Occasionally, well-meaning and concerned parents of a new prospective students will call or come in for a trial lesson, and mention their child's seemingly deficient "Hand Position" as the primary cause of concern or change of teacher.
While healthy ergonomics should of course be a concern for ANY physical activity (piano, ballet, soccer), etc; it's my opinion that there should be some consideration whether or not this it should be considered the chief concern.
First of all, I think there is an erroneous conflation in the piano teaching world of the terms "Hand Position" and "Technique". Many people generally assume they are the same thing, when in reality this could not be further from the truth. "Position" implies something that is fixed - yet a healthy and fluid piano technique is anything BUT fixed: When a student reaches an octave their hand is more open, and fingers flatter than when playing a fifth; When the thumb tucks under the third finger during a scale, the hand contracts slightly and the wrist and forearm raise a bit, when you want to get a singing tone in a Chopin Nocturne you play on the cushion of your fingertip, making your finger flat. etc. A technique that is fluid and truly does justice to the music is always one in which individual motions are giving way to new ones every second with effortless evervescne.
This notion aside though, I think it is possible to define - if not a fixed position - at least some guiding physical principals about what our hands should be doing at the keyboard. (These guidelines are generally for beginners only, once one gets into even intermediate repertoire the music demands too many counterexamples to let them be rules) :
1.) The hand should be supported by the knuckles that create the bridge; they should not be collapsing. The individual finger joints should generally be out (although some collapsing is not the end of the world). From all of this joint support, the general shape of an arch is formed - which is the strongest shape in nature.
2.) The base position should be natural. What is a "Natural" position?: Find out by standing up, letting both arms drop with dead weight to your sides, and observing what your hand looks like when it is in this completely neutral position: The fingers are only moderately curved (Unlike the death-grip claw that we are often told is the basic feature of a good technique).
3.) There should be relaxation. Obviously, not total relaxation, because tension is what creates muscular contraction, which is what we need to play the piano. But there should not be extra tension. (Extra tension is basically anything we are doing that is not NECESSARY to make the sound we want: Tightening and lifting of the shoulders, making squinty faces, and just a general sense of pressing and holding more than necessary for the task at hand.)
4.) There should be alignment. When playing the middle fingers (2,3, and 4), one should feel they are not separated from the the arm, but that the wrist and whole arm are cozily and supportively behind them like loving parents in a "line". Avoidance of anything "twisty". Leon Fleisher says that pianists spend too much time thinking about "fingering" passages, when we should spend more time "arming" passages, as the fingers are just the ends of the arm broken up.
All that being said (And this is where I stand ready for the fire that awaits me in the comments section) if these things don't happen, it's okay and not the end of the world - particularly for young students, and ignoring it might even be beneficial. I do believe correct technique should be explained, and regularly and gently encouraged, but should not be dogmatically insisted upon, at least on the expense of other things, for these reasons:
1.) The core feature of a healthy technique is relaxation and freedom. But by continuous berating and insistence upon maintaining a certain position or doing specific things with one's hands, it is possible that this stress and anxiety may cause a student (Who is still developing phsyilcaly and psychogocially) to paradoxically become even more tense, all in the name of relaxation and "proper" technique. (I studied for one semester with a teacher renowned for "technique". In her impatience, frustration, and exceeding desire to get her students to play freely and without tension, she would scream at us to "RELAX!!! RELAX!!!, with a fury and vexation so great that scalping her cat could not have evoked more rage. Needless to say, that particular semester, none of our "techniques" got any better.
2.) For some students, particularly very young students 7 and under (and especially those who have ADHD), it does seem quite impossible for them to maintain a "proper" hand position outside of the very moments you are asking them to do so. In order for you to work on this, you would need to spend every second of every lesson making sure that they have proper form - and the only hope for home practice would be to make use of some contraction like a hand rail placed alongside the bottom of the keyboard (Which was popular in the Leipzig schools the 19th century). I think that aside mentioning it a few times, or demonstrating what it should "Feel" Like (Perhaps with one of those cute ladybugs going around in circles), you just have to let it go and teach. I know some pedagogy is still very strict about this: Some teachers will assign only five finger patterns and nothing else until a student has learned to play with "proper form". At best, I believe, that is a demonstration of patience and faith that I've yet to discover, but at worst I believe will cause many students to drop study and become uninspired early on, when it could have easily been easily avoided. It may be strict, but strictness is not necessarily indicative of good teaching.
3.) Although playing the piano involves physical processes, it beings and ends with non-physical processes - things that are in the mind and ear. This contrasts with sport, which also begins as a mental process but in which the end result is purely physical. Few people go to a piano recital to watch the way the fingers move across the keys (At least not in the same way one would watch a figure skater), they come to marvel at the sounds made by the fingers, which, although related, are two separate things.
Playing a musical instrument successfully makes use of a mysterious Boomerang effect; we pre-hear, pre-want (all in the mind), then the Boomerang flying through the air is the actual playing (the outward manifestation of what we hope to achieve), and the sound that results from that paying and reaches other listeners and ourselves, is the return of it. While the Boomerang successfully flying back to us depends on how it flew, how it flew is a direct result of what we did before we threw it. This can be likened to the going-on's in our head before we play in the moments that don't even involve our fingers, or any technique. All of the impulses, thoughts, and decisions we make before we throw will eventually determine if it comes back.
Given this, I think that there are aspects of music education that are much more primal than technique and hand position - things like rhythm, pattern-recognition, dynamic perception, emotional connection and love of music. If these things are all firmly in place, then not only does it become easier to work on technique, but there is a greater chance that one's technique will form more naturally, because when one has a clear idea of what they want to do in the inner ear, It is easier for the physical components to take shape in a natural way. If a student can recognize the hallmarks of a steady pulse, beautiful tone, and eloquently shaped phrase, they will discover that it is impossible to create these things without the proper physical components. But, if we work backwards, if the primary concern is to be aware of what we are doing physically, it is impossible for them to know and hear the why of what they are working towards, which will make it all the more difficult (and boring).
So when somebody is worried that a student has a poor hand position, it may be true that it needs addressing and drilling to fix. But this should never come at the expense of the more important (in my opinion) aspects of study. If the student has no sense of what a pulse is, no aural or reading abilities, poor rhythm, no interest or love for music, no inquisitiveness about symbols and words on the page, or an inability to focus, then a "poor hand position" is the least of their worries.
A deep look at Performance Anxiety and what to do about it.
How an artist deals with their nerves may be the single most determining factor in her or his success in a musical career. This issue is the all-important bridge between the artist's inner life (Their ability to produce sound from feeling in an artistic and personal way), and their outer life (Their ability to effectively communicate these feelings to others.)
The very fact that such a bridge need exist is unfortunate. Why can't we perform the same way in front of others as we can alone? It would seem they should be unified. Apparently, evolution is to blame; the adrenaline hormones the body releases when it feels under threat (which make our hearts beat faster and our minds go into panic mode, and which appear when we perform), helped us millennia ago when we needed to outrun a saber-tooth tiger, but have little use in the 21st century (unless you live in war-torn regions). Perhaps in another few thousands years we will have completely out-evolved this phenomena, but since we live in the here-and-now, we need to find here-and-now solutions.
I've noticed that the authorities in the field of coaching nervousness tend to be those who never make it to the stage much anymore, or who have never been there in the first place. They prescribe wishy-washy techniques saturated with new ageism (Visualization, deep breathing, self-acceptance, self-love, affirmations, positive thinking, centering, etc.) And it's not that these things can't be helpful; they can. But they don't even begin to scratch the surface of the real issue. They are the Alpha and Omega, without much in between.
Yet the coping mechanisms used by some of the most prominent performing artists of our time include some of the most bizzare and extreme concoctions mankind has devised - Electroshock Therapy (Vladimir Horowitz), Freudian Analysis (Claudio Arrau) Scientology (Cyprien Katsaris), Hypno-Therapay (Stephen Kovacevich), cancelling concerts when the stars are not aligned (Martha Argerich), or practicing each bar of a piece 100 times in a single sitting (Sviatoslav Richter), Beta Blockers, Xanax, and Valium (Too many to name).
And who can blame them? Any spirit destined to perform has a right to attempt any possible remedy that might obliterate the demon that blocks them from doing the very thing they were put on this earth to do.
However, one of the refreshingly insightful pieces of advice comes from non other than one of the great performing heroes of our time - Violinist Itzak Perlman. His words of wisdom? Know thy ENEMY! The enemy, contrary to what one may think, is not nerves. The enemy is the way nerves effect YOU - the individual. Part of the problem is that "nerves" is actually a suitcase word that encompasses dozens of different symptoms in dozens of different people, and they are all wildly different.
Some people rush uncontrollably. Some people have memory blackouts. Some people constrict their emotions. Some people lose control of their coordination while playing fast. Part of the problem with traditional remedies and advises is that they offer a blanket procedure for everyone, while in reality most people are just fine in most elements of performance, but suffer because of a singular type of blockage their nerves present. Specificity being a key to success, the issue is to then look deep within yourself, ask the hard questions, pinpoint a tangible, recurring side-effect of your nerves, and work on that. Once this is determined, one can outline a workable, regimented plan of action to address these steps.
The first thing, however, is to step back and see if your symptoms are even worth addressing. All performers are well aware of being too scared to program a specific composer, texture, or type of piece. Maybe you're fine with a program of hearty romantic music, but the idea of playing Bach Fugues is too much for you. It's easy to then convince yourself that performing is not in the cards. Not necessarily so. Why not just perform music you love, and leave Bach for the contrapuntalists? Maybe you're fine in a group setting, but the idea of performing solo recitals and concertos induces too much insomnia. Is a career as a chamber musician or accompanist really something that has too much shame? If your fingers fly like a jet fighter when the score is in front of you, but clam up as soon as it's taken away, is performing with the score really too much of a taboo? Tim Ferris has an interesting theory that one should really only focus on capitalizing on their strengths while ignoring their weakness. His reasoning being that no matter how hard you try, your weaknesses can only be mediocre at best, and all the time you spend honing them is time lost refining your strengths to be the best that they can be. Something to think about.
But let's say you really want to go all out. Tackle everything in every way. Then you must go back to your OWN weakness. The weakness that owns you. Your nemesis. And you must tackle this in the most ruthless, painstaking, down-to-the nails way humanely possible.
Let's take a common problem: Memory Slips. A former teacher of mine is a musical genius in every sense of the term. A child prodigy who had been Nadia Boulanger's last student, with a perfect pitch so developed he could memorize a score of any length after one readthrough. One of his uncanny abilities was being able to play - on call - every individual voice of every Bach Fugue from the Well Tempered Claiver. Alto of C minor, book 2? He could solfege it for you, at tempo.
Needless to say, he had no problems playing things from memory. The fear most of us face in this situation was never a reality of his consciousness, because every voice seemed to reside in a permanent home in his neural pathways.
Just because most of us don't have this ability doesn't mean we can't aspire to this type of learning. So let's say you are indeed working on a Bach Fugue. Chances are you have practiced it, many many times. Slowly, hands separately. Probably practiced the individual voices, maybe tried to play one voice and sing the other.
If doing all this still doesn't yield the results you are looking for, it's tempting to think you've done all you can do. But really, you've just scratched the surface. You can go deeper. Much deeper. There are many more tactics you can take to make sure your performance is actually bullet-proof. Some examples:
1.) Write out, on staff paper, every voice individually. Devote each day of the week to practicing only one voice. The next week, mix and match; pair each voice with one other. The following week, try putting them all together. Do this with the traditional fingering as well as using completely random fingering (This will scramble your reflexes, forcing you to rely only on aural memory, and discarding the tactical.) See if you can eventually do this process from memory.
2.) Pick random spots throughout the piece and label these as "Emergency Spots".
Be able to start from each individual spot, on call. This will increase your knowledge of the geography of the score, and take away the fear of getting lost when the heat is on.
3.) Be able to write out large sections of the piece from memory on scratch paper.
(One famous pianist says that the only way he could memorize was if the visual imprint of the score was so ingrained in his memory that he could actually "Play" it in his mind as if a movie reel was going by. I can't imagine doing this. To each is own).
4.) Be able to map the whole piece (Or at least the problematic spots), intervallically. Diagram the piece on paper the way you used to diagram sentences in middle school - (i.e., the subject starts by going up a perfect 5th, dropping a titan, moving up by major 3rd, etc).
Doing this type of work is akin to building a safety net below you while tightrope walking; The fear of falling is almost eliminated because we know if we fall, we'll be able to have something right underneath us to catch us. Many of us perform, fall, and with the knowledge that we don't have a safety net underneath take that as the assumption that we must not perform, when in reality we just never learned the techniques of building a sturdy-enough safety net. In a similar analogy, the pianist John Browning said that practicing is really insurance: 50% of it we need to do, the other 50% is just insurance, in case something goes wrong.
The steps I've outlined above were just one specific example catered specifically to the issue of memory. If memory is not a symptom of your nerves, it takes a little imagination (and a lot of digging) to figure out all the possible ways your nemesis can be confronted. But ways there are - we just must learn to be as probing as we can, to dissect every aspect of our shameful performances and figure out activities that will incrementally squeeze the most amount of progress out of our work. The more specific you are with finding out exactly the cause of your slips (They will likely all stem from your same personal root-cause), the less likely it will that you will waste your time on practice strategies that do nothing to address the problem.
The key is to pinpoint, analyze, then practice. It is of paramount importance to have incremental, low-stress performances along the way to test if your specific methods have been working. A fallacy in thinking that leads many people depressed and forlorn is this:
Practice ---> Perform
When the performance goes horribly wrong (as it likely will, the first time of a new piece), They will automatically deduce that even thought they put in the work, the results are not consistent with the work. The ends aren't justifying the means. They are wasting their life. It's not worth it.
A more fruitful way to think:
Practice --> Perform --> Practice and refine your strategies--> Perform--->Practice and refine your strategies-->Perform--->Practice--->Practice ---> Finally give the performance you wanted to give the first time.
A good teacher can help here (Although teachers who have battled your specific problems can be notoriously hard to find). Over time and with patience, these improvements will show up in our performances. It's impossible for them not to, if the right techniques are used. One of my favorite quotes is by the pianist/pedagogue Seymour Bernstein "The stage is a battlefield between the performer and himself; the outcome determined by how he practiced."
OBVIOUSLY, the problem is that if you follow the steps I've outlined in the example above, you will need to practice 6 hours a day for 6 months on just one aspect of your performance. But now finally for some good news; once you experience even a single success onstage, it can become contagious. Success begets success. Just as nothing is more lethal in performance as the memory of a previously failed passage or performance of a piece, nothing is more assuring than the memory of a recent, similar success. Prepare once like you've never prepared before, and there are chances that the next time around, you'll only need to prepare half that, and the time after that, a quarter - for the psychological aspect has been conquered. And that's the most important one. Because we are what we think. The problem is that no matter how much we TELL ourselves what to think, it doesn't matter. We have to have an experience that will naturally open the gates to the correct through process the next time it counts. With tenacity, patience, and militantly scheduled regular work, we can begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
It's true that there are a few great artists don't seem to particularly seem to be victims of this plight. They are few and far in between, and my theory about why they don't have this problem is that most of them began performing at such a young age and with such expert teaching, careful guidance, that they never had a chance to not experience the feeling of no safety net or any colossal faliure in performance, so successful performance for them is something that is almost as natural as breathing. One such example of somebody who most certainly did not fall into this category was the great, American pianist William Kapell. This is an excerpt penned by Kapell a few days before his he was killed in a plane crash en route from Sydney to California: (Full text at the bottom of this link http://www.williamkapell.com/articles/notes.html)
"Your plight with your work is sad, but I believe it is one of the penalties of having sensitivities and fire for an art. It seems to me that on the highest levels of achievement, even with those who represent those levels on stage, that there is inherent in those achievements a kind of agony that results from an inability to cope successfully with the material......Consider each challenge soberly, and then, step by step, meet it, in your own way. That's what I try to do. Sometimes my fingers work, sometimes not, - the hell with them! I want to sing anyway. And my heart seldom doesn't work".
The last line really gets to me; "My heart seldom does not work". Finally, as a last resort, we can return to a bit of new-ageism; Performance is ultimately an act of giving. Regardless of how stellar your preparation is, things will still go wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong. It doesn't matter. If you've given your all to your preparation and have something to say, people will still enjoy it. Although this is not as pragmatically helpful as it is philosophically true, just re-affirming yourself of it will go a long way in giving yourself the permission to perform freely. While it is true that in academic and competitive circles, every error can count against you, that is not true for the larger world who comes to a performance in order to be moved by music, which is the world that ultimately counts. There is a greater good that comes from the act of sharing music with other people than that of personal ego and the pleasure one feels from overcoming one's weaknesses.
I'm reminded of Mother Teresa's famous prayer "Do It Anyway":
"People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway."
"If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway"
"If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway"
"If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway"
"Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway."
........and how this can translate into a psychology of performing:
"You may humiliate yourself and be the source of Schadenfreude. Perform anyway."
"You may feel you have wasted your time practicing for something that will eventually not go as planned. Practice anyway."
"You may worry that you won't do justice to the music that so many others have done justice to in the past. Do it anyway."
Yes - do it! Results only come from action.