“I don’t care what my hand looks like, I just want to play the notes and make beautiful music!” How many times have I heard students bemoan this phrase or have even thought it myself? When it takes all of your focused energy to just hit the right keys at the right time, worrying about how you touch them seems exorbitant. After you’ve spent hours in physical therapy or Urgent Care, because of piano related injuries things start to make more sense. It’s not just about what you play, it’s how you play.
You can’t make beautiful music if you don’t approach the piano the right way, and you won’t be able to just play the notes long-term if you continue to use poor technique. That is a bold statement for most, but in my own piano playing career I have seen that proven to be true. Merely tapping the correct keys is not enough to capture your audience’s attention. Adding musicality, choreography, and tone through the use of your body is. It also will prevent harmful injuries that come from repeated fallible motions.
When I went to college I was way behind most of my peers in my piano playing ability. I poured hours into catching up and just attempting to do well enough to pass juries and my recital (thinking about those still make me shake). Chopin surprised me with his flourish of notes and crazy little runs on the third page of one of my recital pieces. Determined to master it I disregard technique for the sake of just being able to grab all of the right keys at the right time. My body was not as enthusiastic about reaching the notes as I was and even with expert coaching from my piano professor I managed to overlook her teaching about how to move on that specific section. I just wanted to get those pesky notes! I didn’t have time for that fancy technique stuff. Maybe when I graduate and have hours upon hours to just practice between students I could worry about technique I thought. My shoulder thought otherwise. It began aching and throbbing and the popping.
Fast forward three and a half years and I am now attending physical therapy for my shoulder and being a drill sergeant about technique with my students. “Floppy thumb on that Kangaroo exercise!” “Did I see dented knuckles on that phrase?” Ok, now I sound like a crotchety spinster. Hopefully it comes across more tastefully than that, but you get my point. I do not want my beloved students to develop lasting habits that will haunt them and destroy their pianistic abilities. I take them on safaris in their mind to grab a sleepy lion’s paw and flop it down on the keyboard. We bounce around the room floppy floppy floppy as we hop to our bouncy notes, we climb rainforest trees with sticky tree frog feet for legato playing. It’s so fun and so necessary.
I’ve discussed technique with proficient piano teachers who have been teaching longer than I have been alive and am shocked when they say “Oh, I don’t really teach technique until the student is quiet advanced and can understand it better.” With no disrespect, at that point in the student’s career they must create a whole new way of playing and may already be injured. Developing a steady beat and a floppy arm go hand in hand (or arm in arm) from the first lesson in my book. Training a preschooler how to make a little house for our friend Mr. Fuzzy Wuzzy with their chubby hand just makes sense so by the time they even learn how to play a pentascle their fingers are firm, hands naturally rounded, wrists level, and thumbs on the keys resting loosely. Instead of being concerned about playing Fur Elise at their end-of-the-year talent show, we’re making music fun, controlled, and understood. I want my students to understand everything they are doing and why they are doing it as they go along. I want them not just to pluck some notes because they think the notes might have gone higher but to know know without a doubt what the notes are and how to approach, hold, and release each one. Even though it takes time and patience, the end result is worth it. Making beautiful music takes care, strengthening, and mindfulness, but if you have solid technique, you won’t just play the notes, you will play so much more.