It’s no fun playing the piano when you don’t feel at ease. Many of us are told to relax by teachers who can see how much of a toll the stress is taking on our playing. This may lead us to ask “how do I relax while playing?” or perhaps “will relaxing actually help me?”

Before trying to figure out how to relax, I would first ask the following question: “What are you trying to accomplish by relaxing?” Maybe you want to play better. Maybe you want to feel better while you play. Both of these are understandbly desirable.

I ask the question because I believe it is important to understand that “relaxation” is probably not your final, ultimate goal, but rather a means to an end. Is relaxation a worthy means to achieving a particular end? I would say it depends. You need to use your own experience as a guide here. “Relaxation” is just a word. What is more interesting to me is what happens when you try to relax.

Some common concerns

“I want to relax because it will help me play better.”

My suggestion is to:

  1. Have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish.
  2. Have a clear idea of what will accomplish it.
  3. Learn how to focus and concentrate on that.

Can you do these 3 things? Is anything else required? Perhaps “relaxation” is necessary in order to achieve them, or perhaps it isn’t. But, if you keep coming back to this list, you might have a better chance of staying on track.

“I have no idea how to avoid tensing up. It happens so suddenly that I can’t stop it.” Or, “The pain starts immediately after I begin playing.”

It can be extremely difficult to identify long-standing habits. Often, we are so used to them, and they are so much a part of us, that we just can’t imagine how we could possibly do anything differently.

You should keep in mind that if the pain appears immediately after you start playing, it is caused by something you are doing.

Does that mean your playing is causing it? Not necessarily. Perhaps you only notice it when you start playing. Or, maybe it is your playing itself. I have no idea. But, you are the one who is in a position to investigate this.

Make an exercise out of it. Take a few minutes to observe what happens as you start playing.

  • When does this shift happen?
  • How long does it take?
  • Is it an abrupt change, or does it have a soft border?
  • Is there any place you feel your attention being drawn to?
  • What physical sensations do you notice, throughout your whole body?

To do this kind of work, you must (at least temporarily) set aside the idea that you are going to fix this right now. We need to get more info first.

“The music I’m playing is just tense music. There’s no way I can relax.”

When we listen to music, it can be remarkable how much of an effect it has on us. When we play music, this effect can be even more pronounced. Most people who have learned a musical instrument can attest to how remarkable it is that a piece which promoted so much tranquility and ease suddenly makes us want to rip our hair out in frustration as we learn to play it.

So, I offer the following challenges:

  1. Listen to some emotionally evocative music and try to remain unaffected by it: Try to hear the music as sound, not music. How many notes can you hear? How many instruments? Can you hear harmonics? Sound effects such as breathing, hands thumping against the keys, distortions in the recording?
  2. Listen to some really boring music and try to make yourself react to it strongly: Notice what comes up in your mind as you listen, even if it is seemingly unrelated to the music. Let yourself go with it.
  3. Play a very difficult piece and refuse to struggle with it: What would this take? What would you have to give up in order to let go of the need to play it well?
  4. Play an easy piece and struggle with it: If your playing is easy and comfortable, raise your standards. Demand as much perfection as you possibly can, until you start struggling. If you can play perfectly by yourself, try in front of an audience. If you can play in tempo, trying increasing the tempo by 50%. If you can play while looking at the music, close the book and try again.

The point of these exercises is to learn to understand that your emotions are not due to the music, but rather due to the ways that you are interacting with the music. You can learn to do things differently, if you want to. You need to be the one to decide which way is most useful for you. But, don’t blame the music!

“Pianists who look tense clearly play with a harsh sound. So, it’s obvious that relaxation is better.”

Is the goal to satisfy your own (or someone else’s) subjective opinion of sound? Or, is it to achieve control over your playing, so that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to?

Also, looks can be deceiving. It can be quite difficult to understand someone’s internal state simply by observing their playing.

“I can relax when I play slowly but not when I play fast.”

You are probably doing something very different when you change tempo. Fast playing is not inherently more tension-producing than slow playing. Why is faster playing provoking you more? Are you trying harder to do something when you play faster? Is it possible that your concept of the piece at a fast tempo is just too complicated? Explore this.

You can force relaxation, if you want to…

Do you know the different between being relaxed and being tense? If so, why can’t you just…do it?

Is it not just a matter of setting priorities? For instance, you could decide to simply not play at all. Would this be relaxed enough for you? Or, instead of trying to play every single note, you could just focus on keeping a steady beat. Could you manage this in a relaxed manner? You know, like tapping your foot to the radio…

Of course, that is not what you are looking for. You want a way to play both relaxed and also correctly, right? That is completely understandable. I wish I had a magic bullet for this, but I don’t. I urge you to consider the possibility that you just don’t know how to play the correct notes in a way that works technically.

I don’t say this to discourage you. There can be something empowering in the realization that you just can’t figure out, that you are out of ideas. Sometimes, it is only when we reach the bottom of the barrel that we are willing to try something new, and often, trying something new is what leads to real progress.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki