There are certain truths that take your teacher minutes to explain and you years to grasp. One early example of this was my violin teacher drawing a birds-eye view of a man with a sombrero riding a bike (see below).
The diagram was supposed to show how to adjust the circular motions of my wrist and elbow to keep my bow stroke straight…
Yeah, I definitely didn’t get it back then.
The only discernible effect at the time was me starting to doodle sombrero-ed men on bikes in my school notebooks when bored.
The same truth made more sense years later when I was studying at Juilliard with Jonathan Feldman, who had worked with Dorothy Taubman.
When I ran into technical troubles, he’d ask, “Did you check your rotation?” With guidance from him and others (including Julian Martin and Edna Golandsky), I finally got it, and the truth set me free from unnecessary strain forever.
Ready for the truth that both explains why piano (and violin) can feel so unnatural and shows how it can be more effortless?
There are actually two truths.
Truth One: the piano is made of straight lines. Ignore that shapely little bend in the frame; your user interface is an orderly procession of rectangles.
Truth Two: there is not a straight line in your body. Try to find one, even in your prettiest toenail. It seems we are nothing but curves.
Why does this matter? Because we subconsciously cater to the linearity of the piano in ways that thwart our physiology.
For instance, though our finger lengths trace an arc, we’ll scrunch them to play at the same distance from the key edge. Or, to reach the ends of the keyboard, we’ll stretch our arms straight out like a wistful Gumby instead of realizing that our arms circle our bodies like petticoats and that we must move our torsos in or across to help reach.
Perhaps the most prevalent example of this is when we lift our fingers straight up and down to strike the key. This “finger action” or “finger independence,” if relied on exclusively, can be detrimental, and yet it’s easily triggered by the sight of all of those damn lines.
An alternative mechanism to isolated finger action is rotation, more specifically, forearm rotation.
Forearm rotation helps on the piano because it leverages the motion of our joints and the strength of our bigger muscles, thus providing a more powerful and facile way to move.
Now, fair warning that rotation can be a complex and much debated topic, so for now I’ll just define it and argue that utilizing this natural motion at the piano is to your benefit.
Here’s a quick exercise to see forearm rotation at play.
Start with your hands hanging at your sides, kind of like when we found our ideal hand shape.
Next, bend at the elbow, bringing your forearms up with your thumbs leading the way until you look like you’re about to slide a pizza into an oven.
Finally, rotate your thumbs towards each other until your palms face down in piano-playing position.
That last motion was you rotating your forearms from the elbow! You also use this motion when you start your car with a key, open a doorknob, or lift a walnut shell to reveal a marble underneath (or not, you crafty devil). Turns out we rotate our forearms all the time in real life.
How does this apply at the piano? Notice that when you rotated your hand from thumbs-up to thumbs-down that this motion could be used to place your fingertips into the keys.
Try playing your thumb (or any other finger) by rotating it down using the weight and rotational thrust of your forearm.
Now try playing your finger by lifting it straight up and down. How does your hand and arm look or feel different?
The simple takeaway for now is that rotation is not a magical concept that pianists invented. It’s a basic motion that you have done every day of your life.
If it’s a new concept for your piano playing, start by noticing how rotated or not your forearm is in passagework containing trills, Alberti patterns, big leaps, or single-note passages requiring lots of power. Note where your effort is coming from.
I’ll talk more about rotation in specific pianistic challenges and recommend some resources for getting started, including videos right here on tonebase, in a future post.