October 5, 2013

The Physical Side of Playing the Piano

Playing the piano is not a spectator sport. It uses your whole body. It strengthens your senses of eyesight, hearing, and touch. It requires complex fine-motor and gross-motor coordination. Even your posture is important in playing correctly.

In that respect, the piano is your “tool,” which you have to handle physically. Tomoko explains, “The first year of piano starts the learning process. Just as young children don’t know how to use pencil, so too must they learn how to use the piano.” She continues the analogy, “Teachers will say to the student: ’You can’t be sloppy. You can be neat and clear.’ Some teachers mark the pencil where finger should be positioned. The same advice applies to the piano. Even the finger placement and curve of the hand are important physical skills.” Fine muscle development starts in primary grades, which is a good time to start toning those muscles.

Just as different exercises help different parts of the body, so too does each piano practice session and piece of music. Students warm up with scales and other finger exercises that become automatic, which help in later functions such as key modulations.

“Each piano piece has some kind of physical challenge,” says Tomoko. It may be left- and right-hand coordination, the best finger to use when playing a progression, or stretching the hand to span key distances. Tomoko advises, “Look at each movement. There should be no guessing as to finger motion.” Tomoko also says that memorizing a piano piece includes muscle memory. “That’s why it is important to play the right notes; so your fingers will remember correction.” She reminds the performer, “Exactness is not stiffness. The muscles should be supple, not stressed.”

Tomoko encourages young pianists to stretch themselves, developing their physical techniques by the time they are adults.  Tomoko also associates learning to play the piano to mountain climbing. “You need to go up lots of small mountains. If the road is right, you will reach up. So practice daily, and step nicely.”