The Piano Posture and The Energy of the Sound

The piano sound is not born when the hammer hits the string. Just like our thoughts and emotions, the sound is a form of energy. First it is immaterial, originating in our mind and in our soul. Then it flows through our back, our shoulders, our elbows, forearms and wrists. The fingers transfer this energy from our mind and body to the instrument.

This way, the piano is only the ‘intermediary’ that materializes the sound, not its source.

Let’s quote Heinrich Neuhaus: “Music lives within us, in our brain, in our consciousness; its ‘domicile’ can be accurately established: it is our hearing.” Even if said with different words, the meaning is quite the same. You can’t hope to have a quality sound and a meaningful performance without imagining and hearing the result first in your mind and only then transferring it to the instrument.

However, today I want to share with you a practical aspect of this process – the tight relation between our posture at the piano and the sound energy.

In yoga, martial arts and other ancient holistic systems the energy is a key element. By learning how to feel and control our energy flow we can achieve wonderful results in all the aspects of our life: psychological and physical health, beauty, relationships, career and success.

Piano playing is not an exception. The fact that the hammerklavier is a rather modern instrument should not stop us from applying in our practice natural universal solutions tested throughout millennia.

When it comes to energy, the main thing we want to avoid is an energy blockage. If the natural, free flow of energy is disrupted somewhere in your body, it will eventually cause different dysfunctions and diseases. In terms of piano playing, there are two ways of creating a blockage or an energy jam: psychological and physical. The psychological one is harder to remove, being a result of anxiety, stress and insecurity. The physical one (besides being directly linked to our state of mind) is the result of an incorrect posture and tensed muscles.

In order to explain how the energy works in case of piano playing, let’s analyze the main aspects of a correct posture which will facilitate a free circulation of the sound energy. Of course, it all starts with an open mind. It will allow you to ‘hear’ with your inner ear the result you want to achieve: the character of the music, its content, its emotional intensity, the tempo, the dynamics and so on. I’ll write more about the power of imagination in the future, but now let’s concentrate on the piano posture and its effects on the quality of the sound.

Ilinca Vartic - demonstration of correct piano postureThe back should always be straight, giving the pianist dignity and self-confidence. It has been proven long ago that our posture has a direct influence on our state of mind. A straight spinal column denotes strength, verticality, freedom and certainty. Slouching is synonym to weakness, insecurity, sadness and low levels of energy. A curved spine is also directly impeding the sound energy from flowing freely in our shoulders and arms.

The shoulders should be relaxed, having a natural tense-free position. There are many pianists who unconsciously raise their shoulders during performance, especially if they play a difficult piece. That’s why when we practice we should be aware of our correct posture so it will become our second nature. If your shoulders are raised, the energy won’t be able to reach your arms and wrists and the sound will lack depth and expression.

Ilinca Vartic demonstration of incorrect elbow posture

An incorrect elbow position

We should also be mindful of the position of our elbows. If we keep them too close to our body, straining them in a fixed position (as shown in the picture), this tension will also reflect on the quality of the sound. I usually tell my students not to lose their sound ‘on the way’ – in their shoulders, elbows or wrists.

The wrist is probably the most important element of the pianistic apparatus. This doesn’t mean that your back, shoulders and forearms are less important. The wrist, however, is the main key to a beautiful, deep sound. My teacher used to tell me: ‘Don’t forget to breathe! Relax your wrist!’. She used to compare a pianist’s wrist with the breathing process.

Ilinca Vartic - demonstration of incorrect wrist posture at the piano

An incorrect wrist posture

When the wrists are tensed, immobile, ‘petrified’,  or if they have an incorrect position, the music doesn’t receive enough ‘air’, lacking a natural, expressive flow. When the wrists are relaxed, moving freely and ‘guiding’ the phrase, ‘drawing’ the relief of a musical theme (it’s the classical principle of ‘singing’ at the piano employed in the Russian piano school), the music breathes deeply.

Only if our wrists are relaxed and mobile, the sound energy will naturally transfer to the fingers and into the depth of the keyboard.

Ilinca Vartic demonstration incorrect hand positionThe hands should be ‘rounded’, with the knuckles forming a dome. Little children understand easier the correct hand position if they’re told to imagine that they are holding an apple or a tennis ball. If the knuckles are below the level of the fingers (as shown in the picture), it will severely affect the quality of your sound. Even when you play arpeggios, octaves and other ‘extensive’ techniques, you should still hold the dome and try not to ‘flatten’ it. With practice, the micro muscles of the hand will strengthen and this hand position will become natural and comfortable. The round shape of your hand is the best ergonomic solution which allows the sound energy to be transferred from the wrists to your fingers and into the instrument.

Whenever the natural energy flow encounters an obstacle (a strain or tension in your back, shoulders, elbows or wrists), it will have a detrimental effect on your sound. Such a ‘crippled’ sound is either too loud and brutal, either too superficial (‘ghost-like’, as I like to call it).

A true piano sound has to transcend the ‘hammering’ realities of the instrument, getting close to the cantability of the violin or the voice. It’s impossible to create such an acoustic illusion without mastering the correct posture and combining it with mindfulness and a good control of the energy flow.

Of course, it’s not easy to achieve such a high performance. It requires many years of practice and lots of hard work. It’s just like in martial arts – a novice has to practice thousands of times a kick or a punch before he will learn how to control his energy, thus bringing his mastery to a new level.

Which is the best way to remove these pianistic energy blockages?

Most piano teachers are perfectly aware of the crucial importance of a correct posture. However, it still remains a mystery why so many beginners are not being taught from their first piano lesson how to play correctly. Even if these students learn by heart all the notes, even if their sight-reading is getting better every day, even if their fingers are getting faster, allowing them to play more complicated pieces, they will never be able to become professional pianists if they don’t have a quality sound (as a result of a bad tensed posture). Correcting a bad playing habit is much harder than teaching step by step a good posture from the beginning!

However, if you’ve been practicing incorrectly for many years, thus experiencing not only ‘energy jams’ but also muscle pain and tension, you should work towards gradually correcting your playing habit.

Correcting the piano posture is not an easy job – imagine that you have to learn again how to walk or talk. Still, the sooner you start this hard process, the sooner you’ll be able to take advantage of the unlimited possibilities that a correct posture can offer us.

Whenever you sit at the piano, remember to relax first, and then start playing. No matter what you play – scales, exercises, etudes, lyric or virtuosity pieces – never forget about the freedom in your mind and your muscles. Don’t play mechanically – automatic playing is the worst enemy of meaning and expression!

Even when the piece you’re practicing is extremely difficult and it seems impossible to play certain passages with a relaxed hand, don’t give up. Play very slowly at first, monitoring all your sensations, until it becomes comfortable to execute the given fragment without any stress. When you’ll gradually increase the tempo, you’ll notice that the tension disappears step by step. Never keep your hands fixed and immobile – they should always be in a flowing motion. Don’t exaggerate though – piano playing is not a hand ballet! All the movements of your elbows, forearms and wrists should be natural, relaxed, expressing the meaning of the music. This method is also a good way of healing and preventing any hand injuries and muscle pain.

The energy flow in our arms is like the waters of a river, and the piano is the sea. How can the water reach the sea if we build artificial barriers?

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17 Responses to “The Piano Posture and The Energy of the Sound”

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  1. farouk says:

    I’m self taught in piano and i just depended on my bass guitar playing and my early guitar playing when i was in a band..i picked up piano in the last eight years and i’ve never had played such a stressful instrument in my life ..it paid the rent though..this article’s great ..now i can figure out my posture and sound..maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with the piano maintenance.. how to handle the anxiety of a ” bothering sound” which i always suspect of (i play in a fine dining restaurant and the ambience is very strict!)bi’ve been in pressure all these years beacuse i never had any piano lessons..but thank god now at least i have something to read and ask..Thank you!god bless!

  2. Ilinca says:

    Thank you for your comment, Farouk!

    It must have been extremely difficult for you to be self-taught in piano and to figure out so many things all by yourself! For this, I admire you! I also understand that you might have many questions related to your practice – and I hope I can answer at least some of them! 🙂

    It’s great that my article was helpful! I also plan to release in the near future a series of videos where I’ll explain in more detail the particularities of a correct posture and the necessary technique that can help us have a deep, relaxed and expressive sound.

    Good luck and all the best!
    Ilinca

  3. Jomo Kinsey says:

    Hi, Ilinca, good read and great tips, but I have one problem. Everybody I know who plays the piano is short, well not completely short. I’m 6ft, but everyone else seems to be 5’9″ or less, and they fit perfectly under the keyboard of the piano. On most pianos, my knees will not go under the keyboard and I have long arms, so I’m always lifting my arms up instead of down, as my wrist is higher than my elbows. The piano bench doesn’t help me, it only goes up so far, but the piano is so low. Are there pianos with adjustable height changes? I’m sure there are pianist who are taller than me, that play well. I’m trying to get my posture correct because my body is aching and I can’t practice properly, correctly, nor efficiently. Thank you

  4. Ilinca says:

    Hi Jomo!

    Thank you for your comment and your question!

    As far as I know, all pianos have a standard height. I’ve traveled a lot – Europe and Asia mostly – and I’ve never encountered a piano with adjustable height features. Maybe there are some higher instruments out there – however I don’t believe that they exceed the standard height with more than several millimeters.

    If we talk about vertical pianos, I think that the only height differences can be observed from the level of the keyboard to the top of the instrument, and not from the the floor to the keyboard. You can make a Google search – there are many posts (like this one: http://video.about.com/musiced/Types-of-Pianos.htm) that describe the usual height of different types of pianos. However, they refer – as I already mention – to the overall height of the instrument, not the distance from the floor to the level of the keyboard.

    Most tall pianists that I know (my colleagues and not only) usually play by lowering the piano bench as much as possible, and adjusting their arm posture accordingly. I agree that in such circumstances it’s not possible to have the elbows ABOVE the wrists. However, I think it’s achievable to keep them somehow IN LINE with the wrists.

    Let me give you an example: Van Cliburn is a very tall pianist. You can watch some videos with him (for example, this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ds9CrdY3R2M) and see how he manages to keep a good posture despite his height. The piano bench is lowered, and his knees are almost touching the keyboard, but pay attention to one important detail: he doesn’t seat too close to the piano! This way, he can have all the space he needs because only the knees are a little under the piano, not the legs!

    Check this out:
    Van Cliburn Playing Tchaikovsky

    So I think this could be a good solution: keep a good distance from the keyboard – this way your legs will be free and the elbows won’t be ‘jammed’ in a pointed downward position (as I demonstrate in my article above when I write about incorrect elbow postures). Also, don’t forget to keep your spine straight – don’t slouch and don’t lean forward!

    I wish you good luck in your practice! 🙂
    Ilinca

  5. fifi says:

    interesting article. I went to college to learn the piano and the first few months the teachers used to stress on the importance of good posture.
    so I know that the posture is important but this article explains better the energy flow.

    thanks

  6. Elisabeth says:

    interesting sidenote to this sitting position – as you all know and remember how Glenn Gould chose to keep the piano chair his father had made for him. I do not recall anyone else sitting that low… and still play so beautifully.

  7. suzanne says:

    i really found your page fascinating. posture, as i get older, or i should say correct posture, is my best friend. i do have an endemic problem with my wrists (rsi from life) and i’m just starting to learn the piano and my wrist is beginning to hurt and my middle finger.
    do you have any further advice on how to avoid wrist pain. i seem to be doing everything set out on your webpage.
    any help will help.
    thanks
    suzanne

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Suzanne!

      Thank you for your comment and welcome to PianoCareer.com – it’s great to have you here! 😉

      I’ll answer your question in detail as soon as I find a little time (hopefully tomorrow). In the meantime, you can explore other articles on my site, especially my video tutorial The 5 Basic Elements of a Correct Piano Posture.

      I also reply to any piano-related questions on this page: Ask Me a Piano Question!

      Until tomorrow, a quick advice: pain is created by tension. Keep your wrist as relaxed as possible – all the time, no matter what you play! More tips in my next reply! 😉

      Have a great week – talk soon!
      Ilinca

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi again, Suzanne!

      In your question you mentioned that your wrist Repetitive Strain Injury appeared before beginning to learn piano. Does it mean that your wrist pain is not connected to piano playing? I would like to know more details about the causes of your injury before giving you exact recommendations for dealing with it.

      Most of the time, pianists develop wrist pain and other hand injuries as a result of incorrect, tensed playing (and a poor arm position). In my article How to Deal with Piano Practice Related Hand Injuries and Muscle Pain? I describe the main causes of piano playing related hand injuries and the solutions for solving these problems.

      A flexible, relaxed wrist is the foundation of a correct, productive, healthy and enjoyable playing habit. Wrist pain and discomfort is usually a consequence of tensed playing, of playing ‘only from your fingers’ without involving the weight of your entire relaxed arm.

      You can also watch my new video tutorials, including The Secrets of a Correct Piano Key Attack – where I describe the basics of a relaxed, deep and expressive piano touch which helps us to create a beautiful sound and protects our hands from pain and injuries!

      Talk soon,
      Ilinca

  8. Jana says:

    Never played piano before and one day sat in front it by chance and started to produce melody, it flew as a river stream, and again and again and again like a magic. Ppl who wouldn’t know the techniques would say that I am not a beginner. I am also learning by myself, just I sit and play….however, sometimes when in daily life my emotions don’t flow naturally I have problems in playing. And that’s when it gets really frustrating, but then I breadth close my eyes and play and it gets better. Our state of being is really connected to the sound and instrument one’s play. I am not in favor of strict routine and discipline when playing piano because is more as love making for me, and therefore I decided not have a conventional teacher and lessons, sometimes I consult my musician friends and I clarify the things. But there is a lot to explore yet, and the interesting part is that I write poetry and the piano gives me inspiration and vice versa. At last, but not least thanks for the post its been really informative. Best, Jana

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Jana!

      It’s very nice to meet you! Welcome to PianoCareer.com – I hope to ‘see’ you here again soon! 😉

      You seem to have an amazing natural talent and creativity – it’s something very rare!

      As I usually write in my articles, we have to hear the music first in our mind, in our spirit – and only then to transfer it into the instrument. Usually, it takes pianists many years of practice to be able to do this – and you’re doing it naturally, by connecting your thoughts and feelings directly with the instrument :). It’s really amazing!

      Thanks for sharing your experience and enjoy your playing!
      Ilinca

  9. danny says:

    Hi
    i am danny from Syria i am in fifth degree in higher institute of music
    and i will play 2nd concerto Rachmaninoff i want your advice about this is
    i fell it is difficult and i can,t play fast
    thank you

    • Ilinca says:

      Hi Danny!

      This is a very complex question and I would have to record at least several hours of video in order to answer it properly!

      At the moment I dedicate 99% of my time to my Piano Coaching Program at PianoCareerAcademy.com – and it’s physically impossible for me to offer free individualized guidance as well. There are simply not enough hours in a day! 🙁

      However, on PianoCareerAcademy.com you can find hundreds of exclusive video and written tutorials where I share the professional principles of the Russian piano school via my holistic approach to piano playing, music and lifestyle.

      The information that you will discover as a member of my Piano Coaching Program will take your playing skills to a whole new level of mastery, helping you to master Rachmaninoff’s Concerto as well! 😉

      Good luck,
      Ilinca

  10. maryam says:

    hi Ilinca,
    it was a very helpful. I just wanted to ask you a question about this sound quality in Mazart pieces. is there any solution to make a pearl-like sound when playing mozart? I actually don’t know the trick!
    and also I was wondering if you could introduce me some sources on Russian and German schools of piano playing.
    thanks a lot
    Maryam

  11. taya says:

    hi, glad you wrote all this-‘specially chapter 1. My energy level has been at an all-time low for quite a while and the only way to get any energy in me is if I play.
    And then it’s as if all is well again like that’s what I should feel like normally.
    It’s actually quite frightening-the degree to which I can feel dead-like a zombie-until I play. The power of vibration is something else.

  12. Savin says:

    Hi Ilinca! I want to ask a question about the Hand flexibility.Could you give us some tips? Thank you! 🙂

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