Saturday, 22 February 2014

Lazy piano technique

While practising the piano recently, I observed something in my technique which I'd never really paid much attention to before, although I know it's always been there. It struck me as interesting enough to blog about, although it may bore you to death.

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to coin 2 terms to describe different kinds of piano technique: "controlled" technique and "free" technique. The former is very precise and conscious, while the latter is very automatic and probably best described by the word "lazy". This is a massive over-simplification of piano technique, but I think it's a good summary of the two main techniques I find myself utilising. Both have their place, with different passages and even entire pieces sounding better with different techniques.

Controlled technique is what I use whenever I'm learning a new piece or section of a piece, especially in the early stages of metronome practise at very slow speeds, which is the technique I use to learn particularly challenging passages. The controlled technique essentially means thinking about precision, about where exactly where each finger needs to go, leaving nothing up to chance. It also means a small amount of tension in the fingers - ONLY in the fingers, not in the wrist or arm, which would be catastrophic and lead to RSI.

During the early stages of learning a passage, since I won't have developed muscle memory for that passage yet, playing it requires a certain amount of thinking (not something I normally do much of when playing the piano), so controlled technique would be inevitable even if I wasn't making an effort to hit exactly the right notes in order to learn the passage accurately.

Even once I've learnt a passage, initially - usually during the memorisation process, if I haven't automatically memorised it by that time - I'll play using this 'controlled' technique. This is probably mostly due to the need to maintain absolute accuracy while memorising, so I don't memorise mistakes.

While controlled technique greatly increases accuracy and clarity, it is also very risky. I believe many pianists, myself included, rely largely on muscle memory when performing. For me at least, this is something that happens without thinking - it's automatic, and being conscious of where to put my fingers or what's happening in the music actually gets in the way of letting the 'automation' take over. So once I've developed muscle memory for a piece, controlled technique feels uncomfortable, because even that tiny bit more consciousness that's required to be absolutely precise about where your fingers are going can result in a memory lapse. I can't speak for anyone else, but for me thinking really is my worst enemy when it comes to playing from memory.

Contrast this with what I'm going to call "free" technique (you might as well call it "lazy" technique). This is how I usually play something I know well from memory. It involves absolutely no conscious thought, allowing muscle memory to take over completely, and this is aided by complete relaxation of the hand and fingers, which results in a very different (though not always desirable) tone.

The downside of free technique is that over time, accuracy tends to suffer: when I've just learnt a new passage using controlled technique I've practised accuracy a lot, but once I start playing using free technique mistakes creep in and become embedded in muscle memory, accumulating until eventually I'll need to revert to controlled technique for a bit - or even do some slow metronome practise - to get back to the original standard of accuracy that I had immediately after first learning the passage.

The advantage of free technique, however, is that it greatly reduces the risk of memory lapses, as long as my muscle memory is sufficiently well established. Under pressure, such as when performing, I'll tend to fall back on free technique to get me through, which results in lower accuracy but a much greater chance of reaching the end without forgetting anything. It's a sort of mindlessness which is very useful to have when you're nervous.

That was a very long preamble to what I've been meaning to write about all along. For over a year I've been learning Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerto, specifically the 1st movement (the 2nd I've already performed, albeit without an orchestra). A year is a long time to have something memorised, and for the reasons mentioned above my accuracy has been deteriorating slowly over that period, in spite of improvements in my technique as a whole.

The other night I was practising this movement and suddenly became aware of something which I never really took note of before: while struggling with a passage whose accuracy needed improvement, I found myself playing with a very different technique in order to try to get the notes right. My fingers became tenser, I found myself thinking more about which keys I had to hit, and the tone I was getting out of the piano changed completely (in a good way). In other words, I was playing using controlled rather than free technique, and I much preferred the result.

Once I realised this, I tried to play everything using controlled technique, but felt on the verge of a memory lapse constantly because I was THINKING about the notes for once, rather than letting muscle memory carry me along.

Normally in the course of playing something from memory, I'll constantly switch between controlled and free technique, using free technique most of the time but changing to controlled technique for passages I know are particularly technically challenging. I can actually provide some specific examples of this in the concerto I'm learning: I always use controlled technique in the fast "Un poco piú mosso" section, and always use free technique in this subsequent section. It was the 2nd example here that I was having trouble with the accuracy of, and which from now on I am going to try to play with controlled technique (as I did initially, when I first learnt it).

Although it could be very difficult to strike the balance between passages of the concerto I know well enough to safely be able to play them with controlled technique and passages where controlled tehnique is likely to result in a memory lapse, this is what I would like to try to do before performing it in a piano competition later this year.

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