February 9

How to Relax Your Hands When Playing the Piano

Piano technique

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Many pianists wonder how to relax their hands when playing the piano. When I play the piano, I do not want to feel tension or pain. This is because piano playing is no fun when I'm struggling with my body. And certainly, the music that results from that struggle is not something I would enjoy listening to. 

Here are 8 tips for you to try if you notice that you're having trouble relaxing when playing the piano.

1. Stop making yourself tense

It's a common belief that tension is something that happens to you when you try to perform a certain task. My take on it, however, is that tension is the result of something you are doing to yourself (whether or not you are even aware of it).

I know it can seem like this stuff comes out of nowhere. Habits that are so familiar and comfortable can easily escape notice. But, they are still habits, and you are still doing them. And you’re doing them for a reason. If you subscribe to the idea that all actions human beings perform are intended to either seek pleasure or avoid pain, it may be worth thinking about what's going on here.

Practice tips:

Yes, this is easier said than done. But, you can do it, with practice. You can simply make the decision to relax your hands when playing the piano.

Try to pay close attention to why you are doing what you're doing. Are you trying to do two things at once? Decide on one thing and commit to it. It can be surprisingly helpful to make a firm resolution to "relax when playing the piano, no matter what."

2. Pay attention to what happens instead of trying to reduce tension

You might think that if you are experiencing tension, this is a problem you need to solve. However, just because your mind has labeled an experience as “tension”, does not mean that it is a problem that needs to be solved, or even that this label is the best description of the experience.

If you have experience with meditation, yoga, Alexander Technique, the Taubman approach, or any number of other systems designed to improve your functioning, you may have identified several habits that have been getting in your way. As a result, you may shy away from certain sensations that you have labeled as “negative.” I don’t mean to criticize any of these systems, which are all great. This is just the natural tendency of the human mind to latch on to solutions that seem to have worked in the past.

Problems only need to be solved when they get in the way of achieving our goals. We should not forget that these habits are not bad simply because they “feel bad.” Rather, they are bad with respect to a specific goal. Yes, maybe that goal is “avoid tendonitis”, and thus you may never want to acquire that particular habit. However, it is too easy to lose track of this, when the goals are things like “play better”, “hit the right notes”, or “focus on the breath.” Sometimes, you need to “feel tense” to achieve your goals.

Practice tips:

Pay attention to what happens. If you feel tense, say to yourself "tense." Or, if you feel relaxed, say to yourself "relaxed." Then, keep playing. This will train your mind to notice the subtle difference between the two.

Your experience can guide you.

3. Get specific about why you want to relax your hands when playing the piano

If you think that "tension” is a thing pianists either have or don’t have in their playing, you should get more specific.

“Tension” is a way of describing the experience of playing, and doesn’t exist in any absolute sense.

I tend to think these issues are more a matter of perspective than we often realize. Many pianists scoff at the idea of reducing tension, because, in the physical sense, some amount of muscle tension is required for all movement. That’s certainly true, but I think it misses the point. Those who are trying to reduce tension when playing the piano have something specific in mind.

When does a habit become “tension”? Is it only when you’re not playing well? Or, when it hurts? Is it when you are frustrated by it, or when it’s “inefficient”? Who determines what “inefficient” means?

Isn’t it possible to play well even when you are frustrated?

If I walk 30 minutes to the store instead of taking my car, that is certainly inefficient, but it can also be relaxing.

Practice tips:

If you are feeling tense, ask yourself "just what exactly do I have in mind?"

Hold yourself accountable for this. Make sure that if you're trying to solve a problem (e.g., too much tension, not enough relaxation) it has a direct impact on your playing, in a way that you can define.

4. Use the pain to guide you

Let me begin by saying that I am not a medical professional, and I am not capable of offering medical advice. Please do not take anything you read on the Internet too seriously. Everything you do should be measured against the reality of your own experience. What I am describing is simply my personal experience.

You should also understand that most doctors are not musicians. The advice they are likely to give is “if playing is injuring you, stop playing.” This is perfectly reasonable advice, from a medical perspective. However, it doesn’t help us play the piano better.

My perspective is this: injuries at the piano are generally the result of long-standing habits. Even if the injury requires medical attention, to prevent it from reoccurring, you need to change the habit. This is easier said than done. Since these habits are so ingrained, they are likely present in many areas of your life, often stem from early childhood, and are almost certainly intertwined with deeply held and fiercely protected beliefs about your identity.

Why else would you put yourself through so much pain to play the piano?

Why else would you not even notice you are in pain until it’s gotten so far?

Many piano teachers say “pain is never a good thing.” I get what they are saying, but I don’t talk that way. Indeed, pain is probably a sign you are doing something wrong, but that doesn’t make it bad. On the contrary, you can use the pain to guide you in the right direction.

Practice tips:

Pay attention to the pain. Learn to listen to your body. Say to yourself, "for the next 30 minutes, I will let the pain/tension be my teacher." Then, do what it says.

5. Focus on what you can control at the piano

For the moment, let’s stop thinking of this in terms of “how to get rid of the tension” or "how to relax my hands." Instead, we need to figure out what the tension is preventing us from doing. So answer that question.

Maybe it is preventing you from:

  • Playing faster
  • Focusing on the music
  • Playing without pain
  • Hitting all the right notes

You might be saying, “This is ridiculous! Obviously, I want all of the above!” Fair enough. However, we are going to have to figure this out a little better if you are hoping to achieve all of that. For now, concentrate on what you do have control over. You are only going to frustrate yourself otherwise.

If the tension is a problem, you should be able to find one thing it is preventing you from doing.

Or maybe it’s not a problem at all.

Practice tips:

Realize that you can do any of these whether or not you have the tension.

  • You can play faster by deciding to play fast.
  • You can focus on the music by simply bringing your attention back to whatever musical idea you are intending.
  • You can play without pain by focusing on the sensations you are feeling. This may involve playing incorrectly, or even simply keeping your hands in your lap.
  • You can hit the right notes by hitting them one at a time, at whatever tempo is necessary.

So, do that. Notice how you are the one in control here. If you don't feel like you're in control, notice what you do have control over.

6. Get in touch with your feelings

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 several reasons:

  1. 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 or stressed out, we're better able to pay attention and learn, and more likely to be motivated to practice. This does not mean good feelings are what lead to improvement, but rather that they are a useful prerequisite for what does lead to improvement.
  2. Feelings point us to what we might be ignoring: Our senses provide us with valuable information. 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.
  3. Properly calibrated feelings are a useful guide: In the long run, we want good feelings to teach us what to do (i.e., 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're naturally gravitate toward playing correctly and easily.

Learn the difference between what feels good and what feels bad.

Practice tips:

Pay attention to your feelings. To start with, label them as "good," "bad" or "not sure." As you practice, if you notice something feels good, say "good". If you notice something feels bad, say "bad." If you're not sure how something feels, say "not sure." This will train your mind to pay more attention to the subtle cues that your feelings are giving you. Over time, you can use more descriptive words.

7. Try to see tension when playing the piano as having a good side

There is a danger in believing that playing should always feel good. Let’s look at a few reasons why tension may not always be the evil monster it’s made out to be:

  1. Increased awareness leads to more discomfort: As you develop more awareness, things that 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.
  2. Growth requires leaving your comfort zone: If you assume that bad feelings mean you are going in the wrong direction, you may avoid important territory. 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.
  3. 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 in fact it's caused by the fact that you aren’t feeling a steady beat as you play.

Practice tips:

For now, observe tension without trying to fix it. If you jump right into problem-solving, you might miss important information. The tension can be your teacher. If you try to fix it without knowing how you will not learn what you need to learn.

Eventually, you will have a clear idea of what will fix it.

8. See how many aspects of the tension you can observe

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 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.

Practice tips:

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 going on, and in the process, you may learn something.

Your turn

If you experience tension or have trouble relaxing your hands when playing the piano, you're not alone. Try out a few of these tips and see where they lead you. If you find anything helpful (or unhelpful), leave a comment below and let me know about it.

About the author

Michael Korman has played the piano in opera productions and recitals, as well as directing music at a church and coaching classical singers. He draws upon his experiences with meditation and mindfulness to inform his views on music. In addition to music, Michael also holds degrees in computer science. When he's not playing the piano or meditating, he might be practicing drawing or calligraphy.

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