Piano technique: a guide to learning and improving

Learn how to develop and improve your piano technique. An overview of technique for beginners and advanced pianists. Recommended books and resources.

Piano technique: A guide to improving and learning

Basics of piano technique

Piano technique: Definition

“Piano technique” is a tricky concept to define. It could refer to:

  1. The actual, physical way you play the piano. For example: move your thumb under, play staccato with a finger motion rather than an arm motion, or move the wrists in circles, play legato by delaying releasing the key.
  2. The mental way of understanding how you play. For example: pull the sound out of the piano, use the weight of the arm, or play in a “singing” manner.

To make matters more complicated, there can be overlap. Very often, what we think is an accurate physical description is really more of a mental image. There is no “best piano technique.” Every pianist has his or her own technique.

To me, technique is the study of:

  • How to play the piano.
  • How to make our bodies do what we intend at the piano.
  • How to form a bridge between the intellectual analysis of the music and the real, actual sound.

This should be completely practical. There is nothing stuffy about it.

Why play with good technique?

If you don’t play with good technique, you may find that your playing is:

  • Unpredictable (not in a good way)
  • Painful or tiring
  • Difficult to listen to

Can anyone play the piano well?

Anyone can learn to improve their technique. This is definitely a worthwhile goal. Depending on the quality and quantity of practice, amazing results are possible. It can be a life-long process, however. Additionally, there are obstacles to technical development. For example, distractions or anxiety can derail an otherwise skilled performer.

And yes, anyone of average-sized hands (or even smaller) can play difficult music. It does not matter how long your fingers are, or if your right or left hand is the dominant one.

How to improve your piano technique

The best way to learn piano technique is to play as many different pieces as you can. You will learn something from each of them. As you do this, pay attention to what things feel like. Notice when things work, and when they don’t work. Your brain will learn automatically.

How to master piano technique

To learn technique from the ground up, I recommend the following posts of mine:

  1. Piano technique made super-simple
  2. The most basic way to play a piece
  3. Dropping your arms
  4. The waterfall technique
  5. How do I get rid of tension?
  6. Stop struggling with scales
  7. Rhythmic flexibility
  8. More about the waterfall technique
  9. How do I relax at the piano?

Piano posture

What is the proper posture at the piano?

Sit at the bench. Feel how the bench supports your weight.

You may need to play around with:

  • The height of the piano bench.
  • How far from the edge of the bench you are sitting.
  • The distance of the bench from the keyboard.
  • The height of the keyboard (not always easy to adjust!)
  • Whether you are leaning forward or backward.
  • Whether you are looking down at your hands, or straight ahead.
  • What “sitting up straight” means to you.
  • What “slouching” means to you.

There is no correct posture. You need to find what works for you. The correct posture should make things easier, not harder. Pay attention to what feels easy and what feels hard. This is more important than what is right or what is wrong. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Fingering

How do I learn correct fingering?

Piano fingering is a big topic. In general, certain fingerings make passages easier, and other fingerings make them harder. The proper fingering is the one that makes playing easier, not harder.

My opinion is that fingering should not generally be planned out. Most piano teachers would disagree with me on this. My reasoning is that it is better to learn to trust my instincts, and to train those instincts to be trustworthy. Furthermore, planning out fingering tends to encourage an intellectual approach, rather than a spontaneous, in-the-moment approach. Let your brain learn by itself which fingers to use when playing the piano.

How do I strengthen my fingers?

Many students wonder how to strengthen their fingers for piano. This is understandable, because when your fingers feel weak, it is hard to play. However, you don’t need to strengthen your fingers. Proper piano playing is about coordination, not strength. The reason your fingers feel weak is because you are not properly balanced. Instead of trying to build strength in your fingers, you should pay closer attention to when they feel weak. Those are the moments when you need to develop awareness.

Hand position

How do I position my hands on the piano?

The proper hand position is the one that makes playing easier, not harder. This also applies to any other “position” (e.g., wrist position).

Many teachers will suggest trying to create a certain arch in the hand, and may recommend holding a ball in the palms, or letting the hands fall to the sides and observing the shape, or deliberately curving the fingers. Sometimes these tricks work, but I try to avoid them.

The position of your hands and wrists should be natural and intuitive. That doesn’t mean we are born knowing how to play the piano. It means that we should use our natural coordination as a starting point, and work from there. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If the key goes down at the right time, makes the sound you are looking for, and doesn’t cause you pain, then you certainly have the right hand position.

Despite what you may have learned in a method book, the “five-finger position”, where each finger is rested simultaneously over its own key, is probably not a very natural position. Try this out for yourself.

How to stop making mistakes on the piano

How do we learn to make mistakes?

Habits are learned. We learn to do things by receiving a reward when we do them, and by noticing the connection between what we did and the reward we received. Learning does not happen only through repetition. It is possible to learn something very well after only a single repetition. For example, you may have learned to keep your hand away from fire after only burning yourself once. You can also learn with no repetitions. For example, you may have learned to avoid pointing a loaded gun at your face, even if you have only ever seen a loaded gun on television. The image serves as a cue which immediately triggers the fear.

What does this have to do with piano playing? Mistakes in piano playing are learned, as well. You need to set up your practicing such that correct technique is rewarded, and incorrect technique is ignored. Fortunately, there are many obvious rewards available to you. Good technique…

  • …feels good, bad technique doesn’t.
  • …sounds good, bad technique doesn’t.
  • …is less stressful, more musical, and less distracting.

Many teachers will try to reward you for good technique by praising you, by explaining to you why it’s good, or by criticizing you when it’s wrong. In my opinion, these strategies generally don’t work. The intrinsic rewards of good technique are more certain.

What is the point of repetitive practice?

Repetition is worth doing, however. Repetition can give you opportunities to test what you have learned. It can show you what you still need to learn. It can show you how to learn, and how to play more accurately.

Slow practicing

Should I practice slowly?

Slow practice can be a great idea. When you are practicing slowly, you have more time to take in more details. By slowly, I do mean really slowly. For example, if the piece of music you are learning has a performance tempo of 120, you might try practicing at 60. The piece will feel completely different at such a slow tempo. But, you will learn a lot about the piece, and about yourself, when you force yourself to look at things from different angles.

Should I think before playing?

The danger in slow practice is that you may encourage yourself to overthink. Piano playing should be easy. You should be confident while playing. Your movements should be simple and secure. Practicing slowly, where you have the opportunity to anticipate mistakes before they happen, can lead to uncertainty. This does not mean that you should not practice slowly. It means that when you practice slowly, you should do so in a way that is confident and secure.

What is the problem with impatience?

Slow practice can also lead to impatience. This impatience must be conquered. The reason for the impatience is that your mind is not interested in what you are currently doing, but instead in what is coming up next. When this happens, try to be interested in what is happening right now. For example,

  • The feeling of your fingers on the keys
  • The sensations of moving your arms
  • The sound coming out of the piano
  • The sensations of impatience itself
  • The feeling of freedom in playing (if you don’t feel free when you play, work on that!)

You must make this very moment extremely interesting, or you are simply not giving it the attention it deserves. As a result, your playing will be rushed, uncertain, and distracted.

Or, perhaps you are bored when you practice. Again, you must find a way to play without getting bored. Find something interesting about this moment. You can do it.

Fast practice

Should I practice fast?

You should also practice fast. Do not be afraid to speed it up. Fast playing makes it harder to worry about mistakes, and makes it easier to focus on what is happening right now. You can speed it up a couple clicks, or even more (twice as fast!).

Unless, of course, fast playing stresses you out. If this happens, you should work on that. Play fast, and notice what the stress feels like. Notice how you can get rid of it, if you are willing to make more mistakes. Fast playing has a lot to teach you about stress. If you are afraid of playing fast, you will always hit speed walls.

Movements

Should movements be deliberate or arbitrary?

Your movements at the piano should be based on the music. Unless you are going really slowly, you probably cannot make “deliberate” movements. So, they may feel arbitrary. However, the movements need to serve the music, not be random. This is what practice is for. Practicing will help you find the movements that work, and it will help you see the movements that don’t work. Until this is obvious to you, don’t worry about it. A lot of great pianists make movements that seem extraneous, even though they get good results. It’s difficult to say that these movements are too much, if they are working. Focus on what is and isn’t working, rather than what looks right or doesn’t look right. Movements do not necessarily need to be choreographed.

Pianists sometimes love to argue about things like “thumb under vs. thumb over.” If the movement you do is working, there is no argument. If it’s not working, then it might be worth trying something else.

Should I focus more on muscle memory or music?

When you play, just play. The music is the result of the movements of your muscles. There is no difference between “muscle memory” and “music.” Music is movement, not intellectual thought.

Practicing involves two different things:

  1. Analyzing the music to understand its structure.
  2. Training your mind and body to move in a way that works for your analysis.

After practicing, playing correctly should feel like second nature. If it doesn’t, you either have an unworkable analysis, or you haven’t trained properly, or you just need more time.

Memorizing music is a complex process. However, it starts from trusting yourself.

Bad technique

What are examples of bad piano technique?

“Bad technique” is:

  • Whatever doesn’t work
  • Whatever causes injury

It’s not easy to define, because different pianists might describe their technique in the same way, and yet get different results. There are many arguments over things like:

  • Should I curve my fingers?
  • Should I use arm weight?
  • Should I play more with the fingers or more with the arms?
  • Should I be relaxed?

In reality, these are all simply words. There is no “right” or “wrong” without knowing exactly what is meant by them. Furthermore, even if a teacher instructs their students to “use arm weight” (for example), this does not mean that the teacher is effective in getting the students to do this.

There is only one correct piano technique: the one that works. However, there are many diverse exercises and methods that can lead to this technique.

How do I avoid developing bad practice habits?

I want to make two points about this:

  1. The way to avoid establishing bad habits is by practicing good habits, and by learning to see how you get better results.
  2. You shouldn’t worry about developing bad habits.

You don’t avoid bad habits by being warned against them. If you have a tendency to perform a bad habit, you should realize that you are doing this for a reason. You will probably not change simply after hearing a warning. Instead, you need to notice how the bad habit is leading to bad results. Then, you will have an incentive to try something else. If you still find yourself doing the bad habit, you are probably still receiving a reward from it.

I say you shouldn’t worry about developing bad habits. This is because, if you are a beginner, you will certainly be developing bad habits. You can’t avoid it, and you shouldn’t waste your energy trying. You don’t have enough awareness to know why they are bad. Instead, you should act like a curious child, exploring as much as possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong. You will figure it out over time. Many teacher will say “but if you repeat a bad habit, you will never be free of it!” This is only true if you practice in a way that is not curious or exploratory.

Common practice techniques

Should I repeat a section over and over?

You should repeat sections until you have exhausted all possibilities inherent in them. Every time you play a section, there is something new to learn. If your practice technique is structured so that you are exploring, rather than simply blindly drilling, it is good to repeat. However, always keep in mind that the point of repetition is to find variety. The point of repetition is not to “cement” something in your mind. These are not mindless repetitions.

Should I practice in rhythms?

Many teachers advocate practicing a technically difficult passage “in rhythms.” This involves changing the rhythms to lend variety.

Practicing in rhythms is probably a more effective strategy than simply repeating something over and over without any plan whatsoever. However, I think there are more effective strategies for achieving the same thing in a difficult section.

Should I practice with different articulations?

Articulation in music is like inflection in speech. You don’t need to practice it. Rather, you need to understand what you are saying, and then trust your natural instincts to convey the message.

You can certainly experiment with different articulations, if you are looking to be inspired musically.

From a technical perspective, I don’t see the point in changing articulation arbitrarily. I think that often this technique is intended to avoid unwanted accents. Music is composed of beats, and if you understand this, and practice this way, you will not have the problems that this technique is supposed to solve.

Is Hanon worth it?

I would suggest ignoring the instructions written by Hanon. I think his understanding of technique was misguided (at least in terms of how he verbalized it). Modern piano playing has moved on since the publication of this book. This doesn’t mean the exercises are bad. It depends on how you do them. If you find them interesting and useful, you should practice them. Otherwise, you can skip them. In my opinion, there are more interesting collections of piano finger technique exercises out there. You can also take any passage of music and make a graded sequence of exercises based on it.

Injury

What problems does bad technique cause?

Piano playing can be dangerous! It is possible to develop tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other disorders. However, it is absolutely possible to play without injury.

For more information on pianist’s injuries, see: http://pianomap.com/injuries/

How do I avoid injury?

You avoid injury by paying attention to how you feel while you play. This can be easier said than done. Many pianists are so distracted while they are playing, that they have no attention left over for their physical well-being. Nonetheless, you need to find a way of playing that can be done comfortably.

This can be an extremely subtle problem, with far-reaching consequences. Pianists who are prone to playing-related injuries usually have a stressed physical and psychological approach to their daily lives, and it can be difficult to change this. However, I know some pianists who swear that after a short course of lessons with one particular teacher, they were cured. If you are injured, I hope you find that kind of assistance!

Meditation, yoga, Alexander Technique, the Taubman approach, etc., can all be very useful in uncovering and correcting the causes of injury.

Recommended resources

Here is a list of recommended resources for learning more about piano technique. Ultimately, I don’t believe it’s possible to learn piano playing from anything other than practicing the piano. All books and methods are incomplete. However, it is worth exposing yourself to different ideas. The ones I am listing here have been especially helpful or thought-provoking. I do not consider myself a practitioner, or even a disciple, of any of these methods.

Piano technique books

Piano Technique Demystified, by Neil Stannard. This is an honest, unconventional book that has a lot of ideas which seem to be influenced by the Taubman approach.
What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body, by Thomas Mark. A good resource for understanding the anatomy involved in piano playing. This book is based on “body mapping,” and is based on ideas from the Alexander Technique.
20 Lessons in Keyboard Choreography, by Seymour Bernstein. A step-by-step approach to learning piano playing in 20 exercises. This was written by one of my teachers, and it is the book that made me realize it’s possible to understand piano technique on a deep level.

Videos

Freeing the Caged Bird – Developing Well-Coordinated, Injury-Preventive Piano Technique, by Barbara Lister-Sink. An approach that seems to be influenced by the Alexander Technique. Based on this short video, I like the way she thinks about piano playing.

Websites

  • The Taubman Approach: This is an interesting analytical approach to piano playing. Dorothy Taubman had a clear way of understanding things.

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