5 top tips for relaxing your shoulders at the piano
by Melanie Spanswick
We’re all aware of this issue. We sit at the keyboard, sometimes hunched over it for extended periods of time, and our shoulders become tense, stiff, and ‘raised’, and often we don’t even notice - until they start to ache after a practice session. Concentration and focus on the music, as well as learning the necessary movements to play a piece, provide prime distractions. And as our shoulders creep ever higher, flexible, free or relaxed piano playing becomes increasingly more challenging.
Here are a few suggestions to make you aware of this issue during practice and performance.
1. First of all, sit at the keyboard and completely relax your upper body, encouraging your arms to swing down by your side, until they feel ‘heavy’ and loose
Now tense your shoulders, until they rise up to your ears! Note the feeling of tension and discomfort. Return to the first position, with your arms swinging loosely by your side, and most importantly, feel the difference. It’s the feeling which will help you to remember to keep relaxed.
2. Rest both hands on the keyboard (without sounding or playing any notes) keeping your shoulders down, or in a normal rested position, and the arms, elbows and hands totally loose and ‘heavy’
The act of resting the hands in this manner will allow you to become accustomed to the feeling of relaxation in the usual piano playing position without the distraction of actually playing the instrument. Your hands may fall off the keyboard as you relax, because you are used to tensing as you play. In this case, just rest one hand on the keyboard at a time, holding it in place with the other hand, so you are able to release any tension in that shoulder, arm and hand.
3. As you are now aware of the necessary feeling, it’s time to play
Short five-finger exercises or a simple scale both provide perfect vehicles to try out your new relaxed stance. Play the exercise slowly, and as you depress each key, keep focused on your shoulder activity. Notice how your upper body reacts as you play various note patterns.
4. At first, it’s important to keep about fifty percent of your concentration on your shoulders
They will only really learn to be loose if you can harness your concentration as you play. Therefore, the slower the better, until the feeling becomes a habit. Ensure you switch your focus to your shoulders at various points in a piece as you practice – you could even write this in the score as a reminder.
5. After a few weeks (or possibly months) of focused concentration as you practice, you’ll be more aware of your shoulders because you’ve spent much time thinking about them and their movement, with the aim of keeping them relaxed
A relaxed sitting position will eventually become a habit – a good habit, replacing the old, uncomfortable stance.
The key to successfully relaxing and releasing your shoulders of any tension as you play, is to keep aware of the feeling – when you are feeling relaxed, your entire upper body will respond differently, and a whole new world of flexibility will be at your fingertips.
© Erica Worth. Taken at Steinway Hall, London