5 top tips for perfect alignment
By Melanie Spanswick
One of the most noticeable aspects when learning to play the piano is wrist, hand and finger choreography.
As soon as a student starts to play, it’s possible to determine any physical difficulties which they are experiencing, just from how they are sitting, or, more specifically, how their wrists and hands approach the keys. This may seem irrelevant, as many believe there to be a myriad of suitable ways to ‘play’ or move around the instrument. However, as a teacher, I can confirm that to produce a good sound and to move with ease and accuracy around the keyboard, some wrist, hand and finger positions are more optimal than others.
Here are a few elements to look out for when you are practising:
1. Try not to raise your shoulders
I’ve said this many times before; aim to keep the shoulders from raising. This takes constant vigilance. Keep them relaxed at all times. Certain passagework, or chords, for example, often trigger upward shoulder movement, therefore, when negotiating these figurations, try to play them whilst ‘watching’ or observing your shoulders. Eventually you will be aware of the upward shoulder ‘feeling’ and this will hopefully be a constant reminder to relax them.
2. Let your arms 'hang'
Arms and elbows should ideally be relaxed and literally ‘hanging’ by your side, fairly heavily, even when in the position to play. ‘Heavy’ arms and elbows indicate that muscles are relaxed, enabling the wrists and hands to also be flexible and relaxed. This may seem obvious, but one often encounters outward moving arms, led by elbows and, more often than not, arms which are, what I refer to, as being ‘held in position’. That is, those which are slightly raised and held outwards, almost hovering above the keyboard.
Arms being held in any kind of position merely demonstrates tension, which will have a knock-on effect on wrists and hands. Try to keep arms relaxed with a gravitational, heavy feeling; I often spend significant amounts of time relaxing a student’s arms and changing their wrist and hand positions.
3. Flexible wrists over parallel wrists
It’s generally acknowledged that wrists should be ‘aligned’ with the keyboard. That is, resting in an almost parallel position to the keyboard. But there can be issues here. If the wrist remains parallel to the keyboard as fingers are playing, tension will surely follow. Therefore, the wrist must be able to move. It should be able to support and lead the hand and fingers in whatever direction is necessary to play the notes. In order to do this effectively, it must be loose and relaxed.
I often encourage students to use ‘wrist circles’ or small circular movements made by the wrist during performance, so that it can continually release any tension. These wrist circles are extremely useful for other facets, too, such as developing firmer fingers, and producing a deeper, more sonorous sound.
4. Observe your hand
The ‘flexible’ hand is a thing of beauty, yet it’s one of the most problematic for students. The area between the wrists and fingers should really be ‘fleshy’ and loose as opposed to taut and tight. If it’s the latter, octaves, chords and any out-stretched passagework can be extremely uncomfortable, which sometimes renders playing evenly and rhythmically well-nigh impossible.
Start by observing your hand; how does it feel? If it’s ‘tight’, think about releasing the tendons in the hand and try to do this on a regular basis, so it feels lighter, freer and loose – this is easier to do with a teacher, who will help you to learn to ‘feel’ the hand as it relaxes.
5. The benefits of the 'bridge position'
An interesting fact about our fingers; they tend to ‘splay’ out if we don’t regularly scrutinise them. The hand is best placed in the ‘Bridge Position’ - I’ve written many times about this position on my blog and in my series Play it again: PIANO – particularly in Book 3 (Schott Music). It allows the fingers to remain in a strong position, and, with the help of hand flexibility, precludes the fourth and fifth fingers from rising or ‘sticking up’ in the air. This unfortunate occurrence happens due to tight tendons between the fourth and fifth fingers. To rid yourself of this, pay attention to how your hand feels as you play these fingers.
Eliminating these issues is not easy, and I strongly recommend the help of a good teacher, but with perseverance it is possible to change ‘how’ you play the instrument.