Guest Author Mark Polishook takes a look at the benefits of weight-based piano technique, with reference to boxing, martial arts and … cherry tomatoes.
Weight-based piano technique has advantages. Many advantages. Using body weight means we don’t have to use force that comes from strong muscles.
Not having to use muscles to generate force means there absolutely no need – zero – zilch – none – to play repetitive drills or repertoire meant to “strengthen” fingers. Hanon is the prime offender, the exemplar of strength-based training.
Finger Strength Isn’t The Issue
The reason it’s not the issue is because, first, the fingers are attached to muscles in the forearms that already possess strength sufficient to play the piano. Second, using less rather than more muscular force makes it easier to relax. Third, body weight rather than finger strength gives a much greater sense of control at the piano – weight-based technique returns more feedback to the body than finger technique alone.
Efficiency Comes From Everything Working Together
So finger strength isn’t the issue at all. Using the resources of the body efficiently – the weight of the whole mechanism all connected together as it is – that’s the issue.
Athletes use whole-body weight-based technique all the time. Which is why tennis players talk about getting body weight behind the racquet. Same in baseball with bats or really in any sport where a stick or a bat hits a ball. Weight-based technique is why balls get “hit out of the park” so to speak.
The advantages of weight-based technique are why boxers put their body into a punch.
Jack Dempsey, the great boxer, discusses weight-based technique in ‘Championship Fighting’ – which might well seem like an odd resource for pianists. But, in fact, jazz musicians have long been attuned to the rhythms of boxing, as Steve Coleman notes.
Jack Dempsey’s descriptions and examples are probably more specific to his time than to ours. For example when describing how to put body weight to work:
What would happen if a year-old baby fell from a fourth-floor window onto the head of a burly truck driver, standing on the sidewalk? …
(1) You weight more than a baby, and (2) You need not fall from a window to put your body-weight into motion.
Of course, weight, left to it’s own devices, falls straight down. So how do we transfer falling weight into energy that drives efficient piano technique? Because we don’t play the piano while standing over it. We play while sitting in front of it.
Re-directing Force From Weight-Based Technique
Jack Demsey has a solution. This time the illustration is of sleds, riders, a tree, and a hill.
The key is weight-in-motion can be re-directed, efficiently to wherever it’s needed. Which is perfect for the piano. Because there’s also the obvious point that playing the piano requires much less force contacting keys than does a boxer contacting an opponent.
Judo: Maximum Efficiency–Minimum Effort
Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo was fond of saying “maximum efficiency with minimum effort.” Because the goal of judo is to throw an opponent to the ground – not with muscular strength but rather with efficient use of body-weight-in-motion. It’s why he called his art “judo” – “the gentle way.”
A slow/fast demonstration shows how/why.
Jigoro Kano’s “maximum efficiency with minimum effort” applies perfectly well at the piano.
Efficient Piano Technique
When we see a fabulous pianist – Erroll Garner for example:
The Piano And The Cherry Tomato
What follows might be a first-ever demonstration. As it were – a cherry tomato sitting on middle C.
The most efficient way to press squarely into it is to use the same part of the finger we’d apply to the piano key alone without the tomato. In other words, the padded part of the finger tip goes directly onto the tomato.
Weight to push the tomato into the key comes from the arm. Relax the muscles that’s holds the arm up. The arm will push gently into the hand. The hand will push gently into the finger. The finger pushes gently into the tomato.
A helpful metaphor could be one of pouring weight into the keyboard through fingertips. The hand and the fingers are the structures that transfer weight. They’re not agents that generate power from or through musculature.
The key word: “gentle.”
The goal: “preserve the tomato.”
The result of letting arm weight descend into the keys: To the bottom of the key bed goes the tomato.
So, again, no need to use strength – arm weight alone is sufficient. Which doesn’t mean muscles aren’t necessary. Because they are. The role of the muscles is to help the body maintain an efficient structure – so we can use and apply body-weight-in-motion.
“Efficient structure” is a huge part of taichiquan as Cheng Man-Ching demonstrates.
The History Of Piano Technique
A book on the history of piano technique – Famous Pianists And Their Technique – rather than books or videos that show how to develop weight-based technique – can be helpful. The idea is to see how finger technique from days of harpsichords and clavichords gave way over time to weight-based technique that’s more appropriate for the piano.
“The simple stuff should be simple.
The difficult complex stuff should be possible.”
If you’re interested in lessons with Mark Polishook,
in person or through Skype:
Students at all levels – beginners too – are welcome and invited.
For more information about Mark Polishook:
You can also read an interview with Mark here on the Pianodao site.