- Published Jul 12, 2013 in Music 101
- Read time: about 5 minutes
Playing piano is a contact sport. Make sure your body is in shape and in the right position to get the most bang for your buck every time you play.
Proper technique is a crucial part of any physical art form, especially playing an instrument. Good technique promotes consistency of performance, reduces fatigue and strain when playing for long stretches of time, helps to prevent physical injury, and ensures that you will be able to play your instrument for years to come.
The position of your body has a direct effect on the efficiency of the energy flow to the keys.
In examining piano technique, consider the path of energy throughout your body structure as it flows to your fingers and into the piano. I'm not talking about spiritual energy, but rather kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the energy that a body possesses by virtue of being in motion. Think of a hammer striking a nail and you'll get the point.
The position of your body has a direct effect on the efficiency of the energy flow to the keys. Think of it like a garden hose: if the hose is straight, the water will flow unencumbered. If the hose is bent, the flow will be compromised.
Keep in mind these are not suggestions for executing a specific playing technique or style, but rather a guide to how to sit at the piano with the most efficient body posture. Because each person's body shape is a little different, you will undoubtedly have a slightly different interpretation to suit your own technique. Feel free to experiment with these positions and find what works best for you. However, keep in mind that, like anything new, some of these positions may feel awkward at first. Don't dismiss anything right away, but rather give yourself time to adjust.
Body position and structure.
While no two people are built exactly the same, there are universal principles you can use to align your body to its most efficient and effective position. In order to position your body so that it is most efficient, we'll take a look at individual body parts and their position relative to the piano and to each other.
Start by sitting in the middle of the bench rather than all the way back. Sitting all the way back causes your lower back to slouch. The underside of your legs (your hamstrings) should not be on the bench but forward of the bench, and should have nothing under them. This allows your back to naturally straighten itself. It also allows your entire vertebral column to stay balanced and "float". Your head should float on your neck. Your neck should float on your shoulders and on down to the base of your spine.
This is the position you want to achieve on the piano bench. Back straight, feet under your knees and a good spot in the middle of the bench.
The bench should be high enough so that your hips are level with or slightly above your knees. This puts your weight on your legs and feet instead of your lower back.
You should be able to place your hands comfortably on the keys without having to reach too far forward. You should not have to move your elbows more than a few inches forward in order to reach the keys.
The feet should be directly below or slightly in front of your knees, never behind your knees. This will ensure you are optimizing the structure and support your feet and legs provide to keep your body from falling forward.
Without that structure, your body will naturally compensate by tensing up other muscles including your abs and lower back. This tension not only restricts your mobility but your breathing as well. If you can't breathe properly, you can't relax properly.
Don't do this: Keeping your feet too far back puts tension in other parts of your body where you just don't want it.
Keep your knees in line with your pelvis, not outside of (wider than) the pelvis. Breaking this structure has the same effect as placing your feet behind your knees.
Pretend you are holding a brick in each hand and let your arms drop. Then, bending only at the elbow, raise your arms up. This will set the stage for proper shoulder position. The shoulders should always be relaxed and down. If they are raised in any way, this means that you flexing your trapezius muscles and the result will be tension in the shoulders and neck pain.
Movement, relaxation and power.
Power comes from behind the fingers not from the fingers. The job of your fingers is to be strong enough to maintain their structure. When executing a punch, for example, power comes from the whole body - from behind the fist, not from the fist itself. The fist is just the point of contact. The same can be said of the relationship of the fingers to the piano keys.
Proper piano hand position. Make sure your wrist is not too high or too low.
Consider your arm from the elbow to your fingertips to be the major playing unit. Your fingers should never be doing the majority of the work or movement on their own. Instead, the entire arm-hand-fingers playing unit should be moving as one entity.
From behind that unit, you can engage all of the muscles in the rest of your arm and in your torso. In addition to the force of these muscles, there is also the mass of all of those body parts. Finally, there is the force that keeps us from floating out into space: gravity.
If your muscles are tense, you are fighting against not only your own movement (like driving while pressing on the accelerator and brake pedals at the same time) but also against gravity which will lead to fatigue and strain. Keep your body relaxed and let gravity assist you in projecting the mass of your own body parts into your arm and, ultimately, into the keys.
This whole concept can be compared to the inside of a grandfather clock. No one movement is doing a major amount of work on its own. Rather, each small movement combines to make a larger motion.
“Without a piano I don't know how to stand, don't know what to do with my hands.”
Get a good piano bench.
This is the #1 piece of equipment your body will interface with. Make sure you get something that is comfortable, supportive, easily adjustable, and rock solid. Your body, especially your lower back, will thank you for it.
Gigging (and life) can take its toll on your body. Regular exercise and stretching is invaluable for your health.