By Bryan Chuan – Piano Instructor
Of all the piano lessons I have given, maybe the most important is about developing proper technique.
Developing strong technique on the piano is important for every piano student regardless of what genre (pop, jazz, classical) they decide to focus on. First of all, what is technique? I would classify technique as the development and refinement of motor skills that facilitate the ease of playing repertoire.
One aspect of technique is becoming familiar with common patterns found in piano music, such as 5-finger patterns and scales. Another aspect of is developing fluid and efficient motions to help conquer increasingly difficult repertoire.
Essentially, good technique allows you to play whatever you want to play!
Students who have studied with me for a while notice that I emphasize a few points about technique over and over again. I believe teaching technique effectively means honing in a few key tenets.
I will share a few common technical mistakes I see students make during piano lessons. While these problems tend to manifest mostly in intermediate/advanced students, I believe they can be emphasized and encouraged with beginning students of all ages.
Take a look at the image above. This student is demonstrating “ideal hand position” with fingers curved and wrists level with the knuckles, something drilled by every piano teacher. However, many students play with “correct” hand position and still experience great discomfort while playing piano.
Why is this the case? I suspect that students often force an ideal hand position by tightening the wrist and fingers. The correct approach is to focus on relaxation of the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, which then naturally produces the “ideal hand position.”
This is one measure of Frederic Chopin’s infamously difficult Etude Opus 10 No. 1. The hand is forced into a series of uncomfortable stretches for the entire work, and few students can get through the piece without injury. I have spent the past 15 years trying to master this work, and one of my core technique ideas formed while struggling during practice: Try to stretch the hand as little as possible, instead find a motion with the arm to connect the notes.
To illustrate this concept, in this video, the pianist Seong-Jin Cho fluidly moves his arm and rotates his wrist to accommodate the difficult stretches: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9E82wwNc7r8
You can teach very young students to master “stretching” if you focus instead on the flexibility of the arm and wrist. In fact, I find that adult students with larger hands have a harder time breaking the habit of stretching to play every note.
This video shows a common finger strengthening exercise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rENq9rdmekQ
Quite honestly, this finger exercise is debilitating if not executed properly. Students often crunch their hands and fingers down in an effort to hold down the notes and cause muscular damage to the back of their hands.
To correctly execute this exercise (though in my opinion it should never be assigned), think about the execution of playing a single note of a piano. Only about 50 grams of force is needed to press a key, and keys can be held down and sustained by relaxing the arm and using arm weight. If anything, this exercise should be thought as a relaxation exercise, where fingers not in use are trained to remain as relaxed as possible.
Scales and arpeggios have thumb crossings that cause developing piano students great grief.
Scale Fingering: 123 1234 123 1234
Arpeggio Fingering: 123 123 1235
To play these fingerings, students intuitively “twist” the wrist to make a smooth connection from the thumb to third or fourth finger. Try holding your wrist at a 45 degree angle for 10 seconds. This causes great discomfort. Now imagine doing that twist dozens of times each day. Causing such discomfort over and over again frustrates students and often causes them to give up on more advanced literature.
Quite simply, avoiding “wrist twists” should be a golden rule in piano technique. Smooth motions of the arms eliminate the need to twist and also makes the music sound more fluid and brilliant.
Notice how still the pianist Rafal Blechacz keeps his wrists as he plays the conclusion to Chopin’s Scherzo in E major: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CNYX7OkceA&t=640s
Same here for a performance of Chopin’s Ocean Etude, which is basically 2.5 minutes of arpeggios: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8EjDZjZvrc