Piano Technique, Weight in Motion, Boxing, Taichichuan and The Cherry Tomato

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.

Weight-based Technique

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.

Falling proceedure
The falling procedure is simple. Remember the baby and the truck driver? The baby fell straight down from the fourth floor window, and was yanked straight toward the earth by gravity. It encountered nothing to change the direction of its moving body weight until it struck the truck driver’s head.

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.

However, the direction of a falling object can be changed. Let’s take the example of a boy sitting on a sled and sliding down a snowy hill. In a sense the boy and the sled are falling object, like the baby. But the slope of the hill prevents them from falling straight down. Their fall is deflected to the angle of the hill. The direction of their weight in motion is on a slant. And when they reach the level plain at the bottom of the hill, they will continue to slide for a while. However, the direction of their slide on the plain – the direction of their weight in motion – will be straight out, at a right angle to the straight down pull of gravity.

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:

He’s relying on maximum efficiency with minimum effort . So how to demonstrate maximum efficiency with minimum effort at the piano? How to find it so we can begin to work with it? So we can feel it instead of just seeing it.

The Piano And The Cherry Tomato

steingraeber tomato
Steingraeber 205 with 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.

Efficient Structure

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 Mark Polishook Studio motto from the software world of Smalltalk with Alan Kaye is

“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:
email mark@polishookstudio.com.
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.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator and writer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio. He is a published composer, author, and his original compositions and piano recordings have been streamed by more than a million listeners worldwide.

5 thoughts on “Piano Technique, Weight in Motion, Boxing, Taichichuan and The Cherry Tomato”

  1. Shouldn’t this post come with a legal disclaimer? Not only are we being encouraged to press the finger into a tomato upon an expensive piano, but we’re seriously being encouraged to rest the weight of an adult human arm on top?!!! Do you genuinely want to us to think that adding the weight of the arm to the tomato might somehow avert (rather than risk causing) a very messy disaster?

    Please don’t actually try that at home folks. Whether this is a cruel wind up or genuine, I don’t fancy seeing the results.



    1. Wayne–I agree with you unequivocally: No one wants anything untoward to happen to their piano! And to be fair, putting a cherry tomato on a piano keyboard might raise concern for some. It appears it did for you since you characterised it as a “cruel windup”

      Because you’ve expressed extreme concern and skepticism, and because I’ve been accused of many crimes but “cruel windup” has never been one of them, please give me the opportunity to go through again what I wrote, which was: “relax the muscles that hold 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.” In the section following I write the key word is “gentle.” Furthermore, I say “preserve the tomato.” And I point out we’re bringing the key to the keybed–and that’s all we’re doing.

      It’s a demonstration I’ve done with students to show just how little weight–50 grams or so–is required to depress a piano key. It’s also a demonstration that gives a slightly different way through which to feel, conceptualise, and focus weight. A different approach can make a difference in how we see something, how we think of it, how we do it.Thinking differently, out-of-the-box as it were, is can be a useful technique in life and certainly when teaching.

      For the record, I just now pressed into a cherry tomato sitting on a piano key–gently as I advocate in the post. The key went to the keybed. Again, it’s a controlled way to focus weight. That’s all it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Okay, thanks for the clarification. I did note the word gentle, but it didn’t fully come across that we were switching to an opposite extreme of near weightlessness (after most of the preceding info was about using weight of the whole body). So the intention of the experiment is to show that when using armweight to move a key, we need very little indeed?

        It makes sense if that issue is being stressed, but what I still can’t make sense of is why we need even that 50g worth of downforce from the arm, or why we must assume that a heavy arm is better equipped to measure that a light finger. We threw out the body weight here and came down to arm weight, presumably because it was too much, right? So if we want merely 50g equivalent of force, why must I assume that my heavy arm is still needed for the job, when my heavy torso is not?

        You told the reader earlier that it’s more sensitive with armweight. Rather than dictate to them, shouldn’t we left them decide for themself by inviting them to try the experiments both ways and make their own mind up? Rather than risk splattering a tomato with excess, I’d advise a kitchen scales. Can you put your hand on you heart and honestly tell me that you find it easier to measure exactly 50g by releasing a tiny fraction of the arm’s weight into the finger (channeled through numerous non rigid joints that introduce uncertainty of transmission)? I find it easier to touch my fingertip and gently move the finger itself into the resistance. After all, evolution gave us more sensory discrimination in our fingers than in our arms. But maybe readers would like to explore and discover for themselves which body part offers the most control over such tiny forces, before they risk trying to be precise enough to release just 50g of their arm’s weight directly into a tomato? It’s their decision, not ours.


        1. This is a very interesting discussion, and it’s a pity that more people haven’t joined it.

          Rigidity and lack of understanding, when it comes to use of and control of weight, are prime causes of poor piano technique. Agility and virtuosity ultimately emanate from the freedom of movement, the ability to control weight alongside the knowledge about how other aspects of forearm, wrist and finger movements are integrated.

          Although The Inner Game of Tennis, by Timothy Gallwey (the original influence on the subsequent Inner Game seris), is primarily about focus and midfulness in performance, it demonstrates eloquently the need for a holistic approach to technique – one which brings all the forces of our physical form into balance.

          Ultimately the debate is about control. Do we exercise control through tension or freedom of movement? The key to this lies in awareness.

          You can, of course, use any object. Take a heavier slender object (such as a book with a hard spine). Rest it on the key surface, then let it go without any control of its downward movement, Contrast this with varying degrees of control as you let go of the book. So long as you avoid gripping the book and pushing down, you will discover an optimum amount of wieght required to play consistently at any dynamic level.

          Try that same exercise, this time gripping the book and always pushing down. You should experience quite a difference and in so doing notice the tension that appears throughout the forearm and especially at the elbow joint.

          Kinaesthetic awareness beats mindless Hanon practice every time!

          Liked by 1 person

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