Relating to the Broader Physical Aspects of Playing Piano

Found in: Musicality, Pedaling, Technique

On July 13th, Laura wrote a series of questions. Neil Moore briefly responds to these.

1) Bench Height:  if I don’t have an adjustable bench, how do I deal with students who are smaller and have very bent arms to play (looks very uncomfortable). On the reverse, what if I have a large person who cannot really extend their arms past their torso with ease and as a result play with extremely stiff, tense fingers, and they cannot see their finger 5 of their LH, therefore missing accuracy on notes. I’ve been working with her to relax her hand so that all fingers are visible to her, but is there a better way?

Generally speaking, students of traditional methods have been trained to sit too close to instrument. This has arisen naturally, and as a result of the fact that in a music-learning culture that is predominantly reading-based, students are confined to learning pieces that only require them to focus on the notes within the treble and bass clefs. Sitting close to the instrument occurs as a natural by-product of that requirement.

Of course, with our playing-based approach, we have students playing almost the entire breadth of the instrument, from the very earliest stages, and as such, we need a sitting position that allows for maximum reach to occur, as comfortably and naturally as possible. We have to take advantage of the student’s natural arm length, we will need them to move the bench a little further back from the instrument than they otherwise would instinctively do. We then want them to actually sit back a little further on the bench so that both LH and RH can move to the upper and lower regions, simultaneously, without requiring them to completely shift their position on the bench. Essentially, this position is further back than what is culturally ‘normal’, and it is not necessarily immediately comfortable. It is a different approach, but not entirely a ‘new’ approach, in fact, ultimately, it is where more advanced musicians end up sitting, regardless.

I recommend a combination of completely differing exercises. Firstly, having no attention whatsoever on the pedal, but just developing a sitting position that enables your student to sit, with a comfortably straight back, but far enough away from the instrument so that they can open their arms out, and cover as mush of the breadth of the instrument as possible. Even your smallest 5 and 6 year olds will be able to encompass a significant majority of the instrument, and then, with just a minor allowance for them to lean forward a little, they would have almost all of the entire breadth of the instrument within their ‘wingspan’.

2) Pedal: do we teach a specific way to play the pedal? (play with the ball of the foot, always keep right foot on pedal)…If they are too small to play the pedal, do they just dangle their legs mid-air, or would you recommend a footstool, and if so, can you recommend a good affordable one to purchase?

What if my piano is slightly raised because it’s resting on a piano stand (so that the piano doesn’t roll on the wheels)….would you recommend getting a footrest so the foot matches the pedal height?

I recommend you re-read my Forum Post “When To Introduce The Pedal, and also, know that it is addressed in more detail at about 54 minutes into the Level 4 Foundation Program Teacher Training Video. Generally, I am not in favor of introducing, odd-sized bench pads, foot rests or accessories of any nature. I want the students to learn to play the instrument, as it is, under the circumstances it is in, dealing with the conditions as they are, and discovering how to make it work best, in order to achieve an acceptable or preferably desirable result, but working under existing, naturally occurring conditions. In the end, this creates a more ‘natural’ relationship to one’s musicality, and an ease with adaptability which serves students best in the long fun.

3) Moving on the Bench: I know this was generally addressed at the symposium, but I can also see that if a student is practicing Bishop St. Blues, is it okay to have the student scoot down to be more comfortable? Also, is it okay to play the RH Bishop chord with fingers 1,3,5? What is the reasoning for playing it with fingers 1,2,5?

Not only is ‘scooting’ down not really necessary, but in many respects, it is somewhat detrimental. I address this in Point 1 above, although an inch or so of scooting, (AT MOST), would not present a problem. With regard to the fingering of Bishop St. Blues, I recommend you re-read my Forum Post, dated June 6th, 2002 “Fingering for Bishop St. Blues” (under Curriculum Related Issues)

4) any other comments on ergonomics would be great!

I would like for everybody to read and re-read my post “Delaying the Formal Development of Technique”. In the future, this is a position that every committed Simply Music Teacher will need to be able to calmly stand by, truly believe in, unemotionally justify and passionately defend! As we do throughout childhood when it comes to almost every physical act of functionality, allowing students to discover for themselves, their own physical relationship to the keyboard, is paramount to an individual’s successful experience, and certainly a prerequisite to creating a culture that routinely has people of all ages acquiring and retaining music as a life-long companion.

Having addressed the above, I ask that teachers routinely do a ‘keyword’ search on the Simpedia. Some, perhaps even many of the answers that we are looking for, have been addressed in the past, and much time and effort has been invested in compiling these into a knowledge/answer/information base that has then been organized for you to read and glean from.

Kind regards,

Neil Moore