Building Endurance, Breathing

"Endurance" is a controversial term in piano practice. This controversy originates from the fact that piano playing requires control, not muscle power, and many students have the wrong impression that they will not acquire technique until they grow enough muscles. On the other hand, a certain amount of endurance is necessary. This apparent contradiction can be resolved by understanding exactly what is needed and how to get it. Obviously, you can't play loud, grandiose passages without expending energy. Big, strong, pianists can certainly produce more sound than small, weak, pianists if they are equally skillful. And the stronger pianists can more easily play "demanding" pieces. Every pianist has enough physical stamina to play pieces at her/is level, simply because of the amount of practice that was required to get there. Yet we know that endurance is a problem. The answer lies in relaxation. When stamina becomes an issue, it is almost always caused by excess tension. The most famous example of this is the LH octave tremolo in the first movement of Beethoven's Pathetique. The only thing over 90% of the students need to do is to eliminate stress; yet many students practice it for months with little progress. The first mistake they make is to play it too loud. This adds extra stress and fatigue just when you can least afford it. Practice it softly, just concentrating on eliminating stress, as explained in section III.3.b. As you practice, keep reminding yourself to look for hand positions that eliminate stress. In a week or two, you will be playing as many tremolos as fast as you want. Now start adding loudness and expression. Done! At this point, your physical strength and endurance is not any different from what it was when you started just a few weeks ago -- the main thing you did was to find the best way to eliminate stress. Playing demanding pieces requires about as much energy as a slow jog, at about 4 miles per hour, with the brain requiring more energy than the hands/body. Many youngsters cannot jog continuously for over one mile. Therefore, asking youngsters to practice difficult passages continually for 20 minutes would really strain their stamina because it would be about equivalent to jogging a mile. Teachers and parents must be careful when youngsters start their piano lessons, to limit practice times to under 15 minutes in the beginning until the students gain some stamina. Marathon runners have stamina, but they are not muscular. You need to condition the body for stamina for piano, but you don't need extra muscles. Now there is a difference between piano playing and running a marathon because of the need to condition the brain for stamina in addition to the muscular conditioning. Therefore mindless practicing of scales and other exercises for stamina does not work. The most efficient ways to gain stamina are to either play finished pieces and make music, or to practice difficult sections HS continuously. Again using the jogging analogy, it would be very difficult for most students to practice difficult material continuously for more than a few hours because 2 hours of practice would be equivalent to jogging 6 miles, which is a terrific workout. Therefore, you will have to play some easy pieces between the hard practice sessions. Concentrated practice sessions longer than a few hours may not be that helpful until you are at an advanced level, when you have developed sufficient "piano stamina". It is probably better to take a break and restart practice after some rest. Clearly, hard piano practice is strenuous work and serious practicing can put the student in good physical shape. HS practice is most valuable in this regard because it allows one hand to rest while the other works hard, allowing the pianist to work as hard as s/he wants, 100% of the time, without injury or fatigue. Of course, in terms of stamina, it is not difficult (if you have the time) to put in 6 or 8 hours of practice a day by including a lot of mindless finger exercises. This is a process of self-delusion in which the student thinks that just putting in the time will get you there -- it will not. If anything, conditioning the brain is more important than conditioning the muscles because it is the brain that needs the conditioning for music. In addition, strenuous conditioning of the muscles will cause the body to convert fast muscles to slow muscles that have more endurance -- this is exactly what you do not want. What is stamina? It is something that enables us to keep on playing without getting tired. For long practice sessions of over several hours, pianists do get their second wind just as athletes do. Can we identify any biological factors that control stamina? Knowing the biological basis is the best way to understand stamina. In the absence of specific bio-physical studies, we can only speculate. Clearly, we need sufficient oxygen intake and adequate blood flow to the muscles and the brain. The biggest factor influencing oxygen intake is lung efficiency, and important components of that are breathing and posture. This may be one reason why meditation, with the emphasis on proper breathing using the diaphragm, is so helpful. Use of only the rib muscles to breathe over-utilizes one breathing apparatus and under-utilizes the diaphragm. The resulting rapid pumping of the chest or exaggerated chest expansion can interfere with piano playing because all of the piano playing muscles eventually anchor near the center of the chest. Use of the diaphragm interferes less with the playing motions. In addition, those who do not use the diaphragm consciously can tense it when stress builds up during play, and they will not even notice that the diaphragm is tense. By using both the ribs and the diaphragm, and maintaining good posture, the lungs can be expanded to their maximum volume with least effort and thereby take in the maximum amount of oxygen. The following breathing exercise can be extremely helpful, not only for piano, but also for general well-being. Expand your chest, push your diaphragm down (this will make your lower abdomen bulge out), raise the shoulders up and towards your back, and take a deep breath; then exhale completely by reversing the process. When taking a deep breath, breathe through your throat (you can open or close your mouth), not through your nose. Most people will constrict the nasal air passage if they try to suck air through the nose with the mouth closed. Instead, relax your nose muscles and suck air through the throat region close to the vocal chords -- even with the mouth closed, this procedure will relax the nose muscles, allowing more air to pass through the nose. If you had not taken deep breaths for a long time, this breathing should cause hyper-ventilation -- you will feel dizzy -- after one or two such exercises. Stop if you hyper-ventilate. Then repeat this exercise at a later time; you should find that you can take more breaths without hyper-ventilating. Repeat this exercise until you can take at least 5 breaths in succession without hyper-ventilating. Now, if you go to the doctor’s office and he checks you out with his stethoscope and asks you to take a deep breath, you can do it without feeling dizzy! This exercise teaches you the basics of breathing. Keep these breathing elements in mind as you practice piano, and make sure that you are using them appropriately, especially when practicing something difficult. Breathing normally, while playing something difficult, is an important element of relaxation. Perform this exercise at least once every several months. The above types of methods for increasing the stamina can be learned mostly during practice, at the piano. Other methods of increasing stamina are to increase the blood flow and to increase the amount of blood in the body. These processes occur during PPI. In piano playing, extra blood flow is needed in the brain as well as the playing mechanism; therefore, blood flow can be increased by making sure that both the brain and the body are fully and simultaneously exercised during practice. This will cause the body to manufacture more blood, simply because more blood is needed. Mindless repetitions of scales, etc., are harmful in this respect because you can shut off the brain part, thus reducing the need for more blood. Practicing after a large meal also increases the blood supply and conversely, resting after every meal will reduce stamina. Since most people do not have enough blood to engage in strenuous activity with a full stomach, your body will rebel by making you feel terrible, but this is just an expected reaction. Once the body manufactures the necessary extra blood, this terrible feeling will not return. Therefore, you should stay as active as you can after a meal. Practicing immediately after a meal will require blood for digestion, for the playing muscles, and for the brain, thus placing the greatest demand on blood supply. Clearly, participation in sports activities, proper health, and exercise are also helpful for gaining stamina in piano playing. In summary, beginners who have never touched a piano previously will need to work up their stamina gradually, because piano practice is strenuous work. Parents must be careful about the practice time of very young beginners; allow them to quit or take a rest when they get tired. Never allow a sick child to practice piano, even easy pieces, because of the risk of aggravating the illness and of brain damage. At any skill level, we all have more muscle than we need to play the piano pieces at our level. Even professional pianists who practice 6 hours every day don't end up looking like Popeye. Franz Liszt was thin, not muscular at all. Thus acquiring technique and stamina is not a matter of building muscle, but of learning how to relax and to use our energy properly.