Many pianists complain of excess tension while they are playing. It seems to prevent fluid playing, causes pain and injury, and basically ruins any chance of fun at the piano. What can we do about this problem?
Common beliefs about tension
I would like to present a few commonly-held beliefs about tension, and some alternative ways of thinking about the issue.
Common viewpoint: Tension is something that happens to you when you try to perform a certain task.
My viewpoint: Tension is the result of something you are doing to yourself (whether or not you are even aware of it).
I know it can seem like this stuff comes out of nowhere. Habits that are so familiar and comfortable can easily escape notice. But, they are still habits, and you are still doing them. And you’re doing them for a reason. If you subscribe to the idea that all actions human beings perform are intended to either seek pleasure or avoid pain, it may be worth thinking about what is really going on here.
Common viewpoint: If you are experiencing tension, this is a problem you need to solve.
My viewpoint: Just because your mind has labelled an experience as “tension”, does not mean that it is actually a problem that needs to be solved, or even that this label is the best description of the experience.
If you have experience with meditation, yoga, Alexander Technique, the Taubman approach, or any number of other systems designed to improve your functioning, you may have identified a number of habits which have clearly been getting in your way. You may, as a result, have developed allergies to certain sensations that you have since labelled as “negative.” I don’t mean to criticize any of these systems, which are all great. This is just the natural tendency of the human mind to latch onto problem solving when it seems to have worked in the past.
Problems only need to be solved when they get in the way of achieving our goals. We should not forget that these habits are not bad simply because they “feel bad.” Rather, they are bad with respect to a specific goal. Yes, maybe that goal is “avoid tendonitis”, and thus you may never want to acquire that particular habit. However, it is too easy to lose track of this, when the goals are things like “play better”, “hit the right notes”, or “focus on the breath.” Sometimes, you need to “feel tense” in order to achieve your goals.
Pay attention to what happens. Your experience will guide you.
Common viewpoint: “Tension” is a thing pianists have or don’t have in their playing.
My viewpoint: “Tension” is a way of describing the experience of playing, and doesn’t exist in any absolute sense.
Many pianists scoff at the idea of demonizing “tension”, on the grounds that, in the physical sense, some amount of muscle tension is required for all movement. That’s certainly true, but I think it misses the point. Those who are trying to eliminate “tension” having something specific in mind.
Now, I would like to ask: just what do you have in mind?
When does a habit become “tension”? When you’re not playing well? When it hurts? When you are frustrated by it? When it’s “inefficient”? Who determines what “inefficient” means?
Isn’t it possible to play well even when you are frustrated?
If I walk 30 minutes to the store instead of taking my car, is that inefficient?
I tend to think these issues are more a matter of perspective than we often realize.
Let me begin by saying that I am not a medical professional, and I am not capable of offering medical advice. Please do not take anything you read on the Internet too seriously. Everything you do should be measured against the reality of your own experience. What I am describing is simply my own personal experience.
You should also understand that most doctors are not musicians. The advice they are likely to give is “if playing is injuring you, stop playing.” This is perfectly reasonable advice, from a medical perspective. However, it doesn’t really help us play the piano better.
My perspective is this: injuries at the piano are generally the result of long-standing habits. Even if the injury requires medical attention, to prevent it from reoccuring, you need to change the habit. This is easier said than done. Since these habits are so ingrained, they are likely present in many areas of your life, often stem from early childhood, and are almost certainly intertwined with deeply held and fiercely protected beliefs about your identity.
Why else would you put yourself through so much pain to play the piano?
Why else would you not even notice you are in pain until it’s gotten so far?
Many piano teachers say “pain is never a good thing.” I get what they are saying, but I don’t talk that way. It is true that pain is probably a sign you are doing something wrong, but that doesn’t make it bad. On the contrary, you can use the pain to guide you in the right direction.
Pay attention to it.
So what do I do about it?
For the moment, let’s stop thinking of this in terms of “how to get rid of the tension.” Instead, we need to figure out what the tension is preventing us from doing.
So answer that question.
Maybe it is preventing you from:
- Playing faster
- Focusing on the music
- Playing without pain
- Hitting all the right notes
Realize that you can do any of these whether or not you have the tension.
- You can play faster by making the decision to play fast.
- You can focus on the music by simply bringing your attention back to whatever musical idea you are intending.
- You can play without pain by focusing on the sensations you are feeling. This may involve playing incorrectly, or even simply keeping your hands in your lap.
- You can hit the right notes by hitting them one at a time, at whatever tempo is necessary.
You might be saying, “This is ridiculous! Obviously, I want all of the above!” Fair enough. However, we are going to have to figure this out a little better if you are really hoping to achieve all of that. For now, concentrate on what you do have control over. You are only going to frustrate yourself otherwise.
If the tension is really a problem, you should be able to find one thing it is preventing you from doing.
If not, look harder. Perhaps you could try the waterfall technique for more insight.
Or maybe it’s not a problem at all.