Playing using the whole body

In recent lessons, I’ve been trying to get my students to understand that one doesn’t and shouldn’t just rely on one’s fingers to play.  In reality, one should rely on the whole body.  That understanding, in my view, starts with beginning to understand that the wrist should be free and move as the fingers do.

I teach a lot of adult students who are coming back to the piano after a long absence and many of them remember being taught to keep the wrists absolutely stiff while playing.  I don’t know where this school of thought came from, but a quick view of many of the best players of today reveal that that is absolutely not the way to approach playing.

To demonstrate, I have complied a YouTube playlist of some examples of professionals who play using their whole bodies. I was inspired by a recent performance by Simone Dinnerstein of the Goldberg Variations – even in the seemingly simple moments of the piece, she involved her entire body in making the piano sing – and the result was a beautiful tone and hands that could play a difficult piece (90 minutes worth) without (so I surmised) suffering from tension, fatigue and the like.

Unfortunately, my cursory review of the available videos of Simone Dinnerstein haven’t revealed any good shots of her hands, but I have complied a list of other players, which I will share below.

Disclaimer:  I kind of fell into a YouTube blackhole of Evgeny Kissin videos, so this playlist is a bit heavy on the Kissin.

1.  Kissin performs Liszt’s La Campanella

This video is a good demonstration of what I refer to as the “doorknob technique” – the rotation of the wrist as a means of tackling figures such as alberti bass without tiring the hands.  This is a relatively easy concept to convey to students (although it takes time for them to understand it).  If you explain that the whole arm and wrist should rotate as though you are turning a doorknob and that the underside of the wrist should be facing both sides of the room, I find that this helps make it clear.

If you watch Kissin’s RH in the opening (and almost throughout) you will see a good demonstration of this movement albeit a very fast one.  I imagine that this piece is nearly impossibly to play without that movement.

2.  Kissin plays Liszt’s Liebestraum

I chose this piece for it’s accessibility to students as well as for it’s tempo – makes it easier to see exactly how Kissin uses his body and hands and wrists.

3.  Marc-Andre Hamelin plays Debussy’s Images Book 1: Hommage a Ravel

This video is particularly helpful at showing the involvement of the wrist in releases.  In one of the method books, the author suggests imagining lifting from the wrist as though you have a balloon on a string tied to it and it is floating away.

4.  Stanislav Ioudenitch playing Largo al factotum transcription by Grigory Ginzburg

I included this one mainly because who doesn’t like figaro?  But from a technique perspective you can see how the crossing over of the hands works (one wrist must of necessity drop) and how the weight of the whole arm is involved in playing chords – something I think many students forget.

5.  Barenboim on Beethoven – Masterclass nº6: Jonathan Biss.

Biss performs Beethoven’s Sonata no. 30 in E Major Op. 109 mvt III

In Biss’s performance, you can really see how the whole arm and body is involved in achieving a truly singing tone.  I particularly like the demonstration of how the whole hand leans and moves up to achieve those singing high notes in the first variation (grace notes lead into them . . . see the sheet music here ).   His playing in Variation 4 is a good demonstration of leaning into the keyboard to crescendo.  There’s a lot to say about this video, and perhaps I will devote future posts on this one.

6.  Kissin playing Bach Siciliano

Great video for many things.  I would point out the LH movement to start.

The only problem with showing students Kissin is how he plays with flat fingers.  Make sure to mention that and tell them they shouldn’t do it because Kissin is a freak of nature.

You can access the whole playlist here.

1 Comment

Filed under practicing tips, Technique

One response to “Playing using the whole body

  1. Agree! If you play the piano holding your had stiffly it is extremely difficult to play fast pieces and also hard to control dynamics.

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