposing. It feels like something overwhelming you have to try to control. Sometimes it’s wonderful and sometimes it’s unwieldy and impossible…”
I knew she rode her bicycle to work whenever the weather permitted so I asked her how she felt about her bicycle.”Oh, he’s my buddy!”So, how do we get our piano to be our buddy?

Clearly, it’s not by talking. We may say things to the piano but it neither listens to our words nor speaks words back to us. It’s a physical relationship we establish with the piano, mediated through the senses of touch and hearing. Jacques Lusseyran, the blind man I quoted earlier says:

When I had eyes, my fingers used to be stiff, half dead at the ends of my hands, good only for picking up things. But now each one of them started out on its own. They explored things separately, changed levels and, independently of each other, made themselves heavy or light… If my fingers pressed the roundness of an apple, each one with a different weight, very soon I could not tell whether is was the apple or my fingers which were heavy. I didn’t even know whether I was touching it or it was touching me. As I became part of the apple, the apple became part of me. And that was how I came to understand the existence of things.

What wonderful a way to discover the existence of the piano.

What Should Students Discover?

Both teachers and students need to abandon their quest for superficially efficient progress so they can focus on the educational importance of discovery. The discovery of the feel of the piano and the discovery of the physical sensations pianists feel inside their bodies when playing are the basic knowledge to be learned.

Just feeling the piano so as to discover how the keys feel to the fingers feel is crucial. To take the time to feel the body and all the muscles and nerves necessary to produce even a simple sound is basic to comfortable playing. To take the time to actually hear the sound coming forth, to know the physical sensation that produced that sound, and to experience the equation between physical sensation and resulting sound, all of these discovered feelings need to become second nature for any one to feel the piano as a friend.

Moving the key down and up seems so simple yet the variety of sounds that pianists achieve from this seemingly simple act is amazing. How do they do that? Discussions about that abound including the role of various parts of the upper body. It is not my intent to duplicate these discussions. Rather, I would like to discuss how adult students might begin to feel this exchange of pressures between their finger and the key.

In teaching, I speak of the key as a seesaw. The key is weighted on one end so the other end is up. For the finger to depress the key it must lift the weight of the other end by pushing down. By removing the weight of the hand from the key, the key returns to its normal position.

I like this image because I find adults always remember their childhood experiences of the seesaw in a very visceral way. They all remember that powerless feeling of being held up in the air by a big kid on the other end. They remember the big kid getting off suddenly so they smashed on the ground and bumped their bottoms. They also remember the nice times when it worked well and was fun and no one was being mean. When I refer to this image, I sometimes mention the imaginary little guy on the other end of the key.

This image allows the student to begin to feel the delicate weight of the key and sense how manipulating this weight can control the sound that comes from the piano. It also gives the student an image of the fact the key will come up on its own, without any great motion from the pianist.
What takes so much time is not the instruction but the student’s experiencing. Though teachers talk about touch and control, often they don’t take the time in lessons to nurture that development and evolution of this knowledge. I take the time for students to feel the weight of single keys. I take time for them to do exercises very slowly feeling this weight. I even listen to them play pieces or portions of pieces very slowly so they can feel the weight of each key. It’s tedious for both teacher and student but it creates a connection between the instrument and the student that cannot be achieved any other way.

If teachers don’t sit with their students in lessons while they develop this kinesthetic sense of the key, students will get the message that it’s not really important and they certainly won’t take time in their practice to develop it. What teachers do counts more than what they say.

There are dozens of motions necessary to play the piano. Students need to know the feeling of each of them. Seymour Bernstein and Seymour Fink discuss these motions in great detail in their books. There is no need for me to add anything except that each one of the motions needs to be known and understood as sensation. Seymour Bernstein’s book about movement at the keyboard is 20 Lessons in Keyboard Choreography, published by Seymour Bernstein Music, and distributed by Hal Leonard. Seymour Fink’s book and video are both called “Mastering Piano Technique: A Guide for Students, Teachers, and Performers” and are published by Amadeus Press.

Knowing the motions as words and concepts is merely the beginning. Knowing the kinesthetic feeling of these movements is the real knowledge and this knowledge cannot be hurried.

Why Don’t Teachers Do More of This?

Well, part of the problem is that teachers and students think lessons are about learning to play ever more complicated pieces. As a result, both focus on learning new material and doing various exercises to play faster and better. Obviously, this is important. The result of this work might be called the product. What product can students offer after two months or years of study? It’s like the bottom line in business. Some teachers do not teach adults because they feel the product of adult students lowers their teaching profile. Some teachers do not encourage their adult students to perform for the same reason. Some teachers only take highly talented students who will practice two hours a day so their product is very high.

Perhaps teachers take this sensory knowledge of the keyboard for granted having learned when they were youngsters. Teachers’ work with children may have taught them that this knowledge develops automatically over the many years children take lessons.

One of the things children are allowed is time. Nobody expects them to produce at a terrific level; they have several years relatively free of the pressure to producing great work. Adults and their teachers, on the other hand, expect a product much sooner and they are less patient. During their years of lessons, children play a lot. Frequently it’s not what their teachers and parents want or expect but they play around and they have fun. During this time they are experiencing the sensations the piano produces inside their bodies. As discussed earlier, children are not so distracted by thoughts and ideas so they have more energy to feel themselves and the piano as they play.

Adults don’t do this. If they play around they tend to feel guilty. Adults don’t usually make up songs or play their improvs five million times the way kids do. They’re much too reasonable and practical.

Therefore, adults have to pursue this sensory knowledge more directly and purposefully than children. The learning must be structured.
Another reason some teachers might not focus on this aspect of playing is that unfortunately, they may not have this sense of the piano themselves.

Why Don’t Students Do More of This?

Students don’t make it any easier for teachers to work on finding these sensations. They are conditioned to expect teaching to be verbal information that yields immediate improvement in their playing. They don’t understand the importance of turning those facts into physical sensations and the results into sound. They don’t appreciate the importance of all the sensations they feel each time they depress a key on the piano. They do not value these sensations as the meeting place between themselves and the piano. In their reliance on words, they do not understand that sensation is the language of the body.

Of course, it is also incredibly boring and seems like a waste of time for students who don’t understand the need for this type of practicing. It is a major challenge to the discipline and concentration of all students. Many don’t have the patience for this kind of practicing. Some don’t have it until they’ve worked for a while and begin to realize there are no secrets and that achieving control and comfort at the piano is difficult.

Both teachers and students need to remember that this type of practicing yields knowledge that cannot be shared. No teacher can give this information to a student. Each student must discover this knowledge individually for the mind and body of each student is unique. Students who are waiting for their teachers to tell the secrets of ease and control at the keyboard must abandon their wait and delve into this seeming abyss of self discovery. This knowledge resides within each one of us and is beyond the power of words to share.

When Students Don’t Develop a Kinesthetic Sense

When students haven’t moved to a kinesthetic awareness of the piano, problems typical of adults are rampant.
Without the kinesthetic awareness, adults work from the information of their heads instead of from the awareness of their bodies. This was discussed in the “The Fossil Mind of Concepts.” Adults evaluate too much. To get rid of this, I tell students to focus on the sensations of the fingers, arms, shoulders, and neck. It’s important to use a word like “awareness” instead of “concentrate”” or “think about” because otherwise many students end up passing judgement on the quality of their concentration.

The point is to avoid the judgement and experience what’s happening. The knowledge of what is happening can’t be absorbed if the mind is occupied evaluating.  One can’t think and feel at the same time.

Without the sense of touch and sound adult students rely on their eyes too much. While this may work well in conventional education, the eyes are only the beginning for musicians. What’s important results from the transformation of the visual information to its kinesthetic and auditory intent.

When students are visually centered, they look at the notes very intently and seem totally involved with the page in front of them. They look as if the learning that takes place is on the page in front of them rather than inside themselves with their muscles and ears.

Sometimes students not only watch the notes but also feel a continuing need to name each one. To them, naming gives the impression of control. This may succeed at the beginning of piano study but it’s far too slow and cumbersome for more complex playing. Students must replace this with an ability to perceive the information on the page as shapes and sounds beyond the single note.

When students are visually centered they need to look at the keys to be sure they played the right notes. They neither trust the feeling under their fingers nor the sound of their ears. Their need to visually confirm the accuracy prevents them from moving forward with ease. Instead of flowing music, their music sounds like a constant series of stops and starts which, of course, it is.

When students are visually centered, it’s hard for hands to move independently of each other. When the eyes must lead as first one hand is set and then the other, there is an inability to trust the sensations of playing. Again, this creates intermittent stops and starts.
Magicians say the hand is faster than the eye and piano teachers certainly know it’s true. If adult students won’t let their hands move faster than the eye, the speed of their playing will always be limited.

One way to help students with this problem is to have them play with their eyes closed. It usually works better than the students expect. It can be a scale, a simple Hanon-type exercise, octave jumps, whatever. If students are willing to actually try, this is a very effective way to begin to break the habit of visual orientation and help build the sense of a kinesthetic and auditory connection to the piano keyboard.

It’s not that the eyes are bad, it’s just that they are of limited use. After sound and touch, eyes are of tertiary importance. The choreography of the eyes as they read music, assist the placement of the hands, or even watch other ensemble musicians is rarely discussed. It is an important part playing the piano, however.

Don’t Blame Age Falsely

Many of the perceived limitations of adult students come from their difficulty in giving up moment to moment self-evaluation and their reliance on visual information. The tendency is to blame the students’ limitations on aged bodies and minds set in their ways. This is not the case and the teacher’s willingness to assume it is, is not responsible teaching.

Teachers need to undertake the difficult task of getting their adult students to shift from the evaluation and visual-centered thinking and help them to regain a trust of the kinesthetic learning of childhood. Every adult has experienced childhood. It’s a question of helping adults go back to recapture that sense of sensory learning and trust of sensory knowledge.

  2 Responses to “Finding the Kinesthetic Feeling of the Keyboard”

  1. Excellent article and true too!
    One of my adult students who started playing the piano just a few months ago recently told me that playing the piano caused her to start using her fingers in ways she never did before… One example she gave was that now she uses all her fingers when she types on the computer – before she started playing the piano she was using only two fingers to type (one in each hand, as sad as it sounds…).

  2. My student who has returned to playing after at least two decades of abstinence has also been learning to touch type.

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