The basic movement in piano playing is dropping the forearm. When I play a difficult piece, that’s what it feels like to me, just dropping my arms to the beat. Very easy.
Let me now say that this article is directed mainly for beginning pianists. If you are an advanced pianist, or an advanced musician on another instrument, you may feel it is beneath your level. Or you may not. Either way, I would encourage you to read it, try the exercise, and notice what your mind has to tell you about it.
(Especially if you are an advanced pianist, you might now be saying to yourself, “this is ridiculous! There is so much more to piano playing than dropping the forearm.” You may indeed be right. Please understand that what I am after here is not a scientific description of how one plays, but rather a practical method of learning. I ask that you be patient with my often contradictory language. The method is experiential. You need to do the exercises to understand what I am saying, and this exercise has the potential to teach you a lot more than just what to do with your arms. The words are just a starting point.)
Why practice dropping the arms?
This type of exercise will help you with:
- Feeling the switch from evaluating to observing. Remember that the evaluating mind is what makes it hard for us to learn to play music. The observing mind needs to be in control here.
- Getting in touch with your body.
- Paying attention to your mind. Learning to notice when the mind pressures you into trying too hard.
- Feeling the difference between playing easily and struggling.
- Playing in tempo and feeling a steady sense of beat.
- Preparing you mentally for more difficult practice.
Before you begin
A lot of students get stressed out when they do this exercise, and that is completely normal. Are you up for that? I personally don’t know of a more direct way to learn the skills that this exercise teaches. But this is about you, so remember that you don’t have to do this exercise, and you can stop at any time.
Once you practice this a few times with a timer, you will hopefully find that the stress will lessen. I personally find it fun and relaxing, but at first it was hard. Give it a shot, and try not to judge it until you’ve practiced it several times.
As you practice, your mind will probably get nervous and complain a lot. It may say “This is boring”, or “What’s the point of this?”. Minds don’t like this type of exercise, because they like to be in control, and this exercise forces it to give up control. Remember that your mind’s job is to help you out, so don’t try to ignore it. Thank it for its help. After you do the exercise, you will have a chance to write down whatever your mind was concerned about.
There is no wrong way to do this. The point is only to learn more about yourself. If your mind is worried that you aren’t doing it right, or maybe you even know you’re doing it wrong, just notice this and keep doing the exercise until the timer runs out. Then, write it down afterwards. Even if you didn’t follow the instructions exactly, you still succeeded, because you noticed something.
Let’s get started
Exercise (please read completely before beginning):
- Lift both of your arms about 6 inches above your lap.
- Drop both of them freely onto your lap. Do not push them down. Do not throw them down. Let them fall completely freely. Take a moment to observe your arms completely relaxed in your lap.
- Repeat Steps 1-2 a few times. Notice the difference between your arms “hanging in the air”, and “relaxed in your lap.”
- Set a timer for at least 10 minutes, and set your metronome. Experiment with fast, medium, and slow tempos. You need to practice all of them. Start with 60, perhaps.
- With each click, if your arms are in the air, let them drop into your lap. After they fall, lift them again. Notice if you are dropping with each click, or not.
- When the timer is up, write down anything you remember struggling with, or anything your mind was concerned about.
It is very common, especially at first, to be stressed out by this exercise. The important thing to remember is that your job is only to LIFT and DROP. If you ever get stressed out, DROP your arms and feel how easy it is, both to drop them, and to let them sit in your lap.
The metronome may tempt you into getting stressed out, into trying hard. If at any point you realize you are not with the metronome, drop your arms. If you can’t go fast enough and the metronome is making you hurry, drop your arms. If you can drop fine, but you can’t lift quickly enough for the next click, drop your arms.
There is no need to be with the metronome. You are learning how to be with the metronome. Notice how your mind might try to tell you that you should already be good at this. But there is no pressure from the exercise. You can sit with your arms in your lap for 10 minutes if you want, and just pay attention to how relaxed (or how tight) they feel.
Notice if you push your arms down in any way other than by freely letting them drop. The only way to lower your arms is a free drop.
Remember: You don’t need to figure out how to do this. The exercise will teach you.