by Ashley Pontiff
An ergonomically correct pianist = a happy, healthy, exquisite performer!
Natural Mechanics: The Piano and the Human Body
By understanding how the natural mechanics of the human body work, and aligning our natural mechanics with the natural mechanics of how the piano is made to respond, we can attune to more precise performance techniques. These precise performance techniques can be applied to every genre of music and help bring out the nuances that only natural playing can, as well as prevent injury caused by improper use and unnatural movements. Just like athletes, musicians must maintain their health and do everything in their power to prevent injuries if they are to excel and be successful. Unlike most athletes, the motion musicians use to play is largely repetitive. Repetitive motion can put strain on your joints, ligaments, and tendons. The only way to combat the weakening of joints and tendons is to utilize numerous muscles, tendons, and ligaments (particularly stronger, larger ones) as your mechanics for playing as opposed to isolating smaller ones.
Dorothy Taubin was a piano teacher who revolutionized piano technique by studying human body and piano mechanics, and aligning a piano technique that utilizes both in its most natural and ergonomic form. When playing a single note on the piano, the action should come from the forearm, and not the isolated finger. The action built in to the piano, should serve as a springboard to lift the arm and hand back up after playing. The more lift you have before you play, the greater the spring from the keys you will obtain. If there is no initial lift, there is no spring. Think of jumping on a trampoline. The higher you jump up initially, the bigger the bounce you will get in return.
As an experiment, try playing one note repetitively for 1 minute by isolating the single finger from the other fingers when playing. Which muscles, ligaments, or tendons are being used when you isolate one finger from the rest? How tired or sore do your finger, hand, and wrist become? They probably become pretty sore and tired, or will eventually. Then, try playing one note repetitively for 1 minute by using the forearm muscles to gently lift and lower your wrist, hand, and finger to play the note. Use the spring from the piano to bounce the arm back up as you prepare to play again. Notice that now you are using more muscles, ligaments, and tendons and the action is being distributed across more areas of your arm and hand than in the first trial where you isolated only one finger. Also, by allowing your arm, wrist, hand, and finger to work together, the piano’s natural mechanics (springboard action) are being utilized and are now doing some of the work for you. With this technique, you are no longer pulling or lifting to bring your finger and arm upwards. Once you initiate the first preparatory lift, gravity does the work in allowing you to play the note, and the piano action does the work in spring boarding your arm, hand, and finger back up out of the keys. By allowing your arm, wrist, hand, and finger to work together in one fluid motion, the workload is distributed to various muscles, ligaments, and tendons in order to accomplish a task. By learning this technique, your body is now operating naturally and in sync with how it was designed.
Creating Balance at the Piano:
Creating balance at the piano begins with how we sit at the piano. We must make sure we are well balanced and feel comfortable and relaxed in our seated position. If we are not balanced, muscles, tendons, and ligaments tighten in order to hold us in a balanced state, and can create tension in our arms, wrists, fingers, neck, shoulders and other parts of the body. This tension does not allow for free, relaxed movement nor proper natural playing technique. A student that is unbalanced at the piano has to “hold on” somehow. For example, a student whose feet do not reach the floor must hold at the point where they can make contact. So, students in this situation brace their feet against the face of an upright piano and hold on with their fingers to the keys. They often start to lean back to balance themselves on the bench because their arms are extended forward over the keys. This is a very tense, uncomfortable way to sit and injury can result from making the body do something against its own natural mechanics for an extended period of time. We must be stable in order to play without tense muscles. All the involuntary stress that unbalanced playing puts on the body causes mental fatigue, excessive strain on the body, and less than desired musical sound.
A Few Quick Tips For Creating a Well-Balanced Seated Position at the Piano:
How do I know if my bench is too LOW or too HIGH for me when sitting at the piano?
-Elbows Align with Keys √
When seated upright at the piano, your arms should be able to hang relaxed without raised shoulders, and the point at which your elbow naturally lies (when hands are placed on the keys of the piano) should align with the tops of the keys. Wrists should not be bent upwards or downwards from your arm and fingers should be at a natural curve downward toward the keys. To correct this alignment, adjust the bench up or down so that your elbows align with the tops of the keys.
**If a bench is not adjustable, or does not go high enough to achieve this alignment, place sturdy foam garden kneeling pads, books that won’t slide, or carpet squares on the bench in order to raise the seat.
What if my feet don’t touch the floor?
-Use a Stool or Propped Up Books √
Feet should be firmly planted on the ground to maintain balance. If a student’s feet do not touch the floor, use a stool or prop up books underneath their feet to raise the ground level, so that they feel balanced and stable at the piano. Once this adjustment is made, make sure that the bench is not too far forward causing the student to lean back.
Follow these Ergonomic tips and you’ll soon be on your way to being a happy, healthy, exquisite performer!
For more information regarding the Dorothy Taubin Technique, natural playing, and photos explaining proper seated positions, read “The Well-Balanced Pianist” at