When I play the piano, I strive to make it feel good. It is no fun for me to feel like I am struggling with my body while trying to play, and the music that results from that struggle is not something I would enjoy listening to.
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that playing which feels good is automatically correct, or that making sure you are feeling good will somehow lead you to better playing. The point is to learn to pay attention to feelings, which is a useful skill for at least a few reasons:
Feeling good has practical benefits: All else being equal, we want to be in a state where things feel better. When we are not in pain, and not stressed out, we are better able to pay attention, better able to learn, and more likely to be motivated to practice. This does not mean that the good feelings are what lead to improvement, but rather that they are a useful prerequisite for what does lead to improvement.
Feelings point us to what we might be ignoring: Our senses provide us with valuable information which we need in order to learn. The more we pay attention to all of the varied aspects of our playing (how it feels, how it sounds, how it looks, etc.), the better we learn to discriminate between subtle differences. You want to notice what is actually happening, not just what you think should be happening.
Properly calibrated feelings are a useful guide: In the long run, we actually do want good feelings to teach us what to do. We want the right way to simply “feel right”. So, if we can sense pain and tension as we are playing, and learn to notice the difference between how things feel when they are “correct” and when they are “incorrect”, we can find ways of playing which are both correct and which feel good, as the feelings themselves will reward us for playing correctly. Over time, this will train our intuition, and we will naturally gravitate toward playing correctly and easily.
To sum up: Learn the difference between what feels good and what feels bad.
So, is tension good or bad?
There is definitely a danger in believing that playing should always feel good. I discussed some common beliefs about tension in a previous article. To expand on that, let’s look at a few reasons why tension may not always be the evil monster it’s made out to be:
Increased awareness leads to more discomfort: As you develop more awareness, things which used to feel good or neutral may start to feel bad. This doesn’t even necessarily mean you are doing anything different, only that you are noticing feelings you never noticed before. It is a sign of progress, but it can lead you to believe that you are doing the wrong thing, and you may even abandon whatever approach led you to this awareness, which is exactly the wrong thing to do.
Growth requires leaving your comfort zone: If you assume that bad feelings mean you are going in the wrong direction, you may avoid territory which you need to confront in order to progress. In order to learn, you have to go outside of your comfort zone. Often, because we feel anxious or uncertain about our playing, we may tense up. If we don’t realize the psychological origin of the tension, we may end up blaming our technique.
You might be jumping to conclusions: You may not be correct as to the cause of the feelings. This can cause you to change your approach prematurely. For example, you may believe that tension is caused by the way you are sitting, when actually it is caused by the fact that you aren’t feeling a steady beat as you play.
In this light, I would say it is often best to observe tension without trying to eliminate it, at least until you have a clear idea of what will actually eliminate it.
Is pain always a sign of injury or potential injury?
(Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, so the following should not be understood as medical advice.)
My guess is that yes, pain probably means you are doing something wrong, which will probably lead to negative consequences down the road, if you keep doing it.
However, I also believe that pain at the piano is rarely an emergency. If you feel pain, what are you going to do about it? You may ask a teacher what to do, but what if the teacher can’t give you an answer which allows you to play without pain?
If you feel pain, do not try to push through it. There is no sense in that. Instead, bring an attitude of curiosity to it, without trying to make it go away, and see how many different aspects of it you can observe.
- When does it happen? When doesn’t it happen?
- Where do I feel it? Where don’t I feel it?
- What else do I feel along with the pain?
- Is it constant, or does it come and go?
- Does it have a shape? A texture?
The point is not to arrive at “correct” answers to these questions. You may not know the answers, or the answers may seem to change. The point is to ask the questions, because they will get you to pay attention to what’s actually going on, and in the process you may learn something.
If you feel pressure to perform well (for a competition, audition, etc.), this will almost certainly interfere with your attempts to practice awareness. If you can’t look at your pain with an attitude of open curiosity, you should probably back off.