14. How to Relax

The most important thing to do as you get up to speed is to relax. Relaxing means that you use only those muscles that are needed to play. Thus you can be working as hard as you want, and be relaxed. The relaxed state is especially easy to attain when practicing HS. There are two schools of thought on relaxation. One school maintains that, in the long run, it is better not to practice at all than to practice with even the slightest amount of tension. This school teaches by showing you how to relax and play a single note, and then advancing carefully, giving you only those easy material that you can play relaxed. The other school argues that relaxation is certainly a necessary aspect of technique, but that subjugating the entire practice philosophy to relaxation is not the optimum approach. The second approach should be better, provided that you are aware of the pitfalls.

The human brain can be quite wasteful. For even the simplest tasks, the untrained brain uses most of the muscles in the body. And if the task is difficult, the brain tends to lock the entire body in a mass of tensed muscles. In order to relax, you must make a conscious effort to shut down all unnecessary muscles. This is not easy because it goes against the natural tendencies of the brain. You need to practice relaxation just as much as moving the fingers to play the keys. Relaxing does not mean to “let go of all muscles”; it means that the unnecessary ones are relaxed even when the necessary ones are working full tilt, which is a coordination skill that requires a lot of practice.

For those who are new to relaxation, you can start with easier pieces you have learned, and practice adding relaxation. The parallel set exercises of 7. Exercises can help you to practice relaxation. One way to feel relaxation is to practice one parallel set and accelerate it until stress builds up and then try to relax. You will need to find motions and positions of arms, wrists, etc., that allow this; when you find them, you will feel the stress draining out from the hand as you play.

Relax and maintain all the various functions of the body, such as breathing and periodic swallowing. Some students stop breathing when playing demanding passages in order to concentrate on the playing. When relaxed, you should be able to conduct all of the normal body functions and still be able to concentrate on playing. 21. Building Endurance, Breathing below explains how to use the diaphragm to breathe properly. If the throat is dry after a hard practice, it means that you had stopped swallowing. These are all indications of stress.

Many students who were not taught relaxation think that long repetitive practices somehow transform the hand so it can play. In reality, what often happens is that the hand accidentally stumbles onto the right motion for relaxation. This is why some skills are acquired quickly while others take forever and why some students acquire certain skills quickly while other students struggle with the same skills. Thus relaxation is a state of unstable equilibrium: as you learn to relax, it becomes easier to play, which makes it easier to relax, etc. This explains why relaxation is a major problem for some while it is completely natural for others. But that is a most wonderful piece of information – it means that anyone can learn to relax, if properly taught.

Relaxation is energy conservation. There are at least 2 ways to conserve:

  1. Don’t use unnecessary muscles – especially the opposing muscles
  2. Turn off the working muscles as soon as their jobs are done.

Let’s demonstrate these with the one-finger gravity drop. The first is the easiest; simply allow gravity to completely control the drop, while the entire body is resting comfortably on the bench. A tense person will contract both opposing muscles: those for raising and for lowering the hand. For the second, you will need to learn a new habit if you don’t already have it (few do, initially). That is the habit of relaxing all muscles as soon as you reach the bottom of the key drop. During a gravity drop, you let gravity pull the arm down, but at the end of the key drop, you need to tense the finger for an instant in order to stop the hand. Then you must quickly relax all muscles. Don’t lift the hand, but rest the hand comfortably on the piano with just enough force at the finger to support the weight of the arm. Make sure that you are not pressing down. This is more difficult than you would think at first because the elbow is floating in mid air and the same bundles of muscles used to tense the finger in order to support the arm weight are also used to press down.

Tensing opposing muscles is a major cause of tension. If the pianist is not aware of it, it can grow out of control can cause injury. Just as we must learn to control each finger or hand independently, we must also learn to control each opposing muscle, such as flexor and extensor, independently. The worst consequence of stress is that it gets you into a fight you can’t win because you are fighting an opponent who is exactly as strong as you are – namely, yourself. It is your own muscles working against your body. And the more you practice, the worse the problem. If it gets bad enough, it can cause injury because the muscles become stronger than the material strength of the body.

Without training, few people will bother to turn off muscles explicitly; normally, you simply forget about them when their work is done. However, in fast finger work, you need to relax rapidly; otherwise, the fingers will never get any rest, or be prepared for the next note. A good exercise for practicing rapid relaxation is to start with one key down and to play a quick, moderately loud note with that same finger. Now you have to apply an up and down force and turn it off. When you turn it off, you must return to the feeling you had at the end of a gravity drop. You will find that the harder you play the note, the longer it takes to relax. Practice shortening this relaxation time.

What is so wonderful about these relaxation methods is that after practicing them for a short time (perhaps a few weeks), they tend to be automatically incorporated into your playing, even into pieces that you have already learned, as long as you pay attention to relaxation. Relaxation (involving the whole body), arm weight (gravity drop), and avoidance of mindless repetitive exercises were key elements in Chopin’s teachings. Relaxation is useless unless it is accompanied by musical playing; in fact, Chopin insisted on musical playing before acquiring technique because he knew that relaxation, music and technique are inseparable. This may be why most of Chopin’s compositions (unlike Beethoven’s) can be played within a wide range of speeds.