Piano Yoga: My Journey To Overcome Tension In Piano Playing

I began learning Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 during my freshman year of college.  When the piece started to gain tempo in certain passages, these passages felt difficult when I knew they shouldn’t, and for the first time, I started feeling like I was reaching some kind of physical “ceiling” in my playing.  This realization first consciously occurred to me while practicing the Chopin in a music department practice room.  Since no part of this ceiling was mental – I was able to fully comprehend the music in real time and I literally felt like my fingers couldn’t keep up with my brain – I felt certain that there ought to be a way for me to overcome it.  After all, the pianists who played the piece in all the recordings I owned certainly didn’t sound like they were struggling.  Why should I?

After thinking about this for several minutes in silence in the practice room, it occurred to me that I had never tried to relax before.  Yes, I had teachers tell me to lower my tense shoulders and other obvious things like that, but nobody ever conveyed to me that I should literally stop, start over, and reprogram my entire “body map” (a term I had never heard at that point but understood in an intuitive way) so that my muscles would behave differently when given certain commands.  I wasn’t even sure that this would be the right path to take.  What if the tension I had was the “necessary mininum” amount of tension to play piano?  I knew that such a threshold existed.  Where was I in relation to the threshold?  I knew the only way to find out was to take a kind of “Goldilocks” approach:  I sought to experience “too tense” and “too relaxed” for myself so that I could accurately determine where that “just right” point was.  So, I knew I needed to push myself to the extreme end of relaxation.

The Journey Begins

Piano Yoga works even better than cognac and cigars

Piano Yoga works even better than cognac and cigars

I flopped my arms onto the keyboard and literally studied (memorized) how all my muscles felt – not just my hand and arm muscles, but the torso, neck and legs too!  I probably spent a good five minutes doing that the first time.  I proceeded to play certain passages extremely slowly, seeking to redefine all of my muscular movements.  After that practice session, I remember thinking, “Did I just invent Piano Yoga?”

This relaxation mindset permeated every movement I made at the piano for weeks and weeks.  For several months, I lost a great deal of accuracy in my playing.  Luckily, I did not allow myself to fall into the trap of thinking that loss of accuracy was a sign that I was on the wrong path.  Whether the path was right or wrong, my muscles simply hadn’t gotten used to the new body map “environment” they were in.  So I had to keep my experiment going until the body map was complete.

This took about six months, and I was overjoyed beyond words when I realized it had been the right path.  I got all my accuracy back plus much more accuracy.  I could play pages and pages of music without hitting a wrong note.  I played with far greater dynamic and rhythmic control than I thought I’d ever achieve.  I felt I was starting to sound like the pianists in the recordings.  I arrived at a point where I could know for certain that the tension I had was truly the necessary minimum to play.

Excessive tension may cause a certain lack of control in intermediate and even advanced levels, but when you bring tension into concert level performing, certain passages simply cannot be played at all.  This constant tension would have been much easier to eliminate if I had gone through this process when I was 8, 10 or 12.  Even so, guiding students to eliminate tension is not easy to do.

Creating Obsession:  The Key To Teaching Relaxation

Ultimately, while I believe a teacher can show a student the right path, it is really up to the student, because unlike learning the correct fingering of a scale or what a rhythm sounds like, relaxation can only be learned when the student literally obsesses over fixing the problem every day for weeks and weeks.  I’ve heard one must repeat something 70 times to turn it into a habit.  That would of course depend on the complexity of what’s being drilled – but this would probably work well for fixing a wrong note.  But reprogramming the deep, core-level programming contained in our “body map” goes far beyond 70 repetitions.  With regard to changing the Body Map, 70 repetitions will get you about as far as a drop of water in a Mohave Desert drought.  The part of our brain that stores Body Map information is very slow to change!  In all honesty, very few people have the patience, inner calmness and ability to obsess to truly conquer tension at the piano.  I believe that is why (by my own observations) the vast majority of piano teachers are actually quite tense themselves.

I find that most people have a very hard time seeing the need to break down their playing into painfully small and slow steps.  When I tell myself to go “very slow”, I’ll sometimes cut the tempo down to one-tenth the performance tempo.  When I ask students to go “very slow”, they’ll shave two percent off of the performance tempo if we’re lucky.  Whether this is caused by a lack of patience, a tendency to underestimate the difficulty of the problem, or an inability to break the problem into its smallest components, the fact is that most people have a very difficult time with “piano yoga”.

The best I can do for my students is to give them a big impression that tension absolutely must be eliminated.  How do you cause your students to obsess about relaxation for weeks?  You can’t achieve this goal by mentioning to them once in a while to relax their shoulders or to get that “teacup pinky” to rest idly when it’s not being used.  When tension is the main problem in a student’s playing, I will sometimes even use their entire lesson time to walk them through “piano yoga” practicing.  I show them the true meaning of “slow”, I help them discover every last nanojoule of wasted energy in muscles that flex uselessly all over their body, and I make them see 20 things happening in a single measure when they previously thought only 5 things happened.

But even this is often not enough.  The student who takes this information and truly obsesses over it for six months until it’s absolutely fixed is a rare student.  Consequently, constant follow-ups are necessary with students.  I’ve found that tension is an area in which improvement (greater relaxation) is easily confused with arrival (perfect relaxation).  Suppose there is a scale of tension from 1 to 10 (10 being very tense, 1 being as relaxed as possible).  If someone has never experienced what it’s like to perform an entire piece at the level of 1, how would they know when they actually get there?  They have no reference point to compare with, because they’ve never actually experienced a “1” on the tension scale while performing.  If they start out at a 7, and then they improve to a 5, they’re going to feel better than they’ve ever felt before.  They will be tempted to think they’ve now eliminated as much tension as can be eliminated, when in fact they’re not even half-way there.

The Journey Never Ends

Every new piece presents different muscular motions, and this leads to the necessity to always have to “focus” on relaxing.  But I put “focus” in quotes because it’s kind of like counting:  while students have to be told to count all the time, well-trained professionals are constantly counting.  It’s not that professionals don’t have to count;  it’s that professionals simply do not consider it an option to play notes without knowing their place in time.  They always count.  Likewise, one who has been well-trained to relax still must put effort forth to relax, but this effort becomes more habitual as they gain experience relaxing, until it is so habitual that it is difficult to “turn it off”.

I do believe there are some people who naturally relax at the keyboard from a very young age and who therefore never learn tension.  These people are even more rare than the student who reaches a “1” on the tension scale through deliberate, obsessive effort.  I am tempted to say that I wish I could know what it was like to be blissfully ignorant of tension, but I do believe my memories of tense playing help me dramatically in teaching others to relax.

My hope is that this will motivate many more teachers and students out there to engage in Piano Yoga for the next six months.  The good news is that focusing on relaxing will not prevent you from also focusing on articulation, dynamic phrasing and balance.  You can still do everything you normally do… except perhaps for playing music at full tempo!

(c) 2011 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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5 responses to Piano Yoga: My Journey To Overcome Tension In Piano Playing

  1. Heimdall Siao

    I am playing that exact same piece right now and realized my back was very tense, especially at the last 2nd and 3rd to last page!

    • Yes, trying to relax while playing a piece like that for the first time is like trying to train oneself to sleep on a moving roller coaster. It’s doable, but it takes a lot of training and deliberate work toward that goal. (At least, for most people)

  2. Anonymous

    I get tense (especially my arm) when playing something fast. Why?

    • The closer you push yourself to your “speed limit” on a piece of music (your fastest speed potential), the more tense you’ll get. This is natural for everyone. I get tense playing certain levels of Guitar Hero that are beyond my skill level. This doesn’t necessarily mean your piece is beyond your skill level – it could just mean you need more time with the piece. A certain amount of relaxation will take place for anyone (even those who haven’t read my article) as they spend more time with their pieces – see the “Update 2/10/12” note almost half way through my Preparation Threshold article. Then again, it’s also possible the piece could be beyond your skill level. The other possibility, of course, is that there is tension always present in your playing that only becomes noticeable when you go fast, and you’d need a good teacher to diagnose that in person.

  3. Linda

    This is something I struggle with personally and with many students, too. Good to have something written to actually try out. Although I’ve tried to explain how to mentally relax (I often think of Lamaze birthing classes), you’ve made some clear suggestions to try. Lessons tomorrow!

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