What is Piano Qigong?

“Qigong” – or “Chi Gung” – is an ancient and evolving system of self-cultivation, meditation and energy enhancing exercise which coordinates stillness, movement, breath and inner concentration.

The word “Qigong” is made up of two words:

  • “Qi” (Chi) usually means “life energy” but can also literally mean “breath”.
  • “Gong” means exercise, or work.

Qigong incorporates “breathing exercises” and “energy work”. It is an important element within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and a foundation of martial arts practice such as T’ai Chi. The primary aim of qigong is to gently build and regulate vitality by enhancing Qi. If practised regularly Qigong can lead to improved physical health and mental well-being.

Help for Pianists

When I started practising Qigong a few years ago, I quickly noticed significant improvements in my piano playing. This “secondary benefit” astounded me, and has become an ongoing focus of my practice, as well as having an impact on my piano teaching.

Perhaps I should not have been so surprised, given that many Qigong exercises actually focus on important issues for pianists :

  • developing good posture
  • maintaining balance
  • regulating weight distribution
  • smooth, flexible, controlled movement
  • release of tension
  • awareness of breathing
  • mind-body connection

It dawned on me that Qigong complements piano playing in ways unlike any other activity I had tried. With this realisation came a need to explore just how this works, and to find out which elements of Qigong could be adapted to help other pianists.

Understanding that “Qigong” can mean both “energy work” and “breathing exercises”, I soon realised that there are similarly two mechanisms through which qigong particularly helps pianists. I will be calling these ‘awareness in movement’ and ‘awareness in breathing’.

Let’s now take a quick look at each of these ideas.

Awareness in Movement

During my student years, my teachers would remind me to have relaxed shoulders and flexible wrists, but none seemed to have an answer to the basic question, “how do I achieve that?”.

Early in my own teaching career it became an even greater priority to find an answer to this question, and many others, having taken on a student who had previously suffered tendonitis during her teenage years.

My research eventually led me to the work of Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984) whose pioneering book ‘Awareness Through Movement’ remains a highly influential text in somatic (movement) education. Feldenkrais explains that our movements are personal, habitual and automatic, learnt from the youngest age. As such, we lose awareness of many of our specific individual movements and sensations.

The “Feldenkrais Method” addresses this in a number of ways, but essential to the system is this understanding that focussing merely on replacing one movement with another does not ultimately solve our physical problems and limitations. We must look deeper for solutions:

“In order to change our mode of action we must change the image of ourselves that we carry within us. What is involved here, of course, is a change in the dynamics of our reactions, and not the mere replacing of one action by another.”

Moshe FeldenkraisAwareness Through Movement (USA, Harper & Row, 1972)

The implications of this for piano technique are clear. It is not enough to only focus on practising (and where necessary adjusting) our outward movements; we must also reconnect a mindful awareness of movement and sensation.

Feldenkrais based his theories on a combination of both western scientific models and an intense study of martial arts. His ideas overlap considerably with those at the heart of Daoist philosophy and qigong practice; indeed, through qigong we are returning to the fountainhead from which many of his ideas and observations sprang.

Piano Qigong exercises will contribute towards a better awareness of movement and sensation, using gentle stretching exercises away from the piano to help reconnect mind and body.

Awareness in Breathing

Concert pianist András Schiff made the following observation in a recent interview with Pianist Magazine (No.76, Feb-March 2014):

“For me, it is breathing that is vital. You must breathe naturally, like a singer. Pianists and string players often tend to forget the necessity of breathing and they can become very tense; then they get back pains and wrist pains and so on. Usually it can be sorted out through the breathing.”

This is a quote I have discussed previously here, noting that breathing is a subject that I have rarely seen discussed in connection with piano technique, and even less so in the context of pianists’ injuries, their causes, cures and corrections.

Within qigong, there are a number of approaches to breathing, and many of the exercises coordinate breathing with movement. In the same way that qigong stretching exercises help reconnect mind and body, these breathing exercises can help develop coordination of breathing, establishing a more conscious awareness of its importance.

‘Awareness in movement’ and ‘Awareness in breathing’ thus work together holistically, helping unlock the many powerful benefits that pianists can experience from applying Qigong practices.

“Piano Qigong”

Piano Qigong is my effort to share these benefits with the piano playing and teaching community more widely.

Each month I will share a simple “exercise” or two to help you to learn, use and apply a Qigong principle or approach as a complement to your existing piano playing, helping you also to improve your overall quality of movement.

These exercises will be varied, and include:

  • stretching exercises away from the piano which will promote relaxation, flexibility, balance and mindful awareness of your body movements
  • breathing exercises that will help you develop good breathing habits and breath control
  • piano exercises which will incorporate stretches and breathing alongside actual piano playing
  • meditation exercises that will help calm and focus the mind, alleviating anxiety and stress

The common theme is that all Piano Qigong exercises will be rooted in the understanding and values of Qigong practice and philosophy.

A Growing Resource

The Piano Qigong Exercises page includes a listing of the exercises available so far, so that you can easily access them. Over the coming months this will grow into a free resource that you will hopefully want to keep coming back to.

At this point I must thank my own teacher and good friend Allan Howlings, who has kindly permitted me to share his training videos and other materials to accompany many of the exercises that will be featured here. Allan’s generosity and friendship has been a real encouragement in developing Piano Qigong.

I should also point out that I do not claim to be, myself, a teacher of Qigong. My gift – if anything – is simply to recognise the dynamic connections between my own Qigong practice and professional work as a pianist and teacher, and to find ways to open up relevant applications for piano players.

I am not going to provide you with a long list of extravagant promises. Instead, I invite you to give each exercise a try, allowing sufficient time to each over a few weeks, and find out for yourself which help you the most, and how.

Beyond Piano Qigong

Piano Qigong focuses on those “secondary benefits” of Qigong that are particularly relevant to piano playing, so doesn’t specifically aim to cultivate Qi. It is neither a formal Qigong programme in its own right, nor a systematic approach to Qigong practice.

If you are keen to learn more about Qigong practice, the Qigong Bookshelf page lists recommended books which will give you a philosophical grounding and general overview of Qigong – its history, science, many styles and applications. I have included a short description of each, which I hope will help you to select the right book for you!

If you intend to practice Qigong in its own right – as opposed to dipping into the introductory material provided through Piano Qigong – I recommend you find an experienced Qigong teacher and/or join a T’ai Chi class.

To pursue Qigong is to make a healthy lifestyle choice and engage in an extraordinary set of practices rooted in Daoist philosophy. This wider context is regularly addressed in Lifestyle & Philosophy section of the site, which I encourage you to read regularly.

I would love to hear from you, so do let me know how you get on with these exercises. Your feedback can help shape the ongoing development of the Piano Qigong resource.

Where to Next?