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#951396 - 02/03/09 03:50 AM getting rid of tension  
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"The last thing I would tell a student is that they are tense. Where's the use in that? Isn't it better to assign material to combat tension without it becoming an issue?"

-Chris H.

I agree 100% that telling somebody they're tense is useless... I was told this all the time as a student, and I didn't even know what "tense" meant at the time. And even now... "okay, so I'm tense... then what?!"

Answers?

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#951397 - 02/03/09 04:18 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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All muscle tissue can do is contract. That is what we call tension. Any good athlete can tell you the secret is to not contract muscles we don't need. The pianist must be even more subtle, to the point of removing as much residual tension (see Jacobson) as possible.


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#951398 - 02/03/09 05:25 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Quote
Originally posted by keyboardklutz:
The pianist must be even more subtle, to the point of removing as much residual tension (see Jacobson) as possible.
And that's something which doesn't happen overnight. If anybody knows a quick fix be sure to tell me. I don't think I have seen many pianists who do not still carry some unwanted tension. I'm sure that when I play there is residual tension which I could do without.

What I meant by that quote was that banging on about tension week after week does nothing but make your students more tense. I'm not saying you shouldn't do anything about it, just that you have to be very careful when dealing with it. What you want is something which is completely natural. The more you struggle to achieve that the more difficult it becomes.

I am no expert on tension so I would like to hear what others have to contribute.


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#951399 - 02/03/09 05:28 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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It has to happen from day 1, then your pupils shouldn't have many problems and it's a total body thing.


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#951400 - 02/03/09 07:07 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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What if most of your students did not start out with you? How do go about correcting habits which have formed over years of playing a certain way?

I agree that it should happen from day one but I think it is rare. Most advanced students I see at competitions, festivals, recitals and even prestigious colleges have some degree of risidual tension. Plenty of people only become aware of it when it prevents them from playing the most demanding repertoire. That's what happened to me. None of my teachers (and I have had a few) ever mentioned anything about tension or what to do about it.


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#951401 - 02/03/09 07:20 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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I know people(including myself) who had teachers that actually encouraged tension in our playing.. all for the sake of digging in & playing louder.. it was very detrimental, and it took years to fix that.

One thing that I notice about good teacher is that when they find problem spots, they are able to tell students clearly how to work on the problem and be very specific about it.

Maybe I had bad luck as far as teachers are concerned, but too many of my teachers just told me to "do this" and "do that" and got frustrated because I couldn't. They weren't able to break the learning process down for the student... so students got better at what they can do, and whatever they had problem with remained an ambiguity/a wall.

#951402 - 02/03/09 08:17 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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well, I'm glad to see I'm not the only teacher who struggles with this.

#951403 - 02/03/09 11:36 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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All teachers struggle with this.

If they don't, they're just being lazy. laugh


"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)

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#951404 - 02/03/09 12:05 PM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Taking on a transfer/self learner is the biggest headache for this reason. If they are 100% cooperative you may get somewhere. According to Quintilian '...and how much difficulty is attendant on eradicating faults which have once gained ground, as double duty falls on succeeding masters, and the task indeed of unteaching is heavier and more important than that of teaching at first...they say that Timotheus, a famous instructor in playing the flute, was accustomed to ask as much more pay from those whom another had taught as from those who presented themselves to him in a state of ignorance.' i.e. twice as much.


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#951405 - 02/03/09 12:09 PM Re: getting rid of tension  
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There is no use in telling a student they are tense if you don't then follow that up with ways to get rid of the unwanted tension. Being aware of it, however, I think is a good thing, because sometimes things happen semi-reflexively and one must work to relax certain muscles. After working at it it becomes a part of one's technique, but at first it does take concentration.


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#951406 - 02/03/09 12:38 PM Re: getting rid of tension  
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I have just purchased "The Art of Teaching Piano: The Classic Guide and Reference Book for All Piano Teachers", edited by Denes Agay. Tension isn't even in the index at the back of the book. If it's not covered in a book with a title like that....

#951407 - 02/03/09 12:58 PM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Brian,

Denes Agay is a fantastic man and pedagogue, in my opinion. He was well known for many things and was a gentle man who was in his 90's who passed away in the last few years.

I have always appreciated him and only learned more about him by googling. He lead a quiet and useful musical life.

I have saved some info about him if anyone would like my little and interesting collection via regular e-mail.

For tension and improved "choreography" on the piano, I would refer you to reading Seymour Bernstein.

I greatly respect both of these gentlemen for their words and teaching have impacted my life through their example and writings.

I hope you enjoy these two pedagogues through reading. You will find they were mighty in their contributions.

There are many other pedagogues and performers and "schools" who speak on tension. Are you interested in suggestions as to who they might be?

Google is a good start with Agay and Bernstein!

Betty

#951408 - 02/03/09 06:52 PM Re: getting rid of tension  
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The number one problem I see is that people tend to do too much of whatever we tell them to do.

The longer I teach, the more I tend not to correct people until I see something dangerous/bad/negative happening that I'm sure will not take care of itself.

Perhaps the most amazing thing I ever saw was the development of a boy who appeared to me the most awkward and "unnatural" "potential-player" I had ever worked with. I taught 7 or 8 kids in his family, and they all warned me about him.

"Wait until you get 'John'". (I change his name.)

The first lesson he tried to play with his hands upside down. I decided that it was my job to go through the motions, but I had zero hope. I decided to let him do pretty much whatever he could, figuring that if I could teach him to play ANYTHING, even using his nose and toes, I would be doing something amazing.

A couple years later his hands looked perfect. He was a very laid-back kid, so in the end his own personality seemed to take over.

Since that time I've been more and more careful about "fixing things" before they have time to fix themselves. And that makes me wonder how many of the weird movements I see in the playing of famous players has been TAUGHT by well-meaning teachers…


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#951409 - 02/03/09 10:01 PM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Gary,

You said: "The first lesson he tried to play with his hands upside down."

Now, I've had one student starting at age 6 who stayed with me through 5 years, but her placing her hands upside down on the piano at the first lesson over and over just blew me away!

Did you have any thoughts about what was happening with this one event and as to what "condition" it might be announcing.

I never truly found out, although many other unusual things were presented in this young ladies studies with me. I could see her struggling at times to figure out how to do something and being confused and the rapid shaking NO of her head to stop the activity from happening. It seemed that often she was overcoming overwhelming reactions that her brain instinctively choose for her, but were not part of how we would have to learn how to do something.

For instance she was a kid who started finger numbering with thumbs being number 5 and we worked with correcting that for a long time and it would sometimes slip through again years later.

She also took a long time to be able to curve fingers and keep them available in that position...fingers straight out (splayed) were her preferance.

Her forte turned out to be in composing by playing, the written notation was not something she could transfer to paper. I guess, fortunately there are machines to do this from digital keyboards to computer programs, so she did not need the bottle of ink and the calligraphy pen like so many of us did "years ago."

Her habit when stepping up a level would be to immediatly want to play everything she knew at the level that she just came from. New concepts were harder for her to learn than any other student I had for long term.

A darling, charming, bright enough girl, good manners, great smile, fortitude and acceptance were her mainstays. Underneath the strange body positions and mannerisms which were so contrary to "normal" experience.

I see that you choose not to interfere with some things with this young man, and it seems that he turned out fine in the long run.

I wonder what would have happened to her if I had ignored everything that caught my attention! It was a lot of work on my part, and it was time consuming for us both. If I werent basically a patient teacher, I would have folded much earlier on, but I have trouble imagining that I could do nothing and let time take care of improvements. I'd never thought of that as an option, so you have given me something to really consider here.

Thanks!

Betty

#951410 - 02/04/09 01:00 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Quote
Originally posted by Betty Patnude:
Gary,

You said: "The first lesson he tried to play with his hands upside down."
Betty,

The boy I was talking about was part of an unusual family. I don't know how else to describe the situation, and if I were to talk about other amusing things that happened, it would be disclosing too much information. No, I don't have any ideas about why this particular boy did not understand that flipping his hands upside-down would not work.

Right now I have a brother and sister who BOTH want to keep all their fingers in between the black keys at all times. Is it genetic? Or is the younger girl, who is very young, copying her older brother?

Here are some other strange habits that have all cured themselves, with only a bit of guidance from me:

1. Hanging the thumbs completely off the keyboard.
2. Playing staccato (or disconnected) on all notes, no exception.
3. Fingers totally collapsing (double-jointed).

I always have my "eye" on such problems, but a large part of what I do is observe, to see how people cure these problems themselves. I'm talking about very young kids. With older students, it's very different (for me at least).

Quote

It seemed that often she was overcoming overwhelming reactions that her brain instinctively choose for her, but were not part of how we would have to learn how to do something.

For instance she was a kid who started finger numbering with thumbs being number 5 and we worked with correcting that for a long time and it would sometimes slip through again years later.
A considerable number of beginning students want to number both hands from left to right, so if they think of the thumb as number one in the RH, they will think that the left thumb will be 5, and the pinky will be 1. A problem I also see, one that bothers me much more, is flipping things horizontally, what I call (for want of a better word) "horizontal dyslexia". I would wager that any problem anyone brings up is one that I have seen at least once. smile


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#951411 - 02/04/09 03:02 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Unfortunately, the ability to play relaxed and eliminating unnecessary tension is something that has to be taught and developed through practice, just like everything else.

My advice would be to make the stretching, warm-up, and tension-free exercises a part of the curriculum. While it may cut down on the short-term progress of musical material, the benefits of developing a stress-free, focused technique will be far more helpful in the long run than allowing a student to play until their physical ability causes a roadblock, then trying to start all over.

I had a teacher who had to eliminate this from my bass playing as a teenager, and here's the steps we took to do it:

1) 10 minutes of stretching before playing - not just the arms and hands, but full body stretching, just like elementary school gym class all over again.

2) Hands-off warm-up - play through a warm up on a non-instrument (this could be finger tapping on a table) for 5 minutes, focusing on relaxation of the back, shoulders, abdomen, and neck.

3) Hand-on warm-up - play through the same warm up on the instrument, moderately soft at first, moving slightly up in volume, 3-4 times until playing loud, focusing on the same tension areas.

It's difficult to discipline yourself to do this every time, but it's how I broke a lot of my bad habits.

Good luck!

#951412 - 02/04/09 03:31 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Quote
Originally posted by accidental:
Unfortunately, the ability to play relaxed and eliminating unnecessary tension is something that has to be taught and developed through practice, just like everything else.
I don't think anyone is debating that. Perhaps what we are focusing on is how we go about teaching this.

I'm not sure that I presented my point of view well. Perhaps it can't be done in this environment.

If I tell a student to "keep the elbows in", the student may then hold the elbows in, in an unnatural manner.

If I suggest that sometimes the elbow will be somwhat pointed to the side, for instance, in scales that approach either end of the keyboard, the student may then begin to hold the elbows out, all the time.

Such unconscious over-compensation often starts from an innocent suggestion.

The same problem comes into play with high wrist, even wrist, low wrist.

Or amount of curvature of fingers. Or a thousand other things.

It's a very tricky matter to make students aware of their bodies in a manner that leads them to habits that are most advantageous for them.

I tend to put greatest emphasis on demonstration, with as few words as possible, combined with music that I think will lead people to the most economical and efficient movements.


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#951413 - 02/04/09 03:35 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Knowing how to play naturally and with a good tone helps.

But this can cause tension only at the beginning while learning "correct" technique.

Some teachers don't teach technique because of creating tension.

What are your thoughts?


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#951414 - 02/04/09 03:38 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Quote
by Gary D:


I tend to put greatest emphasis on demonstration, with as few words as possible,
This I agree!


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#951415 - 02/04/09 03:42 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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pianobuff, maybe we have different definitions of technique. The idea for me is about learning to do things with minimum exertion.


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#951416 - 02/04/09 03:43 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Quote
Originally posted by pianobuff:
[b]
Quote
by Gary D:


I tend to put greatest emphasis on demonstration, with as few words as possible,
This I agree! [/b]
a necessary evil for me. I'm of the 'I do and I understand school'


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#951417 - 02/04/09 03:54 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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I was once totally screwed up by a teacher who insisted I was tense (which was true) but had ideas that I later found out were just plain wrong.

Other members of the faculty remained silent. It's a lot like doctors not speaking out against other doctors.

I didn't realize what was going on until I finally had enough and switched to another teacher who played very well and could instantly prove what he said by living it.

Ever since that time I have been totally turned off by words in regard to playing. It's the reason why I almost never participate in discussions of technique.

Two people who do the same thing often seem to be doing something different, because they have completely different ways of verbalizing.

Then two people who aren't even in the same universe agree with each other, because they *think* they are talking about the same thing.

This is one of the most dangerous things about this environment.


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#951418 - 02/04/09 03:54 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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A good book on relaxation is:

Piano : a technical approach to relaxed control at the keyboard / Michael Houstoun.

Published in 1988

Michael Houstoun is a well known classical concert pianist in New Zealand. His website got an interesting keyboard design smile

http://www.michaelhoustoun.co.nz/

Hope the book will be of some use!

#951419 - 02/04/09 04:00 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Your last post hit plenty on the nail there Gary. In education talk really is cheap. As for teachers standing up for each other...well.

allegro, it's very interesting Michael Houstoun had FD. So many musicians are unaware of it. I'll explore his site more.


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#951420 - 02/04/09 04:17 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Can't say more about the teacher who was so harmful for two reasons. First, he is famous (for other reasons). Second, he was (and no doubt still is) a kind man.

But what he did to me scared the h*** out of me. If he had been a bully, a dictator, I would have fought back. But his way of teaching involved a combination of bogus ideas and a belief in psychology, so his answer to my confusion was to suggest that I "needed help".

So when I finally realized that things were wrong and changed teachers, the one professor I most respected said: "The only question I have is—what took you so long?"

It did not occur to me until later that I should have said: "Why the **** did you stand by and say NOTHING while I was being damaged by this guy?"

And that's when I learned that faculty are very reluctant to criticize each other, at least in some cases.

He taught something called "drop and flex". I'm sure there are books about it.

That's when I learned how easy it is for people who don't know what they are doing to *increase* unnecessary tension by insisting on unnecessary movement.

The problem is that in the "world of piano" people can make outrageous claims with absolutely no proof, then it is assumed that pianist A plays faster or louder or with "better tone" than pianist B because of all sorts of weird movements that have *nothing* to do with the results.

What happens? In the end people look at Glenn Gould and assume that his weirdness was the *reason* he played so well. If we say that he played so well *in spite* of his weirdness (referring to insane physical habits), people will still think that his ticks and contortions at least contributed to his "amazing sound".


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#951421 - 02/04/09 04:22 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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I am curious if teachers are interested in some other aspects of tension vs. relaxation addressed - namely what relaxation isn't. It is possible to train yourself into a "relaxation" that amounts to something akin to overall limpness or an all pervasive lack of tension. I would not be surprised if what has happened in the violin world also exists in the world of piano and other instruments. Over there, there is one movement under a certain name that bases itself on such relaxation -- some instrumentalists have been left seething with anger after almost having their careers ruined by advanced teachers pushing this kind of total relaxation.

The conclusion was that what we want is to have the right balance, the suppleness of the gymnast who does not have a limp body, but one that knows where and when to direct its energy. There is, and must be, a certain amount of "tension" in the muscles.

Having been caught out by this myself, I almost fear the word "relax". Surely there must be something else or in addition.

Another thought: Are there other factors that can cause tension? Lack of knowledge leading to indecisiveness, for example. If you don't know which way the fingers should go, so that they are ready to go either direction, or all directions at once, that will create enormous tension. Insufficient knowledge or guidance, or a wrong mentality wanting to do everything at once, would be the source of tension. Addressing tension, in that case, would simply give our multitasking individual still another task to add on top of everything else. Can there be other things that indirectly cause tension, such as the one in this example?

Quote
The last thing I would tell a student is that they are tense.
Another student feedback, if I may, is that anything negative that is mentioned can actually subconsciously become a goal. "Don't think about a pink elephant." - you can do nothing but think about pink elephants after that! wink In the same way, if a teacher tells me not to be tense, I may carry the image of tension with me when I practise. If I am told I have a "problem with tension" it is a thousand times worse. If, however, I am told a specific thing to aim for, then my attention goes toward that thing, and the tension will resolve itself because I'm doing something else. "Relax your shoulders" is good. If I, as a student, complain about tension in my shoulders, "Your slumping posture is forcing you to raise your arms. Remember to sit straight, as you already know how to do, and the problem will be gone." would be a positive and specific advice which I would find helpful.

#951422 - 02/04/09 04:22 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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Quote
Originally posted by Gary D.:
He taught something called "drop and flex". I'm sure there are books about it.
Sh*t, I do "drop and flop". I hope I'm not making outrageous claims!


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#951423 - 02/04/09 04:30 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
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The point is that "drop and flop" means nothing to me, and should mean nothing to anyone one else, without seeing you *do* it.

I have only seen you play a bit, but my impression is that you use minimum movement, or an economy of momement. And already we are in danger of misunderstanding each other.

For instance, when you played the Ab Chopin Etude (never can remember opus numbers), it appeared to me that you were exaggerating a concept, to make a point. I'm not sure. Perhaps that the fingers can be much flatter than most people assume, and still do something that is rather natural.

But this gets into the whole problem of the *purpose* of a demonstration. In this case your demonstration.

I may be totally on the wrong track.


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#951424 - 02/04/09 04:34 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
Joined: May 2007
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keyboardklutz Offline
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keyboardklutz  Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Joined: May 2007
Posts: 10,856
London, UK (though if it's Aug...
Quote
Originally posted by Gary D.:
For instance, when you played the Ab Chopin Etude
Thank you for watching and yes, that was illustrating a point. I now play it with naturally curved fingers as it's more responsive. The black note, on the other hand, I do totally flat. But enough about me...


snobbyish, yet maybe helpful.
http://keyboardclass.blogspot.com/

#951425 - 02/04/09 04:39 AM Re: getting rid of tension  
Joined: May 2007
Posts: 10,856
keyboardklutz Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member
keyboardklutz  Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Joined: May 2007
Posts: 10,856
London, UK (though if it's Aug...
Oh, I get you - I demonstrate drop and flop only as a last resort. The student can initial have a 100% quiet hand on the keys without copying me. That's the end position or 'flop'. The student can also have their hand hanging from their wrist without me showing them - that's the initial position for 'drop'. They are then able to stiffen from fingertip to wrist for the millisecond it takes for key depression - again without my illustration. And so voila! A caveat though - we all pretend to be puppy dogs sitting up begging. I do that with them so they don't feel silly.


snobbyish, yet maybe helpful.
http://keyboardclass.blogspot.com/

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