Healthy piano technique starts with healthy posture and how you hold your frame at the instrument. Playing with tension is a widespread problem and as a teacher it's high on my list of priorities to watch out for when working with a student. This is because my playing posture went left unchecked as a student and I now suffer from strain in my left shoulder and neck area if I play for too long. This doesn't stop me playing, it just means I need a regular trip to the physiotherapist after a run of shows! I want to make sure my students develop a free and flexible playing position.
The shoulders are a major culprit when it comes to tension. Raised or hunched shoulders indicate the student is carrying weight unnecessarily. Most of the time the student is unaware that they are tense, and it is only when I put my hand on their shoulders do they notice just how much tension they are holding. There should be freedom in movement and rotation from each joint the whole way down the arm: shoulders, elbows, wrists. The weight should then be carried by the tricep region, allowing for a nice, strong frame with shoulders in a healthy and relaxed position.
I use two analogies with my students. The first is the image of a ballet dancer and how much poise and flexibility they have in their arms but with a strong framework in place. Healthy playing posture requires a straight back and strong triceps. If those parts of the body are given attention to, the shoulders should naturally remain at a comfortable, neutral position.
But we are not ballet dancers and we need freedom to move around the length of the instrument without keeping our frame locked, so this is where my second analogy comes in. I use the image of "floaties", like a child learning to swim. I ask my student to put their floaties on before we start playing. The visualisation of inflatable arm bands fitting around the triceps automatically creates an awareness of space between the arm and the torso. This helps the student focus on the tricep area and using this as an anchor to maintain a strong, healthy frame to play from.
Finally, a simple but effective exercise to bring awareness to tension in the shoulders is to shrug your shoulders and hold them up by your ears for a few seconds before releasing them. You can enhance this activity by adding an inhalation on the shrug and an exhalation on the release. You can do this both before and while you are playing. In the early stages of developing healthy playing posture and technique, it's important to make a conscious effort to be aware of how you are holding your frame. This activity helps you to become mindful of where your shoulders are placed. If you pause while playing every so often to shrug your shoulders and release, you'll soon notice whether or not you are playing with raised shoulders. Happy playing!