The Piano...a Stubborn Mule?


Have you read Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen HerrigelAnd what does this book have to do with playing the piano?  Everything. Gary Graffman said in a 1980's NPR interview, “The piano is like an old balky, stubborn mule—the pianist must be the master—must take control and dominate it.”  That approach did not end well for him, did it?

Yet this is how many pianists today continue to view our instrument.  Mistakenly believing that playing requires: exercises; strong and curved fingers; dropping arm weight; a strong arch; or relaxation; these pianists are unaware that they already have (and have always had) everything they physically need—right now—to play expressively and effortlessly.

How do I know?  Because I was one of “those” pianists…and I lost my voice.   You can read my story here


A Lost Voice

I work with injured pianists (including those with focal dystonia) and help them to play again, but the majority who come for coaching are not injured.  Their frustrations lie in their inability to physically produce the desired sounds at the piano that they can hear in their head...or they have reached a plateau and cannot technically play the piano literature that they love.

What does this mean to a pianist?  Imagine that you have “lost” your voice…meaning, you still can speak, but without any inflection or expression.  In other words, you speak like a robot.

There are words, but no feelings expressed, no story being told, no exclamation of joy or anger, of delight or sadness.  No life.

At the piano you’re pushing down keys while concerned about “hitting” the right notes and all the while struggling to be expressive.  But color and expression don’t come.  And you wonder why your arms are tired and aching.  Or you're injured.

You’re doing what you’ve been told.  You’re playing as you’ve been taught to play.

But you’ve been misled.


Breathing.  Living.   Laughing.   Crying.   Dancing.

We are breathing, living, laughing, crying, dancing Beings.

Music is a living, breathing reflection of feelings, movements, ideas and experiences.

We use speech and our bodies naturally and effortlessly to express what we want to get across.  When we play, isn’t the purpose to share our and the composer’s message with ourselves and others?

Pushing, forcing, and exercising shuts off our pianistic voice.  Our ability to “breathe” music is literally “drilled” out of us.

How can we allow our feeling in daily life of “being breathed” to transfer to the piano as “being played” ?

Speech is sound, tone, inflection, volume, and timing.  It requires actions but it does not require strength nor does it feel like work…it feels effortless.  This is the essence of Effortless Playing piano technique.


Being Played

The feeling of “being played” is the result of Effortless Playing study.  With this comes an unlimited palette of color and expression at your fingertips.

What does it take?  3 things:

  • knowing what you want to hear

  • knowing the right action

  • knowing the right timing

It is simple, but not easy.  It requires questioning and re-evaluating much of what you believe or have been taught about piano technique.

The result…playing that is enchanting, expressive and effortless.


Begin With Color

This video demonstrates various colors and is an example of a finger being played by the key.  In the video below, you will see some of the Effortless Playing concepts:

  • Natural hand starting position.

  • Free thumb.

  • Flexible, spongy palm.

  • Use of back, upper arm and entire shoulder girdle.

  • Arm "inhales" as a prep.

  • Arm and hand feel empty.

  • Finger and hand are moved by arm. Finger is placed in a "posture" by the arm.

  • Non-playing fingers are released in front of the played finger, not up and curved.

  • Palm can descend and spring back with more or less vigor/speed.

  • Upper arm can pull or swing forward to create the sound. The quicker and more vigorous the pull, the more sound.

  • The action and energy are aimed at the escapement point.

  • Motion never stops - no parking!

  • Whether the sound is full or soft, the fingertip contacts, but feels no pressure on the bottom of the key.

  • Fingertip always feels as if it is touching your nose.

  • Thumb is free.

Nancy ReeseComment