Zero Gravity

Zero-Gravity Zone (noun) the area immediately surrounding the piano keyboard.

When a kid is young and their fingers are small, many of them will throw their entire hand into playing the piano.  Wrists bounce, sometimes arms flap, and if this is not caught and fixed early, they will struggle to build the finger strength they need to glide over the keys like a master.

To help children visualize the proper technique, I explain to them that the proper way to hold their hands at the keyboard is to hold them like they are floating in a zero-gravity field.  There is absolutely no reason to lean into the keys when they play, that they will not fall off the face of the earth.  The amount of energy they really need in pressing down a key is similar to the amount of energy expended flipping on a light switch.

This visualization should also be recalled when a student is working on playing loudly or softly.

I feel that students are incorrectly taught that a loud sound requires a hard touch, and a soft sound requires a light touch.  This gives the impression that a different amount of pressure needs to be applied.  Playing loud or soft does not involve hard jabs or light brushes on the keys.  What is really needed is a quick pressing down of a key, or a slow pressing down of a key.

If you don’t believe me, witness the student who speeds up through loud passages or slows down through soft passages.  Also check out trying to depress a key without sounding the hammer against the string.  Depending on the sensitivity of the mechanism this process can take actually a few seconds, whereas pressing the key to get a sound is an instantaneous action.

How do I get my students around this?  First with a little bit of my own demonstration.  I set the metronome very low – around 50 – 60 bpm, depending on my mood.  I will play a bunch of notes loudly, and then play a bunch of notes softly.  I instruct the student not to just listen, but to specifically watch my hand.  Moving at such a slow tempo, there is enough time to see that when I play loudly, my finger is quickly hitting the key in an instant.  While I am playing softly, my finger is taking almost the whole beat to move, which is a very obvious gesture.

The next step includes having my student hold out the palm of their hand, where i repeat the gesture. first “loud” tapping, then “soft” tapping.  The point of this part of the exercise is to really have the child realize that when my finger hits the palm of their hand, it feels exactly the same no matter how loud or soft I am playing.  Then, they get to give it a go.

I really stress the importance of a zero-gravity zone, whether or not I even use that exact terminology.  It is very important to work on the proper technique here, as extra pressure leaning your hands or even your whole arm into the keys can lead to not just bad technique, but health problems as well.

Many people are aware that carpel tunnel syndrome arises when the nerve in the wrist is pinched over a period of time.  It can happen because of the way you are bending at the wrist or at the elbow, which is basically a pinching of the nerve due to your actual movement.  It’s a very obvious thing.  The nerve can be pinched by the muscles as well, which can sometimes be not so obvious.  If you are using your wrists to play, or are leaning your body into the keys, the muscles in your arms need to flex, which will include the muscles in your forearm and wrist.  Too much pressure over time may cause carpel tunnel syndrom to develop.

Maybe I am being a little paranoid here because of my own run ins with carpel tunnel.  When I play for myself, I play hard.  I enjoy passionate and loud music (especially if I am playing some of those Ukrainian folk tunes I and my friends enjoy hearing, or straight up pop music by Tori Amos or Fiona Apple).  I know for a fact I lean into the keys more than I should.  I have been to specialists and at the time I was told that my CTS was coming more from my muscles pinching the nerve than from the bones pinching it, but also, that my pain was so faint (yet persistent) that it could have also been a form of tendonitis (which is an inflammation of the tendons, which, again, may have been pressing on that nerve).  It was so hard to pinpoint my pain, and yet, my pain was so manageable, and more importantly, not life-changing, that tests to get to the bottom of the matter may have just ended up being too painful, too expensive, and still, possibly inconclusive.

Since then, I have altered the way I play, and taken a much different approach to my practice regimen.  I am hardly on painkillers. I am very thankful that my symptoms are manageable when they do flare up, and that also, I can recognize a flare up very early, and react accordingly (take pain meds, restrict my movements).

I do not wish this on any of my students.  I know that I am lucky, but not everyone is.

Besides health implications, playing in a zero-gravity zone has other, fun benefits.  For example, a student will start to make more mistakes.

What?

Playing with poor technique is like playing with shackles on your fingers.  You are limited in movement, and your movement can be clumsy.  Once you remove your restrictions (your restrictions being the weight of your arms), it is like as huge expansivive field has opened up before you.  And what else could you want to do besides run through it?  so.  Your fingers speed up, you start making mistakes and you don’t even know why.  It’s important to have a metronome out at this point so that while you are focusing on your new technique, you can use the metronome to keep you grounded… which is an interesting choice of words, I suppose, when talking about floating over the keyboard!

  • http://gretchenspianos.wordpress.com Gretchen Saathoff

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