How to Relax

The most important thing to do as you get up to speed is to relax. Relaxing means that you use only those muscles that are needed to play. Thus you can be working as hard as you want, and be relaxed. The relaxed state is especially easy to attain when practicing HS. There are two schools of thought on relaxation. One school maintains that, in the long run, it is better not to practice at all than to practice with even the slightest amount of tension. This school teaches by showing you how to relax and play a single note, and then advancing carefully, giving you only those easy material that you can play relaxed. The other school argues that relaxation is just another necessary aspect of technique, but that subjugating the entire practice philosophy to relaxation is not the optimum approach. Which system is better is not clear at this time. Whichever system you choose, it is obvious that playing with stress must be avoided. If you adopt the methods described in this book and get up to final speed rapidly, some initial stress may be unavoidable. Note that the whole idea of getting up to speed quickly is to enable you to practice at a slower speed, completely relaxed. As pointed out throughout this book, high speed is nearly impossible to attain without complete relaxation and de-coupling of all the muscles (especially the large muscles) so that the fingers can gain their independence. Students who play with a lot of stress will know that the stress is gone when, all of a sudden, the playing becomes easy at speed. Those who had not been taught to eliminate stress think that this is the point at which they suddenly acquired a new technique. In reality, their technique had slowly improved to the point when they could start to relax. The relaxation allowed the technique to improve more and the improvement allowed further relaxation, and this feedback cycle is what caused such a magical transformation. It is obviously better to start with zero stress. Although starting with zero stress might appear to hold you back in the beginning, you tend to acquire technique faster starting with zero stress than rushing into a stressed state and then trying to eliminate the stress. So, then, how do you relax? There are numerous instances in many books, with instructions to "involve the whole body", when playing the piano, with no further suggestions on how to achieve it. Part, or sometimes most, of this involvement has to be relaxation. In many ways, the human brain is wasteful. For even the simplest tasks, the brain generally uses most of the muscles in the body. And if the task is difficult, the brain tends to lock the body in a mass of tensed muscles. In order to relax, you must make a conscious effort (involve the whole body) to shut down all unnecessary muscles. This is not easy because it goes against the natural tendency of the brain. You need to practice relaxation just as much as moving the fingers to depress the keys. Relaxing does not mean to "let go of all muscles"; it means that the unnecessary ones are relaxed even when the necessary ones are working full tilt, which is a coordination skill that requires a lot of practice to achieve. Don't forget to relax all the various functions of the body, such as breathing and periodic swallowing. Some students will stop breathing when playing demanding passages because the playing muscles are anchored at the chest, and keeping that part of the body still makes it easier to play. When relaxed, you should be able to conduct all of the normal body functions and still be able to simultaneously concentrate on playing. Section 21 below explains how to use the diaphragm to breathe properly. If your throat is dry after a hard practice, it means that you had also stopped swallowing. These are all indications of stress. The gravity drop method discussed above is an excellent way to practice relaxation. Practice this gravity drop with one finger. Choose a different finger each time. Although there is never a need to actively lift the 4th finger, don't get into the habit of completely relaxing it, as that will cause it to hit some unwanted keys. This is because evolution has connected the last three fingers with tendons to facilitate grasping tools. Acquire the habit of maintaining a slight upward tension on the 4th finger, especially when playing fingers 3 and 5. Again, the test for relaxation is gravity: feeling the effect of gravity as you play is a necessary and sufficient condition for relaxation. Relaxing is finding the proper energy and momentum balance as well as arm/hand/finger positions and motions that allow you to execute with the appropriate expenditure of energy. Therefore relaxing requires a lot of experimentation to find those optimum conditions. However, if you had been concentrating on relaxation from day one of your piano lessons, this should be a routine procedure that you can quickly execute because you have done it many times before. For those who are new to relaxation, you can start with easier pieces you have learned, and practice adding relaxation. The parallel set exercises of III.7 can also help you to practice relaxation. However, nothing can replace the daily experimentation you should conduct whenever you learn a new piece of music. You will then gradually build up an arsenal of relaxed motions -- this is part of what is meant by technique. One easy way to feel relaxation is to practice one parallel set and accelerate it until you build up stress, and then try to relax; you will need to find motions and positions of arms, wrists, etc., that allow this; when you find them, you will feel the stress gradually draining from your hand. Many people do not realize that relaxation is itself a diagnostic tool in the experimentation. Assuming that you have a certain arsenal of hand motions (see section III.4), the criterion for "good technique" is one that allows relaxation. Many students think that long repetitive practices somehow transform the hand so it can play. In reality, what happens is that the hand accidentally stumbles onto the right motion for relaxation. This is why some skills are acquired quickly while others take forever and why some students acquire certain skills quickly while other students struggle with the same skills. The correct (and faster) way to learn is to actively search for the right motions and to build up an arsenal of them. In this search, it helps to understand what causes fatigue and what biological functions influence the energy balance (see section 21 on Endurance below). Relaxation is a state of unstable equilibrium: as you learn to relax, it becomes easier to further relax, and vice versa. This explains why relaxation is a major problem for some while it is completely natural for others. But that is a most wonderful piece of information. It means that anyone can relax, if they are properly taught and constantly strive for relaxation! The most important element in relaxation, obviously, is energy conservation. There are at least 2 ways to conserve: (1) don't use unnecessary muscles and (2) turn off the necessary muscles as soon as their jobs are done. Practice the art of turning off muscles quickly. Let's demonstrate these with the one-finger gravity drop. (1) is the easiest; simply allow gravity to completely control the drop, while the entire body is resting comfortably on the bench. For (2) you will need to learn a new habit if you don't already have it (few do, initially). That is the habit of relaxing all muscles as soon as you reach the bottom of the key drop. During a gravity drop, you let gravity pull the arm down, but at the end of the key drop, you need to tense the finger for an instant in order to stop the hand. Then you must quickly relax all muscles. Don't lift the hand, just rest the hand comfortably on the piano with just enough force to support the weight of the arm. Make sure that you are not pressing down. This is more difficult than you would think at first because the elbow is floating in mid air and the same muscles used to tense the finger in order to support the arm weight are also used to press down. One way to test if you are pressing down is to take the arm off the keys and rest your forearm on your legs in front of you, totally relaxed. Then carry over that same feeling to the end of the gravity drop. Few people bother to turn off muscles explicitly. You just tend to forget about them when their work is done. This presents no problems when playing slowly, but becomes problematic with speed. You will need a new exercise because the gravity drop has little to do with speed. You need to start with the key down and to play a quick, moderately loud note. Now you have to apply extra downward force and turn it off. When you turn it off, you must return to the feeling you had at the end of gravity drop. You will find that, the harder you play the note, the longer it takes for you to relax. Practice shortening the relaxation time. What is so wonderful about these relaxation methods is that after practicing them for a short time (perhaps a few weeks), they tend to be automatically incorporated into your playing, even into pieces that you have already learned, as long as you pay attention to relaxation. The worst consequence of stress is that it gets you into a fight you can't win because you are fighting an opponent who is exactly as strong as you are -- namely, yourself. It is one of your own muscles working against another. As you practice and get stronger, so does the opponent, by an exactly equal amount. And the stronger you get, the worse the problem. If it gets bad enough, it can lead to injury because the muscles become stronger than the material strength of your hand. That is why it is so important to get rid of stress. Relaxation, arm weight (gravity drop), involving the whole body, and avoidance of mindless repetitive exercises were key elements in Chopin's teachings, but Liszt advocated exercises "to exhaustion" (Eigeldinger). My interpretation of the last apparent disagreement is that exercises can be beneficial, but are not necessary. Also, Liszt did not have the benefit of this book -- he probably had to practice a lot before his hands accidentally stumbled onto the right motion. Of course, the piano makes a big difference. Chopin preferred the Pleyel, a piano with very light action and small keydrop, and required less effort to play. Relaxation is useless unless it is accompanied by musical playing; in fact, Chopin insisted on musical playing before acquiring technique because he knew that music and technique were inseparable. We now know that without relaxation, neither music nor technique is possible. Technique originates in the brain. Non-musical playing apparently violates so many tenets of nature that it actually interferes with the brain's natural processes for controlling the playing mechanisms. That is not to claim that you can't train yourself to become a machine, performing difficult acrobatics with blinding speed. The claim here is that mindless repetitions is a long, roundabout way to learn piano.